Most people who don’t keep tortoises and turtles are probably under the impression that they are quite difficult to injure, because they seem to be quite well protected in their ‘armour plating’. In fact, the shells are relatively fragile and if broken or cracked can easily become infected with potentially serious results. Also although the legs (and in the case of the pig nosed turtle, flippers) are also fairly thick skinned, a determined bite can break through the skin which may also give rise to infection. When the scratch or bite comes from another animal, infection can be very severe and may even develop into full blown septicaemia.
What to do if your tortoise or turtle is injured
If you keep more than one turtle or tortoise it will probably only be a matter of time before they fight, even if it is only in ‘play’. Sometimes you will get an individual who is aggressive with its companions – this happens more with some species than others – and the only solution to this is to separate it, especially if it is picking on one individual. This can be quite serious as not only will the victim pick up more than its fair share of cuts and bites, but it will also become quite stressed as well, making it rather more prone to infections taking hold. If the injury is more severe, then specialist veterinary help is essential.
Some tortoises can be horribly injured by dog bites and accidents with garden equipment, but perhaps the worst thing is if the animal is attacked by rats while it is hibernating. This often is fatal and is not discovered until spring, but sometimes the damage happens just as the animal is waking and then it can be treated. The problem with dog and rat bites is that there is an enormous risk of infection from the bacteria in the aggressor’s mouth, and also the shock to the bitten victim. Whatever the cause, if the injury is serious, the vet must be consulted at once.
Treatment of minor cuts
The perennial problem of how to keep any topical treatment on an aquatic turtle can be easily solved by soaking the animal in a weak bath of antibiotic for ten minutes twice a day. Make sure the water is very shallow and ensure that the injured part is well soaked with the solution and this should sort out any minor cuts, bites and abrasions. Turtles and tortoises do heal quite well if left to themselves and so the main task is to keep the habitat clean so that any opportunistic bacteria or fungi – or in the case of turtles, algae – can’t get into the lesion and start an infection.
This may mean separating the injured animal for a while, but it is worth it to get a good outcome. For a land animal there are many different creams and ointments to speed healing and you can get the right one from the vet. Whenever treating animals it is essential to get advice from an expert before using any medication and it is never a good idea to use a medicine prescribed for one animal on another. In some cases, giving the wrong thing can be very quickly fatal.
Treatment of serious bites
If your tortoise has had a close encounter with a dog or lawnmower, the results are often horrific. The important thing is not to panic, but to calmly get it to the vet. There are many specialists who will repair, or guide a repair to a shell using artificial epoxy resins and infills, but this usually has to wait until any underlying infection has resolved. If the damage is so bad that the repair has to take place, it is usually made temporary, so that the injury site can still be accessed. Although these repairs work best on tortoises and turtles which have pretty much finished growing, some have been made on young animals, mostly tortoises, which have proved to be very successful. The main problem with serious injuries such as these is the shock that the animal will experience and so very intensive nursing is necessary to get it back to health.
Prevention of injury
Some injuries are just accidents, pure and simple, and these cannot always be prevented, but others can. For example, it makes sense to find and put out of harm’s way the family tortoise before starting mowing the lawn or strimming and by the same token, large bad-tempered dogs and tortoises do not usually mix too well in the same garden. When putting your tortoise away for its hibernation, make sure that it is in a rat proof box in – for preference – a rat proof environment, otherwise spring might be a very sad time indeed. If you have a number of turtles in an environment, make sure that there is enough room for them all, or fights will be inevitable.
While you are planning a bigger habitat, to prevent fighting in the interim, make some ‘private places’ where the smaller ones can go to get out of the way of the bigger, more aggressive ones. Turtles like their space and being kept too close together makes even the nice ones grumpy! Make sure that heat lamps are not accessible for basking on – before the animal realises it, it can be quite badly burned. Also, check the inside of the environment for splinters and nails. When feeding both veggies and carnivores, check for sharp bits in the food – a thorn can do quite a bit of damage to a tortoise or turtle’s mouth and give a lot of pain and may even end up being fatal.