What's Wrong With My Turtle's Eyes?


Important: Eye problems can be a symptom of respiratory infection or, in fact, any other serious health problem. Watch out for other signs of respiratory problems, such as noise while breathing, floating lopsided in the water, or mucus around the nose or mouth. Any of these signs indicate a respiratory infection which would require immediate veterinary care. Red/puffy/closed eyes in combination with any other sign of ill health (anorexia, shell rot, diarrhea, extreme lethargy) is cause for concern and should be seen by an exotic animal vet. Delaying veterinary care under these conditions is not advised and could cost your turtle its life.

If the problem is not accompanied by any other symptoms, there may be some simple changes that you can make that will clear up the minor eye infection. Puffy, irritated or closed eyes can be an indication of poor conditions, either now or earlier (for instance, at the pet store before you came along.) Ideal condition and supportive therapies may clear up the eye problem and prevent more serious illness.

1. Check everything about your overall husbandry. Keep the vivarium clean and well lighted. Make sure you are providing a varied diet with lots of calcium, a good basking area, and correct temperatures for the species of turtle you have.

2. Dirty conditions can cause eye infections in aquatic species, so make sure to keep the water clean. If you are using an undergravel filter with a simple pump (i.e. Powerhead), the water can look clear but still have way too much ammonia. With that type of filter, you have to completely syphon out the tank, including the stuff that is hiding under the gravel, and replace it with clean water every week or so. Even with a powerful canister filter, regular water changes will still be required. For a filtration system that is easy to maintain and produces excellent quality water, visit this link: One effective setup for aquatic turtles in small tanks

3. In terrestrial box turtles, eye problems can be caused by low humidity. Use spagnum moss and potted plants and mist daily to prevent problems associated by dry air. When eye puffiness has appeared, misting 2 or 3 times a day may help clear it up. Soak your box turtle in clean, tepid water every day. All box turtles require high humidity and a substrate which retains moisture.

4. Vitamin A deficiency can cause puffy eyes (swollen membranes.) Use a supplement that has vitamin A occasionally. Too much vitamin A is toxic, so don't overdo it. If the eye problem is actually caused by a vitamin A deficiency, it should clear up rather quickly with a dose or two of vitamin A. Aquatic plants, dark greens, sweet potato, squash and carrots in the diet can prevent vitamin A deficiencies. (More on turtle nutrition)

5. Injury can cause puffy, red eyes. Another turtle may have scratched near the eye or the turtle may have injured itself on something in the tank. Even a tiny scratch can become inflamed. An ophthalmic ointment such as Mycitracin might be helpful in that case. See your veterinarian.

6. Overexposure to UV radiation can cause photo-kerato-conjunctivitis. Check to make sure the UV light is at a safe distance. (More info here.)

7. An infection anywhere in the body will usually cause swollen or closed eyes as one symptom. Respiratory infection, for instance, will almost always result in eye symptoms. If you see any other indication of illness, e.g lethargy, inappetence, frequent yawning, reluctance to swim, or mucus around the mouth or nose, that would suggest serious infection other than the eyes. See a veterinarian right away.

Provide supportive therapies:

a.) While your turtle is ill, raise the vivarium temperature to the upper range for the species. For many species, including red-eared sliders and North American box turtles, 85 degrees F. would be good. This will help boost the immune system.

b.) Turtles that are stressed by illness can go rapidly downhill and refuse to eat. Electrolyte replacement therapy can help prevent this. Soak the turtle in an slightly warmer bath made with Pedialyte/water 1:1 solution or with a herp electrolyte replacement. 90 degrees would not be excessive for this 30-60 minute bath.

8. If the above steps have not improved the situation markedly in three or four days, take the turtle to a veterinarian. (Click here to find a vet near you)

With excellent care, your turtle should have bright, alert, clear eyes very soon. Good luck!


© 1999 Mary Hopson, Anchorage, AK
This information sheet may be freely copied and distributed.



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