Desert tortoises are susceptible to a variety of diseases. Disease often results from opportunistic pathogens or parasites taking advantage of a tortoise weakened by stress, malnutrition, or an improper physical environment. Disease can usually be prevented by providing the recommended diet and physical environment, including the enclosure and burrow.
Adopters are responsible for the health of their tortoise. Consult a veterinarian immediately if a tortoise appears to be ill or injured. Failure to treat an illness could result in death. Certified reptile veterinarians are found throughout the state, and they can evaluate if a tortoise is sick.
Click here to search for veterinarians who are members of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians by state.
Symptoms of sick tortoises
Common symptoms associated with illness in a tortoise include runny nose, labored breathing, sunken eyes or swollen eyelids, loose stools, loss of appetite, listlessness, swollen body tissues, prominent bones (in head or limbs), soft shell, or noticeable weight loss or gain in a short period of time. Sick tortoises often refuse to eat and become emaciated. The legs and head should appear symmetrical, and bones should not be too prominent.
The condition of the fecal pellets often reflects the health of the tortoise. Healthy feces are fibrous, firm, and brownish-green in color with plant material readily recognizable. Feces that are loose, runny, or contain mucous often indicate a health problem requiring veterinary attention. It is normal for tortoises to periodically excrete a gray to whitish, chalky material. However, this should not occur routinely.
Common health problems
Tortoises are susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. Tortoises with a respiratory ailment often must move their head and forelimbs in and out to facilitate breathing. A chronically sick tortoise may get white scar tissue around its nares (nostrils) from continuous nasal discharge. Chronic nasal discharge or raspy breathing requires veterinary attention. Respiratory problems are sometimes treated with antibiotics.
Dehydration and malnutrition are also common health problems in captive tortoises. Sunken eyes indicate dehydration, while swollen body tissue and pasty or liquid feces indicate malnutrition or infection. Alternatively, a tortoise that seems too heavy may have large bladder stones, a condition which needs veterinary treatment. Prolonged inactivity or a tendency to keep the eyes closed may also be a sign of a health problem, although tortoises are normally inactive during winter hibernation and the period before the summer monsoon.
Vitamin deficiencies also cause problems in captive tortoises. Swollen eyelids and nasal discharge may indicate a vitamin A deficiency, which can be prevented through proper nutrition. Shell deformities are a sign of a prolonged improper diet. A balanced diet that closely follows the desert tortoise’s natural diet should correct the deficiency, although the shell deformities may be permanent. Tortoises are easily overdosed on fat-soluble vitamins, so they should be avoided unless prescribed by a veterinarian.
Fibrous osteodystrophy is a bone disease evidenced by a soft shell. It is usually caused by malnutrition from the lack of a proper calcium to phosphorus ratio, sunlight, or both. This disease causes shell deformities, including raised, pyramid-like scutes on the upper shell. Fibrous osteodystrophy is preventable. It can be corrected by regularly feeding the tortoise native food plants (see the “Captive desert tortoise food list”) and by keeping it outdoors. Tortoises kept indoors for any length of time must have a source of artificial full spectrum lighting to help prevent this disease.
A captive desert tortoise that has been fed an
improper diet. Note characteristic pyramiding
(raised scutes) and deformity in the shell.
A desert tortoise infected with a respiratory ailment.
Note the bulging eyes, swollen eyelids, and nasal
discharge. This tortoise suffers chronic infections,
indicated by the white scar tissue around the nostrils.
Parasites are also common in tortoises. Symptoms are usually listlessness accompanied by weight loss and abdominal stress. Consult a veterinarian if a parasite problem is suspected.
Although most tortoise pathogens are not transmissible to humans, some can be transmitted to humans, like salmonella. Children under five years of age should be discouraged from handling tortoises, or any reptile. After touching a tortoise, handlers should wash with an anti-bacterial soap.
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