Upside Down Tortoise

Most people kind of freak out when they find their tortoise upside down. After all, a tortoise will quickly die when upside down. right?
Well, the reality is that it is really uncomfortable for the tortoise, and will eventually be fatal, but the tortoise is not automatically in danger.

 
Tortoises can flip over for several reasons:
  • Trying to climb a wall or feature, whether to try to escape, or to explore. This may be due to stress, boredom, or curiosity.
  • Flipped by a feature in a pen or cage. Tortoises walking over plants or climbing steep hills have been flipped as have tortoises using ramps. Sometimes something pretty innocuous can be a flip hazard.
  • Flipped over by a cage mate. Male tortoises often engage in battle to flip over rivals, tortoises engaging in mating behaviors (real mating, practice or dominance behaviors, etc.), or just getting pushed over somehow, like pushing to get food.
  • Flipped by another animal. Dogs often flip tortoises when attacking or playing with them, and other animals, especially predators, can as well. 
Once a tortoise is flipped over, various things start to happen. 
  1. The tortoise’s intestines may get twisted (bowel torsion), especially if it was flipped with force, as in an attack, This can be dangerous, even fatal, if not corrected. It often self-corrects, but if the tortoise does not seem to be passing feces or shows other signs of severe stress it should be taken to the vet ASAP.
  2. The tortoise will probably void its bowels and bladder. This is not a problem in and of itself, but can make dehydration worse.
  3. The internal organs will press against the large lungs, which basically fill in the top half of the shell. This becomes more stressful over time.
  4. The tortoise may vomit because of the unnatural pressure and position of the organs. It may breathe in the vomitus (aspirate) and this can cause choking or other respiratory problems.
  5. The tortoise will become increasingly stressed physically and mentally, thrashing in its efforts to right itself.
  6. As time goes on, it will become more exposed leading to problems such as sunburn or dehydration. 
  7. Pests such as flies will attack after a while and may actually lay eggs in or on the tortoise. 
  8. Starvation and dehydration continue.
How long a tortoise can stay on its back safely depends on many factors, but the less time they spend that way the better. Some tortoise species are better at righting themselves than others: Star Tortoises and others with naturally pyramided scutes tend to right themselves easily, while species like Red-footeds have more limited leg movements and have a tougher time righting themselves. There are also a lot of stories of other tortoises “helping” flipped tortoises.

Treatment

Helping a flipped tortoise is easy.
  1. Turn it back over, but not quickly as we don’t want to make another bowel torsion. If possible, roll it back the way it got there.
  2. Evaluate the tortoise for overheating and/or dehydration. Offer a shady place to recover and/or a good soak as needed.
  3. Treat for shock if needed.
  4. Contact your vet if complications arise.

Sources

  • Mader, Douglas R., MS, DVM, and Carl M. Palazzolo, DVM. “Upside Down Tortoises” Tortuga Gazette, January, 1991
Created 3-6-2013 (C) Mark Adkins