In medical terms, a prolapse means an organ or body part has slipped forward or down. In a box turtle, an organ that has prolapsed will generally slide out the cloacal vent. You will be able to see it dragging when they walk.
This can be life threatening. In most cases, you’ll need to get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Kinds of Box Turtle Prolapses
Pretty much any organ in a turtle’s body can prolapse.
The organs most likely to prolapse seem to be:
But the urinary bladder and uterus can also do so.
In most cases, if you see one of these organs outside your pet’s body, it means it has prolapsed.
But male turtles sometimes display their penis on purpose. This organ is dark (purplish) and bigger than you might expect. It may look to you like it’s too big to ever get back inside your turtle, but in most cases it will in fact disappear within a few minutes. As long as that happens it has not prolapsed, and you don’t need to worry.
If the penis or any other organ stays outside your pet’s body for more than a few minutes you’ll need to help him or her.
Causes of Prolapse in Box Turtles
One of the most common causes of prolapse is an impaction.
Impactions can happen when your turtle eats his substrate, especially gravel or sand. It may then form a blockage in the stomach or intestine. When he strains to pass the blockage, the entire intestine can turn itself inside out and slide out of his body.
Similarly, the urinary bladder can prolapse from straining due to inflammation (swelling and pain) in the bladder, often from urinary stones.
Animals with poor muscle tone are more likely to have a prolapse from straining than a healthy animal.
A penis prolapse usually happens when the penis is already out, either during mating or displaying the organ. If the penis gets injured (sometimes from a bite from a house-mate!), it may swell and be unable to retract.
Infections can also cause prolapses.
Treating a Box Turtle’s Prolapsed Organ
Unless the prolapse goes back in on its own, your pet will need to see a vet.
But you can take steps to reduce swelling and minimize damage to the organ until you can get to a vet. If the organ stays outside of the body too long, it can dry out and/or blood may not be able to get to it. You want to avoid this.
On occasion, once the swelling goes down the organ may retract on its own, although this is most likely with the penis. Not so much with other organs.
First, if you have other turtles, put the one with the prolapse into an isolation tank by himself. Other turtles may mistake the prolapsed organ for food and bite it. Use something non-irritating, like damp newspaper, as the substrate. If you don’t have an isolation tank set up, use any smooth container and line it with the newspaper.
If there’s debris on the prolapse, flush it gently (be very careful!) with cool running water (just a trickle!). Don’t wipe it dry.
To try to shrink the swelling, you can try gently patting on a paste of sugar and water (don’t rub!). Rinse it off within 30 minutes to avoid irritation.
Other soothing products you can try include K-Y jelly or a similar lubricating product or glycerin. Some sources suggest honey, but that could actually cause an infection, so it’s not a good idea.
The article When The End Is In Sight (PDF), by Sandy Barnett, is a good discussion about prolapses from somebody who has experience with them. It also covers in more detail what to do until you can see a vet.
Hopefully you’ll never have to deal with a prolapsed organ. But it’s a good idea to be prepared, just in case.