Tortoise parasites - worms

Parasitic worm eggs under the microscope  - each type has its own distinctive appearance, so they can be identified and counted, enabling the severity of an infection to be assessed from a faecal sample. 

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What kind of worms can tortoises get?

By far the most common type identified in tortoises are members of the nematode group.

Within this group, the parasitic worms most likely to be encountered in European pet tortoises are oxyurids, particularly in Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) and Horsfield’s (Agrionemys horsfieldi).

Oxyurids are small parasites, measuring 1.5-7mm (0.06-0.28in) in length, which is why they are popularly called pin worms.

Ascarids, another parasitic worm within the nematode group are also recorded, although seemingly more often in Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises (T. graeca).

Ascarids are significantly larger, measuring up to about 10cm (4in) in the case of the species called Angusticaecum holopterum. Ascarids are more commonly known as intestinal roundworms.

Keeping tortoises together increases the possibility of a worming problem arising, and affecting all members of the group

Jump to: Which tortoise's can get worms? | Symptoms of a tortoise worm infection | How to eliminate worms in tortoises | Tortoise worming treatments | How to collect a faecal sample | How do tortoises get worms? | How to prevent environmental transmission| Can humans get worms from tortoises? | Do you need to worm your tortoise regularly?

Which tortoises can get worms?

All tortoises are potentially vulnerable to parasitic worms, particularly those kept in groups because of the way in which these parasites are spread.

In the case of the typical pet tortoises listed above, studies suggest that young tortoises are particularly at risk from oxyurids, and females may be somewhat more vulnerable than males.

Symptoms of a tortoise worm infection

In a significant number of cases, there may be no obvious signs of infection, but where clinical signs are present, an affected tortoise is likely to be less active.

It will also show less or indeed little interest in food, and signs of weight loss may be apparent.

You can also check your tortoise's excrement for evidence, although this may not reveal anything.

Within tortoise excrement there are two different components: a dark faecal component and the whitish element known as urates. It is possible that some tiny pin worms may be seen in the faecal component, appearing whitish and semi-transparent.

However, the only way to be certain whether your tortoise has worms is to organise a faecal test where the microscopic eggs can be detected.

Much depends on the numbers of worms involved in an infection. A significant build-up of these parasites is likely to create more of a problem, causing serious damage to the intestinal tract, and even possibly blocking it completely, which can result in sudden death.

This is particularly likely with ascarids (roundworms), as they are significantly larger than oxyurids (pin worms).

There is another important distinction between oxyurids and ascarids, in that ascarids display a tendency to leave the gut, and travel more widely through the body.

This can then give rise to a wide range of other symptoms, depending on which part of the body is affected.

In one case, an ascarid was found to be responsible for a swelling in the vicinity of a tortoise’s ear.

How to eliminate worms in tortoises

The most important thing is to visit your vet to determine whether your pet has worms and needs treatment. A faecal test is recommended, ahead of any deworming treatment.

A specialist reptile vet can assess the results and advise accordingly. You can find a vet here.

It is worth remembering that the presence of some intestinal worms, especially pinworms, is now considered not necessarily a bad thing, as their movements in the gut may help to break up the food as it is being digested. This can make it easier for the tortoise to absorb nutrients into its body.

It is very much a question of assessing your tortoise’s overall condition, in terms of its weight, age and other factors such as the type of worms and the time of year, before deciding on the best course of treatment.

Tortoise worming treatments

There are some premix products that can be purchased which are specially intended for tortoises.

These are typically based on the drug Flubendazole (a member of the Benzimidazole group), and should be safe to use, provided the dosage instructions and associated recommendations are followed carefully.

You will need to weigh your tortoise to get an accurate weight in grams before preparing the wormer.

The best way to treat your tortoise is to give the de-wormer directly into the mouth, using a needle-less syringe of suitable size. An advantage of going to see a specialist vet is that this can be done at the practice for you.

You could also place the dose on the tortoise’s food, but ensure the surface is damp first as this will help the medication to stick to it.

Be certain to provide something that your tortoise likes to eat as well, to maximise the likelihood that the de-wormer will be eaten.

Alternatively, it might be feasible to dose your tortoise when it has a bath, depending on the product advice.

This obviously depends on your pet drinking enough of the medication while it is in the bath, making the method less reliable.

It is very important to make sure that your tortoise is kept well-hydrated after the deworming treatment is given.

Regular tepid baths and food with a high water content such as lettuce should be offered at this stage, to flush the dead worms through the gut and out of the body.

Never be tempted to treat a tortoise’s worms yourself using medication sold for dogs or cats.

How to collect a faecal sample

This is quite straightforward if you prepare everything in advance, as only a small amount of the tortoise’s droppings will be required.

You will need a small clear container with a screw lid. Write a label with your name and indicate the type of tortoise.

Then with a small flat piece of wood, scoop up some fresh faecal matter, put it in the container, and fix the top on securely.

You should drop it round to your veterinary practice as soon as possible.

Alternatively, there are vet laboratories who will assess samples and supply the results which you can then discuss with your vet.

You can buy a testing kit online, and the relevant laboratory will send you the worm count kit, with instructions for collecting and mailing the sample.

Tortoise worm counts

Contrary to what this term suggests, it’s not a question of looking for worms as such, but rather their microscopic eggs.

The results are then usually expressed in the form of an ‘epg’ figure on reports, which stands for ‘eggs per gram’. This gives an indication of the number of mature adult worms in the tortoise’s gut. High figures such as an epg of 10,000, can indicate a potentially fatal burden of these parasites.

How do tortoises get worms?

The most common route is indirectly from each other, via contaminated surroundings.

Huge numbers of eggs are passed out of the body in the faeces, and these will accumulate rapidly in the tortoises’ environment, where they are living in a confined space.

Much still remains to be learnt about the details of the individual life-cycles of these parasites, but the basic principles are the same. In the case of oxyurid worms (pin worms), the eggs themselves are infectious, hatching in the tortoise’s intestinal tract once swallowed.

Whereas ascarid worm eggs (intestinal roundworms) hatch into tiny larvae that are ingested and then continue their development in the tortoise’s body.

It is therefore clear that if you have a single tortoise with worms, then other tortoises sharing its accommodation are vulnerable to acquiring the infection from contaminated food or water, or indeed the containers being used.

Significantly too, the eggs can survive for some time in the environment, so that a tortoise may become infected in dirty surroundings, even without another tortoise being present.

This is why you cannot assume when you buy a tortoise housed on its own that it will be free of worms, especially if it has been housed where tortoises were previously present.

Can tortoises re-infect themselves with these parasites?

Yes, it is very easy for a tortoise to reinfect itself with worms, either when living on a tortoise table indoors or outside in a garden.

This contrasts with the situation in the wild, where tortoises roam over much bigger distances, and so are less likely to encounter a significant build-up of parasitic eggs in their environment.

How do I prevent environmental transmission?

By ensuring good hygiene, starting with regular faecal sampling. This is the key from the outset.

Check your tortoise when you first acquire it so you can monitor or treat it if required. This will ensure there is no major build-up of parasites in its housing.

Should your tortoises graze outside regularly, it is a good idea to move your pet’s run around the lawn, so that it is less likely to come into contact with worm eggs.

Equally, it is also very important to clear up carefully after your pet.

Quarantining a new tortoise

As far as parasitic worms are concerned, it is important to get worm counts carried out as soon as you acquire your pet.

If required, treatment can then be given. It is a good idea to use old newspaper as bedding, as it can be much easier to see whether treatment has been effective at expelling the worms.

Furthermore soiled paper can be changed very easily, minimising any risk of reinfection too.

Can humans get worms from tortoises?

No, the types of worms that tortoises suffer from are not a risk to people, but you should obviously wash your hands thoroughly when cleaning out, handling or feeding your tortoise.

Disposable gloves are a good idea when cleaning your tortoise’s housing, on grounds of good hygiene.

Do you need to worm your tortoise regularly?

No, not necessarily. The most important thing is to be guided by regular faecal worm counts, and the advice of a specialist reptile vet.

It is usual to focus on deworming at certain times of year - firstly, in the autumn before hibernation. This is because a build-up of worms at this stage could be fatal over the hibernation period.

Deworming may be recommended again in the spring, because studies have shown that post-winter, the egg output increases significantly.

By dealing with the issue in the spring you reduce the likelihood of your tortoise seriously reinfecting itself during the summer.

Helping your tortoise after treatment

A deworming treatment may interfere with the tortoise’s natural gut flora, but there are rarely any serious issues, provided that the dosage instructions are followed.

Nevertheless, it may be helpful to use a probiotic product to reinforce the existing population of beneficial bacterial and other microbes in the tortoise’s gut following deworming.

It is important to seek out those recommended for reptiles, such as Vetark’s Reptoboost, which also contains electrolytes as well as other beneficial ingredients.

Can I deworm my tortoise with a puppy wormer?

Only use products recommended specifically for tortoises, unless recommended by your vet.

It is very important to remember that some products that are safe for puppies, such as drugs of the Avermectin group like Ivermectin, will be fatal to tortoises.

Incidentally, there appears to be little risk of tortoises acquiring a Toxocara canis worm infection from a puppy when they are sharing a garden.

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