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  New disease identified in pet turtles
A researcher has identified the first Australian case of a captive turtle being infected with a highly contagious disease, which has the potential to spread to humans.

If let unchecked, the disease could have a huge impact on Australia native species.

The research will be presented at the Australian Veterinary Association's Unusual and Exotic Pets Annual Conference on Sunday.

Debbie Bannan, a second year veterinary science student from James Cook University in Townsville, says she discovered the disease on an Emydura macquarii, a common species of pet turtle, which was brought to a vet clinic where she was volunteering.

She says the turtle presented with a lesion on its front forelimb, which they thought was an isolated inflammation of the bone and could be treated by amputating its limb and flipper.

"It started to rehabilitate really well," says Bannan. "But three months after that it rapidly went downhill and reluctantly we had to euthanise it."

Bannan says when they conducted a post-mortem, they found the turtle had a bacterial disease, called mycobacterium, that had spread throughout its entire body.

"Mycobacterium is much like staph on human skin, and it can be carried by lots of animals."

The bacterium isn't pathogenic until it enters the body, through air passages, cuts or the intestines, she says.

Bannan says mycobacterium doesn't usually affect healthy animals, but it can have serious consequences for animals that are immuno compromised.

She says treatment for mycobacterium in captive turtles can be lengthy and costly.

"It can take six to 12 months and it's not always successful."

Once the bacterium has spread throughout the body, the turtle will most likely need to be euthanised, she says.

But what concerns Bannan about her research, is that there are no previously recorded cases of mycobacterium in captive turtles in Australia.

"If there is no literature it means it's harder for vets to identify and treat quickly," she says.
Wild turtles at risk

Bannan is concerned the disease could transfer to species in the wild.

Often people buy turtles because they're "very cute" when they're young, but people find they don't have room for them when they grow and throw them into a nearby river or waterway, she says.

"They can survive there and then become a threat to native species in the wild."

Bannan says mycobacterium can also transfer to humans.

She says there are reported cases in the US, of children being infected with mycobacterium from their pet turtle.

"It can get in your cuts and cause a lesion."

But Bannan says it is unlikely to make humans sick if they're fit and healthy.

"It's no Hendra virus," she says.

Bannan says the same risk applied to other pets.

"It is unlikely they will get sick if they are fit and healthy."
Good husbandry

Veterinary nurse Sonia Sim, of Deception Bay Veterinary Clinic in Queensland, which specialises in the care of reptiles, says captive turtle are prone to bacterial and fungal skin infections because they're often kept in tanks, which can be a breeding ground for pathogens if the water isn't changed regularly.

She says its important pet owners ensure their turtle has clean water, a balanced diet and access to UV light to prevent it being infected with harmful bacteria.

"We encourage people who keep them in tanks indoors to get them outside a few times a week, which helps to dry out their skin and shell and keep them healthy."

Bannan says more research needs to be done on captive turtles to determine if the entire species is at risk of mycobacterium infection, or just those animals that are unwell.

She says her research demonstrates that mycobacterium can present itself in different ways.

"Veterinarians should look beyond a lesion or a node."
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