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Why Are My Tortoise’s Eyes Closed? (One or Both Eyes Shut)

Last Updated on October 5, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises rely on their vision and other senses to navigate their surroundings, forage for food, and identify threats. Naturally, it’s concerning when you find a tortoise with constantly closed eyes.

A tortoise may refuse to open its eyes, be unable to open its eyes, or have one eye closed and one eye open. Usually, it’s due to a mucus or debris build-up, preventing the eyes from opening.

You can wash out any trapped plant matter, soil, mucus, and small stones by allowing the tortoise to bathe or adding water droplets to its eyelids.

Why Aren’t My Tortoise’s Eyes Opening?

There are various reasons why a tortoise isn’t opening its eyes, including:

Vitamin A Deficiency

A vitamin A deficiency (hypovitaminosis A) could be why the tortoise’s eyes are shut.

The liver stores vitamin A. As the tortoise grows, its body uses up this resource. The tortoise may begin showing signs of hypovitaminosis A if it isn’t replenished via diet.

Diets that lead to hypovitaminosis A include:

  • Too much Iceberg lettuce.
  • Low-quality commercial feeds.
  • Meat-based diets.

A lack of vitamin A can break down the epithelial tissues around the eyes, so they’re prone to swelling. Consequently, the eyes become susceptible to secondary bacterial infections.

Hypovitaminosis A can lead to conditions such as:

  • Swollen eyes are leaking a pus-like discharge.
  • Changes in the epidermis.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Changes in the mucus-producing glands in the mouth and upper respiratory tract.
  • Wheezing.
  • Lethargic movements.

A vitamin A deficiency can be resolved with an oral supplement.

tortoise walking with eyes closed

Respiratory Infection

The eyes and respiratory system are connected through the nasolacrimal duct (a small tube from the eye to the nasal cavity). It allows tears and other fluids to drain from the eye into the nasal cavity.

An upper respiratory tract infection increases mucus production, which can’t be removed because tortoises don’t cough. The eyes get so inflamed and swollen that it’s hard to keep them open.

Other symptoms of respiratory problems include nasal discharge (runny nose syndrome), coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, and lethargy.

If a vet doesn’t diagnose and treat a respiratory infection promptly, it can infect the lower respiratory tract, leading to life-threatening conditions like pneumonia (lung inflammation).

Post-Brumation Anorexia

According to the Veterinary Nursing Journal, a tortoise lives off its fat reserves and reabsorbs water from its bladder during brumation. Prepare the tortoise for brumation in advance.

Monitor the tortoise during brumation to ensure that it wakes up later on. If things don’t go well after you wake your tortoise, it may be unable to open its eyes.

After brumation, it’s normal for the eyelids to be sticky. Tortoises naturally produce mucus to keep their eyes moist during brumation, which can build up while the tortoise keeps its eyes closed.

Afterward, it’ll go away naturally following a soak or burrowing activity.

If it continues long-term, it could lead to post-brumation anorexia. Since a tortoise can’t open its eyes due to the stickiness, it’s unable to see its food, leading to an inability to eat.

Factors that contribute to post-brumation anorexia include:

  • Brumating for too long.
  • Refusing to drink within 48 hours.
  • Not eating for 2 weeks after waking up.
  • Low level of white blood cells.
  • Unable to reach the right temperature after awakening.
  • Developing a disease during brumation.
  • Traumatized during brumation.

This condition is usually resolved through the insertion of an esophagostomy tube.

Dehydration

Dehydration can cause occlusion of the central retinal veins, which carry blood away from the eyes. The eyes can’t receive adequate blood flow, making it hard for the tortoise to open them.

Give the tortoise soaks for 2-3 days. This is called rehydration therapy because it helps the tortoise absorb water through its skin around its cloaca. Usually, this improves blood flow and reduces swelling.

Third Eyelid Problems

Why is one of my tortoise’s eyes closed? A third eyelid problem may be responsible.

According to the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, the third eyelid (nictating membrane) is controlled by muscle and tendons.

It’s hard to see the third eyelid, and you may only catch a glimpse as it passes over the corner of the eyeball. The tortoise’s third eyelid becomes more pronounced and inflamed if there’s a problem.

Problems with the third eyelid usually occur post-brumation as, during this time, the eyes stay closed for longer. For some tortoises, this leads to excess mucus. In others, it causes the eyelid to dry.

The dry eyelid may be stiff, scratchy, or painful to open. As a result, it’ll avoid doing so. If the tortoise opens its eyes, it may only close them partially. 

Trapped Plant Matter

Plant material can get caught inside the eyes, causing the eyelid to get stuck to the plant matter.

Boil some water and allow it to cool. Put warm drops of warm water on the eyelids to soften and remove debris around the eyes.

Abscesses

If a tortoise gets a cut on its skin, it can develop an infection, leading to an abscess. An abscess that forces the tortoise to close its eyes will likely be visible.

Avoid squeezing, wiping, or cleaning the abscess at home because this will aggravate the problem. A vet will drain the pus from the abscess and prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection.

tortoise keeping eyes closed

Tortoise Walking with Eyes Closed

Sometimes, it’s natural for a tortoise to keep its eyes closed as it walks around.

Some tortoises will close their eyes due to the following:

Closing the eyes while walking enables tortoises to keep them moist. However, you must address the issue so the tortoise can adjust its behavior.

Why Is My Tortoise’s Eye Stuck Shut?

If a tortoise’s eyes are swollen shut, it may have an ear abscess due to a bacterial infection.

A vet will treat early-stage abscesses with injectable antibiotics. A more advanced condition may require the vet to perform surgery to open and drain the abscess.

What Causes a White Film Over Tortoise’s Eyes?

Tortoises develop a white film over their eyes due to low water quality in their soaks or drinking bowls.

If the enclosure is too small for the tortoise, it’ll get dirty when exploring. The tortoise can track substrate and feces everywhere, including its dishes, causing the water quality to decline.

Sometimes, the absence of a good basking area or a weak basking light causes a white film over the eyes.

The tortoise will get a vitamin D deficiency, weakening its immune system. This can cause fungus and bacteria to multiply, leading to a white sheen on the eyes.

To prevent a white film from forming over the eyes, do the following:

  • Change the water regularly and avoid giving it soaks in dirty water.
  • Ensure the enclosure has a basking place, UVB heat lamp, ramp, and space to move around.
  • Avoid overfeeding the tortoise.

Providing clean water and adjusting the enclosure setup will resolve most problems. If the white film on a tortoise’s eyes remains, seek guidance from a herp vet.