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One Tortoise Trust members' experience of a viral epidemic

Posted to the TT Website as a cautionary note. Please also see "Disease Prevention" article.

It was March, and I had been having problems with my 3 semi-adult Leopards, who were now under veterinary supervision. I had obtained them from a reptile dealer largely because they appeared to be in poor health, and was hoping that love and proper husbandry, alongside my vet's knowledge and enthusiasm, would lead to a full recuperation. They were to die, however, over the following months, and I now believe that their condition was responsible for the problems which were to ensue within my main collection.
I was beginning the awakening of my tortoises when I found to my dismay that a relatively new male had emerged and died since my last check. The babies, meanwhile, had been out a month and were eating voraciously, soon to be followed by the rest of the males. My lone T. ibera, however, was very slow to get going, and a visit to the vet revealed an unhealthy blood cell count and low thyroid level. A course of antibiotics and thyroid tablets afforded no improvement, and after a month he was dead.
My females were woken and busy feeding within a couple of days; the regular layers rapidly increasing in weight, a sign for me to ensure that the greenhouse was warm, damp, and ready for nest-building. By the end of April, several clutches of eggs had been laid, and I began to re-home some of my hatchlings before the arrival of the new ones. Then, one evening in mid-June I discovered one of my male Horsfield's dead. A post-mortem indicated that he had fed recently, and revealed the sole symptom of an inexplicable reddening in the top field of his lungs.
My usual careful attention became an obsession; if an animal didn't eat immediately, I was weighing and inspecting daily. When in early July, a female rejected her favourite food, a veterinary examination diagnosed possible viral infection. A course of antibiotics, intravenous fluids and tender loving care lasted all of 4 days after which she too died, and another post- mortem provided samples for laboratory analysis.
Soon two 3 year olds had ceased to eat, and my usual vet being unavailable, an appointment was made with Stuart McArthur to which I was told to bring as much information as possible. We discussed food, disinfectants, water supplies, numbers and types of animals kept, plus the case studies of the past deaths in detail, and although the prognosis for the two babies was not optimistic, the decision was made to attempt treatment. My collection was immediately divided into small groups, food and water sources changed, with individual members of my family responsible for the different groups of tortoises. All the animals received prophylactic treatment with Baytril, and with Trigene, the disinfectant selected by my vet.
It wasn't long before some positive test results had been obtained; they revealed the presence of the "Chlamidya" organism, for which exposed animals can be treated but remain carriers. Within another week the two youngsters returned home, much improved and eating well. The treatment of the other animals was reduced in frequency and concentration but strict quarantine still observed, and for a short period, the medication alone was stopped. After a few weeks, however, symptoms began to re-emerge in further animals, and my vet and I were in constant communication.
The lab results on the first female death were fairly inconclusive, but did yield remarks about infiltrations of white blood cells in other bodily tissues and multiple divisions of these cells. Leukaemia was a possibility, but, hitherto unknown in UK tortoises, was considered an unlikely diagnosis. More and more animals began to degenerate over the next few weeks, however, and more and more samples were taken, each demonstrating similar results. It was beginning to look as though something had indeed caused an epidemic of leukaemia in my collection, and how such a development might have occurred needed research. This was a task of vast proportions, and the possibilities of: radiation; toxins, and virus were investigated thoroughly. The viral option was considered the most probable as despite the considerable size of the collection, the problem remained limited to two groups only. The major task was then to find a laboratory to attempt to locate the virus. An eminent avian virologist was persuaded to conduct the research with the co-operation and resources of several professional bodies necessary in such new work. Samples from the dead animals were used to develop cell cultures and investigation began. Meanwhile other pathology labs were given the opportunities examine samples and formulate their opinions. One such lab was quick to comment that the tissue alteration looked not dissimilar to that caused by a strain of herpes virus in poultry causing a condition called "Mareks Disease". This observation was widely discussed, and the results of further tests helped to decide that the similarity was not coincidental.
All the remaining animals from the original collection were exhibiting symptoms by this time. The condition, if viral, was either the same as the avian herpes that had crossed species, or a chelonia variation of it. The chance of survival being nil, the awful decision was taken to euthanase the tortoises. Although for some time a number of animals had been demonstrating signs of improvement, deterioration had soon followed, and so, I lost my main collection.
Next I had to rid my home of this dreadful virus. The entire house was thoroughly cleaned; a task taking several weeks and many gallons of disinfectant, and it was many weeks more before I allowed myself contact with my remaining tortoises. I am now convinced that my Leopards were the cause of the problem. They experienced a demise identical to that of the others, and I maintain that they must have contracted the virus before being bought by me, hence their initial poor health. Needless to say, it is my hope that this experience is not repeated, but should it be, communication within the tortoise world is essential if a solution is to be found for the condition.
I would like to offer heartfelt thanks to all the many people who provided help and support throughout my ordeal and a wish that something valid may be learnt from it.