We’ve all heard of dogs and rabbits being neutered, but what about tortoises? As a tortoise owner neutering your pet isn’t usually something you need to worry about unless you have multiple tortoises, but there are circumstances when neutering or spaying is the appropriate course of action, despite the risks it poses to the health of the tortoise involved.
When Would Neutering Be Considered Necessary?
In the case of male tortoises, neutering isn’t usually necessary unless he is a particularly dominant specimen. If he lives in solitude then clearly no action is required, but even if he lives alongside one or more females this won’t usually be harmful to a female unless his mating action is so frequent and aggressive that it physically injures the female. This is known to happen, and can even be an issue if the dominant male tries to mate with a less dominant male.
Clearly impregnation is likely when a male and female live together, but if you have no desire to care for developing eggs and the hatchlings they ultimately produce, then breaking and disposing of freshly laid eggs is possible, and indeed widely practiced, so it’s an option if you’re comfortable doing so.
Females only really need be spayed if there is a risk of eggs becoming compacted inside of them. In other words if for any reason (typically stress) a female doesn’t lay her eggs when she should and they instead remain inside her it can prove dangerous or even fatal.
The only way you would likely know in advance that egg compaction might be an issue is if the tortoise has experienced it before, and had veterinary intervention to remove the eggs.
Spaying female tortoises may of course be necessary even when there is no risk that she has been fertilised by a male, because just like poultry, tortoises can lay unfertilised eggs. However, females are more likely to produce eggs if they reside in the vicinity of males, even though they may not be able to make direct contact.
How is Neutering Carried Out?
The crucial thing to know about neutering/spaying tortoises is that it does come with a fair degree of risk, hence why it is nowhere near as commonly practiced as on mammals. When the choice of procedure involves cutting the shell, then the risk of infection increases exponentially, not to mention that the recovery time could be months, or even years in some cases.
With this in mind vets that carry out sterilization in tortoises will endeavour to do so in the least invasive way possible. In males this typically involves carrying out a phallectomy, or removal of the penis. Ouch right?! Well quite possibly, but this is still far less risky than invasive procedures involving the shell, and more importantly, will have a far quicker recovery time.
One potential downside to a phallectomy is that it has no effect on the tortoise’s instinctual behaviour to mount other tortoises, although the absence of a penis means there is far less risk of him causing physical injury whilst doing so.
Females are spayed by having their ovaries removed. This is where things get more complicated because oftentimes this will require access to areas on accessible via the shell, although if at all possible a vet will try to make their incisions somewhere around the tops of the legs. On smaller tortoises this may not be possible given the difficulty of carrying out precise and delicate operations in a very small area.
Regardless of the precise procedure involved, for obvious reasons all neutering operations require the tortoise be sedated, which is in itself a risky business. General anesthesia is a fairly big deal for humans, let alone on the small body of a tortoise, and unless they’re in a perfectly healthy state it could prove fatal.
If you’re interested in getting an idea of what a tortoise has to endure whilst being neutered check out this video. (don’t worry it’s not gruesome in any way, and actually shows a group of volunteers doing a great job)
What Alternatives Are There to Neutering?
Really neutering a tortoise should only really be considered as a last resort if a male is a habitual mounter of other tortoises, and if a female is prone to producing eggs but not actually laying them.
The simplest way to ensure against both of these things is quite simply to keep your tortoises separated, ideally such that they aren’t able to see or even be aware of one another. This might sound cruel, however in reality it is perfectly natural for tortoises to lead a lone existence. In the wild tortoises are largely solitary animals, and only really deliberately cross paths on occasion to mate.
If your tortoises mate and there are no ill effects as a result, other than the female laying eggs, then besides breaking and destroying the eggs, you can either look to rehome the resulting hatchlings, or raise them yourself.
The latter may be fine once, but anymore than that and you will quickly find yourself overrun by tortoises.
Be warned that rehoming can also be difficult unless you are a trusted and licenced breeder, and even then there is only ever going to be a limited market for tortoises unless you’re prepared to treat rehoming like a proper business.