One of the commonest health problems encountered with desert tortoises turned in for adoption is a runny nose, which can have various causes. A clear discharge can result when a desert tortoise is kept in too high a humidity. By keeping the tortoise warm, at 85° to 90° F, the wet nose may dry up on its own. Any given tortoise can have good days and bad days. Stress is a major cause of respiratory infection, so if you observe a clear runny nose, it may be nothing more than a reaction to new surroundings or increased humidity. For instance, one foggy night and my male tortoise will have a runny nose the next day, even though nothing else has changed in his environment.
If a tortoise is eating but seems to be losing weight and has a clear nasal discharge, it may be suffering from parasites. Collect a stool sample and have this analyzed. Internal parasites can be treated with a worming procedure.
A nasal discharge of thick cloudy, whitish or yellowish mucus indicates pneumonia, a bacterial infection or upper respiratory tract disease. These conditions are very serious and immediate medical treatment is indicated, including antibiotic therapy as well as additional warmth.
Bladder stones are seen occasionally and require surgery. Dragging a back leg or limping are common symptoms of this problem. The stones can be removed through a small window cut into the plastron, or through a small incision in the back leg. The incision through the skin heals in about a month.
Egg laying is "true labor" and a certain amount of straining is always involved. But, when you see a tortoise straining severely over the nest for a long time, she may be egg-bound. Eggs that have become too hard to pass need to be pierced with a syringe and the contents withdrawn. The 6 to 12 ping-pong ball sized eggs within the female are something like a cluster of grapes and any abnormality or change in position of one of these eggs may cause binding.
If a tortoise appears bloated, it may be impacted. Gut impaction can result from eating sand or gravel. X-rays can help diagnose this. Mineral oil or vegetable oil, given through a tube or with a syringe, may help pass the blockage. X-rays should be taken every two weeks for two months to insure that all the sand is passed. Perhaps eating sand is the result of something missing from the captive tortoise's diet. We hear reports of wild tortoises eating sand, but what they are actually eating is the fine, silty mineral earth around the base of desert plants. This fine silt has nutritional value and does not seem to cause the impactions that sand and gravel can.
Injuries caused by dogs are common. Cats will usually leave a tortoise alone, but bored or jealous dogs can be wicked. Most often we see wounds caused by chewing on the shell. Puppies are the worst culprits because they will chew on anything. Shell wounds should be carefully washed with an antiseptic such as Betadine. The wound should be covered with a bandage and the tortoise should be moved inside to avoid becoming fly blown.
Tortoise urine contains uric acid crystals. The uric acid builds up and is eliminated periodically. If it is white or off-white and "cheesy", it is normal. If it is pink or gray and smelly, it could mean a bacterial infection and medical attention is needed. Medication itself can temporarily change the color of the solids in urine to a "yucky" brown.
Guidelines on Care of Hatchlings
Tortoises need exercise to keep healthy, so the bigger the terrarium the better! Their terrarium should have tree limbs and rocks for them to climb on and over, to help develop their muscles and coordination and to keep them interested. If you have what I call a sterile terrarium, one with just a piece of indoor-outdoor carpeting and nothing else, you'll have a tortoise which just lies in one corner. I think it's bored!
Packed garden soil is my first choice as substrate. It's most like the desert floor and the hatchlings get to develop their muscles walking on it. Misting lightly with water will help keep it packed and will keep the dust down. Littergreen, which is a compressed alfalfa cat litter, is good. Guinea pig pellets are all right, although they are looser and may not be so good for muscle development. But it can't hurt if eaten. All substrates should be discarded and replaced regularly.
Hatchlings should grow about 1/4 again in size in their first year. More than this and they may be growing too fast. Rapid growth is not a sign of perfect health! In the wild they grow very slowly on meager but nutritious foods. In captivity, huge tortoises with more health problems and a shorter life-span are typical. These captives eat too much "juicy" food and don't get enough exercise.