Tortoises are definitely resilient. They can live for many decades, their shells can protect them from most physical harm, and some of them can adapt really well to environments somewhat different from their natural habitats. If you take good care of them, they can give you, your kids or even your grand kids years of pleasure only tortoise keepers could ever know.
Unfortunately, however, there are things that can test a tortoise’s resilience, namely diseases. If not taken care of right away, not even a tortoise’s legendary resilience can save them. One of the most common problems tortoise keepers face with captive tortoises is respiratory infection.
Generally, once your tortoise gets sick, you have about 3 – 5 weeks for hatch-lings, and 1 – 2 months for adult tortoises to seek treatment and fix the underlying causes. Again, this is just a guide. Always find help for your tortoise the moment you see signs aren’t going well. The longer you wait, the higher the chances of whatever damage the tortoise respiratory infection can cause becoming permanent.
Today, we’ll be looking at tortoise respiratory infection, how much time your tortoise has when it catches it, the signs and symptoms, as well as how you can prevent it.
How Long Can a Tortoise Live with a Respiratory Infection?
As we’ve mentioned before, tortoises are resilient animals. When they do get sick, they can recover from it. If that weren’t the case, then they should’ve died out millions of years ago. Now, just like other animals, tortoises can catch colds, both in the wild and in captivity. Tortoise respiratory infection can be caused by a lot of factors, some of which we’ll discuss later. Once these issues are addressed, a tortoise with a cold can generally recover on its own.
However, it does become a problem when the primary issue isn’t addressed early, as is often the case with new tortoise keepers. A simple cold can develop into pneumonia or can lead to complications that can spread to other parts of a tortoise’s body, like having conjunctivitis on their eyes, diarrhea or general weakness.
Tortoises who have a cold are already on the clock, and the longer you take to give them the help they need, the less likely they are to recover fully. They may even die. Naturally, younger tortoises who suffer from tortoise respiratory infection are less resilient than adults, but so are tortoises of really advanced age.
A tortoise’s species also plays a key role on their resilience against infection. Tortoises living in cooler, more humid places, such as Red Foots, are less likely to develop tortoise respiratory infection. On the other hand, tortoises that are used to living in dry and warm climates, such as Sulcata Tortoises, are more susceptible to respiratory infection.
What to Look Out For
The symptoms for tortoise respiratory infection can be difficult to catch, so you need to be very observant. If you notice your tortoise acting differently than it normally does, then you should get them checked immediately.
Diaphragms are muscles that help us breathe, and in times when we have colds or coughs, they help us push out the mucus stuck inside our lungs. Unlike humans and other animals, tortoises don’t have diaphragms. Their plastron, unlike our ribcage, is solid, and unmoving. So, when they catch a cold or cough, they aren’t able to push out the phlegm that’s blocking their airways.
That’s why tortoises who have tortoise respiratory infection have difficulty breathing. This usually manifests as them stretching out their necks as far as they can and just letting their heads lay on the ground. This allows them to expand their lungs as far as they can go. In some cases, tortoises may also stretch out their legs and lay like that for hours or days at a time.
You may also notice your tortoise making a whistling sound while they breathe. This means that whatever mucus buildup that is inside their respiratory tract still hasn’t blocked it off completely. This is usually one of the early signs. If you notice your tortoise doing this behavior, then you should probably go see a vet.
Discharge from the Eyes, Nose and Mouth
Much like other animals, when tortoises suffer from respiratory problems, they may produce discharge from different parts of their bodies. In this case, the discharge usually comes out of their eyes, nose and mouth. If the tortoise respiratory infection is particularly bad, the discharge can come out thick. Do note though that tortoises do produce liquid out of their eyes naturally and would look similar to tears. This is meant to keep their eyes clear of any dirt or other small particles.
Loss of Appetite
Another potential sign your tortoise is suffering from respiratory infection is their sudden lack of appetite. Tortoises tend to eat a lot, and when presented with food, especially the ones they prefer, they’re more likely to eat it than not. If your tortoise suddenly shows the lack of interest in food, then there might be a problem.
Lack of Energy
Now a lot of people might think tortoises aren’t very energetic. The truth is, they can be very active when they need to, usually during dawn or dusk. If your tortoise suddenly doesn’t seem to want to move, even when you try to motivate them with food, then chances are high that they are sick. Of course, they could also just be trying to hibernate, so if your tortoise is one of those species, then it’s probably best to prepare for hibernation rather than take them to the vet.
What Can Cause Tortoise Respiratory Infection?
Respiratory problems can happen any number of ways. Most of the time, however, it’s usually because of bad husbandry. Once you fix the underlying problems that lead to respiratory problems, then it becomes easier to treat your tortoise and help them recover.
Because they are cold-blooded, tortoises are a bit more sensitive to the cold than other animals. If there’s a sudden drop in temperature, whether there’s a cold snap in your area and you failed to bring your tortoises indoors, or if your indoor habitat doesn’t have proper heating, then this can cause stress to your tortoise’s immune system. This will eventually lead to them getting a cold, which can later develop into tortoise respiratory infection.
If you suspect your tortoise of having a cold, try to inspect your enclosure’s temperature. Make sure that the bulbs are producing ample amounts of heat. If your tortoise is a desert-dwelling species, then they will need warmer heat bulbs. Exo Terra, Zoo Med and Zilla produce a good variety of heat bulbs, all of which should last a good long while without you needing to replace them
Another good way to help keep your tortoises warm is by using heating pads or heat mats. Heat mats are best used inside their hides, but if you’re using a barn for outdoor tortoises, you can also attach them to the walls. Heat mats are also great basking spots if you think your current heat bulb isn’t strong enough. For reliable heat mats, you can check out Zoo Med and Zilla’s models, all of which radiate a decent amount of heat. We have full articles on our recommended heat lamps and how long your heat lamp should be on to help make the perfect environment for your tortoise.
In order to fight infections, tortoises will need to have a strong immune system, and a strong immune system requires a well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, not many new keepers understand the importance of this. Many tortoises that suffer respiratory infections are also suffering from malnutrition. A good way to help improve your tortoise’s diet is to make it as varied as possible. Focus on giving them dark leafy greens, and if your tortoise is a forest-dwelling species, give them fruit at least once a week or twice a month.
Tortoise pellets also tend to have all the nutrients tortoises need, so you can offer your tortoises pellets as well. Do take note though that overfeeding them pellets might have the opposite effect, where they become overweight, or they grow too quickly. Try to limit your tortoise’s pellet intake to 2 – 3 times a week.
If you’re not sure whether your tortoise is getting the right amount of nutrients it needs, then you can also help improve their diet by giving them vitamins.
Of course, since we’re talking about infections, the main culprit of tortoise respiratory infection are harmful microorganisms. Dirty enclosures can become a breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and viruses that can lead to your pets getting sick. Make sure you clear the enclosure of any uneaten food as well as any tortoise poop littering the habitat.
It’s also a good idea to change the bedding at least once every 2 – 3 months. Of course, the more tortoises you have, the more often you’ll have to change the substrate. Of course, you can also use disinfectants without completely cleaning out your enclosure.
Tortoise respiratory infection is one of those issues that can really test your skills and knowledge as a tortoise keeper. Having a tortoise recover from such a problem not only showcases how good you are as a keeper, but also how responsible you are with the husbandry. Not everyone can be expected to do perfect husbandry, but to even consider yourself a competent tortoise pet owner, you need to know how to not only treat your tortoise from respiratory infection, but also to make sure that it never happens again.