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Abcesses in Chelonians

A C Highfield

Reptile abscesses are usually hard caseous lumps and contain cheesy yellowish pus and other infected matter. They do not normally respond well to purely systemic therapy (treatment by injection) and surgical excision is usually essential in addition. We see many abscesses, the most frequent sites are the ears, the legs, the inside of the mouth and the nares (the nose). Any hard 'lump' under the skin should be investigated carefully. Tumours are extremely rare in tortoises, so if you encounter a `growth' in all probability it is an abscess or cyst which can be effectively treated. See below for treatment guidelines.

Abcesses in the ear

The ear is by far the most common site for abscesses in tortoises and turtles of all species. When a tortoise refuses to feed, or appears to be generally not well, it is one of the first places which should be checked. Indications: swelling in area of ear flap, refusal to feed. Treatment: surgical removal by veterinary surgeon. The abscess is opened under a local or general anaesthetic and all of the infected tissue is drained or excised . A careful follow-up programme with frequent re-examinations is essential or a recurrence is highly likely. Even after surgical removal some infected material may remain, and this should be removed as healing progresses; irrigating the area with antibiotic on a daily basis is a useful post surgical technique. If an ear abscess is left untreated, not only is much suffering caused, but eventually death will result as the infection spreads. The same comments apply to abscesses in other locations.

Ear abscesses are especially common in American box turtles. The cause, in this case, is usually keeping them under conditions which are too hot and dry. Terrapins and aquatic turtles can suffer ear abscesses for the same reason - but more often the cause is simply poor water hygiene. All abscesses are treated in the same way as those which occur in the ear; very few will respond to systemic antibiotic treatment alone. In almost all cases physical removal and subsequent regular cleaning out and dressing will be required. Betadine is a useful general antiseptic ideal for application to such infected areas.

Subcuticular abcesses

These are treated in much the same way as above but it is sometimes possible to excise these under local anaesthesia. Inspissated abscesses have shelled out during palpation. If the infection is active, then complete surgical excision under general or local anaesthesia should be undertaken. Again the lesion may be sutured if removed in entirety or left to drain/flushed with antibiotics if resistant.

Bacteria isolated have included:

  • Pseudomas sp
  • Aeromonas spp
  • Citrobacter sp
  • Proteus sp
  • Serratia sp
  • Enterobacter sp
  • Klebsiella sp

Sites of recorded abscesses include:

  • Ears
  • Legs (post injection-site abscesses are particularly common)
  • Nasal passages
  • Jaw
  • Internal
  • Tail
  • Neck (often result of abrasion on shell)

Post operative attention and antibiosis as described above are essential!


Favourable but recovery can be prolonged and recurrence is possible and careful follow-up vital.