Ear Infections in Turtles and Tortoises

PetMD Editorial
Jul 24, 2008
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank


Tortoises and turtles, especially box turtles and aquatic species, are at risk for developing middle ear infections. Untreated infections commonly lead to the development of solid pus in the tympanic, or middle ear, cavity, forming a plug within the cavity.

The tympanic cavity is located just behind the corner of the mouth. It is protected by a thin layer of skin membrane, which is normally flat against the turtle's head when the ear is healthy. When the tympanic cavity is infected and filled with pus, the plug presses against the membrane, causing it to bulge outward. It may be described as a lump on the side of the head. An infection that is trapped beneath the ear membrane is referred to medically as an aural abscess.

Left untreated, the infection can spread into the jaw and skull, and in extreme cases, the swelled membrane over the ear can even rupture.

Symptoms of Ear Infection

  • Swelling or bulging of the ear membrane (located a little behind the corner of the mouth)
  • Thick pus may be visible through the ear membrane
  • Pain when the mouth is opened
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unwillingness to eat
  • Rubbing the head against objects or clawing at the ear area
  • Eye inflammation


The underlying causes of aural (or ear) abscesses are often related to a weakened immune system, which may be caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A in their diets, or poor sanitary conditions in their environments. Aquatic turtles that are forced to live in water that is contaminated with feces will swallow the bacteria tainted water, which can then lead to the bacteria travelling into the Eustachian tubes and into the middle ear. An infection can also occur as the result of injury to the membrane. The thin membrane is vulnerable to puncture, which can occur as the result of objects in the turtle's living environment, or as the result of a companion turtle's claw. 


The veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam, examining the mouth and taking blood for lab work. The doctor will review the turtle's diet and its living space with the owner. The underlying cause of the infection must be discovered, otherwise the infection can reoccur.

Next Page: Treatment and Prevention

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