CROW Case of the Week: Red-bellied Cooter (#18-4482)

The red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni), known more affectionately in these parts as Florida red-bellies, is a good-sized freshwater turtle. The color of the carapace – the upper shell – varies from brownish to black, but the shell does have a reddish band across the middle of the plates and vary with the age and the sex of the reptile. The plastron – or bottom portion of the shell – sports a brighter color.

While some aquatic terrapins are difficult to find, paddlers can usually spy a red-bellied cooter on a rock or log along the side of a river or creek. Interestingly, these turtles sun themselves this way to control their body temperatures.

At CROW, an adult female Florida red-bellied cooter was admitted after it was hit by a car along Highway 82 in Lehigh Acres. The turtle suffered a mildly displaced fracture of its carapace, which extended down the midline to the back of the shell.

“The fracture was approximately eight inches long. There were only two parts to the fracture, and the fracture line traveled almost directly up the middle of the carapace from the rear,” said Dr. Malka Spektor, CROW veterinary intern. “There was minimal displacement, and good alignment of the fracture fragments, making the repair pretty straight forward and simple.”

The wound was bandaged after radiographs were taken. The patient was provided with pain medication and fluids. “The bandaging allows the open tissue to begin the healing process without becoming contaminated or infected,” explained Dr. Spektor.

Veterinarians later affixed grommets to the turtle’s shell using epoxy. Once the grommets were in place, they were wired together. The grommets and wires will stay in place to stabilize the fracture site as it heals and will be removed once it is stable.

“Every turtle fracture repair is a little different, depending on the fracture. When we can, we prefer to use the grommets and epoxy over drilling screws into the shell because screws are more invasive, and we are placing more holes in the shell,” said Dr. Spektor. “The goal of any fracture repair is good alignment and stability of the fragments to put the shell back together and hold it until healing occurs. If we can achieve that healing with glued pieces that hold the wires in place, we will do that. We glue the grommets with superglue and epoxy in strategic places across the fracture. After it sets for 24 hours, we oppose the fracture by using wires, and we can tighten them to hold those fragments together.”

The wiring process brings the shell fragments closer together. “The wiring actually tightens the shell pieces together, and then keeps them in place until the body produces bridges to hold them together,” said Dr. Spektor. “The wiring is usually kept in place for four to six weeks, depending on the patient and the fracture.”

The red-bellied cooter is expected to be fine after the grommets are removed. “We do a staged reduction of the fracture, taking off one piece at a time to ensure it is stable before removing all of it,” added Dr. Spektor. “Once all of the hardware is removed, and we make sure that it is stable, the patient can be released.”


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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