Tortoises are known for having an extremely long life span, however sometimes in life things don’t always go according to plan. Like with humans and other animals there are certain circumstances that lead to tortoise’s dying unexpectedly. There are usually signs a tortoise is dying which you will be able to spot after reading this post.
Some signs are more worrying than others, for example you should be more concerned if your tortoise isn’t eating or drinking compared to them sleeping more than they usually do.
In this article we’re going to cover 20 key signs a tortoise is dying, what does a tortoise look like when it’s dead, and everything else you need to be aware of as a tortoise owner.
How To Tell If Your Tortoise Is Dying
You should generally be able to tell when your tortoise is dying, as they exhibit behaviours that are different to how they would usually act. Normally they start refusing to eat or drink, this is warning sign number one that’s something not right.
Tortoise’s won’t be able to tell you when something is wrong with them so it’s up to you as their owner to understand and recognize the signs they are dying so you can help put a stop to it.
Let’s look at the top 19 signs a tortoise is dying.
19 Signs and Symptoms A Tortoise Is Dying
Damage To The Shell
A healthy tortoise shell should be smooth and firm when you touch it. Along with this a healthy shell has signs of a growth ring. This is a pale coloured band between its scutes.
This means if your tortoise’s shell is soft to touch or has any visible damage to it then it’s a sign your tortoise may have an underlying problem.
A soft shell can be caused by a number of different things, mainly metabolic bone disease (MBD). This is a combination of illnesses that causes a tortoise’s shell to weaken, it’s mainly caused by improper diet, lack of vitamin D, and not enough UV light.
MBD will cause your tortoise’s bones and shell to weaken leading to an increased chance of breaks and fractures. If left untreated metabolic bone disease can lead to paralysis and eventually death.
Damage to your tortoise’s shell also leaves them open to shell rot. This is when their shell becomes infected with bacteria, it’s a serious infection as they can develop shell abscesses if it isn’t addressed.
It’s worth noting that a soft shell doesn’t automatically mean your tortoise is ill, baby tortoise’s often have soft shells when they’re growing up. However after around 8 months a baby tortoise’s shell should be fully matured and firm to touch.
Loss of Appetite
Like all other walks of life, your tortoise losing interest in food is usually a bad sign. Generally, a healthy tortoise should eat at least once a day but it’s not a big concern if they skip a meal or two. You should start to be concerned when they go more than two days without eating.
A loss of appetite can be caused by something minor like the temperature in their enclosure being wrong, but it’s also a symptom of bigger problems.
For example, mouth rot can cause your tortoise to lose their appetite. Mouth rot is when your tortoise’s mouth is infected by bacteria, usually through an open wound. The problem with mouth rot is if it’s left untreated it can spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs.
Another harmful reason a tortoise might lose their appetite is due to a respiratory infection, which we’ll cover further down as it deserves its on section.
Other causes of a loss of appetite include : parasite infestation, the enclosure is too cold, or they are coming out of hibernation.
A tortoise nearing the end of its life will usually display signs of lethargy. This is due to the body shutting down and therefore the tortoise won’t have any energy to move its body.
A healthy tortoise should sleep around 12 hours a night, with baby tortoise’s needing more as they need sufficient sleep in order to grow.
Lethargy and tiredness can also be symptoms of a serious disease or infection. When the body is under attack it preserves as much energy to fight off the bacteria, leading to your tortoise becoming very tired.
You can tell by a tortoise’s eyes how good of a condition they are in. Healthy tortoise eyes should look clear and bright, with no signs of discharge. Their third eyelid which is located in the corner of the eye should be fully opened.
A tortoise that’s sick or possibly dying will have eyes that appear very sunken and dull, almost lifeless like they are dead.
Sunken eyes are usually a sign of dehydration, give your tortoise a 30 minute soak for them to rehydrate along with providing a bowl of fresh drinking water in their enclosure. If the eyes don’t seem to get better after hydration it’s time for a trip to the vet.
Along with the eyes, a tortoise’s nose can be a good indicator of how healthy they are. A healthy tortoise nose means it should be clear with no discharge coming out of it. Occasionally after eating some type of succulent foods, liquids the tortoise produces can be transferred towards the back of the mouth and come out through the nares.
This gives the appearance of a runny nose but isn’t a cause for concern.
A runny nose in tortoise’s is often caused by a respiratory infection of the upper respiratory tract. It may manifest as your tortoise blowing bubbles from its nose and it will form a white crust around the nose when it dries in.
No Interest In Hydrating
A tortoise that’s lost interest in hydrating themselves usually isn’t doing too well. Your tortoise should be drinking water through their bowl along with soaking up water via their cloaca when you bathe them.
If you notice your tortoise isn’t touching his water nor is he soaking up any when he gets bathed your tortoise is likely sick. A tortoise that isn’t drinking will become dehydrated which has its on problems, but you need to find out why they aren’t hydrating in the first place.
Dehydration can lead to problems such as :
- Bladder stones
- Digestive issues
- Chemical imbalances
- Death if left untreated
Foods with a high water content such as watermelon, celery, lettuce, and cucumber are all safe ways to hydrate your reptile and feed them their required nutrition all at once.
Your tortoise shouldn’t be swelling from anywhere, if you notice they are you need to take them to see a specialist. Tortoise’s can swell for a number of different reasons such as stomatitis or abscesses, which tortoise’s are quite prone to.
Abscesses are squishy to touch and often filled with a yellow push colour. They are caused by a bacterial infection and need to be treated as soon as possible.
A healthy tortoise should produce solid, brown coloured stools when defecating. Anything that deviates from this for example if your tortoise has watery stools it could be a sign your tortoise has an underlying problems.
Parasites like worms can cause runny stools along with things such as bacterial infections. However loose stools can be caused by something minor like a low fiber intake. If your tortoise has runny stools you want to find the cause of it as soon as possible because if it’s a viral infection things can get progressively worse, and fast.
If your tortoise’s breathing is laboured and irregular you might want to have them looked at by a vet.
Tortoise’s have a slow metabolism and therefore only need to take around 3-4 breaths a minute. Anything outside of this figure whether they are breathing too fast or too slow should be taken seriously.
Cold To Touch
Tortoises are cold-blooded animals and therefore require an external heat source like the sun to regulate their body temperature.
A tortoise’s temperature will vary depending on whether they are in the cool or heated part of the enclosure. It can be hard to accurately measure a tortoise’s reptile and therefore you have to use a bit of common sense. If your tortoise feels unusually cold to touch it’s usually a negative sign that there’s some sort of infection present.
Monitor your tortoise for other symptoms and don’t be afraid to take them to the vet if they are unusually cold to touch.
Pale Mouth and Tongue
A healthy tortoise should have a mouth and tongue that’s a nice bright pink colour. If the tongue and mouth appear to be pale or losing colour it’s often a good indicator of an underlying problem.
Stomatitis is usually the main culprit and it’s caused by infection entering an open wound around your tortoise’s mouth or tongue. It can be treated easily with an NSAID such as meloxicam however left untreated it can lead to further problems.
To no surprise, a bleeding tortoise isn’t a healthy one. Tortoise’s are equipped with durable and scaly skin therefore if they’re bleeding it’s a pretty bad sign.
Tortoise’s can bleed for a number of different reasons like a bad fall, digging their claws into something sharp, or from foreign objects in their enclosure. The main point is you need to treat the wound as soon as possible to stave off infection.
Once the wound has been treated try and find the cause to prevent your tortoise from getting injured again.
Tortoise urine should be clear with some white material (urates) being excreted out of the body. It should be runny in texture.
If you notice your tortoise’s urine has thickened and become lumpy this is an indicator the bladder is lacking water and your tortoise is dehydrated. If you notice this give your tortoise a long soak for them to rehydrate, along with providing fresh drinking water in their enclosure.
It’s also worth noting that some foods can cause a tortoise’s urine to turn a pink colour, plants like dandelions are often responsible. If you’ve recently fed your tortoise some dandelions and their urine is pink, don’t worry it’s only temporary.
Reduced Activity Levels
A healthy tortoise will be fairly active and walk with the bottom of its shell lifted off the ground. Things like digging and climbing are good signs to see from your tort.
Reduced activity levels can be categorized two different ways either as a tortoise becoming weak and not being able to move objects out of the way, or reduced activity due to a loss of function in its rear legs.
You should be easy to tell the difference, as one with non-working rear legs won’t be able to move at all whereas a weak tortoise will.
A number of things can cause reduced activity levels in tortoise’s like paralysis, injury, or the tortoise is about to die.
It Won’t Leave Its Shell
A tortoise that refuses to leave its shell is a worrying sign for any tortoise owner. Your tortoise may hide inside its shell to heat up, out of shock or fear, or just to get a break from the outside world.
These responses are all normal behaviour if the scenario justifies it, however a tortoise that won’t come out of its shell at all is a concerning sign.
If your tortoise isn’t leaving its shell and won’t eat anything it could be a sign they are about to go into hibernation. However if you don’t have a species that hibernates or it’s not the right time of year, it’s likely your tortoise is dehydrated or sick.
Abnormal Signs of Aggression
Tortoises aren’t usually aggressive animals, certain things can trigger aggression like being put in an enclosure with one female, or they might fight with another male over territory.
Apart from that tortoise’s are quite relaxed creatures and therefore abnormal signs of aggression is usually something worth keeping an eye on. If it’s not mating season and your tortoise is being aggressive there’s a good chance they may be ill.
Irregular Shell Growth
If your tortoise’s shell is growing irregularly it could be a sign of a more serious problem. Things like pyramiding can cause a tortoise’s scutes to grow abnormally. This can be caused by a number of things like too much protein in a diet however there are more serious reasons for the irregular growth.
Pyramiding can be a symptom of metabolic bone disease. This is a condition in which a tortoise’s shell and bones can soften over time, if left untreated MBD will cause your tortoise an agonizing death as it leads to paralysis.
It’s important to regularly place your tortoise on a set of scales to make sure they haven’t suddenly lost a lot of weight. As tortoise’s are largely hidden by their shells it can be almost impossible to tell from the naked eye if they’ve lost weight.
Your tortoise shouldn’t have a light almost empty feeling when you pick them up. This is often a sign of illness or infection and your tortoise could be on its way to dying.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a paralysed tortoise is probably on its way out. Tortoise’s can become paralysed by eating a poisonous food or if a condition like metabolic bone disease is left untreated for too long.
By the time a tortoise becomes paralysed it’s usually too late for any meaningful intervention from a professional.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Causes Tortoise Death?
There can be a number of thing that causes tortoise death, aside from old age a lot of tortoise’s can due to improper care, being fed the wrong foods, or freak accidents. While you can’t defend your tortoise from freak accidents, you are in charge of their care and what they eat on a day to day basis.
Keeping a tortoise at an incorrect temperature is a mistake tortoise owners can make which leads to drastic consequences like death if it isn’t rectified. Things like providing them with sufficient UV lighting is also important as it helps them to absorb vitamin D better which they need for calcium intake.
A tortoise’s food and diet will also play a role in their death if it isn’t optimal. Many species of tortoise are herbivores and therefore require foods they would eat out in the wild like vegetables, plants, flowers, and grasses.
Feeding your tortoise a harmful food like buttercups or daffodils can cause them to die, I suggest taking a read of our Food & Diet section to get a better overview of what tortoise’s can and cannot eat.
What Does A Tortoise Look Like When It’s Dead?
Many tortoise owners can have a hard time telling the difference between if their tortoise is dead or just hibernating.
The eyes give away a lot when it comes to a dead tortoise. Usually if the tortoise is alive and in good condition the eyes are bright and full of life. However when a tortoise is dead the appears will appear dull and sunken into the head.
Apart from that it can be hard to tell if a tortoise is dead due to its appearance. The tortoise will be lifeless meaning no movement or breathing will take place. If you poke a tortoise while they are brumating they should react whereas a dead tortoise won’t move at all.
What Happens If A Tortoise Dies In Home?
If a tortoise unfortunately dies in your home then you’ll need to dispose of it as decomposition will start within around 1-2 days creating a foul smell. A dead tortoise will also attract a lot of pests and leave bacteria you don’t want in your home so it should be disposed of as soon as possible.
Your vet can offer to cremate the reptile incase you want to keep it as sentimental value. There’s also an option to bury it out your back yard if that would be your preferred method.
Signs A Tortoise Is Dying – Final Thoughts
Knowing the signs of an ill tortoise will be critical in you recognizing and treating the problem as a tortoise owner. Don’t be alarmed if your tortoise is displaying one of the signs on our list as they can be blamed for other minor problems.
However, you should use some common sense as only you know your tortoise. You know how they look when they’re healthy along with behaviours that are normal to them. If you notice any deviations from your tortoise’s normal behaviour they could be dying so it’s best to seek out a vet as early as possible.