5 Tortoise Shell Problems & Way To Treat Them

Turtle Shell Rot Vs Shedding

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Sharing is caring!

People often think that tortoises feel nothing on their shells. So, they ignore the shell diseases like a plague. But hey! Tortoise shell problems can get deadly, causing the early death of the pets.

5 common tortoise shell diseases are, 

Disease Main Cause Treatment 
Pyramiding Overfeeding Strict diet 
Shell rot Damaged shell and dirty penAntiseptics and healing creams 
Shedding Infection Antibiotics 
MBDLow quality UVReptile UV lamp and supplements 
Shell injury Crush, accident, fight Repair the wound

Catch more details on the causes of the shell problems and their treatments below.

5 Tortoise Shell Problems & Way To Treat Them

Turtles mostly fall for infectious shell diseases as they live in water. Though the probability of such conditions is low in tortoises, you can not eliminate the chance. 

The shells are an integral part of the tortoise skeleton and are fused with the ribs. Also, nerves are running beneath the carapace.

It means tortoises can feel any touch or pain on the shell. Therefore, owners should have a minimum knowledge of shell disorders and treatments to ease the discomfort of the sick pet.

I have included 5 most common tortoise shell problems and their treatment below, 

1. Pyramiding

Pyramiding indicates the excessive and bumpy growth of the scutes in tortoises. The abnormal development of the scutes resembles mini pyramids and hence the name.

This condition only affects the carapace of the tortoises.

At first, pyramiding seems like a minor disease. But no! Pyramiding severely impacts the tortoises and can even cause early death. 

Pyramiding affects the central ridges on the carapace and the coastal at the rib sides. Such deformities can interrupt lung functions, causing trouble breathing. 

Besides, abnormal shell growth may lead to weaker legs in the tortoises. As a result, you will find them limping. Roaming around in weird positions can cause arthritis and overgrown toenails.

Well, it does not end here. 

Because of the uneven shell, the male tortoises can not mount the female when mating. Therefore, coitus is out of the scene. In fact, the gravid tortoises with pyramiding find it absolutely challenging to lay eggs. 

In rare conditions, tortoises suffer from paralysis because of pyramiding. The bumps on the upper shell stress the spinal cord and mess with the nervous system.

Some tortoise species are more vulnerable to pyramiding than others. For example, the Sulcata tortoise, red footed tortoise, star tortoise, Hermann’s tortoise, and Leopard tortoise.

Also, young tortoises are at more risk than babies and adults.

However, overfeeding of protein is the leading cause of pyramiding. As tortoises are mainly herbivorous, the number of victims of this disease is fewer. 


  • Bumpy scutes on the carapace 
  • Trouble walking 


  • Overfeeding 
  • Calcium and phosphorus imbalance in the diet
  • Metabolic bone disease
  • Lazy to exercise
  • Genetics
  • Low humidity level
  • Not enough access to UV light 

Treatment & Prevention 

  • Maintain a strict high-fiber, low-calorie, and low-protein diet for the tortoises. Generally, the species lives on grass, weeds, vegetables, and other greens. Though some subspecies prefer protein, the amount should be minimal. You will find a feeding guide for tortoises here
  • Tortoises require supplements to back up the mineral deficiency. Make sure the phosphorus-calcium ratio is at balance in meals. The ideal calcium-phosphorus ratio for the tortoise diet is 4:1.
  • No matter which tortoise species you are handling, they all require humidity. The moisture requirement in the enclosure varies between 40 – 90% depending on the subspecies. You can mist the pen daily and layer up the bottom with a suitable substrate to retain the moisture.
  • The tortoise enclosure should receive sufficient sunlight. In case of an indoor habitat, set up a quality UV lamp. 
  • Encourage the tortoises to walk. It helps them beat obesity too. Placing obstacles between the pet and the meal is an excellent trick to make the tortoise exercise. You can also let the tortoise graze in the backyard.
See also  5 Reasons Tortoises Refuse To Eat In Winter

2. Shell Rot 

Shell rot is an infectious condition on tortoise shells due to a bacterial attack. It is also called ulcerative shell disease of tortoises. Both the carapace and plastron can get affected by this disorder.

The risk of shell rot increases if the tortoise lives in a filthy enclosure. Bacterial infection is not uncommon in dirty environments. A tortoise with a cracked or scratched shell living in such a habitat will fall victim to this disease.

Bacteria or fungi take the wound as an entry into the tortoise’s shell. There they live off the pet and outgrow their population. Soon you will notice a black tint or spots around the injury, indicating the rot.

Shell rot is intense in tortoises and should be treated at the primary stage. For example, the infection can enter the bloodstream and affect the internal organs and tissues.

The whole shell plate falls off the tortoise skeleton structure in worse conditions. So, the tortoises suffer a miserable death. 

Therefore, you should always look for any shell damage in the tortoises. Again, maintaining the hygiene of the habitat is mandatory.

Tortoise shell pattern and color change with its subspecies. As a result, the newbies often mistake a normal carapace for a diseased shell. So, get familiar with your pet first. 

However, consult the vet if you doubt anything abnormal in the tortoises.


  • Crack or scratch on scutes
  • Discolored scutes or black patches
  • Black pits on the shell 
  • Red spots around the injury
  • Mushy fluid under the wound
  • Smelly discharge 
  • Flaky scutes 
  • Shell plates falling off, exposing underneath 
  • Soft shell around the wound 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Lethargy 


Bacterial growth on the shell starts with a minor scute injury. The probable reasons for shell damages are, 

  • Fall from a height
  • Run into a car
  • Meet an accident 
  • Get involved in a tortoise fight 

Besides, a low-humidity environment causes flaky scutes. Bacteria or fungi can also choose those scratches as their pathway.

Keeping the tortoise enclosure filthy speeds up the shell rot process and risks the pet for life danger. 


  • Start by cleaning the tortoise enclosure.
  • Next, take the pet out of the pen, away from its other companions. Shell rot is highly contagious among tortoises.
  • Place the tortoise in a warm, clean habitat under a heating lamp. The heat will speed up the healing process. 
  • Clean the wound with a soft bristle and remove any dirt or debris.
  • Apply the chlorohexidine solution directly on the injury to kill the bacteria.
  • Next, rub a Tripple antibiotic or any other healing cream on the wound for quick recovery.
  • Let the tortoise roam under heat in a well-ventilated room.
  • Allow the medicines dry on the tortoise shell.
  • Repeat the routine for a week or more.
  • You will notice progress in the shell rot of the tortoise.

Home treatment is not possible if the plates fall off the structure. You need to take the tortoise to the emergency room in such a case. The vet will keep the tortoise under observation and feed it with tubes.


  • Clean the tortoise habitat regularly. Remove the pet’s waste as soon as possible to avoid bacterial growth. Also, maintain the standard hygiene of the pen.
  • Change the water every day and the substrate at least once a month.
  • Eliminate any sharp edges from the pen. Smooth-edged rocks are fine.
  • Maintain suitable humidity for the tortoise. 

3. Metabolic Bone Disease 

Metabolic bone disease or MBD has also termed a soft shell. The tortoises can experience softness on the scutes when diagnosed with this illness. 

See also  What Happens If A Tortoise Gets Too Cold?

MBD results from low-quality UV light in the enclosure or lack of direct sunlight.

The tortoise needs vitamin D3 and calcium to construct a solid skeleton structure. But the inadequate UVB prevents vitamin D3 production and the absorption of calcium. Hence, the pet suffers from this disease.

Soft shells in tortoises cause permanent damage if not treated. Babies with MBD do not recover fully even when they reach adulthood.

A gravid tortoise with the metabolic bone disease is prone to egg binding. The egg shells can not harden due to the lack of calcium. Not only does the mother tortoise develop physical complexities because of MBD, but she can also even die.

A vet usually diagnoses this condition by taking blood samples and performing bone x-rays. The data reveals information on bone density. You can continue the treatment of the tortoise as per the prescription.


  • Soft scutes
  • Limping 
  • Limb fracture 
  • Lumps and bumps along the limb, spinal cord, and jaw
  • Softening of bones and jaws
  • Loss of appetite 


  • Inadequate UV light 
  • Lack of calcium 
  • Calcium phosphorus imbalance 

Treatment & Prevention 

  • Calcium-rich food is not enough to fulfill this mineral requirement. You must include calcium and vitamin D supplements in the tortoise’s diet. Supplements in both powder and pellet form will work.
  • Maintain a 4:1 calcium and phosphorus balance in the food. 
  • Set up a quality UV light in the tortoise enclosure. If possible, build up an outdoor habitat for medium and large tortoises.
  • Consult a vet if the situation goes out of control.

4. Injured Shell

Tortoises are slow, but they indeed lead an active life. Their curious and dominant nature put them in trouble, leading to a shell injury. 

Some causes of shell damage in tortoises are, 

1. Accident: Tortoise shells are strong and withstand 200x their own weights. But running in a vehicle will crush the scutes and open the shell. Wild tortoises often damage their shells due to this reason.

2. A Heavy Fall: Most tortoise species are heavier. So, when handling them, you have to be careful. A fall from your hand can cause significant damage to these pets’ shells.

Again, you will notice shell cracks or punctures if something heavy falls on the tortoise shell.

3. Attack: Tortoises hide inside their shells whenever they sense danger. These creatures are vulnerable in front of the attack of strong predators. A strong jaw bite on the shell can cause scratches on the scutes or minor cracks. 

Tortoises can also harm themselves when fighting with another tortoise or mating.


  • Clean the injured scute with an antibacterial solution. 
  • Cover the wound with a bandage to minimize the risk of infection.
  • Ensure the injury is dry and does not come in contact with water. 
  • While the scratches will heal over time, you need to contact a vet to treat cracks.
  • The expert will wire the damaged areas by drilling.
  • Then he will fill the space with a composition of epoxy, resin, and fiberglass cloth. 
  • The pet requires a composite replacement as its shell grows every year. 

Though a tortoise shell heals naturally, you should not wait for that. Depending on the intensity of the accident, it may take 2 to 3 years and even more to fill up. 

Keeping the injury exposed during this period only increases the risk of shell rot and other health complexities.

5. Shedding 

Many of you do not know that tortoises shed their shells and skins every few months. It is a sign of growth for the tortoises. Also, shedding helps them stay immune from different diseases.

However, not all sheddings are healthy.

Experts have indicated a phenomenon where the tortoises shed their shells because of infection. Of course, the peeling off of the scutes is nowhere near healthy.


  • Skin inflammation
  • Shell rot 
  • Black patches on the scutes
  • Change in scute pattern 
  • Damaged shell plates
  • Repeating the shedding cycle continuously


The unhealthy shedding in tortoises means something is wrong with their health. So, first, determine the issue and work on it. You need to offer the tortoises antibacterial shots in case of infectious diseases.

See also  Can You Paint On Tortoise Shell?

Next, focus on the habitat. Make sure the UV light is working, and the pen receives a sufficient amount of heat. To retain the moisture, mist the enclosure twice a day.

Maintaining healthy hygiene along with a balanced diet will soon recover the tortoise.

4 Tips To Keep Tortoise Shells Healthy

It is not at all challenging to maintain a healthy shell in tortoises. In fact, you need to follow 4 basic rules. Such as,

1. Healthy Diet:

Tortoises are all about low-fiber and low-calorie meals. In fact, these herbivorous creatures barely consume any protein. If your tortoise’s diet includes animal protein, add insects and worms to its menu once in a while.

As we know, like all other creatures, tortoises also require vitamin D and calcium for shell and bone structure. The vitamins and minerals absorbed from the diet are not enough for the tortoises. Therefore, you need to go for supplements. 

You can sprinkle powdered supplements on the meals every other day. Offering calcium pellets also works to beat deficiency. 

While calcium is important for skeleton building, phosphorus is not. The latter can prevent the phosphorus absorption of tortoises. Thus, experts advise maintaining a calcium-phosphorus ratio of 4:1.

2. Adequate Sunlight & Humidity:

I do not need to explain the significance of UVA and UVB for tortoises. The UVB allows vitamin D3 production and calcium absorption in them. Hence, without UVB exposure, tortoises develop a bad posture.

Build an outside habitat half facing the sun to benefit from the maximum daylight. Install a quality UV lamp for the indoor pens. This will minimize the risk of shell diseases in tortoises.

Moreover, humidity is another crucial factor that promotes a healthy shell. While high humidity leads to infectious diseases, low moisture causes dry and flaky shells.

Therefore, you have to maintain an optimal humidity level of 40 – 90%, according to the subspecies. Misting the substrate at least once a day is enough to retain moisture.

3. Hygiene & Cleanliness:

A clean habitat is mandatory to improve the tortoise’s shell health. The filthy environment increases the risk of bacterial infection, for example, shell rot. 

Start by changing the bathing and drinking water daily. Besides, replacing the old substrate with a new one every month. Finally, remove the tortoise waste every day from the pen.

4. Observation, Treatment, & Prevention:

Well, your sole focus should be on keeping the tortoise away from any shell disease. As a part of this motive, remove any sharp-edged element from the pen. Also, be careful when handling these pets to avoid a fall. 

However, if the tortoise damages its shell in an accident, take it to the vet immediately. The professional will prescribe and instruct you with further advice. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you put Vaseline on a tortoise shell?

You should not put Vaseline on a tortoise shell. The creamy texture keeps the tortoise scutes damp for a long time and traps bacteria. As a result, the risk of an infectious shell disease increases.

Can tortoises feel their shell being touched?

Tortoise shells are not as sensitive as their skin. But yet, these creatures can feel what is going on with the carapace or plastron. In fact, there are nerve systems running under the shell, which is responsible for any sensitivity of these tortoises. 

Can you put coconut oil on a tortoise shell?

Neither coconut oil, olive oil, lotion, nor conditioner is suitable for a tortoise shell. Though these make the scutes shiny, they barely do any good to the plates. Instead, these chemical-treated formulas can damage the shell.

Before You Go 

It is not just the shell diseases that make tortoises vulnerable. But other illnesses, like kidney damage, mouth rot, hypovitaminosis, etc., can also make these creatures suffer. Early treatment will always ease the pain of the tortoises. 

Go through the common signs a sick tortoise exhibits from the link below. Ignoring them leads to the early death of that pet.

17 warnings that your pet tortoise is drying

Sharing is caring!

About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


This site is owned and operated by Muntaseer Rahman. TheTurtleHub.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.