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Why Can’t My Tortoise Open Its Mouth?

(Last Updated On: January 18, 2023)

You may notice your tortoise hasn’t opened its mouth recently or appears to strain when moving its jaw. It may be several days before you realize your tortoise can’t open its mouth properly.

Conditions such as mouth rot or fungal infections can make it painful for tortoises to move their mouths. Tortoises with respiratory infections may lack the strength to open their mouths. A tortoise with an overgrown beak may find its mouth stuck shut when the beak itself jams or grows at an odd angle.

For mouth rot, you’ll need antibiotics to treat the infection. If your tortoise has a respiratory illness, it’ll need a veterinary examination and a different line of antibiotics to treat the sickness and damage it left behind. Overgrown beaks can be trimmed by a vet or yourself at home.

Reasons Your Tortoise Is Not Opening Its Mouth

Tortoises should be able to open and close their mouths without difficulty. Even when tortoises grow old, they shouldn’t have trouble chewing, opening their mouth to taste items, or moving their jaw. If you notice that your tortoise struggles to open its mouth or the beak appears stuck in place, this has three causes:

  • Overgrown beak
  • Mouth rot
  • Respiratory infection

Overgrown Beak

Tortoises don’t have teeth. Instead, their mouths have hard, bony edges that form a beak. Tortoises use their beaks to bite, chew, and eat food. As expected, the beak tends to wear down over time and through use. That’s why it grows continuously during the lifetime of the tortoise, allowing it to compensate for the worn-out parts.

Allowing the beak to grow too long can make it hard for the tortoise to open its mouth. Wild tortoises trim their beaks by chewing on bones or rubbing on rocks to sand down the overgrowth. Pet tortoises don’t have this opportunity since they don’t usually grind rocks or eat hard objects as part of their diet.

A lack of these items for enrichment or food may cause your tortoise’s mouth to become lopsided or disfigured. Over time, this can lead to it remaining stuck shut.

An improper diet can result in the beak growing beyond its normal size. For instance, a diet that lacks adequate calcium but has plenty of protein will cause the beak of a baby tortoise to form awkwardly. This will make it hard for the beak to wear away naturally, leading to overgrowth or jaw displacement.

tortoise mouth stuck shut

Mouth Rot

A tortoise may have difficulty opening its mouth due to various infections, such as mouth rot.

As the name suggests, mouth rot ( also called infectious stomatitis) is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation along the lining of the mouth and gums. It occurs due to the following:

  • A compromised immune system
  • Injury to the mouth
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of humidity control

The symptoms of mouth rot vary from lack of appetite to cheese-like discharge in the mouth. The tortoise may close its mouth or leave it hanging open due to pain along the gums.

Respiratory Infection

According to the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, respiratory infections are among the most common causes of death in tortoises. These infections usually develop due to the following:

If your tortoise has a respiratory disease, it may be unable to open or close its mouth. This will be due to weakness or strain in the throat muscles. This is usually an advanced symptom and indicates that your tortoise needs medical attention. Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Foaming in the mouth
  • A running nose

My Tortoise’s Mouth Is Stuck Shut

Some of these conditions will need the immediate attention of a vet, especially if the condition has worsened gradually over time.

If you identify the problems early, treatment can work quickly. You could have your tortoise back in good health within a few days. Let’s explore the signs and solutions when your tortoise can’t open its mouth:

Overgrown Beak

Determining if your tortoise has an overgrown beak is not as obvious as it seems. You must have some knowledge about a tortoise’s anatomy before you can make the right call. The top part of a healthy tortoise beak must be short enough to allow the chin to remain visible. If the tortoise is still young, you may notice some ridges along the front part of the beak.

Conversely, an overgrown beak overlaps the chin, making it near-impossible for the tortoise to open its mouth to grab and chew food. If you are unsure about the size of your tortoise’s beak, you should consult a vet for a comprehensive examination and guidance.

The only way to correct an overgrown beak is by shaving down or trimming the beak. It’s recommended that a vet undertake this procedure, but it can be done at home if you have experience and patience.

Cutting down a tortoise’s overgrown beak doesn’t have to be stressful. The process can be safe and painless with the right tools. You should gather a:

  • Piece of cloth
  • Nail file
  • Pair of cuticle trimmers
  • White pencil

If you can enlist a helper to secure the tortoise while you trim its beak, that’s ideal. If not, you can also do this by yourself. Here’s how to trim an overgrown beak:

  1. Wrap your tortoise in cloth to prevent it from clawing at you or getting away during the process.
  2. Take the white pencil and mark the beak to the level you want to trim. Be careful not to trim the beak excessively. The line should not be close to the skin.
  3. Hold the head of your tortoise gently to prevent it from retracting back into its shell.
  4. Hold your tortoise with the shell against your chest to make it feel safe and secure.
  5. Using the cuticle trimmers, start trimming from the front of the beak until you reach the marked lines.
  6. Smooth the edges of the beak using the nail file.
  7. Unwrap the tortoise and give it a good bath. You can also offer a snack so that the tortoise associates trimming with good things.

Preventing An Overgrown Beak In Tortoises

The easiest way to treat an overgrown beak is to prevent it from growing that long in the first place. As mentioned, wild tortoises trim their beaks by chewing on rocks and hard objects.

Adding cuttlebones and flat rocks to a tortoise’s enclosure can allow it to grind down its mouth naturally. As a plus, cuttlefish bone contains plenty of calcium and other minerals to help supplement your pet’s dietary needs.

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot can stop your tortoise from opening or closing its mouth. The sooner you catch this illness, the less damage it will do and the easier it will be to treat. Sadly, it’s the advanced cases that are the most recognizable. Signs include:

  • Pus or discharge from mouth or nose
  • Running nose
  • Discomfort
  • Lack of appetite
  • Inability to open or close mouth

If you notice any of the above symptoms, you should take your tortoise to the vet for medical attention. The vet will treat the tortoise with antibiotics or surgery in severe cases.

Left unattended, mouth rot can lead to serious damage around your tortoise’s face and even blood poisoning. Your tortoise can’t use its beak and may starve in short order. There are ways to prevent mouth rot before it develops:

Check The Temperature In The Enclosure

A primary cause of mouth rot is temperature changes. Any sharp rise or drop in temperature can turn the tortoise enclosure into a breeding ground for bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens. This will increase the chances of your tortoise becoming sick. The ideal temperature in a tortoise tank ranges from 76-86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why Can't My Tortoise Open Its Mouth?

Give Your Tortoise A Proper Diet

Sometimes mouth rot comes about due to poor diet. If a tortoise isn’t eating the right foods, its immune system will likely weaken. You should give your tortoise calcium and vitamins to boost its immune system.

Ensure Adequate Humidity

Like most reptiles, tortoises require lots of humidity to stay hydrated. Moreover, inadequate moisture in the tank can weaken the immune system, making a tortoise susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections.

Depending on the tortoise species, you should keep its tank between 50% and 80% humidity.

Clean the Tortoise Enclosure Regularly

Since mouth rot is an opportunistic bacterial infection, keeping your tortoise enclosure clean will be vital. You should dispose of leftover food and clean up your tortoise’s poop to prevent disease-causing microbes from thriving in the enclosure.

Respiratory infection

Respiratory infections can cause your tortoise’s mouth to remain stuck shut. That’s because the tortoise will lack the energy to strain those muscles, and the tissue in its throat may be damaged. The causes of respiratory problems in tortoises include:

  • Excessive dust
  • Inadequate humidity
  • Sudden temperature changes

Once the tortoise cannot open its mouth, the condition has reached a serious and dangerous stage. Often, this will be accompanied by signs like:

  • Frothing
  • Foaming in the mouth
  • Lack of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Running nose

Respiratory infections in tortoises may go away on their own. However, severe ones that keep the tortoise from opening its mouth often require treatment. The most common method is antibiotics. If your tortoise can’t open its mouth, it can be treated and returned to normal life.