Tortoise Injuries: Prevention, Treatment, & Aftercare

Your tortoise getting injured probably isn’t something you want to think about very much, and why would you? It’s not nice to think that our shelled friends might ever come to any harm.

Unfortunately though, in the real world accidents do sometimes happen. Having an idea of a) how you can prevent accidents in the first place, and b) what you need to do if your tortoise suffers from an accident or animal attack is really useful knowledge to have if the worst should happen.

General Advice & Administering First Aid in Tortoises

If your dog decides to throw your tortoise around like a chew toy, or you come home to find your tortoise has escaped his enclosure and fallen down the stairs, the most important thing to do is, or course, not to panic.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the accident or incident your tortoise has been involved in, knowing what to do to in the moments immediately after the event can be critical, so it’s worth knowing a few simple checks and procedures you can carry out, which can ultimately be the difference between life and death. Most critically:

  • Checking that the airway is clear. This is first aid 101 in humans, and there’s no reason why the same shouldn’t apply to your tortoise, after all an obstructed airway can quickly prove fatal. Listen for strange sounds that suggest a blockage, or likewise if any blood, foreign body or misplaced part of the tortoises own body (eg. a broken piece of skin) is preventing the tortoise from breathing. Do whatever you can to remove said obstruction without inflicting further damage.
  • Checking the tortoise is conscious. It’s important to prevent the tortoise from going into shock if you can. Keeping them warm, and away from all sound and stimuli that could cause unnecessary distress is imperative in the interim before you can get to an emergency vet.
  • Applying pressure to wounds that are heavily bleeding to prevent loss of blood is also essential before you’re able to get veterinary help. Use a clean cloth and apply it to the wound, maintaining pressure until help arrives.  

Visible injuries should be treated by a vet as soon as you can get to one, but if you can’t see anything in particular, after a fall for example, just keep a very close eye on the tortoise over the course of the proceeding few days. Make sure their behaviour is normal, and that they continue to eat and drink as per normal.

Tortoise Shell Chipped

Everyday wear and tear on a tortoise’s shell, both on the upper (carapace) and lower (plastron) is relatively common. It stands to reason that these hard structures will exhibit signs of wear over time. However, when I say ‘minor’ I do only mean scratches and very small chips that don’t drastically alter the appearance or structure of the shell.

Things get more serious when noticeable cracks are present on the shell as a result of a fall or encounter with something like a lawn mower for example.

(Not a nice mental image I know, sorry)

Your vet will best be able to tell you what course of action is required in the event of a chip. They may be able to repair it with special veterinary grade epoxy and/or fibreglass.

In any case the most important thing you can do is to take them to the vet to get the treatment they require.

For more information on shell injuries and how to manage them see this article.

Dog Bites and Shell Damage

Dog bites are often far more severe than simple chips, with many documented examples showing entire sections of the shell removed, revealing the tortoises soft internal organs underneath.

Naturally such injuries will need to be treated as a matter of urgency by a vet, with all necessary cleaning, antibiotic treatment and mechanical reconstruction best firmly left in their hands.

Of course preventing dog bite injuries in the first place is the best way to avoid the trauma they bring to everyone involved. If you feel it is safe for your dog and tortoise to be in close quarters, you need to accept that a small risk still exists for your dog to exhibit unexpected behaviour, and you will need to be prepared for it.

To be on the safe side I would keep your dog and tortoise firmly separated at all times.  

Broken Legs in Tortoises

Should your tortoise suffer a broken leg for any reason you’ll probably soon know about it, even if the cause isn’t immediately obvious, because the tortoise will have a noticeable limp, and may even keep the affected leg tucked up in his shell in an effort to protect his limb from further injury.

The good news is that the prognosis for a broken leg is usually pretty good, although you might find your vet has to be creative in making a splint to hold the leg in place whilst it heals, especially if it’s not an injury they come across very often. It might be prudent to seek out the services of a tortoise specialist if you feel your vet is in over their head.

Besides making allowances for your tortoise’s reduced mobility whilst their leg heals, removing any obstructions that make it difficult for them to navigate their enclosure for example, you might also want to add a slightly higher dose of calcium to their diet.

I don’t know the efficacy of doing this, but it certainly won’t hurt to provide more calcium carbonate supplement in your tortoise’s diet. If it helps the bone to fuse and regrow the all the better.

Can a Tortoise Survive With an Amputated Limb?

I remember a cute video doing the rounds online a few years ago showing a tortoise who had lost his or her leg, and it having been replaced with a Lego wheel.

Clearly then a tortoise can survive quite happily with a missing limb with a bit of resourcefulness and ingenuity on the part of the owner and vet!

The major concern if your tortoise has lost a limb to an animal bite is for a vet to treat the wound, both to prevent bleeding and to clean the wound and provide medication to prevent the onset of septicemia. Losing a limb would be small potatoes compared to septicemia, which could well prove fatal if left untreated.

Tortoise Falls From Height

Unfortunately I’ve spoken to people who have first hand experience of their tortoises falling from height, usually from the top of the stairs.

The first thing to say of course, is that it’s important not to put your tortoise in an environment where they might fall. This includes not having sheer drops in your outdoor enclosure -instead having gradual inclines, and it goes without saying, not allowing your tortoise to wander freely around the upper floor of your home!

In the case of the people I’ve spoken to, thankfully their tortoises suffered no ill effects as a result, but again even if no injuries are present you need to keep a close eye on your tortoise. Spinal injuries are a very real possibility, even with the presence of the shell to take the impact of a blow.   

Tortoise Soft Tissue Injuries – Open Wounds

Of course it’s not just the shell that can suffer trauma when your tortoise is attacked or injured in some other way, soft tissue injuries (to the arms and head) are also common.

A vet will obviously be best equipped to dress wounds and treat the tortoise with antibiotics, but if you can’t get to your vet for some time you can clean the wound or wounds with the same antiseptic wipes present in a human first aid kit.

Besides this, be sure to bring your tortoise indoors into a clean environment, away from flies and dirt. If you have a heat and UV lamp, use these for the duration of the tortoise’s stay indoors, and be sure to provide an abundance of food and water.

Tortoises are known for being surprisingly resilient creatures, and with the right treatment they will probably surprise you with how well they’re able to bounce back.

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