The issue of cleaning, washing and bathing tortoises is vital. I never met anyone who doesn’t like a good bath, but what about reptiles and particularly tortoises?
Do tortoises need to bathe? The short answer is yes, tortoises do need a bath every now and then. A lukewarm bath will help clean a tortoise from dust and dirt, reduce bacterias from shell and skin, helps with hydration, and help with passing waste. Frankly, it just feels nice too.
This tortoise bathing guide is designed to help you keep your tortoise clean, healthy, and looking her best!
So Do Tortoises Really Need A Bath?
Some people may argue that a tortoise does not need a bath because they do not bathe in the wild. There is a flaw to that logic. While it is true that they do not need a bath like humans do, they surely can benefit from getting a bath in captivity. There are plenty of things tortoises are exposed to in captivity that they’d never have to deal with in the wild; baths can help mitigate those possibly negative exposures, reduce bacteria on their shells and skin, and quite frankly, baths just feel nice.
Bathing your tortoise may help in shell development, too. Removing dirt and debris and dead cells can help her shell grow strong and beautiful. To add even more benefits, it’s a fact that the warm water in a nice bath helps tortoises stay well hydrated and often helps them pass waste.
So, as you can see, bathing a tortoise has many more positive effects than simply making them look nice. Ready to give your tort buddy a good scrub?
What You Need To Bathe Your Tortoise
This all depends on the size of your tortoise. Bigger torts will need more supplies, but there are some basic things they’ll all need. But before we get too far, we cannot stress this next point enough. Tortoises cannot swim! We wrote about this in detail over here, but the point is: Never leave your tortoise unattended in or around water. Always be sure the water is too shallow for your tort to drown in. The exact amount of water will depend on the size of your tortoise. She should be able to stand up and keep her head out of the water.
Back to the fun part! For now, let’s say you have a smaller tortoise that you can hold in your hands. They’re the most common and the easiest to bathe.
For the little fellas, you may use a sink, a bathtub, or a plastic bin. Many tortoises seem to enjoy the freedom of the bathtub, however, but your tortoise may have a personal preference. Try several different bathing containers to see which he or she likes best.
If you have a larger tortoise that won’t fit in your tub, you can get a shallow kiddie pool or large shallow bin. Though it may be easier to just use a hose with low water pressure for a bigger outdoor tortoise.
No matter what you pick, only use lukewarm water. The temperature should sit around eighty-five to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Use a thermometer to help you keep track of this temperature; don’t try to guess. For bathing any reptile, it is crucial that the temperature does not get too hot or too cold as this can lead to illness or even death.
There are lots of thermometers available for bath water. They are offered in many places and come in many shapes and sizes. All of them seem to be rather affordable and work quite well as they are geared toward human children, which means safety is at the top of the manufacturer’s list.
A Soft-Bristle Toothbrush
For your tortoise bathing adventure, you will also need a soft-bristle toothbrush that has not been used before. We don’t need minty-fresh tortoises, just clean ones. It must be the kind with soft bristles so it won’t hurt or irritate your tortoise’s skin. For safety, we suggest using a brand new and sanitized one each time. This is to prevent any outside bacteria from other sources that could cause illness in your tortoise.
You may also use a soft, brand new rag in place of the toothbrush or in combination with it. Just as long as it has not been used for anything else before, it should be just fine. Stay away from towels, rags, and any cloth that says it has micro-scrubbers or that kind of thing. While these towels may not feel painful to you, they can damage a tortoise’s shell. It’s like running sandpaper on your tort’s back. Ouch!
Cotton Swabs, Cotton Balls and Towels
You may need cotton swabs, cotton balls, and towels for drying. Keep these on hand until you create a bathing routine for your tortoise and decide what extra items are best.
Once again, these items should be used only for your tortoise. They should never be used on anything else. That means you can’t use your tortoise bathing bin for washing your car or bleaching the floor in your garage. The exception to this rule, of course, is your own bathtub. This is because you’re likely to keep your bathtub clean and sanitized enough for you to bathe in, which makes it safe enough for your tort, too.
How To Give Your Tortoise A Bath (in 10 Fun Steps)
Now that we have our tools for a safe tortoise bath time, we can actually now treat our tort to a spa day! It’s actually pretty fun when you learn how to do it right. Plus, it’s a great way to bond with your tortoise, too. Be sure it is a warmer room in your home so the tortoise won’t get too cold, and never leave your tortoise alone in either the bath or while out in the house.
- Fill the tub with lukewarm water. Be sure this water goes just to the plastron of your tortoise. That’s the underside of his shell. It can be a little over the edge of where the plastron meets the top shell just as long as your tortoise’s head is not submerged and they can walk freely.
- Give your tortoise a few minutes to soak and get used to being in the water. This allows them to pass any fecal matter and get a nice drink. Maybe you don’t like to poo in your bath water, but many tortoises do! All of this is perfectly normal tortoise behavior. The warm water stimulates and helps their bowels. They may also become more active due to the nice warm temperature.
- Give your tortoise about one to two minutes of this soaking, then gently splash some water over his shell using your hands. Do not get any water on his face as this could stress your tortoise. Bath time is supposed to be relaxing and fun, not scary.
- Gently hold your tortoise in one hand and use your soft bristle brush to very gently scrub the tortoise’s shell. Be sure you’re getting in all the nooks and crannies. Do not hold the tortoise upside-down; this will stress them out and possibly hurt them. Instead, firmly hold the tortoise and turn their face toward you and tilt slightly upwards. This should give you good access to their belly for you to continue gently scrubbing.
- Most tortoises do not like water and do not like being held, but that is not to say they will all dislike bath time. Just be sure you are washing them gently and taking it slow. A tortoise can, in fact, feel through its shell, which is why you should use soft bristle brushes and wash them carefully. Making the bath a pleasant experience every time will help your tortoise learn to enjoy this special time with you.
- To clean in the pits and skin of your tortoise, use a Q-tip or cotton swab. Get the swab damp and gently rub in the delicate areas and pits of your tortoise. Sometimes, cotton swabs can feel a bit hard and rough, so be sure you’re being gentle.
- You can use a cotton swab or cotton ball to rub along the neck and top of the tortoise’s head. Be very gentle and do not get any water in the tortoise’s eyes. It’s important that you do not wash under their head or along the chin either. These are incredibly sensitive areas, as are the nose and mouth.
- Between scrubbings of your tortoise, set them down frequently to let them relax and not overly stress them out. This is also subject to change based on the age of your tortoise and if they are more used to being handled. Just pay attention to the signs your tortoise gives you, go slow, and be gentle.
- Once you have finished scrubbing your tortoise set them on a dry towel and very gently pat and wipe away the water. This would also be a good chance to let them walk around a warm room to dry off and get exercise.
- When your tortoise is dry to the touch you may return it to the enclosure, clean, dry, and more beautiful than ever!
Bathing A Large Tortoise
Bath time is a little harder with a larger tortoise. Usually, larger tortoises will be living outdoors so bathing them can seem pointless. Outdoor torts are a bit closer to their natural habitat and will presumably be living much closer to how they would in the wild. But that doesn’t mean a bath won’t be necessary from time to time.
If you must wash a large tortoise, find a large kiddie pool or storage container and make a ramp to get the tortoise in and out. Hopefully, your big tortoise is cooperative! Fill the pool the same way you would with a tub, keeping the water at a nice warm temperature and just up to her plastron.
If you can get your large tortoise indoors and into the tub, then you can do it the normal way listed above. Use a larger soft bristled brush if you can find one or a large rag and gently scrub the shell of the tortoise. You can use a rag for the skin and soft pits of the tortoise as well. Rinse, then dry your tortoise fully.
If bathing a large tortoise outside, never do this in extreme hot or cold weather as this can make your tortoise sick. Keep the temperature of the hose water in mind when bathing outdoors. Very cold water from the hose is unpleasant for a cold-blooded creature. You may wish to fill the bathing container ahead of time and let the sun warm it for a bit first.
Can You Use Soap On A Tortoise?
There is a lot of controversy on whether you should use soap on a tortoise to wash it. The simple answer is, yes you can. But real-life answers are rarely simple. It is perfectly safe to use soap on a tortoise if they are exceptionally filthy, but this should be done rarely and you must be very thorough in rinsing the tortoise completely. Some soaps have harsh chemicals that can irritate a tortoise’s skin or shell if left on too long.
Generally speaking, the only soap you should use on a tortoise is the original Dawn dish soap. This soap is often used on animals who were in oil spills, and is used frequently to bathe puppies and kittens with fleas or ticks. Here is a link to the product on Amazon.
How To Wash A Tortoise Using Soap
Set up your bath and water the same as before. Once your tortoise has soaked and done their business, gently splash water over her shell and pick her up the same as before. Keep your tortoise tilted slightly so that she is almost facing the ceiling but not straight up and down. This is to keep any water and soap from coming in contact with the face of your tortoise.
Since you’ll be using soap, things might get slippery from this point on, so be very careful.
Use only a small drop of soap and the same gentle scrubbing motions as before. It doesn’t take much soap to wash a tortoise. Get in between all the scutes and crevices of the shell, then carefully pour water over the soapy tortoise. Rinse your brush and scrub again to be sure all soap and residue is off the tortoise.
To be on the safe side, do not use any soap in the pits or near the head of the tortoise. Rinse your tortoise very thoroughly. In fact, spend lots of time rinsing. When you think it’s enough, rinse one more time. Why? Any remaining soap could cause irritation or sickness.
If you chose to wash your tortoise using soap, only do this once every month or so. Unless directed by a veterinarian, only bathe your tortoise once every few weeks, or if the tortoise has built up grime under her arms. Tortoises are naturally quite dirty, and this is normal. They do not need frequent baths, but one every now and again won’t hurt.
The Issue of Tortoise Shell Rot
While more common in water-loving turtles and tortoises who live in a wetter or damper environment, shell rot can be a big concern.
So, what is it? Shell rot is when a section, or all of the shell, starts to grow bacteria and rots off the animal. Snakes suffer something similar called scale rot, but both are caused by the animal being exposed to a damp or humid environment for too long. Kept in these conditions too long without the chance to dry themselves fully is bad news.
As you can imagine, shell rot on a tortoise or turtle can be quite scary and end up being deadly if not treated. There are ways to prevent and treat shell rot however. Believe it or not, baths can help treat shell rot, but they can also cause it if the animal is not dried off properly.
Shell rot will be seen as a white-looking mess on the shell of your tortoise. In most cases, you should visit your reptile vet first when you notice anything wrong or strange. Your vet will help you in treating and controlling the shell rot.
Preventing Tortoise Shell Rot From Baths
The only real way to prevent shell rot after bath time is to be sure your tortoise is completely dry. This means lots of patting with dry towels, staying in a warm room, and giving her a chance to air dry under your supervision after bath time. Putting her back in her enclosure before she is fully dry can encourage shell rot over time.
Here are a few more shell rot prevention tips to use in conjunction with good bathing and drying practices. Be sure that your tortoises are never kept in a severely moist or humid environment. That can mean spending too much time in the warm bathroom, too, so be aware. If your tortoises lives in a humid environment because of where you live in the world, provide a nice dry area in their enclosure so they can keep themselves from getting too damp. You may need to use a dehumidifier for this.
If your tortoise’s substrate is damp to the touch or if you can squeeze water out of its bedding, then it is too wet. This can happen after bath time if you haven’t dried him off well enough. Sometime water can get into the crevices and then spill or drip out when he goes back in his enclosure. If this happens, change the substrate out right away. It might be a good idea to do more towel time, just in case. Keep dry areas for the tortoise throughout its enclosure from that point on and watch closely for shell rot for a few weeks.
Treating Tortoise Shell Rot
Sometimes, no matter how carefully you dry your tortoise after bath time, they still develop shell rot. Don’t panic! One way of treating minor shell rot is to gently wash the area using soap, then apply either Povidone-Iodine or Betadine on the site of infection and a small area around it. Allow this to dry for ten to fifteen minutes and then you may return the tortoise to its enclosure. We know, it seems odd to treat shell rot from being too damp with getting back in the bath, but it’s really important the infected area is clean and dry.
This process should be repeated every day for a week or two, and the shell rot should heal. If the problem persists after two weeks, then take the tortoise to your reptile vet. Again, we highly recommend taking your tortoise to the vet at the first signs of anything abnormal or concerning. Never try to self-diagnose, as this could lead to suffering or death of your tortoise. The procedure above is mentioned here only as a stopgap measure until you can get your tortoise in to see the vet. It should not be used as your only treatment option!
Can You Trim A Tortoises Nails at Bath Time?
Simply put, no. You should never trim, cut, or file your tortoise’s nails. Not even at bath time. They need those nails for helping them dig. You will just have to get used to the long claws and be more careful if holding your tortoise.
If getting scratched is a concern, and you don’t want to get a lot of dirt in the wound, then you can always do a mini tortoise nail spa at bath time! All you need is a soft-bristle brush, a rag, and some lukewarm water.
Get the rag wet and wipe off your tortoise’s feet. Then use the wet brush and carefully brush all the nails and spurs. Rinse and wipe them down with the damp towel and dry off your tortoise. Tortoises are not big fans of being held, and even less so of having their feet touched, so be sure you are very gentle and patient if you want to wash your tortoise’s feet.
Taking special care of the nails and feet at bath time is your best bet as your tort will likely be relaxed and feeling pretty good by the end. Plus, the warm water will have helped loosen embedded dirt that would have been impossible to reach with just a brush.
Do You Have To Brush A Tortoises Teeth?
Nope! In-fact a tortoise doesn’t even have teeth, so you do not have to worry about getting some fancy animal toothbrush and fighting with your tortoise. A tortoise does have that impressively strong beak however, used for cutting and grinding up vegetation.
You can wipe your tortoise’s beak off with a damp towel during bath time, though we doubt your tortoise will enjoy it.
Giving your tortoise a bath can be a rewarding and pleasant experience for both of you. As we’ve seen, it can be very healthy for your tortoise and to top it off, it also help the two of you bond! Always pay attention to how your tortoise reacts when in the water as tortoises do not like being submerged. For safety, make sure the water never reaches up or over the edge of where his top shell meets the bottom, and that his face is not getting wet. Remember that tortoises don’t swim so the head must never be submerged.