Why Does My Tortoise Look Dry?

Dry skin is a common problem not just for humans, but also for animals. If you’ve noticed that your tortoise has been looking dry lately, there’s likely no cause for concern, and there are a variety of ways to alleviate the issue.

So why does my tortoise look dry? The most likely reason is simply dehydration, but dry skin in tortoises can also point to metabolic bone disease, which can be deadly. 

In this article, we’ll discuss dehydration symptoms and a variety of ways that you can rehydrate your tortoise at home. You’ll also be able to read up on metabolic bone disease and a few other common skin conditions that tortoises are susceptible to.

Dehydration

The most common reason for tortoises to have dry skin is simply that they’re dehydrated. Just because tortoises are terrestrial doesn’t mean they don’t need plenty of water! Dehydration indicates either a lack of available water or refusal to drink water the way it is being offered.

Read on to learn about other symptoms of dehydration in tortoises and some home remedies that should be helpful in treating your tortoise’s dry skin.

Symptoms of Dehydration

Aside from the dry skin you’ve noticed, there are several other signs that can point to your tortoise being dehydrated. These include:

  • Thick mucus coming from the mouth
  • Sunken eyes
  • Tearing eyes
  • Loss of appetite leading to becoming underweight
  • Lethargy and lack of interest in normal activity
  • Dry feces
  • White or thick urine, or less urine than usual
  • Muscular tissue that feels loose or baggy

Reptile veterinarians report that dehydration is extremely common–it actually affects the majority of tortoises! Luckily, there are several ways to help your tortoise rehydrate.

Hydration Soaks

Hydration soaks are one of the most common ways to treat dehydration in tortoises. You’ll need a large plastic storage tub. Fill it with warm water that will reach about halfway up your tortoise’s shell and place your tortoise in the tub for about 15 minutes to a half hour.

Although many tortoise owners have reported their pets don’t seem to mind if the water cools off after a bit, there are a couple of ways you can keep the water warm. Either place it on a heat pad or outdoors in the sun to maintain the water’s warmth. 

One hydration soak typically won’t be enough to rehydrate your tortoise completely. Repeat the process every couple of days until symptoms are gone. These soaks are also very helpful in loosening the dry skin so that it falls off easily–make sure not to try to pick it off yourself, as you’re more likely to cause injury to your pet than you are to help it. 

Electrolyte Baths

These are very similar to hydration soaks, but have added electrolytes that can speed the hydration process along. You can purchase Pedialyte, Gatorade, or any other electrolyte supplement at the store, or you can make your own electrolyte solution using ingredients that you already have at home. 

Here is a simple recipe for an electrolyte solution. Keep in mind that this is a bulk recipe which you can store away for months in a sealed container and use as needed.

  • 1 part table salt (sodium chloride)
  • 1 part salt substitute (potassium chloride)
  • 1 part baking soda 
  • 2 units sugar

For a full strength electrolyte bath, use 2.5 teaspoons of your Pedialyte, Gatorade, or homemade solution per quart or liter of water. For a half strength electrolyte bath, you’ll want to mix 1 to 1.25 teaspoons of the electrolyte supplement per quart or liter of water. 

Just like the hydration soaks, fill a plastic storage tub to the level of halfway up your tortoise’s shell with your electrolyte and water mixture, and let your tortoise soak for 15 minutes to a half hour. Repeat as needed until symptoms subside. 

Lotions and Creams

After a hydration soak or electrolyte bath, a way to keep the moisture in and avoid evaporative loss is to gently apply a small amount of unscented hand lotion or baby oil to particularly dry areas. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way with these products, and to only apply them directly after a bath or soak for best results. 

Adding Moisture to Your Tortoise’s Diet

Of course, it is always important to keep a water bowl with clean water in your tortoise’s enclosure. That said, Make sure to wash the bowl and replace the water daily so your pet always has access to it. Dirty water can spread bacteria and make your tortoise sick, so be sure to stay on top of this (as well as regular cage cleaning)!

You’ll also want to avoid using dry pellets as a major part of your tortoise’s diet. These simply do not provide the same kind of moisture that naturally comes along with fresh plants and fruit. Offer your tortoise foods such as dark, leafy greens (for example, kale, mustard greens, or collard greens) and be sure to pre-soak them first to add even more moisture. 

Peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, and cauliflower are other options that most tortoises really enjoy. Mist them generously with water to help your tortoise rehydrate. You can also serve your pet foods that have a naturally high moisture content, such as melons and other fruits, but only offer fruit every few days. 

Increasing Humidity

While experts report that increasing the humidity in your tortoise’s enclosure doesn’t necessarily help it to rehydrate, it can keep dehydration from getting worse. This is a good measure to put in place along with your hydration soaks or electrolyte baths to maintain the progress that you’ve achieved.

Metabolic Bone Disease

Another possible cause of dry skin in tortoises, especially on the top of the head, is Metabolic Bone Disease. This is a health issue that results from a lack of UV light exposure and/or calcium.

After suffering from these deficiencies, your tortoise will begin to absorb calcium from its own skeleton and shell so that it’s able to continue functioning normally. But eventually this has very negative effects and can even be fatal. 

This disease is sadly pretty common in the reptile community because these pets rely on their owners to provide the correct diet, temperature, calcium, and UV light. Without these, there will be problems with hormonal control, neurological and muscular activity, and skeletal growth.

Other symptoms of metabolic bone disease to look out for include a rubbery shell, softening of the jaw, a jerky gait, muscle tremors, lethargy, seizures, and partial paralysis.

If you believe your tortoise could be suffering from this illness, take it to the vet immediately! Don’t wait until your tortoise is completely incapacitated because it may be too late to treat the disease at that point. It’s extremely important to take your pet in for professional treatment in this case.

Other Tortoise Skin Problems

Aside from dryness, here are a few other common skin problems that tortoises can suffer from.

Breeding Injuries

These occur when a male tortoise aggressively bites a female in order to keep her from running away so that they can mate. Although these bites typically don’t do too much damage, sometimes they do cause bleeding. In this case, it’s necessary to house the tortoises separately during the healing process, and contact your vet to see if any special treatment is needed.

Myiasis (Fly Strike)

If your tortoise spends a lot of time outdoors, this is an issue you should be on the lookout for. When tortoises spend time outside, this can actually cause loose stool, which attracts blowflies to the skin around the tail. These blowflies may then lay maggot eggs. When they hatch, they immediately burrow into your tortoise’s skin, releasing dangerous toxins.

Myiasis requires immediate veterinary care, as it can be deadly. Your vet will use tweezers to remove the maggots, and then will clean the area and add antibiotic powder. Sometimes fluid therapy will also be used to kill any toxins that have built up in your tortoise’s system. 

Abscesses

It’s a relatively frequent occurrence for tortoises to injure themselves while wandering around, and if these injuries are left untreated, abscesses can develop. The most common area for abscesses to form is on the side of the head. Examine your tortoise regularly for injury; if abscesses occur, they need to be removed surgically by a reptile veterinarian. 

Conclusion

When your tortoise has dry skin, it’s very likely that it is dehydrated. Hydration soaks, electrolyte baths, lotions and creams, increased humidity, and adding moisture to your pet’s diet are all great ways to rehydrate your tortoise.

However, if your pet is showing other worrisome symptoms like muscle tremors or a rubbery shell, it’s time to take your tortoise to the vet because it may have Metabolic Bone Disease. When caught early, this disease can usually be treated, but can otherwise be fatal–so don’t delay in getting your tortoise expert treatment!

Breeding injuries, myiasis, and abscesses are all common skin issues for tortoises. As long as you are attentive and examine your tortoise for any abnormalities on a regular basis, you should have nothing to worry about!

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