Home » Why Tortoises Get Sepsis (And How It’s Treated)
what causes sepsis in tortoises?

Why Tortoises Get Sepsis (And How It’s Treated)

A tortoise’s immune system will naturally remove germs, but if the number of germs increases and spreads, septicemia becomes a more significant risk.

Septicemia and sepsis are often used interchangeably, but they differ based on the level of progression.

When germs enter the bloodstream, a tortoise can develop septicemia. These germs are usually bacteria but can be fungal or viral.

Sepsis (blood poisoning) occurs when the immune system overreacts to the infection, damaging tissues and vital organs. Left untreated, sepsis will eventually result in death.

Septicemia in Tortoises

Various types of bacteria can cause Septicemia in tortoises, but the most common are staphylococcus aureus, streptococcus pneumoniae, and e. coli.

Septicemia is common because tortoises spend most of their time near the soil, which harbors bacteria. Inevitably, the high humidity and temperature levels exacerbate the problem.

Signs of Septicemia in Tortoises

Sepsis shares symptoms with other common illnesses. However, these symptoms, when occurring at the same time, enable you to distinguish sepsis from other health problems:

  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Pinkness on the carapace (top of the shell)
  • Petechiae, or blue, purple, or red spots under the skin, caused by burst capillaries
  • Pinkness or redness on the neck and legs
  • Paleness on the inside of the mouth
  • Pinkness on the plastron, or the shell’s underside
  • Swelling of the legs

In the late stages, you may observe the following signs:

  • Labored breathing
  • Convulsions
  • Inability to move
  • Lack of coordination
  • Erythema, or red spots on the skin and shell, especially on the bottom of the shell
signs of sepsis in tortoise

What Causes Septicemia in Tortoises?

Septicemia happens when germs enter the bloodstream through:

1/ Injuries

The most common cause of septicemia in tortoises is injuries, such as cuts, burns, and lacerations to the skin or shell. Usually, an injury involves a cut to the plastron, which is the underside of the shell.

The following incidents can cause injuries:


Tortoises are solitary animals and don’t always mix well with other tortoises. This is especially true if they:

  • Are a male/female pair
  • Have to share a small enclosure
  • Compete for food
  • Are both males
  • Come from differing species
  • Are different sizes

Males will battle for dominance and territorial rights, while males and females will fight as the male insists on breeding while the female attempts to avoid doing so.

Even with enough food and space, differing tortoise species may injure each other due to different aggression levels, and large tortoises sometimes injure small tortoises.

If your tortoises regularly enter conflicts, keeping them in separate enclosures is recommended.


Tortoises are accomplished climbers, but an error of judgment or non-stable platform can lead to falls. Also, owners don’t always hold tortoises securely during handling sessions.

Dropping a tortoise or falling onto a hard surface can lead to a cracked shell and skin wounds.

Predatory Animals

Tortoises retreat into their shell or burrows when they feel threatened, but various animals can still damage the tough and resilient shells with their teeth, beaks, and claws.

Wild animals that sometimes gain entry to a tortoise’s habitat include:

  • Foxes
  • Snakes
  • Coyotes
  • Badgers
  • Rats
  • Birds of prey, such as hawks and kestrels

Even domestic pets, like dogs and cats, can harm tortoises.

Sharp Objects

Sharp objects around the enclosure can cause cuts and lacerations. Check any toys, decorations, and enclosure walls that you put in and around your tortoise’s home.

Common causes of wounds include:

  • Stones
  • Debris in soil/substrate, such as glass
  • Chicken wire

Free-roaming tortoises are most likely to encounter pointy and sharp items.

2/ Localized Infection

Localized infections occur in one area or organ of the body. Left untreated, localized infections allow germs to enter the bloodstream, potentially leading to septicemia.

Check for the following signs of infection:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Dry or flaky skin
  • Abscesses, or pus, in the form of white or yellow liquid

A herp vet should treat an infection at the first sign of redness and swelling.

3/ Parasitic Infections

Both internal and external parasites are common among pet tortoises, but internal parasites (worms) are more likely to cause septicemia because they’re harder to identify.

Parasites can cause wounds, which allow bacteria to enter and infect the blood. Also, parasitic infections weaken the body’s immune system.

The parasites most likely to affect tortoises include:

  • Pinworms
  • Roundworm
  • Tapeworm
  • Ticks
  • Mites
  • Fleas

4/ Disease And Illness

Disease and illness can cause septicemia because sickness weakens the immune system.

When a tortoise’s immune system is compromised, it’s at a higher risk of developing septicemia if it gets an infection. Common tortoise illnesses include:

  • Respiratory diseases, such as Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS)
  • Prolapse
  • Stomatitis (mouth rot)
  • Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), such as shell rot
tortoise septicemia treatment

Tortoise Septicemia Treatment

Sepsis can be fatal, but early treatment gives your tortoise a high chance of survival.


Medical treatment depends on whether the germs are bacterial, fungal, or viral. Usually, septicemia is caused by bacteria, but a blood test will verify the pathogen.

To diagnose septicemia, venipuncture is a crucial diagnostic procedure. A blood sample is used to determine the presence of foreign substances and assess organ functionality.


Antibiotics can be topically applied to the wound on the skin or shell. The topical antibiotic variety can be in the form of a spray, gel, or cream. For large cuts and lacerations, a vet may suture the wound.

Antibiotics will kill any bacteria that’s entered the bloodstream. It can be given orally or mixed into your tortoise’s food. If a tortoise isn’t eating, antibiotics can be administered through a stomach tube.

Tortoises with sepsis are at risk of dehydration. Fluid therapy, often in the form of an IV drip, can be used to hydrate a tortoise while ensuring it gets the nutrients it needs to survive.


Complete the course of antibiotics your vet prescribed, even if your tortoise doesn’t appear to need antibiotics anymore. If treatment ends prematurely, the problem can return.

Also, ensure that you clean your tortoise’s habitat regularly and check the health of your tortoise’s skin.


Septicemia is an urgent medical issue, but it can be prevented by:

  • Keeping the tortoise healthy: A strong immune system can prevent infection from taking hold. Ensure that your tortoise is fed a healthy diet and has a stress-free living environment.
  • Preventing skin and shell cuts: Remove sharp objects or adversarial tortoises.
  • Removing parasites: Ensure that tortoises are treated for gastrointestinal parasites like worms.
  • Cleaning the enclosure: A dirty habitat harbors bacteria, so sterilize the enclosure thoroughly.

Sepsis is a systemic infection that affects the functionality of bodily organs. If you’re concerned that your tortoise has sepsis, it should be examined and tested by a herp vet.