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Desert Tortoise Diseases/Infections

Respiratory Infections: The desert tortoise upper respiratory complex remains the most common and exasperating disease affecting this reptile.  Most experts agree that the disease is caused by a highly contagious virus.  Some apparently healthy tortoises probably carry the disease and can transmit it to other susceptible tortoises.  Some infected tortoises exhibit signs of only mild upper respiratory disease (usually a runny nose), while others suffer severe systemic (body-wide) complications of the liver, heart and/or kidneys, as well as those associated with overwhelming blood parasite infections.

The latter, more serious form of the disease resembles AIDS in people, because it appears that the immune system of afflicted individuals is severely compromised by the infection. Consequently, these tortoises are left virtually defenseless and therefore vulnerable to disease. There appears to be tremendous variability in an individual tortoise's ability to fight the effects of this devastating disease. There is no specific treatment for this disease at this time, though certain anti-viral medications show some promise. All candidates for treatment should be thoroughly evaluated by an experienced veterinarian.  This assessment should include a survey blood profile as well as culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing (if indicated and affordable). Treatment of affected tortoises is symptomatic and emphasizes supportive care, including vitamin injections, fluid therapy, nasal flushes, immune-stimulating drugs and force feeding. Antibiotic injections and topical antibiotics to treat the eyes and sinuses are extremely important to prevent and/or treat secondary bacterial infections. Owners of desert tortoises must be alert to the existence of this most serious disease.  All newly acquired tortoises should be promptly examined by a veterinarian and quarantined for at least six weeks.  Any tortoise showing signs of respiratory disease should be isolated from all others for an indefinite period. Recovered tortoises may remain lifetime carriers.

Internal Infections: A wide variety of bacterial infections occur in captive tortoises. Multiple organs are often involved. Liver and/or kidney disease is common because of the septic nature of tortoise diseases and the filtering action of these two organs.  Chronic hepatitis and chronic kidney disease are common.  Infections of the heart are also common.

Mouth Rot (Infectious Stomatitis): This condition can be the direct result of injury to the mouth and its lining or secondary to disease elsewhere in the body. Mouth rot should be treated locally (topically) as well as systemically to prevent internal abscesses.  Beak and jaw deformation may require periodic corrective trimming.