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Tortoises are a very popular pet here in the UK. They’re relatively cheap and easy to keep and they’re long lived. Plus, they can have very charming characters and will provide years of entertainment and pleasure – many tortoises have been passed down through families as heirlooms as they live for so long.
However, in order to help your tortoise friend achieve a grand old age, it’s important that his health is maintained and that you are aware of potential problems before they arise. Perhaps the single most important action you can take is buying a healthy specimen from a reputable breeder in the first place. It’s also worth seeking out a vet that is experienced with tortoises and who you can call on should any problems arise. Housing and diet must also be carefully planned in order to ensure your pet gets everything he needs in order to stay in rude health.
From the moment you get your first tortoise, a programme of worming and parasite control should be established in order to keep these issues at bay. Here, we will look at a few of the most common health problems and how they can be managed.
Without doubt the most common ailment to affect tortoises is Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS), a respiratory problem caused by an infection of the upper respiratory tract. It can occur in any species of tortoise, but seems to be most common in the Leopard tortoise. It can be hard to spot in the early stages and can appear at any time of the year. It’s also difficult to eradicate, even with appropriate treatment, and many infected animals subsequently become carriers.
Carriers may not show outward symptoms but can infect any animal that they come into contact with and the infection can spread rapidly, laying claim to entire collections. It’s important that if a runny nose is identified, it isn’t ignored, and that veterinary advice is sought quickly. Although it may look very much like a simple cold, it’s important to remember that tortoises are delicate creatures that can be seriously affected by illnesses that would seem trivial to a human. Indeed, RNS can develop into acute or chronic pneumonia if treatment isn’t forthcoming. RNS can sometimes be complicated by mouth rot (stomatitis).
RNS can be exacerbated by inappropriate housing conditions such as humidity levels that are too high or too low, a dusty atmosphere and lack of access to sand. Malnutrition, stress and overcrowding may also lead to RNS and your tortoise should be checked regularly to ensure it has no foreign objects in his nostrils as this can also cause RNS.
By giving your tortoise a high-quality diet that consists of natural foodstuffs and not kitchen scraps, you will help keep him healthy, and making sure he is active will also help keep his immune system in tip-top condition and keep these infections at bay.
He must have a dry bed and be kept away from animals that may cause him stress, but perhaps the most important preventative measure you can take is by keeping him away from other species of tortoise. If you are thinking of introducing a friend, then the new tortoise should be quarantined for several weeks to make sure no infections are present.
If the worst happens and your tortoise develops a runny nose, he should be taken to the vet immediately where antibiotics will be administered.
Stomatitis is not difficult to spot. The animal will be off its food despite showing signs of hunger. There will also be some drooling and he may prefer to rest with his mouth open. If infection is present then a white, slightly cheesy looking substance will appear around the mouth. This will rub off quite easily but removing this substance will reveal sore-looking skin underneath which may also show broken blood vessels or petechiae, under the skin.
Mouth rot or stomatitis if caught early, can be treated with a diluted povidone-iodine solution, while sever infections will need veterinary attention. Often mouth rot can occur because of the herpes group virus. Mouth rot is more likely to occur in larger colonies and because it’s difficult to treat, the prognosis is often poor. Good beak maintenance is essential in avoiding mouth rot.
Like all living creatures, tortoises can suffer from many gastric problems including diarrhoea, constipation and vomiting. If his diet is not of a high enough quality then he will be more susceptible to stomach problems.
Constipation is almost always the result of a poor diet. By increasing his fibre intake, adding dandelion root to his feed and giving him a laxative (liquid paraffin or lactulose are often used) this can help move things along. By soaking the animal in lukewarm water for half an hour so the water just covers the platron any exterior blockage can dissolve. If this doesn’t work, then a visit to the vet is necessary.
Adding alfalfa to his feed will help relieve diarrhoea but be careful not to feed alfalfa all the time as it’s too high in protein for regular use. If the stools are particularly foul-smelling then an infection may be present so he should be taken to the vets. Loose stools may be the result of a worm burden although too much fruit is often the cause of diarrhoea so his intake of fresh fruit should also be monitored closely.
Vomiting is a potentially serious symptom and veterinary advice should be sought immediately.
Tortoises can suffer from a number of conditions affecting the skin and shell. Abscesses are fairly common – particularly on or in the ears. If your pet develops any suspicious swelling he should be taken to the vets as abscesses can develop from seemingly trivial nicks and scrapes caused by his everyday activity.
Unfortunately abscesses in tortoises do not respond well to antibiotics alone and usually have to be drained, with any dead tissue removed surgically. The wound will be left open so it can drain and post-operative care should be regular and thorough.
Shell rot can be caused by ticks or injuries. In order to treat shell rot, any infected shields will need to be removed and the affected areas cleaned daily with an anti-bacterial and anti-microbial solution. Air drying will help speed up the healing process. If these fail, a cream containing silver sulfadiazine can be obtained from the vet and this may work. The tortoise might also need antibiotics administered by injection.
Any skin problems should be cleaned with a high-quality anti-bacterial and anti-microbial solution such as clorhexidine.
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