Tortoises have long lifespans, but this doesn’t make them invulnerable to life-threatening illnesses, diseases, and injuries. So, we have to be aware of the signs of a dying tortoise.
Toward the end of their life, tortoises lose weight, feel cool to the touch, and may hide in their shells more. Check for discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth and sunken, lifeless eyes.
Dying tortoises will struggle for breath and may behave defensively (bite) when you interact.
Avoid confusing the symptoms of a tortoise entering brumation with impending death. To the untrained eye, the last days before brumation look like a tortoise is very unwell, near death, or deceased.
Tortoise Dead or Hibernating (Brumating)
If you’re concerned that a tortoise is dying, check that it’s not entering brumation. This natural process (similar to hibernation) can resemble the end of a tortoise’s life because its metabolism slows.
Follow these steps to check if a tortoise is in brumation and not dying:
- Check for steady breathing using a feather or mirror.
- A dead tortoise will emit a strong odor, like rotting cabbage.
- Lightly apply pressure to the tail, and check for a reaction.
- Put the tortoise on its back and see if it attempts to right itself. This should be a last resort because tortoises find being flipped over stressful.
Tortoises are resilient animals, but they’re vulnerable to illnesses and diseases.
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, illness, or disease.
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 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 and sun exposure, but you’ll need to give your tortoise more calcium and UVB light (to synthesize vitamin D3 to absorb calcium).
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 with a fiberglass mesh.
2/ Skin Lacerations
Tortoises have tough skin, so it’s normally hard to penetrate. If the tortoise is visibly bleeding, it’ll have sustained a painful and life-threatening injury.
Perhaps the tortoise got its legs trapped in a wire fence, something landed on it, or it fell over when using its climbing toys. Regardless, 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 the tortoise roams outside in the summer, regardless of how healthy a tortoise seems.
External parasites can attach themselves., and tiny cuts can lead to a bacterial infection of the skin.
4/ Labored Breathing
A healthy tortoise takes 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 its air passages.
Eventually, a respiratory infection will leave the tortoise reluctant to move, eat, and drink.
Treatment will involve a vet injecting antibiotics and administering 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 2 ‘starve days‘ per week, a healthy tortoise should regularly eat nutritious food.
Not eating can signify that a tortoise dislikes its food, but it’s more likely to mean its living environment is too cold for digestion, so it becomes unable to digest food and stops eating.
Other tortoises refuse to eat because they’re unwell. For example, impacted or constipated tortoises no longer feel hungry and stop eating. A warm soak can soften the stool and relieve the blockage.
Check the 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 more immediate impact on tortoises’ health than not eating food.
Tortoises rarely survive more than 7 days without sufficient hydration. So, if a tortoise doesn’t drink for 2 days, it’ll be in danger of dehydration, especially if it’s elderly or has a pre-existing medical condition.
Dehydration can cause various health conditions, including bladder stones, impaction, digestive issues, and skeletal/shell problems. Prolonged dehydration soon becomes life-threatening.
If a 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 can’t swim.
During a soak, a tortoise may drink, but it’ll absorb water through the skin around 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 varies based on if it’s in the enclosure’s warm or cool side (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. If the tortoise is acting strangely, feel its underbelly and compare this to the ambient temperature of the enclosure.
Something is amiss if the tortoise feels uncharacteristically cool to the touch, yet the ambient temperature of its enclosure is 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm side.
Usually, low body temperature results from a viral or bacterial infection.
8/ Listlessness and Paralysis
Tortoises should be capable of walking. Find something to motivate the tortoise to move, like its favorite food, and encourage it to take a few steps.
If the tortoise shows no interest in walking or can’t move its limbs, it may have paralysis of the legs or lack the strength to move due to a debilitating infection.
9/ Sudden Weight Loss
Place the tortoise on a set of scales once per week to check it’s maintaining a healthy weight. Due to the shell, it’s difficult to tell if a tortoise is losing weight by sight alone.
If you’re concerned that the tortoise has lost its appetite, pick it up and make an assessment.
The feel of the tortoise on your hand can give you an idea if it has lost weight. The weight of a tortoise is likely to fluctuate, and periods of brumation will influence its 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 you’re not overfeeding it. Tortoises can be gluttonous due to an instinctual desire to eat, but a poor diet can lead to weight gain.
Equally, these warning signs of puffiness and swelling, especially around the neck, suggest that the tortoise has high blood pressure (hypertension) or a kidney issue.
11/ Sunken, Lifeless Eyes
A tortoise’s eyes will be bright, shining, and black if it is happy and healthy. 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 the tortoise has low 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 cause streaming from the eyes, nose, and mouth.
Even if the 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 the 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, like meloxicam.
14/ Thick Urine
Urine should be a thin, liquid stream of clear or pale yellow. If the urine is a darker yellow, with hints of brown or green, consider having a water sample analyzed, as this can signify liver disease.
Urates are the white lumps in a tortoise’s pee. The purpose of urates is to pass uric acid from the bladder that would otherwise be toxic.
Urates may be watery or resemble small globules of toothpaste, but they should be squishy. Urates found in tortoise urine should never be gritty or tough.
If so, a tortoise is likely dehydrated, which happens when the urates solidify within the bladder.
If the urine contains no urates, the tortoise isn’t passing uric acid, meaning it’s building up in the bladder. Eventually, this will cause kidney damage.
15/ Stool Problems
A healthy tortoise produces firm, brown, or dark green poop. If a 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 the tortoise refuses to leave its shell for many hours, it’s a worrying sign.
If it’s not in brumation, the tortoise may be sick/injured and hiding. Tempt the tortoise out so you can identify any additional signs of illness by reviewing its skin, eyes, and nose.
The tortoise is hiding for a reason, which can be psychological. Physical illness is likely to follow if the tortoise is under stress, which can happen for various reasons.
17/ Uncharacteristic Aggression
While tortoises sometimes hiss when grumpy, they’re usually even-tempered reptiles.
This can change during the mating season if their living conditions are unsuitable or 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 tortoise’s symptoms and call a vet, as they can offer emergency advice.
In the interim, take these steps to keep the tortoise comfortable:
- Separate the tortoise from other animals (if applicable).
- Keep the tortoise warm using a heat lamp or UV lamp.
- Ensure the tortoise is in a species-specific humid environment.
- Encourage hydration, using a syringe, if necessary. Alternatively, offer it cucumber or cactus.
Time is of the essence when saving the life of a dying tortoise, so don’t just wait for it to recover.