Why pet tortoises die - common causes and how to prevent them - TortoiseOwner.com

Why Pet Tortoises Die: 10+ Common Causes & How to Prevent Them

There is nothing as heartbreaking as finding your pet tortoise dead and wondering what went wrong. This is an unfortunate reality for many newbie tortoise-keepers, but it could have been prevented with some research and education. That’s why we’re here today writing about this upsetting topic. If this sad discussion can help save lives, we’ll do it!

So, why do tortoises die? Tortoises can die for a number of reasons including insufficient food, poor quality diet, unsanitary conditions, stress, and untreated infections and injuries. All these can cause your pet tortoise to die.

To prevent your tortoises from dying, you have but to read this article and learn to spot the signs of trouble before it’s too late. Even better: read this article and avoid trouble in the first place!

Tortoises Can Die from Underfeeding

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding proper feeding of tortoises. Unfortunately, most of that information is regurgitated bad advice. Tortoises are not a one-size-fits-all pet. Just as every human has different dietary needs, so too do all tortoises.

So, if all torts are different, how do you know how much to feed them?


A tortoise’s age is a big factor in how much you should be feeding. Babies need less food at each meal, but may need more frequent feedings. Tiny tummies don’t have room for extra food, and it’s not good to fill those little spaces with unhealthy choices either.

Older tortoises may not need as much food as their younger counterparts, but this is not always the case. As torts age, their digestive systems may slow down. Don’t reduce your tortoise’s food unless directed by a vet, however.


Believe it or not, the species of the tortoise matters greatly when choosing how much to feed. Some species need more food at more frequent intervals. They may grow faster or may enter growth spurts at different times. Knowing the species and its proclivities will help you plan your pet’s meals accordingly.

Time of Year

Many tortoise species hibernate. They will need special care before and after this sensitive time, including adjustments to how much they are fed. It’s important to note that not all tortoise species hibernate. In fact, there are many tortoises that belong to a species that usually does hibernate, but certain individuals simply don’t do it.

Competition at the Food Dish

Nobody wants to believe their tortoises are bullies. Yet, it’s a fact that some tortoises can get pushy and mean when it comes to dinner time. If you are feeding more than one tortoise, it’s important to note aggression levels.

If a smaller, weaker, or more introverted tortoise is being pushed away from the food tray, it may be time to invest in a second one. Better yet, it might be wise to separate the tortoises permanently.

How to Prevent it

Make sure you know what your tortoise’s feeding needs are at every stage of her life. Weigh your tort regularly and keep a journal of her growth. Share this information with your vet to be sure your pet is right on track.

Tortoises Can Die from Overfeeding

On the other end of the feeding spectrum is the problem of overfeeding. This almost always happens as a result of worried owners making sure their pets never go hungry. This well-meaning behavior is sweet at its core but detrimental to your tortoise’s health in the long run.

Torts can overeat. When they do, they get obese. Being locked in that tight-fitting shell with a bloated, fat body is uncomfortable. It can also impact breathing, movement, and even blood flow.

We covered this in much greater detail already, so we won’t go over it all again here. Take a look!

How to Prevent it

You prevent overfeeding the same way you prevent underfeeding. Weigh your tortoise regularly, track what he eats, and show your vet the charts.

A Poor Diet Can Kill a Tortoise

Let’s say you’re feeding your tortoise the right amount of food. It’s not too much, not too little, maybe even weighing your tort to be sure he’s gaining weight or maintaining a healthy adult weight. Awesome! But he’s not safe yet.

What you feed your tortoise is just as important as how much. It would be the same as you eating three square meals a day at a fast food joint. You’re eating the right amount and at the right frequency, but you’re loading yourself up with fat, sodium, and sugar.

If your tortoise is crazy about strawberries, but that’s all you feed her, she’s not going to be healthy. Strawberries are very good options for torts, but only as a small portion of a meal. They need a specific amount of each nutrient at various stages of life.

Poor diet can result in nutritional deficiencies that may go unnoticed until it’s too late. Low levels of nutrients in the body can restrict blood flow, lower heart rate to dangerous levels, and deprive your tortoise of energy and the ability to recover from illnesses and injuries.

How to Prevent it

Generally speaking, you want to feed your tortoise 80% fresh veggies. They love things like kale, collard greens, and dandelions. Some love bell peppers, cauliflower, squash, and even sweet potato, but these are all treats and should be given in small quantities. Apples, grapes, melons, and strawberries need to be lower than 20% of your tort’s diet due to high sugar content.

You may also need to add vitamin powders to your tortoise’s meals, but make sure you do so under a vet’s supervision. Too much of a particular vitamin can be just as bad as not enough of it.

Unsanitary Conditions Can Kill a Tortoise

Nobody likes to live in filth. Okay, maybe someone does, but we guarantee that your tortoise does not. You need to clean a tortoise’s enclosure, and we don’t mean a little poop scooping now and then.

Tortoises have special needs when it comes to environments. It’s why they’re not common house pets and why they haven’t really been domesticated. They are essentially wild animals kept in captivity. For that reason, you need to approximate Mother Nature’s environments and her level of clean.

Keeping a tortoise in a dirty enclosure will set him up for a massive list of health issues. Dirty, damp, and warm climates are perfect for bacteria to thrive in. These bacteria can be harmless or completely devastating. It’s not like you get to pick which ones set up shop in your tort’s tank.

Filthy enclosures can cause a tortoise to suddenly die. Infections are usually the culprit with a dirty cage, but injuries could happen, too.

How to Prevent it

To keep up on your tort’s cleaning needs, make a schedule and stick with it. The frequency of cleaning will depend on a number of factors, but a good rule of thumb is once a week per tortoise kept. If you have two tortoises in the same enclosure, clean twice a week. Just one tort? Once a week is probably good.

Pay attention to smells or any weird growths in the tank, too. If you see something growing that shouldn’t be or you smell something gross, you need to step up your cleaning game. Increase your cleaning efforts and get that enclosure sparkling clean.

Stress Kills Tortoises

Slow-moving, lumbering, sweet tortoises don’t like to be stressed out. When you’re stressed, you can take a hot shower, grab a snack, and sit down to relax. Tortoises don’t have those luxuries. If you haven’t provided the kind of relaxing areas in her enclosure she needs, your tort could just die from pent up stress.

Things like noisy neighbors or roommates can freak out a tortoise. Dogs barking, screeching tires down the block, or the sound of the garbage truck in the morning are all triggers. You may not even notice she’s stressing out unless you understand the language of the tortoise.

Torties can get stressed out by changes in the environment and routine, too. Perhaps you’ve moved the furniture, changed the lighting in your room, or changed shifts at work. All of these things can cause a tortoise to flip out a little.

Another big stressor for tortoises is being handled too much. Most tortoises don’t like being picked up at all, so try to avoid it if you can. Obviously, if you’re inspecting your tort for injuries or during bathing sessions, you’ll need to handle her some, but be careful and move slowly.

Other torts might be the cause of your pet’s stress. They are fairly solitary animals, though they do have a need for some social time. If your enclosure is too small and the other tortoise is picking on him, your tort might get stressed to the point he simply dies.

It’s hard to believe stress can kill, but it’s a fact. All animals are at risk for this if they’re not given the right environments, foods, and ways to blow off steam.

How to Prevent it

Understand the needs of the tortoise. You might like to blast your music to relax, but chances are good that will only stress your tort out more. Knowing what tortoises would do in the wild to relieve stress will help you provide the best environment for your baby to relax.

One thing is for certain, tortoise like to hide. Provide several locations in the enclosure that encourage relaxation. Some like a moist hide while others prefer a dry one. Some like to burry themselves while others prefer to relax on a raised surface. Figure out what your tort likes and make sure that spot is always ready to receive him.

Illnesses and Injuries Can Kill Tortoises

As with all living things, tortoises are susceptible to certain illnesses and injuries. It’s just part of being alive. While you may not be able to prevent everything on this list, you can do you best to mitigate damages caused by these things. Leaving a tortoise to fend for itself is a sure way to lead death straight to his door.

Respiratory Illnesses

Tortoises are susceptible to respiratory infections. These are more likely to occur early on for wild-caught tortoises that you can find in pet stores. To avoid this, select a reputable breeder and avoid pet store tortoises. Yet, even captive-bred tortoises can end up with a respiratory infection.

These happen when the tortoise is kept in less than ideal situations. Poor lighting and heat, low-quality food, and bad sanitation will set a tortoise up for this dangerous illness. Always have your vet examine a new tortoise or one who shows early signs of respiratory distress.

Soft Shell

A soft, mushy, or squishy shell is a sign of nutritional deficiencies. It can also signal birth defects, but this is far less common. If a tortoise has a soft or deformed shell, it’s likely this poor fella wasn’t fed the right foods at the right times.

Metabolic bone disease is the technical term for a certain type of soft or deformed shell. This can affect the bones, too, but the shell is the most obvious result. This, once again, is due to poor diet. Low calcium is the culprit this time, which means it could have been easily avoidable.

Soft shell can also happen when a tortoise isn’t given enough time in the sun. They need ultraviolet radiation A and B to create vitamin D3, just like humans. The sun shining through a window isn’t going to be enough.

Please note that baby torts have naturally softer shells than adults. Don’t be alarmed if your baby tort has one. But do have your vet check to be sure it’s normal softness and not metabolic bone disease starting up.


First, can we just say ouch? A prolapse is a painful and potentially deadly affliction. This is caused by a diet high in oxalates and sometimes dehydration. The tortoise’s body will produce hard, large urates that can’t be passed comfortably. The straining to push out the unusually hard urates is what causes the prolapse.

To be graphic and clear, the tortoise is pushing out his organs instead of the urates. Again, ouch!

A high-quality diet and plenty of water will prevent this terrible medical emergency. Untreated, this is a painful and horrible way to die.

Broken, Cracked, and Crushed Shells

A tortoise who has been dropped, crushed, or attacked by a dog may exhibit a cracked, broken, or crushed shell. This is an incredibly painful medical emergency. Since the shell is attached to the tortoise, a crack in the shell is like a cut on your arm. Her insides are being exposed to the outside world, including bacteria.

Some cracks can be repaired, but the vet needs to be involved here. Crushed or severely broken shells may not be fixable, but don’t give up hope. See your vet immediately if your tortoise is injured in this way.

Better yet, avoid this kind of tragedy by handling your tortoise with great care. They may be tough, but they are not invincible.


Tortoises cannot swim. We’ll repeat this sentence until we’re blue in the face: Tortoises cannot swim! They are not like turtles. If you put a tortoise in a bathtub, it may be able to float a little, but it’s not going to swim and it is not going to be safe.

Tortoises were never meant to swim, but every year thousands of tortoises drown. Please do not put your tortoise in the water. A bath in a shallow dish is fine, but a bath tub or swimming pool is a death sentence.

Other Causes of Tortoise Death

In addition to the specific things listed above, there are some less common but still deadly things that can end your tortoise’s life unexpectedly. Take heed and avoid the following!

  • Rough handling by small children
  • Chemicals in the environment including cleaning chemicals, bug sprays, and colognes or perfumes
  • Soaps and cleansers used in the enclosure
  • Toxic fumes from Teflon pots or pans overheating in the kitchen
  • Ingestion of alcohol, drugs, or human food
  • Choking hazards such as small toys, plastic plants, and pet food
  • Pets such as dogs, cats, and large birds


Perhaps it seems like the whole universe is out to murder your pet tortoise. While that’s a pretty big stretch of the truth, we suppose it’s a good way to keep you on your toes. You must be proactive in protecting your tortoise from these common killers. Prevention doesn’t take a lot of effort, and your tiny tank buddy is depending on you!

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