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Septicemia in Pet Tortoises

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Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises, and other exotics since 2003.

Septicemia in Pet Tortoises

Septicemia in Pet Tortoises

Sick Pet Tortoises

I've always been current with reptile care and health, but tortoises are a new reptile to me. My first tortoises were two 4-year-old Russian tortoises. Shortly after I received them, I purchased my cherry head red-footed tortoises; one of which was never the healthiest tortoise.

First, he was treated for an ear abscess with antibiotics and a vitamin A deficiency, which required injections. Shortly after, he started sloughing off his skin around his legs and neck, was experiencing muscle weakness, and breathing problems; it was time for another vet trip. His symptoms virtually came overnight.

The symptoms started with the legs where he was getting his antibiotic and vitamin injections, and slowly moved to his upper body and neck. The vet prescribed medicated soaks and antibiotics, but his case progressed rapidly, and he did not make it.

Depending on how soon you catch septicemia, a tortoise's prognosis will vary. It's better to try to prevent septicemia than to have to treat it.

What Is Septicemia?

Septicemia is a bacterial infection of the blood that is more common in reptiles than most reptile hobbyists know or think. The bacteria can rapidly spread throughout the reptile's body and organs, causing damage and death if not treated quickly.

Bacteria can be introduced to the body via cuts and abrasions and can then enter the bloodstream. Tortoises are generally pretty hardy, but it can be hard to prevent a tortoise from getting any sort of scratch. You just want to make sure that you can keep the wound clean while healing, and depending on the type of wound, you may want to go ahead and have your vet prescribe an antibiotic to prevent septicemia before it causes any long-term damage to your tortoise.

Tips for Reducing the Chances of Septicemia

If your tortoise lives in a dirty enclosure, has improper temperatures and/or humidity levels, has an enclosure that is too small, or doesn't have a proper diet, he is at risk of developing septicemia, as his immune system will be compromised due to stress on the body.

If you can prevent lowered immune system function and infections, you can potentially prevent septicemia.

  • Reduce Space Issues. You'll find that when you house multiple tortoises in an enclosure, they may fight. Bite wounds are a big risk of infection, which can turn into septicemia quickly. If you're housing more than one tortoise in an enclosure, make sure that the enclosure is large enough to allow each tortoise room to get away.
  • Reduce Risks. Be leery of having sharp objects in the enclosure, as the tortoise may scratch its leg, foot, or neck on a sharp stone or twig, which may lead to an infection.
  • Check for Parasites. Parasites can be another cause of how septicemia enters the bloodstream.

By keeping a clean environment with proper diet and care, you can reduce the risk that your tortoise will develop septicemia.


Signs of Septicemia in Tortoises

It is important that you keep a close eye on your tortoise, especially if you are aware of any cuts or abrasions. You want to make sure that you watch for the following symptoms of septicemia so that you can immediately have your tortoise treated:

  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Difficulty breathing (may develop into wheezing, breathing out of the mouth)
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of muscle control and strength
  • Patches of red or purple discoloration on the skin or shell
  • Weakness or an inability to move

How Is It Treated?

Treating septicemia cannot be done at home. A vet must diagnose the tortoise and prescribe proper treatment. In most cases, antibiotics are going to be prescribed. Some vets will prescribe a fluid therapy, nutritional support (such as vitamin injections or supplements on the food), nebulization for breathing problems, and an increased temperature at the basking site. Some veterinarians will prescribe an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory for the wound itself.

You'll want to keep it clean and apply an antiseptic ointment, such as Betadine (per the vet's recommendation). If the wound is large, you will want to apply a clean dressing daily to keep it covered. Some people will suggest covering the wound with jelonet or micropore.

If you are able to catch the septicemia quickly and get it treated as soon as possible, your tortoise can and will make a full recovery. The problem is noticing the signs early because tortoises, like most reptiles, are great at hiding illnesses until it's far advanced.

Jungle Lab Reptile Xtra Tortoise Pellets

Some reptile hobbyists claim that Jungle Lab Reptile Xtra is a good supplement to help prevent parasites and bacteria, whereas others believe that if you medicate a reptile that isn't necessarily sick, you are increasing the chances that the bacteria and parasites will grow immune to that medicine, making it worthless (for lack of better words).

The product is an anti-parasite and anti-bacterial food that is manufactured to promote good nutrition and health while controlling internal ailments. It comes in a convenient pellet form for tortoises that is easy to feed to them.

The anti-parasite formula contains metronidazole and fenbendazole to help control roundworms, pinworms, hookworms, and other intestinal worms; the anti-bacterial formula contains trimethoprim and sodium sulfadiazine to help control bacterial infections such as enteritis, septicemia, respiratory distress, external cuts, sores, and more.

Due to the controversy among hobbyists over these medicated pellets, it is important that you discuss this product with your veterinarian prior to purchasing it and feeding it to your tortoise.

Caring for Turtles and Tortoises

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.


Whitney (author) from Georgia on January 14, 2010:

No tortoise should live in a small aquarium, much less an aquarium at all. The smallest pet tortoise that you'll find will range about 5-7 inches in length and will need a bare minimum of a 50 gallon tub, which is about 3.5 feet or so long, and personally this is a little small because they really need room to walk about.

satyam12 from india on January 13, 2010:

tell me about small tortoises that live in small aquariums

Hello, hello, from London, UK on December 29, 2009:

I never knew so much about tortoises and found the reading very interesting. Thank you.

dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on December 29, 2009:

Tortoises are so amazing. Thanks for sharing so much solid, useful information regarding how to care for them, Whitney.