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how do you treat a respiratory infection in a tortoise?

Treating Respiratory Infections in Tortoises (Vet + Home Aftercare)

Last Updated on October 5, 2023 by Samantha Harris

If ignored or left untreated, respiratory infections can be life-threatening. Tortoises lack a diaphragm, meaning the chest and abdomen aren’t separated.

The tortoise can’t cough up mucus, so it accumulates. This buildup compromises lung function, making breathing difficult. Consequently, you may observe gasping or open-mouthed breathing.

Respiratory infections usually affect the upper respiratory tract, causing a runny nose (rhinitis), hence why they got the name Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS).

Unfortunately, an infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, leading to pneumonia.

How Long Can A Tortoise Live with A Respiratory Infection?

How long a tortoise can survive with a respiratory infection depends on the severity, the tortoise’s age and health, and the time elapsed before treatment was issued.

Respiratory infections can be life-threatening for tortoises because they can spread from the upper to lower respiratory tract, leading to pneumonia (lung inflammation).

Tortoises don’t have a diaphragm or cilia in their lungs, so they can’t cough to remove mucus from their lungs. Unfortunately, a tortoise can drown in its mucus, especially in sudden-onset cases.

If a tortoise is diagnosed with a respiratory infection and receives appropriate treatment, the prognosis is usually encouraging, but recovery isn’t guaranteed.

Early diagnosis and treatment maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome.

What To Do If Your Tortoise Has a Respiratory Infection

Avoid waiting for a respiratory infection to go away without treatment because it’s unlikely. Unfortunately, this decision can even have life-threatening consequences.

How To Tell If A Tortoise Has A Respiratory Infection

The early signs of respiratory infection in tortoises include:

  • Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS), resulting in a runny nose (rhinitis) or bubbles from the mouth.
  • Respiratory distress, resulting in gasping for air and open-mouthed breathing.
  • Raspy breathing signifies that the respiratory tract is inflamed and partially blocked.
  • A loss of interest in food, so the tortoise could stop eating.
  • The tortoise will be far less active than usual.
  • The eyes may become swollen or shut.

Most infections begin in the upper respiratory tract but can spread to the lower respiratory tract.

Types of Respiratory Infections in Tortoises

Treatment depends on the pathogen that led to respiratory distress. Various bacteria are responsible, meaning swab testing may be required. If the cause is viral, a lab PCR test is required.

A vet may perform an X-ray to determine any physical changes in the tortoise’s lungs. Once the cause of the infection has been determined, treatment can be issued.

Various infectious microbes, including viral, bacterial, or fungal, can be involved.

how to cure tortoise respiratory infection at home

How Do Tortoises Get Respiratory Infections?

Tortoises have microbes inside their noses, most commonly Mycoplasma bacteria, which isn’t an issue until their immune function and response are compromised by poor husbandry.

Lack of Vitamins

A deficiency in vitamins A and D can compromise the immune system, making tortoises more vulnerable to health conditions, including respiratory infections.

Low Temperatures

Tortoises are cold-blooded (ectothermic) animals, so their environment regulates their body temperature.

When the temperature falls below the optimal range for the species, their metabolism ceases to function as efficiently, reducing the immune system’s efficacy.

Fungal Spores from Bedding

Fungi are microorganisms that can produce spores, which are small reproductive structures that can become airborne and spread throughout the environment.

Fungal spores in bedding can cause respiratory conditions in tortoises. This can cause respiratory tract inflammation, leading to wheezing and raspy breathing.


After emerging from brumation, tortoises are vulnerable to breathing problems, especially if they have mouth rot (infectious stomatitis), due to how the mouth, throat, and nose are connected.

Tortoise Respiratory Infection Treatment

If bacteria caused a respiratory infection, a herp vet would administer antibiotics like:

  • Ampicillin.
  • Enrofloxacin.
  • Oxytetracycline.
  • Ciprofloxacin.

This may be supplemented with antiviral or antifungal medication and nasal drops if multiple strains contribute to the respiratory condition or disease.

Sometimes, oral antibiotics alone may be insufficient to treat a respiratory condition because some microbes are drug-resistant.

If so, the vet might administer a fast-acting injectable antibiotic at intervals of 48-72 hours to counteract the slow metabolism of a tortoise.

These drugs are given orally during the initial stage of treatment. The recommended dosage for a standard oral antibiotic is 5 mg of antibiotics for every kilogram of body weight.

Tortoises have a slow metabolism, meaning drug compound uptake takes time.

The veterinarian may administer nasal antibiotic drops using a syringe to clear the microbes inside the tortoise’s nasal cavities.

Ongoing care for respiratory infections in tortoises at home involves temperature regulation, keeping the tank clean and hygienic, providing a nutritious diet, and wiping away nasal discharge.

At-Home Aftercare And Prevention

Stressful situations and poor husbandry practices can compromise the immune system.

For example, insufficient space, poor ventilation, and incorrect temperature and humidity settings can cause and exacerbate respiratory conditions.

Once a herp vet has treated the tortoise for a respiratory problem, changes will be needed for its ongoing care. This will expedite recovery and reduce the likelihood of recurrent infection.

Here are some easy-to-implement aftercare suggestions:

Temperature Requirements

If a tortoise is exposed to low temperatures, it’s at risk of a respiratory tract infection.

Tortoises can’t regulate their body temperature internally, so it fluctuates depending on the ambient temperature in their living environment.

When environmental temperatures fall below the optimal level for the species, their immunity is adversely affected, making them vulnerable to ill health.

Therefore, to improve a pet tortoise’s natural immunity and aid recovery, raise the enclosure’s temperature to 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit at the warm end and 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit at the cool end.

This will regulate the tortoise’s internal temperature, keep its metabolism working efficiently, and allow the immune system to fight off sickness.

Use a thermometer to monitor the enclosure’s temperature. Then, adjust the heat lamp if the temperature falls below the recommended level, which varies depending on the tortoise species.

Clean Enclosure

As the Journal of Clinical Microbiology postulates, environmental factors can exacerbate mycoplasma respiratory infections in tortoises.

Living in unsanitary conditions can trigger latent microbial infections, causing symptomatic illness.

Damp bedding conditions provide optimal conditions for fungi to grow and multiply. It’ll eventually dry, releasing fungal spores into the tortoise’s enclosure.

If a tortoise inhales fungal spores, it can develop respiratory illnesses like Aspergillus.

Warm Water Soaks

While tortoises always need regular soaks to stay clean and healthy, it’s even more critical when recovering from a respiratory illness.

This will wash away discharge, moisten the shell, keep the tortoise hydrated, and improve digestion.

In particular, soaking the tortoise in warm water at least once a day can slowly drain excess mucus from the nasal cavities, making breathing easier.

Soaking allows tortoises to relax, de-stress, and enjoy the water. Ensure the water vessel isn’t too deep (below the neck) because tortoises are poor swimmers, unlike turtles.

Wipe Off Nasal Discharge

The main symptom of respiratory illness is nasal discharge due to Runny Nose Syndrome.

If a tortoise has a breathing condition, it’ll have mucus dripping from its nostrils and mouth. Wipe away the mucus regularly with a clean, damp cloth to prevent mucus buildup.

This allows the tortoise to breathe more easily, reducing the strain on its respiratory system.

how do tortoises get respiratory infections?

Nutritious Diet

Contracting a respiratory illness can reduce a tortoise’s appetite, impacting the efficacy of the tortoise’s immune system and making it more vulnerable to harmful microbes.

A lack of vitamin A (hypovitaminosis A) can increase the risk of respiratory infections.

Vitamin A (retinol) is crucial for producing and maintaining healthy respiratory tract tissue, including the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract.

When vitamin A levels are depleted, the respiratory tract tissue weakens, making it vulnerable to harmful microorganisms responsible for respiratory infections.

The best sources of vitamin A for tortoises include:

  • Parsnips.
  • Collard greens.
  • Kale.
  • Carrots.
  • Pumpkin.
  • Sweet potatoes.
  • Butternut squash.

Vitamin D regulates calcium and phosphorus levels in the body, which are essential for respiratory function. If tortoises aren’t exposed to natural sunlight, they may become vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D is involved in the production of antimicrobial peptides, which are proteins that protect against bacterial and viral infections. In addition, vitamin D enhances the activity of immune cells.

Artificial UVB lighting can provide tortoises with the UVB radiation necessary for vitamin D3 synthesis if natural sunlight isn’t available.

Also, tortoises can be given vitamin D supplements under veterinary advisement, such as liquid drops, powders, and tablets. Too much vitamin D can be toxic to tortoises.

While mammals need vitamin C for a healthy immune system, tortoises don’t need a dietary source because they can synthesize vitamin C in their liver through endogenous synthesis.

Vitamin C levels can deplete when tortoises are under extreme stress.

Are Tortoise Respiratory Infections Contagious?

Tortoise respiratory infections can be contagious when 2 or more tortoises share territory.

Mycoplasma is spread via nasal discharge. If 2 tortoises greet each other by touching noses, it could pass on a respiratory infection, especially if it’s elderly or less healthy than usual.

If you have more than 1 tortoise, ensure the sick tortoise is quarantined. Not only does this prevent infection transmission, but it also minimizes stress for the ill tortoise.