Tortoises keep their mouths closed unless eating, drinking, or attempting to cool off. A tortoise should be able to comfortably open and close its beak without obstruction.
Unfortunately, pet tortoises can get overgrown beaks, which can fuse their mouths closed.
Wild tortoises use rocks and other hard substances to wear down their beaks, so this must be replicated in captivity by putting abrasive items in the enclosure and a diet with some hard foods.
If a tortoise’s beak grows overgrown, it must be manually trimmed by a vet or experienced owner.
Another explanation for a tortoise struggling to open its beak is infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). This is usually due to a bacterial infection, especially after it emerges from brumation.
Why Do Tortoises Open Their Mouths?
The most common reason for a tortoise to open its mouth is thermoregulation. Nature explains how tortoises rely on the sun to remain warm but get too hot.
If a tortoise is exposed to direct sunlight, you may notice it periodically opening and closing its mouth. This allows air onto the nose and tongue, reducing its body temperature.
Taking in more oxygen is beneficial for digestion. As tortoises don’t have teeth, they grind food down before swallowing. The more air a tortoise inhales while eating, the sooner its meal will be processed.
Do Tortoises Open Their Mouths to Breathe?
Tortoises are obligate nasal breathers, taking oxygen in through the nares – small, nostril-like holes. This means that a healthy tortoise shouldn’t need to open its mouth to breathe.
Check the size of the tortoise’s nares if it’s breathing through its mouth. If one nostril is larger than the other, it may be blocked by a foreign object restricting breathing.
If a tortoise keeps its mouth open and gasps for air instead of silently breathing through the nose, it has a respiratory infection. In addition to open-mouth breathing, symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite.
- Clear discharge from the nares and eyes.
- Bubbles form around the nares, possibly combined with a thicker, yellow mucus discharge.
- Swelling around the eyes.
- Panting, wheezing, and other signs of labored breathing.
- Regularly extending the neck to clear the lungs of mucus build-up.
Seek veterinary advice if a tortoise keeps its mouth firmly closed while displaying these symptoms.
While panting and gasping with an open mouth is the most common warning of a respiratory infection, some tortoises keep their beak shut and suffer in silence.
Causes of respiratory infections in tortoises include unsanitary or inappropriate bedding, leading to fungal or bacterial infection, fluctuations in temperature, and nutritional deficiencies.
Respiratory infections in tortoises are severe and must be treated immediately.
Tortoises don’t have a diaphragm, so they can’t generate enough force to expel mucus from the lungs by coughing. Left ignored, a respiratory infection can become pneumonia.
A herp vet must diagnose a respiratory infection. Treatment will depend on the cause but often involves injecting antibiotics or prescription oral antifungal medications.
How Do You Get A Tortoise To Open Its Mouth?
A tortoise may not choose to open its mouth very often, but ensure it can do so.
For example, you may need to encourage a tortoise to open its mouth to accept medication or to check its beak for excessive growth or damage.
To encourage a tortoise to open its mouth, take the following steps:
- Calm the tortoise and pick it up.
- Take a seat and secure the tortoise between your legs.
- Place 2 fingers behind the skull on either side of the tortoise’s head. Don’t cover the ears, as this can cause damage, and don’t hold the beak, as you’ll lack control over the tortoise.
- Use a spare finger to gently open the mouth from the side, leaving the finger in place to keep the mouth open as long as required.
A tortoise is likely healthy if it can open its mouth without difficulty or discomfort. There will be an explanation if the tortoise can’t or won’t open its beak.
Reasons a Tortoise’s Mouth Won’t Open
If a tortoise is unwilling or unable to open its mouth, there are other explanations beyond the previously discussed potential of a respiratory infection. These include:
Tortoise beaks (rhamphotheca) never stop growing, so they must be ground down. If you exclusively feed a tortoise soft foods, it’ll seldom have the opportunity to maintain its beak shape.
If a beak grows too long, the top and bottom of the beak will overlap. This can cause the jaw to fuse itself closed, rendering the tortoise unable to open its mouth.
Preventing an Overgrown Beak
Wild tortoises file their beaks by grinding them on stones and rocks, but understandably, many owners are reluctant to introduce them to a captive tortoise’s environment.
Nevertheless, it remains critical that a tortoise has the opportunity to graze on tough foods. Cuttlefish bone provides calcium and wears down the beak. Alternatively, get a calcium block.
Tortoises can also trim their beaks by grazing on plants, fruits, and vegetables. Pumpkin is a favorite of many tortoises, and gaining access to the fruit within involves chewing through a tough exterior.
Consider adding some hay as a substrate for your tortoise. Succulent plants, especially the opuntia cactus (Prickly Pear), will also appeal to a tortoise’s palate and manage its beak length.
Trimming a Tortoise Beak
If your tortoise’s beak is overgrown, it must be trimmed to the optimal length and shape. If possible, arrange for a vet or experienced owner to cut or wear down the beak.
To file a tortoise’s beak at home, follow these steps:
- Use a white pencil or similar tool to mark the point you wish to trim your beak.
- Calm the tortoise and pick it up.
- Wrap the tortoise in a thick towel that you don’t mind being damaged. Due to stress, your tortoise will likely expel urine due to fear during a beak trim.
- If you wish to hold the tortoise’s head to restrain it, do so gently behind the skull.
- Hold the tortoise’s shell against your chest.
- Use a pair of cuticle trimmers or rotary took to remove the dead layers of keratin.
The process is stressful, so it may be 3 to 4 days before a tortoise fully recovers from a DIY beak trim.
Stomatitis (Mouth Rot)
Stomatitis, or mouth rot, is quite common in captive tortoises.
This is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation around the mouth. A tortoise with infectious stomatitis could force a tortoise to hang its beak open or keep its mouth firmly closed.
Common symptoms of stomatitis in tortoises include the following.
- Loss of appetite.
- Swelling around the beak.
- Change of color in the lining of the gums.
- Discharge from the mouth. This could be a yellow pus or a flaky, white substance.
Common reasons a tortoise develops mouth rot include low temperatures, a lack of humidity, dietary deficiencies, unclean water supplies, or bacteria entering the mouth through an open wound.
Stomatitis won’t clear without intervention, so seek veterinary guidance.
Treating Stomatitis in Tortoises
If possible, a vet will prescribe oral antibiotics to cure stomatitis in tortoises.
If a tortoise can’t open its mouth due to inflammation, the antibiotics will be injected instead. The infected area will also be thoroughly cleaned using antiseptic.
Until the tortoise can feely open its mouth again, it may need to remain under constant veterinary care to ensure it eats and hydrates – intravenously, if necessary.
Where a tortoise has stomatitis for some time, the tissue around the mouth may be damaged. If so, surgery will be required to remove the necrotic (dead) tissue.
A tortoise that can’t open its mouth will likely experience pain and struggle to eat or drink. While tortoises won’t always open their mouths, an inability to do so differs from temporarily not needing to do so.