Tortoise Shedding: What’s Normal and What Isn’t

For some reason, tortoises are not as popular as other pet reptiles, whose shedding cycles are well known. Even those who never owned a lizard or a snake are probably familiar with the shedding process (or at least, that it actually happens). The topic of tortoise shedding is one that is not very regularly discussed, even though it is just as fascinating!

So do tortoises shed? The answer is yes. As they grow older tortoises regularly shed both their skin and their shells. Shedding helps tortoises grow new skin, grow a bigger shell, and helps rejuvenate the body to protect it from disease. There are different signs that indicate when a tortoise’s shedding is healthy and normal, and signs for when it is not. Overall, the shedding cycles for tortoises are perfectly normal throughout their lives.

As we keep an eye on our own pet tortoises’ shedding processes, it almost reminds us of our own human skin shedding (but we normally call it “peeling”). As we always say on TortoiseOwner.com, the most important thing for tortoise keepers is to mimic the reptile’s natural environment as closely as possible. With a healthy varied diet, a proper enclosure, and the right conditions, the shedding of your pet tortoise is most likely perfectly healthy. As you’d expect, they will shed more when they are younger because they still have a lot of growing to do.

In this article we will look at the differences between a healthy tortoise shedding and unhealthy one (the kind that results from skin conditions, and other diseases). Before that, however, let’s quickly see why tortoises shed, how they do it, and what exactly they shed.

Tortoise Shedding: What is normal & what isn't
Tortoise Shedding: What is normal & what isn’t

Do Tortoises Shed Skin?

Just like humans and many other animals, tortoises do shed their skin. Tortoises shed skin from their head, limbs, and tails in the form of patches and flakes on quite a regular basis.

So when you notice that your pet tortoise is beginning to shed its skin, you don’t have to assume that something is wrong. Although a visit to the vet is always recommended when in doubt, it is most likely not a skin condition if there are no other symptoms of illness. Signs of a happy and healthy tortoise are clear when you get used to them. This popular article might be helpful: Signs of a Healthy and Happy Pet Tortoise (link opens a new tab).

How often do tortoises shed skin?

Tortoises shed their skin every few months. Since their hard shell is in the way, they are not able to shed their skin in one large piece and leave it behind like other reptiles do. So peeling skin bit-by-bit is the tortoise’s solution, and shouldn’t be confused with it having a skin disease.


Do Tortoises Shed Their Shells Too?

Now what about tortoise shells? Do they shed like the skin does? The answer is a definite yes! Tortoises shed their shells too – every now and then it regenerates and rejuvenates itself. Just like we humans rely on our skin to protect our bodies’ organs, tortoises rely on their shells for the same reason. It is essential that the shell is kept young and healthy!

It’s important to know your type of tortoise and what its shell should look like (in size, color and pattern). This way you can tell when something is abnormal and it’s time for a visit to your reptile or exotic vet.

Why do tortoises shed their shells?

Ok, so tortoises shed skin and shells too. But why does the shell shed too?

Well, here’s why. All the beautiful tortoise shell patterns we are fascinated by, are made up of sections called scutes. Scutes are made of keratin, which is an insoluble protein we also have in our own fingernails. It’s also the same substance that makes up bird beaks, horse hoofs, and deer horns. (Isn’t nature just amazing?!)

As tortoises grow, the scutes shed into sections and they re-grow with the rest of the body. It’s a natural shell-renewal process. In essence, the tortoise is shedding its old shell to make a new one as its body and bones are growing.

How big can that tortoise get? Tortoise sizes and weights guide
A tortoise’s shell grows as the tortoise ages

Signs of a shedding tortoise shell

Here’s what you need to look for to know if a tortoise is shell shedding:

  • The shell will become firmer
  • A new layer will appear underneath the shell
  • Older scutes will lose color and appear translucent
  • Slowly, the shell will grow larger
  • Sometimes the tortoise appears to be more active throughout the process

Note: A tortoise shell should be hard and firm, capable of protecting the more vulnerable organs below it. But if you have a very young tortoise, the shell can be a little softer. It should harden with age.


What Healthy Tortoise Shedding Looks Like

As opposed to the very strange myth that a tortoise shell can come off, tortoises are actually stuck with the one and only shell they are born with. We wrote about this in depth because it’s a very important topic: Can tortoises live without their shell? (Link opens a new tab so you can save it for later.)

So you will never see a tortoise walking around seeking a new shell and it’s unlikely that you will see empty tortoise shells around in the wild. Just like humans have one big piece of skin for life, tortoises have one shell for life. It’s important for them to grow and re-grow their shells in a healthy process.

Here are the main signs of healthy tortoise skin and shell shedding:

  1. Skin appears dull in color
  2. Skin will begin to flake
  3. Tortoise basking in the sun (more than usual)
  4. New scutes form underneath
  5. Old scutes lose color

1. When a new layer of skin starts to form underneath, the tortoise’s color will appear duller as if the skin is thicker. (In a way it is, because both new and old layers are there together.)

2. This shedding process for a tortoise can take some time. It is definitely slower compared to that of a lizard or snake. The skin will shed in flakes and pieces off of the tortoise.

3. With regards to a tortoise’s shell, the healthy shedding of its shell scutes is a natural process. As your tortoise’s body and bones are growing, its shell has to as well. When you visibly see larger and new scutes underneath your tortoise’s old shell, this is healthy and what’s supposed to happen.

4. Tortoises are known for basking because they are cold-blooded and need the sun to stay warm and absorb vital UV rays. But if you notice your tortoise basking in the sunlight more than usual, it could be trying to help the shell-shedding process by drying up the old skins and scutes for them to fall off.

What to do if a tortoise vomits or pukes
Tortoises bask in the sun out of necessity

Note: Some tortoise keepers report that their tortoises eat some of the scutes after they fall off. This is normal but for safety precautions, you should remove the shed scutes from the enclosure because they can damage your tortoise’s throat and internal organs.


Signs Of Unhealthy Tortoise Shedding

There are a few signs that will tell you if your tortoise is shedding in an unhealthy manner. If you see any of these happening with your tort, please visit a vet:

Signs of an unhealthy tortoise shedding:

  • Reoccurring shedding cycle
  • Irritated or inflamed skin
  • Patchiness or rotting of shell
  • Different scute pattern
  • Broken scutes

When a tortoise’s shedding cycle reoccurs just after finishing one and this becomes a pattern, it indicates that something went wrong and the body is trying again.

Another sign that there is unhealthy tortoise shedding is if the skin appears to be inflamed, discolored, or bleeding. Watch your tortoise during its shedding cycle to make sure it’s not dehydrated or else it will become difficult for its new layer of skin to grow. A pet tortoise must always have access to fresh, clean water.

As the tortoise is going through its shedding process, do not pull the skin off because you may pull off an area of skin that hasn’t fully grown yet from it. Putting it in a human’s perspective, you shouldn’t pick at a wound or scab because the skin underneath may not be fully healed. Rather than causing unintended irritation and pain to your tortoise, leave it alone. Shedding skin comes off naturally when it’s ready to.

The tortoise’s enclosure temperature setting also plays a role in the shedding process. If the air is too dry, the thin layer that’s supposed to form between the old and new skin will not be able to creating difficulty for the tortoise to properly shed its skin. In this case, you can make it more humid by lightly misting and spraying twice a day during your tortoise’s shedding cycle. It’s preferred to spray once in the morning and the other in the evening.

You can also have a shallow dish with clean water to help with the humidity and shedding. If you find your tortoise constantly sitting in the dish, you may have to revise and keep the dish in for a few hours at a time to avoid shell rot if the tortoise is in the water for too long.

How tortoises communicate: A Guide to Tort Sounds, Scents and Posture
Tortoises need to soak regularly

Note: Tortoises have a pretty strong immunity from infections, but if they’re kept in dirty living conditions, like dirty water or soiled bedding, your tortoise may be in danger of infection. If negative bacteria grow on a shell’s surface, it will show signs of shell rot. The symptoms include pitting, soft spots, and patchy appearances to the shell. Shell rot infections are in sections, not the whole shell at once. The infection can affect both the carapace (the shell) and plastron (the belly) in circumstances. Whenever the shell is whiter or darker than the rest of the shell, there may be an infection underneath the shell.

Another unhealthy sign of shell shedding is when it’s in the process of growing a new shell. If the scutes are slouching or falling off abundantly, your tortoise may have an infection that is damaging the shell. The rapid scutes shedding can expose the tortoise’s bones and will leave the tortoise vulnerable.


Do You Need To Help A Shedding Tortoise?

As we’ve said in this article, tortoises don’t particularly need help with shedding. It’s a perfectly natural process that they go through. Your job as a tortoise owner is to provide an adequately varied diet, access to clean water, and an environment that mimics their natural habitat as much as possible.

The only time you can help a tortoise with shedding is when he/she becomes too dry. This hinders the shedding of the skin: instead of falling off immediately, the skin may hang onto the tortoise’s body as it walks around. In this case you can either spray a small amount of water onto the tortoise; or place the tort in a shallow container with some water. This should soften the dead cells and gently free them from the body.

You may have the urge to peel away the skin or scutes yourself. It’s best to refrain from doing so especially if you cannot easily pull the pieces.

There is a small trick to getting your tortoise to shed faster, but please be gentle. You can give your tortoise a bath in lukewarm water. When you do so as instructed in this article: How to wash, bathe, and clean a tortoise, you will automatically help a tortoise shed. By pampering the tortoise with a bath and a gentle scrubbing, the old, dead skin is removed and the tortoise will have a fresher skin instead.


Conclusion

Tortoise shedding is a perfectly normal and healthy process. As a tortoise grows older, they shed the skin and shell to grow bigger. As we’ve seen, the shedding also keeps the shell young and healthy, and this helps prevent potential blockages or infections. If your tortoise’s shell is injured, which may include damaged or lost scutes, it will also shed its shell to heal.

A tortoise is perfectly capable of going through this process all alone so don’t intervene unless you have a good reason to. As always, consult your vet whenever in doubt!


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