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Desert Tortoise Diseases/General

Disorders of the Shell: Malnutrition is widespread among captive desert tortoises, with especially devastating consequences to hatchlings.  Inadequate mineral intake (too much lettuce and salad items) results in an unhealthy, soft or malformed shell.  Injuries to the shell caused by automobiles and lawn mowers are common, especially in the spring, when tortoises come out of hibernation. Great caution should be exercised when dogs are allowed access to desert tortoises.  Dogs often cause serious injuries to the shell and the extremities of tortoises. Shell rot (one or more erosions of the upper and/or lower shell) usually occurs as a result of injury to the shell or exposure to filthy environmental conditions.  Infectious diseases can also be associated with this disorder.

Abscesses: Bacterial abscesses commonly result from puncture wounds and other injuries.  Because tortoises readily develop internal abscesses, systemic antibiotics must be used to treat all abscesses (external or otherwise).

Organ Failure: The ravages of a lifetime of low-grade infections and water deprivation may result in cirrhosis of the liver or kidney failure in aged tortoises. Blood chemistry analysis is necessary to make the diagnosis.

Impactions and Foreign Body Ingestion: Sand impaction is common in hatchlings. Therefore, they should not be kept on sand, but rather on hard dirt or indoor-outdoor carpeting.  Surgery to relieve a sand impaction or retrieve foreign bodies from the intestinal tract is a complicated procedure and should only be performed by an experienced veterinarian.

Bladder Stones: Composed of uric acid, require many years to form and may reach unbelievably large sizes (baseball size is not rare).  Desert tortoises are prone to this condition because of the urinary bladder's function of storage and resorption of water.  Particles of uric acid gradually accumulate within the bladder over years.  When these stones become large enough to irritate the bladder lining, mechanically impair urination, interfere with walking or cause pain, most tortoise owners become suspicious that something is wrong.  The diagnosis is confirmed with x-rays.  Correction involves surgical removal of the stone.  The bottom shell must be opened and the body cavity and urinary bladder explored.  This is a very complicated procedure and must be performed by an experienced veterinary surgeon.

Iron-Storage Disease: Some desert tortoises suffer from excessive accumulation of iron within the liver. This results in chronic hepatitis and eventually cirrhosis.  As in birds and people, this disease is thought to be the result of an enzyme deficiency.  Owners should not offer iron tablets to their desert tortoises.  Food and water high in iron should also be avoided.

Diabetes Mellitus: Desert tortoises may develop diabetes mellitus, which requires closely monitored medical care.  Only an experienced veterinarian should attempt to regulate these patients because insulin has an extremely long-lasting effect in these reptiles.

Eye Disorders: Various disorders involving the eyes and related structures can afflict desert tortoises.  Some of these include cataracts, corneal ulcers, infections, puncture wounds and other injuries, conjunctivitis, keratitis sicca (dry eye), and hatchling eye syndrome (vascular scarring).  Eye involvement may accompany respiratory disease.  Cataracts may result from injury or infection, and some eye disorders are hereditary.  Unusual eye color variations are also noted from time to time.

Gular Overgrowth:
Older desert tortoises may develop large, overgrown gular projections (forward projection of the lower shell, under the neck).  This condition can interfere with eating and swallowing. Correction involves periodic trimming of this projection.

Submandibular ("Sex Gland") Inflammation: During the breeding season, the large "chin" or "sex glands" of the male desert tortoise may increase in size and may drain.  The enlargement noted may be normal, but infections of these glands may occur. Laboratory tests can help to differentiate between normal and an infected set of submandibular glands.