If you’ve got a tortoise and you’ve noticed that its shell is feeling somewhat soft, you might be worried that your tortoise is sick. Although a visit to the vet is always a good and safe idea, do you really need to panic?
Why do tortoise shells go soft? The common reasons for your tortoise’s shell to go soft are vitamin deficiencies, metabolic bone disease, and shell rot. Some tortoise species, as well as very young tortoises, have naturally softer shells so it is not caused by any illness or disease.
Luckily common issues that cause a tortoise’s shell to go soft are treatable, especially if caught early on. So let’s look at what you can do to help get your beloved pet tortoise back to tip top shape!
Why Would A Tortoise’s Shell Go Soft?
Your Tortoise Is Still Young
The first reason for a tortoise to have a soft shell is the simplest to fix and the one that should leave you least concerned. However, it is important to realize that you shouldn’t completely ignore the fact that your young tortoise has a soft shell.
The only symptom here is that the baby tortoise has a soft shell. If you’ve just bought your tortoise and it’s less than 6-8 months old, it should have a soft shell. This is because young tortoises grow at a fairly rapid rate. That rate of growth requires the shell to expand with the tortoise – this is much easier if the shell is soft.
So, it’s completely natural for a baby tortoise to have a soft shell.
There is no need to treat the soft shell of a baby tortoise. As you’d expect, it ought to harden up at around the age of 6-8 months and if it does, there’s no need to worry about your tortoise at all this is exactly what’s supposed to happen as your tortoise matures.
This doesn’t mean that you should be completely unconcerned if your baby tortoise has a soft shell. You should keep an eye on the tortoise as it grows. In a healthy tortoise the shell (soft or not) will grow at the same rate as the tortoise does. This is good.
If, on the other hand, the tortoise grows but the shell does not – this is a big warning sign that your tortoise is suffering from either metabolic bone disease (MBD) or has a nutritional deficit of calcium or it is not producing enough Vitamin D3 when basking.
This is serious as these conditions can permanently weaken the shell development and in the long run, the tortoise will die and this is not a pleasant way to go.
The Tortoise Has Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is caused by either the tortoise’s diet being short of calcium or the diet having too much phosphorous in it (which causes the tortoises body to burn through calcium at a much faster rate).
A calcium deficiency can also cause other problems in a tortoise’s life as it also contributes to the healthy development of a tortoise’s nervous system. For laying females, they will need calcium to lay healthy and fully formed eggs too.
There are four common symptoms of MBD that you should be looking out for in your tortoises:
- The tortoise’s shell will become soft and/or misshapen – don’t forget that young tortoises and some species of tortoise will have naturally softer shells, but a misshapen shell is a dead giveaway that something is wrong
- The tortoise doesn’t want to move around and may exhibit signs of really poor coordination
- The tortoise starts to break and fracture its limbs for no good reasons – this a major warning sign and you should skip the treatment section and take your tortoise to the vet if this is happening
- The female tortoises are becoming egg bound which is a result of being unable to lay an egg which has a very soft shell due to a lack of calcium available to make the shell
There are also some other less common symptoms of MBD including:
- The tortoise shows that it has deformed limbs or deformed jaws – this is caused by calcium deficiency weakening the tortoise’s skeleton
- The tortoise appears to be suffering from temporary or localized forms of paralysis – this is down to the calcium deficiency impeding the nervous system from transmitting messages effectively
- The tortoise is suffering from a cloacal prolapse which is also due to nervous system and dietary issues resulting from the calcium deficiency
Assuming that your tortoise is still eating then it ought to be fairly easy to treat MBD at home. You need to ensure that the tortoise’s diet has enough calcium in it.
You should increase the amount of high calcium foods that you offer it (grape and mulberry leaves are good, as are collard greens, for example) and if necessary use very small amounts of powdered calcium dusted over other meals (don’t use too much – it’s bitter tasting and the tortoise won’t eat it).
At the same time, you should offer regular baths to ensure that your tortoise is staying hydrated.
If, however, the tortoise is not eating or is showing the uncommon symptoms of MBD, it’s time to head to the vet and get their advice on treating your pet. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to get tortoises enough calcium in their diet and you may just need a little help.
The prevention for MBD looks rather like the cure. You want to ensure that the tortoise has enough calcium in its diet at all times. You can’t really go wrong with ensuring that much of a tortoise’s diet is high in calcium – it can’t take on too much calcium, it will just excrete what it doesn’t need.
The Tortoise Has A Vitamin D3 Deficiency
Vitamin D3 plays a very important role in helping a tortoise’s body make use of the calcium in its diet. The tortoise will normally produce enough vitamin D3 just through basking and there is no need to provide a dietary supply of vitamin D3.
Sadly, sometimes the tortoise will not be basking effectively and then things can go wrong.
The symptoms of a vitamin D3 deficiency are exactly the same as for MBD and that’s because effectively, they result in the same outcome – if the tortoise’s body can’t use the calcium in its diet it will start to become calcium deficient.
The easiest treatment for this is to ensure that the tortoise is getting enough UV light when basking. You want to check that the UVB lights in a vivarium are active and are wrapped in a reflector to maximize the effect on your tortoise.
You also want to measure the temperature of the areas where you tortoise basks and ensure they are appropriate for your tortoise’s species. If this doesn’t help, you may need to seek a vet’s input and they might offer a small vitamin D3 injection to help get the tortoise’s D3 levels back to normal.
The prevention for vitamin D3 deficiency is the same as the treatment for it – make sure there’s enough UV in the tortoise’s life and that their basking spots are reaching an adequate temperature for your tortoise to metabolize the UV effectively to produce the vitamin D3.
The Tortoise Is Meant To Have A Soft Feeling Shell
Some species of tortoise have softer shells than other species. So, if you think that your tortoise’s shell is soft and it’s a new breed of tortoise than one you are used to – it’s a good idea to find another tortoise of the same breed and compare the hardness of the shell. If they are similar and the other tortoise is healthy – it’s probably nothing to worry about.
The Pancake Tortoise
There is also one species of tortoise which has a completely soft shell. The pancake tortoise made a different turn on the evolutionary tree from other breeds of tortoise. Its shell is not structural like that found in all other tortoise species.
Instead, as its name suggests, the pancake tortoise has a flat, thin and soft shell which allows it to flex. This means that a pancake tortoise is super light. Instead of being able to hide in its shell, its shell enables it to flee and slide quickly into gaps between rocks.
This has allowed the pancake tortoise to adopt a habitat that can’t be settled by other tortoises.
However, having said this – we hope that your tortoise is not a pancake tortoise as they are highly sought after in the illegal pet trade and are on the verge of extinction.
They live, in the wild, in East Africa and that’s the best place for them to live. They only come out of their rocks for about an hour each day to bask in the sun and find food. The export of these tortoises from Africa is completely illegal and mainly, if they’re found in the United States, they’re part of breeding programs in zoos.
The Tortoise Has Shell Rot
There is no single cause of shell rot and it’s a generic description for a host of conditions which can have a wide range of causes and outcomes. That means that you need to be very certain what the problem is before you can treat it.
Shell rot usually involves a bacterial or fungal infection of the shell but in some rare cases (particularly in turtles but occasionally tortoises) it may also be caused by an algal infection. They often take place after a tortoise has injured its shell even when the damage suffered appears to be very minor, indeed.
A basic rule of thumb is that any kind of penetrative injury to a tortoise’s shell should be taken very seriously as this gives parasites and bacteria access to the living tissue below the hard keratin exterior of the shell.
Please see the section on treatment if all you’ve noticed is mild softening of the shell or a fresh wound on the shell. However, more severe indicators of shell rot include:
- A noticeable and unpleasant odor being given off from the site of the original wound
- A foul discharge weeping from the area
- Spreading softness through the plates of the shell
- Pitting on the surface of the shell
- The scutes (that is the plates of the shell) falling off and leaving dying tissue exposed beneath
The best way to treat most forms of shell rot, in the early stages, is to remove any loose or soft tissue around the wound in the shell and give it a thorough clean. This should involve a povidone-iodine solution (though you can use chlorhexidine in a pinch).
Cleaning should be done with a toothbrush or nail brush (obviously not one you use currently for yourself) and should be reasonably “vigorous”.
Once you’ve cleaned the area effectively, you should give it a rinse with clean warm water (not hot water, though) and then you need to allow the area to dry and should keep it dry and open to the air.
Many of the causes of shell rot prefer an environment without oxygen, so covering or sealing the wound can actually aggravate rather than prevent problems.
If you must cover the wound, use a fine gauze which allows oxygen to pass through the cover.
However, if the condition has become more serious and your tortoise is showing any of the symptoms above – involve a vet in their treatment immediately. They may need other medicines to tackle the infection.
Shell rot may also be used to describe septicaemic cutaneous ulcerative disease (SCUD) this is a an extremely dangerous condition that involves a bacterial infection of the tortoise’s blood. It can often be fatal if left untreated and needs immediate antibiotics administered by a vet. Even with treatment, the tortoise may find its life span shortened.
There are some common causes of shell rot that you can take steps to avoid it:
- Fighting with other tortoises (or getting beaten up) – shell damage is not uncommon when tortoises fight. If your tortoises regularly fight (and many will) it’s best to separate them permanently, they prefer their own company anyway.
- Poor hygiene – if the pen/vivarium is not kept clean then the bacteria and other pathogens which causes shell rot can start to breed.
- Poor substrate humidity levels – tortoises need to stay moist. If the substrate they are kept in dries them out, it leaves them prone to skin and shell problems.
- They have ticks – ticks are as much of a pain to tortoises as any other animal. Their bites make it very easy for tortoise to get infected and sadly, they absolutely love to attach to tortoises.
It’s also worth noting that if you have turtles – they can get shell rot from dirty water as well as all the other causes above.
It is very important to treat shell rot immediately. If you have other tortoises, they can often contract the infection from an infected tortoise. You should remove an infected tortoise from the communal area until such a point as it has been given a clean bill of health.
Untreated shell rot will often cause abscesses under the shell – if this happens, they will need surgical draining and/or removal from the shell. Following any such surgical intervention they may need other medicines.
It’s also important to note that while shell rot is not particularly serious if treated quickly, it can become very serious, indeed, without treatment and it is possible that your tortoise will die from shell rot. However, the usual prognosis for a tortoise with shell rot is good if it is treated early enough.
As you can see, a tortoise with a shell that has gone softer is not always cause for panic. While you do need to act quickly to get your pet’s health under control, the issues are treatable. Don’t forget that young tortoises and members of certain species are meant to have soft shells. Ask your vet for details about your particular tortoise!