Letters to Dr. Hannon: Sick Box Turtle

Dear Dr. Hannon,

A few months ago we found a box turtle in the woods behind our house.  We have been keeping her in an aquarium as a pet, and she gets to roam the house some, too.  Lately she hasn’t been eating well, and she keeps her eyes closed.  They also look kind of puffy.  She also sometimes has bubbles coming from his nose. Our family was all sick with a bad cold recently, and some of us are still not over it yet.  Could our turtle have caught our cold?

- Shelly

Dear Shelly,

Human rhinoviruses, the viruses that cause colds, are not infectious to reptiles, or most other animals for that matter.  However, it sounds like your turtle may be suffering from a upper respiratory infection, which will often show the same symptoms as a cold.

You didn’t include any information about your turtle’s environment, temperature or diet, and these are usually the things that cause turtles to get a respiratory infection.  I would be  the most concerned about not having enough heat or moisture in the environment, or not enough vitamin A in the diet.

All reptiles are ectothermic, meaning that they can’t make their own body heat, so they rely on their environmental temperature to warm or cool their bodies.  If the ambient temperature is too low, often their immune system won’t function as well as it should, and they can get infections easier.  Box turtles in the wild also live mainly under the forest leaf litter where it is very humid.  Inadequate humidity causes their sinuses and other mucus membranes to dry up, predisposing them to upper respiratory problems and dehydration, among other things.  And box turtles have a high dietary requirement for vitamin A that is often not met in captivity.  Vitamin A is important for healthy eyes and sinuses, and these are often the first areas that show a problem when that need is not met.

You need to have your pet examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian who can diagnose and treat her problem, and provide you with some reliable information for her care and diet.  Contact the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (www.arav.org) to find a reptile vet in our area.  As an aside, you also need to check into the wildlife laws in your state.  Keeping an indigenous wild animal as a pet is illegal in many states, and some states have special laws concerning chelonians (turtles, tortoises and terrapins) particularly.

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