With pet mammals, it’s easy to tell when they are happy and healthy. Reptiles, however, are almost alien when compared to the more familiar cats and dogs. Tortoises can seem mysterious and confusing to first-time owners. In fact, even seasoned reptile keepers can have some trouble deciphering the subtle language of tortoises.
In this guide, we’ll help you uncover the sometimes-vague signs of a tortoise in trouble. You’ll learn how to tell if your tortoise is happy, how to tell if it’s upset or sick, and what you can do to improve its life and ensure its happiness in some simple and easy ways.
What Does a Healthy Tortoise Look Like?
For a creature that keeps most of its body hidden inside a hard shell, the tortoise is surprisingly easy to tell, visually, if it’s healthy. That is, as long as you know what to look for.
If your only experience with tortoises is from television shows or videos on Youtube, you likely aren’t getting the full view of what a tortoise should look like at peak health. This is not to say that the Youtube tortoise stars aren’t well cared for, but those videos only show what the owners want you to see. They may only show the “good side” of their tortoise or turtle to avoid backlash from viewers, for example.
The same goes for tortoises seen in some lower end pet stores. If you’re only used to seeing those neglected babies, you may not recognize the signs of stress, poor nutrition, or bad tank-keeping.
But don’t worry. We’re here to help you understand what a healthy tortoise should look like.
The most obvious part of a tortoise is his upper shell, the carapace. Naturally, this will be the first place to look for signs of healthy growth. Right from hatching day you can tell how healthy a tortoise is by the shape, size, and condition of his shell. It gets easier as the tortoise ages though.
No matter the breed, the top of a tortoise shell should be firm and relatively smooth. Any irregular lumps, dips, cracks, or healed over scars indicate the tortoise was sick or injured. Older injuries don’t necessarily mean the tortoise is still sick or hurt, but it could be an indication something may still be wrong internally. It’s always worth having the vet take a look.
Healthy tortoise shells have “scutes”, which look like large scales or shields. Unlike turtles, tortoises do not usually shed their scutes; they just grow larger scutes, adding to them like your nails growing or a horse’s hooves. Between each scute should be a suture line. This is where the scutes sit against each other and seal the shell closed. Any gaps or soft spots between the scutes are reasons for concern.
As the tortoise grows, so does the shell. Tortoises should have growth rings, but not quite like trees. You may be able to estimate the age of a tortoise by counting growth rings, but there is no way to know for sure since growth rings on very old tortoises can sometimes fade or get worn down. The rings can also be affected by climate changes and differences in environments, nutrition, and health over time.
The plastron of the shell is the bottom portion, your tortoise’s tummy. This should be hard, just like the top. Hatchlings may have a slightly softer plastron, but it should harden up quickly.
A healthy plastron will be smooth, well-sealed, and free from damage. If your tortoise’s plastron is badly scarred or you notice any new injuries there, it’s possible there could be some internal damage, too. This is usually from trauma such as dog bites, falling on a rock or other hard surface, or mistreatment.
Tortoises are land-dwelling reptiles. They have rugged, tough skin covering stocky limbs, perfectly suited for fending off prickly barbs and rough terrain. Their skin often looks wrinkly and dry. If your tortoise looks wet or moist, there could be a problem. But if his skin is overly dry and causing cracks and sores, it’s equally alarming, so don’t delay a vet trip.
Try to examine close up photos of various tortoise breeds and see the difference in skin texture. It’s not uncommon for the skin to be a little softer around the entrance points into the shell, but it should not be so soft that it looks or feels damp.
As reptiles, tortoises can shed their skin. Don’t be alarmed by this and don’t peel it off. The skin will come off naturally. If you try to pull it off, you could cause a painful injury that could lead to an infection.
A healthy tortoise will not have sores or open wounds anywhere on its skin. You may notice some scarring on older tortoises. This doesn’t mean the tortoise is currently injured, but it’s worth noting these locations and keeping an eye on them, just in case it’s a reoccurring problem.
Be sure to check for ticks, mites, and other parasites. These tend to dig in close to the shell where the skin is softest. However, you may also find mites tucked around the edges of the scales all over her skin.
Tortoises don’t have the big, sad puppy eyes like dogs do, but you can still tell a lot about a tortoise’s health by checking out her peepers. A tortoise should have bright, shiny, alert eyes. Dryness could indicate dehydration or an illness. Excessively wet, runny, weepy eyes could be a sign of infection, so don’t ignore discharge.
Injuries can cause blindness, so check your tort’s retinas for scratches during your regular maintenance routine. Don’t be surprised if you can see your tort’s third eyelids peeking out of the front corners of her eyes. This is totally normal. However, if that eyelid is always closed or is showing more than a tiny bit, that could mean she has an eye injury, is dehydrated, or isn’t feeling well.
Unless you know what you’re doing, never try to pry a tortoise’s eyelids open. This is a procedure for an experienced handler or your vet.
Mouth and Nose
Many tortoises don’t like being poked and prodded, especially around the mouth and nose. But knowing what’s normal for your tortoise is important for his health.
A normal tortoise mouth should be pink and clear inside unless he just had a meal that stained it a different color. A healthy tortoise beak is slightly longer on the top and curved ever so slightly downward over the bottom. All breeds are different though, so be sure to compare your tortoise to good examples of his specific breed. The beak should not be crooked and should never be held open for extended periods.
The nose should be clear. A runny nose is cause for concern. Sand, dirt, or debris caked around the nostrils may be a sign of previous illness, too. A tortoise who is gasping or has bubbly discharge from its mouth or nose may be very ill. Get to the vet as soon as possible.
The tail is an often overlooked part of a tortoise health check because people aren’t sure what they’re looking for. A healthy tortoise will have a clean tail. What I mean by that is there should be no urates or feces caked around the tail.
It’s also good to check the tail area for sores, skin cracks, or other signs of irritation or damage.
Weak, flaccid tortoises are probably not feeling well. They may simply be dehydrated, but even that can cause big problems down the line.
A healthy tortoise will have strong muscles. They will resist if you push or tug on a leg—gently, of course. If you can watch your tortoise withdraw into his shell, you can get a pretty good idea how strong he is and how he’s feeling.
Healthy tortoises stand tall, lifting their plastrons off the ground. A sick or stressed tortoise might seem saggy or refuse to stand at all.
How Does a Healthy Tortoise Behave?
All tortoises are different when it comes to behavior. Some are shy and some are outgoing. Some like the company of humans, while others prefer to ignore you and chill out in their enclosures. Knowing what’s normal for your tortoise’s personality will go a long way in helping you decide if he’s healthy and happy.
That said, there are some basic tortoise behaviors that are standard across all breeds and personalities.
When a tortoise is feeling its best, it will actively move about its enclosure. If it’s playtime, she should want to explore and show curiosity. A healthy tortoise will move quickly toward points of interest. If your tortoise is more of a strolling type, he’ll do so with purpose and using strong, even strides.
If your tortoise is lethargic, always tucked inside his shell, or moving with dragging, slow, labored steps, he may not be feeling well.
Tortoises are notoriously ravenous eaters. Many torts will continue eating long after they’ve had enough, sometimes leading to obesity. You can tell if a tortoise is healthy if it has a healthy appetite.
If your tortoise suddenly stops eating or becomes very picky, she may not be feeling well. Sometimes, a lack of appetite has more to do with overfeeding extra treats though, so be careful how much you’re feeding.
What comes out is just as important as what goes in.
What Does Healthy Tortoise Poop Look Like?
Who doesn’t like talking about poop? As socially unacceptable as some people think poo is, it’s actually one of the best ways to tell if a tortoise is healthy. Just by looking at your tortie’s leavings you’ll be able to tell if they’re dehydrated, sick, stressed, or feeling great. Here’s how!
Tortoises eliminate waste in the form of feces (poop), urine, and urates. Many new tortoise owners don’t realize that there are three types because all three are often passed at once. The collective elimination is often just called poop by newbies, but now you know there are three things happening here.
Urine is the liquid portion of your tortoise’s leavings. It usually just looks like a splash of water, or a puddle left in the tank. Many torties simply urinate in the bath water, so you may not even see urine unless you’re watching closely.
It’s normal for tortoise and turtle urine to look white, like someone spilled some milk in the bath water. Don’t panic! However, if you see red colored puddles or streaks around the tank, or any other odd shades, there may be a problem with your tortoise’s bladder or kidneys.
Urates are the result of the tortoise’s body processing protein. Urates come out as a white, creamy, pasty substance. It’s a bit like toothpaste, if you’re brave enough to poke it. The urates are passed during urination since both urine and the urates are stored in the bladder.
Because they both come at the same time, it’s common for urates and urine to mix, creating the milky white mess mentioned above. If your tortoise is passing gritty or dry urates, this is a problem.
The Scoop on Poop
Feces (poop, poo, droppings, etc.) is the solid waste product of digestion. While normal, healthy tortoise poop is usually brown or a greenish-brown, the color depends greatly on what your tortoise has been eating. A lot of leafy greens will result in a greener plop, for example.
The same goes for the consistency and frequency of the poo. Less frequent feedings will mean less frequent pooping. But individuality has a lot to do with this, too. Knowing what’s normal for your tortoise will help alleviate any poo anxiety on your part.
Don’t be alarmed if your tortoise’s poop is always white or has a whitish layer over a darker base. Torts often urinate and defecate at the same time, including passing the whitish urates, which then sit on top of the feces.
There is a wide variation in healthy tortoise poop, but it shouldn’t be hard, dry, or gritty. If you notice your tort straining to pass urine, urates, or feces, this is something your vet needs to know about.
Also be aware of any sudden changes in frequency, consistency, or smell that can’t be explained by diet. For instance, if your daily pooper suddenly starts defecating hard pellets once every three days, but his diet hasn’t changed, this should be brought to your vet’s attention.
How Do I Know if my Tortoise is Happy?
Beyond the physical signs of good health, a tortoise’s mental health is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it’s because reptiles are so far removed from mammals and our raging emotions, or maybe tortoises are simply stoic and enigmatic creatures by nature. Whatever the reason, it can be difficult to tell if a tortoise is happy.
It’s easier to sense your pet tortoise’s emotions, or at least his satisfaction, once you’ve spent years with him. You’ll be able to identify subtleties in his behavior that let you know how he’s feeling.
Yet, that doesn’t mean a newbie tortoise owner should be left in the dark. After lots of research, we’ve found some of the most common ways experienced tortoise keepers have discovered their pets showing happiness, sadness, and other emotions.
Please keep in mind that it’s impossible for humans to know how reptiles experience emotions, feelings, and thoughts. The best we can do is use human terms to describe tortoise behaviors, hoping to bridge the gap between our species.
An excited tortoise will willingly move toward whatever has her attention. They often run, or move as fast as they can. You can tell they are excited by the speed and surety of their movements. Nothing can distract and excited, determined tortoise.
Test this out by offering your tortoise a favorite treat. We bet they’ll come running!
Happy tortoises are often very curious. This curiosity can be toward a new decoration or toy in the tank, a new tank mate, or something happening outside of his enclosure. A curious tortoise will stand tall, lifting his body as high as possible, then lifting that long neck as far as it will go to get a better look.
Curious tortoises may stare at the object or person on interest. They may or may not move toward it right away, but eventually, all curious tortoises will head over to get a closer look.
Sadness or Displeasure
When we tell people that a tortoise looks sad, we get some funny looks. We may never see a tortoise sob uncontrollably (That would be terrible!), but it’s not hard to notice when a tortoise is feeling down.
A sad or displeased tortoise will seem mopey. They may sit in one spot with their limbs and head tucked in the shell. They may move slowly. They may straight up ignore you. If your tortoise begins acting this way and you’re sure they’re physically healthy, try changing the enclosure decorations, adding something interesting to explore, or giving him some time to roam the garden.
Though tortoises are complex creatures shrouded in mysteries, figuring out how they’re feeling is a lot easier than people think. Happy and healthy tortoises will steadily gain weight, have a great appetite, show curiosity and excitement, and will have regular bathroom habits. A healthy tortoise will feel heavy, as if they’re full of water; they’ll have strong limbs and bright eyes.
How do you know if your tortoise is dying? The sad answer is that you can never be sure until it’s too late. However, a sick tortoise will show signs such as weight loss, dry skin, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
How can you tell if a tortoise is dehydrated? A dehydrated tortoise will be underweight, have dry, loose skin, and may show a loss of appetite. They may exhibit thick, ropey mucus secretions from the mouth and have dry feces.