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.

Reptiles – Not an Inexpensive Pet

A Family Tries to Do What Is Right

A few years ago a young family brought in their sick turtle – it was a Red Eared Slider, although they didn’t know that. They were trying to live within their means. With two young children wanting a pet, these parents knew they couldn’t afford a dog or cat. So they bought a turtle. Because the pet store employee said “get a turtle, they’re cheap”.


This turtle was sick. He needed testing to determine what was wrong with him. He needed treatment for the apparent bacterial infection. But they couldn’t afford either.

The turtle was sick because his home wasn’t set up correctly for him. The pet store said to just keep him in a tank. He needed a water filtration device, a water heater and a thermometer to measure water temperature. He had a basking light but the air temperatures weren’t being measured so he may have needed a different light. They were not providing a UVB lamp. The parents couldn’t afford to purchase all of these items.

The Outcome

They made the difficult choice to re-home the turtle. All this time they were just trying to do the right thing.

Is Any Pet an Economical Choice?

Sure – some are. If they don’t get sick or injured.

But not a reptile. Ever.


Proper reptile care requires setting up an appropriate home environment. They need higher temperatures than our homes provide. They need special lighting that is appropriate to their species. They need specialized cages that keep them contained safely within their carefully managed environmental zones. They need special food that has to be supplemented – ok, some are vegetarians so it may be cheaper to feed those but most still need a daily freshly prepared balanced meal.

Reptile environments must be checked periodically – is it too hot or too cold, are the humidity levels appropriate, is it clean?

One part of the difficulty in reptile care is that we are still learning what they need from us and how best to replicate their natural environment. Another difficulty is that they require an experience veterinarian for their care.  These guys are slow to get sick, slow to develop signs and slow to respond to treatment. That often means that by the time they are brought into a veterinarian, they are very sick.

Reptiles Aren’t for Everyone

…but they are great pets for the right people. Can’t stand insects? Don’t get a Leopard Gecko. Feeding mice make you squeamish? Don’t get a snake.

Do some research on their needs, their care, their lifespan…and you will find yourself in a much better starting place. Don’t forget – if their home is set up appropriately, it is much less likely that you will find yourself needing sick pet rather than well pet care.

Here’s a link to a page with information on setting up a tank for an aquatic turtle and the associated costs. Costs range from about $350 (for a hatchling) to $1500 (for a full sized adult).

Corn Snake