Tortoise mouth rot is an umbrella term that encompasses all medical conditions where a reptile’s mouth becomes inflamed. The infections themselves can either be bacterial, viral, or fungal in nature. All types of reptiles could have this issue, but the most common type of mouth rot that affects tortoises is known medically as infectious stomatitis. Depending on the type of infection, it can either be ulcerative stomatitis or necrotic stomatitis.
As we’ve mentioned before, tortoises are very hardy animals, especially so if you have a well-maintained habitat for them. Unfortunately, however, no matter how well you take care of your tortoises, they are not invulnerable. If you’re new to tortoise keeping, it’s possible that you might have had minor lapses on your husbandry, like you accidentally left their enclosure cooler than usual for a few days, or your tortoise accidentally hurt themselves while exploring their habitat.
These might seem minor to you, and your tortoise might seem okay initially, but these lapses can lead to a very sick tortoise, especially so if you’re not even aware of the danger. One such sickness many new tortoise keepers aren’t mindful of is tortoise mouth rot. Today, we’ll be looking at tortoise mouth rot, the symptoms, and how you can prevent it from happening.
What is Tortoise Mouth Rot?
Tortoise mouth rot or Stomatitis is an opportunistic infection, which means it only happens when your tortoise has a weakened immune system. A tortoise’s mouth is full of bacteria and other microbes that normally don’t cause any harm to a healthy animal. The problem starts when your tortoise’s immune system becomes compromised. This can happen if your tortoise is sick from an unrelated illness, but bad husbandry can also lead to a weaker immune system.
Over time, tortoise mouth rot can spread down the esophagus and can also spread into the tortoise’s lungs, leading to further damage, or even death if not taken care of immediately.
What to Look Out For
Like most illnesses, tortoise mouth rot is the type of sickness where its symptoms don’t show up until the disease itself has progressed far enough. This is why it’s important to be as observant as possible. Make sure that you learn your tortoise’s normal routines, so when something odd does happen, you can dial in as early as possible.
Here are some of the things you need to look out for.
Loss of Appetite
Stomatitis is an issue that happens inside a tortoise’s mouth. This can make eating very uncomfortable for them. If you’ve noticed that your tortoise has been eating less lately, then you should check their mouth for any inflammation. They may be suffering from tortoise mouth rot.
Noticing whether your tortoise has been suffering from appetite loss is a lot easier if you’ve had your tortoise for a while. Of course, a lack of appetite doesn’t always mean that they have tortoise mouth rot. If your tortoise doesn’t immediately start eating the food you offer them, then they might not just be hungry, or they’re not in the mood to eat what you just gave them. Wait a few more hours or offer them a different food item. Giving them their favorite treat might entice them to eat.
Signs of Discomfort or Stress
Tortoises, unlike other pets, are not very expressive, that’s why it can be hard to gauge their mood or their stress levels. However, if you notice some strange behavior from your tortoise, like they’re suddenly pacing the room when they usually don’t, or if you notice them being a bit more lethargic than usual, then there might be a problem.
If you’ve had your tortoise for a long time now, and they’ve always been comfortable around you, another problem sign is if they’ve suddenly become shy or defensive. They may suddenly retreat into their shell when they normally don’t. Other times, they may even be a bit aggressive towards you, trying to “joust” you, hiss at you, or even try to bite you outright.
Discharge or Trauma to Their Mouths
As the name suggests, tortoise mouth rot mostly happens in the mouth. If you suspect your tortoise has stomatitis, then you should start inspecting their mouth for any signs of infection. Stomatitis usually shows up as inflammation inside the mouth, so check for any unusual redness. There may even be bleeding or ulcers inside and around the mouth.
Some forms of tortoise mouth rot may take the form of bumpy, white growth that resembles cheese, with yellowish discharge in the mouth and on the tongue. Tortoises with stomatitis will also produce a lot of drool, which is not normal for a tortoise. This illness is also very uncomfortable for tortoises, so many of them will try to keep their mouths open, as this relieves the pressure from their mouths. This open mouth breathing can be a good opportunity to check inside their mouths.
What to do Next
If you suspect your tortoise is suffering from tortoise mouth rot, then take them to the vet immediately. As we’ve mentioned before, the term mouth rot could mean any number of illnesses, so in order to start the treatment, you’ll first need to get a proper diagnosis. The vet may ask you about your tortoise, when they started acting strange, the general husbandry of your tortoise, and may even take swab or blood samples from your tortoise in order to make a proper diagnosis.
Mouth rot can be cause by a lot of things, and having a diagnosis narrows down what you’ll need to do to treat or prevent it in the future. The vet can also help with whatever treatment options you have available for your tortoise. Of course, visiting the vet can cost you a bit of money, so the best way to deal with tortoise mouth rot is through prevention.
Preventing Tortoise Mouth Rot
Keep Your Tortoise Habitat Clean
Stomatitis is caused by microbes attacking your tortoise’s weakened immune system. One of the best ways to prevent this is by making sure that your tortoise’s enclosure is clean. Make sure to spot clean your tortoise habitat everyday and throw away any poop you see. Any food that doesn’t get eaten within the next 2-3 hours after being offered should be thrown away immediately. The water dish should also be changed daily.
Once every one or two months, make sure to change the bedding as well. If you have more than one tortoise per habitat, you’ll have to change the bedding more often. When it’s time to change the bedding or substrate, make sure that you thoroughly wash the enclosure itself before putting in new substrate. Using detergent and soap is fine, but make sure you rinse everything out properly.
Check the Enclosure
Poor husbandry is as a big culprit to tortoise mouth rot as unclean living conditions are. Making sure that your tortoise enclosure is at the right temperature and humidity will ensure a healthy tortoise with a healthy immune system. Make sure to keep the temperature no hotter than 30 C (86 F) and no cooler than 25 C (76 F). Humidity should be anywhere between 50% – 70%, with younger tortoises requiring higher humidity.
Check your Tortoise’s Diet
Another way you can improve your tortoise’s immune system is by improving their diet. You’ll need food that is rich in vitamin C, like dark leafy green vegetables. You can also invest in some tortoise vitamin supplements. If you’ve already visited your vet, they can also help you change up your tortoise’s diet and can even help you get supplements for them.
Always be Observant
Tortoises are creatures of habit, and sudden changes to their behavior is usually an indicator that something is wrong. Whenever you’re cleaning out your tortoise, or during feeding time, take the time to observe your pet. Don’t stop with just how they act. Inspect their overall appearance as well. Look for any damages to their beak or any trauma to their face.
Damage or trauma on their own is not enough to cause mouth rot, but it can become an entry point for microbes that will lead to mouth rot. If you do notice a break on their beaks or other forms of trauma, observe your tortoise very closely. If the situation worsens, take them to the vet immediately.
Quarantine Your Infected Tortoises
This step is essential if you have more than one tortoise inside an enclosure. Certain forms of tortoise mouth rot are infectious, so one infected tortoise can pass the problem on to another. If you suspect one of your tortoises of having mouth rot, separate them from the rest of your enclosure immediately. Prepare a temporary enclosure for them with clean beddings and their own water and food dishes.
Keep a close eye on your suspected tortoise in the next couple of days, and if they do develop the signs of mouth rot, take them to the vet immediately.
Check Your Tortoise Before Hibernation
Tortoise mouth rot happens quite often to tortoises after they come out of hibernation. If your tortoise is the type of species that go into hibernation, make sure that you take them to the vet before you put them through it. You should also make sure that they are in the best shape possible. You should also make sure that whatever container you put them in for hibernation is clean.
Tortoise mouth rot is not a very common illness, but when not taken seriously, could lead to bigger problems in the long run. As with any illness, the responsible actions are also the best ones to take, both in treating and preventing it. Always practice responsible husbandry, make sure the tortoise’s environment is clean, and if you feel like you’re in over your head, don’t be afraid to ask an expert.