Turtles – Box - Problems

General Information

Turtles have several unique problems. Understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care issues.


Cystic Calculi

turtles-box-problems-1Commonly called bladder stones, these occur when minerals from the diet form crystals, which then form stones. This usually results from improper nutrition and limited access to fresh drinking water, leading to persistent dehydration.

If your turtle has cystic calculi, you may detect blood in your turtle's droppings. A physical examination, digital palpation and radiographs (X-rays) allow your veterinarian to diagnose this problem correctly. Surgical removal of the stones is needed, as is fluid therapy to prevent kidney damage. Your veterinarian will discuss dietary correction in an attempt to prevent future stones from forming.

The protective shell of a turtle makes surgery difficult. Two techniques are available for performing internal surgery. One technique involves cutting the shell and then repairing it following the procedure; the second technique involves making an incision in front of and through the muscles of the pelvis and hind limbs.



In turtles, a prolapse occurs when an organ (intestine, cloaca, urinary bladder, uterus or penis) protrudes from the vent (the opening in the underside of the tail where the turtle eliminates waste products from). In male turtles, the penis (which is a surprisingly large, black organ with a spade shaped end) may periodically be everted and become visible outside the body.

"An organ prolapse is a potentially life threatening problem and must be seen by a veterinarian immediately."

This is not a problem as long as the penis can go back in. If the penis stays out, it can become traumatized or can be bitten by another turtle; penile trauma is a serious problem. Regardless of the tissue or organ prolapsed, they can all be traumatized, become desiccated or dried out, or suffer from compromised blood flow. An organ prolapse is a potentially life threatening problem and must be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Irregular Shell Growth

If you notice that your turtle's shell is growing irregularly, it may be a sign of malnutrition and metabolic bone disease (MBD). By the time you notice this, the problem has been going on for quite a while and may have serious long term effects on the box turtle's health. The shell may be soft, may appear "lumpy" or strangely bumpy or may no longer be symmetrical. The problem may be due to an inappropriate diet, that may be too high in protein and fats or may have an incorrect vitamin and mineral balance. The lighting and environment may need adjusting. It is extremely important to bring this problem to the attention of a veterinarian familiar with box turtles.


Shell Fractures or Trauma

A box turtle's shell is remarkably strong but it can be traumatized. Wild turtles may be found on the side of the road having been hit by a car and they can have serious shell fractures. Turtles may accidentally be dropped, or may fall off a table if they escape from their cage or are left unattended. Pets such as the family dog have been known to chew on a helpless turtle, causing severe damage to the shell (or legs and head). Although these are serious injuries, the shell is bone and can be repaired. Any trauma to the shell should be brought to the attention of a veterinarian immediately.



Turtles are commonly incriminated as a cause of Salmonella bacterial infections in children. Salmonellosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans. Infected animals and people will shed the bacteria in their feces, serving as a source of infection to others. In susceptible people and animals, salmonellosis causes gastrointestinal disease, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, fever and/or septicemia (blood poisoning). Young children, the elderly and people who are immunocompromised are most at risk for developing severe disease. . Although turtles are certainly not the only pet or reptile that can carry Salmonella, most turtles carry the infection asymptomatically, which means that they do not show signs of illness.

During the mid-1970s, it was discovered that some infected young children contracted the disease from their pet turtles-box-problems-2turtles. Many of these children didn't exercise proper hygiene (such as washing their hands after handling the turtles and even placing the turtles in their mouths). Legislation was passed in the U.S.A. making it illegal to sell turtles with a shell length smaller than 4 inches (apparently turtles larger than this can't easily be placed in a child's mouth!) Before purchasing a turtle, check the laws in your municipality regarding legal ownership of pet turtles.

Prevention, through proper hygiene, is the best way to control this disease. Properly clean and disinfect the cage every time it is soiled. Clean up all feces right away. Have a separate cleaning area for people and reptiles. Most importantly, wash your hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap every time after handling, cleaning or feeding your box turtle to help minimize the risks.


"Most importantly, wash your hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap every time after handling, cleaning or feeding your box turtle to help minimize the risks."

Since most box turtles that carry Salmonella are not ill, they usually require no treatment (treatment is often unsuccessful in killing the bacteria anyway).



If given the opportunity, most wild box turtles will attempt to hibernate, depending on the subspecies and its native locale. In captivity, if the photoperiod (day length) is kept at 12-14 hours and the environmental conditions are warm, then hibernation is skipped. While controversial, many veterinarians feel that it is not necessary for the turtle's health that it hibernate, but some owners wish to provide suitable conditions for hibernating. If so, you should thoroughly discuss this with your veterinarian. Hibernation is very stressful, and sub-clinical illnesses can manifest themselves during hibernation.

Only turtles that are in well fed and in good health should be allowed to hibernate, so a thorough examination and appropriate laboratory tests are essential prior to hibernation!

A common problem in turtles is "pseudohibernation". True hibernation requires a constant temperature between 50o-60 o F (10 o -16 o C). Persistent temperatures above 60 o F (16 o C) are not cool enough for true hibernation. These animals appear as if they are hibernating, but in reality, the turtle's metabolism doesn't decrease and it slowly starves.



Dystocia or egg binding happens when the female box turtle is unable to pass her eggs. It is a reasonably common problem in reptiles and can be life threatening. It is caused by a variety of factors. Most commonly, it is associated with poor husbandry including improper environment, incorrect lighting and temperature, inadequate nesting sites, improper diet (malnutrition) and dehydration. Other contributing factors include the age and condition of the animal, injuries or physical obstruction from deformed or oversized eggs, physical abnormalities with the reproductive tract or pelvis, infections, constipation, abscesses or masses. A healthy gravid (with eggs) box turtle may not eat, but she will still be bright, active and alert. A gravid box turtle with dystocia is anorexic and rapidly becomes sick, lethargic or unresponsive. A veterinarian familiar with reptiles must examine this animal immediately. A physical examination, blood tests and X-rays are used to facilitate diagnosis. Medical and/or surgical procedures may be needed to help these animals.


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