All terrapins, turtles and tortoises have shells that vary hugely in terms of shapes, sizes and colours, that’s what makes them so individual and adorable. Did you know that not all turtles have hard shells? There are three soft-shelled turtle varieties. The hard shell provides protection, but with the vast array of different patterns and species, it can be hard for any keeper to know what is normal.
In this article, we will outline the main problems that can occur in hard shell turtles and tortoises.
There are two parts to the shell, the bottom shell known as the plastron and the top or upper shell called the dorsal. Both shells in adults are hard but remember that in some species juveniles’ shells harden over age.
The shells of both turtles and tortoises develop in sections known as “Scutes”. Scutes are made of a protein called keratin and they shed and re-grow during the natural process of shell renewal. The spine and ribs are attached to the carapace which is underneath the scutes. Blood vessels and nerve endings are attached to the keratin layer, which means that it can bleed.
During the natural process of shedding, you should notice new scutes underneath. If your turtle or tortoise’s dead scutes are dropping off rapidly, this could indicate that an infection has occurred, or the shell has been damaged in some way. If in doubt consult a vet ASAP.
Shell rot (ulcerative shell disease)
You will generally know the look and appearance of your own turtle or tortoise. If you noticed any pitting, whitish patches, the lifting of the scute or just a different colouring to the main shell, then it is likely you have a shell infection, commonly called shell rot.
There are many reasons why this may have occurred, it could follow a minor injury or be down to the environment they live in. It is vital that your tortoise or turtle’s environment is kept clean and dry, plus water is replaced regularly. Fungal bacteria can grow easily and rapidly in the right conditions.
You need to act quickly and get your turtle or tortoise to the vet, if left too long shell rot can rot away the scutes and expose vital organs, which may prove fatal. Don’t panic as it can be treated quickly and easily if caught early enough, but do not delay your visit to the vets. Depending on the severity of the shell rot, it may take quite a long time to heal.
SCUD (septicaemic cutaneous ulcerative disease)
SCUD, for short, occurs when shell rot accesses the tortoise or turtle’s body and is carried in the blood stream to vital organs. It is a serious condition that needs urgent attention. It usually begins with an injury or impact to the shell, which then becomes infected with bacteria.
The signs are simpler to the above, but you may notice that your tortoise or turtle may become very lethargic and off its food, also check for red spots on the shell or body. Do not waste valuable time if you are unsure get them checked out.
Tortoise Shell Pyramiding
Some tortoise and turtle species have peaks on their shells rather than all smooth scutes, this can make it particularly hard to pick up pyramiding of the shell. This only occurs on the top part of the tortoise and turtle’s shell and refers to scutes that have grown or are growing abnormally and in the shape of very small pyramids, hence the name.
This condition impacts the mobility and in extreme cases of disfigurement can impact fertility. This condition does not generally impact turtles and tortoises in the wild but is thought to come from a calcium deficiency in diet or from poor UVB lighting. In some circumstances it maybe a combination.
There is no cure for this condition, but you should take action to prevent further issues. You should completely review your turtle or tortoise diet and enclosure, making sure you have looked at every element, critically.
Pyramiding refers to the abnormal changes that can occur to individual scutes, leading to a pyramid shaped or peaked appearance. This generally comes about due to inappropriate provision of UVB lighting or not enough calcium in the diet. This is not generally a problem that affects turtles and tortoises in the wild.
These pyramids can take a reasonably long time to form, and so you may not realise at first that there is a problem. Correcting the diet or lighting provision of your pet will prevent further issues, but once a turtle or tortoise has pyramiding, these will not go away even when the pet is kept in the optimum conditions.
Recent studies show that this is particularly prevalent in Hermann’s tortoises and Sulcatas tortoises.
Metabolic bone disease or Soft Shell
Metabolic bone disease is caused by a lack of calcium or Vitamin D. Calcium is a vital nutrient that promotes heathy bones and shell, vitamin D promotes the consumption of calcium. A lack of either can lead to the softening of the shell over time, plus the potential risk of broken bones. It is vital that you ensure your tortoise or turtle has a clean environment, is eating the right balanced diet containing pellets, fresh foods and calcium. Adequate UVB lighting may also have an impact.
Whether you have a Hermann, Sulcata, Leopard tortoise, Red-footed tortoise, Indian Star tortoise, African Spur-thighed tortoise or a Musk Turtle, you can see that accidents or illnesses can occur. Make sure you protect your pet and take out insurance. This will ensure you don’t need to worry about that visit to the vets.
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