Captive Desert Tortoise Health and Illnesses
A desert tortoise that is properly cared for with a proper diet and healthy lifestyle can live for upwards of 80 years. Those adopting a tortoise are ultimately responsible its overall health.
Desert tortoises are subject to various diseases that often result from opportunistic pathogens or parasites that target animals weakened by stress, malnutrition or an improper physical environment. Prevention of disease is best accomplished by providing the recommended physical environment, shelter features and diet. These are the most important responsibilities of the tortoise custodian.
Consult a veterinarian (preferably a certified reptile veterinarian) immediately whenever you suspect that your tortoise has contracted a disease or has been injured. Failure to treat an illness in your tortoise could result in its unnecessary death.
Symptoms of sick tortoises
Be on the lookout for common symptoms associated with illness in a tortoise, including runny nose, labored breathing, sunken eyes or swollen eyelids, loose stools, loss of appetite, listlessness, swollen body tissues, prominent bones (in head or limbs), soft shell, noticeable weight loss or gain in a short period of time. Sick tortoises often refuse to eat and become emaciated. The legs and head should appear symmetrical and bones should not appear too prominent.
The condition of the fecal pellets often reflects the health of the tortoise. Healthy feces are very fibrous, firm and brownish-green in color, with plant material readily recognizable. Loose, runny or feces that contain mucous can indicate a health problem requiring veterinary attention. It is normal for tortoises to periodically excrete a gray to whitish, chalky material, but this should not occur continuously.
Tortoises are susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. Symptoms include inactivity, runny nose, labored breathing, bulging eyes, swollen eyelids and loss of appetite. Tortoises inflicted with respiratory ailments often must move their head and forelimbs in and out to facilitate breathing. A chronically sick tortoise may get white scar tissue around its nostrils from continuous nasal discharge. Chronic nasal discharge or raspy breathing should receive veterinary attention. Respiratory problems are sometimes treated with antibiotics.
Dehydration and malnutrition
Sunken eyes indicate dehydration, while swollen body tissues and pasty or liquid feces indicate malnutrition or infection. Alternatively, a tortoise that seems too heavy may have large bladder stones, a condition which needs to be treated by a veterinarian. Prolonged inactivity or tendency to keep the eyes closed may also be indicative of a health problem, although tortoises are normally inactive during winter hibernation and the summer period before the monsoon.
A bone disease called fibrous osteodystrophy is typically evidenced by a soft shell and is typically the result of malnutrition from a lack of a proper calcium to phosphorus ratio, sunlight or both. This disease will cause shell deformities, including raised “pyramidal” scutes on the upper shell. It can be prevented and corrected by regularly feeding your tortoise a proper diet and by keeping the tortoise outdoors. Those keeping your tortoise indoors for any length of time must provide a source of artificial full-spectrum lighting.
Tortoises are prone to vitamin A deficiencies, which are evident when the animal has swollen eyelids and nasal discharge. This can be prevented and corrected by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. Prolonging vitamin A deficiencies can lead to shell deformities that may be permanent. Tortoises are easily overdosed on fat soluble vitamins so these should be avoided unless prescribed by a veterinarian.
Parasites are also common in tortoises. Symptoms are usually listlessness accompanied by weight loss and abdominal stress. If their presence is suspected, consult a veterinarian.
Always wash your hands
Although most tortoise pathogens are not transmissible to humans, some, such as salmonella, can be transmitted. Children under five years old should be discouraged from handling tortoises (or any reptiles for that matter). Anyone handling a tortoise should wash their hands with an anti-bacterial soap afterward.
First image – A captive desert tortoise that has been fed an improper diet. Note characteristic pyramiding (raised scutes) and deformity in the shell. Second image- A desert tortoise infected with a respiratory ailment. Note the bulging eyes, swollen eyelids, and nasal discharge. This tortoise suffers chronic infections, indicated by the white scar tissue around the nostrils.