Your Healthy Turtle
According to Kasey, Zen Habitats Animal Care Manager and Certified Veterinary Technician, you can observe your turtle’s behavior, body condition, activity level, skin and shedding, and bowel movement and urination to monitor its overall health.
Q: How do I tell the difference between a behavior and something that may be my turtle’s personality?
Kasey: “Not a whole lot of research has been done in animal personalities, and even less in reptiles. There have been studies on lizards that show they do have a spectrum of behaviors ranging from shy to bold. As humans we assign ‘personalities’ based on behaviors, but I believe that turtles can bond with their owners.”
Q: If my turtle is doing something unusual, how long should I hold on before becoming too concerned?
Kasey: “There are many things that can change the behavior of a turtle, such as illness, husbandry issues, seasonal changes, and breeding. Depending on the individual situation a vet visit may be needed right away or can wait. When in doubt, call your exotics veterinarian.”
Q: What behaviors are concerning and may indicate my turtle may need to go to the vet?
Kasey: “Some stressful behaviors can include refusing to eat or hiding a lot. Some of these behaviors may be caused by improper husbandry and can be remedied, others may need veterinarian intervention. There is generally going to be a cause for a behavior and if that cause is illness it will need to be addressed by a veterinarian.”
Q: What does an unhealthy turtle look like?
Kasey: “The turtle may have a respiratory illness with ocular or nasal discharge. Other things to look for include abscesses, unhealthy weight, shell rot, pyramiding due to metabolic bone disease or dysecdysis (bad shed).”
Q: What are the respiratory illnesses a turtle can have?
Kasey: “Respiratory illness can present with ocular or nasal discharge, excessive mucus that bubbles from nose and mouth, open mouth breathing, wheezing, gasping, coughing, or sneezing. There are a variety of respiratory illness your turtle can get including infections. The most common in turtles is a bacterial infection.”
Q: What is an aural abscess?
Kasey: “Aural abscess is a fancy way to say ear infection in turtles. In most cases it will be of bacterial origin but can also be viral or fungal. Aural abscesses will present as ‘tumor’ looking swellings on either side or both sides of your pet’s head. Since turtles do not have external ears, there is no opening to relieve the pressure from an ear infection, and a mass of pus accumulates. Unfortunately, this is something that requires surgery to remedy and may recur, but most turtles can still have a long and happy life.”
Q: What happens when a turtle has shell rot?
Kasey: “Shell rot is typically secondary to some sort of untreated traumatic event or from an unhealthy shed. Turtles that fracture their shells from something like a fall or a dog bite, may end up with cracks, chips, or pitting. If these injuries are left untreated an infection may set in.”
Q: How do I know if I my turtle is a healthy weight?
Kasey: “Because most of a turtle’s weight is its shell, it can be difficult to feel whether your animal has a good or poor body condition. Your turtle should have strong limb muscles, you can check this by gently pushing or tugging one of the limbs, your pet should resist this, and you will be able to feel how strong they are. An underweight turtle may have sunken eyes or thin limbs. This can be caused by one of the issues we have already discussed or other things including husbandry deficiencies, trauma-related stress, and organ failure. An overweight turtle will appear like it is wearing a shell that is a few sizes too small. You may see folds of fat bulging from where it draws in it’s neck and limbs, which will lead to difficulty retracting into its shell.”
Q: What does Metabolic Bone Disease look like in turtles?
Kasey: “Metabolic bone disease presents differently in turtles as opposed to other reptiles. Turtles with the disease can present with pyramiding, excessive upwards growth of the scutes on the top of the shell, bottom shell curling upwards, softening of shell, swollen limbs, stunted growth, etc. In severe cases neurological signs can present in the form of seizures or even paralysis.”
Q: How can I tell if my turtle is active enough?
Kasey: “This really varies by species and the individual pet. The best thing to do is research the typical activity level of your type of turtle. They are naturally curious and inquisitive and should be observed moving about the enclosure and notice you when you approach.”
Q: Does the activity level fluctuate depending on the time of day and season of the year?
Kasey: “Yes, this will also vary species to species. There can be fluctuations as the weather changes. Like other reptiles, turtles, tortoise, and terrapins can go through brumation (hibernation-like state) when the weather cools down. During this time, they may take refuge in their hide or burrow, depending on the species.”
Skin and Shedding
Q: When should my turtle shed?
Kasey: “Turtles do not shed as frequently as other reptiles, typically only when growing and right before and after brumation. Turtle shells are made up of bone, covered in keratin. Some species shed layers of their shell, where others do not. For some species, when the turtle is growing, it doesn’t necessarily shed the keratin layer on their scutes. Instead, it grows a larger scute under its pre-existing scute and it remains with them for their entire life. The shell might shed twice a year, where the skin on the ‘body’ may not shed for up to a couple of years.”
Q: How long should it take for them to shed?
Kasey: “The shedding process takes about 1-2 weeks depending on the age and size of the turtle.”
Q: What does a healthy shed look like?
Kasey: “In a healthy shed the scutes will appear translucent with gradual peeling. When your turtle is ready to shed its ‘body’ skin you may notice that their skin looks a little hazy. Their skin will most likely not come off in one piece like a snake.”
Q: What does an unhealthy shed look like?
Kasey: “An unhealthy shed may present with or without shell rot. In comparison, a scute that is “stuck” may appear waxier than the surrounding scutes or even be a different color. For dysecdisys associated with shell rot, you may observe red inflamed areas, white plaques or foul-smelling discharge. Reptiles do not have the same sort of liquid pus that most mammals have, instead it is thicker and has a cottage cheese like consistency.”
Q: Is there anything I can do to help my turtle shed?
Kasey: “The first thing to do is to understand the environmental needs of your turtle species. Providing an appropriate diet, removing hazards that can cause injury and a clean enclosure will help prevent bad shedding. I like to soak turtles twice weekly in enclosure temperature water. You can also use a soft bristled toothbrush to gently exfoliate.”
Q: Does any kind of shed indicate that I should bring my turtle to the veterinarian?
Kasey: “For moderate to severe cases of retained shed, veterinarian consultation may be indicated. Remaining shed can harbor parasites and/or bacteria leading to nasty infections. Intact segments on limbs can restrict blood flow and eventually lead to death if not treated. Do not pull their shed off yourself, this can damage the underlying tissues.”
Bowel Movement and Urination
Q: How often should my pet have a bowel movement?
Kasey: “This will vary from species to species, but turtles typically defecate every 2-3 days.”
Q: What does a healthy poop look like?
Kasey: “A healthy turtle bowel movement is made up of different parts: a semi-formed brown or greenish “log”, a white chalky part called urate, and liquid urine.”
Q: What does an unhealthy poop look like?
Kasey: “An unhealthy bowel movement will have a change in consistency, smell and/or color. A more liquid poop may indicate diarrhea, contrarily, if your turtle’s feces is very dried out that may be an indication of dehydration.”
Q: How can I tell if my turtle is urinating enough?
Kasey: “Terrestrial turtles have a urinary bladder, and it’s massive. This large bladder functions as a water reservoir for when water may be scarce. Like other reptiles, turtles have a cloaca, common cavity that serves as the only opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts. The cloaca’s job in this case is resorption of fluids and electrolytes, because reptiles are so good at conserving fluids, they produce urates. The liquid urine is extra fluids that your pet does not need to hold on to, because it is not roaming the desert and has a steady supply of water. Normal urates should be off-white in color, soft, chalky, and rounded, if your turtle’s urates are very dry and hard that is an indication that they are dehydrated. If your turtle is chronically dehydrated the uric acid can build up and combine with electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, etc.) and create uroliths (bladder stones). These stones can get very large in size and need to be removed surgically.
Q: Is there a change in bowel movement or urine smell that may indicate something?
Kasey: “If there is a sudden change in odor that may be an indication that something is wrong. The most common issues in your turtle’s gastrointestinal tract are endoparasites, these can be worms, protozoa, etc. Your vet will be able to perform a fecal evaluation and prescribe an appropriate antiparasitic.”
Q: What can I do to help improve my turtle’s pooping and urination?
Kasey: “In most cases, poor bowel movements are caused by improper husbandry. Things to take into consideration are appropriate humidity, providing more water, feeding an appropriate diet, or soaking your turtle. All of these can ensure that your pet has healthy bowel movements. If your turtle has a severe case of dehydration seek veterinary care immediately.”
Q: What can I do to help keep my turtle healthy?Kasey: “I like to schedule a visit with an exotic’s veterinarian within the first couple weeks of them coming home. This will help create a relationship in the event your animal is to ever fall ill. Your veterinarian will also be able to establish a baseline for your pet and check for endoparasites and ectoparasites. Another tip I have is to purchase a kitchen scale, I like to weigh growing and ill reptiles weekly and healthy adults monthly. This helps me keep track of their weight and potentially notice issues before they are physically visible.” (This content is informational only and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your veterinary professional)
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