Pet Vet: Owner notices changes to box turtle after hibernation

June 16, 2014

Today’s subject centers on Herbie, a 10-year-old box turtle who lives in Modesto with his caretaker Paul.

Paul has been taking care of Herbie for the past nine years, Paul himself is 17.

Herbie lives outdoors in what has been described as a very nice enclosure, which allows Herbie lots of free roaming space both in and out of the sun with lots of vegetation to graze as well as provide shelter. Herbie also has an underground den, which he uses at night and also as a hibernation spot over the winter.

After this winter’s hibernation stint, Herbie emerged from his den and began to get into his normal routine of foraging for food, covering his territory in his normal fashion. Paul did notice however that Herbie had not been eating as much as in the past and he also noticed some bubbles coming from Herbie’s nose.

Most recently, Herbie has developed a lump of the left side of his head that has progressed in size. Paul is very concerned.

Hopefully I am seeing this letter after Herbie already has been to see a veterinarian with expertise dealing with reptiles. The bubbling from Herbie’s nose likely represents a manifestation of a respiratory infection. This is usually a relatively straightforward disease to diagnose requiring a swab sample of the nasal discharge for examination under the microscope and culture for bacteria.

This is a very important step toward effective treatment of Herbie’s problem as not all cases of respiratory disease in box turtles are caused by bacteria. They can be viral and if treated with antibiotics assuming the condition is caused by bacteria, the results can be devastating. This holds true for any patient with respiratory disease.

If bacteria are found, they can then be identified and tested in the presence of several antibiotics to find out which antibiotic will most effectively kill the bacteria.

Another very important diagnostic step when working with potential respiratory infections in turtles and in fact, all reptiles, is whether or not the infection has gotten into the lungs. This is called pneumonia and can be very difficult to treat in reptiles owing to their lung structure and the difficulty of delivering the antibiotic to the infected areas in the lungs.

The lump on the left side of Herbie’s neck may or may not be related to the bubbling from his nose. A simple test called a fine needle aspirate can be performed to help diagnose this problem. A small needle is introduced into the mass and some contents are sucked into the needle with a syringe. This sample can be examined under a microscope to determine what might be the cause.

It is my educated and experienced guess that Herbie’s lump is an abscess caused by bacteria that have gotten into his middle ear. This can indeed be related to his potential respiratory infection although these may be two entirely different events.

If the lump is an abscess, then Herbie will need a surgical procedure to open the abscess and remove the contents with a thorough flushing. The wound will only be partially closed after surgery to allow for drainage and cleaning.

Eventually, with proper after care including antibiotics and daily cleaning, it will heal very nicely.

Hopefully, as I stated earlier, Herbie is already on the mend but if not, get him in to his veterinarian and resolve his problems. The longer he goes without addressing his disease(s), the less chance he has of being able to recover.


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