A Turtle’s Painful Appendage Problem

Anatomy is a fascinating subject. This is especially true if you compare the many differences among animal species. Veterinarians need to be aware of these variations since they affect the course of action taken when addressing an illness. Sometimes anatomy can make for interesting conversations, with situations that can be quite uncomfortable for the owner as well as the patient.

Frank brought his adult box turtle Speedy in for an exam. Although we encourage owners of exotic animals to come in for annual visits, many come in only when their pet is experiencing a health concern. This was the case with Frank and Speedy.

“Hey, Doc, you usually see my dogs, but today I brought in Speedy. This may sound crazy, but I really dig my turtle. He knows when I’m home from work and he greets me in the yard. My dogs are kept in the house, so Speedy gets to roam the whole yard. Anyway, I’m not sure what is going on, but there’s some craziness happening by Speedy’s rear end.”

Smiling, I reached into the pet carrier and pulled Speedy out. “Speedy is a very handsome male three-toed box turtle. And yes, he does have something serious going on with his rear end.”

Frank nodded, “I had a feeling he was a boy, but I was never really sure. How do you know, Doc?”

“Well,” I replied, “the traits that tell me he’s a male are his markings, eye color, shell characteristics and tail length. What made it obvious, though, is his traumatized penis.”

“Oh, OK … wait, what?” With tilted head and furrowed brow, Frank slowly sat down in his seat.

“The craziness you mentioned earlier is Speedy’s penis. It appears traumatized, and I think I may have to amputate it.”

As my evaluation sank in, Frank seemed to go pale. Strange as it may seem, this is the usual reaction I get from clients when I mention the words “penis” and “amputation” at the same time.

“Will Speedy … I mean is he going to be all right?” stammered Frank.

“Well, the anatomy of male turtles makes amputation an option in these situations. What probably happened was that Speedy scraped his penis on rocks or snagged it on the brush in your yard. With trauma comes swelling and infection. We can try to reduce the swelling and treat Speedy with antibiotics, but given the way it looks today, I don’t think we will be successful.”

Frank agreed to hospitalization for Speedy, and asked that we do whatever it takes to save his buddy’s appendage. Though we tried, Speedy’s penis did not improve. Three days later, we went to surgery and performed the amputation. Frank was worried about Speedy’s ability to urinate after the procedure. I assured him that male turtles do not need their penis to pass urine, and so the surgery shouldn’t affect Speedy’s overall health.

Two weeks later, Speedy was zooming around his yard. Did he miss his amputated appendage? Who knows? According to Frank, Speedy was back to his normal self. Well, minus one anatomical part.

Dr. John Kaya is director of the Windward Community College veterinary technician program and associate veterinarian for VCA University Animal Hospital.