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Captive Desert Tortoise Health and Illnesses

If you adopt a desert tortoise, you are responsible for caring for its health.  Consult a veterinarian immediately whenever you suspect that your tortoise has contracted a disease or has been injured.  Failure to treat an illness in your tortoise could result in its unnecessary death.  There are many certified reptile veterinarians throughout the state who can see your tortoise and determine if it is sick. 

Desert tortoises are subject to various diseases.  Disease often results from opportunistic pathogens or parasites which take advantage of tortoises weakened by stress, malnutrition, or improper physical environment. Prevention of disease is best accomplished by providing the recommended physical environment, shelter features, and diet. These are the most important responsibilities of the tortoise custodian and cannot be emphasized enough. 

Symptoms of sick tortoises
Be on the lookout for some common symptoms associated with illness in a tortoise, which include runny nose, labored breathing, sunken eyes or swollen eyelids, loose stools, loss of appetite, listlessness, swollen body tissues, prominent bones (in head or limbs), soft shell, noticeable weight loss or gain in a short period of time.  Sick tortoises often refuse to eat and become emaciated.  The legs and head should appear symmetrical and bones should not appear too prominent.  The condition of the fecal pellets often reflects the health of the tortoise.  Healthy feces are very fibrous, firm, and brownish-green in color, with plant material readily recognizable.  Feces which are loose, runny, or contain mucous often indicates a health problem requiring veterinary attention.  It is normal for tortoises to periodically excrete a gray to whitish, chalky material; however, this should not occur continuously.

Common Illnesses
Tortoises are susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory ailments.  Symptoms are inactivity, runny nose, labored breathing, bulging eyes, swollen eyelids, and loss of appetite.  Tortoises inflicted with respiratory ailments often must move their head and forelimbs in and out to facilitate breathing.  A chronically sick tortoise may get white scar tissue around its nares (nostrils) from continuous nasal discharge.  Chronic nasal discharge or raspy breathing should receive veterinary attention.  Respiratory problems are sometimes treated with antibiotics.

Dehydration and malnutrition are also common illnesses in captive tortoises.  Sunken eyes indicate dehydration, while swollen body tissues and pasty or liquid feces indicate malnutrition or infection.  Alternatively, a tortoise that seems too heavy may have large bladder stones, a condition which needs to be treated by a veterinarian.  Prolonged inactivity or tendency to keep the eyes closed may also be indicative of a health problem, although tortoises are normally inactive during winter hibernation and the summer period before the monsoon.

A bone disease called fibrous osteodystrophy is typically evidenced by a soft shell, usually caused by malnutrition resulting from lack of a proper calcium to phosphorus ratio, sunlight, or both.  This disease will cause shell deformities, including raised, “pyramidal” scutes on the upper shell.  Fibrous osteodystrophy can be prevented and corrected by regularly feeding your tortoise native food plants (see captive desert tortoise food list) and by keeping the tortoise outdoors. When your tortoise must be kept indoors for any length of time, you must provide a source of artificial full spectrum lighting

Another common problem in captive tortoises is vitamin deficiencies.  Symptoms of vitamin A deficiency include swollen eyelids and nasal discharge.  This can be prevented by providing the recommended diet.  A sign of a prolonged improper diet in captive desert tortoises is shell deformity.  Correct the deficiency by providing a balanced diet that mimics the desert tortoise’s natural diet, however, the deformities may be permanent.  Tortoises are easily overdosed on fat soluble vitamins so these should be avoided unless prescribed by a veterinarian.  


A captive desert tortoise that has been fed an
improper diet. Note characteristic pyramiding
(raised scutes) and deformity in the shell.

A desert tortoise infected with a respiratory ailment.
Note the bulging eyes, swollen eyelids, and nasal
discharge. This tortoise suffers chronic infections,
indicated by the white scar tissue around the nostrils. 

Parasites are also common in tortoises.  Symptoms are usually listlessness accompanied by weight loss and abdominal stress.  If their presence is suspected, consult a veterinarian.

Although most tortoise pathogens are not transmissible to humans, some, like salmonella, can be transmitted to humans.  Therefore, children under five years of age should be discouraged from handling tortoises (or any reptiles for that matter).  After handling a tortoise, you should wash your hands with an anti-bacterial soap.

return to Caring for a Captive Desert Tortoise

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Click on the image above to download a printable brochure on native plants for desert tortoises (Adobe Reader required).
Captive Desert Tortoise Downloads

NOTE: The following files are PDFs and require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.

- Desert Tortoise Adoption Packet [pdf, 56kb]
- Desert tortoise adoption application [pdf, 16kb]
- Desert tortoise adoption facilities in Arizona
- Desert tortoise adoption checklist [pdf, 256kb]
- Captive desert tortoise food list [pdf, 13kb]
- Shelter construction directions for Phoenix, Prescott, and Tucson areas [pdf, 259kb]
- Shelter construction directions for greater Bullhead City, Lake Havasu, Kingman, and Yuma areas [pdf, 653kb]
- Information on artificial full spectrum lighting
[pdf, 16kb]

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