What to do if your tortoise can't open his mouth - TortoiseOwner.com

“My Tortoise Can’t Open His Mouth” – Now What?

It can be quite distressing to think that your pet has a health problem and one common symptom in tortoises is an inability to open their mouths. What do you do when this happens? Is it a serious problem?

If your tortoise can’t open his mouth, it might be that his beak is overgrown and you need to get it trimmed. It is also possible that your tortoise’s mouth is closed due to mouth rot or a respiratory infection. In all cases, your tortoise needs to visit the vet for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

So, let’s take a look at the possible causes of a tortoise that can’t open his mouth, how they are treated, and how to prevent all of this so it won’t happen again.

Overgrown Beaks In Tortoise

Your tortoise is very different from you when it comes to the way she eats. You tear and grind your food with your teeth, but tortoises can’t do this. In order to eat, a tortoise will use her beak, grab the food with it and then use the sharp sides to cut through it and simulate chewing.

As you might expect, this can be pretty rough on the beak and in the wild, a tortoise will continuously wear away at their beak as they eat. So, to compensate for this – nature has ensured that a tortoise’s beak will continue to grow throughout their life.

In pet tortoises, however, this can be a bit of a problem. The diets that most pets eat is very different from the natural diet of tortoises and tortoise owners are, understandably, nervous of adding rocks and other hard objects to the animal’s food because these things can cause other health problems.

Without these things in their diet, the tortoise’s beak tends to grow faster than it wears away and this can lead to the beak becoming overgrown and effectively sealing the tortoise’s mouth so that it can’t eat.

Related article: Why do tortoises eat rocks and stones?

It is also possible for an overgrown beak to occur when a young tortoise receives the wrong diet (usually one that is low in calcium but occasionally, one that is too rich in protein) and their skull does not from properly. This can mean that the beak becomes misaligned and thus doesn’t wear naturally when the tortoise reaches adulthood and starts to eat.

Finally, there’s also the unpleasant possibility that the tortoise has had a broken jaw and thus, his beak has become misaligned and no longer wears away.

How To Tell If Your Tortoise Has An Overgrown Beak

The easiest way to tell is to look carefully at your tortoise and see if the beak is overgrown, if you don’t feel competent to make this call – then you need to take your tortoise to see a vet. They may recommend an X-Ray if they feel the problem is being caused by an injury.

How To Treat A Tortoise With An Overgown Beak

There is only one treatment for an overgrown beak – you or a vet need to trim the beak and it is possible that this will need to be a regular occurrence throughout the life of your tortoise. Visit your vet and have them teach you how to trim a tortoise’s beak if you’ve never done it before, though the process is outlined here.

How To Trim A Tortoise’s Beak

You will need a cloth, a white pencil, a pair of cuticle trimmers and a nail file before you begin this process.

  • Wrap your tortoise in cloth – this will stop him from clawing at you while you work and also, he will poop while you do this, it’s best for it not to end up all over you
  • Take a white pencil and mark the beak to where you intend to trim it to – you trim slowly in small steps to ensure you don’t over trim it and to keep both sides equal
  • Hold the tortoise’s head if necessary (it will be if they can retract their head into the shell) – gently hold the space just behind the jawbone on either side but be firm
  • Hold the tortoise with the shell against your chest – your left hand should keep the front legs out of the way and the right hand holds cuticle trimmers to cut the beak with
  • Trim with the tips of the trimmers facing the front of the beak – the beak is quite thick, and the front and it can be tougher to trim there than on the sides
  • Trim up to the line your marked but not beyond – try to avoid catching any skin as you trim as this can lead to a wound which is susceptible to infection
  • Then use a nail file to file the edges – make them as smooth as you can
  • Dispose of the cloth – then give your tortoise a bath to get rid of any poop stuck to him or any little bits of beak that have got stuck to him while you trimmed

It’s worth noting – tortoises do not enjoy this process at all. They will be stressed and off their game for 2-3 days after a beak trim.

If you wonder how reptile keepers tackle this task, then check out the video below:

Can You Prevent An Overgrown Beak?

You can certainly try. The trick is to add additional hardness to the tortoise’s diet. Some people add a little flat rock but the occasional cuttlefish bone might be a better idea (though don’t rely on this as a source of dietary calcium – see our article of tortoises and calcium supplements to find out why).

However, if the tortoise’s beak problems are due to deformity then you might just need to get used to trimming the beak every now and again.

Mouth Rot in Tortoises

It’s less likely to be mouth rot that prevents your tortoise from opening its mouth because it often leads to the opposite condition – a tortoise with its mouth sort of hanging open. However, it is possible that it forces the mouth closed too.

Mouth rot is an inflammatory infection of the mouth and is common in all reptiles. It can be caused by a weak immune system, poor temperature or humidity control in the vivarium, dietary issues or because of an injury to the mouth.

Tortoises won’t eat when they have mouth rot and they may have pus leaking from their mouth and/or nose. If you find these symptoms – it’s time for a trip to the vet. They will usually provide antibiotics but occasionally, mouth rot can be severe enough to warrant surgery.

The easiest way to prevent mouth rot is to pay attention to your pet’s overall health and ensure they are getting enough sun (or UVB if indoors), the right dietary components and are kept in a low stress environment.

Respiratory Infections in Tortoises

Tortoises can get respiratory infections and while these will often lead to a tortoise with an always open mouth – they might just lead to a closed mouth too. If you notice froth or foam around the nose/mouth, they won’t eat or open their mouths, it’s time to go to the vet. Once again, treatment is most likely to be some form of antibiotic.

Respiratory infections in tortoises have several causes but the most common are sudden changes in temperature or excessive dust in the air. Like all reptiles, tortoises need a controlled outside temperature (remember, they are cold-blooded and can’t regulate it themselves).

Related article: So what makes tortoises reptiles?


If your tortoise can’t open his mouth, the odds are pretty good that he is just suffering from an overgrown beak and you can deal with this by trimming the beak (or if you’re not confident that you can do this – you can get a vet to do it for you).

Otherwise, the other likely possibilities for this are mouth rot and possibly respiratory infections. In either case, a quick visit to the vet is your safest option.

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