Last Updated on October 9, 2023 by Samantha Harris
A tortoise’s shell keeps its organs safe, balances its temperature, protects it from falls, keeps out predators, protects it from UV radiation, and enables it to retain water.
Some owners believe moisturizing a tortoise’s shell is necessary. The drawback is that it can clog the 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.
Carapaces should have a smooth, round shape.
Any irregularities, including dips and lumps, indicate the tortoise was unwell, while scars and cracks signify a past physical injury.
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 primary 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 damage becomes permanent.
Tortoise Shell Look Dry
A common issue with tortoise shells is dryness, which can be caused by:
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 quickly 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. 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.
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.
Despite its appearance, a 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 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.
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:
You’ll need the following materials:
- Tepid water: Not too hot or cold because tortoises are ectothermic.
- 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.
To clean a tortoise, follow these steps:
- Fill the tub with enough water to cover the plastron (underside).
- Allow the tortoise to soak in the water for 15-20 minutes.
- Replace the dirty water.
- Gently brush the carapace to remove built-up dirt and debris.
- Pay particular attention to the space between the scutes, which can trap dirt.
- Clean other body parts, including the head, legs, tail, and neck.
- Rinse off thoroughly and towel dry.
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 can’t 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 once or twice a week. If a tortoise gets particularly dirty, you can wash it as needed, provided other cleaning agents aren’t used.
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 clean 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.
A tortoise needs the right diet to keep its shell healthy.
A calcium-rich diet will keep your tortoise’s shell healthy and strong.
Foods to consider include:
- Dandelion leaves and flowers.
- Milk thistle.
- Collared greens.
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:
- 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:
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.
The substrate of your tortoise’s habitat plays a significant 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 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 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.
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 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.
Tortoises need UVB light to keep their shells healthy.
UVB light is needed to synthesize vitamin D3, which is essential 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.
When our skin is dry, we often use lotions to add moisture. 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.
Commercial products like creams, lotions, and conditioners keep a tortoise’s shell moist. Unless recommended by a vet, avoid using them.
Tortoises naturally keep their shells healthy so they can survive in the wild. With the right diet and access to water, tortoises’ shells will usually stay in good condition.
Ensure 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.