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What are Otitis?

The ear of the turtle is simple and is covered by a large scale that is known as the tympanic scute. There is no external ear and the middle ear is mainly a large tympanic cavity situated to the side by the tympanic membrane.

Otitis, also known as aural abscesses or ear infections in turtles, is a common medical

condition that happens in the middle ear. Occurring on one or both sides of the head, the condition is relatively easy to diagnose because as it progresses there will be marked swelling where the turtle’s ears are located.

Otitis in turtles is also known as aural abscesses or ear infections; the condition is common and in many cases is thought to be the result of environmental stress.

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Symptoms of Otitis in Turtles

Should your turtle be experiencing otitis, you may not notice anything until the infection is advanced. The following symptoms may be seen in your turtle:

  • Swelling in the area of the tympanic membrane (on one or both sides); the swelling is due to pus that develops within the ear canal and pushes on the skin.
  • Cheese-like material may be present
  • The skin around the tympanic membrane may be swollen
  • In rare cases the membrane itself can rupture
  • Disinterest in eating
  • Opening his mouth is a struggle
  • Swallowing is difficult
  • Swelling around his eyes
  • Rubbing the affected side of his head on objects or clawing at it with his foot

Causes of Otitis in Turtles

Multiple bacteria have been isolated in turtles experiencing otitis. These include:

  • Proteus spp
  • Pseudomonas spp
  • Citrobacter spp
  • Morganella morganii
  • Enterobacter spp

While it is not completely clear what causes the aural abscesses, it has been found that close to 90% of those experiencing them also experience stress due to their living conditions or care which may weaken their immune system and cause them to be more susceptible to infection. Possible issues include:

  • A Vitamin A deficiency (Vitamin A is imperative for the cells lining the respiratory tract and skin of your turtle).  A lack of Vitamin A may cause anomalies in the turtle’s middle ear. When the middle ear is damaged, bacteria are able to invade. Also, without Vitamin A, your turtle will be more susceptible to illness.
  • If your turtle lives in water that is not filtered appropriately, urine, feces, excess food, bacteria and fungal organisms will cause severe skin irritation, which may result in bacterial infections of his aural cavity.
  • Should the temperature of his environment not be appropriate, it will cause your turtle’s immune system to weaken, which will lead to this being more susceptible to infections.
  • In order to absorb calcium, your turtle will need direct or unfiltered sunlight, or a high quality UVB bulb that is changed every six months. When your turtle is unable to absorb calcium his immune system will weaken.
  • Additional environmental stress can include a tank that is too small, not enough places to get out of the water, too many turtles in the environment, not enough access to water and being handled too much.

Diagnosis of Otitis in Turtles

Otitis is typically not difficult to diagnose, because as the condition progresses there will be obvious swelling present on the side of the head where the ear is affected. Your veterinarian will conduct a physical examination of your turtle, including his oral cavity. A head x-ray may be conducted to check for any bony involvement, and your veterinarian may request blood work. In addition to conducting the physical examination, your veterinarian will ask you for additional information regarding the care and diet that your turtle receives. Your veterinarian will want to determine the cause of the infection in your turtle, so that measures can be taken to prevent him from experiencing the infection repeatedly.

Treatment of Otitis in Turtles

Treatment for the abscesses of otitis will take place at the veterinarian’s office or hospital. Your turtle will likely require sedation or a local anesthetic. The abscess will have to be opened and flushed with diluted povidone-iodine or a like product so that all of the caseous material can be cleaned out. Your veterinarian may choose to take samples from the abscess to determine if there is a bacterial infection and which bacteria is present. Often the skin will remain open in order for the abscess to continue to drain and it will need to be continued to be flushed for a few days during your turtle’s healing. In some cases, a bloody discharge may be present for a minimum of a day or two after the treatment has taken place. Usually systemic antibiotics will not be necessary. Vitamin A supplements may also be helpful, as otitis can be secondary to a Vitamin A deficiency.

Recovery of Otitis in Turtles

Upon bringing your turtle home, you have to provide additional care and treatment to facilitate his recovery. This includes:

  • Cleaning with antiseptics
  • Providing topical medications 
  • Administering antibiotics through injection
  • Giving pain medication
  • Ensuring that your turtle’s water is clean

You will want to follow the recommendations of your veterinarian to ensure the best outcome for your turtle. This may include making changes to your turtle’s environment to allow his immune system to be as strong as possible. 

The best way to avoid bacterial infections is to provide proper nutrition, housing and a sanitized environment for your turtle, though infection can still occur.