Some tortoise owners can be alarmed to find that their tortoise’s shell is softening with no apparent cause. Your pet tortoise should have a strong tough and reliable shell. However if you notice your tortoises shell becoming leathery or springy you need to take action to understand the cause and help the animal recover.
So, why is your pet’s tortoise shell soft? There are a few common reasons for a tortoise having a softer shell. 1) The animal is still young. 2) The animal has a nutritional deficiency such as lack of calcium causing MBD (Metabolic bone disease). 3) The animal has a case of shell rot affecting the scutes. 4) The specific species is meant to have a softer shell.
The age of the animal can be a factor, which isn’t really anything to be concerned about. The shell needs a little time to develop as the animal grows. Then there is a much more serious condition called metabolic bone disease. This is where the softness and condition of the shell is a sign of other health issues. Smaller areas of softness and pitting may also be the result of shell rot. It is important to seek medical guidance to rule this out. Finally, we must point out that there are some tortoise species with naturally soft tortoise shells.
The problem is that the question of why your pet tortoise shell is soft is often poorly understood. There is the assumption that a softening of the shell is directly related to a lack of calcium. However, the reality is a little more complex than that. There are also tortoise owners that focus far too much on the condition of the shell and not enough at the health of the whole animal. That is why it is so important to get a better understanding of what soft shell disease really is.
Luckily, this guide is here to help and can explain these issues in more depth. We will look at the wider symptoms of MBD to look out for and some of the best ways to treat it. We will also look at other possible tortoise soft shell causes and that issue of age. By the end, you should be better equipped to deal with a softening tortoise shell.
You tortoise may simply not be old enough to have its full, strong shell yet.
If you have just bought a tortoise and you know that it is a baby, or pretty young, a softer shell isn’t that big an issue. If the shell is the right shape, with no sign of damage, but is softer than expected, this is just a matter of age. The best indicator is if the shell feels springy and more malleable.
The shell is like this for good reason. The tortoise shell needs to grow with the tortoise and this is much easier if the tortoise shell is soft. You will notice growth rings on the carapace with age as the shell grows and expands to fit the animal. A soft tortoise shell also helps hatchlings to fit inside the egg as they develop. With time, and the right diet and care, the shell will become firm enough.
The dangers of metabolic bone disease.
Some tortoise owners prefer the more accurate term of Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism to explain soft shell symptoms. Whether you want to call it metabolic bone disease or nutritional secondary hyperthyroidism, you need to have a better understanding of the causes and effects of this illness. When a tortoise shell is soft, it doesn’t offer the same protection as a hard shell. This puts the animal at greater risk of injury and trauma.
Why does a tortoise shell soften when they have calcium deficiencies?
We all know from our own human health care that calcium is essential for strong and healthy teeth and bones. Those that have experienced pregnancy may also be aware that the body will send calcium to the places it is most needed when levels are low. Expectant mothers can experience weakened bones and teeth as their babies grow. There is a similar effect with tortoises. A lack of calcium sees their bodies draw more calcium into their bones and away from the shell.
The problems of calcium supplementation.
The immediate response here might be to increase calcium in their diet – assuming that they aren’t ingesting enough. However, the cause may not be that straightforward. The uptake of calcium into the shell can depend on the presence of phosphorus and vitamin D. They need a ratio of 2:1 for calcium to phosphorus. Too much phosphorus and the calcium will still be leached from the shell.
It is all about making sure that they have the right balance of vitamins and minerals through a good diet. Calcium can help, but it needs to be absorbed in the body in the right way first. Some vets will prescribe calcium shots for sick tortoises. Others can help with a better diet plan.
Light therapy could be an additional aid here. Vitamin D helps the body to metabolise calcium correctly. Therefore, increase supplementation may not be effective without light therapy. Vitamin D deficiencies also common if tortoise owners don’t use the correct type of lights with the right UVA wavelength. It has to replicate sunlight.
Symptoms of MBD to watch out for that aren’t all about the shell.
When the tortoise shell softens, this isn’t the first symptom of ill health. By this point, the animal may have also lost weight and had some trouble moving around. Do they feel a lot lighter than normal when you pick them up? Has their bite changed and become a little weaker? Are they struggling to move around as easily as normal?
If you notice these symptoms, you could attempt to change their diet and bring in that light therapy. This might be enough to help them metabolise their diet more easily. The sooner you spot these problems, the better the chance of preventative care.
Are there any long-term effects of this disease?
MBD/NSHT is treatable and can be fully cured with correct, direct action. Animals in the early stages and with minimal damage can recover the firmness of their shell, weight and mobility pretty well. But, there may be severe cases that go untreated when deformities appear in the shell.
Could it be something other than metabolic bone disease?
Soft shell diseases due to deficiencies and poor diet tend to affect the feel of the whole shell. But, there are times when the shell can develop small patches that are softer and don’t seem all that healthy. This could be an indication of shell rot instead. These little pits in the shell can also lead to bleeding and discharge because of the bacterial infection. Leave it untreated and the entire scute of the shell may fall off, putting the animal at greater risk.
The pancake tortoise.
Finally, we should also bring up the fact that different breeds of tortoise have different types of shells. Typically, we see variations in the shape and structure or just the colour patterns on the carapace. But, there are some that different. The Pancake Tortoise is one that is a little odder and its shell is naturally more soft and rubbery. So, if you own one, don’t freak out when they feel soft in your hands.
Take your tortoise for a veterinary examination.
It is surprising how many tortoise owners decide to let things play out when they notice a tortoise shell softening or other issues. We have already mentioned how the wrong supplementation can do little to help the problem. You also risk the problem getting worse or injuries developing. Take your tortoise to the vet, let them perform a professional examination and get a detailed diagnosis. You vet can also advise you on the best course of action moving forward.
Prevention is always better than the cure with tortoise health care.
If you understand the shape and development of your tortoise’s shell, and when it looks wrong or unhealthy, you can avoid major problems. Provide them with a good diet and appropriate lighting from the very start. If you notice any issues, take your tortoise to the vet to get a second opinion. They can perform examinations and tests to rule out major problems and provide a personalized treatment plan for your pet.
In short, why is your pet’s tortoise shell soft?
We can’t immediately assume that if we notice a soft tortoise shell that it indicates MBD. This may lead us to rule out other issues or create a diet plan that they don’t really need. A young tortoise should have a softer shell at first. Also, we can’t afford to wait around when it comes to the health of the tortoise shell. Seek medical attention and correct the problem before it gets out of hand. If they need a new diet plan or light, learn from your mistakes so this doesn’t happen again in the future.