Tortoise Pyramiding (Causes, Prevention, FAQs)

Being aware of certain conditions and problems tortoises face is a crucial step to becoming a great tortoise owner. Now you don’t need to go and study testudinology but doing some light research can help you identify certain problems that might arise when it comes to your pet tort.

Pyramiding in tortoises is a form of metabolic bone disease and it causes the reptiles scutes to grow abnormally upwards, forming a pyramid like shape. It is usually treated before the problem gets too out of hand, although if it doesn’t your tortoise will struggle with a lack of mobility and paralysis if left untreated long enough.

In this article we’re going to cover what causes pyramiding, how to treat it along with everything in-between so be sure to continue reading!

Pyramiding In Tortoises

Tortoises are prone to shell problems, with one of them being pyramiding. Tortoise shell pyramiding is quite common and many tortoises can have some degree of pyramiding without it being much of an issue.

Pyramiding is when the scutes on a tortoises shell starts to grow abnormally to form a pyramid like shape. There isn’t a definite reason why it occurs but experts have narrowed it down to improper care of a tortoise, which includes things like a poor diet, sub-optimal living conditions, not getting enough exercise and other factors we cover in more detail below.

If your tortoise experiences some shell pyramiding they won’t be effected too heavily. The problems start mounting if it goes untreated. Pyramiding can lead to a lack of mobility, reproductive difficulties in females, and even paralysis. As pyramiding can’t be reversed it’s important you recognize and treat it before lasting damage occurs.

Let’s discuss the causes in more detail.

What Causes Pyramiding In Tortoises?

Experts can’t say with 100% certainty what the cause of pyramiding in tortoises is. There has been extensive research done to narrow it down to a few factors. Ultimately it comes down to a lack of care from the tortoises owner, being aware of the known causes can help to prevent pyramiding :

  • Too much protein
  • Low humidity
  • Imbalanced calcium/phosphorous
  • Not enough vitamin D3
  • Not enough exercise

Too Much Protein

Tortoises need protein, it’s an essential nutrient for maintaining muscle and developing antibodies to fight off infection and bacteria. However, they don’t need much of it in their diet as it’s known to cause them harm when given in excess.

Protein is thought to be one of the leading causes of pyramiding in tortoises. This is because protein causes growth, and when tortoises are fed too much of it, their shells can grow too rapidly causing the abnormal growth present in shell pyramiding.

Tortoises can get sufficient protein from plants, flowers, and leaves. Anything more is typically overkill that can cause shell pyramiding, As tortoises are usually herbivores you should avoid feeding them foods high in protein like dog food, meat, or eggs.

Some species of tortoise like the Red-footed type are omnivores so they have more freedom when it comes to protein in their diet.

Low Humidity

Having low humidity in your tortoises enclosure is thought to be a big factor in shell pyramiding. It’s important to get the level right, low humidity can cause issues like pyramiding, a weakened immune system, and dehydration. However high humidity levels will lead to problems such as shell rot or breathing difficulties.

The correct humidity will vary depending on your tortoise species, age, and weight. Hatchlings and baby tortoises require a minimum humidity of 65%.

There are a few ways you can make a tortoises environment more humid. They include using a humidifier, misting their enclosure daily with water, or create a humidity chamber.

Imbalanced Calcium/Phosphorous

If your tortoise doesn’t have a well-balanced diet with the correct calcium to phosphorous ratio they are more likely to experience pyramiding, among other health issues.

The optimal ratio is 2:1, your tortoise should be consuming twice as much calcium as they are phosphorous.

Not Enough Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 and calcium imbalance are tied together as tortoises need vitamin D3 in order to absorb calcium more efficiently. The best source of vitamin D3 is through the sun, as it provides enough for your tortoise to make use of the calcium in their body, which is crucial for shell development.

Not Enough Exercise

If a tortoise is inactive for long enough, their shell and overall bone structure can weaken. This can lead to shell pyramiding and other problems such as respiratory issues if they become sedentary for a while.

This cause of pyramiding is mostly found in captive tortoises, as they don’t have the same freedom to roam around and explore that tortoises in the wild have.

How To Treat Pyramiding In Tortoises

Pyramiding can’t be reversed once the damage is done, so it’s important to catch it early and implement the things that will stop it from getting worse. You want to be particularly careful and attentive during the first two years of the tortoises life, as this is when pyramiding is likely to occur.

  • Make sure the humidity is correct
  • Feed them a well balanced diet
  • Ensure they get enough sunlight
  • Ensure the temperature in their enclosure is optimal
  • Regular exercise

Make Sure The Humidity Is Correct

As we discussed above, low humidity is thought to be one of the leading causes of pyramiding in tortoises. To prevent or stop pyramiding ensure the humidity in their enclosure isn’t too low. You can do this by spraying it daily with fresh water, running a humidifier for a few hours, or creating your own humidity chamber.

You don’t want the humidity to be too high as it can cause shell rot or respiratory problems. A maximum of 95% humidity is recommended.

Feed Them A Well Balanced Diet

Tortoises require a well-balance diet high in fiber and calcium but low in fat and protein. Too much protein can make tortoises grow rapidly, leading to shell deformities such as pyramiding.

Foods like flowers, plants, vegetables, and some fruits will provide your tortoise with essential nutrition. These foods include watercress, dandelions, lettuce, hibiscus, kale, and plenty of greens.

Each species of tortoise will require a different diet, but the foundation is usually the same for tortoises as a whole. Calcium is extremely important when it comes to a tortoises nutrition. It’s needed for :

  • Bone and skeletal health
  • The nervous system
  • The immune system
  • Egg health

Some owners like to sprinkle a touch of calcium powder on their tortoises meals once a week, be careful not to give too much calcium as it can have negative effects.

Ensure They Lighting Is Correct

Tortoises need enough UVB lighting in order to synthesize vitamin D3 and absorb calcium efficiently. The lighting is dependent on the species and where they come from. As a rough guide :

European tortoises require a UVB lamp that provides around 10-12% of UVB lighting.

Mediterranean tortoises require a UVB lamp of 12% to efficiently synthesize vitamin D3.

Tropical tortoises require a lower UVB level of around 5-6% UVB.

Outdoor enclosures are recommended also as they provide natural UVB light from the sun which can also help tortoises to synthesize vitamin D3. You need to ensure there is a shaded area of the enclosure so that the tortoise is able to get out of the sun when it wants.

UVB lighting is essential for tortoises to fight off metabolic bone disease, without enough of it they are likely to face bone and shell problems like pyramiding.

Ensure The Temperature In Their Enclosure Is Optimal

You need to make sure the temperatures inside your tortoises living area is correct. If the temperatures are too low it can cause their metabolism to slow down, this in turn affects how well they absorb nutrients, which can lead to deficiencies.

Every tortoise is different so they all require different temperatures, however a universal number is around 80-90 degrees. As tortoises are cold-blooded and can’t regulate their own temperature they’ll need a heat lamp for night time. Be careful with some heat lamps, they may be too hot and too close to your tortoise which would lead to overheating.

Regular Exercise

Making sure your tortoise is regularly exercising and active can help prevent pyramiding. If your garden is safe and doesn’t contain any harmful plants let the roam around outside for 30 minutes every day. This way they can get sunlight and exercise at once.

Ideally you want to have an enclosure that’s large enough for them to roam freely with objects in it for mental stimulation. Tortoises can get bored or stressed in an enclosure that doesn’t allow them the space to explore.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Pyramiding Hurt A Tortoise?

Pyramiding won’t directly put your tortoise in any pain – however the problems it can bring certainly effect your tortoise in a negative way. It can cause your tortoises mobility to be drastically reduced, which would eventually lead to problems with them walking.

Can Pyramiding In Tortoises Be Reversed?

Unfortunately, once your tortoises shell has started to pyramid there is no way of reversing the effects. This is because the bone structure underneath has changed in such a way that it doesn’t correct itself.

What you can do is be aware of pyramiding in tortoises, spot the warning signs and put a stop to it before significant damage is done. After you’ve made the right changes, the shell will continue to grow in a healthy way.

Tortoise Pyramiding – Final Thoughts

To conclude, tortoise pyramiding is abnormal growth of a tortoises scutes that cause them to grow to form a pyramid like shape. Tortoises are more susceptible to it during the first two years of their life, as this is when their shell is still growing. During these years you want to ensure your tortoise has a well-balanced diet that isn’t too high in protein, the humidity isn’t too low, they get enough sunlight, and are regularly exercising.

As pyramiding can’t be reversed you need to be aware of it before it gets to the point where your tortoise faces mobility issues, or even paralysis if it’s left untreated long enough.

Pyramiding is common enough in tortoises, but it’s usually minimal and doesn’t cause them any harm unless it starts to hinder them from walking or other day to day activities.

It’s up to you as the owner to be aware of it and ensure it doesn’t get any worse.