Turtles & Tortoises For Dummies
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Sometimes, being a herp owner seems to require more knowledge upfront than you might have. You can discover a lot, however, about what to expect from your herp by watching him as he feeds, sleeps, moves about his cage, and interacts with you. Becoming familiar with herp behavior is a learning curve, but it's not a steep one.

Here's a quick list of symptoms that you ought not to try to correct on your own. Your veterinarian is your best friend, and she or he can help your herp and, in so doing, help you.

Rasping breath and wheezing

Typical symptoms of a respiratory infection are wheezing, bubbles visible at the nostrils, and a gaping mouth. Your reptile has the equivalent of severe pneumonia, and he's distinctly uncomfortable. By the time you see these symptoms, your herp has passed the point of being able to get rid of this infection on his own. Snakes have only one functional lung, so they have no backup at all. Take him to your vet, correct your pet's day/night cage temperatures, and (for arid-land species) perhaps decrease the humidity in the cage.

Swollen limbs

Puffy arms and legs are one sad symptom of metabolic bone disease (MBD). With MBD, the bones in the body become weakened because there isn't enough calcium in the diet, and the herp hasn't been able to sun. In an effort to restore strength in the weakened limbs, the body adds fibrous tissue to the muscles. This extra tissue puffs up the limbs, and they look chubby.

With UV, calcium supplements, and a proper diet, the strength can be restored to the bones, but certain deformities, such as a curved spine and shortened jaw, are there to stay. Take your herp to the veterinarian, buy some UV lights, read up on this disease, and provide a better diet.

Prolonged failure to feed

Some herps are reluctant feeders, and this habit can drive their owners right up the walls of their own caging. Temperature and seasonal changes may affect feeding habits.

If, during warm weather and a natural long day cycle, your pet fasts for a long time, take it to a vet. Follow these guidelines:

  • A snake fasts for more than a month
  • A lizard for more than three days
  • A turtle/tortoise for more than a week
  • A frog or salamander from a temperate area for more than two weeks
  • A frog or salamander from tropical areas for more than a week

Mechanical damage

Sometimes, a body part on a herp breaks, due to trauma. Damage can be as minor as a broken toenail or as serious as a broken back. The good news is that with proper medical care and a good diet, recovery is rapid and complete.

  • Cracked shell on a turtle: This problem can be a real sleeper. Turtles can sustain considerable damage to their shells and survive. On the other hand, they can suffer a hairline crack and die from an infection. From the outside, you can't tell what sort of damage has been done inside. Don't take a chance. Take the turtle to your veterinarian; he or she has a host of ways to repair broken turtle shells.
  • Burns: Herps can be burned by lying against exposed light bulbs or exposed heating elements, or by a hot rock that gets too hot. Their skin doesn't react to burns the way mammalian skin reacts. Your vet will treat the burn and deal with threatened infections. (Burn-damaged skin shouts "Welcome!" to bacteria and other infectious agents.) You'll need to locate the equipment that caused the problem and remove it or shield it against your herp.
  • Bites: Reptiles bite each other. They tend to get lively ("Get that thing off my leg!") during breeding season. Males fight, shoving each other around and adding biting to the action when shoving doesn't produce a clear-cut winner. Males hang on to the females with their teeth before and during copulation — when you don't have hands, you gotta make do.
    Intended prey can bite herps. For example, a chick designated as food may peck a herp, or a mouse or rat left in the cage may nibble a herp, which is why prekilled prey is recommended. Bite damage can be extensive, particularly if it occurs on the head or in an area of limited circulation, such as the tail. Infection is a typical result. Your veterinarian will assess the damage and fix what can be fixed; surgery may be needed.
  • Broken limb or tail: Captive lizards, larger lizards in particular, may break a limb in the day-to-day routine of their lives, but this injury should not occur under your safekeeping. If your lizard has broken a limb, take the animal to the veterinarian and assess the diet you've been using. Your pet may be suffering from metabolic bone disease (MBD), which weakens the bones and makes them subject to breakage.

Fungus on an amphibian or turtle

Fungus spores are everywhere. Like salmonella, fungus is an opportunistic infectious agent. If the skin of an amphibian is damaged or breached, or if turtles are kept in dirty water that isn't changed regularly, the spores are right there, ready to move in, hatch, set up housekeeping, and pop out thousands and thousands of their own tiny spore babies to populate their new home. Cleanliness is critical, so keep all herps that live in water under very clean conditions. Any signs of external fungus (you don't know what's going on inside the animal) need prompt evaluation and treatment.

Swollen eyes on a turtle

Swollen eyes are usually an indication of a vitamin imbalance and/or starvation. Clean the caging, offer fresh food and sunlight, and get an evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment plan from your veterinarian.

External parasites

Ticks and mites are an irritant and can be dealt with by using anti-tick and anti-mite medications. If the problem is severe, or if your methods don't end the problem after two weeks of use, talk to your veterinarian. Ticks can harbor diseases that other animals can contract, so don't mess around with this problem. Remove and kill every tick, and if the problem is mites, treat your animal appropriately.


Herps that are unresponsive are close to death. If your herp sleeps a lot, if he doesn't pull his leg back from you when you take it in your fingers and give a gentle tug, if he lies in his cage without moving or feeding, you get moving. The cause may be any of the following:

  • Starvation: Either the herp hasn't been fed, or he's been offered the wrong foods and refused to feed as a result.
  • Avitaminosis: Your herp is lacking one or more vitamins.
  • Temperatures that are too cool: The animal literally cannot move; his muscles are shut down until he gets warmer.
  • Dehydration: The herp has too little moisture in his body. Either he hasn't been offered water he can drink, or he can't drink because he's been too cold, too long.

Whatever the cause, if your herp is unresponsive, take him to the vet pronto!

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