Do Tortoises Shed Their Skin/Shell Scutes?

It is normal for tortoises to shed their skin and shell scutes. They do so as they grow. New and larger scutes are produced beneath the old ones, allowing the shell to get bigger. They also shed the skin on their necks and legs while growing, because the skin doesn’t stretch and will not otherwise allow for growth. 

If you just became a tortoise owner or you’re about to get a tortoise for the first time, there’s a good chance you don’t know too much about their behaviour.

Tortoises have their own routine and habits, and in order to care for them properly, you must learn why certain things happen, and what is and is not a cause for concern. 

Tortoises are reptiles, and with that in mind, you may be wondering whether they shed their skin or not. Shedding is not uncommon in reptiles, but to some people, a shedding tortoise may be an unexpected concept. So, let’s find out more about this phenomenon.

Is It Possible for Tortoises to Shed?

Even to the average person on the street tortoises are easily recognizable by their shells. A tortoise’s shell has about 60 internal bones, which are covered with an epithelial layer (analogous to skin). This is what produces the hard outer shell layer made up of the characteristic segments known as scutes.

Scutes serve as protection – they have to protect the bones underneath, as well as the epithelium. Ultimately of course they are the outermost layer in a shell that protects the internal organs of the tortoise.

You might at some point notice that the scutes begin to shed. If the tortoise is a juvenile and still growing, then this is completely normal.

Tortoises shed their scutes as they grow, as there are newer and larger scutes produced underneath the old ones, which then replace them. As a result, the shell becomes bigger. 

What about the skin, though? Do tortoises also shed their skin? The answer is yes, they certainly do. The skin from the head, tail, and legs will shed when as the tortoise grows, due to the fact that it is not elastic.

In order to get bigger, the tortoise will shed its skin. It happens in the form of patches and flakes very regularly. And when it happens, you may or may not notice it, but it is essentially exactly the same process as the way human skin sheds. 

Shedding might seem very strange at first – while all reptiles shed, tortoises do it differently from snakes, for instance.

Snakes shed their whole skin in a single piece. Meanwhile, tortoises will shed their skin in pieces, so the process will be different, may take a little longer, and won’t be as obvious.

Do You Have to Help a Shedding Tortoise?

As the tortoise starts shedding, you may be tempted to help it. However, tortoises don’t need any help when they shed. This process is completely natural, and they will handle it the same way they do this when they’re in the wild, where human intervention is completely alien to them.

If you want to help, the best thing you can do is make sure the tortoise is simply encouraged to shed as they would in the wild.

To do this the enclosure of your tortoise should be similar to their natural habitat – it must imitate it as closely as possible. Other than that, the tortoise should have access to clean water at all times and enjoy a varied diet so that they are generally in good health. 

The only possible time when a tortoise may need some help with shedding is when it gets too dry all of a sudden, making the shedding process harder. The skin may hang onto their body instead of falling off.

You can try spraying a small amount of water onto the tortoise or place it in a shallow container with some water if this is the case – just as you would with a routine soaking. Gradually this will help soften the dead cells and allow them to fall off the body more easily. 

You must avoid peeling away the scutes or skin yourself, even if it’s tempting to do so. You can give your tortoise a lukewarm water bath to help it shed faster if you want, but be very gentle with all the movements you do in the process. 

When Does Shedding Become Unhealthy or Abnormal?

Although shedding is normal, there are situations when this process is unhealthy and you should be concerned, and thus, take measures to correct what is going wrong.  

Here are some signs that shedding might be unhealthy:

  • The scutes are broken
  • You notice patchiness or rotting of the shell
  • The skin is irritated or inflamed
  • The shedding cycle is reoccurring with alarming frequency

You might notice that the skin is irritated or inflamed, which might happen if the tortoise is dehydrated. It makes it difficult for the skin to shed properly. Also, if the cycle reoccurs after another one just finished, it might be a sign that there is something wrong.

If you notice that your tortoise is pretty much in the process of growing a new shell, this would almost certainly be a sign of unhealthy shedding. Not to mention that if the scutes are abundantly falling off, then it may show that there is an infection causing shell damage.

Excessive scute shedding will expose the bones of the tortoise, leaving it extremely vulnerable, so you should take your pet to the vet as a matter of urgency if this is the case.

Are There Any Health Issues that Cause Shedding?

There are some skin conditions that may make your tortoise start shedding. Dysecdysis is one of these, and it can end up leaving the shell exposed, and thus, more vulnerable to introducing an infection. It might also signal that there is a nutritional deficiency, bone disease, or thyroid, kidney, or liver disease. 

Another issue might be bacterial shell rot, which leads to a permanent deformity of the shell. 

Certain factors might lead to unhealthy shedding, such as:

  • Basking in a very hot area
  • Bacterial and fungal infections
  • Very low environmental temperature
  • Injuries caused by sharp items in the enclosure
  • Overfeeding 
  • The tortoise’s water has high ammonia levels

Final Thoughts

It is normal for your tortoise to shed, especially if it has yet to reach maturity. If you notice this and the process seems gradual and there are no visible sores or other injuries, then there is nothing to worry about.

If the shedding seems abnormal and you notice irritation, new scute patterns, broken scutes, shell rot, and even a new shell growing, it is likely indicative of another underlying issue. These are signs of unnatural shedding and you should take immediate action with a visit to the vet.

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