Respiratory Infections

Tortoises can get
infections and disease in their lungs, throat or head. caused by
viruses, fungi, or even poor husbandry- things like poor diet or low
Commonly called ‘Respiratory Infections’ or RI’s, there are actually two
different diseases depending on where they are centered. An infection
in the lungs would be Pneumonia,
or Lower Respiratory Tract Disease
. 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
show, and in the case of URTD, the bacteria is resistant to drugs. Both
very contagious and all reptiles in an enclosure should be tested. The
treatment usually tries to use medicine to reduce the pathogen load and
secondary issues, cleaning the habitat and practicing good hygiene to
reduce the pathogen load and prevent reinfection, and doing what we can
boost the tortoise’s immune system.

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 and so on.



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

  • 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

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, things like stress, increased pathogen
in the habitat (due to poor hygiene or introducing an infected
tortoise), poor
temperature control, poor diet, and so forth are possible causes.



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


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

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.


4-17-2012 (C) Mark Adkins