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Septicemia in Pet Tortoises

Updated on September 3, 2011
Whitney05 profile image

Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises and other exotics since 2003

Sick Pet Tortoise

I've always been current with reptile care and health, but tortoises are a new reptile to me. I received my first tortoises this year, two 4 year old Russian tortoises. Shortly after, I purchased my Cherry Head Red Footed Tortoises; one of which was never the healthiest tortoise.

He was first treated for an ear abscess with antibiotics and an vitamin A deficiency with injections. Shortly after, he started sloughing off his skin around his legs and neck, was experiencing muscle weakness, and breathing problems, and it was time for another vet trip. His symptoms virtually came overnight.

It started with the legs, where he was getting his antibiotic and Vitamin injections, and slowly moved to his upper body and neck. The vet prescribed medicated soaks and antibiotics, but his case progressed rapidly, and the tortoise did not make it.

Depending on how soon you catch septicemia, the tortoise's prognosis will vary. It's best to try to prevent septicemia than it is to have to treat it.


Septicemia is a bacterial infection of the blood that is more common in reptiles, than most reptile hobbyist know or think. The bacteria can rapidly spread throughout the reptile's body and organs, causing damage and death if not treated quickly.

The bacteria is introduced to the body via cuts and abrasions, and enters the bloodstream.

Tortoises are generally pretty hardy, but it can be hard to prevent a tortoise from getting any sort of scratch. You just want to make sure that you can keep the wound clean while healing, and depending on the type of wound, you may want to go ahead and have your vet prescribe an antibiotic to prevent septicemia before it causes any long term damage to your tortoise.

You'll find that when you house multiple tortoises in an enclosure, they may fight, and bite wounds are a big risk of infection, which can turn into septicemia quickly. If you're housing more than one tortoise in an enclosure, make sure that the enclosure is large enough to allow each tortoise room to get away.

Also be leery of having sharp objects in the enclosure, as the tortoise may scratch a leg, foot, or its neck on a sharp stone or twig, that may get infected. Parasites can be another cause of how septicemia enters the bloodstream.

Just remember that if your tortoise lives in a dirty enclosure, has improper temperatures and/or humidity levels, has an enclosure that is too small,or doesn't have a proper diet, he is at risk of developing septicemia, as his immune system will be compromised do to stress on the body.

If you can prevent a lowered immune system and infections, you can potentially prevent septicemia. By keeping a clean environment with proper diet and care, you can reduce the risk that your tortoise will develop septicemia.

Signs of Septicemia in Tortoises

It is important that you keep a close eye on your tortoise, especially if you are aware of any cuts or abrasions. You want to make sure that you watch for the following symptoms of septicemia so that you can immediately have your tortoise treated.

  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Difficulty breathing (may develop into wheezing, breathing out of the mouth)
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of muscle control and strength
  • Patches of red or purple discoloration on the skin or shell
  • Weakness or an inability to move

Septicemia Treatment

Treating septicemia cannot be done at home. A vet must diagnose the tortoise and prescribe proper treatment. In most cases, antibiotics are going to be prescribed. Some vets will prescribe a fluid therapy, nutritional support (such as vitamin injections or supplements on the food), nebulization for breathing problems, and an increased temperature at the basking site.

Some veterinarians will prescribe an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory for the wound, itself. You'll want to keep it clean and apply an antiseptic ointment, such as Betadine. If the wound is large, you will want to apply a clean dressing daily to keep it covered. Some will suggest covering the wound with jelonet or micropore.

If you are able to catch the septicemia quickly and get it treated as soon as possible, your tortoise can and will make a full recovery. The problem is noticing the signs early because tortoises, like most reptiles, are great at hiding illnesses until it's far advanced.

Jungle Lab Reptile Xtra Tortoise Pellets

Some reptile hobbyist claim that Jungle Lab Reptile Xtra is a good supplement to help prevent parasites and bacteria, whereas others believe that if you medicate a reptile that isn't necessarily sick, you are increasing the chances that the bacteria and parasites will grow an immunity to that medicine, making it worthless (for lack of better words)

But, the product is an anti-parasite and anti-bacterial food that is manufactured to promote good nutrition and health, while controlling internal ailments. It comes in a convenient pellet form for tortoises that is easy to feed to them.

The anti-parasite formula contains Metronidazole and Fenbendazole to help control roundworms, pinworms, hookworms, and other intestinal worms; the anti-bacterial formula contains Trimethoprim and Sodium Sulfadiazine to help control bacterial infections such as enteritis, septicemia, respiratory distress, external cuts, sores, and more.

Disclaimer: Please be aware that the advice in this article should in no way replace that of a licensed veterinarian. Consult a reptile veterinarian if you notice any abnormal behaviors in your tortoise that may lead you to believe that he has septicemia.


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    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 8 years ago from Georgia

      No tortoise should live in a small aquarium, much less an aquarium at all. The smallest pet tortoise that you'll find will range about 5-7 inches in length and will need a bare minimum of a 50 gallon tub, which is about 3.5 feet or so long, and personally this is a little small because they really need room to walk about.

    • satyam12 profile image

      satyam12 8 years ago from india

      tell me about small tortoises that live in small aquariums

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      I never knew so much about tortoises and found the reading very interesting. Thank you.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Tortoises are so amazing. Thanks for sharing so much solid, useful information regarding how to care for them, Whitney.