Aural Abscesses or ear infections are a common problem for both captive and wild caught turtles and can occur in just one ear or both ears. An abscess is a localized collection of pus made up of dead inflammatory cells called neutrophils. Although biologists and veterinarians do not completely understand why turtles are so susceptible to aural abscesses, lack of Vitamin A in the diet (hypovitaminosis A) is a contributing factor. Exposure of the turtle to toxins such as organochlorines, which inhibit the synthesis of Vitamin A, is also a predisposing factor.
Vitamin A is important in maintaining the integrity of all epithelial cells. In turtles, epithelial cells of the respiratory tract are especially sensitive. Without Vitamin A, the cells lining the ear and respiratory tract undergo a process called metaplasia. During metaplasia, the normal rectangular or columnar cells of the ear and respiratory tract are replaced with flat or squamous cells. These changes result in the accumulation of debris and inflammatory cells leading to an aural abscess. Depending on the severity, aural abscesses can also be accompanied with an upper respiratory infection. Signs of upper respiratory infections include discharge from nares, swollen and weepy eyes, and gurgling sounds from the respiratory tract.
At Turtle Rescue Team, we surgically remove the abscess (looks like cottage cheese!), thoroughly clean the ears, and pack the surgical site(s) with Triple Antibiotic Ointment (TAO) until the surgical site is healed. Although treating aural abscesses is relatively straightforward, it can be life threatening especially when accompanied with an upper respiratory infection. If you see a wild turtle that you believe has an aural abscess with or without an upper respiratory infection, please contact Turtle Rescue Team or your closest wildlife rehabilitator.