Facts on upper respiratory tract disease in tortoises and turtles are revealed in this exclusive interview with the world renowned scientist, Professor Mary B. Brown, Ph.D. She was part of a team that worked to identify Mycoplasma as the organism causing URTDin 1992. Professor Brown has continued to address new and difficult questions about the effects of this disease on tortoises and she contributes highly valued expertise to many organizations working to save tortoises. The interview took place in Palmdale on January 25, 2003 when Dr. Brown was visiting California and about to be honored by the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee with the Golden Tortoise Award.
Stephanie Pappas (SP): Dr. Brown, California Turtle and Tortoise Club 's (CTTC) Adoption Committees receive many tortoises every year that are sick with runny noses. What is the best way adoption chairs can hold turtles and tortoises with URTD symptoms?
Mary Brown (MB):The most important point is that you quarantine the tortoise with the runny nose from others and that you spray down the area with bleach after the animal has been there. If you use plastic containers it is easy to wash out with bleach, but if the area is dirt then you have to worry that some bacteria is left behind. If you use a grass area that is designated for an ill animal, you should keep it as far away as possible from your healthy tortoises. We did one small pilot study where we took Gopher tortoises with active runny noses out of a pen and immediately put healthy tortoises in and we did not get any transmission of the disease in the burrows, but this was a very limited study. I suspect that long-term survival of M. agassizii is not occurring and that if you left an area for a week you should be very safe. If you spread the area with bleach, you would be even safer.
SP: In order to prevent URTD from spreading to healthy captive and native populations of tortoises, some rescue organizations have discussed euthanizing all tortoises with severe runny nose syndrome. What is your feeling on this topic?
MB: That is a very tough question and really hard to answer! One of the biggest problems we face is differentiating between conservation values, risk to the wild populations, and the genuine love that people have for these animals. It is difficult to euthanize an animal. In captivity there are tortoises that live for a very long time and are carriers of M. agassizii for life. These tortoises may be clinically ill and have symptoms on and off. Remember, this is an intermittent disease and the tortoise is not always going to be sick. They recover from clinical signs with antibiotic therapy and get over the clinical signs. The damage is to the respiratory tract, but if the tortoise is properly fed and cared for they can live for a very long time. The animal will never be cured, but they will be in a holding pattern for life. The clinical signs may reappear on and off throughout the life of the tortoise, and you will need to treat the animal when symptoms appear. If you are going to keep the tortoise, be responsible and do not infect other tortoises and turtles. Never release the tortoise back into the wild populations and when it is ill with clinical symptoms, segregate it from the rest of your population.
SP: Dr. Brown, what is the best treatment for URTD today and what is the difference in treating with oral medication versus injections?
MB: Baytril is one of the best choices! However-Baytril is Baytril, it does not matter if it is taken orally or given by injection. We published data on antibiotic resistance and sensitivities. Mycoplasma are sensitive to Baytril, Tetracycline, and Doxycycline, but Baytril seems to be easier on the animal's gastrointestinal tract. The treatment is completely dependent on how the organism responds to the antibiotic, but is also dependent on how the tortoise responds to the infection, how severe the disease is, and how long the clinical signs have been there. Mycoplasmosis is one of those diseases where the host (the tortoise) participates! If you have a tortoise that is responding vigorously to the treatment, that means you may have very severe lesions on the respiratory surface. On the opposite side, a tortoise that is not responding very well to the treatment is an indication that the tortoise has an immune response to the bacteria causing the disease.
SP: What do you do when you have treated a tortoise for 20 plus days, 3 or 4 times in a row and the runny nose continues to be persistent?
MB: Well if the animal is eating well, active and not lethargic, that is an indication that it should do well for this bout of infection. What you need to worry about is a tortoise that is very lethargic and not eating at all. This is a sign that the disease is very severe. Most of the tortoises with URTD do very well in captivity because of proper husbandry and care, but we have seen cases that are just like an avalanche and there is no hope for the animal. Remember, I am a research specialist not a reptile medicine veterinarian.