NANFA-- Re: Pseudomonas auriginosa/Trouble With Turtles

Jeffrey Fullerton (
Wed, 19 May 2004 18:13:51 -0400

This thread caught my eye while skimming thru one of the digests.

Pesudomonas caused me some problems with my herp collection a decade
ago. Several of my turtles came down with pneumonia one winter while
hibernating in an outside pond. In the middle of January 1992 I noticed
a subadult female wood turtle, Clemmys -sic Glyptemys insculpta was
basking out of the water and it was barely above freezing!

Despite the reputation of cold tollerance of this species this behavior
was obviously abnormal so I brought her inside and warmed her up. The
condition got worse, progressing from simple open-mouthed breathing to
acute gasping and bubbling and the turtle died overnight.

Second victim was a female spotted turtle but she recovered and lived a
while though subject to chronic flairs of infection thru the summer.
Eventually I opted for euthenasia because it seemed she was going to be
a potential source of infection to healthy turtles. That decision in
light of what I know now may have been flawed but-in-the time it seemed
the only option.

When my larger female wood turtle - "Greedy" a cherished pet-
practically a family heirloom since she was caught as a young one in
1979 came down with it- I opted to move her from my home in PA down to
Maryland (I was stationed-in-Andrews AFB then) and was lucky enough to
find a real vet-in-College Park Animal Hospital who actually knew
something about taking care of reptiles. I also bough a really good book
on bacterial diseases of reptiles. Greedy's O/P swab cultured positive
for Pesudomonas auriginos- which really knocked my socks off because I
had already known of it as a frequent source of nosicomial or hospital
aquired infections in human patients. Since I worked in a hospital I
wondered if I might have brought it home on the soles of my shoes or

I did trace the chain of infection back- to a female Southern Painted
Turtle I bought in a Virginia petshop in the spring of 1990. She had
been acting a bit funny just before she died suddenly a month or so
after I introduced her to the community enclosure I had for aquatic
turtles-in-my home in PA. I have since learned that an aquatic turtle
that remains on the basking spot in the evening long after all the
others have slipped back into the water is a sign of trouble. Sick
reptiles often try to spend more time basking - thermoregulation - like
we hot blooded creatures spike fevers to fight infections. The same
thing happened with the adult male red-ear slider from the feral
population established in the lake on Andrews. Common denominator was
probably that these two animals were stressed- the female painted turtle
from the pet trade and sudden move to a cooler climate without a decent
oportunity to acclimate. The slider was more flighty than the spotted
and painted turtles and may not have eaten well. It it commonplace for
large collections to loose animals that way from time to time and most
cases- which I am obviously guilty- it is chocked up to darwinian
selection. Some animals are just don't make the transition to captive
life well.

Between my experience dealing with the vet and reading literature on
reptilian diseases as well as human pathology I learned alot about
Pesudomonas and quite a few other common infectious microbe species and
the theories explaining their pathology. One especially dismal school of
though held that reptiles were picking up human diseases and in the long
run many species were essentially doomed. The other which not only
appears more hopeful may be more likely to be true- that these organisms
which are universal and oportunistic hit animals and people that are
immunologically impaired- ie surgical patients, elderly and those with
HIV or any kind of stress or malnutrition. That's certainly applicable
to reptiles enduring the stress of crowding and improper husbandry
between capture and the petshop- or animals in a captive situation that
are low on the pecking order and are harrassed and inhibited from
feeding by dominant cagemates.

That year I downsized my collection and moved it to a cousin's property
in Camp Springs so I could give my turtles more attention. When it was
just Greedy and a couple box turtles - it was a simple matter to leave
them in the care of my mother while I was in California. But when I
transfered to Andrews in 88, the following season my collection started
to grow. Other mistakes- I probably should not have mixed all these
different species together- Spotted, painted, stinkpots and mud turtles,
and red-eared sliders in the same pond / enclosure. Plus I was
hibernating the wood turtles in there so I would not have to use an
additional stock tank heater for their pond. The heater may have been a
mistake too, since while it may have kept the shallow pond from freezing
solid it may also have heated the water and kept the turtles more active
than they ought to be and not active enough to resist opportunistic
And that gravel- nice fine stuff that all of us in the aquarium hobby
would call "natural" gravel was probably a bad idea too. But it was
availible and free for the taking by the bucket load from the base
landfill. My guess was it was beeing used to make cement- you know the
Air Force- spring for all the extras! I figured someday I'd want to add
a couple softshells to the community and they'd need a substrate to
burrow in. Plus it enhanced the natural look by hiding the pond liner.

All this stuff added up to the ideal breeding ground for pathogens. I
have since cleaned up my act and narrowed my focus to a smaller
collection of species that I like and generally don't mix them together-
other than the woods and native box turtles which share a spacious pen.
The current colony of spotts which I raised from captive breed babies
purchased-in-the Orlando Expo in 1993 got the original community pond
all to themselves with a simple hygenic setup of a a few potted pond
plants and island platforms made from plastic crates on a bare liner. I
have discovered that simplicity is the best arrangement when it comes to
maintaining anything. Roger Conant had wisdom when he said that a
smaller collection of herps is probably better than a bigger one that
can often overwhelm you. Also it's better to take care of it your self
rather than deligate to someone else. Anyone can toss in food pellets
but will they be keen enough to make sure everyone is getting a fair
share and no one is being bullied or showing signs of illness.

My other lessons are that it sometimes pays to hang in there. Greedy is
still with me and has even produced a few broods of hatchlings since we
returned to PA. Also I treated my turtles then with antibiotics which
I'm wondering how much of their recovery was attributable to them and
how much to the mere fact of the weather getting warmer which would
boost the turtle's immune systems. My book "The Bacterial Diseases of
Reptiles" also recommends "thermotherapy" - ie cranking up the heat (mid
to high 80s for temperate herps- high 90s for tropicals) and keeping it
there round the clock for a few weeks till signs of improvement are
noted and then gradually return to optimal husbandry of the species.
I've successfully treated pneumonia in turtles and snakes this way and
recommend it as an alternative to antibiotics- many of which are
becoming less effective because of overuse anyways. Not sure how this
could apply to fish- though I'd hazzard to guess that warming up some
species - esp tropicals or native species that like warm microhabitats
like topminnows and sunfishes might respond in conjunction with salt or
anti fungal treatments.

I have noted alot of problems bringing fish back from Florida in the
late fall when they are likely to be exposed to cooler temps on top of
new strains of pathogens when they enter my tanks.

I've gone on so long long that I almost forgot my intended comments
about the zoonotic potential of Pseudomonas. I'll just say that as long
as you are healthy and practice good hygiene and eat a balanced diet you
are probably unlikely to catch it. Actually you already harbor this
particular species of bacteria which in addition to being obiquitious
everywhere on planet Earth lives on and inside just about everyone of

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