Can Tortoises Choke? (Prevention, Signs, FAQs)

The health and safety of your tortoise should come above everything. As a tortoise owner you need to be aware of certain health hazards and problems they can face so you’re equipped with the knowledge of knowing how to deal with them. Speaking of hazards, we often come across tortoise owners wondering if tortoises can choke. Let’s find out.

Can tortoises choke? Yes tortoises can choke, food and other objects are able to get stuck in their throats so it’s important to always slice their food up into thin pieces, particularly if they are a baby or a smaller tortoise species. You should also remove any choking hazards from their enclosure like small rocks they might try and eat.

In this article we’re going to cover what things tortoises can choke on, how to recognize choking, and what to do in order to help them.

Can A Tortoise Choke?

Tortoises may be reptiles but they are capable of choking, unlike their reptile friends snakes. While it’s not common, tortoises aren’t invincible and choking can occur for a number of reasons.

Your tortoise is more likely to suffer from choking if they’re a hatchling or belong to a smaller tortoise species. These tortoises are smaller but they can’t comprehend this and can sometimes bite off more than they can chew. Hatchlings in particular may struggle as they don’t have the strength to force digestion.

Another problem baby tortoises face is inexperience, they haven’t learned what’s edible and what isn’t.

On the other end of the spectrum, older tortoises can be more prone to choking. This is because with age they will get weaker and therefore their throat muscles weaken over time making it harder to swallow food.

Keep reading as we discuss what sort of things tortoises commonly choke on.

What Things Can Tortoises Choke On

Tortoises are like little kids, you can find some very questionable things being coughed out of their mouths. They’re very curious animals which can lead to them choking on a number of things they can find inside their mouth, they include :

  • Food : It makes sense that food is the most common thing your tortoise will choke on. Food that hasn’t been cut up enough will be a choking hazard for tortoises. Things like strawberries, oranges, and grapes are all common foods that should be cut thinly enough for tortoises to eat safely.

  • Rocks and Pebbles : A tortoises enclosure can contain tiny rocks and pebbles small enough for tortoises to try and eat but big enough to cause choking. Baby tortoises are most likely to try and eat them out of curiosity but a bored tortoise might do the same. They can also eat some by accident while burrowing, if the rocks and pebbles are a problem you can increase the size of them.

  • Live Prey : Most tortoises won’t eat live prey as they typically contain high amounts of protein but there are things like worms which can be a choking hazard for some tortoises. Depending on the size of the worm tortoises can struggle with eating it leading to impaction.

How To Prevent Your Tortoise From Choking

You know how the saying goes ‘prevention is better than a cure’. The same applies for preventing your tortoise from choking. Experiencing your tortoise choke on something can be a scary experience so you want to limit the chances of it happening. While it may not be completely avoidable, there are some things you can do to reduce the likelihood :

  • Clean their environment
  • Cut their food into small pieces
  • Ensure the substrate is safe
  • Ensure access to water

Clean Their Environment

Tortoises like to explore their enclosure as they are avid explorers when they’re in the wild. Your tortoises curiosity can get the better of them, leading to them trying to eat something they perceive as food. The most common object is tiny rocks as they can easily get stuck in their throat.

You want to routinely check your tortoises environment for small rocks and other choking hazards, remove whatever you perceive to be a threat and they are unlikely to choke on anything.

Cut Their Food Into Small Pieces

The next most common cause of choking is food. A tortoise will often choke on food that hasn’t been cut thin enough for them to safely digest. This is more of a concern for smaller tortoises and hatchlings but it can occur in any tortoise.

Going to the other end of the spectrum if some foods are cut into small pieces tortoises like to take multiple small pieces at once, which is also a choking hazard.

When it comes to foods like lettuce and leafy greens leave the food intact, that way your tortoise is able to bite off what they can handle.

Ensure The Substrate Is Suitable

There are all different kinds of substrates and beddings you can get for your tortoise. Not all tortoises are the same, therefore one tortoise might like a substrate, whereas another tortoise might like the substrate too much and try to eat the contents of it. This can lead to choking as some substrates are made up of pebbles and rocks.

If you buy a new substrate or introduce a new tortoise to a substrate you should watch them carefully for a week to see how they interact with it. If they appear to be eating it, you need to consider switching to a different substrate.

Ensure Access To Water

Having a bowl of fresh drinking water in your tortoises enclosure at all times will be extremely helpful when it comes to preventing choking. They may experience a bit of discomfort after eating and having some water readily available will help push the food down into the stomach.

Your tortoise may have been close to choking before but having available water might have been the difference in you not even knowing compared to you having to take them to a vet.

How Do Your Know If Your Tortoise Is Choking?

A choking tortoise is easily recognizable and can mimic the acts of a human who’s choking. A blockage of your tortoises throat will usually cause an immediate reaction in which they display the following signs :

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Gasping
  • Extending their head to try get air
  • Bob its head
  • Open its mouth wide

Some of the signs like gasping and extending their head can also be signs of a respiratory infection which are accompanies by symptoms like a runny nose and swollen eyes. Respiratory infections are serious and can be life-threatening so it’s important to seek out a vet immediately.

What To Do If Your Tortoise Is Choking

Tortoises are resilient creatures in most cases they’ll be able to relieve themselves from choking. In the instance they don’t seem to be able to fix the problem on their own you should know what to do to prevent choking.

The most important thing is to stay calm, if you’re panicking and screaming this won’t help you or the tortoise.

If you notice them choking give them some water and time, tortoises are often to fix the problems without any intervention. After all, tortoises in the wild don’t have the assistance of us humans to save them.

If they can’t dislodge the item you might have to intervene. Having a small pair of tweezers handy can go a long way. You might be able to pull the item out if it’s stuck at the top of the throat. Try your best to avoid poking the inside of the tortoises mouth.

Unfortunately the Heimlich manoeuvre isn’t an option as it requires a diaphragm, whereas tortoises don’t have one so it wouldn’t be effective.

If you’ve given it some time, tried to remove the item with some tweezers and your tortoise is still choking it’s time to take them to a vet. A lot of people won’t be equipped with the knowledge or tools to fix the problem whereas a vet will be able to sort the issue.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Is My Tortoise Gasping?

A tortoise gasping is not usually a good sign and is most likely caused by a respiratory infection. The most common cause is pneumonia, which is an infection that causes the lungs to become inflamed. It’s a life-threatening illness and needs to be seen urgently by a vet. Pneumonia is usually accompanied by the tortoise extending its neck out in an attempt to get air into the lungs.

If you think your tortoise might have pneumonia don’t wait until tomorrow to get them checked by a vet, there’s a good chance they will die within the time frame.

A tortoise might also be gasping due to something being stuck in their throat like a rock or a piece of food.

Can A Tortoise Cough?

Yes tortoises can cough and the cause is typically two problems, either they are choking and are trying to dislodge the item stuck in their throat, or they have an upper respiratory infection.

Luckily it’s easy to distinguish between the two so you know how to help your tortoise.

If your tortoise is coughing but you don’t see any white discharge from the mouth, or a runny nose then it’s not likely to be a respiratory infection.

Symptoms of a respiratory infection in tortoises include : coughing, clear discharge from the nose, discharge and swelling from the eyes.

An upper respiratory infection can lead to the infection spreading down into the lungs which causes pneumonia, an inflammatory infection.

Tortoise Choking – Final Thoughts

To conclude, it’s possible for tortoises to choke. The most common cause for a tortoise choking is food that hasn’t been cut thinly enough. There are other things like small rocks in their enclosure, sand, and other miscellaneous items that come with a choking hazard.

Most of the time they will be able to help themselves but you should be prepared to help them by checking their throat or bring them to a vet if they still appear to be choking.

I hope you’ve found this article useful and you can use this information should you need it in the future to help your tortoise.