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DrRalston, Veterinarian
Category: Vet
Satisfied Customers: 2207
Experience:  Over twelve years of internal medicine, surgery, and preventive care.
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The tortoise we have had for 47 years during the last week

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The tortoise we have had for 47 years during the last week and a half has suddenly found it difficult to swallow.He tries to eat a small piece of cucumber and opens his mouth very wide there was quite a lot of saliva,this happened about six times each he was fed.I took him to our local vet bot he knew nothing about tortoises.Yesterday he was able to eat bread soaked in water and a little milk,and at last was more jolly than he has been for the last week and a half.What is wrong with him?
Hello, I'm Dr Ralston. Thank you for your question.

There aren't a lot of Veterinarians that deal with wildlife or exotics. This is probably why your question has remained unanswered for some time.

Firstly, it would be best if you could locate an exotics Veterinarian in your area to look directly at your tortoise. I do not blame your local Vet for not having much experience with these animals. Few do. But there are some VERY common tortoise problems to be aware of that could cause these signs, and the most common causes would be inflammation of the mouth and oral mucosa (stomatitis) and irritation of the throat and gullet (pharyngitis).

Common signs of these problems include:
- drooling
- swelling in the mouth
- difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- decreased food intake even if hungry (sounding familiar?)

And if the mouth is opened and examined you might also see, depending on the location of the lesion inside the mouth :

- ulceration or sores
- petechiation (very small bruises inside the mouth, evidence of small blood vessel rupture)
- necrotic exudate (pus) around the tongue

The causes are multiple. Probably the most common in an older tortoise that has had no increased association with younger tortoises or animals would be respiratory bacterial infections. But, the complete list is :

- upper respiratory infections where the discharge runs into the back of the throat through an area called the choana. If it didn't run through the throat you would see discharge through the nose (nares)

- ear infection can be possible - inner ear infections - and this spreads from the inner ear and can drain into the throat area as well

- deep infection in the lung can lead to a frothy fluid that kind of coughs it's way up and into the throat area. These tortoises are usually wheezing, and have difficulty breathing. They might even open mouthed breathe continuously.

- esophagitis and gastritis (or irritation of the esophagus and stomach) and lead to a type of gastric reflux or belching of material into the pharyngeal area causing irritation

- certain medications can cause this reflux as well (enrofloxacin) but you would know if your pet was on medication

So, to me, respiratory is the most likely culprit as this happens often in pet tortoises. Your pet might not be breathing open mouthed or having trouble breathing, and it wouldn't unless it was deep lung infection. Upper respiratory can cause the signs you are seeing, and I think is more likely.

But, in order to check this you will need:
An oral exam by a Vet that knows about this type of thing. Do you have a local zoo or aquarium? You might contact them and see if they know of a Vet in the area that can do this. Often times zoos will contract local Veterinarians to work with exotics. Local Vet schools are a very good way to go as well, as they often have an exotics department. Last place to check would be at pet stores dealing mostly with reptlies, chelonians, even aquatic species. They might know of a Veterinarian because many of their pets for sale will have infecitons, issue when purchased from beeders and shippers. So, ask them as well.

But, a full oral exam is a good idea.

In addition you should provide all the history you can including full husbandry information like where your tortoise lives, what kind of inclosure, or objects it comes in contact with. What you have been feeding, and any other tortoises it may have come in contact with, including any turtles or other reptiles.

Lastly, a blood sample should be attempted. Many systemic diseases can present and cause stomatitis as well. Poor immune systems caused by disease can quickly escalate any of the above mentioned causes of stomatitis/pharyngitis. One other cause would be kidney issues causing hyperuricamia or increase in uric acid which can lead to the ulcers in the mouth.

So, it's complicated. There isn't much you can do at home for treatment. If there is infection, you will need to have antibiotics and likely a medication to reduce the swelling. I would continue with softened foods - strawberries for example, and things that are easy to mash. You might even blend some of your tortoises favorite foods in a blender and serve it cold. This will feel nice on that irritated throat if present.

I have attempted to list the most common causes and a few reasons why they happen. Of course, more tests are necessary. And I hope that I have given you some idea on how to accomplish this. We are somewhat limited by the internet in this.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any further questions.
Dr Ralston
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