As tortoise owners, it is our duty to be aware of our pet’s health and check them on a regular basis to ensure they are not in any pain. Tortoises aren’t able to communicate with you directly if there is something wrong therefore it is important to educate yourself and to watch out for any potential health problems. Here’s how to do a regular tortoise health check.
If you set up a regular routine of having a tortoise health check then you should be able to catch any issues before they become more serious. So here’s everything you need to know about your tortoise’s health and how to make sure they stay happy and healthy!
Why Check Over Your Tortoise?
Many people would recognise if their dog or cat had an issue however it can be a little more difficult with your pet tortoise. While mammal behaviour is a little easier to interpret, tortoises are considered to be quite mysterious.
We recommend observing your tortoises on a regular basis so you can notice if there is anything out of the ordinary. Even seasoned reptile keepers can have a hard time understanding their shelled friend so you should get to know your pet so that you can notice any issues early on.
What Does a Healthy Tortoise Look Like?
It can sometimes be difficult to tell a sick tortoise from a healthy one, but knowing what is normal for your pet tortoise is a great way to start.
The shell is one of the most recognised parts of a tortoise, but something that not many people will know much about. Take note of scars and blemishes and know what is normal for your tortoise.
The carapace is the upper part of the shell and is an easy way to monitor your tortoise for signs of healthy growth and development.
No matter which species you own, the carapace should be smooth and firm to the touch. They are made up of scutes that grow one on top of the other, so you should be able to see significant differences between where each scute has grown. If there are soft spots or any gaps between each scute then you should get it checked out by a vet.
The plastron is the underside of your tortoise’s shell and should be smooth and hard, just like the carapace. Sometimes it is softer in hatchlings but it should harden up relatively quickly.
Your tortoise’s eyes should be bright, shiny, and clear. They should be free from discharge; wet or runny eyes could be a sign of infection. On the other hand, if their eyes are too dry it could be a sign of dehydration.
The third eyelid should be barely visible, and if it is peeping out more than just a little, then keep an eye on it and consult your vet as it could be because of injury, dehydration, or other illnesses.
Check for scratches on and around the eye area as a damaged retina could lead to blindness if left untreated.
Sometimes your tortoise’s mouth could be stained from the food they have just eaten so keep this in mind when checking them over. Never put your fingers in your tortoise’s mouth as their beak is very sharp and it could cause you injury.
Their mouth should be pink and clear and their beak should be longer on the top and slightly curved. Different species have different shaped beaks so always look at the same species when trying to figure out if your tortoise’s beak is the right shape or not. Many specialist vets will be able to trim your tortoise’s beak if you think it is necessary.
A runny nose is a sign of respiratory infection; any nasal discharge or raspy breathing should be checked by a vet.
The tortoise’s nose should be dry and free from sand and dirt. Although most tortoises do not like their noses and mouths being touched, you can use a small cotton swab to clear their nose if you notice it has substrate on it. If you give your tortoise grass or hay, you should also check that strands do not get stuck in their nostrils, either.
Check your pet tortoise’s skin for ticks and mites and remove them if you feel comfortable doing so. There should be no obvious signs of injury, which is particularly common if you house more than one tortoise together.
As your tortoise grows, they will shed some of their skin in small areas, especially around their neck, which is perfectly normal. You shouldn’t pull it off but instead, just let it fall off naturally.
It is normal for the skin to be dry but if you notice it starts to crack and develop sores then something could be wrong. It is often softer where the legs meet the shell but anything too moist or damp is cause for concern.
Often overlooked, the tail should be clean and free from poo, urates, and sores. Although it may not seem a major part of your tortoise health checks, it can be a cause of serious infection.
What Else to Look Out For
Asides from the physical signs, there are several other signs that you should look out for that are good indicators of your tortoise’s general health.
A healthy tortoise can be seen actively moving around their enclosure, moving in and out of the heat source, exploring, and digging. They should be able to pick the base of their shell clear off the ground, and not dragging it as they’re moving around.
When moving towards something of interest, your tortoise should walk quickly with strong, even strides. If they stay in their shell, drag their feet, and seem lethargic, then you should contact your vet.
Activity levels can be a direct sign of their body temperature so you should keep an eye on the temperatures within your tortoise table to ensure that it is within range. Alternatively, if your tortoise is kept outside and it is not getting enough natural sunlight, you should consider providing additional sources of heat and UVB light.
Healthy tortoises often get quite excited at mealtimes and are known to be good eaters therefore, if you notice that your tortoise has got more leftover food than usual or doesn’t seem to be eating at all, it could be cause for concern.
Similarly to other cold-blooded reptiles, tortoises require heat to be able to digest their food so loss of appetite could be solved by simply checking the environmental temperature.
As with other common pets, you can tell if they’re feeling unwell from their poop, and tortoises are exactly the same; you can tell if they are dehydrated, stressed, or perfectly healthy! A healthy tortoise poo is usually greenish-brown but can vary slightly depending on what they eat.
Know what is normal for your tortoises and if there’s ever anything out of the ordinary you should keep an eye on it and mention it to your vet. Things like smell, consistency, and frequency are all things you should be taking note of.
Urates are passed by most reptiles and are a normal, healthy part of their digestion. They are often passed at the same time as urine because they are both stored in the bladder. Although urates have a similar consistency to toothpaste, they are most often released with urine, therefore the result is often a more fluid mixture.
If you notice that the urates are dry or chalky then it could be a problem. If it is an ongoing problem then consult with your vet, especially if it is paired with other behavioural or physical signs of illness.
Common Health Issues
Here are some of the most common health problems associated with pet tortoises, what to look for, and how to prevent them.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease is one of the most common health problems in captive reptiles and is caused by:
- Insufficient calcium
- Lack of vitamin D3
- Not enough UVB light
Without the proper conditions and nutrition, your tortoise’s health could decline and cause serious, long-lasting problems.
There are many symptoms that mean your tortoise could be suffering from metabolic bone disease, many that are not noticed until it is too late:
- Their body is too big for their shell
- Bowed legs
- Egg binding
- Soft shell
If caught early, it can be managed with the correct diet and sources of light and heat, however, if left unchecked, it can cause lifelong health issues.
Shell rot, also known as ulcerative shell disease, can be caused by ticks and mites, but also by unfavourable conditions. If a tortoise can not dry off, their substrate is too wet, or you do not clean their enclosure frequently enough; these are all factors that can contribute to shell rot.
It often starts with cracks or damage occurring to your tortoise’s shell which, if left untreated, can be a great place for harbouring bacteria which, in turn, causes infection. Look out for:
- Pitting or dimpling
- Discolouration (often white in colour)
- Discharge from the shell (in severe cases)
Make sure that you clean your tortoise table regularly and look out for any damage in their shell to prevent infection.
A common health problem associated with tortoises in captivity is respiratory infections. There are several different variables that can cause this, many of which are directly related to your tortoise’s environment such as bedding choice and temperature.
The early signs of a respiratory infection includes bubbling from the nose, a raspy breathing noise, or nasal discharge. If you notice any of these symptoms you should take your pet tortoise to the vets for medical treatment.
Although pyramiding is considered normal in leopard tortoises, in other tortoises such as the desert tortoise and Russian tortoise, it is not. Pyramiding is a sign of abnormal growth and development and can often be a symptom of nutritional deficiencies. If you notice that your tortoise is beginning to show signs of pyramiding, it may not be time for a trip to the vet yet, but you should definitely look into your tortoise’s diet.
Just like your other pets, tortoises can also suffer from parasitic infections that can affect their overall health. Although you can sometimes spot worms in your tortoise’s poo yourself, it is most likely to be diagnosed through a stool sample and a microscope at your specialist vets.
If your tortoise is experiencing loss of appetite or diarrhoea, it could be a sign of an unhealthy parasite load so speak to a vet if you are concerned.
When your tortoise is unable to lay her eggs, which can be for a variety of reasons, she will retain them within her reproductive tract which can cause a multitude of problems. Unlike other reptiles, retained eggs are not always easily diagnosed and can be difficult to treat.
You can prevent egg binding by providing your tortoises with the correct nutrition, not breeding them too young or too old, and keeping them hydrated and in general good health.
Pet tortoises not only need a constant supply of fresh water but they also need to be bathed regularly. Failure to do so can cause dehydration which is a serious problem for your pets. Common symptoms of dehydration include:
- Sunken eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Dry or flaky skin
- Dry urates
If you notice any of the above symptoms then you should take your tortoise to the vets for diagnostic tests to see if there are any other underlying issues.
Although species such as the desert tortoises are not as susceptible as others, you should still be aware of the risks. You can easily prevent dehydration by giving your tortoise food with a high water content and bathing them more regularly.
Your tortoise can suffer from bladder stones if they do not have the correct nutritional balances, if they are dehydrated, or if they are suffering from other illnesses. If a bladder stone gets too big it may require surgical removal which you should want to avoid whenever possible.
Bladder stones can be difficult to diagnose however they can cause lameness in the hind legs, lethargy, and a change in toilet habits.
Of course, you don’t want your tortoise to get sick in the first place, which is why it is so important to give your tortoise everything that they need.
Your tortoise’s diet is a vital part of keeping them healthy. Poor nutrition can lead to problems with their growth and development so be sure to give them a balanced diet and any supplements that they need, such as calcium and vitamin D.
Tortoises need UVB light to help them metabolise calcium which is vital for their development. If they do not have access to natural light, make sure that they have a UV lamp that they can bask under during the day. All tortoises also have an optimum temperature range that they should be kept in at all times therefore they require a source of heat in their enclosure, too.
Tortoises require a specific substrate, too; some hays can carry fungal spores that can cause respiratory infections and can also get lodged in your tortoise’s nasal cavity. You also need to make sure that the bedding is not too damp that it can cause shell rot, and that your tortoise does not ingest too much of it.
You need to clean your tortoise enclosure on a regular basis to prevent the growth of mould and bacteria that can both cause serious problems for your pet tortoise. We recommend spot cleaning your tortoise’s enclosure on a daily basis and doing a full clean, replacing all the substrate, and disinfecting the surfaces, every few months.
Keeping Your Tortoise Healthy
If health checks are performed frequently, there is no reason why your tortoise can’t live a healthy, long life with you. Simple things like keeping an eye on your tortoise’s skin and shell, or making notes on your tortoise’s poo, are all things that can be done on a daily basis but can make a big difference to their health.
With the correct diet and environment, many tortoises will go their whole lives without emergency veterinary care, so do your research when getting new tortoises and make sure you are equipped to give them everything that they need.