Respiratory Infections

Tortoises can get infections and disease in their lungs, throat or head. caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or even poor husbandry which would include poor diet or low temps. Commonly called “Respiratory Infections” or RI’s, there are actually two different diseases depending on where they are centered. An infection centered in the lungs would be Pneumonia, or Lower Respiratory Tract Disease (LRTD). One centered in the head and neck is Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD), sometimes called Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS). While all reptiles can get LRTD, only tortoises seem to get URTD, and URTD is what most tortoise keepers mean when they mention RI.

Sadly, both URTD and LRTD can be fatal since the disease is often well-advanced before symptoms show, and in the case of URTD, the bacteria is resistant to drugs. Both are very contagious and all reptiles in an enclosure should be tested. The treatment usually involves the use of medicine to reduce the pathogen load and treat secondary issues, cleaning the habitat and practicing good hygiene to further reduce the pathogen load and prevent reinfection, and doing what we can to boost the tortoise’s immune system. Tortoise.Org has a great article on URTD as well!

Pneumonia or LRTD


Bacteria, such as E. coli species and other gram-negative bacteria; retroviruses and the Herpesvirus; fungi like Aspergillis and Candida; insufficient vitamin A and protein in the diet; low habitat temperatures; mites.


Common symptoms are not necessarily obvious or distinctive, and generally include:

  • Open-mouth breathing or troubled breathing.
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, poor general health.
  • Nasal discharge (more likely for URTD).


  • Veterinary tests (x-rays, samples) can confirm that it is a LRTD and what the root causes are.
  • The vet will recommend a course of action based on the causes. It is important to follow the recommendations carefully to have the best chance at fighting this dangerous disease.
  • Any medications, such as antibiotics, the vet recommends should be used exactly as described for the best results.
  • Have other tortoises checked.
  • Disinfect and clean the habitat.
  • Boost habitat temperatures and provide other nursing support.

“Runny Nose Syndrome” or URTD

URTDs are the most common forms of ‘Respiratory Infection’ in tortoises and should be considered much more serious than the “head cold” or “flu” it is often compared to. It is thought that the bacteria exists naturally in many species of tortoise, and that the bacterial colony will “bloom” under certain conditions. While no one knows for sure what triggers the disease, elements like stress, increased pathogen counts in the habitat (due to poor hygiene or introducing an infected tortoise), poor temperature control, and poor diet, are likely candidates.


It is usually a bacteria called Mycoplasma that few antibiotics affect. Other bacteria, viruses, or fungi, as well as poor diet, temperature control, and hygiene can make things worse or cause secondary infections.


  • Discharges from the nares (nostrils) and/or eyes.
  • Puffiness around the eyes. May have difficulty opening the eyes.
  • Eroded nares, often with grooves developing around the openings.
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss.
  • General poor health.


Treatment is about the same as for LRTD above. There is no known specific treatment for URTD because the primary bacteria cannot be managed with antibiotics. Most of the treatment focuses on treating secondary infections and boosting the immune system.

Only about 20% of tortoises seem to get completely over this and completely get rid of the infection. The other survivors carry the germs for years. Sadly, quite a few tortoises will not survive.


Edited 4-17-2012 (C) Mark Adkins