It’s scary to walk in on your pet gasping and clearly in distress. It’s even more frightening when that pet is a tortoise who normally doesn’t make much of a ruckus. Many people believe tortoises are incapable of choking, yet reptile social groups are full of stories of that very thing. They can’t both be right.
So, can a tortoise choke? A tortoise can choke and die on a variety of objects. Hatchings are especially susceptible to choking as they haven’t learned what’s safe to eat and how much they can fit in their mouths. Older tortoises or those with other health conditions may choke as well.
It’s unclear why some people don’t think tortoises can choke, but we believe the evidence is indisputable. Below, we’ll go over some of the reasons a tortoise might choke, what they can choke on, and what you can do to avoid this distressing health issue all together.
How Can a Tortoise Choke?
While they look like tiny, indestructible tanks, tortoises aren’t impervious to injuries. Even self-inflicted ones like choking.
A tortoise may be ripe for choking for a variety of reasons. The biggest problem is age. Hatchlings often don’t understand just how tiny they are. That means they may try to chomp down on a piece of food that is far too big for them to handle. This can result in food getting lodged in their beaks or stuck in their throats.
Another age-related choking hazard has to do with inexperience. Young tortoises may not know what’s edible and what’s not. Perhaps a shiny rock in the enclosure reminds them of a tasty strawberry and they try to swallow it, for example.
On the other end of the age problem is advanced age-induced weakness. Older tortoises may begin to lose the strength in their jaws required to grind down their normal foods. This can result in large pieces of usually safe foods getting lodged in their throats.
Illness is another major factor for choking in tortoises. A sick tortoise will likely be weak. This makes their eating process insufficient. Maybe they can’t bite off a small enough chunk. Perhaps they’re unable to crush and grind the food small enough. Or maybe their swallowing reflex is just too weak to move food down the throat.
There isn’t much you can do about age-related choking, other than making sure the enclosure is safe. But ill or injured tortoises and turtles prone to choking need to be seen by a vet.
What Can a Tortoise Choke On?
The simple answer is that they can choke on anything small enough to fit in their mouth. But that’s not terribly helpful to read. Here’s a list of common items that can pose choking hazards to tortoises.
- Small rocks: Lots of tortoise enclosures are furnished with pebbles, gravel, and other small rocks. While these are generally safe, it’s possible that a young or overly curious (or bored) tortoise may try to consume the rocks. Sometimes this is done on accident while playing or digging. Increase the size of rocks and gravel in your tortoise’s enclosure to prevent choking.
- Chunks of food: Depending on the type of food and the age of your tortoise, you may see your pet choking on whole berries, big pieces of leafy greens, or other normally safe foods. Cut foods into small pieces to help them eat normally.
- Enclosure decorations: Some tortoises are destructive little critters, hellbent on making a mess wherever they go. These tiny tornadoes can do some damage to synthetic plants or flimsy tank decorations. If they happen to break off a piece, it could end up going down their throat. This poses a choking hazard, but it may also lead to poisoning or an upset tummy. If your tortoise likes to bulldoze everything and then eat it, switch to nontoxic, natural decorations.
- Sand: Believe it or not, some tortoises can end up with so much sand or dirt packed into their beaks that they choke. If your tortie is prone to “face digging” and ends up with a mouthful of dirt, you may consider switching to a different substrate.
- Toys, erasers, small batteries, and other small human objects can be a major choking hazard to curious tortoises. This is mostly an issue when you allow your tort to wander your room or the yard. Keep all small human objects out of reach of an exploring tortoise.
Can a Tortoise Cough?
Yes, a tortoise can cough. This is sometimes a sign of choking. A coughing tortoise may also have an upper respiratory infection. If the cough is accompanied by foamy discharge from the nose or mouth, or there are signs of runny eyes, this is most likely an illness and not choking. Please go to the vet IMMEDIATELY!
If your tortoise is coughing and there is no discharge or foaming, she may be choking. Read on for some tips to help.
How to Prevent a Tortoise from Choking
Now that we know what tortoises are most likely to choke on, we can make an action plan to prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s much better to prevent a tragedy than try to fix one in progress.
First and foremost, look at any area outside the enclosure that your tortoise spends time. This is the most important aspect because anything outside the tank is likely not designed for tortoises to interact with, therefore making it both a choking hazard and a possible poisoning hazard.
Prevent ingestion of human objects by vacuuming the floor well before allowing your torts to roam. Pay close attention to areas your tort will have easy access to, but also look for hidden places they may stumble across. Some of the biggest problem areas include under the bed or other furniture, behind furniture that you don’t normally move, and in corners.
To be completely safe, create a tortoise play yard with small pet gates. It’s best not to use more furniture or other human objects to block a tortoise in, but those items are better than nothing in a pinch.
There is a wide variety of suitable substrate and digging material for tortoises. Unfortunately, not all substrates will be good for every tortoise. For new pets, watch them closely for several weeks to see if your chosen substrate is safe for them. Some tortoises never try to eat rocks and pebbles, while others seem to think this is great fun.
If you notice your tort suddenly eating the substrate or digging material, switch it immediately. This isn’t a habit you’ll be able to break. It’s much better to simply remove the temptation.
For small, young, old, or weak tortoises, the very thing that brings life can also end it. If your tort seems to be struggling to bite off the right sized pieces of food, give him a hand.
Chopping large food into smaller pieces can help prevent choking. For the youngest and weakest tortoises, you may consider smashing the food a little, too. This helps break it down to a consistency they can simply swallow, reducing the strain of eating.
Leave Large Leaves Alone
On the other end of the choking spectrum is too much human assistance with dinner. Some tortoises don’t handle smaller pieces well and end up struggling. This often happens when they pick up multiple small pieces of food and try to swallow them, resulting in choking.
To prevent this, leave large leafy greens intact. Allow your tortoise to bite and tear appropriately sized pieces from a whole leaf. More often than not, they’ll be able to tear the right size piece for themselves when your chopping attempts fail.
Provide Lots of Water
Sometimes the choking episode could have been avoided by keeping clean water nearby. A tortoise will naturally go for a drink if something is irritating her throat. She may try to dislodge it on her own first, but eventually she’ll head over for a drink. By keeping water close by and easily accessible, you’ll be providing a potentially life-saving tool for your tortoise.
What to Do If Your Tortoise is Choking
If all of your prevention efforts have failed and your tortoise ends up choking, don’t panic! Usually, a tort can handle the situation on his own. He may stretch his neck out and hold it there, allowing gravity and his strong swallow reflex time to work. He may take sips of water and stand still. He may also try to pull his head in and pop it out of his shell repeatedly to help force the object down.
If this doesn’t work, there isn’t a lot you can do that won’t cause more harm. Pulling a stuck piece of food out of his mouth, for example, could cause serious internal injuries. However, if it’s an inedible object, such as a rock or a coin battery, your buddy is going to need your help.
Choking is scary. If your tort is having trouble taking in or releasing air, this is an emergency. Get to the vet immediately. If she is able to breathe enough to stay calm, you can try to help before you go to the vet, but be mindful of her breathing through the entire process. If things change, don’t hesitate to head out.
It’s hard to stand by while your pet is choking, but sometimes it’s the best option. Mother Nature didn’t leave your tortoise helpless. She has a natural instinct to clear her mouth and throat if need be. However, as with all things tortoise, the process is extremely slow.
As long as she can breathe and she seems to be working it out on her own, just watch. Pay attention for signs of distress and fatigue. If she can’t breathe or becomes too fatigued to continue trying to get the item out of her mouth, it’s time for you to step in.
It’s unclear whether tortoises panic or not, but let’s assume they do have a fear response. If he is choking and all his efforts to dislodge the object have failed, he might be quite scared. Be slow and gentle if you decide to intervene. Sudden movements could startle him, resulting in more damage to sensitive mouth and throat tissues.
Don’t pick him up. Many tortoises don’t like to be picked up on the best of days. If he’s scared, picking him up will only stress him out more. Instead, get down to his level and see if you can see the object in his mouth.
If you can see the object, try to gently pull it forward, out of his beak. Just be sure you do not force his mouth open. This can cause a painful injury.
Get to the Vet
We wish there was more you could do to help a choking tort, but it’s a dicey situation that most people aren’t equipped to handle. If your tortoise is in distress, is having trouble breathing, or has become too weak to continue fighting, it’s time to see the vet.
While scary to witness, most tortoises can and will dislodge the offending object on their own. It takes time and patience, however. Try not to rush in to the rescue too soon. Remember that tortoises are naturally slow, methodical, and purposeful in all they do. Give her a chance to fix the problem herself, but stay close by in case she runs into trouble. Be ready to head to the vet if things become dire.
Can a tortoise turn itself over? Turning upside-down is another common predicament that some tortoises find themselves in. Tortoises are able to turn themselves over but it’s not always easy. Check out some important tips in this article: “Can an upside-down tortoise turn itself over?”
Can tortoises get fat? Another issue related to eating is overfeeding. Tortoises can get fat and it’s quite dangerous for their health. Learn about these issues in this article: “Can tortoises get fat?”