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tortoise respiratory infection symptoms

How To Tell If A Tortoise Has A Respiratory Infection

(Last Updated On: October 31, 2022)

Tortoises are prone to respiratory illnesses. These infections often occur due to exposure to low temperatures, unhygienic substrate, and mycoplasma bacteria.

Due to the structure of their respiratory tract, tortoises can’t cough up mucus. Untreated respiratory infections can cause damage to the respiratory tract and even death.

Symptoms of Respiratory Infection in Tortoise

The following symptoms characterize respiratory illnesses:

  • Swollen eyelids
  • Runny nose
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Ocular discharge
  • Mucosal discharge from the mouth and nostrils
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy or lethargy
  • Excessive sneezing and coughing

While most respiratory infections are linked to poor weather conditions, they can be caused by other environmental factors.

These include the following:

  • Dirty substrate
  • Exposure to Mycoplasma bacteria
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Young tortoises, in particular, are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses because their immune systems aren’t as strong as adult tortoises.

If you pick up on any symptoms of illness in your tortoise, you need to take them to a herp vet for a checkup. Early symptoms may not seem serious, but they can quickly spread to the lower respiratory tract and potentially prove fatal if left untreated.

signs of tortoise respiratory infection

What Is Upper Respiratory Tract Disease?

According to Veterinary Journal, upper respiratory diseases (URTDs) are some of the most infectious diseases among tortoise species. They’re caused by Mycoplasma bacteria, which live in the nasal chambers of tortoises.

While URTDs only cause mild discomfort in the infected tortoises, they can result in serious health complications. This can even escalate to death if not diagnosed and treated early enough.

In the early stages of infection, symptoms of URTD typically manifest in the upper respiratory tract of the tortoise. The common signs and symptoms include a runny nose, clear nasal discharge, and the formation of mucus bubbles in the tort’s nostrils.

As the illness progresses, the symptoms become more severe and the tortoise may start to exhibit behavioral changes, such as inactivity and lethargy.

If not diagnosed and treated early, the infection is likely to spread to the lower respiratory tract and cause pneumonia, leading to respiratory stress or death.

Unfortunately, most tortoises only exhibit URTD in the advanced stages of infection. Even so, some strains of Mycoplasma may be resistant to antibiotics, thus making treatment far more challenging.

Lower Respiratory Infections In Tortoises

Lower respiratory infections in tortoises manifest in the same way as URTDs.

However, they mostly affect the lower part of tortoises’ respiratory tracts, including the following:

  • Lungs
  • Bronchi
  • Bronchioles
  • Alveoli

A tortoise with a lower respiratory infection will display symptoms like:

  • Coughing
  • Gasping
  • Sneezing
  • Frothing from its mouth and nostrils

Lower respiratory infections in tortoises are caused by bacteria such as E.coli and fungi such as candida and aspergillus.

However, these illnesses can also be caused by environmental factors, such as:

  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Improper husbandry
  • Unsanitary living conditions

Furthermore, if your tortoise’s enclosure is too cold or damp, this can weaken its immune system.

What Causes Respiratory Infections in Tortoises?

As mentioned, respiratory infections in tortoises can have many causes, including the following:

Low Environmental Temperatures

Tortoises are cold-blooded creatures, meaning their body temperature depends on their environment’s temperature.

So, they are highly sensitive to temperature fluctuations and prone to illness when the temperature drops below what is ideal for them.

This explains why they tend to be less active or go into brumation during the cold season.

Mycoplasma Bacteria

According to the American Society for Microbiology, upper respiratory tract diseases in tortoises are mainly caused by Mycoplasma bacteria that live inside their nostrils.

Most strains of Mycoplasma are dormant and don’t cause illness under normal conditions. However, they can be activated if the immune system is weakened or the environmental conditions are less than ideal.

Unhygienic Bedding

Ensuring a tortoise lives in a sanitary environment with clean bedding material is important.

Failure to regularly change the substrate in your tortoise’s enclosure can lead to the development of harmful fungi, whose spores can spread respiratory infections.

How Long Can a Tortoise Live with a Respiratory Infection?

Ideally, get your tortoise treated for respiratory illness within 1-2 months of noticing the symptoms. Tortoises are hardy creatures that are capable of adapting well to different environmental conditions.

However, being resilient doesn’t mean they can’t suffer serious health consequences when infected with respiratory illnesses. For this reason, you should never let a respiratory infection go untreated for long periods of time.

The longer you wait to get your tortoise diagnosed and treated, the higher the risk of permanent damage to its respiratory system.

Remember, what initially starts as a simple cold might progress into pneumonia in a matter of days. Once it does, it can cause irreversible lung damage and possibly death.

How Long Does a Respiratory Infection Last In Tortoises?

There is no definitive time that a respiratory infection will last, as it varies from one tortoise to the next. In fact, healthy tortoises that are well taken care of may not even exhibit symptoms of illness despite being exposed to disease-causing bacteria.

On the other hand, young tortoises and adult tortoises whose immune systems have been compromised may experience severe symptoms that last several weeks or months.

If you diagnose the illness and seek treatment when the infection is in its early stages, you may begin to notice improvements within a matter of days. You will then see a full recovery in a couple of weeks. Even so, there’s no guarantee that early treatment will completely clear the disease-causing bacterium.

As mentioned, some strains of Mycoplasma are highly resistant to antibiotics. So, even if medication is administered, the infected tortoise might recover slowly or experience recurring infections in the future.

Can A Tortoise Recover from a Respiratory Infection?

Most infected tortoises that are diagnosed early and receive proper treatment make a full recovery within a couple of weeks or months. However, recovery depends on whether or not the actual cause of the illness has been addressed effectively.

For instance, if the tortoise contracts the infection due to unhygienic living conditions, you’ll have to make your tortoise’s enclosure more sanitary to promote recovery and prevent future infection.

Which Tortoise Species are Most Prone to Respiratory Illnesses?

All tortoises are susceptible to respiratory infections. However, some are more prone than others.

Examples of species that have a higher risk for respiratory illnesses include:

  • American Gopher tortoise
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Hermann’s tortoise
  • Mediterranean Spur-thighed tortoise

How Serious Are Respiratory Infections in Tortoises?

Baby tortoises and older tortoises whose immune systems have been weakened are more vulnerable to respiratory infections. They’re also likely to experience more severe symptoms.

Respiratory infections tend to be serious in tortoises because of the makeup of their respiratory tract. Unlike humans and most mammals, tortoises lack a diaphragm separating their chest and abdomen, so they cannot cough up mucus from their lungs.

Respiratory illnesses can cause their lungs to fill up with mucus, thus making it difficult for them to function properly. This can eventually give rise to a host of respiratory problems, such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing

The symptoms will continue to worsen unless the illness is diagnosed and treated early. That can give rise to more severe problems, like pneumonia.

signs of tortoise respiratory infection

How To Prevent Tortoise Respiratory Infections

Most respiratory infections in tortoises can be treated successfully, provided they’re diagnosed early enough. Even so, it’s better to take preemptive measures to minimize the risk of infection.

After all, you don’t want your tortoise to experience any discomfort that could otherwise be prevented.

Steps you can take to protect your tortoise from respiratory infections include:

Install a Heating Lamp

Tortoises are ectotherms that don’t internally regulate their body temperature.

For this reason, prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can slow down their metabolism and weaken their immune system making them vulnerable to respiratory illness.

To prevent this, constantly monitor your tortoise’s habitat to ensure it doesn’t fall below the ideal thermal gradient. Installing a heat lamp in the enclosure allows you to adjust the temperature as required.

Avoid Damp Substrate

Damp substrates provide the right conditions for harmful fungi to grow and reproduce, leading to the spread of spores and illness when inhaled.

To avoid this, always ensure your tortoise’s bedding material is dry. You should also make a point of changing the substrate regularly to prevent bacteria and fungi from propagating.

The most problematic symptom of a respiratory condition is discharge and difficulty breathing, but there are more subtle indicators, such as reduced activity and not eating.