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External Examination Checklist for Signs of Deficiencies, Disease, or Injury

When. Do an exam at anytime but we suggest on emergence in the spring and well before winter sleep if medication or treatment is needed. For most tests or Rx, the tortoise needs to be active and the metabolism “up” to support healing.

Where. Examine at a table. Lay down plenty of newspapers and an old white towel under the tortoise. It may release bladder contents. If that happens, notice the color of the urine. It indicates degrees of dehydration. Pale yellow urine indicates well hydrated. As more and more water passes from the bladder into the blood stream (something they can do and we cannot), the urine becomes increasingly dark reddish brown. As it darkens, it thickens. Urate salts in gritty whitish clumps or soft like clotted milk are normal and may be present in the urine. Scats from the bowel may also be passed at the same time.

Heft of the tortoise. A tortoise should seem heavy for its size at any time. If you question the weight, weigh every two weeks for changes. This is a good time to measure your tortoises. See Keeping Records.

Be careful with females. For our desert tortoise females from April through August, do not turn them on their backs. Studies have shown that females 7″ or more in shell length may have eggs becoming shelled as they pass along the oviduct. Turning the female over with several ounces of shelled eggs, can twist the oviducts and hold them in a twisted position. This can interfere with the circulation as well as passage of the eggs resulting in peritonitis and death. To look at the underside of an adult female, lift her above your eye level continuing to hold her level, and examine the underside. Working with someone really helps.

Signs of injury. Look for cuts, cactus spines, lost or loose scutes on shell. Females may lose scutes on forelegs from males biting them during courting. A tortoise with an open wound must be kept indoors, away from flies that can infest the wound and cause death. Cover the wound with a loose dry gauze bandage and call your tortoise vet as soon as possible for advice and an appointment. Do not try to treat an open wound except to apply pressure to stop bleeding. See Veterinarians with Tortoise Experience.

Check the soft skin for ticks where it attaches to the shell. Refer to Ticks On Desert Tortoises for tick removal. Minute, young ticks may also be resting on the flare of the front and rear edges of the carapace (upper shell).

Signs of upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) or other respiratory disease:

  • Nostrils blocked, runny or bubbly
  • Forearms with dried mucous from tortoise wiping nostrils on them
  • Breath that is a moist. Wheeze may be due to disease, but a dry whistle may be just air moving by the many natural, wafer-thin structures in the nasal cavity.
  • Eyes runny, inner lids quite visible, crusts or swelling of the outer lid
  • Appetite consistently poor or not eating at all; may be difficult to separate this from seasonal lack of appetite. A Tortoise Group Board member should be able to help you with that, Call us, or 804-0472.
  • Mouth gaping. You may hear a wheeze or nothing as if tortoise is unable to clear its throat or breathe.
  • Learn how to open the mouth from a vet or Tortoise Group. No white patches should be present on inner surfaces of mouth or tongue.

Deformities and other indications of improper diet:

  • Eyelids puffy; eyes sunken, watery or with crusts
  • Beak not occluding normally, e.g., lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper
  • Upper shell (carapace) flat or sunken, easily compressed with fingers
  • Pyramiding of the large carapace scutes
  • Except for 1-2 year olds, small juvenile shells should be quite firm and relatively high domed
  • Unable to walk holding body well off the ground/table.
  • Hind legs dragging
  • Forelegs should be well filled out, pudgy
  • Nails should not curve toward under side of foot or be growing into foot.
  • Warning! Do not trim long hind nails of mature females. They are used for digging nests.
  • Nail trimming needs to be done by a vet or someone who knows how to avoid cutting into live tissue and prevent splitting.
  • Skin, not peeling; however, it may occur normally in small juveniles that are growing rapidly.

Examine the vent (the one exit for urine and feces) for signs of diarrhea.

Fecal exam for internal parasites. Internal parasites can be very debilitating. Contact a vet who treats tortoises for the simple procedure to secure a specimen for vet.