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17 Common Warning Signs a Tortoise is Dying (or Very Sick)

Most tortoises have long lifespans, but this doesn’t make them invulnerable to life-threatening sicknesses or injuries. So, we need to be aware of the signs of a dying tortoise to take action.

Toward the end of their life, tortoises lose weight, feel cool to the touch, and may hide in their shells. Check for discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth and sunken, lifeless eyes. Dying tortoises will struggle for breath and may act aggressively (bite) when you attempt to interact.

Avoid confusing the symptoms of a tortoise entering brumation with impending death. To the untrained eye, the last days before brumation look like the tortoise is very unwell, near death, or deceased.

Tortoise Dead or Hibernating (Brumating)

If you’re concerned that your tortoise is dying, check that it’s not heading into a brumation. This natural process (similar to hibernation) can resemble the end of a tortoise’s life, as its metabolism will slow down.

Follow these steps if you need to check if a tortoise is in brumation and not dying:

  1. Check for steady breathing within the shell using a feather or mirror.
  2. A dead tortoise will emit a strong odor.
  3. Lightly apply pressure to the tail, and check for a reaction.
  4. Gently place the tortoise on its back and see if it attempts to right itself. This should be a last resort as tortoises find being flipped over stressful.

Even though tortoises are resilient, they can experience sickness and ill health.

How Do I Know if My Tortoise is Dying?

Tortoises are hardy animals, but they can’t announce their health struggles. As an owner of an exotic pet, you must learn how to tell if a tortoise is dying.

Here are the warning signs that a tortoise is very sick or dying:

1/ Damaged Shell

A healthy tortoise will have a robust, slightly bumpy shell with a smooth finish. However, cracking, pyramiding, and soft shells are warning signs of an inappropriate diet, injury, or illness.

While young tortoises have soft shells because they’re still growing and developing, the shell should become strong once the tortoise reaches maturity.

If the shell becomes weak and soft to the touch, your tortoise may have metabolic bone disease (MBD), an umbrella term for the softening or malformation of the shell and bones.

The softening of an adult tortoise’s shell can be reversed through diet, but you’ll need to give your tortoise more vitamin D, calcium, and UVB light.

The shell could crack if a tortoise has fallen from a height or something drops on it. Minor cracks will heal naturally, but more serious cracks will need to be disinfected and sealed.

2/ Skin Lacerations

Tortoises have tough skin, so it’s normally very hard to penetrate. If your tortoise is visibly bleeding, it will have sustained a painful injury.

Perhaps your tortoise got its legs trapped in a wire fence, something landed on it, or it fell over when using its climbing toys. Regardless of the reason, the wounds must be disinfected.

Failure to sterilize and treat an open wound can result in a bacterial infection, leading to sepsis.

3/ Lumps, Bumps, and Parasites

Check the skin for anything out of the ordinary. This should be standard practice if your tortoise roams outside in the summer, regardless of how healthy your tortoise seems.

Ticks and other external parasites can attach themselves to the hide of a tortoise. Tiny cuts can introduce a bacterial infection to the skin, leading to lumps and bumps that can affect their wellness.

how do you know your tortoise is dying?

4/ Labored Breathing

A healthy tortoise will usually only take 3-4 breaths per minute. It’s not always obvious when a tortoise is struggling for breath, so listen out for signs of gasping and wheezing.

If a tortoise extends its neck and looks around the room regularly, it’s finding it difficult to breathe and unsuccessfully trying to clear accumulated mucus from the air passages.

Eventually, a respiratory infection will leave the tortoise reluctant to move, eat, and drink.

Treatment will involve a herp vet injecting antibiotics, and you need to administer nasal drops.

5/ Loss of Appetite

Unless a tortoise is preparing for or coming out of brumation, it should have a normal appetite. Aside from two starve days per week, a healthy tortoise should eat nutritious food daily.

Not eating can signify that a tortoise dislikes its food, but it’s more likely to mean its living environment is too cold to digest food, so it stops eating.

Other tortoises refuse to eat because they’re feeling unwell. For example, impacted and constipated tortoises no longer feel hungry and stop eating. A warm soak can relieve the blockage.

Check your tortoise’s waste for intestinal parasites, such as worms. Vets usually prescribe Panacur (Fenbendazole) to treat most types of worms.

6/ Refusing to Hydrate

A lack of hydration has a far more immediate impact on tortoises’ health than not eating food.

Tortoises rarely survive for more than 7 days without sufficient hydration. So, if your tortoise doesn’t drink for two days, it’ll be in danger of dehydration, especially if it’s elderly or unwell.

Dehydration can cause various health conditions, including bladder stones, impaction, digestive issues, and skeletal/shell problems. Prolonged dehydration is life-threatening.

If your tortoise is reluctant to drink water, put them into a shallow body of lukewarm water with Pedialyte (to replace lost electrolytes). The water shouldn’t exceed neck level as tortoises cannot swim.

During a soak, a tortoise may drink, but it’ll absorb water through the cloaca. Long term, a tortoise needs to drink water and get water from the foods it eats.

7/ Coolness to the Touch

Tortoises are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and rely on external heat sources to remain comfortable.

This means that a tortoise’s body temperature can vary depending on whether it’s on the warm or cool side of its enclosure (thermal gradient).

Measuring a tortoise’s body temperature with a thermometer isn’t always effective. According to the Journal of Thermal Biology, the preferred method of inserting a thermometer into the cloaca doesn’t guarantee an accurate temperature reading.

Instead, trust your instincts and sense of touch in the first instance. If your tortoise is acting strangely, feel its underbelly and compare this to the ambient temperature of the enclosure.

If your tortoise feels uncharacteristically cool to the touch, yet the ambient temperature of its enclosure remains between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm side, something is amiss.

Usually, low body temperature results from a viral or bacterial infection, requiring a vet’s intervention.

8/ Listlessness and Paralysis

Tortoises will never win any awards for their speed of movement, but ensure that it’s capable of walking. Find something to motivate your tortoise, such as its favorite food, and encourage it to take a few steps.

If your tortoise shows no interest or ability to move its limbs, your tortoise may have paralysis of the legs or lack the strength to move due to a debilitating infection.

9/ Sudden Weight Loss

Place your tortoise on a set of scales once per week to check it’s maintaining a healthy weight. Due to the presence of a shell, it can be difficult to tell if a tortoise is losing weight by sight alone.

If you’re concerned that your tortoise has lost its appetite, pick it up. The feel of the tortoise on your hand can sometimes give you an idea if it has lost weight. The weight of a tortoise is likely to fluctuate, and periods of brumation will influence a tortoise’s weight.

Sudden and unexplained weight loss will always merit investigation. According to In Practice, tortoise anorexia has psychological or physical explanations.

10/ Swelling and Puffiness to the Skin

If the skin of a tortoise looks puffy, ensure that you’re not overfeeding it. Tortoises can be gluttonous due to an instinctual desire to eat whenever food’s available, and a poor diet can lead to weight gain.

Equally, these warning signs of puffiness and swelling, especially around the neck, suggest that your tortoise has high blood pressure (hypertension) or a kidney issue.

11/ Sunken, Lifeless Eyes

If your tortoise is happy and healthy, its eyes will be bright, shining, and black. As a tortoise’s health starts to decline, its eyes will become sunken and dull.

Sunken eyes are a sign that a tortoise is dehydrated. If your tortoise is low on energy, do your utmost to get it to drink and give it a warm soak to rehydrate it.

12/ Discharge from the Eyes or Nose

Tortoises can develop respiratory infections that result in streaming from the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Even if your tortoise can breathe through a runny nose, discharge signals the onset of a respiratory infection. Left untreated, an infection can spread to the lungs, leading to pneumonia.

13/ Discolored Mouth and Tongue

Get your tortoise to open its mouth and check its tongue, which should be a vibrant shade of pink.

If the tongue’s color is pale and muted, it could have mouth rot (stomatitis). Zoonoses and Public Health explains how tortoises can be subject to a strain of herpesvirus, which causes mouth rot.

This condition occurs when bacteria enter an open wound in the lining of the mouth or gums. This condition will usually be treated with NSAIDs, such as meloxicam.

14/ Thick Urine

Tortoises produce urine and urates.

The first element should be a thin, liquid stream of clear or pale yellow urine.

If the urine is a darker shade of yellow, with hints of brown or green, consider having a water sample analyzed, as this can be a warning sign of liver disease.

The second element is urates, which are white lumps in tortoise pee. The purpose of urates is to pass uric acid from the bladder of the tortoise that would otherwise be toxic.

Urates may be watery or resemble small globules of toothpaste, but they should always be squishy. Urates found in tortoise urine should never be gritty or tough. If that’s the case, a tortoise is likely dehydrated, which happens when the urates solidify within the bladder.

If the urine contains no urates, your tortoise isn’t passing uric acid, meaning it’s building up in the bladder. Eventually, this will lead to kidney damage.

how to save a dying tortoise

15/ Stools Problems

A healthy tortoise produces firm, brown, or dark green bowel movements. If your tortoise produces runny stools, it could have an inappropriate diet, worms, or a viral condition.

16/ Refusing to Leave Shell

A dying tortoise will likely hang its legs out of the shell in its last moments. Alas, if your tortoise refuses to leave its shell for hours on end, that’s a worrying sign.

If it’s not in brumation, your tortoise may be sick/injured and hiding. Tempt your tortoise out so that you can identify any additional signs of illness by reviewing its skin, eyes, and nose.

Your tortoise is hiding for a reason, which may be psychological. Physical illness is likely to follow if your tortoise feels under stress, which can happen for various reasons.

17/ Uncharacteristic Aggression

While tortoises sometimes hiss when grumpy, they’re usually even-tempered animals.

This can change during the mating season, if their living conditions are unsuitable, or when sick. Any attempt to interact with them may be met with bites, head butting, and other deterrents.

How To Save A Dying Tortoise

Note the symptoms and call your vet, as they can offer emergency phone advice.

In the interim, take these steps to keep the tortoise comfortable:

  • Separate the tortoise from any other animals
  • Keep the tortoise warm using a heat lamp or UV lamp
  • Ensure the tortoise is in a species-specific humid environment.
  • Encourage the tortoise to hydrate; use a syringe if necessary. Alternatively, offer it some hydrating food, such as cucumber.

Time is of the essence when saving the life of a dying tortoise.