About this page

The information on this page DOES NOT replace advice and/or treatment from a qualified exotics veterinarian.

The information on this page is meant for owners and hobbyists seeking to understand the common health problems in turtles and tortoises. The majority of ailments can be attributed to poor or incorrect care. Unfortunately, the pet industry still embraces harmful methods such as glass tanks and non-nutritional processed foods. Many people follow these methods unaware of the result and end up with a sick tortoise.

The descriptions on this page are for new or uninformed turtle/tortoise keepers looking for a basic description of what might be ailing their turtle/tortoise. The information is NOT meant or complete enough to be the last word on the subject.

Helpful term:

Husbandry: The care a tortoise receives including type of indoor and outdoor enclosure, type of substrate, water access, temperatures (basking/non-basking area) and diet.

The information on this page DOES NOT replace advice and/or treatment from a qualified exotics veterinarian.

Abscesses

Abscesses occur on many different parts of a turtle/tortoise, legs and ears are most common. Abscesses are often caused by untreated wounds and/or poor husbandry. Box turtles and aquatic turtles tend to be more susceptible with abscesses. If your turtle/tortoise has an abscess see your veterinarian. An abscess will not go away on its own and it is painful for the turtle/tortoise.

Once the tortoise has been treated, assess the husbandry, and try to find the cause to prevent further occurrences.

Beak health

An overgrown beak occurs when the turtle/tortoise does not have the set-up for natural wear and health of their beak.

Overgrown beaks are caused by not letting the turtle/tortoise be a turtle/tortoise. In the wild, their food is not cut up or trimmed for them. Turtles and tortoises rip and shred their food using front legs to assist in controlling the food. This action naturally files down the beak. In captivity, turtles/tortoises should be given a cuttle bone and allowed to rip and shred their food to keep their beak trimmed.

If your turtle/tortoise has an overgrown upper or lower beak, it will need to be trimmed before preventative methods will be affective. Take it to qualified exotics vet for a trim.

Constipation/blockages

If a turtle/tortoise does not poop for a long time or a normal time for the individual, it could be constipated or have a blockage. Unfortunately, in captive conditions, constipation and blockages are common when husbandry is incorrect or flawed. Dehydration is a common cause. Chipped bedding the pet industry sells can also cause blockages.

Soaking a turtle/tortoise in warm water can help expel waste. Feeding pumpkin can also be used because it is a natural laxative. Coating food with mineral oil lubricate the insides and helps expel waste.

If the turtle/tortoise is not eating and/or lethargic or straining without getting anything out, a visit to a qualified exotics vet is in order.

General swelling

The anatomy of a turtle/tortoise does not allow swelling to present anywhere except the neck and/or limbs. The cause of swelling or puffiness is difficult to diagnose. The turtle/tortoise could be having trouble digesting food, bitten by something, suffering from parasites, toxin buildup, constipated or a host of other ailments including some life threatening.

Soaking the turtle/tortoise in warm water might help process or expel the cause of the swelling. A review of husbandry to help determine the cause is in order. If it continues, seek a qualified exotics vet.

Hatchling failure syndrome

A term used as a catch-all to explain why a hatchling turtle/tortoise fails to thrive. Despite perfect care, some hatchlings do not survive for whatever reason. However, most of the time hatchlings are started incorrectly. The perpetuated myth that hatchlings can tolerate the same care as adults, is just that, a myth. Hatchlings need exceptional care to thrive.

A perfect example is the hatchlings in the deli cups at reptile shows. The hatchling is MAYBE 30 days old. It is put in a car or airplane (incorrect temperature), transported many miles (stress) and ends up on a table with lots of other’s in deli cups (more stress still not at a correct temperature). They sit there until they are sold. Sometimes they are sold quickly and sometimes they spend the night in the convention hall (still not at a correct temperature and still stressed) and go through the entire exercise again.

Hatchlings are not strong enough to withstand this level of stress. On a personal note, I have counseled more buyers than I can count who unknowingly bought from this situation and the turtle/tortoise died within a short period of time.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

MBD is probably the most difficult subject to simplify and/or explain in a short-written piece. A very unscientific and basic definition is: MBD encompasses poor care. Turtles/tortoises need proper nutrition to build strong bones, muscles, ligaments and fortify its entire body. If they don’t get proper nutrition, MBD will present as a pyramided, sunk-in and/or soft-spongy shell, legs that shuffle because they don’t have the strength to support the turtle/tortoises weight, body that is elongated or distorted jaw deformities and a host of internal issues.

The best line of defense against MBD is proper nutrition and correct overall care for your turtle/tortoise. Research reputable websites, books, articles etc. and learn about the species you have. The more you understand correct care, the less chance of inflicting MBD on your turtle/tortoise.

For a comprehensive article by a well-respected author on this subject, see the Resources page of this website.

Nail health

Healthy nails are an important part of turtle/tortoise husbandry. Nails can be easily infected with fungus and bacteria if the enclosure is not kept clean. If your tortoise has overgrown nails – cut them like you would a dog’s or cat’s. The nail has a quick that will bleed if cut too short.

“Poop-stash”

Does your tortoise eat so much poop it has a black moustache? If so, something is wrong. Most animals eat some of their own poop or other animal’s poop, but it is not a normal part of their diet.

I cannot say for certain why a tortoise chooses to eat poop. Maybe they are hungry or are missing some nutrient they are trying to replace.

If your tortoise is eating poop, it is time to reassess their diet and husbandry regime.

Prolapse

A prolapse, in simple terms, is the act of internal organs or tissues abnormally exiting the body. A tortoise can prolapse for many reasons. The most common is constipation and/or a blockage from improper nutrition. If your turtle/tortoise has a prolapse the priority is to keep it moist with a water-based lubricant. Do not let it dry out. Second, get the tortoise to a qualified exotics veterinarian as soon as possible. Prolapses are life-threatening.

Once the tortoise has been treated, assess the husbandry, and try to find the cause to prevent further occurrences.

Respiratory infections

Respiratory infections are probably the most common turtle/tortoise ailment. Turtles/tortoises have an ‘S’-shaped trachea, making it difficult to for them to breathe, especially when the head is in the shell. They cannot cough or expel mucus. Uncleared mucus can cause a respiratory infection to turn into pneumonia.

Many respiratory infections are caused by poor care. A weakened immune system, malnutrition, incorrect temperatures, stress, dehydration, and over-crowding will make it easy for an infection to start.

Symptoms are both easy and hard to see. Turtles/tortoises do not show any obvious signs of sickness unless very advanced. Early stages include wheezing, rubbing its eyes, discharge from the nostrils, eyes, or mouth. By the time most people see swollen eyes, it is progressed to pneumonia.

If the turtle/tortoise has pneumonia, signs may include open mouth breathing, exaggerated pumping of the head and legs trying to breathe, and weakness. Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause death in just a few hours.

If your turtle/tortoise has any of the above symptoms, a trip to a qualified exotics vet is required. Respiratory infections DO NOT GO AWAY WITHOUT MEDICATION.

Septicemia

When a turtle/tortoise’s immune system is overwhelmed by an infection that invades the bloodstream, it is septic. Septicemia often results from an unnoticed chronic disease. It can originate in any part of the body.  It is hard to spot for inexperienced keepers or rescuers. Signs such as red blotching, lethargy, red flush on the bottom of the shell, hemorrhages, loss of appetite and sloughing of scales are advanced symptoms.

Septicemia is a life-threatening ailment. If you think your tortoise is suffering from it, get the tortoise to the vet, ASAP.

Shell rot

Shell rot is another typical ailment seen in rescue. It looks like pitting or sores on the shell. When an abrasion or something allows bacteria or fungus below the keratin an infection can take place. Once the infection has begun, a qualified exotics vet is needed.

Dry shell rot:

Normally land-bound tortoise and box turtles get rot of a fungal source. If the infection is not treated it can spread to other parts of the body and result in septicemia.

Wet shell rot:

Generally resulting from bacteria that enters a cut or lesion. Wet shell rot presents with a poor smelling odder, softening the scutes or discharge and areas of pitting and scutes falling off.

If you think your turtle/tortoise has shell rot, seek advice from a qualified source. There are home remedies that can be used but if the case is severe, a trip to the qualified exotics vet is required.

Additionally, review husbandry to determine the cause.

“Swamp-butt”

Swamp-butt refers to the tortoises rear-end that is wet, smelly and/or generally disgusting. Tortoises rear-end should be clean and without an overly offensive smell.  Swamp-butt indicates something is wrong in the digestive or absorption processes as food travels the system. Is the tortoise being fed incorrectly? Is it trying to process something it cannot such as a Sulcata trying to digest animal protein? Is the tortoise being fed too much or not enough of something? Is the tortoise being fed wet leafy greens when it should have dry grasses?

If your tortoise has swamp-butt, review the diet first and then husbandry.

Swollen eyes

Swollen eyes are a symptom of poor health. By the time a tortoise shows symptoms, the situation is serious. Swollen eyes do not represent a specific sickness or diagnoses. In dated material, it is attributed to a Vitamin A deficiency. We now know that is not the end of the story.

If your turtle/tortoise has swollen eyes, review husbandry. If you do not know what kind of tortoise you have and/or the care requirements, seek information.