Have you ever taken a close look at your pet tortoise’s waste, expecting to see the normal urine and feces that generally comes with having pets, only to find clumps of white discharge mixed in with your tortoise’s urine? The first time you experience this it might come as a bit of a shock, since other common housepets such as cats and dogs generally don’t do this, but worry not — for tortoises, this is perfectly normal!
So why does my tortoise pee white stuff? Unlike mammals, tortoises naturally have three different kinds of waste — solid feces and liquid urine, which are common among most animals, as well as urates, which are white excrements that have the rough consistency of toothpaste.
In this article, we will break down the basic biology of tortoises to explain the various types of waste you should expect to see, as well as list a few of the signs you can see in your tortoise’s waste that might suggest underlying illness or a necessary trip to the vet. In addition, we will give a few tips on how to keep your tortoise’s diet healthy and diverse to ensure that they have no trouble processing nutrients or passing waste.
Normal Tortoise Waste
Like most other animals, tortoises do urinate and defecate as part of their way of ridding their bodies of food byproducts and toxins. This is generally not a surprise to new tortoise owners; however, what may come as a surprise is a third waste byproduct that comes along with the first two.
Aside from urine, tortoises also produce a waste product called urates, which are part of a natural byproduct of your tortoise digesting the protein that makes up part of their daily diet. Urates will generally range from a stark white to a very pale yellow in color, and can be anywhere from the consistency of toothpaste to very thin and watery.
The appearance of your tortoise’s urates depend largely on how much protein makes up their diet, as well as how much water they drink on a daily basis. The more water your tortoise drinks, the thinner and less toothpaste-like their urates will be.
When your tortoise eats protein, their body will metabolize that protein to use as energy for growth or movement, and will then filter any remaining byproducts through the blood into your tortoise’s kidneys.
From there, the byproducts turn into a liquid called uric acid, which then is concentrated into urates (this concentration is what gives urates their thick consistency). These urates are stored in the bladder and then passed out of the body as waste at the same time that your tortoise urinates, making it look as though the white or pale yellow discharge is part of its regular urine.
Tortoises also occasionally pass all three types of waste at the same time, and if they do so, it may look as though their feces is white and chalky as well — rest assured, this is nothing out of the ordinary, just your tortoise’s urates passing at the same time as other waste.
When to Worry
Now that we’ve established what your tortoise’s waste should look like when it is healthy, it is important to know what to look out for as a sign that your tortoise is unhealthy, as well.
If you notice that your tortoise has only been passing urates, but not passing its regular waste (this should be evident by the lack of the usual urine and/or feces mixed in with the milky white discharge), then it could be experiencing a blockage that sometimes happens when urates crystallize in the body and prevent the tortoise from eliminating waste like they usually would.
Because urates are insoluble, or cannot be dissolved in water, there is always a risk of buildup in the bladder itself, or bits of urates being deposited into the tissues of the body as they pass from the kidney to the bladder, leading to a disease called gout.
If this happens, first ensure that you are feeding your tortoise a healthy and balanced diet made up of not too much or too little protein, as well as lots of leafy greens and other healthy plants.
If your tortoise is passing urates more than three times a week, lighten up on how much protein you are giving them — too much protein in your tortoise’s diet means their kidneys are working too hard to process and metabolize that protein, which can lead to other health problems down the line.
In addition, one of the biggest implicated factors in tortoises not passing proper waste is poor nutrition or lack of access to water. If you live in a dry, desert climate such as California, Arizona, or the like, you should take extra care to ensure that your tortoise has constant access to clean, cool water in order to keep urates thin and avoid buildup.
If your tortoise is passing gritty, hard, or chunky urates, that is a sign that he is dehydrated and needs to be given water more often.
If your tortoise continues to pass only urates and no urine or feces when given a proper diet, take it to a vet to see what the underlying problem is. In addition to checking the consistency of your tortoise’s waste, you should also be checking to make sure that the urates are the correct color.
Normal urates are white or pale yellow, but darker or more varied colors may indicate underlying disease. If your tortoise is leaving behind dark yellow-brown or greenish-yellow urates along with its waste, this can be a sign of liver disease and you should take your tortoise to a medical professional to be screened for health issues.
Always make sure that you are checking on your tortoise’s droppings regularly so that if any of these signs pop up, you are able to spot it and get your tortoise the help it needs as soon as possible!
Proper Tortoise Diet
In order to make sure your tortoise is passing healthy waste, keep an eye on what you are feeding them! Tortoise diets should pretty much be the same as what they would eat in the wild — this means lots of vegetables and green leafy weeds.
While it is okay to give your tortoise a piece of fruit such as melon slices, apples, strawberries, or the like, try to keep these to a minimum and only give them to your tortoise as a rare snack. Too much sugar in your tortoise’s diet — yes, even “healthy” sugar like the kind found in fruit — can upset their stomach and give them diarrhea.
Balance out any fruity treats you might give to your tortoise with a healthy mix of fiber-rich vegetables and leafy greens so that they don’t get an upset stomach!
Make sure to keep an eye on what type of vegetables you are feeding your tortoise as well. Iceberg lettuce, for example, does not actually give your tortoise much of the nutrients that it needs to be healthy.
Because it is so high in water content and so low in fiber, it may help to rehydrate a thirsty tortoise, but not much else. Instead, try to opt for plants that have more fiber in them, such as richer types of lettuce or kale, collard greens, and dandelions.
You can even toss in some cauliflower, broccoli or bell pepper (green or yellow) for variety! Just remember to keep those additions to a minimum and focus on leafy greens, so that your tortoise’s diet replicates what it would be eating in the wild as closely as possible.
If your tortoise has been leaving behind white, thick droppings along with its urine, this is nothing to worry about. Tortoises, as well as many other reptiles, excrete a third type of waste besides feces and urine known as urates, which are byproducts of their bodies processing and metabolizing protein.
These urates may sometimes mix with urine or feces in the process of eliminating waste, and can make them look white or milky, which is normal as well.
Urates that are about the same (or thinner) thickness and viscosity as toothpaste, as well as any shade between white and pale yellow, indicate a healthy, happy tortoise. If the urates are gritty or lumpy, however, or if they are a darker brown or greenish color, this can signal that there is an underlying health issue, and you should take your tortoise to a vet or other reptile expert.
As always, ensure your tortoise has a healthy and varied diet of lots of leafy greens and fibrous vegetables, with only the rare bit of fruit mixed in as a treat. In addition to this, always give your tortoise easy and constant access to clean cool water so that they do not become dehydrated.