Understanding and Coping with Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS)   M.Corton

RNS is not a disease, but rather a term used to describe a bacterial/fungal/viral infection with one or more of a wide variety of organisms. It can occur in any species, but seems to be prevalent in Geochelone Pardalis, the Leopard tortoise. It can occur at any time of the year, can be fairly difficult to spot in the early stages, and has a nasty habit of recurring. Any animal that has been infected can, and often does, become a carrier. He may not display any symptoms, but can infect any tortoise that comes into contact with him. Leopard tortoises are the worst affected, perhaps because of their size, nutritional state and a general inability to cope with our humidity and dampness. Those that recover often relapse, especially if treatment is stopped because "he seems much better now".

RNS is more common in large and mixed collections, and can spread alarmingly quickly if prompt action is not taken. Never ignore a runny nose in the hope that it will clear "when the weather improves". If no treatment is obtained, RNS can develop into chronic or acute pneumonia which can be extremely difficult to cure. Quite often stomatitis accompanies RNS which can complicate matters even further. Obviously you have no control over airborne germs, however, you can control other factors that may predispose your tortoise to infection:

There are several factors that can increase the chances of your tortoise  getting RNS - dusty conditions, foreign bodies lodging in the nostrils, inappropriate humidity or temperature, lack of sunlight and the accompanying dampness, confinement in damp grassed areas with no access to sand, overcrowding, malnutrition, stress, and a deficiency of vitamin A.


Ensure that your animal has a healthy diet rich in vitamin A - foods that are high in this vitamin include dandelion, all the pumpkin/butternut family and carrots. If you are unable to supply the food he needs, a good supplement containing this vitamin will be needed. A slow conversion to a "natural" diet will go a long way in keeping your tortoise healthy. Tortoises love "junk" food in the same way that humans are addicted to hamburgers and hot-dogs. In supplying him with a pile of readily accessible kitchen food you are doing a lot of harm.

Think about it for a moment, in the wild he has to sometimes walk several miles in a day to obtain all the food he needs, but the food he does get is geared to supplying his system with all it needs. When he has this pile of "easy" food put in front of him, naturally he will eat it. But, he will lack the exercise he used to get searching for food and his metabolism will slow down. Nutrients (the few that there are in the
usual "kitchen" food) will be poorly utilized, and will not supply all the minerals and vitamins he needs to stay healthy.  Malnutrition is insidious, you cannot easily detect it from the outside, it does not kill overnight, your tortoise seems okay.  You go to bed at night feeling good - "My tortoise ate a good meal today!".  Over the years the damage creeps on, undetected, and the problem ignored. Your tortoise lies around all day sunbathing, eating, sleeping - seemingly healthy, when in reality his body is slowly deteriorating to a point where things start going radically wrong. If, or more likely when disease strikes, your tortoise has more chance of dying than one who is active all day seeking out natural food.

This active tortoise will have muscles that are firm and strong, his metabolism will be functioning in top gear, and his vitamin/mineral intake sufficient to ensure that his immune system gives him sound protection against invasion of disease causing organisms. A tortoise suffering from malnutrition has no such protection against disease, he has no defenses left to fight invaders, and will often succumb to a minor infection.

Do not add any new tortoise to your existing collection without a quarantine period - 6 months is recommended. Your new tortoise may have had RNS and may now be a carrier. There is no way of identifying a carrier with any certainty.

Avoid stress - dogs or other animals worrying your tortoise, overcrowding, competition/aggression from other tortoises, children allowed to "play" with the animal - even inadequate feeding is stressful. Stress causes a number of biochemical changes in the animal, among them the production of steroids which in turn suppresses the immune system - such animals are more likely to succumb to an infection than a healthy non stressed tortoise exposed to the same infectious agent. Stress is almost impossible to detect until it is too late, and can have serious long term effects on the general health and resistance of the animal.

Avoid sleeping quarters that are in a damp area. Provide a dry, snug bed at night. I felt stupid adding this, but I have seen a lot of tortoises allowed to sleep in areas that are totally unsuitable and almost certain to cause eventual respiratory problems.


The worst has happened, your tortoise has a runny nose - what should you do?

First check that there is no foreign body lodged in the nostril - grass seed, grass etc. If one is found it should be removed without delay and drops used as outlined below to clear up any infection it may have caused. Next, correct any vitamin A deficiency. Supplements can be purchased from your vet or pharmacy. Be careful not to overdose - 1000-5000 iu is the recommended weekly dose, 10,000-20,000iu if a single dose is used. (iu - international units)

If a foreign body is not the culprit, ask your vet (or your normal doctor or pharmacy) for a sterile swab. Take a smear of mucous from his nose and get this sample in to your vet or doctor for immediate testing. The results of this test will tell you which organisms are causing the infection and which antibiotics will work effectively against them. This is most important, it is unrealistic to expect a single antibiotic to
work against all "bugs". Most infections in reptiles are caused by what are known as "gram-negative" organisms, and this knowledge enables a vet to hazard a pretty good guess as to what will work. Thus, if testing is out of the question, and/or while you are waiting for the results of the testing, treatment is commenced with an antibiotic effective against gram-negative organisms.

In mild and short standing infections, treatment consists of antibiotic drops given into the nasal chambers once daily. Those most often used are Oxytetracycline (Terramycin), Tylosin, Enrofloxacin (Baytril). First wipe the animal's nose with a disposable paper towel to remove as much mucous as possible. Then a syringe with a short rigid tube is used to instill one drop of antibiotic into each nostril once daily whilst holding the animal in an upright position (to ensure the drug goes well into the nasal cavity). This is best done toward late afternoon before the animal beds down for the night. If the weather is damp or cold it is preferable to place the tortoise in a box indoors at night in a warm area. Beware of using clip-on lamps as these can be dislodged, causing a fire hazard. Severe cases will need to be kept under heat for the duration of treatment. This simple treatment is continued for a week or two after symptoms have disappeared to prevent relapse. Whilst on the subject of antibiotics, bear in mind that some tortoises (Leopard tortoises in particular) are allergic to Baytril. If, of course, the results of the test come back indicating that a different antibiotic is required, you should switch over immediately. Cortisone should never be used as it suppresses the immune system of an already compromised animal.

While this treatment usually works, remember also that the conditions that initially caused the infection may still prevail (stress, malnutrition, dampness etc.) and that this should be rectified if you wish to avoid relapse.

This isn't working!

You have tried the drops, and they don't seem to be working. Now what?  Some infections are complicated. More than one organism could be involved, necrotic stomatitis could be complicating the infection, acute or chronic pneumonia could be setting in. There are any number of reasons, and whatever the cause prompt action must be taken. Veterinary advice must be obtained without delay as a course of injectable antibiotic will usually be necessary. These injections are usually given every 48-72 hours because metabolic take-up is slow and the drug could build up in the tortoise's system and reach toxic levels.

It is vital to keep the tortoise at a higher temperature for the duration  of treatment, this speeds up metabolism and drug distribution and also boosts the animal's immune system. A temperature of around 28-33 degrees is usually recommended. It is most important that hydration be maintained, if the animal is not drinking water your vet can inject fluids subcutaneously (under the skin) or intracoelomically (into the
space between the intestinal canal and body wall). Some drugs affect the renal system and renal failure can result if hydration is not maintained. A course of five to ten injections are usually required, depending on the drug used. Where nephrotoxic drugs (damaging to the renal system) are used they should be injected into the forelimbs, otherwise severe kidney damage could result. With other drugs the rear limbs can be used. In severe cases nebulisation can be used to aid treatment, using the antibiotic recommended by your vet, mixed 1/2 ml antibiotic with 5 ml saline. This should be done 4 times daily if possible. Yes, a tortoise can stop breathing for a considerable time, but a sick animal usually hasn't the strength to do so and there for nebulising does work in a number of cases and certainly should be tried.

Finally, do not make the mistake of comparing RNS to the human common cold or flu, and think that it will clear by itself if given time. It won't. Treatment is essential, and as soon as possible. The longer RNS is left the more difficult it is to clear. RNS can and does kill, don't let your tortoise become a victim. Inspect nostrils daily if possible and get help fast if you spot any nasal discharge.

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