New disease identified in pet turtles

A researcher has identified the first Australian case of a captive turtle being infected with a highly contagious disease, which has the potential to spread to humans.

If let unchecked, the disease could have a huge impact on Australia native species.

The research will be presented at the Australian Veterinary Association's Unusual and Exotic Pets Annual Conference on Sunday.

Debbie Bannan, a second year veterinary science student from James Cook University in Townsville, says she discovered the disease on an Emydura macquarii, a common species of pet turtle, which was brought to a vet clinic where she was volunteering.

She says the turtle presented with a lesion on its front forelimb, which they thought was an isolated inflammation of the bone and could be treated by amputating its limb and flipper.

"It started to rehabilitate really well," says Bannan. "But three months after that it rapidly went downhill and reluctantly we had to euthanise it."

Bannan says when they conducted a post-mortem, they found the turtle had a bacterial disease, called mycobacterium, that had spread throughout its entire body.

"Mycobacterium is much like staph on human skin, and it can be carried by lots of animals."

The bacterium isn't pathogenic until it enters the body, through air passages, cuts or the intestines, she says.

Bannan says mycobacterium doesn't usually affect healthy animals, but it can have serious consequences for animals that are immuno compromised.

She says treatment for mycobacterium in captive turtles can be lengthy and costly.

"It can take six to 12 months and it's not always successful."

Once the bacterium has spread throughout the body, the turtle will most likely need to be euthanised, she says.

But what concerns Bannan about her research, is that there are no previously recorded cases of mycobacterium in captive turtles in Australia.

"If there is no literature it means it's harder for vets to identify and treat quickly," she says.


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