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Swollen Eyes in Red Eared Sliders and other Aquatic Turtles

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Swollen, inflamed eyes are commonly seen in a wide variety of captive turtles.  Strangely, the hardy Red Eared Slider seems especially prone to this annoying and potentially life-threatening condition (as we’ll see, popular feeding practices may partially explain this).  From childhood through my career as a herpetologist, standard wisdom has blamed the condition on a Vitamin A deficiency. Today we also know that poor water quality is responsible for many, if not most, of the eye problems seen in Sliders, Cooters, Painted Turtles and similar species.  In this article we will look at the symptoms, causes, prevention and treatment of various turtle eye maladies.

HAIDEN , TURTLE, CLOSESymptoms

Most eye problems first manifest as a slight but noticeable puffiness of the eyelids.  Vitamin A deficiencies and fungal/bacterial infections can cause tissue within and around the eyes to degrade.  As a result, epithelial cell “debris” collects along the eye rims and under the lids. Pressure and irritation causes the lids and tear ducts to swell.

At first, an afflicted turtle may paw at its eyes but otherwise behave normally.  In time, swelling will increase and the animal will be unable to open its eyes.  Even if the condition originally began as a nutritional deficiency, bacterial and/or fungal infections often take hold at this point, causing the turtle to become listless and decline further in condition.

Vitamin A Deficiencies

Red Eared Sliders, Painted and Map Turtles, Cooters and many others begin life as carnivores but gradually shift to a plant-based diet as they mature.  When purchased as hatchlings, many such turtles become accustomed to eating insects, fish, earthworms and high protein turtle chows, and steadfastly refuse to accept Vitamin A-rich greens as they reach adulthood.  Efforts must be made to introduce these healthy foods early, and reluctant adults must be “re-educated”.  Please see this article for further information.

Preventing Vitamin A Deficiencies

While kale, collard greens, dandelion and similar foods are the best sources of Vitamin A (technically, they supply Beta Carotene, a precursor to the vitamin), turtle chows and pellets should also be considered as sources.  Always choose products offered by well-respected companies, such as Tetra, Zoo Med, Exo-terra and HikariI have long relied upon Reptomin and, more recently, on various Zoo Med products for the turtles under my care at home and in zoos.

The proper use of vitamin supplements such as ReptiVite can also go a long way in assuring good eye health.  Please post below if you have any questions or related observations.

Pet Slider Basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Beeblebrox

Treating Vitamin A Deficiencies

 

Adding the proper foods to your turtle’s diet can halt and reverse an early stage Vitamin A deficiency.  If the condition is advanced, however, or if the turtle has other health problems, Vitamin A injections will be necessary.  Please post below if you need help in locating a vet experienced in turtle medicine.

Commercial turtle eye washes can be used to flush and moisten eye tissue, but are not effective in supplying Vitamin A.

Eye Infections

Vitamin A deficiencies have declined among turtles in recent years, due to our increased knowledge of their dietary needs, and the availability of high quality commercial pellets.  Judging from the questions I receive from readers, it seems that poor water quality is a leading cause of swollen eyes in aquatic turtles. Aquatic turtles are messy feeders.  Water contaminated by leftover food and waste products provides an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria and fungi, some of which can invade the eye.

Opportunistic bacteria and fungi, which are always present in turtle tanks, often attack the eyes of Vitamin A-deficient turtles.  Veterinarians usually check for this possibility when treating such turtles, especially if Vitamin A injections do not reverse the symptoms.

Preventing Eye Infections

Proper filtration, or the use of a plastic enclosure that can be easily dumped and cleaned, is essential to the good health of all turtles.  Even with excellent filtration (I favor the ZooMed Turtle Clean), however, I always advise turtle owners to feed their pets in a separate feeding enclosure rather than in the aquarium.  I have found this to be the single most important step that can be taken to improve water quality.  Please see the articles linked below for information on useful filters and feeding techniques.

Good health and a strong immune system will go a long way in helping your turtle fight off harmful micro-organisms.  In addition to clean water, always provide heat, UVB exposure and nutrition that are appropriate to the species you keep.  Please see this article for information on the proper care of Sliders and similar turtles, and post questions concerning other species below.

Fla Redbelly Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by JamieS93

Treating Eye Infections

Infections may respond to antibacterial/antifungal drops and creams, but resistant pathogens are always a possibility.  Infections that have become systemic (established within the body) must be treated with injectable medications.

Other Causes of Swollen Eyes

Turtles lose water through the eye tissue at a rapid rate…at least 2/3 greater than by other forms of diffusion.  While dehydration is not usually a concern in healthy turtles, ailing, listless specimens may be at risk.  Dehydrated turtles often exhibit swollen eyes.

Swollen or inflamed eyes may also be associated with traumatic injuries (bite wounds, poking eye on wood), debris under the lid and ear infections (particularly common in American Box Turtles, Terrapene spp.).

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Rating Turtle Filters

Water Quality in Turtle Aquariums

 

41 comments

  1. avatar

    As a reptile rehabilitator, aquatic turtles are one of the most common patients I deal with, and I almost never find an eye problem with a wild specimen, even when I’ve had to hold them more than a year in captivity for rehab. I find this issue commonly when the layperson keeps one as a pet though. As a rehabber, with about 10 years in the study and practice of reptile medicine, in my opinion, vitamin A deficiency is an oft given knee jerk diagnosis, which is also most often WRONG. Rarely, if ever, will the average veterinarian actually perform the necessary serum retinol labs to actually confirm this, and in many cases they prescribe and administer harmful or deadly vitamin A injections.

    Since even most commercial pellet diets are fortified with vitamin A (not the best food source IMO, but they are supplemented), hypovitaminosis A is a cop-out and usually the wrong answer. In my experience, most of these eye issues in captive chelonians of all types, can be more so attributed to poor water quality, improperly low terrarium and water temperatures, and respiratory infections often brought about by same. It is a little known fact to most people, including the average veterinarian, that one of the most common initial symptoms of respiratory illness in reptiles, is bilateral eye symptoms. I can’t tell you how many people have consulted me after initially seeing a non-reptile specialized vet, who prescribed 2 weeks of antibiotic eye drops and Vitamin A injection, and the turtle only got worse. In many of these cases, I determined within 5 minutes of seeing the turtle that RI was the most likely cause, and the turtle recovered with either IM antibiotics or nebulization therapy, and a boost in terrarium and/or water temperatures. – Mike WFRR, Lafebervet.com contributor.

  2. avatar

    Hello Mike,

    Thanks for your interest. As mentioned in the article, Vitamin A-related ailments seem to be declining, with water quality remaining as a significant factor. certainly heat etc. is often involved as well. I can’t speak to the knee-jerk type responses you mention; however, Vitamin A has been accurately deficiencies have, over the course of my long career, been accurately diagnosed and treated by vet at the Bronx Zoo and others where I have worked. I’m not sure how/if this relates to private practice, although I do know many that are competent to make the distinctions mentioned. best regards, Frank.

  3. avatar

    As it relates to private practice vs. a zoological setting, hypovitaminosis A is often diagnosed in shoot from the hip manner (or knee jerk if you like) in private practices, without the hard diagnostics to establish it. This is what I mean. In private practice, it’s overly attributed as an ailment in my experience. In some cases this is due to private practice veterinarians having packed appointment books and moving patients and clients through in expeditious manner and not wishing to perform venipuncture for the test (which is not as easily accomplished for non-exotic specialized veterinarians who aren’t familiar with venipuncture locations in reptiles), and, in some cases this is due to clients not wishing to pay the added costs associated with a blood lab in order to confirm that the deficiency actually exists. In those cases, it becomes a best guess. I always advocate for extreme caution and serum tests to confirm where possible, since pure vitamin A has a low safe dosing margin and can cause a slow and painful death if overdosed. Cases of injury and death to chelonians from iatrogenic vitamin A are well documented.

    “When a chelonian is presented with blepharitis and ocular or nasal discharge, it has been many veterinarians’ misassumption that it is caused by hypovitaminosis A. Without proper investigation, parenteral or oral vitamin A supplementation is administered, and hypervitaminosis may occur. (Boyer, 1996a; Frye, 1991; Kaplan, 2002; Tabaka, 2003) Additionally, suggested doses of vitamin A vary in veterinary literature, and most commercially prepared forms are designed for large animals, so dosage errors occur, even when the diagnosis is correct. (Boyer, 1996a; Merck and Co., Inc., 2003)”
    http://herptiles.consulnetjdm.dyndns.org:8081/iatrohypera.html

  4. avatar

    As a homeopath I always want to boost the immune system from within, instead of fighting against something. So I try to avoid antibiotics…. In one of my hobby’s the aquatic turtles play an important role. After many years of good health and happyness, one of the yellow-bellied ones had a blepharitis, all of a sudden. The other one was lively and basking, while the sick one was hiding under a stone and refused food. Good food, waterquality, temperature and light: it was and is all there. So what now? Driving to a vet, long distance, stress for my my swimming friend? I repertorised the complaint and came to give her one globule of 30C Aconite – hidden in a dried cranberry. 10 minutes later she wanted to eat more. One week later the blepharitis was all gone and the animal behaves normally since. Well maybe this is worth a try for others. Homeopathy works for not only for people, but on animals too and is easy and friendly to administer!

  5. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks for the interesting observation. For animals in general and reptiles in particular, proper environmental conditions are indeed “medication” in their own right. When I first started out in the zoo field, we had no choice for many species, as most of the disease etc to afflict them were not well-understood. Today, when medicine is needed, experienced vets advise as to appropriate temps, diet, habitat, etc as well. That being said, it’s important to bear in mind that alternative remedies have not, in most cases, been well-researched, and that there is an immense bod o knowledge concerning the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of a wide array of reptile diseases, parasites, etc. Also, all, especially turtles, carry Salmonella and other potentially harmful micro-organisms as a normal part of the gut flora, and harmful, opportunistic bacteria, fungi etc are always present in terrariums, no matter how well maintained. Any health problem can affect the immune system and allow other micro-organisms attack etc. Also, alternative or traditional medications that kill off one pathogen can set up a population explosion in others, that then become harmful. Except for long-used diet modifications or temperature changes, etc, I do not recommend experimentation without consulting an experienced veterinarian. Not always available, I realize, but local vets are able to consult with recognized experts. Good luck and enjoy, Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    I just wanted to offer to Jolly, that homeopathy and allopathy is quite different with people than it is with reptiles. Humans come down with infections all the time and recover in many cases without the need for antibiotics or allopathic medicine, but this isn’t really the case with reptiles. The reptile immune system is great at preventing illnesses from occurring in the first place, but once a systemic infection takes hold, it is nearly always a life threatening matter that almost never resolves on it’s own, and this is typically because the immune system of the reptile is already quite compromised, and because of the low metabolic rate of the reptile, which directly affects immune response time. When a reptile develops a systemic infection, this is not the time for experimentation with human homeopathy. Experience and sound exotic veterinary science conclusively shows that, in the reptile, this is the time for systemic antimicrobials – due to the reptile immune compromise and it’s lowered responsiveness after the fact due to lowered metabolic activity. If the infection is bacterial in nature, then bactericidal rather than bacteriostatic medications should be used. I have treated and rehabilitated thousands of reptiles over the past decade and have seen many times the outcomes in multiple scenarios, with and without intervention.
    Mike – Reptile rehabilitator and Lafebervet.com content contributor

  7. avatar

    Thanks for your input, Mike. I’ve worked closely with our vets at the Bronx Zoo for over 20 years, and in other zoos; my experience bears out your observations, If symptoms appear, medical treatment is necessary. Low level infections do seem to be handled by the immune system in healthy animals in some cases (as per evidence from autopsies, etc., but an animal that appears unwell should be seen by a vet, and not treated with homeopathic remedies, etc. Best, Frank

  8. avatar

    I can’t afford to take my turtle to see a Vet.Is there any home remedys that I can do at home to treat his eyes?I’m very concern about my buddy Cecil.Please in need of help, and advise.

  9. avatar

    Hello Karen,

    Zoo Med’s Turtle Eye Drops may help if the inflammation is mild, but if no improvement is seen then veterinary attention would be necessary.

    Please post some details as to filtration, diet, UVB exposure, water and basking site temperature, as each of these can impact eye health. I’ll go over these with you and we can see if any changes might be useful.

    Best, Frank

  10. avatar

    I wouldn’t even bother with those eye drops, honestly. They’re going to be virtually useless unless this is a terrestrial turtle. One should not have a pet if you can’t afford a vet. This message is important to get across in my opinion, otherwise we are showing there is a reward for irresponsible stewardship and lack of preparation when one obtains a reptile.

    That said, provide that background that Frank suggested. Based on my experience, it’s almost a certainty that you don’t have proper filtration, basking/UVB, and/or water temperature. Once a symptom of illness presents though, it’s unlikely to reverse without vet treatment, and home remedies are almost always a waste of time, and a waste of the animal’s time. All of your environmental conditions would have to be at correct baselines first before any diagnosis could be made (and done fairly quickly), and if they are correct/ed and the symptoms don’t abate in a matter of 2-3 days, then you are going to need a trip to a vet because it’s likely already gone from a simple case of irritation or hypothemia, to a case of infection.

  11. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks for your interest. The drops can be useful if, as stated, the irritation is mild; of course, most such problems are bacterial in origin, or related to Vitamin A and perhaps other deficiencies, so the writer was also directed to seek vet assistance. I’ll post updates if they are provided,

    Best, Frank

  12. avatar

    Hello Sir,

    My turtle is having puff and reddish eyes for last few days and she does not open her both eyes. Even she is not eating for last 3 days. Problem is increasing day by day.

    We met two different doctors. One is saying she has vitamin A problem and other is saying she has infection. Both are asking to give injections.

    Is it infection or problem related to Vitamin A? I am attaching our turtles picture. Please guide me as it is a matter of my turtles life.

    Thank you,

  13. avatar

    Hello,

    Unfortunately there’s no way to diagnose via a photo…both infections and Vit A deficiencies are common, and they can occur together. One doctor can generally treat both…may start by treating one possibility, then the other. I hope all goes well, frank

  14. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Thanks for your response. I hope treatment goes well. I am also trying to find some Infection related medicine, multivitamin liquid and vitamin A liquid so at least I can give my turtle a long with water. Do you know any? Plus are both treatment ok or injuries to her health?

  15. avatar

    Hi Shah,

    Drops such as these are useful to relieve irritation but you’ll need an antibiotic if an infection is present. Good water quality is essential in avoiding bacterial infections…feed outside of the tank, partial water changes, strong filtration, etc.

    Vitamins/minerals best provided by a healthful diet. Whole fresh water minnows or similar fish essential, earthworms and a high quality diet such as Reptomin should form a large part of the diet, along with some greens; please see this article. Please send some details as to diet, temperature, UVB exposure, filtration so that we can review,

    I hope all goes well, Frank

  16. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    First of all thanks for your wishes and quick reply.

    She takes Shrimps only. She does not eat anything else. temperature and UVB are normal. We keep her on floor most time. We feed her in water tank. Does Reptomin consider Vitamin A?

  17. avatar

    Hello Shah,

    My pleasure…

    Shrimp alone will not support good health long-term. Keep the turtle hungry (once the health problems are taken care of) and it will take other foods…never fails, and you’ll do it no harm, as they are very good at storing and living off reserves. Reptomin has Vit A, but whole fishes etc are needed as well…bones esp. impt as a calcium source. be sure basking site is as described in article, and that site is as close to UVB bulb as manufacturer recommends. Best, Frank

  18. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    We kept her hungry for few days before but she did not take other foods that’s why we started shrimps again. Here Fishes and bones are tough to get as turtle food. They do have the best food and it is shrimps. No other choice.

  19. avatar
    Dr Balbir Singh

    My 2 years old Tortoise have Swollen & respiratory disease.What medicine i Should give him for cure.Kindly advise

  20. avatar

    Hello,

    Baytil is often used but the bacteria or virus/fungus involved should be identified prior to treatment, as not all respond. It would be essential to consult with an experienced reptile veterinarian. best regards, Frank

  21. avatar

    my turtle is having swollen eyes lids are shut down and it does not open its eyes frequently can u please suggest me any treatment

  22. avatar

    Hello,

    If an inflammation is involved, some Boric Acid in water can be useful, but a vet exam would be necessary to see if there are other causes..bacterial infections and a Vitamin A deficiency can also cause this; lack of sunlight or a UVB bulb can also contribute. Please feel free to send info as to species, diet, UVB exposure, temperature, etc. Best, Frank

  23. avatar

    Frank,

    You already helped me before for my turtle jenny. Again I need your help as soon as possible.

    I need urgent help of yours. My turtle jenny is having some serious problem. When she does urine or toilet she keeps out something black from her tail and after finishing urine or toilet she takes it in. Since past few hours that black is out and she is not able to take it in. It seems its swelling.

    Please help me with that.

  24. avatar

    Hello,

    It is likely a prolapse of the cloaca…sometimes this is aggravated by retained eggs, but not always; if the turtle has been mis-identified and is a male, it could be the hemipenes (sexual organ). Either way, veterinary attention is needed. Do not feed the turtle until it is seen…please let me know if you need help in locating an experienced veterinarian. I hope all goes well, Frank

  25. avatar

    Frank,

    I need to send you couple of her snaps with her recent situation. Where exactly should I send? We have seen the vet and she provided a cream and ask us to applied ice, glycerine and sugar syrup. Please suggest me an experienced veterinarian as soon as possible.

  26. avatar

    Hello,

    No need to send photos, no way to diagnose via photo and treatments for the 2-3 possibilities are similar. Topical treatments can be useful, but more intensive work needed if condition does not resolve quickly…infections common, so antibiotics generally prescribed as well. Let me know where you are located and I’ll check for vet contacts, best, Frank

  27. avatar

    I am located at Ahmedabad city, Gujarat State India.

  28. avatar

    Hello,

    Unfortunately, I have only one listing for India. if this office is not near to you, perhaps the doctor can offer some advice to your local doctor, or can refer you to a nearby experienced veterinarian. I hope all goes well:
    http://www.herpvetconnection.com/india.shtml

  29. avatar

    It is very far however I am contacting them. Thanks for your help Frank.

  30. avatar

    Sorry I could not be of more help; keep up with the medications you have on hand, and please keep me posted, best regards, Frank

  31. avatar

    I will try my level best to keep her well. She is a piece of my heart.

  32. avatar

    I hope she recovers…I’m sure you’re doing all that can be done. Please keep me posted, best regards, Frank

  33. avatar

    I need help =( my turtle isn’t eating anything. It’s eyes are cloudy and It isn’t active. I can’t take It to vet. My parents are out of city. It’s upsetting me. Can’t I apply any home remedy? Please help.

  34. avatar

    Hello,

    You’ll need to bring it to a vet when possible; pl let me know if you need help in locating a local office.

    Until then, boric acid (avail at pharmacy) used as described for people, as an eye wash, may give some relief. You might also try turtle eye drops , available at some pet stores, but neither will likely cure the condition.

    Please send info about your aquarium/care – temperature, filtration, UVB exposure, diet etc and we can review; problems in these areas are usually behind eye infections. Best, Frank

  35. avatar

    I had bought my turtle in mid of August. I fed It the food I had got from pet shop. But sometimes I can if boiled peas to eat.I changed it’s water once a day. Either just after waking up Or exactly before sleeping. And sometimes whenever I was free and I felt the water has tobcnged, I did. The temperature, it’s mostly active in warm water. But the temperature of water decreases whenever It is left for longer hours. None of my room is warm and if any room is warm, that’s my store room and I don’t keep my turtle in dark. Whenever I see the temp of water decreases, I change the water. I have a pet shop near by I can go there but vet shops are very far.
    I am in Saudi Arabia and I don’t mind purchasing medicins online. And thank you for your quick reply.

  36. avatar

    Hello,

    Your welcome.

    It’s important to give this species small whole fishes on occasion, as a source of calcium, and also exposure to UVB radiation. In the wild, turtles bask in the sun; window glass filters the UVB, so direct exposure is necessary (and a dry basking area); or you can purchase a reptile UVB bulb online. Please see this article for more on care, and let me know if you need further info.

    Here is an example of eye drops that are sold in the USA, perhaps you can find something similar locally. Allowing the turtle to dry off, and providing sun or UVB via bulb, may be helpful at this point.

    Best regards, Frank

  37. avatar

    thanks a ton! I wanted to take my turtle out to a garden so It enjoys a little in the sun and sand. I will surely do It as soon as possible. Does canned tuna work?

  38. avatar

    My pleasure. Small whole fishes with bones are best…pet stores may sell inexpensive goldfish or guppies as “feeders” for larger fish; these would be ideal for the turtle. Freeze-dried shrimp, also sold for tropical fishes, are also good, but fishes are preferable. best, Frank

  39. avatar

    Hey my little turtle has his eyes shut close what do I do help.

  40. avatar

    Hello,

    It’s not possible to diagnose by symptoms alone…a vet exam would b needed. Please let me know if you need help in locating an experienced vet. In the meantime, feel free to send me some specifics and I’ll see if any changes to care are needed…species, temperature, UVB exposure, diet, etc. Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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