Last week, a concerned fisherman brought this gorgeous softshell turtle to the Wildlife Medical Clinic. When he found her, she had a fish hook caught in her mouth, but by the time she reached our hospital, the hook was nowhere in sight. We weren’t sure if the turtle had swallowed the hook or somehow managed to remove it. Luckily, metal objects show up beautifully on radiographs—even the novice radiologist can identify the thing that’s not like the others in this picture. (More experienced observers might also notice the abnormality caudal—more towards the tail—of this girl, which, for a number of reasons, we have so far decided not to treat but are monitoring closely, so stay tuned!)
We were unable to perform surgery that same day, but when it was time, we took another x-ray to make sure the hook was still in the same place. This time, we sedated the turtle and extended her head and neck. Softshell turtles have extremely long necks (See for yourself!), and when their heads are retracted into their shells, it can be difficult to differentiate the soft tissue of the esophagus (throat) from that of the stomach. With the neck extended, we confirmed that the hook was indeed in the stomach, and prepped her for surgery.
Because turtles have shell on the top (called the carapace) and bottom (called the plastron) of their bodies, the surgical approach to the stomach is not quite as straightforward as it is for your chocolate Labrador who eats socks. Our options were to cut through the shell or use the non-shelled areas around the turtle’s legs to enter the abdomen. We opted for the latter, and made an incision just in front of her left hind leg. Some skilled maneuvering helped us identify the stomach and with gentle palpation (fancy for feeling around) we were able to locate the hook and cut it out. She is so far recovering well from surgery, and as long as things continue to look good and she can digest food appropriately, we’ll hopefully send her on her merry way within a couple of weeks!
UPDATE (August 14): The softshell turtle that had a gastrotomy (gastro: stomach, -tomy: act of cutting) to remove a fish hook a few weeks ago was released back to where she was caught!
PAINTED TURTLE UPDATE: Here’s just a quick update for any of you who saw the story on the little painted turtle we’re caring for (watch the ciLiving segment): The fracture site has healed enough to allow him to swim, and he started eating a few days ago so his feeding tube was removed. We’ll keep him with us for another few weeks until the defect in his shell hardens, but hopefully he’ll be back out being adorable in the wild by early fall. At left, the painted turtle is enjoying some water time post-feeding tube.