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Drowning In Tortoises

A note from Tortoise Group: If you are concerned about what to do if you find your tortoise at the bottom of the swimming pool read the article below ahead of time so you will understand something about how tortoises breathe and how they respond to deep water. THEN, IF YOU FIND YOUR TORTOISE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POOL YOU WILL KNOW NOT TO GIVE UP HOPE EVEN IF THE TORTOISE APPEARS DEAD. TRY THE SUGGESTED FIRST AID BELOW AND TAKE THE TORTOISE TO A KNOWLEDGEABLE VETERINARIAN.

Medical Information and Case Histories on Turtles and Tortoises

Walter J. Rosskopf, DVM
Animal Medical Centre of Lawndale
4473 W. Rosecrans Avenue
Hawthorne, California 90250
(213) 679-0601

Treatment of Drowning In Tortoises

The recent Southern California flash floods have produced many water inhalation end drowning victims among the tortoise population. Many of these have been brought in for treatment. Occasionally I get frantic calls from tortoise keepers who find, to their horror, that a tortoise has fallen into a swimming pool. This perplexing problem has produced many interesting cases and has prompted this article.

Drowning has been defined as “asphyxiation due. to submersion in water or other liquid”. Prolonged submersion leads to: (1) Anoxia (lack of oxygen) from severe reflex laryngospasm or flooding of the lungs or (2) Ventricular fibrillation (the so called “can of worms” effect on the heart when the individual muscles beat out of order and wildly resulting in lack of blood flow). Immediately after submersion, there frequently is a severe protective laryngospasm which acts to exclude water (or other liquid) from the deeper portions of the airway, but when this relaxes, the liquid is aspirated into the lungs.

During fresh water submersion, the aspirated hypotonic (less specific gravity than blood) water passes from the alveoli into the vascular system, where it produces hemolysis (destruction of blood cells), hemodilution (dilution of blood) and hyperkalemia (excess potassium due to lysis of cells), sometimes resulting in ventricular fibrillation (excess potassium has this effect on the heart muscle). Sea water submersion is quite different and doesn’t concern us now.

Large amount of water are swallowed during submersion. When removed from the water, the victim is usually unconscious, flaccid, cold and cyanotic (blue from lack of oxygen), with an imperceptible or failing pulse and absent respiration.

The signs of death are unreliable in drowning and resuscitation should be started immediately. The first thing I usually do is to hold the tortoise upside-down and press into the flanks after opening the mouth. You may be able to remove some water but do not waste much time on this technique. Remember that respiration in the tortoise is not the same as in other reptiles. Most reptiles breathe by changing the volume of the body cavity by contracting of the muscles moving the ribs therefore increasing the volume of the body cavity, creating a negative pressure which is restored to atmospheric level by air rushing into the lungs. By contraction of body muscles, the volume of the body cavity is reduced, forcing air out of the lungs. Tortoises, because of fusion of ribs with the shell do not breathe by this means. They use the same principle of changing pressure but must contract two flank muscles to enlarge the body cavity. Contraction of two other muscles, coincident with relaxation of the first two, forces the viscera upward against the lungs, causing exhalation. All this is in contrast, to the use of a diaphragm as mammals have. Pressure on the diaphragm in humans used to be a common part of the lung clearing process in people. In tortoises a minimum of clearing effect can be achieved by pressing on the flanks.

The next step is mouth to nose resuscitation. The mouth is held tightly shut and the rescuer should blow as hard as possible into the nostrils, inflating the lungs. This should be done ten to twenty times per minute to overcome anoxia. The tortoise’s heart will often continue to beat even in death so cardiac stimulation is usually not necessary (it would be almost impossible because of the shell but one may strike the shell, to shock the heart into action if necessary).

Persistent rescuers will continue heroic measures at least fifteen minutes before giving up. Tortoises can live a remarkably long time without oxygen.

If the stomach is distended with water it may be necessary to pass a stomach tube. This will relieve pressure on the lungs and large blood vessels.

After care is very important. Appropriate supportive therapy includes warmth, steroids for shock, and antibiotics. A victim may need force feeding by stomach tube or feeding gell, and needs careful rest and care for weeks afterwards.

Remember that aspirated desert water contains dirt and pneumonia is almost always seen even if little water is aspirated. I routinely put all drowning or aspiration cases on Ampicillin and injectable vitamins to build resistance and prevent infection. Even those that are seemingly “just drenched” should have one or two prophylactic injections of an effective antibiotic. One must also be on guard for eye infections and sore throats which are frequently an aftermath of water submersion. Mouth rot is a common complication. Needless to say, a recovering victim should not be allowed to hibernate until all is completely well.