Symptoms Guide

Emergency Action Plan

In an emergency, use the Emergency Action Plan to help sort out what is going on.

Shell (overall)

  • Cannot fully retract into shell: Obesity
  • Mites or ticks: Parasites
  • Red tinge or streaks: Septicemia. See a vet ASAP!
  • Scutes falling off or loosening: Shell rot
  • Shell injuries including cracks, punctures, etc.: Minor injuries can be handled at home, but larger injuries should be seen by a vet ASAP!
  • Shell is soft, overly flexible: Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). Very soft shells may need a vet’s help.


  • Pale growth lines: New growth lines are sometimes pale for a couple days. Also, some Red-foots develop “mottling” or pale growth as they grow. See the “Cherry-heads” page for examples.
  • Scutes forming into hills or pyramids: Pyramiding
  • Thick growth lines: May be an early sign of pyramiding or other MBD.
  • Thin, translucent, often sharp edges on the marginals: Often indicates too much calcium or vitamin D. Check diet and  carefully file sharp edges if needed.
  • Wide growth lines: Diet may be too “rich” and encouraging too rapid growth.


  • Hatchling’s plastron is “springy”: This is normal and should harden over time. If it does not, look into Metabolic Bone Disease.
  • Pitting or liquids under the scute: Shell rot
  • Soft scutes, wearing or rubbing off, erosion: Shell rot


  • Bleeding from mouth: Septicemiasee a vet ASAP.
  • Cannot open or close, does not close right, or injured: See a vet.
  • Noise when opening or closing mouth: Possible injury, although some Red-foots “click” sometimes normally.
  • Coughing, gasping, wheezing: RIpartial choking
  • Clear, foamy vomit: Often seen after antibiotics are used. May be a form of RI
  • Drooling, discharge: Heat stroke
  • Hard lumps: Abscess
  • Open mouth breathing: RI
  • Overgrown beak: Often diet (not enough fiber, wrong balance of vit. D and calcium) or general cares. Needs to be worn down or trimmed.
  • Pale tissues: Low blood count usually due to an infection or disease, or severe stress. See a vet.
  • Struggling for breath: May be choking! Look for and try to remove obstructions- see a vet ASAP!
  • Thick mucus: Dehydration
  • Vomiting: Internal parasites, septicemia, digestion problems. See a vet.
  • White or “cheese-like” matter: Stomatitis, Herpesvirus
  • Yawning: Normal behavior, and kind of cute! If it happens all the time, check air quality or see a vet.


  • Cracking around nares: Respiratory Infection (RI)
  • Eroding or “eaten away” around nares: RIHerpesvirus
  • Fluid, mucus, or bubbling: RIHerpesvirus
  • Wet wheezing: RI
  • Whistling, noisy breathing: RI, partial obstruction. Mild noises may go away after a soak or washing. Some tortoises whistle normally and most whistle when they withdraw their heads quickly.



Swelling behind the eyes: Abscess, injury

Head and neck

(See also “Soft Tissue” section)

  • Colors are fading: Common as animal ages. If happening rapidly, see a vet.
  • Dry, flaky skin: Dehydrationstress. May be an early sign of other problems, like Improper Diet Cascade (IDC) as well.
  • Hard lump(s): Abscess
  • Loose scales or skin: Stress, IDC, dehydration
  • Mites, ticks: Parasites
  • Thick “cap” of scales: Dysecdysis
  • Throat is pumping/puffing up: This is how a tortoise moves air past its scent organs to smell things.


Soft tissues

(See also “Head and Neck”  section)

Tail, cloaca, feces


  • Head low, tail end high, and/or tail wagging: Preparing for bowel movement.
  • Head out and up, hind limbs straight out, under a heat or light source: The “sun worship” pose, normal for basking. If basking more than usual, check temps.
  • Not eating: May have many causes. Double check basic care, especially temps.Common in stress, infections, when taking antibiotics, seasonal slow downs, etc. May also just indicate that it is still full from a recent meal.
  • Panting, drooling, listless, limp: Heatstroke
  • Spasms, seizures, paralysis, foaming at the mouth: Poisoning- see a vet ASAP.
  • Tail wagging: Usually indicates preparing for bowel movement
  • Throat is pumping/puffing up: This is how a tortoise moves air past it scent organs to smell things.


  • Dog attack: Unless injuries are very minor, take to a vet.
  • Lethargy: Seasonal slowing, egg binding, diabetes, diet or care issues, boredom, stress
  • Slow growing and/or soft-shelled hatchlings: Diet, care, parasites, genetic defect, illness
  • Spasms, seizures, paralysis, foaming at the mouth, etc.: Poisoning- see a vet ASAP.
  • Weight increase, swelling: Renal dysfunction
  • Weight loss: Dehydration, stress, poor care or diet, disease or infection, protozoa infestation, parasites


Edited 4-17-2012 (C) Mark Adkins