Anita PeddicordEvery year many turtles are discovered on roads with injuries from vehicles. Some are found in yard's and are a pet that has escaped or been turned loose. Some have been chewed on by dogs. Many pet turtles have been kept in the wrong environment (an air-conditioned house) and have been fed an improper diet. These animals quite frequently have respiratory infections and may exhibit other signs of disease and malnutrition. Animals in situations like these need to be rescued in order to be given a second chance at life. This article is written to help you deal with the initial care of an injured or ill turtle until you can get it to a qualified vet or wildlife rehabilitator for treatment. This is NOT an article that trains you to do rehabbing. There are many other aspects about rehabbing that this article does not go into. Getting the animal to a vet or rehabber as soon as possible is the best thing to do. However, sometimes you may rescue a turtle at a time when the vets offices are closed or you must wait for a rehabber to return your call. (During the spring and summer many rehabbers are very busy and get several dozen calls a day.) Depending on the situation, it may be a few hours or a couple of days that a turtle must remain in your care. Knowing a few basic things about initial care will keep you from getting into a panic about the situation and keep you from doing anything that might further injure or stress the turtle.
You should know how to handle a turtle especially if you suspect it could be a Snapping Turtle. Snappers are very common to find on roads in many areas including the Texas Gulf Coast. Be extremely careful with any large turtle. Large species are capable of inflicting serious bites. Snapping Turtles can bite fingers off!. They lunge and are lightening fast when they snap and can even snap back over their carapace (upper shell). They have very long necks that might be able to reach you if you pick one up by the sides of the shell. Someone with experience handling snappers can safely pick up smaller ones by their rear legs if there are no serious injuries near the rear of the carapace. Wild snappers will probably be more aggressive than captive raised ones. So keep this in mind if you've always handled captive raised ones. I suggest you use a broom or a long stick and push the turtle into a box. Also, having a towel to cover a turtles head will help protect you and help calm the turtle. I have one lady that has brought me injured turtles from off roads three different times. She now keeps a stick and a box in her car at all times. One time she ran out into the middle of a six lane freeway to rescue a turtle. Please do not risk your life for a turtle by doing this. If you must, see if the police or animal control will help you.
There are other species of turtles (such as chicken, mud and musk turtles) that have necks long enough to bite a finger if picked up in the typical manner by the shell. Ask one of the rehabbers to show you how you can safely pick up one of these turtles. Unless you are familiar with the different species, it may be wise to use the stick, box and towel routine.
OK, now you have rescued an injured turtle with a cracked shell and you have it home. If it is not bleeding profusely and it will only be a matter of hours until you get it to a qualified vet or rehabber, just leave the turtle enclosed in a vented box in a quiet place until then. Do not leave it in an air conditioned room unless you put a heating pad set on low under one end of the box. During warm weather, garages that are not air-conditioned are best if you can keep other animals out. If you leave it outside, flies and fire ants may discover it. If you find a turtle during cool months, you do not want to warm it too quickly. Again, for only a few hours, put the box in a quiet room in your house. Do not handle these turtles except to take care of their needs. Wild turtles are not "comforted " by being petted, they are only stressed. They see us as a large predator and do not realize that we are trying to help them.
If the turtle is bleeding and you can safely do so, apply a bandage and tape it to the shell. You can use non-stick Telfa-type bandages for small wounds. Sanitary napkins cut to size for larger wounds work quite well.
If you discover that for whatever reason you are going to have to keep an injured turtle more than a day and profuse bleeding is not a problem, you may soak the turtle in plain tap water for about an hour once everyday. This will allow the turtle to keep itself hydrated. Aquatic turtles with damaged shells should not be left in water other than for a daily soaking. Leaving them in the water allows bacteria from their stools to enter the wound and cause infection. Box turtles should not have free access to soaking water for the same reason. The soaking water should only be from one half to one inch deep, depending on the size of the turtle. If they turn themselves over in the water, it should not be deep enough that they would drown if they could not right themselves. You should be able to get a turtle to a vet or rehabber within 2 days so do not worry about feeding an aquatic turtle. They must be in the water to eat and you do not want to get food debris into the wound.
If profuse bleeding is a problem, you should not soak the turtle until it has mostly stopped. Sometimes wounds are only on the carapace so soaking in shallow water will not interfere with the blood trying to clot there. Remove any bandages before soaking and replace if there is still bleeding. If a wound looks very deep it could be into the body cavity. In that case, keep water out of the wound and keep it bandaged.
During cool months if you have to keep an injured turtle for a couple of days, you should warm it slowly. Place the turtle in a tank or box lined with newspapers. Place a heating pad under half of the container. Lay a thermometer on the bottom to monitor temperature. Raise the temperature by removing paper layers so that it is raised no more than 5 degrees per day. It should take several days for the temperature to reach 85 degrees. In warmer winter climates, turtles do not under go true hibernation because they come out when weather is warm for short periods. These turtles must be warmed gradually for a few days because their metabolisms are still functioning at a lower level and that level must be raised to normal before they are ever fed. It could be harmful if you fed a turtle that just came out of "hibernation."
Sometimes a turtle with a respiratory infection will come out of hibernation when it's not supposed to. If you find a turtle after cooler weather has set in, it could be an escaped pet and/or a turtle with a respiratory infection. Although, as mentioned before sometimes a mild winter will bring turtles out on warm days. Respiratory infections may not be obvious at first. Look for watery eyes or nose or a clicking sound during breathing. Warm these turtles as described above.
If you find an injured or ill box turtle and it is during non-winter months, besides keeping it warm (85 degrees) and giving it a soak once a day, go ahead and offer it food. Some wild turtles will not eat when kept indoors. If it has a decreased appetite, feed it whatever you can get it to eat. Wild, injured and/or sick turtles may initially respond better to live foods such as earthworms or unpoisoned insects. Also try bananas and peaches. The rehabber in charge of its recovery will eventually get it on to a more balanced diet when its appetite has picked up.
Just because you find a turtle, that does not mean it needs to be rescued. If you find an aquatic turtle on a road and it looks uninjured and it is in an area where there is a water source near, just help it across the road and put it back into the water. Whenever possible, release them into the water source nearest where you found them. If you find an uninjured aquatic turtle in an inappropriate environment for a wild turtle like a yard or a subdivision street then it is probably an escaped pet and should be examined by a vet or rehabber and then put up for adoption into an outdoor habitat. Wild box turtles found on roads should be in areas where there are woods or shrubs. Again, do not rescue these healthy turtles unless there is construction going on in the immediate area and their territory is in danger of being destroyed. Simply help them across the road in the direction they were going and put them in the woods. Do not relocate and release box turtles to another area even if it looks suitable for box turtles. Studies show that relocated box turtles may not survive. Therefore, we do not promote releasing box turtles that must be relocated. They should be put up for adoption into outdoor habitats. If you have any doubts about the health of a turtle you find, let the vet or rehabber look at it and remember exactly where you found it. If it is a box turtle and the rehabber thinks it is healthy, they may want you to release it back where you found it.
Any non-injured turtles with suspicious looking spots (whether white, pink or dark colored) should be taken to a knowledgeable vet or rehabber for evaluation before being released. Sometimes even wild turtles show signs of shell rot or fungal infections and may need treatment.
Note that I did not mention putting any medicines on wounds. Since you will only have a turtle for a short time you do not have to worry about any topical medicines. Keeping a wound clean is most important at this stage. The vet or rehabber you bring the turtle to will determine if it needs any topical medicines or injections.
Do not put new turtles in with others you may have. Respiratory and other infections are very contagious and worms are passed on when sharing water containers. A turtle can have a respiratory infection and not show any obvious signs for a while. Thoroughly wash your hands when going back and forth between handling your pet turtles and handling a new comer.
We need more people who are willing to learn how to rehabilitate turtles. In order to learn this you must live near a turtle rehabber and work closely with them. Many of the turtles that are rehabilitated can not be released for various reasons or need long term monitoring before being released back into the wild. They need good outdoor habitats that they can be released into so they can be protected from predators. Contact the Gulf Coast Turtle & Tortoise Society at firstname.lastname@example.org to see about adopting one of these turtles. The Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society offers turtles for adoption so people will not patronize pet stores that quite often sell sick turtles and could be supporting the highly unregulated pet trade. (Many turtles are shipped under inhumane conditions.) Having a source for turtles also discourages individuals from taking them out of the wild.
I have been a wildlife rehabilitator in the suburbs of Southeast Houston for several years and find turtles fascinating animals.