10 Tortoise Health Problems, Symptoms, & Treatments

My friend bought a Russian tortoise last month, and the pet is sick already. Instead of doing everything right, my friend could not figure out where he went wrong. Well, this is the scenario for many of the newbies. To address the problems and solutions once and for all, I am writing this article on tortoise common health problems with symptoms and treatments.

Some common health issues of tortoises are shell rot, hypovitaminosis, mouth rot, respiratory illness, pyramiding, etc. Each of these diseases is curable if diagnosed earlier. Surprisingly, preventing these illnesses is possible with a balanced diet and a clean and well-arranged habitat.

Go through the article quickly just to get familiar with the causes, symptoms, and primary treatments of the tortoise’s common health problems.

10 Common Tortoise Health Problems, Symptoms, & Treatments

1. Stomatitis

Stomatitis, a.k.a mouth rot, is a common infectious disease of the tortoises. The initiation of this condition starts with a simple cut or minor wound inside the mouth of the tortoises. However, a bacterial attack can occur if the injury goes unprotected, leading to an infection or rot.

But yes, this problem is not always associated with a cavity injury. Sometimes, tortoises suffer from stomatitis if they have a weak immune system. When the immunity of the tortoise is compromised, the harmful bacteria in the mouth dominate and cause inflammation. Thus, the creature experiences mouth rot.

Causes

Basically, the bacterial attack in the oral cavity or the overpopulation of bad bacteria is responsible for stomatitis in tortoises. Sometimes, these creatures suffer from mouth rot after coming out of hibernation.

Hibernation or brumation is a natural part of the tortoises’ life. During the severe cold, these reptiles slow down their metabolism and go for months-long-sleeps. In those months, they do not eat or participate in regular activities.

The immunity of the tortoises takes a low blow because of staying away from food and a normal lifestyle. Thus these creatures become more prone to infectious diseases like stomatitis.

Symptoms

Recognizing the mouth rot in tortoises is impossible at the initial stages. It takes time for the symptoms to be more visible. Moreover, you will only notice those red flags once the bacteria are established in the cavity.

Some signs of stomatitis in tortoises are,

  • Discomfort
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Mouth inflammation and redness
  • Mouth ulcer and bleeding
  • White, cheesy discharge from mouth discharge
  • Drooling
  • Swelling in the gum, etc.

Treatment & Prevention

This mouth rot infection severely damages the cavity lines and gums of the tortoises. If not controlled, the infection starts spreading and makes the creatures suffer.

Talk to a vet immediately if you notice stomatitis symptoms in your pets. The condition may get worse when you take things in your hand.

The vet will suggest some antibiotics and cleaning medicines. Use the antifungal solution to clean the wound every day. It will help the tissues help.

Besides, you have to focus on the husbandry, cleanliness, and diet of the tortoises. If the enclosure is in bad shape, there will be no progress in the condition.

See, stomatitis can put your pets in discomfort. Hence, taking steps to prevent this disease is advisable instead of focusing on the cure.

Keeping the enclosure clean, maintaining a suitable temperature range in the habitat, feeding the pets a healthy diet, etc., are some preventive measures for mouth rot.

2. Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases make tortoises vulnerable and weak. If you can not recognize the sickness earlier, it will make the pets suffer a lot. Two common infectious diseases of tortoises are,

Chelonian Herpesvirus

Herpesvirus can be of many types. Though many animals can also get infected by herpesvirus, the condition is severe among tortoises. Therefore, it is evident that the Russian tortoise, desert tortoise, and some other species are at the most risk of this virus.

Research suggests that each tortoise species has resistance to a specific type of herpes virus. So, a tortoise becomes sick when exposed to an unknown herpes virus. Therefore, mixing two different species or housing them together is always risky.

Symptoms

  • Lesions on the mouth lining or tongue
  • A thick coat of off-white to the yellow membrane on the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Runny nose
  • Drooling
  • Whistling noise while breathing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Swollen eyes
  • Frequent and long sleep
  • Fatigue

Treatment

In many cases, the owners can not recognize the symptoms, and the creature suddenly dies. So yes, this infection is definitely deadly.

Again, if one tortoise gets infected with herpesvirus, it can spread the disease among others.

So, first, you have to isolate the sick tortoise. Then, take it to a specialist without any delay.

Mycoplasma

Mycoplasma bacteria are lacking in cell walls and can be of different types. Both turtles and tortoises get infected with this infectious disease. It is not a seasonal disease and is primarily seen in tortoises that have recently hibernated or brumated.

Symptoms

  • Nasal discharge
  • Discharge from eyes
  • Swollen eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Clogged nose
  • Enlarged and distorted snout in babies
  • Swollen joint
  • Trouble breathing

Treatment

Most tortoise keepers are not familiar with the mycoplasma infection. As a result, they can not recognize the disease sooner. However, generally, it takes a week or two for the signs to come to the surface after the bacterial attack.

Mycoplasma infection can be deadly for tortoises. It is highly contagious and can sicken other pets within a few days.

If you suspect mycoplasma in your tortoise, take it to a vet. The specialist will run some tests to diagnose the disease. Then he will prescribe long-term antibiotics and solutions to flush away the discharges.

It takes months for the sick tortoise to return to a healthy life. Also, there is a high chance that the pet can get attacked by mycoplasma bacteria again. Hence, you should make appointments with the vet for a follow-up.

Mycoplasma infection can mess up the tortoises’ feeding habits, leading to severe weight loss. If the tortoise declines food constantly, feeding the pet with a tube can help.

Besides, it is mandatory to focus on the housing of the tortoises. A dirty enclosure often invites harmful bacteria. So, the keepers must keep an eye on the cleanliness. Moreover, ensure proper lighting and temperature range inside the terrarium to fasten the healing process.

3. Parasites

Parasites are never helpful as they live off the host’s body. Unfortunately, tortoises can get parasites from a dirty habitat or by eating something filthy.

Parasites in tortoises are of two kinds,

  1. Internal parasites (roundworm, tapeworm, etc.)
  2. External parasites (mites, ticks, etc.)

While the internal parasites live in tortoise intestines, the external ones live on the skin. Another parasite is seen on tortoises that live in the blood cells and bladders.

Symptoms

  • Less active
  • Diarrohea
  • Puke
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Worm in the poop
  • Worm in the vomit
  • Black or red spots on the skins
  • Discomfort

Treatment & Prevention

The parasitic attack can affect the tortoises’ physical and mental health. So, take the pet to a specialist. He will do the fecal examination to diagnose the parasite in the tortoises.

Deworming the tortoise is the only way to treat parasites in tortoises. There are several ways of feeding the deworming solution to your pets. For example,

  • Place the dewormer directly in the tortoise’s mouth
  • Mix it with the food
  • Mix it with the bathwater

After deworming, it is important to feed your tortoise right. Generally, the vets advise keeping the pets dehydrated after the medications. So, make the tortoise drink water or add water-rich vegetables, like lettuce, cucumber, etc., to its diet.

Usually, keeping the habitat clean and deworming the tortoise once or twice a year can prevent the parasitic attack.

Note: Do not feed your tortoises the cat or dog dewormers.

4. Diarrhoea

Well, it is not just us who suffer from diarrhea or other stomach issues. Apparently, tortoises share the same issue with us.

Before getting any further, you should know how to differentiate a healthy poop from an unhealthy poop.

A healthy tortoise poop is firm and well-formed. In most cases, it will be brown or green.

On the other hand, runny, loose, and discolored poop is unhealthy.

Causes

Basically, there are 2 reasons why tortoises suffer from diarrhea,

  • Improper diet
  • Sign of other diseases

Improper Diet:

The meal plan of a tortoise solely depends on its species. But more or less, all the tortoises are vegetarian and barely eat any animal protein. So, again, these creatures can not ingest processed food, junk food, or sugary items.

See, your tortoise will eat anything you place in the habitat. It is because this creature is an opportunistic eater and curious by nature. But, of course, the tortoise’s digestive system can not process just anything. So, as a result, the pet ends up having an upset tummy.

Moreover, the lack of fiber in the diet is another reason for diarrhea in tortoises. Remember, all greens are not rich in nutrition and minerals.

Take iceberg lettuce as an example. It is high in water content and includes no fiber. So, feeding your tortoise loads of iceberg lettuce can lead to runny feces.

Sign Of Other Diseases:

Sometimes, diarrhea is a sign of another underlying disease. For example, tortoises suffer from diarrhea when they have a parasitic attack.

Symptoms

  • Dehydration
  • Runny poop
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Treatment

Diarrhea can cause dehydration in tortoises, which creates other physical complexities in the pets. So, a quick solution is mandatory to save tortoises from worse cases.

To treat diarrhea in tortoises, you have to identify the issue first. If food is causing the problem, come up with a solid meal plan. Talk to an expert if necessary. Add fiber-rich items like grass, green leafy vegetables, hays, etc., to the meal.

Also, make your pets drink more water. Soaking the tortoises in the bath is an excellent way of rehydrating them.

On the other hand, deworming the tortoises and focusing on enclosure cleanliness are the ways out if parasites are causing the issue.

5. Constipation

I am not sure if you are aware, but tortoises also become constipated. But of course, it is hard to recognize the condition as we do not keep any fecal journals for pets. However, the tortoises will drop signs if they are not pooping regularly.

See, though a tortoise eats regularly, it does not release waste as frequently as other animals. Instead, the pet will take a dump when you soak it in warm water.

Generally, a healthy tortoise poops every 2 – 3 days. The tortoise is constipated if it does not release its waste after this period.

Causes

  • Dehydration
  • Parasite
  • Foreign object ingestion
  • Bladder stone
  • Egg binding in gravid tortoises
  • Poor quality diet

Symptoms

  • Appetite loss
  • Lethargy
  • Trauma
  • Stress
  • Sunken eyes
  • Flaky skin

A condition similar to constipation is fecal impaction. The tortoises refuse to poop in that condition too. But the impaction is more severe and requires surgery.

Treatment

Some changes in the lifestyle can influence the bowel movement of the tortoise. For example,

Soaking In Warm Water:

As I have mentioned, tortoises only take a dump when soaked. So, make regular arrangements for bathing the tortoises. Again, tortoises tend to drink water when bathing, which also solves the dehydration issue.

One more thing.

You need lukewarm water to soak your tortoise. This creature is not a big fan of cold water and may walk out of the pool if the temperature is not right. Moreover, a warm temperature is also necessary to encourage the tortoise to urinate or release feces.

Follow this article to get a step-by-step guide on how to soak tortoises.

Work On The Diet:

A poor diet is another reason for constipation in tortoises. Hence, the owners have to research first before making the meal plan for the pets. Adding fiber-rich content to the diet is mandatory.

Laxatives:

In severe conditions, the vets suggest laxatives that soften the stool and encourage the tortoise to poop. Though there are synthetic laxatives available, natural alternatives are always recommended. Bananas and pumpkins are two popular laxatives for tortoises.

Maintain A Suitable Temperature:

Tortoises are cold-blooded animals and require external heat to function correctly. Hence, the drop in habitat temperature can mess up the tortoise’s digestive system. Therefore, you must ensure a suitable and warm environment inside the pet enclosure.

6. Shell Rot

Shell rot is one of the most common health issues of tortoises. A single cut or scratch on the shell can let in bacteria or fungus, which leads to severe rotting.

Shell rot can cause immense pain in the tortoises if not treated fast. Even in some cases, the whole shell plate falls off from the structure exposing the cavities of the tortoise.

Causes

Apparently, the main reason for shell rot is the attack of bacteria or fungi. Tortoises can get damaged shells for many reasons. First, if the bacteria enter the shell by any chance, they quickly grow their population. Soon, they outgrow and start rotting the scute cells.

In many cases, the bacterial attack spreads in the blood cells and bones. As a result, the disease gets more complex.

A tortoise can get a scratch or crack on the shell in many ways. For example,

  • In a fight
  • Falling from a height
  • Accident
  • From a sharp-edged item in the enclosure

Besides, low humidity and improper temperature inside the habitat can also lead to flaky shell skins. Lack of moisture or dehydration causes cracks on the scutes.

Moreover, a filthy habitat crawls with bacteria and fungi. Hence, the risk of shell rot increases by many degrees.

Symptoms

  • Black spots along the crack
  • Uneven shell
  • Discharge coming out of the wound
  • Foul odor
  • Pits falling off
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

Treatment & Prevention

Home treatment is possible for initial stage shell rotting. But first, you have to identify the problem.

Next, isolate the tortoise from the healthy ones as shell rot is highly contagious and infectious. Now, use a soft bristle brush to scrub the dirt from the wound. You can do the scrubbing when bathing the tortoise.

After that, use a chlorohexidine or similar solution to kill the existing bacteria in the pit. Later, you can apply healing cream like silver sulfadiazine cream, Neosporin, or tribble antibiotic cream for a rapid recovery.

Continuing this routine for a few weeks will heal the tortoise.

However, you must take the tortoise to the vet if the shell rot takes a severe turn. For example, if foul discharge comes from the pits, the plates fall off, or the pet stops eating completely.

The specialist will suggest medications and injections for healing. Besides, he will arrange a feeding tube to bring the tortoise back to a healthy state.

As you can see, the tortoises suffer a lot because of shell rotting. Hence, you should really focus on the prevention of this disease. Some preventive measures are,

  • Remove anything with sharp edges from the habitat.
  • Do not place your tortoise on a height.
  • Hold the tortoise with a solid grip while handling or transferring it.
  • Feed the tortoise right to boost its immunity.
  • Maintain a clean habitat.
  • The humidity inside the enclosure should not be too low, and the temperature should be in a suitable range.
  • If the tortoise gets a damaged shell, do a proper bandage so that the bacteria can not enter the system.

7. Vitamin A Deficiency

Hypovitaminosis A occurs in tortoises due to the lack of vitamin A. Like most other minerals and nutrients, vitamin A plays a significant role in the tortoise’s health.

For example, vitamin A ensures the healthy formation of skin cells, mucus membranes, and ducts. Besides, this vitamin influences the seamless operation of the kidney, liver, and other organs.

So, the lack of vitamin A disrupts the balanced functions of the tortoise body.

Generally, the lack of vitamin A in the diet leads to this disease. On the contrary, excessive vitamin A in meals causes hypervitaminosis A.

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen eyes
  • Sunken eyes
  • Puffy eyes
  • Mouth rot
  • Infectious diseases
  • Respiratory infection
  • Lethargy

Treatment & Preventions

If you observe the above symptoms in your tortoise, take it to a vet. The specialist will first review the pet’s diet history and perform a physical examination. Then, he will run some blood tests if necessary to diagnose the disease.

A vitamin A-rich diet can cure this hypovitaminosis in the tortoises. Sometimes, the vets prescribe antibiotics and shots for quick recovery of the tortoise.

Feeding the tortoises a balanced diet can prevent hypovitaminosis. Generally, baby and young tortoises are most vulnerable to this disease. Here is a feeding guide for the tortoise hatchlings. Also, you will find a safe food chart for these reptiles from this link.

8. Respiratory Infection

Prolonged hypovitaminosis A can lead to respiratory illness in tortoises.

See, a tortoise with vitamin A deficiency has compromised immunity. Hence, it can easily fall victim to other diseases. During this time, an infectious attack on the lungs of the tortoises leads to respiratory illness.

Again, a filthy husbandry situation, improper temperature, and humidity are also to blame for respiratory infection in tortoises.

Symptoms

  • Inactivity
  • Runny nose
  • Eye discharge
  • Swollen eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Sneezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Frequent basking
  • Appetite loss

Treatment

A quick treatment for respiratory illness is necessary. Otherwise, this disease will turn into pneumonia, which is more complex.

Antibacterial or antifungal drugs are used as a cure for respiratory infections in tortoises. Besides, maintaining a balanced diet and habitat environment will help in the curing journey.

9. Metabolic Bone Disease

MBD, or metabolic bone disease, is a common disease for turtles and tortoises. This condition softens the shell and affects the bone and scute growth of these creatures. So, you should not take this disease lightly. A tortoise with MBD requires immediate medical care.

Causes

  • Improper diet
  • Lack of minerals and nutrition
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Lack of vitamin D
  • Excessive phosphorus
  • Poor husbandry
  • Lack of UV lighting

Symptoms

  • Soft scutes
  • Swollen legs
  • Limping
  • Soft jaws
  • Soft bones
  • Deformed bones
  • Trouble walking
  • Flat shell
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Abnormal beak growth

Treatments & Prevention

A tortoise with MBD can die if not treated in time. Hence, talk to a vet immediately if you notice abnormal shell or bone growth. He will prescribe meds and lifestyle changes which you should implement properly. For example, lifestyle and food habit changes.

Set up a quality UV light if you raise your tortoise in captivity. Without UVB exposure, this creature can not accelerate vitamin D production or absorption of calcium.

Again, feed the tortoises a balanced diet filled with grass, hay, and greens. Besides, add calcium and vitamin D supplements to the diet to back up the deficiencies.

10. Pyramiding

Pyramiding is the abnormal shell growth of tortoises. The captive tortoises mainly suffer due to this disease.

Causes

  • Low humidity
  • Congested enclosure
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Overfeeding protein
  • Diet with calcium-phosphorus imbalance
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of UV

Symptoms

  • Upward, bumpy growth of individual scutes
  • Paralysis
  • Weakness
  • Abnormal movement 

Treatmetns & Prevention

Of course, the pyramiding treatment should start with getting back on a healthy meal plan and feeding schedule. Then, add fiber-rich items to the diet of the tortoises.

Next, make sure the UV light in the enclosure is working correctly. While the UVA influences the activity of the tortoises, the UVB promotes shell and bone growth.

Later, focus on the humidity and temperature range in the habitat. Experts suggest keeping the humidity percentage around 80.

When To See A Vet?

As a beginner, it is impossible to recognize the illness in the tortoises and provide home treatment. But unfortunately, the newly brought tortoises fall sick most often. So what can you do as a newbie?

Well, first of all, getting familiar with the habits and nature of the tortoise always helps. This way, you can spot anything unusual in the pet and reach out to an expert for help.

Here are some of the common signs that indicate sickness,

  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Runny nose
  • Discharge from eyes and mouth
  • Sleeping for long hours
  • Basking
  • Deformed body structure

If your tortoise has any of these signs, take it to a vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Conclusion

Sickness of any kind can make tortoises vulnerable. As owners, we have to be prompt about the treatment. If you compromise with medical care, it can kill your little friend. On a different note, it is always better to focus on prevention rather than cure.

Muntaseer Rahman

I have been keeping turtles as a pet for many years now. I’ve fallen in love with these cute pets from the moment I saw them. That’s why I am writing articles to share my turtle keeping knowledge with you.

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