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Why Does My Leopard Tortoise Have a Bubbly, Wet Nose?

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

A dry-nosed tortoise is a happy tortoise.

A dry-nosed tortoise is a happy tortoise.

Dealing With Tortoise Nose Bubbles or a Runny Nose?

There are four main reasons you might see bubbles or goo in a Leopard Tortoise's nose: some harmless, some not. This article is by no means comprehensive, but you will gain an understanding of:

  • The four common types of nasal discharge
  • The four common causes of a tortoise's runny nose
  • How to identify the symptoms
  • How to prevent a tortoise's wet, runny, bubbly nose

Cause 1: Drinking

Leopard tortoises love water. They will gladly wade in a shallow pool and they appreciate a good daily drink. In fact, they normally consume a massive amount in one sitting. However, a Leopard's drinking technique may appear strange to the new owner. When it fancies a drink, these animals push their heads far underwater. Below the surface, they keep their eyes open without blinking. As weird as it looks, this helps to clean the blinkers. At the same time, the behavior also pushes water up the nose.

Is my tortoise drinking or drowning?

Nobody wants an air-breathing pet to stay underwater. Rest assured, your pet did not pass out in the water bowl—Leopards take their time. Periodically, as they swallow, gulps of water will move down their throats. When they finally come up for air, bubbles or liquid will ooze from the nostrils. This is normal and no reason for worry. As the reptile breathes again, water gets expelled from the nose. However, this should not persist for hours or the rest of the day. Bubbles due to drinking should clear up quickly and the Leopard's behavior should be normal and without lethargy.

Leopards adore water. Here a wild specimen bathes in a pond.

Leopards adore water. Here a wild specimen bathes in a pond.

Cause 2: Foreign Bodies

A tortoise's nose appears prehistorically tough, but it is just as sensitive to environmental nasties as a human's. Grass fragments, dust, pollen, too-dry substrate, or a myriad of tiny foreign objects can cause nasal inflammation. While this is not initially life-threatening, it cannot be ignored either.

Symptomatically, the animal continues to behave healthily and most often maintains a daily routine. In other words, it will eat, drink, browse and snuggle down in a favorite spot. However, there will be signs that something is wrong. At times, the tortoise will be uncomfortable and bothered, especially when the offending piece is a longish piece of grass. To find relief, it might attempt to wipe its nose with a front leg. Needless to say, Leopards don't have fingers to do the job properly and need their owner's assistance to remove whatever is in there.

The bubbles are a result of irritation of the nasal membrane and if the cause is not dealt with, an infection might ensue. As the article will shortly explain, respiratory infection is not something that should be viewed lightly. When tortoises develop respiratory problems, things go downhill very fast.

When to see a veterinarian:

As with any other exotic pet, illness or injury can quickly progress beyond home treatment and a vet visit often means the difference between saving or losing the animal. The following conditions are a challenge, even for expert tortoise keepers. If you suspect you are dealing with something worse than a dusty nose do not hesitate to see a vet, and be sure to choose one qualified to treat reptiles.

Cause 3: Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS)

RNS, the dreaded initials known to give more experienced tortoise owners the heebie jeebies. Short for "Runny Nose Syndrome," it is not a disease but an infection with different triggers. Causes of RNS include:

  • Things stuck in the tortoise's nose that should not be there
  • Too dry environment
  • On the flip side, an enclosure too wet is also unhealthy
  • An enclosure with too little sunlight
  • Incorrect diet
  • Keeping too many tortoises together
  • A stressful life
  • Incorrect humidity or temperature

Unfortunately, this upper respiratory tract problem occurs frequently in Leopard tortoises and is difficult to diagnose (or even notice) in the early stages. Some individuals are also carriers. They will stay healthy but infect other tortoises they come into contact with. RNS is highly difficult to get rid of as the condition tends to flare up again, even after treatment. At first, it doesn't appear to be deadly. A common mistake is to think enough sunlight can clear the condition or that the reduction of nasal discharge means the animal is healing itself. RNS doesn't go away on its own. It is quite capable of killing and should be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible.

Cause 4: Pneumonia

Say hello to the worst-case scenario. Pneumonia develops much under the same conditions as RNS. If the syndrome is left untreated, it can also be its darkest manifestation. Pneumonia is deadly to any tortoise species. This is not something that should be ignored or solely treated at home without expert supervision.

Tortoises suffer from two types of pneumonia: chronic and acute. By the time symptoms appear, you should accept the fact that a vet visit is now inevitable. This is very important. Pneumonia is not something that will get better on its own, with home remedies or over-the-counter pet shop products. Your pet needs expert medical help, scheduled medicine and perhaps even hospitalization. Here are the symptoms that differentiate between the two shades of pneumonia. Both are capable of turning fatal very fast.

Does my tortoise have chronic pneumonia?

Chronic pneumonia is more common and regrettably seen frequently in all species.

  • The tortoise might expel fluid through the nostrils as it breathes, nasal discharge.
  • Lethargy and weakness.
  • You might notice that your pet cannot retract its head or legs anymore. Even when it sleeps, the tortoise would do so "outside of its shell."
  • Sometimes the eyes are odd-looking, almost as if they are bugging out of their sockets or look more swollen.

What are the symptoms of acute pneumonia?

  • More often than not, the animal's mouth hangs open, as if it is struggling to breathe.
  • Neck stretching.
  • Clear breathing difficulties.
  • Refusal to feed or drink.
  • Depression, having no interest in anything.
  • A snotty nose.
  • Mucus in the mouth.
  • As with chronic pneumonia, the tortoise won't be able to retract into its shell.
  • Leg weakness. This is a critical sign and often appears hours before death. The animal can no longer move itself forward despite trying. It is simply too weak to properly place its feet.
This youngster displays a healthy ability to fully retract its head and limbs. With pneumonia, this   becomes impossible.

This youngster displays a healthy ability to fully retract its head and limbs. With pneumonia, this becomes impossible.

How to Heal Your Tortoise's Runny, Bubbly Nose

Prevention is sacred when it comes to keeping your Leopard tortoise healthy and happy. By following a few basic guidelines, you can avoid a lot of suffering for yourself and your pet. Here is the good news. RNS and pneumonia are easily avoidable. In most cases, it won't break the bank either.

Keep trouble at bay with this basic checklist:

  1. The enclosure. Respiratory trouble is more likely to grab tortoises kept outdoors. Make sure their shelter is dry but not dusty. Is there enough sunlight for your tortoise to soak up? Without sunlight, a Leopard quickly develops a multitude of health issues. Make sure you have the correct substrate, plants, temperature, and humidity.
  2. Who is playing with your tortoise? With a single animal, the chances of RNS drop by a good measure. Several tortoises kept together need a closer watch. Never add a new tortoise without a quarantine period. If keeping your pets apart for six months sounds unappealing, consider the consequences. You can lose the entire bunch because some virus or parasite jumped ship. It can and does happen. Secondly, never mix species. That is asking for trouble. A Leopard may be defenseless against pathogens brought, for example, by a newly added Angulate tortoise that never went through a period of isolation. Even if it aced the quarantine, that Angulate should get its own enclosure.
  3. Healthy munchies. A correct diet is crucial and not just for preventing a bubbly nose. A tortoise that consumes the wrong foods can appear healthy, but in the long run is more susceptible to illness and early death. Some owners feed dog kibble, which is really unhealthy - and lazy. Other, more well-meaning owners, give their tortoises kitchen food (peels, vegetable waste) which is also not a good idea. A Leopard tortoise thrives on a natural diet of grasses, flowers and even the odd garden snail.
  4. Activity level. A tortoise that eats, drinks and then basks the whole day is just mimicking a healthy lifestyle. In nature, tortoises walk and graze the whole day. This keeps their muscles strong and their immune system in peak condition. Too many pet tortoises sit in one place (preferably their favorite sunbathing spot) and wait to be served. As a result, their metabolism stops working efficiently, which prevents the proper absorption of nutrients. This, in turn, leaves it defenseless to even minor infections. Getting your couch potato moving can be a challenge. One great way is to cultivate a natural habitat so it can browse for its own lunch. This takes research (correct plant species) and planning. Don't let the scope of the project put you off. Keeping a pet tortoise, especially a large species like the Leopard tortoise, requires a hobby-like dedication that can be fun.
  5. Stay vigilant. RNS is a year-round possibility. It is not tied to any specific season. Rather, as discussed, it is the result of incorrect conditions or contact with a carrier. Maintain observation when you notice moisture from the nostrils, even if the animal seems fine. Many pets are lost because they don't show the classic symptoms when, in reality, they are already sick.
  6. Book a day at the spa. Alright, there is no spa for pet tortoises. But the message is the same—your tortie needs to chill. Stress and reptiles do not mix. Tortoises have different needs than those of say, a cat or dog. Mostly, they just want to eat and enjoy a safe environment. They don't want to play with the family dog or kids. Such encounters can stress a tortoise immensely or end in tragedy.
  7. Similarly, its own species can make a tortoise feel under the weather. Too many in one enclosure can lead to a stressed population. Ideally, Leopard tortoises should be kept alone or in pairs. If the enclosure is really large, three to four should be fine as long as the individuals are healthy and not aggressive. Leopards are said to be among the most socially forgiving tortoises. While this is true (they do get along with other Leopards), this does not mean that they won't get crabby. Some shell bumping can occur if a new tortoise is added to the group or if two individuals fancy the same direction and neither wants to get out of the way. A too-small enclosure will increase aggression, chances of injury as well as infections.

Not an Exclusive Problem

Respiratory problems, especially RNS and pneumonia, are not something that only occurs with Leopards. They show up in all species. However, some research suggests Leopards are more vulnerable because they are kept in countries with climates starkly different from their African roots. That being said, the Leopard is a pleasure to own and not a difficult pet when its needs are understood.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2017 Jana Louise Smit