Preventing Metabolic Bone Disease or Soft Shell Syndrome


What is Soft Shell Syndrome?

As we know tortoises have some very specific requirements in order to stay healthy. They need heat in order to give them the energy they require to digest food, and they need UV light to synthesise vitamin D2, an essential component in the metabolization of calcium. Calcium itself is ingested via foods, calcium supplements and cuttlebones. Without these key components the tortoise is at risk of developing a weakened, even soft, skeleton and shell.

But Why is Calcium so Important?

just as calcium is a key component in our own diets; with calcium deficiency or imbalance leading to increased risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis among other problems; tortoises can suffer similar, if more pronounced, problems of their own in the absence of sufficient levels of calcium in their diet.

In some cases the problem may actually lie with the tortoises ability to metabolise calcium, so it’s always important to be aware of the signs of calcium deficiency even if you believe you’re doing everything you should be in terms of providing adequate calcium and UV light.

Juvenile tortoises will naturally have a semi soft shell for the first 6 to 8 months of their life, but under normal circumstances this should improve fairly rapidly.

If a young tortoise continues to age without absorbing sufficient levels of calcium, the effect of soft shell syndrome will become evident fairly quickly. Most noticeably the shell won’t develop at the same rate as the rest of the tortoise, leading the tortoise to effectively outgrow his or her shell.

What Are The Symptoms of Soft Shell Syndrome?

When a tortoise begins to outgrow his or her shell, due to calcium deficiency stunting its growth the shell may deform, either in the form of sinking, or even pyramiding.

Note however that pyramiding may not in itself not be a problem providing the tortoise’s diet and living conditions are correct and the tortoise is otherwise healthy.

The shell may also quite literally become soft or leathery in appearance and texture (or in the case of a juvenile, not progress beyond being soft or leathery). Keep in mind if you have one that Pancake tortoises naturally have a soft and lightweight shell, therefore this symptom alone isn’t evidence for any particular health problem in this particular species.

Although problems with the shell are the most visually evident sign of soft shell syndrome, the tortoise’s bones themselves may also weaken and deform for exactly the same reasons. In time this may affect the tortoise’s ability to walk or eat due to problems with their jaw bones.

Left untreated soft shell syndrome will ultimately lead to a slow and painful death for the tortoise, so it’s vital to start addressing the problem as soon as you suspect it.

Risk Factors For Soft Shell Syndrome

You might well have the best intentions with your tortoise, and it can be puzzling when problems do occur.

The classic head scratcher as far as soft shell syndrome goes is that the owner believes they are providing a bountiful supply of calcium, yet the tortoise’s soft shell persists.

The trouble is usually that the other key component in calcium metabolization (UV light) is either inadequate in its intensity or isn’t available for long enough.

Remember that both UV light and calcium are needed for the tortoise to be able to make use of the calcium, and an imbalance of either can cause problems.

The effectiveness of UV light can for example be reduced if a clear perspex screen is placed between the bulb and the tortoise. The key is to have pure, unobstructed or filtered light for 8 to 10 hours per day.

That’s not the end of the story though, because as we know tortoises also require sufficient basking heat, and one of the reasons is again to aid in the metabolization of vitamin D3 and hence the absorption of calcium.

So as you can see there’s a fairly delicate balance of conditions that must be maintained in order to optimise calcium absorption, and just one iffy link in the chain can cause the whole process to fail.

Treatment of Soft Shell Syndrome

Home Treatment

If your tortoise is suffering from soft shell syndrome but is still able to eat and drink then you will be able to slowly but surely remedy the problem yourself.

Because we know soft shell syndrome is primarily a symptom of calcium deficiency, the temptation is to simply bombard the tortoise with additional calcium in their diet, which won’t be particularly pleasant for them thanks in part to the bitter taste.

The first thing to do is make sure their overall diet and living conditions are correct. It’s critical that correct levels of UVB lighting provided throughout the day, either from a UV lamp or natural sunlight. Critique your setup to determine if shade is blocking out sunlight, or if your UV bulb is insufficient (remember strip lamps provide the best coverage)

It’s well known that most of the store bought salads that owners give to their tortoises don’t provide the same level of well rounded nutrition that tortoises receive in the wild, so you should try and introduce plants such as dandelion clover to provide a more balanced diet.

Besides food, a good quality calcium supplement is also a must, however there are a few considerations to bear in mind before you start grinding up egg shells or buying a calcium supplement designed for people.

The problem is that many sources of calcium come in the form of compounds where the calcium is bound to another mineral that isn’t always desirable. For example calcium phosphate based compounds contain phosphorus, which is already abundant in the salad leaves that tortoises consume.

Your best bet is to use a pure calcium carbonate supplement. According to the manufacturers it isn’t possible to ‘overdose’ on this form of calcium, so you can provide it alongside the tortoises food on a daily basis. Again though, don’t go overboard, just a light sprinkling of powdered calcium carbonate over the tortoise’s salad leaves is perfectly adequate.

Some owners have reported success with adding small amount of calcium carbonate powder to bathing water. This might prove useful if your tortoise is reluctant to ingest the calcium orally  as he or she will theoretically be able to take some in through their back passage as well.

Other sources of calcium including cuttlefish bone or ‘tortoise block’, (which is essentially a compressed block of calcium based compounds), are not an ideal source of calcium for a number of reasons, however because tortoises don’t tend to nibble at them too often there probably isn’t much harm in having them in the tortoise enclosure.

It is always best to use a powdered calcium carbonate supplement alongside other forms of supplementation.

Veterinary Treatment

If you’re concerned that your tortoise isn’t responding to your efforts, or indeed isn’t eating very much at all in combination with a soft shell,  then it’s time to seek the assistance of a vet.

Your vet will be able to carry out various tests to determine whether or not your tortoise has an impeded ability to metabolise calcium correctly or another issue causing soft shell and bone.

Treatment may include vitamin D3 injections alongside additional calcium supplementation, in effect artificially replicating the natural biological processes usually enabled by UV light and a varied, healthy diet.  

How Can You Prevent Soft Shell Syndrome?

An unfortunate fact about soft shell syndrome is that once its effects have caused deformity, particularly pyramiding, in some instances it can never be reversed. Whilst the tortoise won’t necessarily suffer as a result, it can be a constant reminder that you didn’t take the best care over him or her that you could have.

So prevention really is better than cure when it comes to soft shell syndrome. Although maintaining the right living conditions and diet is of critical importance, it doesn’t need to be difficult. Once you’ve developed the right routine whereby you’re ticking all the right boxes to the best of you your knowledge then just like anything else, it’s simply a case of maintaining it.  

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