While wild and captive tortoises are susceptible to developing bladder stones (also known as uroliths), they’re most commonly seen in tortoises living in captivity.
When tortoises urinate, they produce a white pasty substance called urates. Urates are a combination of uric acid mixed with electrolytes such as potassium, sodium, and calcium.
Normally, the urates are excreted when a tortoise urinates, but sometimes they’re not excreted. When this happens, the urates build up and form rock-like structures called bladder stones or uroliths.
Tortoises with bladder stones often attempt to pass them but are usually unsuccessful.
A vet will use the least invasive treatment or surgery to remove a urolith, ranging from manipulation to pre-femoral surgery to shell-cutting surgery. The shell-cutting procedure is most common.
What Causes Bladder Stones in Tortoises?
The factors that contribute to the development of bladder stones include:
If a tortoise isn’t drinking enough water, it can become dehydrated.
When tortoises get dehydrated, they can’t urinate enough to flush the urates from their bladders and kidneys, leading to the buildup and development of bladder stones.
A tortoise’s diet should consist mostly of vegetables and plants, but pet tortoises are sometimes fed too much, too little, or the wrong types of food.
If a tortoise is getting too much protein in its diet, this can increase the production of urates, leading to the development of bladder stones.
Underlying Health Problems
Sometimes tortoises have other health problems that can contribute to bladder stones, such as problems with the liver, kidneys, and blood abnormalities.
All tortoise species are susceptible to developing them, but leopard tortoises, Sonoran Desert tortoises, and African spurred tortoises (also known as Sulcata tortoises) are most likely to get bladder stones.
Holding Urine Too Long
Sometimes tortoises will hold their urine for too long before finally releasing it.
They’ll wait until they find fresh water to drink or vegetation with a high moisture content before urinating, even if that means waiting weeks to urinate.
Tortoise Bladder Stone Symptoms
Unfortunately, there often aren’t any noticeable symptoms that a tortoise has bladder stones. So, owners have no idea their tortoise has bladder stones until it’s too late.
However, there are changes you may notice that might signal that your tortoise has bladder stones:
- Urinating less frequently
- Nasal discharge
- Straining during bowel movements
- Loss of appetite
- Back leg lameness
- Inability to lay eggs
- Blood in the urine
The most obvious of these symptoms is lameness in the back legs.
A tortoise’s back legs can become paralyzed if a bladder stone puts too much pressure on the bladder or the surrounding tissues. Untreated bladder stones in tortoises can also lead to death.
What Happens When Tortoises Pass a Bladder Stone?
Unless the bladder stones are extremely small, it’s unlikely that the tortoises will be able to pass them without assistance from a veterinarian.
You may notice that your tortoise is trying to pass a bladder stone if it’s straining to defecate or urinate. The tortoise may also groan or moan while straining due to the pain the bladder stone is causing.
According to Research Gate, bladder stones usually form in a tortoise’s bladder but can also be found in the cloaca passageway or opening.
Tortoises urinate, defecate, and reproduce using their cloaca. When the passage of the cloaca becomes blocked by a bladder stone, it can result in a tortoise being unable to defecate or urinate. The tortoise will continue to strain to pass the bladder stone, defecate, and urinate.
The more the tortoise strains, the worse things can get. The pressure from constant, extreme straining can lead to a prolapse of the bladder or other organs. A prolapse occurs when the organs begin to protrude from the cloaca opening. Prolapses are life-threatening to tortoises.
Aside from causing prolapses, the pressure from straining can cause poor blood circulation due to blockage, irritation, or inflammation of the cloaca.
Do Bladder Stones Have to be Removed?
If a tortoise can’t pass the bladder stones on its own, removal by a vet will be necessary.
The North American Veterinary Conference stated that tortoises usually don’t show signs of discomfort from bladder stones until the stones have grown so large that they’re irritating or inflaming the bladder or compressing its intestines or nerves in the back legs.
By this point, the bladder stones will have grown much too large for the tortoise to pass on its own.
Leaving the bladder stones alone can lead to health complications, including kidney and bladder damage, paralysis, and death.
Tortoise Bladder Stone Treatment
Depending on how advanced the bladder stones are when they’re discovered, treatment methods can be non-surgical or surgical. However, most of the time, major surgery is required for bladder stone removal.
According to the North American Veterinary Conference, if bladder stones are small and lodged in the pelvic canal, sometimes they can be removed by inserting a finger into the cloaca and working it free.
This method requires a cooperative tortoise and x-rays to determine the size and shape of the bladder stones. It’s also necessary to look for other complications or abnormalities on the x-rays.
Before performing surgery, most vets will run bloodwork to look for underlying causes of the bladder stones, such as renal disease.
According to the Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery, rehydrating the tortoise with a soak in water or flushing out the cloacal with water may be enough to allow a small bladder stone to pass.
Sometimes if the bladder stones aren’t too large and are still located in the bladder, veterinarians can make a small slit in the skin on the underside of the tortoise just in front of the hind legs, cut into the bladder, and remove the stones.
The veterinarian will place sutures over the incision, and after a few days of rest, the tortoise will be well enough to resume normal activities. The sutures would be removed in a couple of weeks.
The last surgical resort is the shell-cutting method. Veterinarians will cut through the bottom of the tortoise shell (the plastron) to remove larger bladder stones.
This is the most common way bladder stones are surgically removed from tortoises. When shell-cutting surgery is necessary, bladder stones have usually grown to a size much too large to remove with the pre-femoral or manipulation approaches.
Bladder Stone Removal Cost
The cost of bladder stone removal varies depending on where you live, the particular veterinarian, and what other procedures may be needed in addition to the actual removal.
However, the average cost in America ranges between $900 and $2000.
If you have supplemental pet insurance, that cost may be cheaper. Many types of pet insurance will only cost you around $10 to $30 a month plus a deductible when you file a claim.
Many vets offer payment plans, but there may be qualification requirements.
Bladder Stone Prevention Tips
No matter what you do, you may be unable to remove the risk of a tortoise developing bladder stones. However, there are steps you can take to prevent them from occurring, including:
Ensure your tortoise stays well-hydrated. This means providing your tortoise with drinking water and soaking water.
Tortoises can absorb water through their cloaca, so ensuring they’re taking the occasional soak can help keep them hydrated if they don’t seem to be drinking enough water.
Most tortoises should eat a diet that consists mostly of grass, leafy greens, flowers, and weeds. A few tortoise species will also eat insects and meat. However, most tortoises are strictly herbivores.
Regular Vet Checks
Taking your tortoise to the vet at least once a year for an examination, radiograph, and a blood panel will help you to detect any health issues, including bladder stones if identified sufficiently early.