Tortoise Ailments

There are many ailments of tortoises, some serious and some less so. While it would be unwise to discuss treatment of any illness's requiring veterinary treatment, it is often quite possible to assist with a tortoises minor health issues, in order to avoid rushing off to the vet at the first sign of a potential problem or to help make it more comfortable while waiting to see a vet.

One of the most important issues when thinking of getting a tortoise is to make sure you have an experienced vet to hand. Unfortunately there are many vets who will happily do a bit of guesswork, often resulting in making matters worse, or at best, doing nothing to help, wasting both your time and your money. It is important to have a word with the vet or his staff beforehand to see if they see a lot of tortoises and to ask if they are suitably qualified or experienced in chelonia. A decent vet will not mind you asking for this information



Probably the most worrying of all tortoise problems. It is becoming more widespread with the increase of imported tortoises to pet shops, garden centres etc. It is highly contagious and can wipe out long standing collections of tortoises very quickly simply by cross contamination, by several means. If you think you have a tortoise that may be affected then contact a veterinarian without delay and isolate all animals from possible contact with others. Put strict barrier nursing strategies into practice and do not have contact with other tortoise owners until all animals have been checked out. Do not accept a tortoise from a rescue organisation without making absolutely sure that the tortoise has not been housed where there are other tortoises present. It can be spread via walking from pen to pen, by allowing other animals (dogs, cats etc) access to pens and the areas where tortoises are kept. Outdoors, birds and other small creatures can carry the disease so all pens where there is a risk MUST be netted. 
Clinical signs of herpes virus include stomatitis (blisters and lesions in the mouth), rhinitis, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and central nervous system disease including inappetance.

Below is a statement by an exotics vet on the subject:

"Any tortoise infected with Herpes Virus is always a potential threat to 'in contact' uninfected torts. However, herpes is a viral infection that is associated with "stress", i.e the compromise of the immune system.

If a tortoise has been infected with Herpes, the virus can lay dormant for years and years in the tortoises body tissues and nervous system. It may not show any signs of infection at all. However, if this tortoise is stressed in anyway, there is a significant chance that the virus will reactivate and signs of disease may occur, additionally, this tortoise is then really likely to start shedding virus - this dramatically increases the chances of transmission to other torts.

Whilst the disease is "dormant", it is currently not 100% possible to pick up the infection by tests (In the U.K as far as I am aware),
though this is being worked on. A sick tortoise with the infection is more likely to be shedding virus so it is more likely to be picked up
from veterinary sampling techniques. So, if you get a suspected "carrier" tested, you may not always get positive results.

If you have collections of torts, and there is a possiblity any of them are harbouring Herpes Virus, then there are a number of ways to miminimise problems.

The most significant factor is that, if any of your tortoises show any signs of illness in any way - in my opinion you should isolate them
away from the other tortoises and "barrier nurse".

(Barrier nursing - strict hygiene/disinfection, separate feed, water bowls, wear disposable aprons/gloves when dealing with ill pets: this can markedly reduce disease transmission)

Other Stresses are poor husbandry, poor enviromental temperature, poor diet and nutritional deficiencies. Also internal parasites can cause immunological stress.

A major factor in disease flare ups in infected (previously dormant) tortoises is the hibernation and post hibernation period - this is when
the immune system can be really compromised.

Lastly, large groups of tortoises, or mixing different species is also a major factor in stress and disease transmission.

Hence, It makes sense that if tortoises are kept in an optimum environment, with the best diet possible, and are regularly screened (and treated where necessary) for internal parasites, then their own immune systems should be optimally functioning and protective. Keeping torts in small groups and not mixing species is also important. this applies to both infected "carrier" tortoises, to reduce the chance of the disease activating, and also to reduce the chance of uninfected tortoises contracting the disease."

Warning: Although cats and dogs pose separate problems regarding tortoises, it's always worth remembering the importance of preventing cross contamination between different species. If your animals, particularly cats (which have no respect for fence boundaries), have outdoor access where your tortoises are, they present a very high cross contamination risk between species. It only takes one case of an animal walking between enclosures to cause a disaster. If at all possible, keep areas of torts netted where different species are kept.

Shell Rot

Shell rot often goes unnoticed in its early stages, It can take two forms, wet which is bacterial and dry which is fungal. Both can be treated quite easily by the regular application of povidone iodine but if severe with blood loss then a vet should be consulted as antibiotics may be necessary. Wet shell rot should always be treated by a vet as it can lead to septicaemia.

The infection can affect both the carapace and plastron and usually spreads under the scutes until dead areas lift up and flake off. It is best not to cover areas of shell rot as the air needs to get to it to aid healing. I use a weak solution of povidone iodine (1 part solution to 10 parts water) to gently scrub the area daily until new growth can be seen. Any loose pieces should be gently lifted off and removed but DO NOT force any areas away from the shell.
Shell rot treatment

Dead areas of shell rot are often seen as white areas. These can be treated in the same way and will eventually fall away to reveal new healthy shell growth. If an area you suspect to be shell rot does not start to heal fairly quickly then seek the help of a veterinary surgeon without delay.

Shell rot is often caused by keeping on unsuitable substrates, such as lawns, or damp or unclean bedding indoors.

Respiratory Problems + RNS (runny nose syndrome)

Occasionally a tortoise will be seen to be breathing differently to what is normal for him. This can take the form of gasping, wheezing, making squeaking noises or breathing with mouth open and head extended. Anything which differs from the norm should be taken seriously and observed to see that it is not just a temporary thing.
Sometimes a tortoise will bubble at the nares shortly after a bath, This is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about, but a tortoise which bubbles at other times or seems to have a runny nose accompanied by inappetance should be investigated by an experienced vet as a matter of urgency, Respiratory problems can escalate surprisingly quickly in tortoises and need prompt treatment to prevent it developing into pneumonia or worse.
Keep any affected torts well away from others to be on the safe side until a vet has been consulted.
Runny nose syndrome is not an ailment as such, but a symptom of one of many respiratory ailments.

Hidden Respiratory Problems (not always obvious as such - aerosols)

Sometimes a young tortoise will fail to thrive with no obvious apparent reason. They can become listless, not want to come out and explore as usual and go off their food. Sometimes they will eat but just enough to keep ticking over. It's usually a case of things are not quite right, but you can't put your finger on it! Aerosols can be fatal to reptiles and birds and can even affect a tortoise in hibernation. It may sound drastic but never keep a tortoise in a room where aerosols are used just to be on the safe side. Obviously they are best oudoors where this is not a problem but if kept indoors, for however short a time, please be sure that members of the family are aware of this rule. It could just save a tortoises life.


Dehydration can also show up as sunken or dull eyes, The same procedure needs to be followed as for gritty urates, lots of baths and soaks,
This link shows the removal of a bladder stone in a tortoise.

Mouth Rot (stomatitis)

This can first come to light when a tortoise is found not to be eating. Obviously this is not the only cause of poor appetite but it is as well to take a look inside the mouth to check for anything unusual. It often happens just after hibernation as this is the time that conditions are right for the disease to take hold. It can be bacterial or viral and needs prompt veterinary attention. Often a cheesy looking substance can be seen in the mouth cavity, sometimes accompanied by facial swelling, so if this is suspected do make an appointment with the vet without delay. Also, isolate from other animals as it is contagious.

Anorexia (often post hibernation)

As it would seem, this is lack of appetite in a tortoise, often immediately after hibernation, but can occur at any time. Take a look in the mouth in case this is linked to stomatitis as above. If a tortoise does not eat within a couple of days of coming out of hibernation despite warm baths and basking facilities then suspect something else may be wrong.
If there appears to be a problem with eyes, mouth or breathing/runny nose then contact a vet without delay.
If the tortoise appears otherwise as normal then it could be due to number of other issues. It could be dehydrated or have low blood sugar, especially if temps have not been optimum in hibernation and the tortoise has been allowed to wake (even if only for a short period) and go back to sleep again.
Give the tortoise long warm baths and supply a heat lamp with basking temps of up to 32 degrees and keep the ambient temperature at least 20 degrees until the tortoise starts to eat again. You can try a little critical Care Formula or Reptoboost by Vetark for a few days. Stomach tubing may be necessary in some cases but NEVER attempt this unless you have been shown by a vet as it is possible to cause serious injury and even death if done incorrectly. If he is not eating within a week, make an appointment to see a vet. Do make sure that the vet is experienced with tortoises, as some vets still give vitamin injections as treatment. This has been proved to be ineffective.

Parasitic infestation

It is not always the case that parasites are evident in the faeces of tortoises. Obviously if you have seen them then worming is necessary but sometimes it is only a microscope examination that reveals the eggs which shows that worms are present. Imported (shop bought) tortoises often carry protozoa too which also show similar symptoms. If you have bought a tortoise from a shop, dealer, garden centre etc then it is always a good idea to find yourself a decent vet and have a faecal sample analysed for parasites.
The most common worms are oxyurids and ascarids. Both are visible to the human eye and can cause tortoises to be quite unwell if present in large numbers. Often the tortoise stops eating, can have diarrhoea or simply lose condition. Treatment is often with Panacur (fendbendazole) but it is best to let a vet do a faecal test to determine how severe the infestation is and to decide on a course of treatment. Some vets are now using Drontal to treat worms in resistant cases.
If you are not sure how well informed your vet is re tortoise treatment, it is worth making sure that Ivermectin (a popular reptile wormer) is not given as it is usually fatal to tortoises. Piperazine is also considered not a good choice.
If protozoa are present then it is likely that Flagyl (metronidazole) will be used which treats hexamita and other bugs of this type.
Do not attempt to medicate your tortoise unless having previously been shown by a vet.


Occasionally a tortoise will be found to have prolapsed part of it's inner organs via the cloaca.This is usually part of the bowel, but can be other organs including the penis. Worth mentioning here is the fact that even some vets have not succesfully diagnosed this and occasionally, due to poor treatment, amputation has to take place. If you suspect your tortoise is suffering from a prolapse of any sort then do contact your vet as a matter of urgency, as if allowed to dry out the prognosis can be poor. While waiting to get to the vet, make sure the protruding part is kept wet by applying water soaked pads and covering with clingfilm. Sugar is also good to reduce any swelling sometimes allowing it to retract by itself.

Soft Shell

As the description implies, this is usually characterised by a softening of the shell, which can be the whole shell, the plastron only, or just certain areas.
In young tortoises up to around a year of age, the plastron is slightly springy until the shell is growing well. This should not be confused with 'soft shell' as it will improve with growth in the first few years of life.
Soft shell is almost certainly caused by dietry problems including lack of calcium, although rarely it can be a genetic problem. Tortoises suffering with this problem will usually be flatter than usual, possibly pyramided and with mobility problems. X-rays will show just how severe this is and what the chances of recovery are likely to be. Treatment will likely include a high calcium dietry regime and possibly injections of Vitamin D3 to aid recovery.

Bladder stones (solid urates)

Bladder stones are caused by dehydration. They are not caused by over dosing on calcium as is sometimes thought. If a tortoise is not given constant access to water or bathed at least daily then a bladder stone can form. Once formed it is difficult to remove without surgery, although small ones can sometimes be passed with assistance.
Vivarium accomodation can often contribute to bladder stones too, When a tortoise is not able to escape extreme heat or burrow into deep substrate to conserve moisture, bladder stones are one of the first signs of a problem. Unfortunately you cannot see this until it is often too late. Signs can be straining to pass something (sometimes visible at the cloaca, sometimes not), inappetance and reluctance to come out of it's hide.
If you think your tortoise may have a bladder stone, consult your vet without delay who will start by x-raying your tortoise.
Here is a link to an operation to remove a bladder stone from a tortoise. Obviously something an owner would wish to avoid.

Fly strike

Occasionally, usually in summer, flies can lay eggs on a tortoise if it has loose stools or an undetected minor injury. This can obviously result in maggots eating the tortoises flesh. It is important to keep a close eye on any unusual behaviour or smell. A tortoise with this condition can be agitated or even reluctant to move at all. Common sites are the tail area and the area where the body joins the shell. Clean the area and remove any maggots before contacting a vet as a matter of urgency, as antibiotics will likely be needed.

Puffiness (oedima)

In many species, swelling or puffiness of the soft external tissues can be an indication of water retention, requiring urgent veterinary investigation. In the horsfield tortoise however, this appearance is perfectly normal and no cause for alarm, unless accompanied by other symptoms such as not eating or basking..

Egg retention
Still under completion
Mobility Problems
Still under completion.