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Turtles/Turtle health problems.


QUESTION: My Eastern Painted Turtle has problems. She has been constipated, which has been going on for a month now and my dad thinks nothing is wrong, when I know there is. She also has shell problems.

She is a female; almost 2 years old. I found her outside my house when she was just the size of a quarter.
We feed her every morning and night: 3-5 pieces of- ReptoTreat Suprema krill enriched food sticks, Reptomin floating food sticks, and Aquatic Turtle floating food sticks.
.She hasn't eaten a rock because I made sure they are too big to fit in her mouth. We recently got a water heater for 78 degrees, but I don't know if it is working. There is supposed to be an indicator light showing that it's working, but I don't see it. The UV bulb burnt out about 2 months ago, and my dad hasn't gotten a new one yet. He says she is fine without it, which I know she isn't. I'm trying to get one soon.
It's a 15 gallon tank with about 5 gallons of water. The basking bulb is I think 75 or 100 watt.

Often, she closes her eyes real right and moves her front legs against her neck, and I see her tail goes up but she never poops. The water hasn't been getting dirty

Not only that, but she has major shell problems. I don't know how to fix it. Her scutes on the top of her shell bubble up and I fear she can get an infection from the gaps. It's not shedding. She has never shed before. And it's always like that. And her shell curls up in the front, and curls down in the back, over her tail. She never touches the cuttlebone in her water. She doesn't eat any fruit or veggie we try to give her. Also, her skin is always discolored by her back legs, and a little by her front legs. Her skin looks like it's shedding when in the water. This is not normal for a turtle, as I read it online.
I don't understand, I've been to several pet sites when I first found her and read exactly how to take care of a turtle. But it doesn't work. I have thought about giving her to someone else because I'm clearly doing something wrong and I just want my turtle to be healthy, but she isn't. And it's all my fault. I don't know what to do anymore. Please help.

ANSWER: First, my instructions say NO private questions. I've changed this to public. Make sure all subsequent responses are public.
Second, attach photos (good quality) to your follow up so I can see her face, her shell, her rear legs, and then her aquarium.
Third, you did not follow the rest of the instructions. You did not state whether you used a filter, the basking temp, water temp, when she last ate, etc. I can't trouble shoot like this. Go back and read the instructions again and provide ALL the information, otherwise I have to waste my time asking it a second time, and I really don't have time for that.

Whether you read how to take care of a turtle or not, she absolutely was not kept right. I'm sorry, but this is why I don't think kids should have reptiles. You are at the mercy of a parent as to whether they get what they need, and parents are generally unconcerned. You've gone 2 months without UVB and that is blatantly wrong. You apparently don't have filtration, she is in a 5 GALLON at 2 years old, you apparently don't have a working tank heater, you don't know what the current water temp or basking temp is because if you had thermometers there you likely would have told me, you didn't mention supplements, she sounds to have metabolic bone disease and possible kidney or liver disease by your description of the shell and skin, she is having eye problems...all these things mean something. They mean that she wasn't kept right, so you can't say that "it doesn't work". You haven't actually tried it the right way to be honest, but it's too late for all that. I'm telling you this for the turtle's sake. She sounds impacted and far below temperature, and your dad is allowing this to get worse. She will not live much longer.

Instead of pleading with your dad to expect him to be concerned now and do the right thing, which I don't think he will if he is not concerned already, I suggest that she be surrendered to a reptile rescue or someone who has the funds and experience (more than a decade of keeping turtles) to give her what she needs right now to save her life. That means that they have a LARGE aquarium (75gallon or bigger), basking heat, UVB lamps, water heaters, thermometers, filtration, feed a more healthy diet than just processed junk turtle sticks, and better yet an OUTDOOR pond or trough where they keep their turtles. If you continue to try with the struggles you are going through already to keep her supplied and in an inadequate habitat, you will just cost her her life. Don't do that. She's very young for a turtle still, and she could live 20+ years if she was still in the wild but instead she is fighting for her life at your mercy at only TWO. Do the right thing and find her somewhere to get help.

She is probably too messed up to be released back to the wild without it killing her, so I need you to do what I asked and follow up, and I can try to help in the meantime. Her basking spot should be about 96F and her water temperature at least 76F but no more than 82F and this will help to boost her activity and hopefully her gut motility. You need a working tank heater and thermometers for both the water and the basking area. Do you HAVE a dry basking area for her? Going a month without defecating is life threatening and she will die of sepsis if she does not, and she will probably need to be on antibiotics even after she defecates because I imagine that she's already fighting an infection too. Follow the steps and GET BACK TO ME.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

Front legs
Front legs  
The tank
The tank  
QUESTION: I apologize for my stupid mistake of not reading instructions.

species: Eastern Painted Turtle
habitat size: 20 gallon tank (I thought it was 15 but I was wrong)
substrate: Small stones
humidity%: N/A
bask/ambient temps: N/A but will go out for thermometers A.S.A.P
lighting: 75 watt, ExoTerra, (bulb is multi-purpose)
vet history: N/A
all food offered:
Tetra-fauna ReptoTreat Suprema: Krill enriched food sticks,
Tetra Reptomin Floating food sticks,
ExoTerra Floating Pellets For Aquatic Turtles
Fluker's Freeze Dried MealWorms (forgot to mention that the first time, sorry)

feeding schedule: Every morning at 7 and night at 6:30
supplements and schedule: N/A
Last defecated: N/A
Last shed: N/A
Caught from wild
No animals in the same tank

Also, I found out this morning that the water heater was working all along; the indicator light was just on the side hidden from view. Water felt pretty warm but I know that is not enough, that is why I am getting the thermometers as soon as I can.

There is filtration, and her basking area is dry. But when I go to get the thermometers, I will get a floating basking dock so I can fill the water up higher. Do I need a separate UVB bulb or is the multi-purpose one alright?
Another piece of information: She is active
We do have a big tank but since we have a small apartment, there is no room for it other than in a closet. My dad's fish tank is 29 gallons but he doesn't want to switch the fish to the smaller tank and the turtle to the bigger one. No matter what I say, my dad refuses to move the turtle to the bigger tank.
I will send more images, since the max is only two.

ANSWER: Filtration should be rated for 1 1/2 to 2 times the size of the tank, which means for a 20 gallon it should be rated for 35 to 40gph.

The tank is too small for this turtle anyway though. Bottom line. She doesn't have sufficient exercise room and that makes impaction and egg binding more likely because her muscles are going to be too weak being in a 20 gallon. Even a 29 gallon is too small. This is why I am generally against young people having turtles and other reptiles, or for people to keep turtles indoors. It shouldn't be done. I have painted turtles. They're in a 110 gallon horse water trough outside.

Yes you need a separate UVB. You don't have one. That's not a negotiable item if you're going to keep a reptile indoors.

Your multi purpose light is too low wattage for proper basking anyway. You shouldn't be using anything less than about 100 watts, but you can't get anything set right if you don't have thermometers to adjust basking temp first.

I can see that she has swelling in her shoulder area on both sides. The puffiness of the shoulders. This is either fluid or air filling the space in the pleural cavity around the lungs. This means it's more likely that she has an infection. Is she gasping for breath? When the fluid or gas buildup in the pleural cavity reaches a certain point, she will begin to suffocate because her lungs will not be able to expand sufficiently.

I reiterate that I don't think this is a good situation for her, it doesn't sound at all likely that she will get the care and habitat and accessories she really needs, much less a trip to the vet, so my recommendation is that you get her to someone else, because at this point in your home under those conditions I think you will cost her her life trying to play catch up now with an unconcerned father making the calls on what the turtle needs. That's truth, and I'm speaking for her. This is a bad situation that isn't going to just be fixed at this point without a WHOLE LOT of stuff turning around and you getting a much bigger tank, UVB lamp, etc, and probably a prescription for antibiotics, and to get her treatment for impaction. There's just all the wrong things going on here.

At any rate...when you can verify a basking and water temperature and tell me whether she is gasping for breath, let me know.  

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

Her Shell
Her Shell  

QUESTION: My dad said he will get the things this weekend.

She swims back and forth most of the time when she isn't basking. Most turtle owners don't have 75+ gallon tanks. Many have 20 gallon like me and they do perfectly fine.

My dad thinks he is the expert here, and it's really pissing me off. He thinks she'll do perfectly fine.
I can't do all of this by myself. I don't have a job, as I am only 14. I can't afford a tank that's hundreds of dollars. My dad is the most selfish person and I can't stand that.

I told him I wanted to give Shelbie, the turtle, to someone who can take care of her. Like a horrible person, he refuses. I'm desperate now. I don't want to release her into the wild now because of her condition. I want to give her to someone with a lot experience because I would feel much better knowing she would be getting the proper care and space. Until I can give Shelbie to someone else, I WILL do everything I can to save her life.

Getting her all these things she really needs, even if he gets them all, she STILL likely has an infection from the impaction and the last time I saw a turtle with puffy shoulders like that I had to stick a syringe in her to aspirate out the fluid buildup just so that she could breathe. She most likely needs antibiotics too and once a reptile is sick enough to need antibiotics, they don't get better on their own without them. Their immune system is already compromised at that point and death will eventually be the result. You still haven't reported temps though, so I assume you have no thermometers yet, and this is wasting her vital time. You also didn't say whether she was gasping. Again, I'm repeating myself.  

The pictures aren't great, but it's obvious she has retained scutes and likely metabolic bone disorder. MBD actually means = organ damage. It is a metabolic disorder which affects internal organs and the messed up shell is the RESULT that you see on the outside. Such animals are usually prone to more illnesses and have shortened lives.

This tank is not big enough for her to exercise PERIOD even if she is swimming back and forth. You are 14. I am 42. I have been keeping reptiles longer than you have been alive by more than two times. Over 25 years. Not only that, I have accreditation to teach this stuff, and I am a content contributor to a veterinary website. Your tank is too small. I don't give a crap what you think most turtle owners have and do fine. They don't. Those people are morons. Just because you see a ton of people doing it wrong and seeming to get away with it, you think this is the standard to follow? These animals in the wild live in RIVERS AND LAKES, and you somehow think that your tank two feet long and one foot wide is "fine" for a creature to be confined to the rest of their lives? You and all those people with 20 gallons are confining these turtles to a cruel jail of an environment. Insufficient stimulation, insufficient thermal gradient, insufficient exercise space. Now look at her again with her impaction, MDB, messed up retained scutes, possible sepsis, and tell me that she was "fine" in the 20 gallon. Do you know how ignorant that sounds?

I could go on and on, but I'm not going to argue with a 14 year old about what you saw on some reptile forum full of similarly young and inexperienced amateurs. If you can't afford what she needs, then you don't need to have the animal. Period, end of discussion. She should have never been stolen from the wild in the first place.

For her own good, you are her keeper and ultimately responsible for her. You need to make the decision to surrender her to someone who can treat her and giver her better, and if it requires doing this anyway without his permission, so be it. He's not the one who will loose sleep at night when she dies. It's YOU. YOU took her from the wild and made her a pet. YOU need to do the right thing, and sometimes that means doing what is moral, not what you are told you cannot do. If you want to give me a city name, I will try to find a rescuer in the area to contact.  


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YOU WILL GET A REJECTION OF YOUR QUESTION IF YOU FAIL TO FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS TO QUESTIONER IN FULL!!. I am primarily here to assist with health concerns. I am here for the more difficult questions. Not for questions that you could research and easily find the answer yourself. I have stringent standards that you provide DETAILED and RELEVANT background history on your pet before you ask me ANY question about it other than GENDER or ID. The requested information is in the instructions to questioner. Failure to answer EACH of those questions to provide that background will result in your question being REJECTED. I can answer questions related reptile husbandry, identification (esp. in Texas and the SW), legal aspects, and intermediate-advanced level medical care. I am the director of Wichita Falls Reptile Rescue (TX), a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in reptiles, a founding member of The Society for Horned Lizard Preservation, a subscriber to the International Veterinary Information Service,,, and a Dept of State Health Services certified animal control instructor (CE) for reptile handling. I do most of my own veterinary care in-house. I am most experienced in Chelonia (turtles&torts) with box turtles and common smaller tortoises; and in Squamata (lizards & snakes) with everything from Anoles, Geckos, Beardies, and Monitors, to venomous snakes. I am most known for my expertise with horned lizards (Phrynosoma). With snakes, my primary expertise is in Crotalids (rattlesnakes), but I can answer a broad range of questions about various species. I am not aware of any reptile related question, in general, that I would not be able to provide some reasonable answer for. I have a direct style and may tell you something you did not want to hear; but the welfare of the animal comes first with me, and I will always reflect that position in my answer.


I am an amateur herpetologist, with 20+ years experience in reptiles. I am a reptile rescuer and subscriber to the International Veterinary Information Service. I have medical and scientific resources available, and have had to learn herp medical care over the years. I am not a vet, but I read from the same materials and have had to correct a few in the past, as it related to reptiles. My specific area of expertise is in Chelonians ( primary- Box Turtles ), Phrynosoma ( Horned Lizards ), and Crotalids ( primary- Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes ); though I have some knowledge and/or experience also with aquatic turtles ( primary- Red Eared Sliders ), tortoises ( primary-Sulcata and Horsfieldii ), monitors ( primary- Savannah ), many other smaller lizards, and with some colubrid snakes.

I am currently the caretaker of 5 Horned Lizards, 22 Box Turtles, 18 aquatic turtles, 7 fire Bellied Toads, 3 Green Iguanas, 1 Spiny Lizard, 1 Bullsnake, 5 Eastern Ratsnakes, 4 Great Plains x Eastern Ratsnakes, 1 Albino Great Plains Ratsnake, 1 Massasauga Rattlesnake, 1 Leopard Gecko, 7 Fox Squirrels, 2 Deer Mice, 2 Hispid Cotton Rats, 3 Merriam's Pocket Mice, 1 Cotton-Tail, 1 Former racing pigeon, and 1 Budgie. Previously: Leopard Geckos, Golden Gecko, African White-Spotted Wall Gecko, Mediterranean Geckos, Bahama Anoles, Ca. Kingsnake, Brazilian Rainbow Boa, Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Russian Tortoise, Savannah Monitor, and Eastern Cotton-tail rabbits.


Co-Founder & Director: Wichita Falls Reptile Rescue

Founder: The Society for Horned Lizard Preservation

Publications contributor. The Horned Lizard Husbandry Manual - self published 75 pages of care information on genus Phrynosoma.

Wikipedia entry "Horned Lizards" - contributed to a majority of the content., and various reptile related forums and email lists under the handles "fireside3" and PhrynosomaTexas".

My 20+ yrs of hands-on field, rehabilitation, and captive husbandry experience beats a PhD any day of the week. I am also a state accredited animal control instructor for reptile handling.

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I was requested to provide my care manual on the Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos), for the Montreal zoo. My manual is also used by several other zoological institutions in N. America. I also teach reptile education to summer camps, and instruct wildlife rehabilitators on live saving and rehab techniques with reptiles.

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