Box Turtle Health Issues: Ear Abscesses


Regular exams can help you find health issues, like an ear abscess, in your box turtle.

Give your box turtle regular exams to look for problems, like ear abscesses (this guy’s fine!)
Cropped version of photo by muffinn @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0

Box turtles don’t have external ears like we do. But they do have middle ears, and they can get ear infections just like we do. And ear infections cause pain for your turtle, too. They also cause big lumps to start growing on the sides of your pet’s head.

Unlike people though, a week of antibiotics won’t usually clear it up (although he might need those, too).

In most cases, your pet will need some minor surgery to clean out the gunk building up in the ear. Some experienced turtle keepers treat ear abscesses themselves quite successfully. But if you’ve never done it (or even seen it done) before, it’s best to have a vet take care of it.

How to Recognize an Ear Abscess in a Box Turtle

The abscess is a soft, cottage-cheesy looking clump of pus, dead tissue and bacteria collecting in your pet’s middle ear.

Usually the only sign you’ll see that something is wrong is a lump that forms on one or both sides of his head.

If not treated, it will keep swelling. If it gets big enough, it may burst on its own. But you really don’t want to wait that long to get help.

An abscess is painful for your pet, so you want to get it taken care of as soon as possible.

What Causes Ear Abscesses in Box Turtles

The immediate cause of an ear abscess is an infection in the turtle’s middle ear. But that’s usually just a symptom of other problems.

Often the middle ear infection comes from an untreated upper respiratory infection (basically a cold) that eventually spreads to the ear(s).

And upper respiratory infections are more common in boxies with vitamin A deficiency or living in very dry conditions.

The best way to prevent an ear abscess, then, is to:

  • Treat any colds your turtle gets quickly.
  • Make sure he’s getting the nutrition he needs (especially Vitamin A).
  • Keep the humidity between 60% and 80% in her habitat.

Ear abscesses are pretty common in box turtles, so even doing these things is not a guarantee your pet won’t get one. But they’re important to his health no matter what, so they are things you’ll want to do regardless.

Treating an Ear Abscess

Clearing up an ear abscess generally requires opening up the ear and scraping out the gunk.

Unless you have experience with this, let your vet do it!

The vet will anesthetize your boxie (make her unconscious, so she doesn’t feel anything) for the surgery. It only takes a small cut, but it leaves behind a pretty ugly hole once it’s all cleaned up.

That hole stays open to let it drain and avoid closing up any remaining infection in the ear. Closing it would just make it more likely the abscess would come back.

Your vet may also give your box turtle a shot of antibiotic to finish clearing up the infection. This helps prevent the abscess from coming back.

You may need to give your pet oral antibiotics for a few days, too. You may also need to clean the wound and pack it with antibiotic ointment until it heals. Your vet can give you more specific instructions on how best to help your pet heal.

You may want to keep your box turtle in a hospital tank until the infection is cleared up and the wound healed. This is especially true if you have other turtles.

Click here to see pictures of an abscess before, during and after surgery.

(if you don’t like pictures of gaping wounds or blood, don’t look at these!)

Box turtle eating strawberry

Ear abscesses by themselves are not usually life-threatening, but they can be a sign of conditions that could harm your pet’s health. And they’re painful.

So doing your best to prevent them, and getting help if you do notice swelling around your pet’s ear, can help your box turtle have a happier, pain-free life.