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signs of a sick Russian tortoise

17 Warning Signs of An Unhealthy Russian Tortoise

Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Russian tortoises are small with a remarkably long life span, averaging 50 years. However, they’re prone to certain illnesses, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Tortoises don’t always show obvious signs of illness, so many symptoms are similar to a brumating tortoise, which makes the situation more difficult to assess.  

Signs of A Sick Russian Tortoise

Here are some of the signs to look out for if you suspect illness in your Russian tortoise:

Abnormal or Damaged Shell

A healthy Russian tortoise will have a firm, slightly bumpy shell, smooth texture, and evenly arranged scutes. It’s not good if the shell’s cracked, soft to the touch, or has uneven raised scutes.

Like other tortoise species, Russian tortoises are often afflicted by shell pyramiding. This condition causes the scutes on their shell to grow upwards and take on a pyramid-like appearance.

According to the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, low humidity and a high-protein diet are the main causes of pyramiding.

While not life-threatening, chronic pyramiding can weaken a tortoise’s limbs, thus affecting its mobility. Also, pyramiding can cause a tortoise’s spine to be deformed, increasing the risk of paralysis.

how to know if your Russian tortoise is healthy

Appetite Loss

Healthy Russian tortoises have a voracious appetite and will eat and defecate regularly. So, if you suddenly notice that the tortoise has stopped eating, you should be concerned.

Loss of appetite is usually a sign that a tortoise is unwell due to illness, stress, or intestinal parasites. However, their metabolism slows down when preparing to brumate, so they shouldn’t eat.

The situation usually warrants further investigation if other symptoms, like lethargy and labored breathing accompany the loss of appetite.

Breathing Difficulties

According to the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, most tortoises are susceptible to upper respiratory tract disease (URTD). This is characterized by labored breathing, among other symptoms.

Unfortunately, breathing difficulties in tortoises aren’t always apparent, so you need to pay close attention to signs such as wheezing and gasping for air.

Reduced Activity

While tortoises are known for their slow movement, they tend to be active when healthy.

Russian tortoises love climbing obstacles, exploring their environment, and digging burrows. If your tortoise is suddenly less active, this may be due to illness.

Loss of Weight

Loss of appetite can result in drastic weight loss and weaken your tortoise’s body and immune system.

However, weight loss can be caused by other factors. For example, a tortoise with a digestive problem such as gastrointestinal obstruction may be unable to hold down food.

Cuts And Bleeding

Tortoises have tough and scaly skin, which is difficult to penetrate.

The thick, robust skin helps them conserve body water and protects them from injuries, infections, and wear and tear associated with harsh terrains.

If you observe signs of lacerations, reddening, or bleeding on your Russian tort’s skin, this might indicate a parasitic, fungal, or bacterial infection, potentially resulting in sepsis.

Sunken And Dull Eyes

Healthy tortoises have bright, shiny, and black eyes. However, if a tortoise has an illness or infection, its eyes appear sunken, dull, and lifeless.

Sunken eyes may also be a sign of dehydration. If you’re unsure if your tortoise is sick, check for other symptoms of illness, such as:

  • Physical weakness.
  • Refusal to eat.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Dry feces.
  • Lethargy.
  • Depression.

Puffy or Swollen Skin

Swelling or puffiness on the skin usually indicates that a tortoise is overweight.

Ensure you’re not overfeeding your tortoise to prevent it from becoming obese. Likewise, puffy skin may indicate underlying health problems like kidney disease and hypertension.

Ocular and Nasal Discharge

As highlighted, tortoises are vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, which can cause runny discharge from the eyes, nostrils, and mouth.

Mycoplasmosis is the most common respiratory illness affecting the cells lining the nasal passageways. The signs include a thick, mucus-like discharge, breathing difficulty, and swollen eyes.

Discolored Mouth And Tongue

The tongue and inside of a healthy Russian tortoise’s mouth should be clear and pink unless it has recently eaten, in which case there will be some stains. If your tortoise’s tongue and mouth appear discolored and chaffed, this may indicate infection.

Stomatitis (mouth rot) is one of the most common mouth infections. It occurs when the bacteria inside a tortoise’s mouth enter an open wound, infecting the gums and lining of the mouth.

Common signs of stomatitis include discoloration and swelling of the mouth and tongue. That’s paired with thick, smelly discharge around the mouth and loss of appetite.

Thick Urine

Apart from excreting feces, tortoises also expel urine and urate through the cloaca. The urine of healthy tortoises should be thin and clear or pale yellow.

If you notice that your tortoise’s urine is darker in color and thicker than normal, you should get your tortoise examined, as these signs are indicative of liver disease.

Also, urates should have a squishy consistency and never be gritty or hard in texture.

Watery Poop

A healthy Russian tortoise produces firm, brown, or dark green droppings. Watery or runny droppings signify diarrhea due to gastrointestinal illness, poor diet, or intestinal parasites

Aggression or Snappiness

Tortoises aren’t the most social creatures. In most cases, they perceive unwelcome interactions as threatening, which can cause them to act aggressively.

However, tortoises can imprint on their owners after spending enough time with them. When this happens, they welcome interaction with their owners and enjoy it.

Ailing tortoises are prone to stress, making them irritable and snappy. Any attempts to interact with them during such circumstances can cause them to bite, butt, or hiss at you.

Signs of An Unhealthy Russian Tortoise

Refusal to Leave Its Shell

While tortoises like to retreat into their shells whenever they feel threatened, refusing to come out for prolonged periods can signify advanced illness.

So, if you notice your tortoise is hiding inside its shell more often, try tempting it with a treat. Then, examine it for other signs of sickness, such as sunken eyes, runny nose, and puffy skin.

Sometimes, tortoises hide inside their shells for psychological reasons, such as stress and anxiety.


Tortoises don’t require a lot of interaction to be happy. However, when a tortoise is sick, the discomfort and stress caused by illness can lead to it isolating itself more.

You may notice that your tortoise spends more time and refuses to interact with you and other pets. If this happens, schedule a check-up with your reptile vet to determine the cause of self-isolation.

Weakness or Lethargy

Lethargy and weakness in tortoises are symptoms associated with dehydration.

However, illness can cause a tortoise to become physically weak, especially if the tortoise isn’t eating properly. So, if your tortoise is struggling to walk or barely moving, check for other signs of illness. 

Stiff or Swollen Limbs

When tortoise nails grow too long, they can cause walking difficulties, infection, injuries, and arthritis. As a result, the affected tortoise may experience limb stiffness and inflammation.

These signs can help you determine if your tortoise is in good health or if a vet should see it.