As your turtle's or tortoise's caretaker, you are ultimately responsible for its good health. You aren't able to hear directly from your turtle or tortoise when it is unwell or has been hurt. In fact, your turtle or tortoise is genetically programmed to hide illnesses and injury, because in the wild, predators prey upon the weak.
However, if you set up a regular routine of examining your pet, you can spot problems before they get too serious. And if you select a veterinarian who's knowledgeable about the care and treatment that chelonians require, you'll have someone to turn to if a problem occurs.
Finding a veterinarian
Not all veterinarians are skilled in treating reptiles. Finding a veterinarian who likes turtles and tortoises and is knowledgeable about their care is vital — it's something you need to do before an emergency happens.
Some veterinarians who like working with exotics (including reptiles) advertise that fact in their ads in the Yellow Pages. In addition, if you have friends with turtles or tortoises, they may be able to recommend a vet to you. Local turtle and tortoise clubs also maintain listings of reputable veterinarians.
The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) is for veterinarians who have an interest or specialize in working with reptiles. This association may be able to help you find a qualified veterinarian in your area. You can also check out the American Veterinary Medical Association for assistance in finding a qualified reptile vet in your area.
There's a difference between a veterinarian who's knowledgeable about reptiles, a vet who likes working with reptiles, and a vet who's actually a specialist. For a veterinarian to be called a specialist, he or she must pass a specialty board in that particular specialty.
After you find vet who is experienced, is knowledgeable, and/or specializes in reptiles (or turtles and tortoises), make an appointment to talk to him or her before you have an emergency. Introduce yourself and tell the doctor about your pets and your plans for them. (Are they pets only, or do you plan to breed them?) Ask the vet about his or her policies regarding appointments, emergencies, billing, and so on.
A veterinarian is your partner in pet ownership. Having a veterinarian whom you can call not just in emergencies, but whenever you have concerns, will help you take care of your pets in the best way possible.
Ask to see the vet's facilities as well. Do you see cages for reptiles with supplemental light and heat, or are reptiles kept in dog and cat cages? Is the hospital equipped to use Isoflourane gas (currently the best anesthesia for reptiles)?
Talk to the vet, too, about his or her charges. What do a normal office call and an exam cost, and how much are the most common tests, including fecal tests for internal parasites? In some areas, veterinary charges are as expensive as physicians' charges! Make sure that you can afford this vet's services.
Keeping your pet healthy is the best way to prevent illness. Correct caging, heating, lighting, humidity, and nutrition are vital to your pet's overall good health — if you don't deliver even one of these needs, your pet's health can suffer. But preventing illness involves more than that. Keeping your pet's environment clean is also important, and by keeping the environment clean, you can prevent the spread of salmonella — a potential threat to you as well as your pet.
Vaccinations aren't yet available for turtles or tortoises, but your pets can live a long life without them. It's up to you to make sure that happens!
Maintaining a clean environment
In the wild, turtles and tortoises have a home range or territory, but they move around. They don't stay in the same spot day after day after day, and they certainly don't eat anywhere near their feces. In a cage or enclosure, the area where a turtle or tortoise defecates and the area where it eats are pretty close to one another, which can cause significant health problems.
Keep the cage or enclosure clean. Scoop feces daily (if not more often) and replace cage substrate (the stuff you put on the floor of the cage) often. Replace water and throw out food that has been soiled with feces, is old, or contains meat.
Preventing the spread of salmonella
About 20 years ago, selling turtles less than 4 inches long was made illegal. This was the result of many cases of salmonella that were associated with tiny red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans), which were sold everywhere, even at five-and-dime stores. Some of the cases of salmonella (but certainly not all) were probably directly related to the turtles, because turtles can carry salmonella.
Of course, salmonella can be carried in other ways, too, including through other animals and feces. People have been infected from improperly refrigerated foods and foods contaminated during processing. Even contaminated water can carry salmonella. However, salmonella can be carried by reptiles and is found in aquatic turtles, box turtles, and iguanas.
Don't take salmonella lightly. Although healthy adults can fight off a mild case without showing any significant symptoms, young children, elderly people, and those with suppressed immune systems are at grave risk. The symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, bloody stools, and fever. Severe cases may turn into meningitis and encephalitis. If you or someone in your home becomes unexpectedly ill and you have a new turtle, make sure to tell your physician about your turtle!
Although many turtles show no signs of illness when carrying salmonella, some turtles with weakened immune systems may become ill from it. Veterinarians can test to see whether a turtle has salmonella, but unfortunately, treatments are rarely effective. Most animals carrying the disease are euthanized, although salmonella is sometimes treatable with antibiotics.
You can prevent salmonella infections by keeping cages and enclosures very clean and by picking up leftover food and feces right away. Always dispose of feces in a sealed plastic bag; don't add feces to your backyard compost heap. Wash cage furnishings and dishes someplace other than the kitchen sink. Use bleach when cleaning the cage furnishings and dishes and rinse them well. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet or touching anything in the cage. And teach other family members, especially kids, to do the same.