Home » How To Take Care of A Tortoise’s Shell [Dry, Peeling + Cracking Shells]
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How To Take Care of A Tortoise’s Shell [Dry, Peeling + Cracking Shells]

A tortoise’s shell keeps its organs safe, balances its temperature, provides protection from falls, keeps out predators, protects it from UV radiation, and enables it to retain water.

Some owners believe that moisturizing a tortoise’s shell is necessary, but it can clog the shell’s pores. So, you need to know how to keep a tortoise’s shell clean, hydrated, and healthy.

What Should A Tortoise Shell Look Like?

A tortoise’s shell should have a healthy carapace and scutes.

Carapace

Carapaces should have a smooth, round shape.

Any irregularities, including dips and lumps, indicate that the tortoise was unwell, while scars and cracks signify a past physical injury.

Larger tortoises have carapaces with higher domes than smaller species. According to Herpetologica, larger tortoises have a stronger carapace than small tortoises.  

Scutes

The carapace consists of many scutes, which are the square or shield-shaped bumps on the carapace. There are about 38 scutes on an average tortoise, but larger species have more scutes.

The scutes are separated by suture lines, which can be found as a depression in the shell. Their main function is to create a protective layer for the tortoise’s bones and epithelium.

Common Tortoise Shell Problems

Knowing the most common shell issues allows you to check for symptoms and take preventative action before any damage becomes permanent.

Tortoise Shell Look Dry

A common issue with tortoise shells is dryness, which can be caused by:

Hard Water

Shells that look dry may not be dry at all. Instead, the tortoise may have a white, powdery substance on its shell. If you rub this substance, it should easily come off.

If so, you likely have hard water, which means the water has a high concentration of calcium and magnesium. Whether you have hard or soft water will depend on where you live.

Hard water is entirely safe for tortoises. In fact, slightly hard water is recommended due to its mineral content. The build-up of this white powdery substance on your tortoise’s shell isn’t a concern.

tortoise shell care

Retained Scutes

Retained scutes refer to those scutes that should’ve fallen off, making the shell appear dry.

You’ll know your tortoise has retained scutes if the shell appears brittle. Also, you may see healthy scutes under the retained scutes.

However, despite its appearance, your tortoise’s shell should remain completely intact. Retained scutes will eventually form bumps on the shell when left unattended.

Never attempt to remove the scutes. They may appear brittle, but they can’t be removed easily, and forcing scutes to come away may damage your tortoise’s shell.

Retained scutes are caused by malnourishment and insufficient UV light. So, replace UV bulbs older than 6 months and check your tortoise has a large enough basking area.

You should feed your tortoise wheat germ koi pellets to avoid retained scutes.

Peeling

Peeling may refer to shedding or when scutes peel off to make way for newer scutes.

Shedding is necessary for tortoises to accommodate healthy growth. According to Copeia, you can estimate the age of tortoises based on their scutes.

However, too much shedding or peeling is likely due to an injury.

Cracked

If you notice that a tortoise’s shell is cracked, it’s injured.

Cracks occur due to physical accidents. Your tortoise may have fallen, bumped its shell against something hard, or had a confrontation with another tortoise.

Cracked shells will eventually heal on their own but may leave a scar. However, as long as the wound is fully healed, a cracked shell won’t interfere with your tortoise’s daily life.

Tortoise Shell Care

A tortoise needs its shell cleaned occasionally using the following process:

Materials

You’ll need the following materials:

  • Tepid water: The water shouldn’t be too hot or cold as tortoises are ectotherms.
  • Washcloth: This will enable you to wipe away any grime.
  • Soft-bristled brush: These must be abrasive enough to remove any stubborn dirt.
  • Tub: This should be large enough to accommodate a tortoise.

Procedure

To clean a tortoise, follow these steps:

  1. Fill the tub with enough water to cover the plastron (underside).
  2. Allow the tortoise to soak in the water for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Replace the dirty water.
  4. Gently brush the carapace to remove built-up dirt and debris.
  5. Pay particular attention to the space between the scutes, which can trap dirt.
  6. Continue to clean the other parts of the body, including the head, legs, tail, and neck.
  7. Rinse off thoroughly and towel dry.

Tips

Here are some tips to make the process safer, easier, and more effective:

Never Leave A Tortoise Unattended

You should never leave your tortoise unattended in a body of water.

While bathing is essential for tortoises, they can’t swim. This is especially true if you’re using a rounded container. Tortoises may attempt to climb up the container and flip themselves over.

If that happens, the tortoise will drown as it’ll be unable to right itself.

Only Use Water

Don’t use soap, shampoo, or any cleaning solution on your tortoise, even if they’re labeled safe for animals. Non-vet-recommended cleaning formulas can dry out the shell/skin.

Weekly Baths or Soaks

Schedule a bath or soak for your tortoise 1-2 times per week. If a tortoise gets particularly dirty, you can wash them as needed, provided other cleaning agents aren’t used.

Easing Constipation

Bathing encourages tortoises to poop and pee.

If your tortoise is constipated, allow them to soak in warm water. The excess moisture relaxes their bowels, making it easier to excrete waste.

Of course, you may find your tortoise going to the toilet while bathing it. If this happens, replace the water and continue cleaning your tortoise’s shell.

How To Keep A Tortoise Shell Healthy

Here are three ways to maintain your tortoise’s shell:

Provide Drinking Water

Tortoises need to drink water to stay hydrated, which will prevent their shells from peeling and cracking.

Most of a tortoise’s hydration will come from food and baths. However, tortoises still need drinking water and should always have access to it.

Don’t provide distilled water for your tortoise, as it doesn’t provide minerals like calcium and magnesium.

Avoid putting it in basking areas, as water will evaporate quickly.

Proper Diet

A tortoise needs the right diet to keep its shell healthy.

Calcium-Rich Foods

A diet rich in calcium will keep your tortoise’s shell healthy and strong.

Foods to consider include:

It’s sensible to provide your tortoise with calcium supplements. Supplements include liquid calcium supplements, calcium blocks, and cuttlefish bone.

Other minerals are responsible for keeping a tortoise’s shell healthy, such as magnesium, which helps absorb calcium.

Avoid Phosphorus-Rich Foods

Tortoises should consume more calcium than phosphorus. The ideal calcium to phosphorus ratio is 3:1. To achieve this ratio, tortoises should avoid foods rich in phosphorus, such as:

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Beets
  • Sweet potatoes

Optimal Humidity Levels

The right humidity level for your tortoise will depend on its species.

There are many ways to maintain proper humidity in your tortoise’s habitat, such as:

Hygrometer

Putting a hygrometer in your tortoise’s habitat is a great way to maintain the right humidity levels. Calibrate your hygrometer and regularly check its accuracy.

Substrate

The substrate of your tortoise’s habitat plays a big role in maintaining humidity levels. When picking a substrate, get one that absorbs and retains water well.

As tortoises burrow into the soil, they’ll absorb water. Also, water in the substrate will release moisture into the air.

Plants

Plants can act as natural humidifiers in a tortoise’s habitat. This is a process called evapotranspiration. During this process, water is absorbed from the soil and is slowly released through pores on the leaves.

Here are some tortoise-safe plants that add moisture to the air:

  • Spider plant
  • Boston fern
  • Jade plant

Avoid succulents and cacti, as these absorb moisture.

can you put coconut oil on a tortoise's shell?

Enclosure cover

An enclosure cover can prevent moisture from escaping. Natural cover, like plants with wide leaves, can create adequate cover. However, you can also use a lid. Don’t cover more than 1/3 of the top.

Misting

Misting your tortoise’s enclosure maintains moisture, which can be achieved with a spray bottle.

You can also use automatic alternatives, like an automatic fogger or sprayer.

Proper Lighting

Tortoises need UVB light to keep their shells healthy.

UVB light is needed to synthesize vitamin D3, which is important for absorbing calcium. UV lighting should be replaced at least once every six months.

Options for providing UVB include:

  • Fluorescent UVB strip light
  • Compact fluorescent UVB bulb
  • Mercury vapor bulbs

Should You Moisturize A Tortoise Shell?

It’s tempting to moisturize a dry tortoise’s shell, but it’s not recommended.

Avoid Oil

When we have dry skin, we often turn to lotions to add moisture to the skin. However, human skin and tortoise shells are entirely different.

A tortoise’s shell doesn’t absorb water or oil in the same way that human skin does.

A tortoise’s shell needs oxygen and sunlight to remain healthy. Too much oil can build up, blocking out air and sunlight. Also, oil traps dirt and grime, causing additional build-up.

Shell Conditioners

Commercial products keep a tortoise’s shell moist, such as creams, lotions, and conditioners. Unless recommended by a vet, avoid using them.

Tortoises naturally keep their shells healthy, hence why they’re able to survive in the wild. With the right diet and access to water, tortoises’ shells will normally stay in good condition.

Ensure that your tortoise remains hydrated by providing access to drinking water and a shallow soaking bowl (less than neck height). Tortoises also derive moisture from the food they eat.