Tortoises are fantastic pets and it can be very distressing to think something is wrong with him or her. If your tortoise can’t or won’t open their eyes, should you be concerned or are you worrying about nothing?
“Why can’t my tortoise open its eyes?” The common reasons a tortoise won’t open its eyes are vitamin A deficiencies, post-hibernation anorexia, third eyelid problems, trapped plant matter, infection of the eyelids, and an abscess. Some tortoises have a tendency to keep their eyes closed longer than normal so if your veterinarian rules out all issues, it’s nothing to worry about.
Not each of these problems is equally likely, however, and it’s important to work out which problem is specifically affecting your tortoise and then to take action to reverse the issue if necessary. So, let’s take a look at healthy tortoise eyes and what to do when things go wrong.
What Are Healthy Tortoise Eyes Like?
It’s a good idea to understand what a tortoise’s eyes ought to look like before you start worrying about whether or not they have a problem.
In most species of tortoise, they ought to be open and their eyes should be a sort of shiny (or at least, bright) black. Though there are some species that may have orange, yellow or brown. So, if you’re not certain that your tortoise has the right color eyes – talk to a vet or look up the specific species.
You might be surprised to learn that a tortoise has good eyesight and they see in a full range of colors as well as in ultra-violet. Tortoise’s eyes are also capable of producing their own moisture and thus “tears” are a possibility too – they don’t, however, have tear ducts leading to the nasal passage, so, you may see their tears rolling down their cheeks.
Some Tortoises Close Their Eyes All Day Long (Or Nearly)
It is worth noting that some tortoises can open their eyes, but it will appear that they can’t. When a tortoise elects to keep its eyes closed all day during daylight hours, this does indicate a problem but fortunately – it’s not usually an eye condition.
One issue that commonly results in closed eyes is a lack of humidity in the vivarium. This leaves the tortoise’s body too dry and their eyes dry out. What do creatures do when their eyes are dry and uncomfortable? They close their eyes to try and keep them moist.
So, you might want to give them more regular baths or introduce a little more humidity to their home.
However, if you find that this doesn’t help, the odds are pretty good that there is a lack of suitable airflow within their housing. You shouldn’t keep a tortoise in a sealed container like an aquarium or a solid glass vivarium. So, you may need to make changes to their living quarters.
Finally, if neither of these changes helps your tortoise to open its eyes all day long, then you might want to take your tortoise to a vet for them to give your pet a once over and see what is really wrong.
Some Tortoise Can’t Open Their Eyes As A Result Of A Vitamin A Deficiency
Vitamin A deficiency is commonly known as hypovitaminosis A. It is a direct result of giving tortoises the wrong food and it can cause serious problems for your pet. Typical diets that lead to this issue include diets that are heavy in iceberg lettuce, low quality commercial feed products or on a meat diet.
This can lead to a lot of different issues including:
- The eyes swelling shut and potentially some form of pus-like discharge leaking from them
- Changes in the epidermis (that’s the outside of your tortoise’s skin)
- Changes in the mucus-producing glands of the turtle’s mouth and upper-respiratory tract
- A loss of appetite
- Very lethargic movements
Fortunately, this is an easy condition to treat. Firstly, your vet can recommend either an oral vitamin A treatment or if the condition has become serious enough to stop them from eating, they can give the tortoise an injection of vitamin A.
You need to be cautious when it comes to giving a tortoise vitamin A because while a deficiency is a problem, an excess of vitamin A can also cause serious health problems – that means you must involve a vet in your pet’s treatment for this condition and don’t take it on yourself to administer the cure.
Some Tortoises Can’t Open Their Eyes After Hibernation (Post-Hibernation Anorexia)
It is very important to prepare a tortoise for hibernation properly, to monitor them during hibernation and then to wake them effectively too.
If things don’t go well then after you wake your tortoise – they may not be able to open their eyes, and this is a huge indication that they are suffering from post-hibernation anorexia.
Other massive warning signs include your tortoise not drinking within 48 hours of being woken and not eating within a week of waking.
The causes of this disease include:
- Hibernating for far too long
- The tortoise having a low level of white cells in their blood
- The tortoise not being able to reach the right temperature after waking
- The tortoise contracting a disease during hibernation
- The tortoise being traumatized during the hibernation
- An underlying chronic condition that has not yet been diagnosed
You must visit a vet if any of the warning signs present themselves. The tortoise is likely to need an esophagostomy tube to cure the issue – this is something that you cannot do yourself.
The treatment will require fluid therapy (that is the administration of water and electrolytes) via the tube to allow the tortoise to fully heal. This is not a quick process. It may take up to 2 months of you treating your tortoise before it is able to feed itself.
There is some concern that vets don’t always appreciate the length of time that it takes to recover from this, and they may not know that you need to keep up feeding for a long time.
Some Tortoises Can’t Open Their Eyes Due To Infected Or Swollen Eyelids
You should give your tortoise eyelids a quick inspection if they cannot open their eyes, the most likely cause of a tortoise that can’t open its eyes is some sort of swelling of the eyelids.
It is very likely, that this is caused by vitamin A deficiency or post-hibernation anorexia if your tortoise has just been woken from hibernation, but it might also be due to a more general infection or to dehydration.
As you might expect, the first thing to try is some rehydration therapy because this is cheap and easy. Give your tortoise some regular soaks for 2-3 days and see if this starts to reduce the swelling.
If it doesn’t then you probably need to visit the vet and have them take a look. If they discover a bacterial infection, then the likely treatment will be some antibiotics. These may be administered directly to the eye as eyedrops or orally in their food.
The prognosis here is still pretty good and you shouldn’t worry unduly if your tortoise has an eye infection. People get eye infections too and this rarely leads to any form of blindness.
Some Tortoises Can’t Open Their Eyes Due To Problems With The Third Eyelid
Unlike people, tortoises have three eyelids and typically, the third is very hard to see and can only be glimpsed as it passes over the corner of the eyeball. However, if there is a problem with the third eyelid – it becomes more pronounced.
This can also lead to tortoise being unable to open its eyes, though this may only be a partial closure rather than the complete eye being closed.
The initial treatment for this is simply to take some boiled water which has been allowed to cool (never put boiling hot water on any animal) and just gently drop some on the eyeball. This ought to moisten up the eyelid and allow it to retract to its usual place.
This can happen, particularly, after hibernation after the eyes have been closed for a long period of time and the eyelid has simply dried out a bit too much.
However, once again, if the treatment doesn’t work – you need to take your tortoise friend to the vets to get their expert opinion on what could be done to help your friend see properly again.
Some Tortoises Can’t Open Their Eyes Due To Trapped Plant Matter
Sometimes the explanation for a tortoise’s closed eye is pretty prosaic and one semi-regular occurrence arises from a hungry tortoise stuffing its face into somewhere that it might not have wanted to and some plant material gets caught on the surface of the eye.
In turn, this leads to the tortoise’s eyelid becoming stuck to the plant material and you can probably tell what happens next. The good news is that this is very easy to deal with yourself and shouldn’t need to involve a vet.
Firstly, it’s time to get some boiled water that’s been allowed to cool and use it to thoroughly irrigate the surface of the eye most of the time this will quickly remove the stuck material and your tortoise will be right as rain.
If you need to give the plant matter a bit of gentle encouragement to get gone then try an antiseptic eyedrop from the pharmacy to shift it. If that fails, then it is time for you to visit the vet. You don’t want to go poking around on the surface of your pet tortoise’s eyeball as you might cause more damage rather than making things better.
Some Tortoises Can’t Open Their Eyes Because Of An Abscess
Skin problems aren’t as common with tortoises as they are with other pets, such as rats for example, but they aren’t unheard of either. A tortoise that gets cut can easily develop a nasty infection that leads to an abscess (which you might think of as a supercharged spot full of pus).
An abscess that forces an eye closed is likely to be highly visible, it shouldn’t be very difficult to work out what the problem is.
The treatment will normally involve draining the pus from the abscess, the use of antibiotics to drive off the underlying infection and regular cleaning until the healing is done to prevent it from becoming reinfected.
You will, almost certainly, need to involve a vet to treat an abscess in a tortoise and you shouldn’t assume that you can just give it a squeeze, wipe it clean and that it will go away – this is only likely to aggravate the infection and make things go from bad to worse.
What Could Happen If A Tortoise’s Eyes Won’t Open? Can A Blind Tortoise Survive?
While it is unlikely that any of the conditions will lead to blindness as long as they are treated with a level of urgency and immediacy when they are discovered it is possible for a tortoise to go blind.
The most common causes of blindness in tortoises are cataracts or milky surfacing developing on the eye during hibernation. These can sometimes be treated but they often can’t (rather like their equivalents in human beings).
The good news, however, is that a blind tortoise can survive. However, they will need to live inside rather than outdoors for them to have the best hope of a successful life. You will also need to take steps to simplify the layout of the vivarium to allow the tortoise to remember where everything is.
You need to take particular care that you don’t move their food bowl as the inability to feed might cause them distress. However, given that tortoises don’t need to eat all that regularly – this might be fine, they’d probably stumble over the new location of the bowl prior to starving.
How To Prevent Eye Problems In Tortoises
It is not possible to prevent all eye problems in tortoises, anymore than it is possible in people (who are, at least, more likely to cooperate with your efforts to do so) but it is possible to prevent some problems.
There are a few key things you can do:
- Don’t use sharp or inappropriate bedding. This can cause cuts on their skin or eyes which become infected. If your tortoise is showing unexplained injuries this is almost always due to the bedding material. So, check it out carefully.
- Don’t use dirty water in the habitat. Your tortoise needs clean water to drink, (as you might have read in this article: How to get a tortoise to drink but you can probably work out how dirty water leads to infections without too much more detail.
- Ensure the heat and humidity levels in their habitat are right. You should regular check the humidity and temperature in their enclosure and make changes when things aren’t right.
- Remove any food at the end of the day. Rotting food can attract parasites and fungi which can cause a whole range of health problems and promote the growth of bacteria – clear it out daily.
- Make sure they are eating a balanced, healthy diet. See this page on what to feed your tortoise to give it the right nutritional mix. This will prevent it from developing vitamin deficiencies or mineral deficiencies that might lead to eye problems.
As you can see, eye problems are relatively common in tortoises but most of the time, they can be easily reversed with a little proactive treatment. The good news is that even if a tortoise does lose its sight, it doesn’t have to be a death sentence – tortoises can survive if they are blind as long as they are cared for.