Tortoises have naturally occurring bacteria in their mouths, manifesting as mouth rot when the immune system ceases to function efficiently, commonly due to ongoing stress.
An infection (usually bacteria, but can be viral or fungal) lead to mouth rot (also called necrotic or necrotizing stomatitis), which culminates in the tissue inside the mouth rotting and dying.
If a tortoise has appetite loss, and there are physical symptoms, like a swollen, discolored mouth and gums and a white cheese-like discharge surrounding the mouth, stomatitis is most likely the cause.
The treatment depends on what organisms cause mouth rot and the severity of the condition. Vets will perform various tests before commencing an appropriate treatment plan.
Mouth rot treatment in tortoises includes oral-cleaning medications and systemic antibiotics.
In severe cases, a tortoise may need surgery if mouth rot has spread to the skull or damaged lung tissue. Medication will be paired with thorough wound cleaning and dressing.
Clean the raw flesh the mouth rot caused and change the bandages. This should be paired with nutritional supplements and basking time in the sun to boost the immune system.
Although tortoises clean themselves, deep cleaning the enclosure (and everything inside) is essential because poor animal husbandry is the most common reason for mouth rot.
What Is Stomatitis in Tortoises?
Stomatitis is an infection of the oral cavity, which causes inflammation (redness and swelling) in the mouth and leads to ulceration and discharge from the mouth.
The cause of mouth rot in tortoises can be viral, fungal, or bacterial. Mouth rot can occur after oral trauma, which allows the infection to enter the body, or due to an unrelated illness.
This problem usually arises when a tortoise’s immune system is compromised. Tortoises naturally have bacteria in their mouth, which is harmless when the immune system works optimally.
If infectious stomatitis is left untreated, it can spread to the digestive tract or lungs, causing pneumonia. In some cases, it can even lead to death.
Mouth Rot Symptoms
Mouth rot begins in the oral cavity. So, inspect the tortoise’s mouth for early signs of infection.
What does tortoise mouth rot look like? Check for these common symptoms:
- General discomfort.
- Stressed behavior.
- 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.
Mouth rot emerges as white, cheese-like bumps around the mouth. According to the Veterinary Nursing Journal, tortoises with stomatitis also have a yellowish discharge from the mouth and tongue.
A tortoise with stomatitis drool (salivate excessively), which isn’t normal in healthy reptiles.
Stomatitis is uncomfortable for tortoises and causes a lot of stress.
To ease pain, many tortoises keep their mouths open to relieve pressure. While a tortoise practices open-mouthed breathing, you can check inside the mouth for common symptoms of mouth rot.
What Causes Mouth Rot?
The term “mouth rot” or “infectious stomatitis” is most likely to occur when the tortoise’s immune system has been compromised by stress, physical trauma, or illness/disease.
It commonly occurs due to poor animal husbandry. A tortoise can get mouth rot if the enclosure is dirty or you don’t provide optimal temperature or humidity levels.
Tortoises’ metabolisms slow down in cold temperatures, making them vulnerable to infection. When it’s too cold, the mouth won’t heal properly if an injury is sustained, so infections worsen and spread.
Food could be the cause if it’s not been cleaned properly or has gone rotten or moldy.
Diagnosing Mouth Rot
A veterinarian will ask questions about the tortoise’s living environment (temperature and humidity levels), enclosure cleanliness, dietary regimen, and recent behavioral changes.
Then, the vet will determine the reason for mouth rot by examining the mouth and through lab testing. Cytology (also known as cytopathology) involves examining the cells taken from bodily tissues.
The vet will take swabs from the tortoise’s oral cavity and apply them to glass slides to stain them. Then, they’ll examine these ‘gram stains’ under a microscope to determine the organisms involved.
In severe cases of mouth rot, a vet will take X-rays of the tortoise’s skull and head to determine the extent of bone infection (osteomyelitis). Some tortoises will have wobbly or lost teeth.
A vet may test organ function, like the liver and kidneys, to determine if they’ve been adversely affected.
Tortoise Mouth Rot Treatment Options
If you observe the signs of mouth rot, consult a vet. Don’t initially treat the tortoise at home because it’s difficult to determine what’s behind infectious stomatitis without laboratory testing.
After diagnosing stomatitis and determining the underlying cause, a vet will discuss a treatment plan. Here are the common tortoise mouth rot treatments:
Antiseptic Washes And Creams
An antiseptic mouthwash, usually 1% povidone-iodine (Betadine) or 0.25-0.5% chlorhexidine diacetate (Nolvasan) solution, can be effective if mouth rot is detected early and the condition hasn’t spread.
This treatment may be supplemented with the application of antiseptic cream. Always wash your hands before and after applying cream to avoid spreading the infection or infecting other animals.
As directed by the vet, it’s usually suggested that you continue applying the medication after the infection has cleared (for up to 7 days) to avoid a recurrence.
Oral or injected antibiotics, like ampicillin, will be needed in more advanced cases of mouth rot.
Existing plaques should have been removed before commencing treatment. During antibiotic therapy, check the mouth daily for recurrent plaques (occurring repeatedly).
Some tortoise species are allergic to antibiotics, like Baytril, so be vigilant for other symptoms. The signs of an adverse reaction include frothing at the mouth and vomiting.
A vet may perform invasive surgery under general anesthetic to remove damaged or dead oral tissue. This will likely be supported with fluid therapy and food support to expedite recovery.
Healing can be speeded up, and you can prevent mouth rot infections from relapsing. Here are the things that can be done to expedite the healing process after treatment:
Nutritional supplements can boost a tortoise’s immune system by giving them essential vitamins and minerals that may be absent from their regular diet.
Vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E and minerals like zinc, selenium, iron, copper, and magnesium optimize the immune system and protect against recurrent mouth rot.
Temperature And Humidity
The thermal gradient should be 65-75 degrees on the cool side and 85-95 degrees on the warm side. This can be achieved with the addition of a heat lamp at night.
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 the sun or UV light, as the vitamin D3 synthesized aids calcium absorption.
Tortoises are easily stressed, which affects their health and well-being.
- If you care for other pets, especially predatory animals like cats and dogs, keep them away.
- Ensure that the tortoise has ample space to move around and explore.
- Once a tortoise has bonded with you, it can be handled, but avoid excessive handling.
- Provide a peaceful and relaxed environment, free from excessive noise and footfall.
- Ensure that there are lots of enrichment items to keep a tortoise occupied.
Maintain a consistent routine because tortoises are creatures of habit that dislike change.
Keep the tortoise’s home clean because a dirty enclosure is a hotbed for harmful pathogens. So, regularly wash drinking/food bowls, wooden bridges, rocks, and toys.
Examine the tortoise’s enclosure daily, throwing out any food leftovers. Ensure that drinking or bathing water is changed as needed, especially if it has been compromised by bad food or poop.
Also, give the tortoise a chance to bathe, as it’ll be coated with germs and bacteria.