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The Most Common Health Problems With Red-Footed Tortoises

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Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises, and other exotics since 2003.

Red-footed tortoises tend to be healthy, but there are some potential injuries and ailments to watch out for.

Red-footed tortoises tend to be healthy, but there are some potential injuries and ailments to watch out for.

Red-Footed Tortoise Health

Red-footed tortoises are usually pretty healthy as long as their diet and habitat are properly maintained. If the humidity, temperature, lighting, and diet are kept according to proper requirements, you'll find that your pet tortoise is going to stay pretty healthy in most cases. But make sure to keep these main elements in check!

However, even if you have proper care and diet, you're not completely free from the risk of illness, as tortoises can still get sick. And in most cases, you won't see symptoms until the illness or disease is pretty progressed.

How to Recognize Illness in Your Tortoise

It is very important that you keep an eye on your tortoise's behaviors, feeding habits, and routines so that if there is a change, you can act immediately. Even slight changes may signal illness.

Common Injuries That Affect Tortoises

You'll find that there are different degrees of health problems that your tortoise may succumb to throughout his lifetime. Minor ailments can include minor cuts and abrasions, long toenails, and a chipped, cracked, or broken beak.

  • Cuts need to be cleaned with lukewarm water and mild soap; you can apply a topical antibiotic ointment and reapply it daily. If the wound starts to swell, you'll want to seek veterinary assistance.
  • Toenails are typically short and stubby in the back and longer in the front. Generally, they're going to be kept pretty short and at normal lengths, but when kept on smooth surfaces, they can grow to abnormal lengths. Keeping tortoises on dirt substrates usually wears down the nails. You can trim the nails like you would a dog, but be careful of cutting the quick (the nerve running through each nail).
  • Beaks may crack, chip, or break over time. The beak can rebuild itself over time, but you may want to consult your veterinarian if it's growing back abnormally. Sometimes, deformities can occur when the beak regrows, and the vet will need to trim and/or shape the beak. In most cases, the beak will be worn away naturally as the tortoise eats and gnaws on a cuttlebone.
  • Penile prolapse can be common among male tortoises, and you will need to soak the tortoise to moisten the penis and wash away dirt from the tissues. Saline solution or warm sugar water is suggested to use to help shrink the tissues. Do not push the tissues back, but consult a vet as soon as you can, especially if the tissues do not shrink.

Tortoise Diseases and Ailments

The following are some illnesses to watch for in your pet, along with their symptoms. Be sure to consult a veterinarian if you suspect your tortoise is ill.

Respiratory Infections

Respiratory illnesses are generally caused by bacteria, lower temperatures, and stress (causing a lowered immune system). You will notice a wheezing sound and sometimes a mucous discharge from the nose and/or mouth. If you wait till the tortoise is breathing out of its mouth, you're not in for good results. You need to seek veterinary assistance immediately.

Depending on how far along the illness is, the vet may need to use a nebulizer to help the tortoise breathe and get oxygen to its lungs. The tortoise will also need an antibiotic, which the vet may administer through the nose or injections.

If the tortoise has a respiratory illness, you'll want to bump the temperatures up in the enclosure to help boost its immune system. You'll also want to make sure that you keep it hydrated. If caught early, the tortoise should make a full recovery. Keep in mind that respiratory infections are contagious, so separate any infected red-footed tortoises.

Shell Rot

Shell rot is an infectious disease that is generally caused by bacteria or fungus. In most cases, the bacteria or fungus will enter the body through a cut, scrape, or lesion on the shell. If not caught and treated early, shell rot can lead to septicemia, which is an infection of the bloodstream. You may notice shell rot in your tortoise if it has white powdery, pitted, or flaking patches on the shell; if left untreated, the infection may eat away at the shell.

To treat shell rot, the vet will clean the shell with mild soap and a soft brush and then disinfect it. After treatment, you'll need to keep the enclosure a little dryer than usual. Your vet may prescribe an antibiotic to prevent septicemia.

Swollen Eyes

Red-footed tortoises can succumb to swollen eyes, which can be caused by vitamin A deficiency, improper diet, or bacterial infection. A vet will prescribe a topical antibiotic or an antibiotic injection.

Ear Infections

Red-footed tortoises can experience ear infections occasionally. It's thought to be caused by improper husbandry. You may notice swelling in the cheek or behind the jaw. A visit to the vet will be needed, and the vet will likely prescribe antibiotics.

External Parasites

External parasites include ticks, mites, and flies. If you notice any of these, you'll need to seek treatment immediately as they can cause disease.

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  • Ticks are generally more of a problem with wild-caught or imported tortoises. They will typically burrow into the upper legs, neck, and tail. You'll want to carefully remove the ticks with tweezers, making sure to remove the mouthparts. Use a small dropper of rubbing alcohol or fingernail polish remover on the tick, and then use a topical antibiotic ointment on the bite.
  • Mites are rare but can be picked up from other reptiles. Most mites will be black or red and about the size of a poppy seed. Mites can be hard to get rid of because they can be found in hard-to-reach places. You'll want to find a safe and effective treatment to treat the tortoise and enclosure. Consult your veterinarian first. Ivermectin is deadly, so don't use it. Instead, spray 0.5% permethrin or lice spray on the bedding. Do not apply directly to the animal.
  • Flies are usually attracted to cuts and abrasions and will lay their eggs in the wound. You'll want to be leery of red-footed tortoises that are kept outdoors, and you'll want to check them frequently. Use fly traps when possible to prevent flies.

Internal Parasites

You'll find that worms and protozoa are two common endo-parasites that affect tortoises. Internal parasites are most common with wild-caught and imported red-footed tortoises, but you should have all tortoises checked for parasites before bringing them home and introducing them to other reptiles.

  • Roundworms are common to tortoises and will usually cause diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, and a lack of appetite. A vet can detect worms by a fecal exam, checking for eggs in the poo. Panacur is commonly used as a treatment for worms.
  • Protozoa can include various bacteria, but in general, you'll find that they can cause diseases. Signs that your tortoise has protozoa include diarrhea, vomiting, lack of appetite, dehydration, and lethargy. Again, consult your veterinarian. Flagyl is commonly used to treat this type of internal parasite in tortoises.

Empty Gut Syndrome

When protozoans are treated, they can wipe out any good bacteria in the gut, which can cause food to not be properly digested. You'll notice undigested food in the feces. You can add a small amount of live-cultured yogurt to the diet, which will help build back the bacteria in the tortoise.

Calcium Deficiency and Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

Calcium is very important, and if your red-footed tortoise doesn't absorb enough calcium in the body, a deficiency can cause growth problems in the shell and bones. You may notice an abnormal appearance in the shell and legs. By leaving a cuttlebone in the enclosure, you can reduce the risk of MBD.

Pyramidal Growth

Pyramiding is common when a tortoise receives too much protein, is overfed, has low enclosure humidity levels, inadequate hydration, or a calcium deficiency. Less severe pyramiding is common on ranch-raised tortoises and gives the carapace a bumpy appearance, but each scute is not severely raised from the others.

Generally, type 1 pyramiding isn't going to have any major appearance problems. Type 2 pyramiding is more severe and extreme where the scutes will raise an extreme amount and grow at abnormal differences. Pyramiding is not reversible.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Nando on June 29, 2020:

My redfoot always ate very well as of Friday hasn't eaten very much I'm concerned

Michael on March 18, 2020:

My redfoot was 7 months old and just passed. He did not eat much nor poop. He has very mucusy poop whenn he did have it. We were going to see a vet the day after he passed.

Kate on October 29, 2019:

my baby tortoise is making weird noises while he sleeps. Should I be concerned?

XI on May 26, 2019:

Is it bad if the tortoise is not active and sleeps alot

Whitney (author) from Georgia on December 29, 2016:

You'll want to see a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and antibiotics.

Whitney (author) from Georgia on December 29, 2016:

You can test for parasites by bringing in some of the tortoise's fecal matter. You need to bump up temperature and see the vet again asap. Your tortoise doesn't sound like he's doing too great. The poop should be a dark brown or black color.

Ruppy on July 17, 2016:

My 2 month old tortoise is sick, he just lies there, his plastron is soft. About 4 weeks ago I took him to the veternarian, she was fasinated by the baby tortoise. I thought it might have parasites, but she said it was too small to tell if it did. I took in some poop it was very light tan color. Now his shell is soft he didn't have trouble eating before. I just ground up some lettuce and f ruit, he doesn't want to eat.

Herman Lawerence on July 24, 2015:

My baby red foot tortoise is sick and it looks exactly like the picture for a ear abscess. What antibiotics should I use ?

Dona Rosa from Tennessee on January 08, 2010:

TUrtle lover - -had to check this out. Interesting!

myawn from Florida on December 29, 2009:

I liked the info I don't think I need one as a pet but they are interesting

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 29, 2009:

Interesting. This has a lot of information I would never have looked for but there is always something new to learn on hubpages.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on December 29, 2009:

You definitely have a lot to look out for when you have this tortoise. Very interesting.

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