Compared to the numerous mammalian species you normally encounter, such as dogs and cats, desert tortoises have relatively limited means of expression. To make matters worse, they hide out in their burrows for extended periods of time and are mostly quiet. Furthermore, they can pull their legs and head back into their shell as a safety precaution when startled, so all that remains visible are their shell and the armor-like aspects of their front and hind limb scales. So, how we can tell if a tortoise is sick?
When your physician does an exam, simply asking you questions makes the task much more straightforward. Wildlife veterinarians, on the other hand, have to be much more clever and creative in using indirect measures of health. Some steps included in a routine desert tortoise health check are:
Is the tortoise behaving as expected? Is it alert to its surroundings? A tortoise that is letting its head hang and does not react to the examiner may be suffering from general debilitation
The tortoise’s size is determined based on its shell length, using calipers. The size is an indicator of the age group of a tortoise. All desert tortoises over 20 centimeters (about 7.9 inches) are categorized as adults. It is difficult to determine the actual age of a tortoise unless you know the hatch date. The rings on the scutes of the shell are a poor indicator of age. A regular-size adult desert tortoise weighs about 5.5 to 8.8 pounds (2.5 to 4 kilograms).
3) Body condition score
This is an indicator to determine the muscle and fat mass of a tortoise. A desert tortoise with a prominent bony ridge on the top of its head is severely under condition, whereas one that cannot retract its head and limbs into its shell due to abundant subcutaneous fat stores is well over condition.
The shell of a tortoise is a specialized modification of skin. It contains nerves, blood vessels, and bone and is sensitive to trauma as well as metabolic derangements. The latter can be caused by an unbalanced diet and/or lack of natural sunlight or imitations thereof leading to soft and/or malformed shells.
The nares are inspected for exudate (runny nose) and erosions. Depending on the type and severity of the exudate, the tortoise may be suffering from an upper respiratory tract disease. Erosion around the nares indicates a more chronic disease process
6) Oral cavity
The mucous membranes of the oral cavity are examined for a healthy pink color, and the tongue is examined for presence of erosions and/or plaques. Tortoises with yellow, casseous plaques on their tongue may be suffering from a viral or bacterial infection.
7) Coelomic cavity palpation
By carefully pressing fingers into the soft skin area near the hind legs and into the shell cavity, an experienced examiner can determine whether there are masses in the coelomic cavity. Masses may include eggs or urinary bladder stones.
Why don’t we take their temperature? Tortoises, as other reptiles, are ectotherms: they do not control their body temperature as consistently as mammals but rely on environmental sources to regulate internal heating and cooling.
Identifying unhealthy tortoises is an important task at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas for individual animal and population health. The Center temporarily houses almost 2,000 tortoises, and each individual has to have a health check at least once a year. The goal is to release the tortoises into their native habitat, the Mojave Desert, to increase the wild population numbers. However, only healthy animals can be released to increase their chance of survival and minimize the risk of spreading disease. Unhealthy individuals are treated by San Diego Zoo Global veterinary medical staff.
Josephine Braun, D.V.M., is a scientist in San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories.