Fat babies are cute to most people. Fat pets, like dogs, cats, and tortoises, might also be cute at first and get a chuckle from you. Yet, once you realize the deadly health issues that can arise from tortoise obesity, it’s not quite so cute or funny. Maybe this is the first you’ve heard of this health crises; maybe you’re surprised.
I can hear your shocked question now, “Can tortoises get fat?” Tortoises can get fat and it’s a major health hazard if they do. Turtles and tortoises can gain too much weight, adding fat deposits on their limbs and necks, which restricts their ability to tuck into their shells for safety.
There’s more danger, too, and much of it you can’t see until it’s too late. There is a lot to learn about this topic, so pull up a chair and get ready to learn how a tortoise can get fat and how you can stop yours from sharing that deadly fate.
Though our tone is sometimes lighthearted on this site, it’s important for our readers to know that we take tortoise health seriously. The humor in our articles is here to help make sometimes unpalatable information a little easier to digest. In this case, the scary news is that a fat tortoise is an unhealthy one. More so, it’s a gamble with that animal’s life.
The Cause of the Fat Tortoise Epidemic
Many pet turtles and tortoises fall victim to misinformed, but well-intention, owners. I doubt there are many evil-hearted humans out there intentionally overfeeding their tortoises just to watch them roll around and die. The vast majority of overweight tortoises got that way on accident and out of love, believe it or not.
The dangers of overfeeding tortoises
You see, many new tortoise owners are afraid that their tortoises aren’t being fed enough. Unlike typical pets, like dogs and cats, you can’t really see the small bits of added weight start to pile on because most of the tortoise is tucked snugly inside his shell.
So, a worried owner feeds him just a little extra each day. When the tortoise greedily gobbles up the extra portions, the owner may worry that they still aren’t getting enough food. To compensate, here comes the new, bigger portion each day.
You can see how this problem can snowball out of control.
Many vets see fat tortoises nearly every day. Those tortoises often end up on special diets to help shed the extra weight, but what happens to the tortoises who don’t get regular vet visits?
Obesity is deadly to tortoises
Just like humans and pretty much every other creature on the planet, obesity is bad for a tortoise’s health. For starters, fat deposits around the front and back legs can essentially clog up the tortoise’s shell. Before you chuckle about this, remember that the only other place fat deposits can go is around your tortoise’s neck.
Why is this deadly? A tortoise’s skin must fold a bit to allow the head and limbs to retract into the shell. Those limb and head openings aren’t made of elastic, folks. With too much fat, there’s simply not enough of a fold happening. All that fat makes it impossible for her to pull her limbs or head inside her shell for safety, exposing her to all kinds of dangers and injuries.
Even if your tortoise is safely in his tank and away from predators, he may still wish to tuck inside his shell. It’s his instinct, after all. But if he can’t do it, he’s not likely to understand why. In that case, he’ll continue to struggle to pull himself inside his shell, causing a variety of injuries from rubbing sores to internal injuries.
What’s so bad about a few sores? Plenty! Sores can turn to infections and infections can quickly lead to death. Sadly, treatment for these kinds of infections is not always successful. Obesity in most animals causes a host of internal and systemic problems, increasing strain on the body and reducing the effectiveness of medications.
The chance of death is especially high if your tortoise is so fat that you can’t see the rubbing sores around his or her neck and limbs. If the sores are hiding under fat folds, this leaves them completely untreated, allowing infections to go wild.
Another problem is that a tortoise is already carrying around an impressive weight. Their bodies were designed to carry that shell, so it’s not a real strain on its own. But tortoises and turtles were never meant to be fat, so they can’t carry a lot of extra weight for long. Super obese tortoises and turtles may not even be able to hold themselves up or walk far.
This puts immense strain on their muscles, joints, and circulatory system. Older tortoises are already set up for a bunch of age-related health issues. Add obesity and the inability to move (exercise), and you’re looking at a much shorter lifespan for your buddy.
How to Tell if your Tortoise is too Fat
When your pet is nearly encased in a protective, impenetrable shell, it can be difficult to monitor their health visually. You can’t pat his sides and tell him he’s getting a little chubby, after all. However, a keen tortoise parent can identify the early signs of obesity before it gets out of hand.
Tortoises that are nearing the dangerous fat zone tend to develop flaps or folds of skin in the soft areas around their limbs and necks. Learn to differentiate between normal tortoise skin flaps and those that are signaling a weight issue. Baby tortoises are a lot less likely than adult tortoises to be fat, so pay attention to how the young ones look for a comparison.
A tortoise or turtle a bit farther along the fat trail will have bulging, noticeably fat limbs and neck. These spots will feel a bit squishy under your finger, though your tortoise will likely get annoyed with all the poking.
The worst-case scenario is that your tortoise is already past the “getting fat” zone and can’t pull his head inside his shell any longer. If this sounds familiar, don’t panic. As long as your tortoise doesn’t have any sores, he’s not likely in any immediate danger. And if he does have sores, get him to the vet right away to prevent or treat infections.
What to do about a Fat Tortoise
Even once the tortoise reaches the visibly chubby neck stage, it’s not too late to do something about it. As with humans, all it takes to shed extra fat is to eat less, eat better, and start moving.
Start the slimming down process with a trip to the vet. She’ll want to assess your tortoise’s overall condition before suggesting ways to change the diet and add exercise. If your tortoise isn’t in good enough shape to start a new workout routine, for example, your vet may suggest tapering the food off over a few months and slowly adding more movement.
Chowing down. . . modified
Once your vet gives the green light for a diet change, make sure to weigh and measure everything you feed your tortoise. Even if she’s asking for more, don’t give in. Many tortoises will stand by their food bowl or feeding area long after the smaller portions are gone, waiting for more. It’s tempting to give a treat, but try to refrain from looking into those soulful eyes. It’s a trap!
Seriously though, you want to get your tortoise used to a normal amount of food at suitable intervals. Sneaking treats isn’t going to help matters.
Get that shell in gear
If your vet has said it’s safe for your tortoise to start a new workout, it’s time to get that shell in gear! As hilarious as it would be to see a tortoise in a tiny sweatband running on a tiny treadmill, that’s not reasonable. However, your tortoise would greatly benefit from extra playtime outside his enclosure. If it’s safe, let him wander the yard or the living room—with your supervision, of course.
Another way to encourage more movement is to put a few easy obstacles in her way. This makes her have to climb a little or walk a bit farther to reach her food. Just be sure the water is easily accessible. Nobody ever got too fat by drinking lots of water.
Tortoises can get bored, just like you can. Use that to your advantage and change the environment to encourage exploration. This can be new hides, new plants to climb on, new places to climb to and survey the room. Anything that your tortoise likes to do, add it to the enclosure and rotate new items in an out each week.
I know it’s a bit surprising to learn that tortoises can get fat. Yet, it is a big problem in the pet tortoise community. You can certainly improve his health and wellbeing by encouraging him to lose weight, but prevention is better than a remedy. Keep your tortoise active and feed him only the highest quality, appropriate foods, in reasonable amounts, and you’ll never have to deal with the repercussions of a tubby tortie.
What should I do if my tortoise is fat? Take your tortoise to the vet if you suspect he is obese. After the vet visit, you should adjust your pet’s feeding schedule, amount, and type of feed. You can also encourage your tortoise to move around more by allowing him to explore new locations under your supervision.
Can tortoises get too fat for their shells? While a tortoise shell continues to grow as the animal does, it is not able to compensate or grow to accommodate obesity. A fat tortoise will look like his shell is too small, with flaps of fatty skin and tissue bulging from each opening