Look at this happy Red Eared Slider.
This is one of the most common species of turtle pet we see out here in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are hardy, happy little guys. But they can still develop problems.
The Aural Abscess
Aural = ear (oral = mouth, yes they are pronounced the same…)
A very common problem we see is the turtle ear infection or abscess. Turtles get infections just like us but unlike mammals, they produce a very thick pus that prevents antibiotics from clearing up some infections. In this case, the ears.
In the picture below, there is a slightly blurry (sorry!) swelling or protrusion visible just under the human thumb. Turtle ears should be flat – they aren’t meant to be “outies”. Some turtles don’t show any signs, but many will feel ill, not want to eat or be in pain from this infection.
So what causes this?
Unfortunately that’s not always clear or may be due to a number of different issues. Inappropriate temperatures, inadequate diets and improper care can set a reptile up to be more susceptible to opportunistic bacteria. Cages that are not cleaned well enough or often enough and water that does not have a strong filtration system or just isn’t cleaned enough allow bacteria to flourish. Exposure to that bacteria or even long term ingestion of it can lead to bacterial infections.
The most common dietary problem is not enough Vitamin A (hypovitaminosis A). This changes how the cells lining the ears, mouth and other areas (from non-squamous cells to squamous cells) are shaped. With this change, it is easier for bacteria to get a foothold.
Something causes immunosuppression or changes to the cells shapes, then bacteria takes up lodging and finally the body responds and a thick caseous (or cottage cheese-like) plug starts to form.
It’s time for surgical removal. The surgery itself is not complicated but it would be horribly painful to perform on an awake turtle so we need to sedate or anesthetize them and provide pain control. Here is an image of the “pus ball” being removed on a sedated turtle.
The End Result
Changes in care (husbandry), temperatures and diet must be made, or the infection would be expected to return. Antibiotics can be given – ideally they are based off of an aerobic (oxygen-loving) and anaerobic (oxygen-hating) bacterial culture.