One of the biggest concerns for new pet owners is what impact an animal will have on their lives and their household. In the middle of all that worry is the question of smell. This is especially true for new tortoise owners thanks to all the misinformation running around the internet. Truthfully though, if you’re not prepared for what it’ll be like to own a tortoise, you could be setting yourself up for a nasty surprise.
So, do pet tortoises smell bad? Tortoises do not smell bad and they don’t have much of a natural odour. At most, they may smell musty or just have an outdoorsy, musky smell. However, their enclosures can sometimes become breeding grounds for bacteria and other odor-causing organisms if you don’t clean them well enough. A stinky tortoise could be a sign of infection or illness.
As with all things, this is much more complicated than a yes or no answer. Lucky for you, we’re well-versed in the ins and outs of tortoise care. That includes what they smell like and how to use your nose to detect issues before they become life-threatening.
What Do Tortoises Smell Like?
Many people assume all reptiles stink without ever having been around one. That’s not very fair to reptiles. Ask any tortoise-keeper if their pets stink and they’ll likely all tell you the same thing.
Tortoises don’t smell bad. They don’t stink like a dog might or like a cat’s dirty, sour fur can. This isn’t to say they are without a smell at all. They do have a smell that some people just don’t like.
We’ve heard the smell described as musky. Some have described them as smelling like fresh hay. Mostly, they tend to smell like whatever substrate you’re using in their cages.
Do tortoises smell like turtles?
The internet often describes tortoises as musty, like a damp basement. But the “wet” descriptors are more accurate for turtles if we’re to be completely honest. Turtles live in and around the water, so it makes sense for them to smell wet. Tortoises are land animals exclusively. If they’re wet or damp and it’s not bath time, there’s a problem.
It’s Usually the Tortoise Tank that Smells Bad
If you’ve heard anyone complaining about smelly tortoises, it’s likely they were in the room with a dirty enclosure. Tortoises just don’t smell bad on their own. More often than not, it’s the tank that stinks.
Tank stink can come from a variety of sources, so it’s always best to check the following things before blaming the tortoise.
Too Much Tortoise Poop
Tortoise poop can smell fairly offensive if left in the tank too long. While it’s not uncommon for a tortoise to poo in their water during bath time, not all of them will. That means you need to be on the lookout for fresh poop each day to be sure it gets clean up right away.
The poop itself has a mild smell, but left too long it’ll begin to attract unwanted visitors. Flies and other bugs will be attracted to the smell of older tortoise poop. Bacteria will begin to build up rather quickly, too.
Left long enough, tortoise poop can begin to mold!
Even the most fastidious tortoise-keeper can be surprised by damp and smelly substrate. It’s not always possible to find where your tortoise has relieved himself as they don’t always poop or pass thick, white urates. They may simply urinate in a corner and go on about their business.
Tortoise pee doesn’t have a strong smell at first. That means unless you can see a wet spot or you witness your tort taking a wee, you may be surprised by a stinky, damp, hidden spot a week or so later.
Like the poo debacle above, urine left in the cage can start to stink. It’s a perfect place for bacteria to breed and then comes the smell. It’s also a good way to give your tort shell rot.
Damp substrate can also happen after a tortoise takes a bath. A nice, long soak feels good to tortoises, but all that water must go somewhere. If you don’t dry your tort off well enough, they’ll bring the water with them and track it all over the enclosure.
This isn’t a problem if the enclosure is big and open, or if the tort spends most of her after-bath time in the sunning spot. The shed water will have a chance to evaporate before it causes any smells.
Sometimes tortoises drag some food to a quiet corner to munch in solitude. Other times, they bring a piece of food with them on accident. Either way, an errant piece of food can quickly turn a pleasant tortoise enclosure into a stinky one.
Vegetable matter rots quickly. It’ll rot even faster in the warmth of a tortoise enclosure and tucked under a rock or in a moist hide.
Scummy Water Dishes
Even the cleanest-looking water dish can be scummy and gross on the bottom or the sides. That scum slowly builds over time and begins to emit a rank odour. Simply dumping the water and filling it back up won’t do the trick. Every now and then you should give it a thorough cleaning. We do it at least once a week.
Food Dishes Harbor Bacteria
It’s a fact that pet food dishes are a huge buffet for bacteria. Even if your tort finishes every last piece of food you offer, there is always going to be a residue on the bowl. Just like the water dishes, give them a thorough cleaning at least every few days.
How to Keep a Tortoise Cage from Stinking
This is so stupidly simple that this will be a very short section. To keep a tortoise cage from smelling bad, you just need to clean it. You don’t need to scrub it down every single day, but a little daily maintenance can save you tons of time in the long run.
Sift the substrate each day if you can. Remove any feces right away. Dry up any damp spots. Wash the food and water dishes at least once per week in tortoise-friendly cleansers.
It’s that simple! A little bit every day will go a long way!
What to do if your Tortoise Smells Bad
So, you’ve cleaned the tank and made sure there are no hidden poops or food scraps, yet the tortoise still stinks. That’s not good news. If you’re certain it’s the animal itself that smells bad, there could be an infection.
First, check around each limb, the tail, and the neck where they meet the shell opening. Sometimes tortoises will get rubbing injuries—raw, red, irritated spots. If these go untreated, they can easily get infected.
If you spot one of these sore areas, give it a quick sniff. If it smells really bad, there’s likely an infection. This is a vet trip! Even if you can’t smell anything bad from a sore spot, if you see oozing or bleeding, you need to get to the vet, too. Tortoises don’t heal these wounds very easily on their own, so you little friend needs some help.
If you can’t find any sore spots on your tort’s skin, check the shell. You need to check the carapace (the top_ and the plastron (the bottom) to be sure there are no cracks, holes, or soft spots. Any break or weakening of the shell can make room for dangerous bacteria to enter.
An infection under the shell will be nearly impossible to see. If you can’t see anything at all wrong but the tortoise still stinks, let the vet have a look.
Not everyone will appreciate the natural smell of a healthy tortoise, no matter what you do. But just because they don’t like the smell of tortoises doesn’t mean all tortoises smell bad. As long as you’re keeping your tortoise’s cage clean, his dishes clean and sanitized, and his body clean and dry, you won’t need to worry about a stinky pet.
If your tortoise begins to smell, you know what to look for now. Clean the tank, wash the dishes, and then check for injuries or illness. If all else fails, see your vet just to be sure everything is okay.
Can tortoises live without their shell? Absolutely not! Their shell is infused as part of their body just like your spine and ribs are part of your human skeleton. Read all the fascinating details in this article: “Can turtles & tortoises live without their shell?” but whatever you do, please do not experiment with a tortoise’s shell.
What makes a tortoise a tortoise? If you’re curious about tortoises beyond their shells, have a look at this article: “Tortoise Anatomy: What tortoise are made of and why” for a detailed look at these wonderful animals.
Can tortoises see in the dark? Yes, tortoises have amazing night vision! Check out this article to learn how they do it: “Do tortoises see in the dark? Here’s what the science says”