Turtle Ear Infections – Yes, Turtles Have Ears

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.

Red Eared Slider

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.

Red Eared Slider ear swelling

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.

So Basically..?

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.

Now What?

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.

Red Eared Slider Ear Pus

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.

Look Ma, no toes!

Pickle post

Pickle is one lucky little rat. She came in a few days after getting her foot stuck in a vent. Based on the injuries, it looked like a steam burn. A very bad steam burn.  The photos are not nice so they won’t be posted.

All of Pickle’s toes ended up falling off, but the foot (and the attached ratty) healed. This was due to a number of factors, but the owner’s dedication was definitely an important one.

What Happened Here?

At Bay Area Bird Hospital we see animals that get better without tons of invasive treatments as well as ones that don’t make it despite everything we tried. We work hard to treat correctly – just enough and not too much but it’s rough not knowing that if we just do treatments x, y and z then each pet will thrive.

Different factors play a role in how and why healing occurs.

  • Age – Youngsters, just like human kids, are healing machines while seniors tend to have delayed responses.
  • Nutrition – better diets mean the body has better building blocks to repair itself, better resistance to damage or disease and a better immune system.
  • Care – How well an owner can respond to their pet’s needs by modifying the environment, paying close attention to changes and treating as recommended can make a significant effect on the overall response.


In the end, prevention is the best medicine.

The Rhinolith or “Nose Stone”


What is it?

A rhinolith is an accumulation of debris in the nose that hardens.

Here is an amazon who came in with a “nose problem”. You may be able to see the enlarged opening and the brownish material plugging it. This abnormality had been growing and the owners weren’t sure how long it had been there.


Rhinolith Rhinolith after removal

I was able to tease it it out and you can see the result leaves a big empty hole behind.


Birds don’t have nostrils but instead have nares. That may be semantics since the dictionary definition of those 2 terms is pretty similar (or the same depending on the dictionary!).   In general, I’ve always heard people use the word nostril if there is a fleshy protuberance (otherwise known as the nose) and naris for just an opening into the head. Regardless, we use the term nares (plural) or naris (singular) in birds.

normal nares





Just behind the opening – whatever you want to call it – is a hardened flap of keratin called the operculum. This flap is sometimes mistaken for foreign material. It should be smooth and dry. However material can accumulate between this flap and the tissue on either side. This build-up can distort the tissue and even cause permanent damage to the bone.

big opening

What Causes This?

Quite a few things can result in a rhinolith – bacterial or fungal infections, hypovitaminosis A (or too little Vitamin A in the diet), foreign material or poor air quality.

Prevention includes:

  •  Good air quality – avoid smoking (any substance) and scented candles, keep fireplaces clean by hiring a chimneysweep as recommended, changing filters for heaters or air conditioners and providing an air purifier.
  • Preventing hypovitaminosis A – get your bird off of seeds and onto a good quality pellet, provide a source of fresh veggies.
  • You can’t eliminate bacteria or fungus from the environment but you can reduce it. Clean the food and water dishes daily, change the papers on the bottom of the cage daily (make sure they are under the wire grate) and wash the cage frequently. Use papers rather than litter at the bottom of the cage since they are easier to clean. If you must use a litter avoid walnut and corn cob – both of these substances may be contaminated with fungus that can infect and kill your bird.

What to Do?

Bring your bird to the veterinarian as soon as you see an abnormality. Once physical changes to the structure have occurred, they don’t go back to normal. Disruption of the normal structure means your bird may be more susceptible to sinus infections in the future.