Friday, September 7, 2012

Green Sea Turtle Admitted with Severe Intestinal Blockage

Imagine, if you will, a very large, darkly colored cork bobbing around in the coastal waters along a picturesque stretch of beach in South Carolina. This is essentially what a volunteer turtle patroller from the town of Edisto Beach saw when she first spotted Eddie, a juvenile green sea turtle who was admitted into our hospital on August 26th. Visibly bloated and full of excess intestinal gas, Eddie was alert and active but unable to dive below the surface. This buoyancy issue is a huge problem for an animal designed to eat seagrasses and algae that proliferate on the sea floor.

Eddie is a testament to the resiliency of sea turtles in the wild. During his physical exam, we noticed this juvenile green had been struck by a boat earlier this year but had healed quite well without medical intervention. With the exception of the flotation disorder, Eddie was in fairly good health when he was admitted into our hospital. However, there is a strong possibility that this turtle's current buoyancy problem is a complication resulting from this boat strike.

The light-colored line on Eddie's shell (indicated by blue arrow) is healing tissue in the deepest part of the propeller strike.
In 2009, we admitted a green sea turtle named Pawley who presented with essentially the same symptoms as Eddie. X-rays of both turtles showed large loops of gas distended intestines. Although Pawley received intensive treatment - including exploratory surgery - for nearly 3 weeks, he ended up passing due to a complete obstruction of the bowel. Impactions like these are a huge concern for sea turtles worldwide as plastics and other nondigestible materials become more prominent in our oceans. Sea turtles are simply unable to differentiate between food items and trash and, if they consume garbage like bottle caps or balloons, they may end up with an impaction that leads to death.

These plastics, intermixed with jellyfish that look very similar, are floating in a mat of Sargassum. Sargassum is a seaweed that provides food and shelter to a variety of marine animals, including juvenile sea turtles. This photo was taken near Georgetown Hole in 2011 by Nigel Bowers on one of the Aquarium's collecting trips.

Luckily for Eddie, a barium study (performed in-house) and a CT scan donated by the Charleston Veterinary Referral Center have ruled out a complete bowel obstruction. However, we are still unsure what has caused the impaction, as x-rays do not show any foreign objects (certain objects, like plastics, are not visible in x-rays).

Eddie was calm and cooperative during his CT scan thanks to a small dose of a mild sedative.

These are two of the many views we are able to obtain with a CT scan. These scans are much more useful than x-rays as a diagnostic tool as we can view cross-sectional images of different portions of the body. Also, CT scans reveal organs, bones, and soft tissues in greater clarity than x-rays.

Our current treatment regimen is focused on increasing the motility of the gut to encourage the impaction to pass naturally and, so far, Eddie has been passing fecals quite often! We have not found any foreign bodies in Eddie's fecals yet, and he still has a large amount of excess intestinal air that is causing him to bob around like a cork in his tank, but radiographs taken yesterday indicate he is improving. This is great news, as we'd like to avoid surgery to remove the impaction if at all possible.

Eddie receives an enema to encourage his body to pass the contents of his intestinal tract.

Although we are seeing encouraging signs during this initial phase of treatment, Eddie's prognosis is still guarded and surgery may become necessary. Come visit Eddie in our hospital and wish this spunky turtle well as he tries to recover from this severe intestinal obstruction!

Eddie is looking forward to meeting you!

Christi Hughes
Sea Turtle Biologist