If you’ve noticed your tortoise is foaming at the mouth, you’re probably worried about them. The good news is this isn’t rabies – tortoises can’t get rabies, but it is still, possibly, quite serious for your tortoise and you will need to take quick action to ensure their safety.
Here’s what to do right now if your tortoise is foaming at the mouth:
- Immediately check the temperature in their enclosure and basking area and correct as needed,
- Separate out the sick tortoise if there are others,
- Keep her and her home clean,
- Check if she’s eating (a healthy appetite is a great sign),
- Talk to a vet as soon as possible.
There are two common explanations for a tortoise foaming at the mouth and they both need a vet’s attention: respiratory infections and allergies. So, let’s take a look at this issue in detail and see why this happens, how it happens and what to do when it happens.
Why Do Tortoises Foam At The Mouth?
Tortoises foam at the mouth when they are struggling to breathe, and air is pushed through their saliva to form bubbles which looks like foam when it is expelled.
This is not a sign that your tortoise is choking, thankfully, but rather an indication that your tortoise has a different health problem. In the majority of cases, this will be a respiratory infection as tortoises are quite prone to these.
Related article: Can a tortoise choke? (9 must-read vital tips)
However, there is also an outside possibility that this is an allergic reaction, so we’ve touched on this at the end of the article.
How Does A Tortoise Contract A Respiratory Infection?
Unlike human beings, which are not – contrary to popular belief – able to “catch a cold” by being cold, tortoises are susceptible to developing respiratory infections when they are:
- Kept in an environment that is too cold and,
- Exposed to other tortoises with respiratory infections,
- Occasionally, the culprit is excessive dust in the air.
The temperature problem is usually caused by a heating bulb or other heating system having burned out or malfunctioned. Though it could also be from a draft introduced to the enclosure (broken fences, fans or air conditioning, etc.) or it might be down to a sudden change in the overall weather temperature.
Even transporting a tortoise through a cold place can cause it to fall ill. So, it’s very important to keep tortoises warm where possible.
Warning signs that foam is linked to a respiratory infection
OK, before your vet moves on to treatment, he/she will look at your tortoise for other signs of a respiratory infection. These include:
- A runny nose (with mucus flowing freely)
- Constant tiredness
- Foam from the nose
- Inflamed or puffy eyes
- Not eating
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or gasping
The more of these symptoms your pet has, the more concerned you should be.
Is A Respiratory Infection Serious?
While a “tortoise cold” is not particularly dangerous, a respiratory infection which is left unchecked can become seriously problematic. There is a reasonable chance that it could progress to become pneumonia.
It’s no laughing matter. Tortoises are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections, and the illness be fatal.
How A Tortoise Is Treated For Foaming At The Mouth
Once you notice that your tortoise is unwell, there are a lot of things that you can do to try and help them get back on their feet again.
The most important step is to try and locate the source of the chill. You should take temperature readings from the tortoise enclosure and in several places including your pet’s favorite basking spots at the appropriate part of the day. You should also take readings in the nighttime.
If you can’t find any problems – it might have happened if you recently moved the tortoise or its cage, if the weather changed recently or if you’ve had a power cut (if the tortoises are indoors).
Related article: So what makes tortoises reptiles?
If you do find problems. You need to correct them immediately. Replace heat lamp bulbs or heat pads. Seal off any spaces that allow draughts to enter. Make sure you’re a/c or fan system isn’t pointing at your tortoises. That kind of thing.
Remove Sick Tortoises From Healthy Ones
We said earlier that the easiest way for a tortoise to get sick (other than a drop in temperature) was by exposure to a sick tortoise. That means you need to separate any sick animals you have from the healthy ones.
You may also want to move the sick tortoises to an environment which is slightly warmer than their usual one – this can help them fight off the infection.
Keep Them Clean
One easy way to help a sick tortoise get better is to give it a bath every day or two. This will help it stay moist (which is good for its overall health) and may also help get rid of any bacteria that are around.
You bathe a tortoise in warm water (not hot) and simply submerge him or her up to the bottom of their neck (never cover their heads). If they poop in the water, change it and start again. The bath should last about 10-15 minutes.
Related article: How to clean, bathe and wash a tortoise safely
Watch Their Food
You should also keep a close eye on what your tortoise is eating. If they’ve gone off their food for a little while, that’s OK, it’s a fairly normal reaction to coming down sick but if they don’t start eating again – it’s time to worry.
Tortoises can go for some time without food, but any more than a few days is reason to worry.
Related article: How to feed a tortoise: The guide to tortoise diet, food & nutritional needs
Clean Their Home
You should also give their home a good cleaning. This can help remove any other possible sources of irritation like bacteria and mold that have built up there. It shouldn’t take very long to make certain that your tortoise is living in a clean place.
Don’t Give Them Medication
Please, whatever you do don’t start to prescribe medication of any kind for your tortoise without first seeking input from your vet. This includes “natural remedies”. Medication is usually only effective when used for a specific purpose – if you don’t know what’s causing a tortoise’s respiratory problems, you cannot treat it effectively.
Talk To The Vet
If your tortoise doesn’t appear to be getting better or worse, they’ve stopped eating for a long period of time, you want to involve a vet. Ideally, they should be a vet with experience of working with reptiles and tortoises as this will make it easier for them to identify the problem.
Related article: Do tortoises and turtles need vaccinations?
They may want to conduct tests to find out if there is an underlying infection that is causing the problem. They may also prescribe antibiotics or other treatments to make your tortoise well again. Always follow the instructions provided when giving your tortoise medicine, an overdose would be seriously problematic.
How To Prevent A Respiratory Infection In Tortoises
As you might expect, the only way to prevent a tortoise from becoming cold and thus susceptible to a respiratory infection is to regularly monitor the temperature in their enclosure and basking spaces. If you can identify any problems as they arise, they are much less likely to have an impact on your pets.
However, we think that it’s important to note that even if you take every precaution, a tortoise may still get a respiratory infection, they are exceptionally prone to doing so.
Related article: How to Tell if Your Tortoise is Happy & Healthy
What if it’s an allergy?
In many cases, an allergy will have similar symptoms to a respiratory infection and treatment will be of a similar nature.
If your vet suspects an allergy, they can conduct tests and help you to identify the problem. Once you know that your tortoise has an allergy you should be able to remove the allergen from their living space and they will be right as rain again.
Fortunately, tortoises with allergies are a relative rarity as this report from the UF Small Animal hospital shows.
We hope that our guide, for tortoises foaming at the mouth has been helpful and that you now understand the potential seriousness of a respiratory infection in tortoises. Fortunately, as you’ve seen – it’s not too hard to try and treat this problem.
Most of the time, it will be related to the temperature of the are your tortoise lives and basks in. However, as with all things that can be very serious – it’s always best to get a vet to look at your tortoise if they have foam on their mouth.