herald

Saturday 3 December 2016

My giant turtle has stopped eating - how can I get his appetite back?

Mr Swampy needs to start eating again before his hibernation in autumn

Marc didn't set out to get himself a turtle as big as a large dog. He had been the successful owner of a terrapin for several years when someone he knew came across a tiny baby turtle that needed a home. Marc agreed to adopt him, and Mr Swampy was left on his doorstep in a bucket, measuring the same size as the face of a wristwatch.

That was 10 years ago, and the way that Mr Swampy has flourished is testament to the excellent care that Marc has given him.

In the beginning, he lived in a heated tank indoors, but as he grew bigger, Marc had to relocate him to a bigger area. He now lives in a large heated tank, measuring 5ft by 7ft, in the a specially constructed cabin in Marc's back garden.

He is fed on a mixture of meat and fish, including turkey breasts, whole salmon and trout, and prawns. He's an active creature, and he loves swimming. Mr Swampy is going to be a lifelong companion for Marc: he's expected to live for up to 100 years. Mr Swampy now weighs 24kg (nearly four stone) and as you can see from the picture, he is a strong, muscular animal.

Common Snapping Turtles are native to the American continent, and they are well named: they have a long muscular neck, and can lash out with their jaws with the speed of a rattle snake striking. He does not have teeth, which is just as well: on one occasion, he snapped at Marc, catching his hand between his jaws. It took several weeks for the serious bruising to settle down. Marc has learned to keep well out of reach of those powerful crushing jaws.

Mr Swampy enjoys being left to do his own thing, and if he needs to be handled, Marc approaches him from behind, grasping his shell far enough back so that he's safely out of reach.

Mr Swampy has always hibernated in the winter, from the beginning of November, but as the climate has become milder in Ireland, he's been taking shorter hibernations. He used to snooze for three or four months, but this year, he only hibernated for two months, waking up at the beginning of January.

The transition from hibernation to normal life is always a stressful time, and it takes Mr Swampy a few weeks to get back to his normal eating habits. This year, his hunger for food has never quite returned to its normal enthusiastic level, and Marc has noticed that he has been losing weight. He's now about 10pc lighter than he was in his prime.

Marc brought him to see me for a check-up, and my first reaction was to suggest going to a vet with a particular interest in turtles. As a vet in general practice, it's rare for me to see a dinosaur-like creature like Mr Swampy. Marc insisted that he'd like me to do an initial assessment, so I agreed to see what I could do.

I gave him a careful physical examination (although it is difficult to get close to an animal hidden inside a shell, in comparison to the usual dogs and cats that I see). I then took an X-ray: he was happy to sit still while I did this.

specialist

A blood sample - taken with a syringe and needle from the underside of his tail - is the next key part of an investigation into what's wrong with him. While we are waiting for all the results to return, and then to discuss his case with specialist turtle vets, Mr Swampy has been given interim treatment with a multivitamin injection to try to boost his appetite.

I suspect that Mr Swampy may have a metabolic problem with his liver, complicated by mild pneumonia. He's likely to need a course of antibiotics, and he may still go to see a specialist for more blood samples and other tests. He has to be fit and ready for his hibernation this autumn.

We're working hard to get the right treatment sorted for him before his next big sleep.

> Some species of turtle can grow to a massive size

> They can live for over 100 years

> Treatment of sick turtles can be complicated.

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