Tortoises undergo a lot of change as they grow up. If you’ve been doing your due diligence as a responsible tortoise keeper, then most of these changes should be positive ones. Healthy growth is a good indicator of how good your overall husbandry is, or if there is anything that needs to be changed. One such area you’ll be seeing a lot of changes is your tortoise’s skin.
A tortoise’s skin will undergo wear and tear over time, but healthy growth will make sure that any dead skin is eventually replaced. When you notice tortoise skin flaking, then it’s pretty much the skin’s regenerative process in action. Whether it becomes a problem or not is entirely up to how you’ve been taking care of your tortoise up until that point.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at this phenomenon and what it could mean for you and your tortoise. If you have any other health questions about your tortoise check out our in depth article on Tortoise Common Health Problems.
Why is My Tortoise Skin Flaking?
Every once in a while, you may notice your tortoise’s skin or bits of their scales starting to look dull, turn opaque white, or just start to flake off. What you’re seeing is the shedding process. Shedding, otherwise known as sloughing or molting, is a process where an animal, in this case a tortoise, casts off the outer layers of its skin to encourage new skin growth.
Shedding itself is a natural process that many reptiles undergo to accommodate new growth. When tortoises undergo shed, the older skin layer separates from the new skin layer. This process manifests itself as the slight dulling of the colors on your tortoise’s skin.
Unlike other reptiles, like snakes, tortoises don’t shed their entire body in one piece. Usually, tortoises shed in pieces, one body part at a time. You’ll notice shed happening mostly on the head, neck area, and on the legs. Tortoises, unlike their aquatic cousins, don’t shed parts of their shells. However, from time to time, the outer layers of their scutes will get worn down, especially if the tortoise in question likes to dig or scratch their shells against hard surfaces.
Tortoises will also experience flaking skin if they’re healing from any skin injuries, particularly from wounds or fungal infections that have eaten through their skin. Some tortoise species that are territorial, such as the African Spurred Tortoise, will sometimes fight for dominance, and an individual may get wounded in the process.
The natural healing of these wounds pretty much involves the creation of new skin tissue, which in turn will push away any damaged or old skin, hence the flaking on any scars or any healing wounds. The healing process is pretty much the same on injuries to the shell, too, even though the scutes don’t normally shed. If your tortoise has a cracked shell, it will heal from the inside-out, pushing away any old scale matter on the shell to give way to healthier bones and scales.
Is it Safe to Peel Off Flaking Tortoise Skin?
The short answer is no. Never try to peel any flaking skin off your tortoise. Many new tortoise keepers tend to panic whenever they see dead skin peeling off of their pets. As a result, they may end up peeling these pieces of dead skin themselves, which usually causes more harm to the tortoise, despite their keepers meaning well.
The best thing to do in such a scenario is to simply let the shedding process run its course naturally. Any loose piece of skin will simply fall off on its own without any need for you to intervene. If you forcefully peel any of the flaky skin, you may end up opening wounds or causing skin injuries, which will develop into severe infections if not taken care of properly.
If you feel that your tortoise skin flaking has gone on for too long and would want to help it move along quicker, then there are a few things you can do. Soaking your tortoise in tepid water is a good place to start.
Soaking is not only a good way to hydrate your tortoise’s skin, it’s also a chance for your tortoise to have a drink. This is especially helpful if your particular tortoise isn’t too keen on drinking water from a container, which can happen. Soaking helps with the shedding process by softening the dead skin and allowing it to loosen more quickly.
Another way to help with the shedding process is to increase the overall humidity of your tortoise’s enclosure. You can do this by using substrate with good water retention or even using a humidifier.
Problems Associated with Tortoise Skin Flaking
Although tortoise skin flaking is a totally normal biological process, there are a few issues you may need to contend with. Here are just some of those issues.
We already know that tortoises don’t shed their entire skin in one piece. They do so one segment at a time. While one patch of their skin has already shriveled off, a part of it may still be attached to “young” skin. As such, pulling at old skin can rip the young skin off as well, if it’s still attached. This can lead to an open wound, which when left untreated, can lead to a skin infection.
Now, flaking skin being ripped off isn’t always the fault of their owner. Sometimes, tortoises simply get too rowdy for their own good and end up ripping off flaky skin by accident. This can happen while they’re burrowing through their bedding, attempting to climb over fencing, or simply because of fighting with other tortoises.
That said, if you notice a sudden change in the way your tortoise walks or if you notice flies hovering over your tortoise, then it’s likely they have an open wound. Bring them to the vet if that’s the case, so they can inform you on how you can treat your pet.
Another side effect of open wounds is scars. Although tortoises are resilient creatures capable of bouncing back from grievous injury, they do recover very slowly. If they end up getting an open wound, especially one that gets infected, you will be left with a reminder of it for years to come. Wounds that are made worse by fungal infections are particularly bad, since the damage they do can spread, and the scars they cause can cover a huge patch of skin.
Although the skin itself will regenerate over time, any scales that used to be on that patch of skin won’t regrow, especially osteoderms, or scales made of bone.
Older scars will harden over time and can be a lot tougher than the actual skin before it even got the wound. Unfortunately, however, newer scars tend to be a bit more tender, so further skin injuries over new scars are something you’ll need to watch out for.
What to Do with Skin Injury
Regardless of how careful you are when dealing with tortoise skin flaking, skin injuries are sometimes unavoidable. That said, you’ll need to know how to deal with such breaks on your tortoise’s skin. Here are a few ways you can treat tortoise skin injury.
Keep the Area Clean
If you see any breaks on your tortoise’s skin, or even their shell, it’s important that you disinfect the area thoroughly and makes sure to keep it clean. You can wash the wound by first diluting povidone iodine into lukewarm water until it turns into the color of iced tea. You may then wash the area using the solution.
Once the wound is clean, you can then cover the area in order to prevent microbes from causing an infection. You can use Telfa pads for this. In order to keep them from falling off, you can use duct tape to hold the pads in place. Just make sure that you don’t cover the entire pad, since the wound still needs to breathe.
Apply the Necessary Treatment
If you’ve taken your tortoise to see the vet, which is something that you should do after applying first aid, you may be given prescriptions for topical treatment. You will need to apply these at least once a day, or as often as necessary. It’s also vital that you clean the affected area with the povidone iodine solution before you apply the necessary treatment.
For minor infections, Betadine diluted in water may be enough to treat the wound, but you may also use silver sulfadiazine, for a more thorough treatment.
Keep Your Tortoise Enclosure Clean
In order to minimize the risk of your tortoise getting an infection, you’ll need to keep their enclosure clean. Spot clean the habitat for poop daily, and make sure that any leftover food is thrown out by the end of the day. It’s also important that you offer clean water daily.
Although there are far worse problems to tortoise health than flaking skin, it’s vital that you take it as seriously as you would any other issue. Granted, it’s a natural part of growth for any tortoise. Whether your pet goes through it without any issue depends on thorough care and how observant you are to their needs.