There is nothing worse as a pet owner than your pet getting injured. If your tortoise has been bitten by a dog, you’ll, quite rightly, be worried but there may be some good news for you. Not every dog bite is fatal to tortoises, in fact, many are not.
Can a tortoise survive a dog bite? Whether a tortoise can survive a dog bite or not depends on the severity of the bite. There are four classes of bite and tortoises are very likely to survive 2 out of 4 bites. There’s a reasonable prognosis with the 3rd type, but the 4th is most likely to be fatal to the tortoise.
So, let’s take a look at dog bites and tortoises and how you can help prevent a dog bite in the first place and how to treat your tortoise if it does get bitten. Finally, we’ll take a quick look at the healing process and how your tortoise might recover from the bite.
Will A Dog Eat A Tortoise?
Sadly, yes, a dog will eat a tortoise. In fact, we saw one estimate that puts dog bites as the number one killer of tortoises in the United Kingdom though we couldn’t find any official numbers on the subject.
Most dogs are predators and they prey on anything that moves and that is smaller than them. They don’t do this to upset you, and they’d probably be appalled to learn that the tortoises they bite were loved and cared for, but they can’t help being dogs.
This means it’s very important to care for tortoises properly in areas where they might be exposed to dogs and even if your tortoises and your dog seem to get along well – it’s best not to allow them to play together unsupervised. Accidents do happen and they’re very unlikely to benefit your tortoise.
The Four Classes Of Dog Bite In Tortoises
If a dog does bite a tortoise there are four types of bite that it can deliver and they are divided into classes 1 through 4 with an ascending order of severity.
Class 1: Very Minor Damage
The first class is not very severe at all. In the case of a class 1 dog bite, your tortoise is going to come through relatively unscathed. There will probably be some marked damage to the outside of the carapace or plastron (that’s “the shell” to most of us non-veterinarians).
There may also be some minor abrasions to exposed limbs but, other than that, there will be no broken bones, no severe damage to the shell, no head or neck wounds, etc.
Your tortoise will, of course, almost certainly recover completely from a class 1 injury. Please see the section on treatment at the end of this piece to ensure the abrasions don’t get infected, but this is definitely your tortoise’s lucky day if they have this kind of bite.
Class 2: Scute Damage
Scutes are the plates that appear on the outside of your tortoise’s shell. In a class 2 injury, the scutes are severely injured and appear to be broken or cracked.
However, there won’t be any further injury below the layer of the scute and the “coelomic membrane” which is the bit under the shell that shields your tortoise’s internal organs from the world will not have been pierced.
Essentially, this is a more serious looking injury but, in reality, your tortoise is still healthy and very much likely to survive.
Class 3: Rupturing The Coelomic Membrane
This is bad news, the coelomic membrane is designed to keep the internal organs in one piece. When it is pierced, it won’t be immediately problematic for the tortoise, but it will allow fragments of the shell and possibly foreign bacteria and other unpleasantness to enter the tortoise’s body.
Now, that means your tortoise will need urgent veterinary attention, but the good news is that the vast majority of tortoises that get that attention will survive. In human terms, it’s the equivalent of a deep gash in the body that hasn’t hit an internal organ.
If you clean it and seal it properly and then keep away infection, it could turn out fine. Class 3 injuries are very serious, but they don’t have to be fatal.
Class 4: Major Internal Injury
Major internal injuries are what constitute a class 4 injury and here the prognosis is not as good. For a tortoise to have any real chance of surviving such a serious injury it will need days of medical attention and care.
This won’t work out cheap and as you might expect, the faster you get your tortoise to the vet in this instance – the better the chances of your tortoise surviving. However, try not to get your hopes up too much in this case, class 4 injuries are often fatal.
How To Prevent A Dog Bite On A Tortoise
As the cliche goes, prevention is better than cure, so how do we go about preventing a dog bite?
The obvious answer is simply to keep dogs a long way away from your tortoise. Even a dog that has been fine around tortoises for years can suddenly decided that it wants to snack on it. We know one particular instance where a very docile and obedient dog, bit and gravely hurt a tortoise simply because she wandered into his food bowl.
We’ve written a article dedicated to the dangers of tortoises around the house here: Why tortoises must NOT roam around the house (link open a new tab). If you have dogs, you can add that danger to the list!
Needless to say, keep your tortoise/s and your dog/s away from each other. As we said in this article: Can tortoises live with other pets?, it’s best to keep dogs away from tortoises. If dogs are allowed to roam, then keep the tortoises in an enclosure sealed against the dog/s. It’s really that simple. If a dog can’t reach your tortoise, it can’t bite it.
How To Treat A Minor Dog Bite
In all cases of dog bite, you should get the tortoise looked at by a veterinary professional just in case you’ve missed something.
When the damage is very clearly minor and you are confident that no deeper, hidden damage has occurred, you should bathe any cuts or abrasions and clean them. Whether the cuts are deep or not, please take your pet to the vet for a thorough check up.
Reptiles are very susceptible to infection in deep cuts and they don’t always heal properly either. Tortoises, in particular, tend to be docile and quiet for days, weeks, or even months, before they show signs of illness. By then, it could unfortunately be too late.
How To Treat A Major Dog Bite
The ideal here is simply to get your tortoise to a vet as fast as possible. However, this isn’t always possible and if that’s the case you can use BetadineTM to clean any wounds (dilute in water until it looks like a weak tea solution).
You might also cover any wounds using TelfaTM pads that can then be secured with duct tape (though leave room for the wound to breathe – don’t seal the pad in tape).
But then get to a vet. It’s your tortoise’s best (and possibly only) chance of surviving class 3 or 4 dog bites.
The Healing Process In Tortoises
Unfortunately, tortoises (and reptiles in general) take quite a bit longer to heal than mammals and birds. A damaged shell might take years to fully heal. Needless to say,
To heal at their full rate the tortoise will need to be kept warm and possibly kept under UV light (talk to the vet about this).
Then the tortoise goes through a two to three phase healing process.
Inflammation is when the wound is red and swelling and may be exuding pus or other fluids. An inflamed wound needs cleaning and dressing to prevent infection. Your vet may provide special pads for this to help absorb any exudate.
Head wounds and leg wounds take the longest to move through this stage.
You can think of this as “scabbing” which is its human equivalent. This is when tissue starts to reform over the wound. It needs to be kept moist and dressed to promote healing.
In some cases, the damage to a tortoise’s shell will be so severe that it will never recover naturally. In this case, a third stage is needed for healing – artificial remodeling of the shell using a resin patch. This is known as maturation.
Can a tortoise survive a dog bite? Yes, though there are no guarantees that a tortoise will survive a dog bite and the more serious the bite, the more difficult it may be. Much of your pet’s chances depend on the actions that you take after discovering the bite.
So keep an eye out, and create the right environment for your pet/s. If you suspect a tortoise needs attention, do not wait! Get that tort to the vet as soon as possible. Treating damage earlier than later can make the difference between life and death for our beloved pets.