How to Prevent and Identify Common Health Problems in Your Pet Aquatic Turtle

This guide provides tips to keep your pet aquatic turtle healthy as well as warning signs of illness.

When an aquatic turtle becomes ill, treatment can be very expensive and prolonged. Unfortunately, it can also be ineffective. So, it's important to take steps to keep the turtle healthy and to be vigilant in identifying potential health problems.

Turtles' immune systems function much more slowly than that of mammals. When turtles need antibiotics, they generally need them for weeks at a time. Not only does this get expensive, it means the turtle owner either needs to cart the sick turtle to the vet every few days for a shot or learn to give the turtle shots. Giving a turtle a shot is not especially difficult in concept. To administer a shot of antibiotics to a turtle, it is advisable to hold him over something soft like a bed (in case you drop him when he bites you).

With one hand, grasp the top and bottom of his shell firmly. If the little smarty pants hides in his shell, tip him upside down- this will draw all but the very sickest turtle out of his shell. With the second hand, you are going to insert a needle between his front leg and neck in the soft tissue between the upper and lower shell. The vet will show you exactly how to do this. Inevitably, when you try to stick a turtle with a needle, the turtle's agenda turns to finger biting. By next injection, he'll have learned new tricks like turning his head to the side you 're trying to inject to block that soft tissue.

While you struggle to get him to turn his head away from the intended injection site, he just laughs. He knows speed is on his side.. One lovely little trick is to pull gently on one of his front feet. As he swings around to snap off your finger in revenge, you are supposed to jab him on the other side. Unfortunately, turtles can do a 180 faster than a mortal can plunge a syringe. Don't be surprised when you end up with a squirming angry turtle dripping wet with antibiotics that missed their target... leaving you with a more difficult specimen to inject and a treatment short. Sound like fun? You can avoid it altogether by keeping your turtle healthy.

Most aquatic turtle health problems stem from husbandry issues. The most essential steps you can take to prevent turtle bacterial infections are these:

Use a tank heater

Some pet stores advise that tank heaters are an unnecessary expense if you live in a climate native to the species of turtle you are buying. If the turtle could live outside, they reason, why do you need to heat his tank? The reason is simple. Animals in captivity face greater stress than animals in the wild and this means their immune systems are more vulnerable. Spend the damn money on the heater, or you'll end up spending it on medicine later on.

Feed the turtle outside the tank

Eating and defecating in the same space is not recommended. Besides aesthetic considerations, the water quality deteriorates faster if there are more foreign materials to break down. Since an aquatic turtle will eat only when both he and his food are in water, buy him a plastic bowl that you can easily fill and empty just for eating.

Clean the tank weekly

Empty the tank and replace the water at least once a week. Rinse the filter at every cleaning and replace the charcoal if needed.

Identify signs of illness

A turtle may stop eating if he is stressed. A known stressor like a move is not cause for alarm. He should start eating again in a few days. Make the water in the bowl he feeds in a bit warmer than usual to increase his activity level and prompt him to eat. If your longtime pet suddenly stops eating, consult a vet.

If the tank water is discolored (brownish) your turtle may have diarrhea. Likewise, consult the vet.

If your turtle swims lopsided, this is an indication of lung infection. He needs antibiotics, (and you need steel-lined gloves), immediately.

Turtles shell colors change over time so a change in coloration is not usually indicative of a problem. However, a pinkish tinge to the bottom shell can be a sign of illness.

If your turtle acts listless, get him to the vet. If you have had a turtle for very long, you probably recognize basking and can distinguish it from "listless." If you are a new turtle owner, note that turtles bask under their heat lamps with their legs and head stretched out. They look a little funny, but they're behaving normally for turtles. Sometimes a sick turtle will bask all day. If your turtle seems to be basking excessively, turn off his heat lamp for awhile and assess his behavior. If his behavior seems abnormal (listless), call the vet.

Weight loss is also a sign of turtle illness. Some sources recommend daily weighing of your turtle so you will be able to identify weight loss.(Author's opinion: These sources obviously have excess time on their hands and should come mop my kitchen floor instead of harassing poor turtles.)

With multiple turtles in a tank, sometimes one turtle will bite another. To prevent infection, get topical medicine from the vet. Watch the turtles' interactions carefully- if aggression continues, it may be necessary keep them in separate tanks. If the sore doesn't heal or there are any signs of infection, the turtle may need antibiotics.

This guide cannot cover all varieties of turtle ills. But it should give you a good start on ensuring your turtle's environment is a healthy one, and it will help you identify some indications that your turtle is sick, probably with a bacterial infection.