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How To Treat Mouth Rot in Tortoises

(Last Updated On: January 18, 2023)

Tortoises naturally have bacteria in their mouths, which is a harmonious relationship until their immune system ceases to function efficiently.

A virus, fungus, or bacterial infection can overwhelm the tortoise, leading to mouth rot (also known as stomatitis). While chronic mouth rot is easy to treat, acute mouth rot can be deadly.

Mouth rot is treatable with oral-cleaning medications, antibiotics, or injections. In severe cases, a tortoise may need surgery to remove the mouth rot, especially if it has spread to the skull or damaged the tissue of its lungs. Medication will be paired with a rigorous cleaning routine and wound dressings.

You’ll need to clean the raw flesh the mouth rot caused and change bandages. Clean out the tortoise’s cage, change its water, and offer fresh food as it recovers. This should be paired with nutrient supplements and basking time in the sun to boost the immune system.

Stomatitis in Tortoises

Stomatitis is an infection that affects a tortoise’s oral cavity, which causes inflammation in the mouth and often leads to discharge from the mouth.

The bacteria present in the tortoise’s oral cavity also cause:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Ulcers

Stomatitis has various causes, including viral or bacterial infection. Either or both can occur after oral trauma or as a result of an unrelated illness.

However, this problem occurs when a tortoise’s immune system becomes weak. Tortoises naturally have bacteria in their mouth, and it’s not usually harmful.

If you suspect your tortoise has stomatitis, you should take it to a vet. If untreated, stomatitis can worsen and eventually spread to your tortoise’s esophagus.

In the worst scenarios, the infection can reach your tortoise’s lungs and a lower respiratory tract infection. This quickly leads to tissue damage, putting your tortoise at an increased risk of death.

Tortoise Mouth Rot Symptoms

It’s usually hard to spot mouth rot early because the visible signs don’t appear until the infection is well-established.

However, if you know your tortoise well, you may realize something is wrong. After all, you are accustomed to your tortoise’s normal behavior and appearance.

If you notice sudden changes in your tortoise’s appearance or behavior, it could mean that mouth rot is becoming advanced. At this stage, you need to take action right away to avoid things progressing further. As they do, there’s an increasing risk of serious complications.

Look out for these common tortoise mouth rot symptoms:

  • Discomfort
  • Stress
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unusual lethargy
  • Swelling around the mouth
  • White, cheesy-looking growth around the mouth
  • Yellowish discharge from the mouth and tongue
  • Color change in mouth and gums due to inflammation
what does tortoise mouth rot look like?

What Does Tortoise Mouth Rot Look Like?

Tortoise mouth rot begins in the oral cavity. As such, you should start by inspecting your tortoise’s mouth for early signs of infection when you suspect it has stomatitis. This usually shows up as inflammation, so check for any:

  • Unusual redness
  • Bleeding
  • Ulcers inside or around your tortoise’s mouth

In some cases of stomatitis, mouth rot emerges as white, cheese-like bumps around the mouth. According to the Veterinary Nursing Journal, tortoises with stomatitis also get a yellowish discharge out of the mouth and tongue.

Tortoises with stomatitis also produce a lot of drool. This is an instant indicator of mouth rot because healthy tortoises rarely drool.

Stomatitis is uncomfortable for tortoises and causes a lot of stress. To ease their pain, many will try to keep their mouths open to relieve pressure. While a tortoise practices open-mouth breathing, you can check inside its mouth to spot the common signs of mouth rot.

What Causes Mouth Rot in Tortoises?

The term “mouth rot” refers to an infection in a tortoise’s mouth that causes redness, swelling, and discharge. Depending on the type of rot, the infection is usually caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. This type of mouth rot is known as “infectious stomatitis” and is the most common type.

Sometimes, mouth rot occurs when the tortoise’s immune system has been compromised by stress, physical trauma, or a different disease.

It may also occur due to problems with pet husbandry. If you keep your tortoise’s enclosure dirty or do not provide suitable temperature or humidity levels, it can develop mouth rot. Sometimes, an inadequate or unhealthy diet also causes mouth rot.

Mouth rot can be treated fairly easily. It’s crucial to deal with it in its early stages. If you leave it untreated for too long, it can spread, leading to complications in your tortoise’s respiratory tract. That’s because there are two basic types of mouth rot:

  • Chronic mouth rot
  • Acute mouth rot

Chronic mouth rot is more common in tortoises; it usually lasts for weeks, sometimes even months. It is easily manageable, and with regular treatments, your pet can make a full recovery.

Acute mouth rot is more serious because it can spread quickly. If you don’t catch and treat acute mouth rot early enough, it can kill your pet tortoise in just 6-7 days.

Diagnosing Mouth Rot in Tortoises

A veterinarian diagnoses mouth rot after a thorough examination of the mouth. The examination must be carried out carefully to avoid trauma or tooth breakage.

A rough examination with dirty tools will cause a mouth infection, even if your tortoise doesn’t already have one. Therefore, it is always recommended that you get a vet to examine your tortoise’s mouth rather than do it yourself.

A vet will take swabs from your tortoise’s oral cavity during the evaluation and wipe them on glass slides to stain them. Then, a vet will look at the slides under a microscope’s lens to determine the cause and severity of the infection.

In more severe cases of mouth rot, a vet will take X-rays of your tortoise’s skull and head to determine the extent of bone involvement. When the infection is this severe, it is likely to spread to other body parts.

 Your vet may require blood work to determine the tortoise body’s response to the infection. The vet might also need to test the function of vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys, to see if they’ve been affected by the rot.

Tortoise Mouth Rot Treatment Options

If you notice the signs of mouth rot in your tortoise, don’t attempt to treat your pet at home by yourself. Otherwise, things can worsen quickly, leading to other illnesses. A vet will ask you questions about the following:

  • Your tortoise’s overall health
  • Its husbandry
  • The occurrence of its symptoms

After diagnosing stomatitis, the vet will start an appropriate treatment plan. Here are common tortoise mouth rot treatments that most veterinarians suggest, based on the severity of the infection:

Oral Medications and Injections

Antibiotics will be prescribed if a vet diagnoses a tortoise with mouth rot. This may be replaced or paired with an oral antiseptic for your tortoise, depending on if the case is acute or chronic.

Most vets treat mouth rot using medications designed for mouth cleaning. If mouth rot has caused serious tissue damage, the vet might rule out some treatments to avoid further tissue damage. However, they might also recommend antifungal agents or antibiotics in the form of oral injections.

Antibiotic Creams

If your tortoise’s appearance or skin is affected by the rot, a vet will prescribe medication in the form of antibiotic cream. Antibiotic creams are meant to be applied directly to the infected area.

Ensure you wash your hands before applying the cream. As directed by the vet, it’s usually suggested that you continue applying the medication even after the infection has cleared (for up to 7 days). This will make sure there’s no chance of relapse.

Surgery to Remove the Rot

If your tortoise’s infection has progressed heavily, there might be additional treatments that your vet will recommend for complete healing. For example, your vet may suggest an invasive surgery to remove the rot if the infection has traveled into your pet’s skull.

If your vet diagnoses severe malnourishment from your tortoise’s loss of appetite and inability to eat, you might need to force-feed it. Alternatively, you can provide nutrients through an IV drip at the vet’s office.

Products That Speed Up Healing After Mouth Rot Treatment

Below is a detailed list of products that prevent mouth rot infections from relapsing. They can also speed up the healing process after treatment:

Immunity-Boosting Supplements

One way to prevent or heal stomatitis is by boosting your tortoise’s weakened immune system. Usually, you can do this via a healthy diet, but that’s not always enough.

That’s where supplements come in. Immunity-boosting supplements must be administered orally or mixed with food and water for easy consumption.

Healing Aids

Your vet may bandage the area if the infection has become particularly raw. You should make sure that the infected area and the wound dressings remain clean at all times.

One technique is using healing aids that disinfect the wounds without causing any discomfort. Even sprayable, pain-free healing aids can help clean wounds without causing a stinging sensation.

Pain-Free Antiseptics

Rubbing alcohol will cause severe discomfort when cleaning your tortoise’s wounds. You must be extra careful, especially since you’re using it around your tortoise’s mouth.

To avoid pain and discomfort, use diluted iodine or chlorhexidine twice daily. Remember that these chemicals must be diluted with water before use, or they can be toxic for your tortoise.

How to Prevent Mouth Rot in Tortoise

Preventing stomatitis in tortoises is possible and necessary. Here’s what you need to do to protect your tortoise:

Monitor Its Living Conditions

Your tortoise needs proper care and suitable living conditions. If you don’t provide these, it can develop mouth rot.

Ensure that the humidity and temperature of your tortoise’s enclosure are optimal. Temperatures shouldn’t fall below 76 degrees Fahrenheit and shouldn’t rise to more than 86 degrees Fahrenheit. As for humidity, it should always be 50-70%.

According to the Northern California Herpetological Society, you should keep a sick tortoise at a temperature between 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow ample exposure to sunlight whenever possible, as the vitamin D synthesized will help in its recovery.

tortoise mouth rot treatment

Clean Its Enclosure

Make sure your tortoise’s enclosure is always clean. A dirty enclosure is a hotbed for pathogens that can weaken your tortoise’s immune system.

Look at your tortoise’s enclosure daily and clean any dirty spots. Throw away any food leftovers after 2-3 hours.

Eliminate feces from the enclosure when you see them, and change your tortoise’s drinking water daily. It’s best if you also change the surface bedding of the enclosure every month or once every two months, depending on the humidity.

Offer a Balanced Diet

A good diet is essential in preventing stomatitis. Offer your tortoise foods rich in nutrients, such as vitamin C, that strengthen the immune system.

Add dark, leafy green vegetables to your tortoise’s diet and offer vitamin supplements. A vet can also help you change your tortoise’s meals and recommend supplements.

Take Extra Care with Brumation

During brumation, stomatitis is more likely to develop. Therefore, before your tortoise enters its brumation period, ensure it has reached peak physical health. In particular, it needs to gain sufficient weight and calorie reserves to burn while it sleeps.

Make sure it is sustained on a healthy diet before brumation. It should have no outstanding health concerns or injuries that might make it an easy target for infection.

How to Clean Tortoise Mouth

After giving your tortoise the right medication, you should work to keep your tortoise’s mouth clean, especially after it has eaten.

Use antiseptic wipes to wipe your tortoise’s infected area thoroughly. Do so gently because you don’t want to hurt its wounds or cause discomfort.

You can also limit the extra bacteria your tortoise interacts with. Clean foods before giving them to your tortoise, and ensure they’re fresh. You should also change the water inside its enclosure regularly.