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what causes sepsis in tortoises?

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

Last Updated on October 6, 2023 by Samantha Harris

A healthy tortoise’s immune system will naturally fight off many harmful pathogens. However, septicemia can occur when bacteria multiply and spread unchecked.

Septicemia and sepsis are often used interchangeably but differ based on progression.

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

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

Septicemia in Tortoises

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

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

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 medical conditions:

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

What Causes Septicemia in Tortoises?

Septicemia happens when germs enter the bloodstream through:


The most common cause of septicemia in tortoises is 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.

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, different species may injure each other due to incompatibilities, and large tortoises sometimes injure small tortoises.

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


Tortoises are accomplished climbers, but an error of judgment or a 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 shells or burrows when they feel threatened, but various animals can still damage their tough and resilient shells with their teeth, beaks, and claws.

Wild animals that sometimes gain entry to a tortoise’s enclosure include the following:

  • Foxes.
  • Snakes.
  • Coyotes.
  • Badgers.
  • Rats.
  • Birds of prey like 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 in and around the tortoise’s home. Common causes of wounds include:

  • Stones.
  • Debris in soil/substrate like glass.
  • Chicken wire.

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

Localized Infection

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

Parasitic Infections

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.

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 more risk of developing septicemia if it develops an infection. Common tortoise illnesses include:

tortoise septicemia treatment

Tortoise Septicemia Treatment

Sepsis can be fatal, but early treatment gives the 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 as a spray, gel, or cream. For large cuts and lacerations, a vet may suture the wound.

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

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


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

Also, clean the tortoise’s enclosure and check the skin is healthy.


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

  • Keeping the tortoise healthy: A strong immune system can prevent infection. Ensure the 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 the tortoise has sepsis, a herp vet should perform an examination and testing.