Health and Medical

[Disclaimer: I am not a vet, herpetologist, etc. All information presented here is the best I can find but like all health and medical advice on the Internet, should be considered supplemental to the cares of a good vet, experienced reptile rehabber, etc.

If your tortoise is acting sick, it is probably pretty serious. Most animals mask signs of illness as long as they can, so if the signs are visible, it has usually been sick for some time.]

Basic First Aid Skills

Stay calm, take one issue at a time, and work from most to least serious issues. You can always go back later and re-treat things if needed. Just do what you can with what you have.

Know Your animals

To best diagnose what is wrong with an animal, dog to tortoise, you must first know what it is like when it is normal. Watch your tortoise often. Count how often and how hard it breathes (how often the legs sag or it ‘shrugs it’s shoulders’). Have a basic idea of when it feeds and how much, and when it rests. Know what the eyes look like- is there a white or colored ring around them? Regular photographs and measurements help as well.
Emergency Action Plan

  1. Make sure the scene is safe for you, the victim, and others.
  2. Quickly access life-threatening injuries using ‘ABCD’.
  3. Airway– Is it breathing? Are their injuries that compromise breathing- jaw, throat, shell, etc.?
  • Watch the soft tissues at the neck and put your ear by the nose. Look, listen, and feel for breathing for about 15-30 seconds.
  • If it is not breathing, give it rescue breaths and transport ASAP.
  • Bleeding– Is there any severe bleeding?
  • Apply direct pressure to control bleeding.
  • Apply gauze and tape when bleeding stops.
  • Transport ASAP if you cannot control it.
  • Consciousness– Is the tortoise responsive?
  • Pull on a limb, if it does not struggle or try to retract it, then try to open the mouth.
  • If the jaw and limbs are limp, transport ASAP.
  • Damage– Are there any significant shell injuries?
  • If the ABCDs are under control, treat other injuries in order of severity, care for shock, and hospitalize.

Rescue breathing/drowning
If the tortoise is choking, try to remove the obstruction with fingers, needle-nosed pliers or forceps. If you think it has drowned, take action even if it appears dead- they can often survive this.

  1. If the tortoise is not breathing (see above), check the mouth for obstructions. If it has drowned, hold its hind end up so the water can drain from the mouth. Wait for draining to stop before continuing.
  2. Brace or position the tortoise so the hind legs are inside the shell if possible.
  3. Extend the neck out straight and get in front of the tortoise.
  4. Pull the forelegs straight out. Push them straight in as far as you can.
  5. Repeat step #3 until any water has come out, or you get several breathes into the tortoise.
  6. If nothing seems to be happening, try to open the mouth and breathe into the mouth and nostrils. Blow until you feel some resistance, then push the legs in as in step 3.
  7. If nothing is still happening, try putting it on its back for a couple seconds, then on its stomach, and repeat. The theory is that the organs will press on the lungs to force air out, then expand the lungs to get air back in.
  8. Transport to a vet ASAP for emergency cares.

Holding a limb

  1. It may be helpful to tape the other limbs so they stay inside the shell.
  2. Sometimes pushing a different limb in makes it relax the one you need.
  3. Try to gently grip the legs in the middle of the lower leg, or the head behind the skull.
  4. Pull gently, but steadily, in a natural way. If you wait a bit, it should slowly relax as it tries to breathe.

Holding the head

  1. ‘Scissor’ or ‘fork’ your fingers behind the head so the tortoise cannot pull its head in past them. You may need to gently ‘pinch’ the neck of small tortoises.
  2. Firmly grip the head just behind the ‘ears’.
  3. Use the other hand or a soft tool like a plastic spoon, gently move the lower jaw down.
  4. Once open, use a chopstick or Popsicle stick to hold it open.
  5. Alternative Technique: Gently press at the hinge of the jaw on both sides at the same time.

First aid kit:
Much of this is already in your family or pet first-aid kit, or should be. See the American Red Cross Dog (or Cat) First Aid Book or something similar for more ideas. Note: I don’t keep or really recommend a special ‘pet’ kit. I just add key items to my family kit.

  • Disposable gloves (to minimize chances of disease and infections)
  • Scissors with small, strong, sharp blades
  • Scalpel blades and handle (A clean, new #11 X-acto blade works)
  • Pet toe nail clippers or diagonal cutting pliers
  • Tweezers with good, sharp points
  • Tongue depressors, clean Popsicle sticks, wooden skewers or chopsticks (for splints or to hold open the mouth)
  • Magnifying glass
  • Penlight
  • Chemical heat packs, hand warmers, etc.
  • Sterile gauze squares, 2×2” and 3×3”
  • Roller gauze or self-cohesive tape (Vet Wrap), 2″
  • Paper first aid tape, 1” wide (used as a ‘first layer’ to protect the scales and scutes)
  • Electrical tape or waterproof first-aid tape (stronger tapes to use on top of paper tape)
  • Alcohol or alcohol wipes
  • Wound disinfectant such as Providone-Iodine Scrub (Betadine)
  • Antibiotic ointment (silver sulfadiazine ointment or 2% mupirocin ointment are much better than ‘triple antibiotic’ or other drug store ointments)
  • Petroleum jelly or Bag Balm (to ‘seal’ injuries)
  • Styptic powder or sticks, Kwik Stop, or cornstarch (to stop slow bleeds)
  • Antibiotic ophthalmic ointment for eyes, e.g., Terramycin
  • Cotton-tipped swabs or small sponges
  • Eye wash solution or sterile water in a squirt bottle (to rinse eyes or wounds)


Edited 8-16-2012 (C) Mark Adkins