Common Health Problems With Russian Tortoises

Updated on February 22, 2016
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Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises and other exotics since 2003

Russian Tortoise Health

Russian tortoises are great beginner pet tortoises, as they are healthy and hardy creatures. These tortoises are relatively small compared to others in the pet market.

The most important thing that you can do to keep a tortoise healthy is to ensure that you are providing a proper environment and diet. By keeping the temperature, humidity, and overall enclosure at the basic requirements, you can easily keep a healthy, happy tortoise.

What you want to do is properly research how to provide care for a Russian tortoise. If you aren't able to support one, you may want to consider a different type of pet. Otherwise, if you have the time and space for a pet Russian tortoise, you'll want to make sure that you are knowledgeable about the care and illnesses of the pet.

Common Health Problems

It's very important that you are aware of what illnesses Russian tortoises may contract or develop. You need to keep an eye on your tortoise because any changes in appetite, behaviors, or overall routine may indicate an illness is developing.

The most common health problems that a Russian tortoise may contract are very minor. They may get cuts and abrasions, long toenails, or a chipped, cracked, or broken beak.

  • Cuts should be cleaned with lukewarm water and non-scented, mild soap. 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, and should be kept at short lengths. When the tortoise is housed in an environment with smooth surfaces that do not wear down its nails, they can grow too long. You can trim the nails, but be careful of cutting the quick.

  • If the beak cracks, chips, or breaks, it should rebuild itself over time. But you may want to consult your veterinarian if the beak is growing back abnormally. A tortoise beak will usually be worn away naturally by eating on a stone or flat rock, or by gnawing on a cuttle bone.
  • Male tortoises are prone to penal prolapse, which you may able to treat at home, if the prolapse is minor, but severe prolapses will need veterinary help. For minor treatment at home, you'll need to soak the tortoise in a saline solution or lukewarm sugar water. Do not push the tissues back in place, but if they don't shrink, you'll need to make an appointment as soon as possible.

Diseases and Ailments

Respiratory Infections—Respiratory illnesses are generally caused by bacteria, lower temperatures, and stress (causing a lowered immune system). You may notice wheezing and sometimes a mucous discharge from the nose and/or mouth. If you wait until the tortoise is breathing out of its mouth, you're not in for good results. You need to seek veterinary assistance immediately. The tortoise will also need an antibiotic, which may be given 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 the immune system. You'll also want to make sure that you keep it hydrated. If caught early, the tortoise should have a full recovery.

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 the shell.

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

  • Ticks are generally more of a problem with wild-caught or imported tortoises. They will typically burrow into the upper legs, neck, and tail.
  • 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 get places. You'll want to find a safe and effective treatment to treat the tortoise and enclosure. Ivermectic is deadly, so don't use it.
  • Flies are usually attracted to cuts and abrasions and will lay their eggs in the wound. For Russian tortoises that spend time outside, you'll want to check for cuts frequently, and use fly traps 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 Russian tortoises, but captive ones may also have internal parasites, so it's always a good idea to have a fecal test on new tortoises.

  • 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.
  • 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.

Empty Gut Syndrome—When protozoans are treated, antibiotics 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 poo. This is typically caused by an antibiotic.

Calcium Deficiency and Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)—Calcium is very important, and if your Russian tortoise doesn't absorb enough, 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 the phenomenon when the scutes, or bony external plates, of a tortoise experience vertical growth instead of the normal horizontal growth that takes place as the tortoise increases in size. It is common when a tortoise receives too much protein, is overfed, or has low enclosure humidity levels, inadequate hydration, or a calcium deficiency. Less severe pyramiding is common on ranch-raised tortoises and wild-caught tortoises. There are two types of pyramiding: Type 1 won't have any major appearance problems, and type 2 is more severe where the scutes will raise an extreme amount and grow at abnormal differences.

Disclaimer: Please be aware that the advice in this article should in no way replace that of a licensed veterinarian. Consult a reptile veterinarian if you notice any abnormal behaviors in your tortoise so that you can have him checked out, diagnosed, and treated.


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      Donna 2 weeks ago

      Help! Our Russian has suddenly become very swollen in the body!! He's about 20-25 years old.

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      Denise 6 months ago

      Please help russian tortoise pooped out some pink thing I've never seen before.I'm worried and I'm dying to know what it is.Please help!

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      cindy 23 months ago

      i dont really have a comment but my 5 year old russian turtle got whits spots and bumps on hos shell the day acter we got him and im starting to be worried

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      Jessie 5 years ago

      This is true, when you get a new tortoise, they're too stressed out to eat for awhile. Kinda leave the new one alone for awhile, but keep a close eyeball on them, especially if you got them from a retail store. Keeping offering a variety of food, the tortoise pellets, Romaine lettuce, and spring mix. Those are my Teddy's favorites. =)

      I purchased my Russian Tortoise from Petsmart, and within a week, I was at the vet being slapped with a $300 vet bill, being told he had an upper respiratory infection, and I would be giving him shots for the next three weeks.

      Now, chances are if the tortoise isn't eating, they aren't drinking. You need to make him very angry.

      Use a dish (I used a small cake pan) with lukewarm water, but only high enough that it'll come up to his chin. Then put the tortoise in the water. Watch them; you'll want to make sure they don't flip. This will encourage them to poop and all that, but also to drink some water!! It will even encourage them to eat. I can't guarantee the tortoise will have a blast.. Mine just sat their and glared at me the first few times, but it does help them. The tough love thing came into play there.

      Also, don't store them in a glass aquarium. Stresses them out hardcore.

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      Danny 5 years ago

      What to do about mine? My Russian Tortoise keeps biting his front legs... but he NEVER does this in his cage. Inside, he is strong, never bites himself, and is happy. Outside his cage, he will adventure a bit and all of a sudden will start repeatedly biting his front leg painfully. It's hard to get a good look at him because he has been more nervous ever since he met the cat. It did not look like anything was wrong with him though. Any advice? I really don't want to take him to a vet because I don't want to be given some stupid medicine he won't even need or pay a ton of money and not given results I need.

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      penelope 5 years ago

      I think his eyes are swollen...what to do

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      my russian tortoise has a strange lump protruding from his legs near his head they are only visible when he stretches his front legs out from his shell. is this cancer, or is he simply just out growing his shell? winter has just ended and i did not hibernate him during the winter. He was kind of active during winter and is very active now. i have been feeding him romaine lettuce, strawberries and tomato, and he has a calcium light and is next to a window. The bumps aren't too big. he likes to climb over rocks but sometimes falls down, this has made a few minor scratches in his shell, but didn't hurt him seriously. could this also be the cause of the bumps?

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      Naomiezma 6 years ago

      I adopted a Russian tortoise in October. It took 16 days before she would eat anything. She barely moved, and did not want to interact at all. Just give him more time to come around.

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      Whitney 6 years ago from Georgia

      Sometimes it takes a few days to get situated in anew environment. I would suggest a vet, since you purchased an animal from a pet store. Many retail pet stores have problems with parasites and ill animals.

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      mattsieczkowski 6 years ago

      please help!

      I bought a russian tourtois 5 days ago. He has not eatin since I brought him home. I have followed the diet , temp , and humidity guidelines but benjamin just hides in is store bought burrow. I contacted petsmart where I bought him and they said to just return him. I have grown fond of him and would like any ideas to help me. thank you

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      clare in Spain 6 years ago

      These pages are so useful...plants to grow for eating, my two young tortoises are now outside with a larger friend in the sun, I will buy a cuttlefish now.