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7 Common Signs of Impaction in Tortoises

Last Updated on December 2, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Fecal impaction is often used interchangeably with bowel obstruction (intestinal obstruction).

An intestinal obstruction refers to a blockage caused by foreign objects (pebbles, substrate, hair, etc.), while impaction only refers to a blockage caused by hardened feces (poop).

Impaction is regularly confused with constipation. While the latter condition is uncomfortable, it’s not as severe. Impaction is a life-threatening condition that needs veterinary attention.

If you think the tortoise is impacted, take them to the vet for an X-ray and treatment.

Tortoise Straining To Poop

If a tortoise is straining to poop, it’s likely constipated or impacted.

Constipation occurs when the stool becomes hard and lumpy, so a tortoise will find it hard to pass. Impaction happens when the stool becomes stuck in the bowels.

If you notice the tortoise straining to poop, allow it to soak for 20-30 minutes and offer it a natural laxative, like mashed pumpkin or banana.

If a tortoise is truly impacted, home remedies won’t be sufficient.

tortoise impaction symptoms

Blockage

There are two common ways that the bowels can become blocked:

Bowel Obstruction

Bowel obstruction, also known as intestinal obstruction, is often caused by ingesting foreign objects, like cat litter, grass, or hair.

Ingesting substrate is a common cause of blockages in tortoises. The Journal of Small Animal Practice discusses how a testudo ingested pebbles, causing intestinal obstruction.

Also, bladder stones and egg binding can cause a blockage, leading to an obstruction.

Fecal Impaction

Fecal impaction is similar to an intestinal obstruction but is caused by hardened feces. Because both are functionally similar, impaction and bowel obstruction are used interchangeably.

The most common reason for impaction is dehydration. Because the stool doesn’t have enough moisture, it can become hard and lumpy and can’t be passed.

Tortoise Impaction Symptoms

Impacted tortoises share the symptoms of constipated tortoises. However, they’ll have some additional symptoms unique to the condition.

Here are the leading indicators of impaction in tortoises:

Straining

Tortoises that strain have trouble with their bowel movements, and they may even vocalize with grunts as they try unsuccessfully to pass their stool.

If a tortoise has been impacted for a long time, it may not strain. Impaction can weaken a tortoise, leaving it with little energy to push.

If a tortoise stops straining, it doesn’t mean constipation or impaction has resolved.

If a tortoise has no other symptoms, it may be constipated.

Prolapse

When a tortoise strains too much, it can cause prolapse. Prolapse occurs when an internal organ can be seen outside the tortoise’s body, specifically its vent.

Not all types of prolapse are a cause for concern. Males, during intercourse, will have a prolapsed sexual organ, but this organ should return to the body within a few minutes.

Aside from this example, prolapse is a medical emergency. Prolapsed internal tissue will look like red material from the vent in a fold or bubble shape.

This internal tissue will become swollen and damaged. The longer it remains outside the body, the more it becomes necrotic (little blood flows to the tissue, so it dies).

A vet will determine the cause of the straining. If it’s fecal impaction, the impaction must be removed to prevent prolapse from happening again.

Any rotten tissue will be surgically removed, and the organs will be placed back inside the body.

Vomiting

Impaction can cause vomiting when the food has nowhere else to go.

A buildup of food inside the gut may cause it. For example, the Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery describes how a red-footed tortoise was vomiting due to an intestinal blockage.

Lack of Poop

It could be impacted if you notice that the tortoise hasn’t pooped for more than 3 days.

However, a lack of poop isn’t the most reliable symptom of impaction, especially if it’s the only symptom your tortoise is experiencing. For example, a lack of poop can mean a tortoise isn’t eating.

Give the tortoise a 20-minute soak in a shallow bowl of warm water.

Lethargy And Weakness

If the tortoise doesn’t poop and seems weak, it’s likely to be impacted. After all, impaction strains a tortoise’s internal organs, making it sluggish.

If a tortoise is sluggish, it’ll display the following behaviors:

Breathing Difficulties

Impaction makes breathing hard as pressure is exerted on the organs. Breathing problems in tortoises will manifest in the following ways:

  • Extended neck.
  • Moving the head strangely to get better airflow.
  • The neck is outside the shell for longer or more often than usual.

Lack of Appetite

A constipated animal is likely to reduce the amount of food it consumes.

It may feel bloated and won’t want to eat as much as it usually does. Impacted tortoises may stop eating altogether. Aside from feeling bloated, it may feel too tired to eat.

Note that a lack of appetite is a common symptom of many illnesses. For example, your tortoise may have an infection, feel uncomfortable in its enclosure, and dislike the food you’re offering.

Fecal Impaction vs. Constipation

Here’s how to tell impaction and constipation apart:

ConstipationFecal Impaction
Definition:Difficulty in passing stools.A blockage of the bowels.
Symptoms:Hard and lumpy stool, painful bloating, and stomach crampsSymptoms of constipation, pain or swelling in the lower back or lower abdomen, breathing difficulty, weakness, and lack of appetite.
Causes:Impaction or bowel obstruction, stress, illness, intestinal parasites, poor nutrition, and damage to the gastrointestinal muscles.Ingestion of foreign objects, improper nutrition, egg binding, and bladder stones.

How Long Can A Tortoise Go Without Pooping?

Tortoises poop less often than most pets, passing waste once every 2-3 days. Some tortoises poop more often than others.

How often a tortoise goes to the toilet depends on its diet, especially how much water is in it.

what is faecal impaction?

How To Prevent Impaction In Tortoises

Impaction is a severe condition, but there are ways to avoid it:

Diet

Avoid giving the tortoise any dried food.

Even if it’s soaked in water afterward, dried food contains less moisture than fresh food.

The best diet for tortoises resembles the meals they would eat in the wild. Provide the tortoise with a diet rich in fiber and calcium but with low levels of protein and fat.

Hydration

Dehydrated tortoises are at a greater risk of developing hard stools.

To prevent impaction, ensure the tortoise has access to water and its diet is high in moisture. Also, ensure the tortoise’s habitat has sufficient humidity.

Small Stones

If you want to add stones to the enclosure, ensure they’re too large to fit in the tortoise’s mouth. Remove any mouth-sized rocks or pebbles.

Substrate

Ensure the tortoise has bedding that can be passed if consumed.

Substrates to avoid include the following:

  • Walnut shells.
  • Corn cob.
  • Cat litter.
  • Sand.

Avoid anything that is undigestible and can block the digestive tract.

Tortoise Impaction Treatment

A vet should see impacted tortoises promptly, as impaction can be fatal if left untreated. A vet can use X-rays to determine the cause of impaction, utilizing surgery to remove the blockage.

In the interim, you can make the tortoise more comfortable. This can be achieved by soaking it in warm water, giving it a laxative like pumpkin, and keeping its enclosure warm and humid.