Signs a Tortoise is Dying – And Causes of Death in a Tortoise

Red-Footed Tortoise

When it comes to cute but quiet pets, tortoises have become extremely popular in recent times. Nevertheless, unlike other cute pets like cats and dogs, tortoises live for a very, very long time. In fact, before thinking about getting a tortoise as a pet, it is worth considering that these reptiles can live for over a hundred years in some cases! This means your tortoise will more than likely outlive you. With this little thought in mind, be prepared to make a lifelong commitment should you choose to buy one.

Having said that, tortoises are susceptible to certain illnesses, some of which can be fatal. It is important therefore to be alert to the symptoms of illness and signs that your tortoise might be dying. Below are a few signs of illness in a pet tortoise that, if left untreated, could lead to much more serious problems.


While inactivity in a tortoise is often a result of hibernation, lethargy is not the same thing. A lethargic tortoise will want to move about but will find it difficult. It may be down to a loss of muscle mass caused by vitamin or mineral deficiency, or it could be that illness has made them weak.

A lack of calcium in a tortoise’s diet can result in an illness known as metabolic bone disease (MBD). This is why it is essential that tortoises in captivity are offered calcium supplements. They basically need them to ensure they are getting sufficient amounts as they do not always get enough from food.

In addition to these supplements though, it is necessary for tortoises to have correct exposure to UV light (both UVA and UVB). They need this light to allow their body to covert vitamin D2 to vitamin D3, which then allows for the absorption of calcium through their gastrointestinal tracts.

Metabolic bone disease in a tortoise results in a soft shell that does not grow properly. Tortoises affected by MBD will also suffer from soft and weak bones that make it difficult for them to walk. Without treatment for MBD, a tortoise will die a slow and more than likely very painful death.

Abnormal Shell

As mentioned above, diseases such as MBD can result in a deformed shell. But tortoises can also suffer injury to their shell that can then result in infection. It is important then to take care when lifting your tortoise because if you accidentally drop it there is a chance the shell could chip, which can lead to bleeding.

If your tortoise resides outdoors, there is always a risk of animal attacks. Dogs and foxes pose a threat to outdoor tortoises. While a tortoise’s shell does provide some protection, it cannot guarantee absolute safety. Tortoises can end up being seriously injured in animal attacks, and even if you cannot see any obvious signs of injury, it is important to have yours checked over by a vet. Fox or dog bites could introduce bacteria, which can then result in illness.

Shell rot is another problem for tortoises, often caused by incorrect environmental conditions. However, this can also come about because of damage to the shell.

When bacteria, fungus, or other pathogens gain access to a tortoise’s shell, it can result in shell rot. Symptoms of shell rot include:

  • softening or even lifting of shell plates
  • unpleasant smell or discharge
  • visible reddish fluid under shell plates
  • exposed tissue from plates falling off.

It is essential therefore to keep the humidity levels in your tortoise’s enclosure at the correct level (if yours resides indoors). If your tortoise hails from a humid environment, it could suffer shell problems if its enclosure is allowed to become too dry.

A healthy tortoise will have a shell that is both firm and smooth. If you notice abnormalities or damage coupled with other signs of illness such as labored breathing or lethargy, it is crucial that you seek advice from a vet as soon as possible. The sooner your tortoise is examined – and treated if necessary – the better the chance that it will recover.

Loss of Appetite

As with any other animal, a tortoise is likely to go off its food if it is sick. Nevertheless, illness is not the only reason yours might stop eating. Hibernation is a time when tortoises slow down their metabolism and become inactive. They obviously do not eat during the hibernation process.

Nonetheless, it should be clear when a tortoise is not eating because of hibernation and when it has stopped eating because of illness.

If your pet is not eating and seems to be having trouble breathing and/or walking, it is likely that an infection or other illness is the culprit. If you spot signs of illness coupled with a loss of appetite, contact a vet as soon as possible.

Weight Loss

A tortoise will inevitably lose weight if it is not eating, but it is not always easy to tell how much food your pet is eating. It is a good idea then to keep a track of your tortoise’s weight (if at all possible). You Might be able to tell if there is a marked difference in weight when you pick up your tortoise.

A healthy tortoise feels heavy and sturdy whereas a tortoise that has lost weight through illness will feel quite light. Weight loss often indicates illness; tortoises that are close to death will be very weak and light.

Labored Breathing

Tortoises are prone to respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. One of the main symptoms of such an illness is labored breathing. If your tortoise appears to be panting or wheezing, it is vital to seek expert help as soon as possible. Pneumonia can be fatal for tortoises, so early intervention is necessary.

Sunken Eyes

The eyes of a tortoise can tell a lot about their health. A healthy tortoise will have clear, bright eyes but those of an ill tortoise will be dull and lifeless. If a tortoise’s eyes look sunken, this is clear indication of ill-health so veterinary advice should be sought immediately.

Other Causes of Death in Tortoises

Although illness is the biggest cause of death in pet tortoises, there are other reasons these wonderful creatures can die. Although most tortoise owners have the best intentions of their pet at heart, many do not fully understand the needs of their pet, and unfortunately, insufficient diet can often be a cause of death for a tortoise.


New tortoise owners should do as much research as possible in terms of the correct type of food for their particular tortoise species as well as how much and how often to feed them. For example, baby tortoises will require smaller meals but need to be fed more often than adults.

As mentioned, the type of tortoise that you have will also play a role in the type of food it eats. Furthermore, the time of year is also something that needs consideration. Some tortoises need to hibernate every year for normal growth and wellbeing while other species never hibernate.

Another point worth mentioning is the fact that tortoises can be aggressive creatures and if you have more than one, there is a risk that one of them is not getting enough food. A smaller, weaker tortoise may be finding it difficult to get the sustenance it requires, so this is something you need to keep an eye on. If you spot competition between your tortoises, it is probably best to feed them separately.


While underfeeding and incorrect foods can lead to premature death, overfeeding can also be an issue. Tortoises can and will eat too much. If this occurs, it can result in a body that grows quicker than the shell. If this happens, it can affect your tortoise’s breathing, blood flow, and general movement. In extreme cases, it can result in death. It is essential then to track your tortoise’s weight regularly, especially when it is young.

Incorrect Enclosure Conditions

The correct heat and lighting are essential for the wellbeing of your tortoise, but it is also important to clean the enclosure regularly. If your pet’s enclosure is too warm, damp, and dirty, there is a major risk of harmful bacteria proliferating, which can obviously result in illness. It is best to get into a routine of cleaning your tortoise’s enclosure fully at least once a week.


A healthy tortoise will live for an awfully long time, but there are many causes of premature death in these reptiles. It is vital to provide the right care and attention for yours. This means ensuring its enclosure is kept at the correct temperature, that it gets sufficient amounts of UV lighting, and that humidity levels are correct for the species of tortoise you own.

In addition to enclosure conditions, you must feed the correct type of food and make sure that your tortoise is not being under- or overfed.

Remember, even with the best will in the world, there is no guarantee that your pet tortoise will never develop an illness or injury. It is essential therefore to be alert to the signs of illness and that you act accordingly if illness does strike. If you are worried about the health and wellbeing of your pet tortoise, call your local vet for advice.

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When not researching and writing about weird and wonderful animals, Lisa enjoys spending time with her 'two' families: her husband and 3 kids, and her 3 dogs, Sooty the cat, Frank the terrapin, and Bob the bearded dragon.

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