Can I Keep a Tortoise if I Have Asthma?


Being asthmatic can be a frustrating and at times miserable experience. I myself have suffered from mild versions of this respiratory condition throughout my life, but particularly during childhood.

One of the more disheartening realities faced by people with asthma is that keeping a pet is oftentimes completely out of the question. The issue of pet dander causing irritation to the lungs is most pronounced in furry animals such as cats and dogs, not because of their hair but because of proteins in skin flakes and other substances that are shed by the animal.

One of the great selling points of tortoises, and indeed reptiles in general is that they don’t usually pose any issue as far as asthma goes.

Being free of hair and feathers, and not having mammalian skin means that tortoises produce little if anything in the way of irritating dander.

However, a little isn’t the same as impossible, and a poor maintenance and care regime could result in dry urates, feces and possibly even shed skin causing irritation if not cleaned up immediately, but instead allowed to dry out fester. This is particularly problematic if the tortoise is kept indoors.

There are of course many good reasons why it is necessary to keep your tortoise enclosure clean, from ensuring the tortoise doesn’t develop a respiratory or gastric illness of their own, to preventing foul odours, or in this case, to prevent respiratory irritation in yourself.

Dusty Substrate

Providing you tidy up after your tortoise and their excretions, the other major potential source of lung irritation comes from the substrate you use in your indoor tortoise enclosure. Being indoors in the dry and warm environment of a house means that substrates can easily dry out and become dusty.

The most widely used substrate is a mixture of loam and play sand, which does a good job of replicating the habitat of a tortoise in the wild thanks to being firm and able to facilitate burrowing.

However under the light of a heat lamp in a dry house it doesn’t take a lot for the moisture in a soil based substrate to evaporate leaving behind a dusty by product.

A small tortoise spending their days walking on a dusty substrate doesn’t tend to kick up too much in the way of dust, but problems can arise if it gets disturbed during routine cleaning, or when replacing the substrate entirely. This is something I’ve suffered with before, even when trying to do my best not to create too much dust.

This problem is easily resolved by damping the substrate, although there are some substrates that will be broken down by moisture actually resulting in more dust. For example straw pellets are a good alternative to soil, but get very dusty when they do break down as a result of getting wet and then drying out.

Other substrates such as wood chippings or shredded paper don’t create dust to the same extent as small particulate substrates such as soil, however they aren’t advisable for a number of other reasons, most critically that they pose a danger of external injury, compaction in the digestive tract if ingested, or even strangulation.

Check out more detail on the pros and cons of the most commonly used substrates for young tortoises here.

Keep Your Tortoise Outdoors if Possible

Provided they are more than two or three years old tortoises should be kept outdoors whenever possible, not least because access to natural sunlight, fresh air and more space to roam makes for a much healthier and happier existence for them.

Not only is an outdoor existence good for your tortoise, but it is also good for your own health. Dust and dander particles are much more easily dispersed and diluted outdoors, whereas indoors in a confined space they might linger for far longer.

Precautions to Take if You do Have Asthma

If you do have asthma but don’t want to be restricted by your condition you can still enjoy keeping a tortoise by following a few simple steps.

Besides keeping a clean, dust free (or dust dampened) enclosure, and ideally keeping your tortoise outdoors, try the following whenever possible:

  • Have someone else who is not asthmatic clean out the enclosure, and keep well away whilst they do so. Also ask them to vacuum clean the area afterwards
  • Keep a water spray bottle next to your tortoise enclosure, and dampen down the soil substrate every day
  • Clean obvious soiling on a daily basis
  • Carry out a ‘deep clean’ and full substrate change every 2 to 3 weeks
  • Don’t forget to clean the exterior of the enclosure just as you would any other item of furniture in your home, although be sure not to use and cleaning products or sprays that might harm the tortoise
  • Keep your inhaler close to hand when you interact with your tortoise just in case you do suffer an asthma attack

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