My Tortoise Flipped over on its Back!

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Yvonne G

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Jan 23, 2008
Location (City and/or State)
Clovis, CA
by Douglas R. Mader, MS, DVM, & Carl M. Palazzolo, DVM

Question – I came home fro work yesterday and found my California desert tortoise flipped over in the backyard. It was alive when I found it, so I righted it and left it alone. The next morning when I woke up I went outside to check on it and found it dead! Why do you suppose that it died? It looked good when I found it.

Answer – We are very sorry to hear about the loss of your pet tortoise. Unfortunately, this is a story which we hear a number of times during the summer at our practice. There are many reasons why your tortoise died.

In the wild if a tortoise were to flip itself over, it would surely die. Therefore, evolutionarily, it is not adaptive for an animal to put itself in precarious positions which might endanger it. However, for some reason, we hear about backyard tortoises which will consistently flip themselves over by attempting to climb up objects in the yard, losing their balance, and falling over backwards.

There are other reasons which might account for a tortoise flipping over. Two of the more common causes are fighting between adult males, and dogs. When males battle they will use their large gular plates (the long, often hook like projection beneath the jaw) to flip over their opponents. In the wild, this spells almost certain demise for their adversaries.

It is not uncommon for dogs to play with tortoises, especially dogs which have not been exposed to or grown up with tortoises. The dog may grab the tortoise with its mouth and flip it over during the play, and then after it is finished playing, the dog may wander off, leaving the tortoise in whatever position it was last in.

It is not natural for a tortoise to be on its back. Aside from the psychological discomfort of being upside down for long periods, there are a number of physiological reasons why this position is detrimental to the animal. First off, the tortoise has a large lung area and air sac space which fills the top portion of the shell space. When the tortoise is on its back, the liver, stomach and intestinal tract fall into this space because of gravity, thus compromising the animal’s ability to breathe.

Also, being upside down can cause the tortoise to vomit or regurgitate intestinal or stomach contents. If the tortoise accidentally aspirates, or breathes into its lungs any of the gastrointestinal material, it could die. This might be immediate, or it may take a few hours to days.

Another possible problem encountered with tortoises which have flipped over is torsion on their bowel. That is a condition where part of the intestinal tract flips over on its own axis, or twists inside the shell. This is a very serious condition, and unless untwisted quickly, the animal will surely die. In the panic of being upside down a tortoise will frequently lose control of its bowels and bladder. Often times a tortoise will defecate or urinate during this time. As an animal becomes fatigued from struggling, it may lose voluntary muscle control and result in this happening. This is significant since the tortoise depends upon the water in its bladder for its hydration. Even if the tortoise is found in time and righted, if not given access to water, or given fluids by a veterinarian (if needed), the animal may be at risk of dying from dehydration.

If a tortoise gets stranded on its back and it happens to be in the sun the animal may rapidly overheat and die. Even on a relatively cool day, the extra muscular strain from the exertion of trying to right itself can add to the fatigue and heat stress.

Another problem often encountered with stranded tortoises is from fly strike. Flies usually do not bother healthy tortoises; however, flies are quick to take advantage of compromised animals. The flies will attack areas of damaged tissue such as cuts and bruises. They will also attack areas which have been moistened from saliva or urine. Specifically, the flies concentrate their activity around the mouth, eyes and cloaca.

When the flies land on the area they deposit their eggs. Depending on the species of fly, most of these eggs hatch out into maggots within 24 hours. The maggots then attack the tissue and begin eating away at the flesh. Not only do these maggots cause overt damage to the tissue, they are also carriers of disease.

As far as how long can a tortoise be on its back before it may die, it is difficult to say. That depends on a number of causes such as health of the animal, temperature of the day, whether or not it flipped over in the sun, length of time on its back, etc.

What should you do if you find your tortoise on its back? The first thing is to right it. But do it slowly so as not to cause torsion of the bowel by flipping it back over to fast. Then assess it for hydration (i.e. are its eyes sunken? Did it urinate? Is its mouth dry?) If these symptoms are present it would be wise to get the animal to your reptile veterinarian for immediate fluid therapy. If it is a hot day and the animal does not appear too dehydrated, then just cooling it off with water and some oral fluids will suffice. Either tap water or Gatorade, given by stomach tube will be very beneficial. A ten pound animal can be safely tubed with three to four ounces of water.

Keep the tortoise in a cool place and observe it for signs of problems. Should any evidence of illness present itself, contact your local tortoise expert or a veterinarian familiar with reptiles.

(Reprinted with permission from the January, 1991 edition of the Tortuga Gazette)
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