Why Tortoises Get Bladder Stones and How to Prevent and Treat Them

There are several reasons why tortoises get bladder stones, such as periods of dehydration or nutritional imbalances. Sometimes, the causes are linked with underlying diseases. Thankfully bladder stones can be removed through surgery. 

Just like any other pet, tortoises are prone to certain health conditions. Although bladder stones are something you might not associate with tortoises, they certainly can develop them, and unfortunately quite frequently do.

Bladder stones can cause changes to a tortoise’s urinating and pooping habits. So if stones develop one of the first things you may notice is your tortoise carrying out these actions less frequently than before. This does take some careful observation given that they don’t tend to wee and poop all that often in the first place.

Whilst going to the toilet less frequently might seem innocuous enough, if this is a sign of bladder stones, then it is cause for concern. Bladder stones can be extremely painful, and they can even be fatal if left untreated.

But why do tortoises get bladder stones? Can they be prevented? More importantly, can they be treated if a tortoise is already dealing with bladder stones? Let’s delve in and get some answers to these questions.

Why Do Tortoises Get Bladder Stones?

As mentioned, tortoises get bladder stones for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s the owner’s fault for not knowing how to properly care for their tortoise, or it’s because of the particular tortoise species being more prone to them, or being more difficult to care for. Here are some possible reasons why bladder stones may begin to form in tortoises:

  • Dehydration

Dehydration is one of the most common reasons why tortoises get bladder stones. Not drinking enough water can lead to this issue. In captivity, this occurs when the tortoise is either not offered enough water, or it isn’t offered food with a high enough water content. 

Sadly, many people think that water is not needed by tortoises and that they take all the water they need from their food. In reality a tortoise should have access to fresh water all the time, even more so than food.  

When tortoises urinate or defecate, they produce a pasty white substance known as urates, which is essentially the equivalent of urine in humans.

Urates are formed as the result of protein digestion in reptiles, and when there’s too much, it may crystallize further up the urinary tract of the tortoise. Stones may then start to form as a result. 

Being sufficiently hydrated helps ensure your tortoise’s urates are diluted and less prone to forming crystals.

  • Improper Diet

A poor diet can also result in bladder stones. Most of the time, tortoises eat plants and vegetables – this should make up the bulk of their diet. However, if they have too much protein in their diet, urate production will be boosted, and therefore the chances of developing bladder stones increase as well. 

Keep in mind that most species require only a very small amount of protein, which they will obtain from the plants they eat. The only commonly kept species that requires a small amount of animal protein are red foot (or yellow foot or cherry head) tortoises. Even then, only the occasional earthworm or small mouse is sufficient.

  • Species

Some species are more prone to bladder stones than others. For instance, desert-adapted tortoises will produce more uric acid as a waste product, and they may drink less water, which makes them even more likely to develop stones.

Although any tortoise species can develop stones, species from arid climates such as the Sonoran desert tortoise, leopard tortoise and African spurred tortoise (Sulcata tortoise) are among the species most likely to suffer from this condition when all other risk factors are eliminated.  

  • Underlying Conditions

There may also be underlying conditions that might lead to bladder stones in tortoises. For instance, there might be certain liver profile changes that cause the bladder stones to form or some hematological and biochemical abnormalities. 

Such issues are obviously hard to foresee for the lay observer, but if you have any concerns it would be well worth having a vet do some tests to rule out these conditions.

If it turns out your tortoise does have conditions that may be a predisposition for bladder stones, you can then adapt your care accordingly.

What Are the Symptoms of Bladder Stones in Tortoises?

It may be difficult to figure out that your tortoise has bladder stones, especially if they are very small. In some cases, tortoises may not show any symptoms at all. 

Still, when they occur, beyond changes in toilet habits, symptoms include nasal discharge, lethargy, and lameness in the back legs.

Other symptoms that instantly tell you that the tortoise may have bladder stones include the inability to lay eggs, poor appetite, and straining when having bowel movements.

When a bladder stone puts too much pressure on the bladder and surrounding tissues, the tortoise’s back legs may become paralyzed. Worse still, the issue can progress, and some tortoises may even perish because of their bladder stones. 

How Can You Prevent Bladder Stones?

If you know how to take care of your tortoise properly, then nine times out of ten you will be able to prevent bladder stones before they affect your pet. 

One thing you should do is, of course, is to your tortoise a proper, balanced diet. The diet should contain a pretty large percentage of edible weeds and flowers, while there should be fewer green, leafy vegetables.

To reiterate the point, too much protein will increase the risk of bladder stones. 

At the same time, you should also endeavor to meet their hydration requirements. This means that besides food with a high water content, you should also provide a seperate shallow dish of water for drinking. The tortoise should have fresh water available at all times. 

In addition you should soak (bathe) your tortoise at least once per week, as they will also take on water through their cloaca (back passage!). This can be especially useful in tortoises that appear to stubbornly refuse to drink enough.

Look for any signs of discomfort or changes in behavior from your tortoise. If you notice fewer bowel movements, inability or reduced ability to move the back legs, or lethargy, you should evaluate your care regime and make any necessary changes immediately.  

How to Treat Bladder Stones? 

There is nothing you can do to treat bladder stones at home. You cannot have them dissolved with the aid of medication like you can in mammals. Unfortunately invasive surgery is usually required.

Therefore, when you think that bladder stones are making your tortoise suffer, you must take it to the vet. 

The vet will likely take an X-ray, do some bloodwork and urine analysis in order to determine the presence of bladder stones, and the reasons why they have occurred. If there are any underlying causes, they will likely have to be dealt with before the surgery to remove the stone or stones.

If any other issues are solved, the pet will have to go through bladder stone removal surgery. In some cases, it is possible to remove the bladder stone by manipulation through the cloaca. In others, there will be an incision made in the inguinal skin. It may also be necessary to remove a portion of the shell temporarily to access the bladder and remove the stones. 

After the surgery, if part of the shell was removed, an epoxy patch will be used to hold the cut shell in place for healing, and it may have to be changed several times until fully healed.

As the tortoise recuperates there may be a need for tube feeding and injectable fluids for nutritional support. To make the tortoise feel better, some pain relievers may be prescribed as well.

In some cases, special medicine might be prescribed to stimulate defecation, whereas in others the tortoise will need to be hospitalized for a few days until they can urinate and defecate regularly again. 

Sometimes, stones can recur months or even years after the initial affliction. Therefore, there should be a specific protocol followed to prevent this from happening.

A combination of proper hydration and nutrition will help. Your vet can give you more tips on what to do as well. 

Final Thoughts

Just as we humans do, tortoises get bladder stones too, and it’s important to know what to do to prevent and treat them properly.

Ensure you don’t let this issue go untreated and as soon as you notice any symptoms, or what you suspect to be symptoms, take your tortoise to the vet for evaluation.

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