Last Updated on January 29, 2024 by Samantha Harris
Tortoises shed their skin (ecdysis) as they grow and develop physically. The shell prevents tortoises from shedding all their skin in one piece, but it steadily flakes and peels away.
Skin shedding is a regular occurrence in tortoises, especially when they’re young and growing fast.
The process can take days or weeks and may restart when a previous cycle concludes. Older tortoises still shed, but less frequently as their growth significantly moderates.
If you notice the tortoise shedding, don’t tear peeling skin away from the body.
Keep the enclosure humid and provide ample opportunities to bathe in warm water until the shedding process naturally concludes.
The shell of a tortoise shouldn’t peel and shed. If it does, this suggests the tortoise is unwell or has a dietary deficiency.
Tortoises retain the same shell for their entire lifespan. The shell is attached to the skeleton and grows with the tortoise’s general mass.
A tortoise that experiences flaky and peeling scutes may have ‘shell rot,’ a bacterial infection of the shell. Shell rot can cause irreversible damage to a tortoise’s shell.
If a tortoise isn’t getting enough calcium, it may develop Metabolic Bone Disease. Excessive protein can lead to ‘pyramiding,’ where the scutes grow upward on the shell.
Is it Normal for a Tortoise Shell to Peel?
Peeling from the shell is an organic process for aquatic turtles, not land-dwelling tortoises. While a tortoise’s shell must expand with its body, it won’t shed or peel.
The shell of a tortoise is an extension of its skeleton, most notably the ribcage. This is why a shell must grow in conjunction with its bones.
The shell has two halves. The top half is called the carapace or dorsal shell, and the lower half is called the plastron or ventral shell.
According to The Company of Biologists, the shell evolved over millions of years. Over time, the shell began to fuse at the side of the tortoise, protecting the skin and internal organs.
What Are Scutes on A Tortoise?
Scutes are the tough scales that cover a tortoise’s shell, resembling a selection of plates on the back of the carapace. The purpose of scutes is to ensure the tortoise’s shell is sturdy enough to offer protection from predators and extreme weather.
A tortoise won’t shed and regrow scutes. Once they emerge, the tortoise retains the same scutes for life. These scutes may grow scuffed as the tortoise ages, usually due to the tortoise burrowing and climbing, but shouldn’t peel off.
The shell has a layer of skin called the epithelium. The epithelium produces the keratin that gives a tortoise’s shell its toughness and durability.
Keratin is the same material as human hair and fingernails. Biopolymers and Their Industrial Applications stated there are 2 forms of keratin: α-keratin and β-keratin.
β-keratin is the harder-wearing variety, making up the bulk of the shell, although softer α-keratin is found at the hinge on the tortoise’s side where the carapace and plastron meet.
While the scutes on a tortoise’s shell are hard, they’re not invulnerable. The scutes can crack and break, which allows bacteria to enter the tortoise’s body.
What are the Rings Inside a Tortoise’s Scutes?
If you look closely at the scutes on a tortoise’s carapace, you’ll notice many rings. These are colloquially known as ‘growth rings.’
Legend has it that each growth ring denotes a year of age.
If the tortoise has 20 growth rings per scute, some believe this suggests it’s 20 years old. Remember, scutes are not shed and replaced.
According to Herpetologica, the scientific accuracy of this theory is questionable, and it shouldn’t be considered a failsafe barometer of a tortoise’s age.
Without knowing its hatching date, there’s no way to be sure how old a tortoise is.
How Often Do Tortoises Shed?
Tortoise shedding can take several weeks or even months, and due to the slow progress, a new shedding cycle may commence almost as soon as a previous cycle concludes.
Young tortoises that are growing in size will shed more. The tortoise will need to replace its skin to accommodate its ever-increasing mass.
Shedding continues throughout a tortoise’s lifetime, so older animals don’t stop shedding, but this will slow down once the tortoise reaches its full size.
What Does Tortoise Shedding Look Like?
Owners must understand what natural, healthy shedding looks like in a tortoise.
When a tortoise is ready to shed its skin, it’ll fade in color and peel away from the body. Don’t tug loose skin away from a tortoise’s body, which will cause significant pain.
The loose skin will fall off within a few days or weeks. A warm soak can be beneficial.
As discussed, the scutes of a tortoise’s shell shouldn’t flake and peel. If you can lift a tortoise’s scutes, seek guidance from a herp vet.
Why Do Tortoises Shed Their Skin?
Shedding is an essential part of a tortoise’s life cycle. The skin must be replaced periodically to keep the tortoise healthy and allow growth.
Ensure that shedding unfolds at an appropriate pace. Unnatural, unsafe, or excessive shedding in reptiles is called dysecdysis.
Let’s explore the common causes of tortoise skin shedding problems:
While tortoises are ectothermic and rely on external heat sources, they can become too hot.
If a tortoise spends too much time in a dry, hot environment, it’ll dehydrate. Dehydration is intrinsically linked to excessive shedding of reptile skin.
In addition to moderating the temperature, you can minimize the risk of dehydration by providing a tortoise with a substrate deep enough to burrow under.
Tortoises that live in unsanitary conditions or bathe in dirty water can develop infections. The most notable and dangerous is ‘shell rot,’ bacterial damage on a tortoise shell.
Shell rot initially manifests as peeling and flaking scutes on the carapace and plastron. This flaking can advance into cracks and breakages, eventually leading to discharge and bleeding.
Clean up the infected scutes with chlorhexidine as an antibacterial agent, using a soft toothbrush to work the remedy into every inch of the impacted area.
Avoid hydrogen peroxide as a disinfectant. While it kills bacteria in the tortoise’s shell, it’s indiscriminate, so it can also damage healthy tissue.
Additional prescription antibiotics may be required to aid long-term recovery. With appropriate help, your tortoise’s scutes will eventually heal.
Understanding what to feed a tortoise and how much is vital to healthy shedding.
If a tortoise’s skin is shedding to excess, or you notice flaking and peeling of the shell and scutes, an imbalance in the diet may be responsible.
A tortoise can develop metabolic bone disease (MBD) due to poor diet.
MBD is usually caused by a lack of calcium in a tortoise’s diet or an excess of phosphorous relative to calcium, which can be fatal if left untreated.
A tortoise with MBD will experience significant flaking, peeling, and shedding of the scutes, as well as bone weakness. This can make a tortoise skeleton extremely brittle.
Another problem is ‘pyramiding,’ which results in the scutes on the back of a tortoise shell growing increasingly taller, rising like a pyramid. A tortoise shell should be flat.
The scutes of a tortoise shell may also grow flaky and start to peel during pyramiding, but this symptom is less common than it is with MBD.
A deficiency of calcium and Vitamin D3 is also linked to pyramiding.
What to Do When Your Tortoise is Shedding
Natural shedding shouldn’t be uncomfortable for a tortoise. As mentioned, never attempt to help a tortoise shed by peeling off loose or flaky skin.
Ensure the humidity is high enough to assist with the shedding process. If a tortoise’s skin is overly dry, the old skin will cling to the body, complicating and elongating the process.
Provide a tortoise with opportunities to bathe and bask in water during shedding.
Soaking in lukewarm water encourages old skin to fall away and a new layer to grow. Since tortoises can’t breathe underwater, keep the water level relatively shallow.
A tortoise may hide more and be less hungry than usual. Don’t force the tortoise to interact, and continue providing meals at expected times, even if it doesn’t always eat.
Tortoises shed their skin throughout their lifetime, so allow the process to complete.