Hydration and Dehydration

According to reptile veterinarians, most tortoises are dehydrated, often severely. This can lead to many problems with chemical imbalances, bladder stones, digestive issues, skeletal and shell concerns, and more. It can cause death on its own, or be a contributory cause by making other things worse.

One reason for this problem is that traditional ways to keep tortoises sort of resemble old Easy Bake ovens:  a mostly closed up box with a bright light bulb as a heating element. Humidity alone does not help: warm, humid air wants to rise up out of the habitat. Other problems include store-bought foods that have lost much of their moisture, foods that do not fit the wild diet profile, and lack of natural moisture sources like rain, dew, or fog.

There are two main methods for determining dehydration.  You can use the simple method of comparative weight: does the tortoise  feel heavy, like a bag of sand or have some heft to it? If not, it is probably dehydrated. Or, you can apply the Tortoise Body Mass Index- tBMI for a more scientific determination, which also allows you to determine how dehydrated it is.

Signs of Dehydration

  • Underweight
  • Sunken or tearing eyes
  • Reduced, thickened, or whitish urine
  • Dry feces
  • Dry, flaky, loose skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy, depression, lack of activity
  • Thick, ropey mouth mucus

Hydrating a Tortoise

There are many ways to increase hydration, or at least to slow dehydration.

  • Forced soaks: Place the tortoise in an escape-proof tub big enough for it to walk around some. Fill with warm water to about 1/2 way up the shell. Add electrolytes (see sidebar) as needed or desired. Soak for 15-30 minutes.
    • Soaking tortoises often urinate – you may see the water swirl behind it – or defecate. These often trigger the tort to drink so be sure to allow it time to do so.
    • You can keep the water warm by placing it in a larger tub of warm water, on a heat pad, or in the sun, although many keepers report that their torts do not seem to mind the water cooling off quite a bit.
  • Voluntary soaks: Provide a water dish big enough for the tortoise to sit in, that is easy to get in and out of, deep enough to cover 1/2 of the shell, and, if possible, warmed a little. Some tortoises love to soak, some never seem to do it.
    • Try moving the water dish, or keeping it cleaner, or letting it get muddier, or keeping it warmer or cooler to see if anything helps trigger soaking. Sometimes it is as easy as just putting the tortoise in the dish!
  • Increase humidity: This may not actively improve hydration in all cases, but it does slow dehydration.
  • Offer moister foods: Mist live graze plants, pre-soak greens, mist the food in the habitat, offer foods high in moisture content (such as melons).
  • Topical application: Applying a lotion, cream, or oil to the shell can reduce evaporative loss a little. Baby oil, white unscented hand lotion, olive or canola oils, and equivalents work well. Use sparingly: it only takes a little, and apply it after a good soaking. (No research or comparative trials support this practice, however.)

Home-made electrolytic solution

While you can use Pediolyte or even Gatorade as an electrolytic solution in a soak to fight dehydration, you can make your own solution cheaply with stuff you probably already have. Designed by the World Health Organization, the recipe is simple, and exact amounts are not important:

  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt (sodium chloride, NaCL)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt substitute (potassium chloride, KCl)
    • NOTE: Products like Morton Salt Lite are already 1/2 salt and 1/2 salt substitute, so you can use 1tsp of it in the mix.
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO2)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (sucrose, C12H22O11) (The amount of sugar is based on human/mammal needs and is partly there for taste, so it can be reduced to a teaspoon or so for soaking.)
  • Clean water (H20). 1 liter or quart for full strength. Modify the formula for a weaker solution.

You can make this up in bulk for convenience: 1 unit each of salt, salt substitute and baking soda, and two units of sugar. Store in a covered container; it should be good for months. The formula then would be:

  • Full strength: 2.5 teaspoons (almost a tablespoon) per quart or liter of water.
  • Half strength: 1.25 (or about 1) teaspoon per quart or liter of water.
  • Quarter Strength: 1/2 teaspoon per quart or liter of water.


Edited 4-2-2013 (C) Mark Adkins