Prevention is the best medicine

Like other animals, captive tortoises can suffer or die from a variety of known and unknown diseases. No tortoise owner really likes to talk about illnesses or even deaths in their population, since in most cases these are due to improper keeping or other unpleasant mistakes. The fact that 90% of all disease-related causes of death in tortoises in human care are always due to poor husbandry should be an incentive for all of us to continuously improve the keeping conditions of tortoises. Should a tortoise nevertheless die for unknown reasons, it is well worth having the animal examined postmortem in a pathological clinic. It is not always possible to find a clear cause of death, but due to organ changes, interesting conclusions can usually be drawn, whereby further postural errors can be avoided and the conditions can be optimized in the future.

Radiated Tortoises are totally uncooperative patients and respond to most approaches to treatment and therapy with outright refusal and stress. Sometimes the defense reactions to a well-intentioned treatment are so vehement that the high stress potential further weakens the already ill animals. A frightened or injured Radiated Tortoise can retreat into its own shell so tightly and convulsively that the limbs can hardly be pulled out of the shell by hand. This often makes evaluation and medical treatment of Astrochelys radiata impossible. It is therefore always better, easier and cheaper to preventively optimize the housing situation so that the animals do not get sick in the first place.

Common causes of disease in radiated tortoises

We cannot stress enough the importance of species-appropriate and natural husbandry for the health and welfare of Astrochelys radiata in human care. Most diseases can be avoided relatively easily by recognizing the natural needs of the animals and consistently respecting and implementing the resulting housing conditions. What sounds fundamentally simple and plausible is often difficult to implement in reality with the available resources and possibilities. The following husbandry mistakes are often responsible for most diseases and causes of death in Radiated Tortoises:

  • Lack of natural sunlight

    Sunlight is essential for tortoises to survive! Never underestimate the importance of natural sunlight in tortoise keeping! Both the physical and psychological well-being of the animals depend on it. If Radiated Tortoises could talk, they would probably often shout: “Hey man, I want to go outside, I need more sunlight!”. Since the symptoms of acute sun deficiency are rather subtle, diffuse and inconspicuous in the early stages, they are often misinterpreted or recognized too late. In fact, a chronic lack of natural daylight is the most common cause and starting point for a large number of diseases and deaths in captive Radiated Tortoises.

    Complex, hormonal and biochemical processes in the body of tortoises are directly related to the daily intake of sunlight. The hormone-controlled activity cycle is regulated by the position of the sun and essential metabolic functions and vitamin synthesis can only take place in connection with sufficient sunlight. A persistent disturbance or blockage in the metabolic balance quickly leads to a sustained and sensitive weakening of the immune system. If the lack of sun or UV rays persists, irreversible bone, shell and organ damage can also occur, as well as more and more insidious infections, which undetected can lead to the sudden death of the animals.

  • Wrong nutrition

    The gut of a Radiated Tortoise is a temple! It draws all the energy it needs to live from it. There is a direct connection between an intact gastrointestinal flora and a healthy immune system. A balanced and natural diet is therefore of central importance. Radiated Tortoises need a low-protein diet with a high crude fiber content and a balanced calcium-phosphorus ratio. However, if the structured raw fiber is missing or if it is replaced by easily digestible material (e.g. starch and sugar), incorrect fermentation occurs with a high degree of shortening and the retention time of the feed in the intestine. The intestinal flora is displaced or dies off. The tortoise lose more fluids and develop intractable, chronic diarrheal diseases. In addition, parasitic diseases are promoted. Too many urates and fats in the organism, as a result of too high a protein content in the feed, can no longer be excreted and lead to painful gout, fat liver and kidney failure.

  • Bacterial load

    Many autopsy findings from suddenly deceased Radiated Tortoises often show a diffuse and increased bacterial load as well as inflammation of various organs as a secondary diagnosis. An unfavorable and excessive bacterial load weakens the immune system and promotes the occurrence of various diseases. A bacterial load is unfavorably promoted by the following factors in housing:

    • Density stress: Too many tortoises live together in too small a space and contaminate each other and repeatedly with their own bacteria and the bacteria of conspecifics. The permanent confrontation with conspecifics leads to repeated stressful situations, which further weaken the immune system.

    ● Lack of hygiene: Unhygienic animal husbandry always promotes the emergence and spread of germs (viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, etc.). The risk of contamination in a dirty environment is increased many times over. Radiated Tortoises from unsanitary stocks have weakened immune systems and are often carriers of diseases and parasites. Without quarantine with expensive and time-consuming health checks, such animals can contaminate and wipe out entire herds with dangerous pathogens.

    ● Socialization with other species: Tortoises from different geographical distribution areas are carriers of various microorganisms. Some species show a very high tolerance to certain bacteria, but for another species the same bacteria can be devastating. Astrochelys radiata is particularly hypersensitive to certain alien microorganisms (e.g. certain intestinal bacteria of European tortoises and leopard tortoises). If these are ingested in excess, the intestinal flora can be suppressed or die off. As a result, the immune system is significantly and permanently weakened, and chronic and insidious inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract can occur. However, these foci of inflammation can also spread throughout the body and lead to generalized organ failure. The low tolerance of Astrochelys radiata to alien microorganisms is probably related to the isolated, endemic occurrence of this species and the adaptation to a very special ecosystem.

  • ● Humidity too low

    Another common husbandry mistake is that the animals are kept at too high, constant temperatures and too little humidity. Although the habitat of Astrochelys radiata is repeatedly described as hot and dry, there is a high level of humidity during the day and especially at night 70-80%. If the humidity is permanently lower, the fine, white growth seams, which are heavily supplied with blood, dry out between the shield plates and unsightly bumps form during growth. If kept dry, most of the substrates used will quickly start to dust. Movements in the enclosure cause the smallest particles to fly up and can be inhaled by the tortoises close to the ground. This leads to breathing difficulties and chronic respiratory diseases. The mucous membranes also dry out excessively due to low humidity and become more susceptible to infections. High temperatures with low humidity lead to an increased need for water in Radiated Tortoises. As a result, the animals drink and urinate more frequently. With frequent urination, many important vitamins and electrolytes are flushed out too quickly and cannot be absorbed by the body.


We recommend always separating sick or injured animals from the stock and caring for them in a separate, functional and easy-to-clean quarantine facility while maintaining optimal husbandry conditions. Newcomers should also be quarantined and observed for at least 4 months before being introduced into an existing group. For new arrivals in quarantine, we recommend that you always have at least 2-3 microscopic faecal examinations at intervals of 4 weeks for possible worm or other endoparasite infestation. Routine swabs and blood tests for herpes, rahna and microplasma should also be taken to the vet to be on the safe side. An introduction to an existing herd should only be considered if the test results are negative several times. Unfortunately, the importance of proper quarantine is often neglected due to lack of space and lack of suspicion. Some groups have been contaminated with dangerous and deadly pathogens and tragically wiped out as a result of this neglect.


Endoparasitic infestations are not uncommon in tortoises in the wild. With the consumption of suitable feed, the animals manage in their natural habitat that endoparasites do not get the upper hand and that host and parasite are in a compatible balance. Some poisonous plant species (e.g. euphorbia) flourish in the habitat of Astrochelys radiata. It is easy to imagine that the animals use these natural pharmacies in a targeted manner to combat annoying parasites. For this reason, we feed a large amount of Euphorbia tirucalli twice a year. Astrochelys radiata is immune to the poisonous, milky juice, but it reliably kills endoparasites due to the alkaloids it contains. The occasional feeding of papaya seeds in fresh, dried or ground form also has an anthelmintic effect due to protein-splitting enzymes. Consistently feeding feedstuffs containing raw fiber, such as hay and dried leaves, also has a preventive effect. The rough fiber parts form a nutrient-poor basis for endoparasites in the gastrointestinal tract during fermentation and scrub away parasites and their eggs better when passing through the intestine.

In the case of an acute and excessive worm infestation, however, it is advisable to carry out medicinal treatment with Panacur® Petpaste. The active ingredient is fenbendazolum and is effective on roundworm, hookworm, whipworm and tapeworm species. One pack contains a convenient doser with graduations. A dispenser of Panacur® Petpaste is divided into 18 divisions, each division corresponds to 50 mg fenbendazole. 4.8 g extractable per dispenser, equivalent to 900 mg fenbendazole. 1 division per day is granted per kilogram of tortoise. Repeat the treatment after 2 days. In the case of young animals weighing less than 1 kg, the dosing with the graduation applicator is unfortunately somewhat imprecise. For young animals with worm infestation weighing less than 100 g, it is advisable to apply only a portion of the paste to a plate and then use a fine brush to dab a pinhead-sized amount of the paste onto a treat. Overdosing can thus be avoided. The tasteless and odorless paste is easily eaten with a treat (e.g. berries, fresh greens, etc.).

In memoriam Schelbi

As a small tortoise, Schelbi was smuggled to Europe with many other turtles from Madagascar via Asia. On his long, arduous journey he was exposed to stress, hunger and thirst again and again. Many of his fellow prisoners did not survive this arduous procedure. At various intermediate stations it was kept crammed together with other tortoise species by greedy and unscrupulous animal smugglers under degrading and wretched hygienic conditions and repeatedly sold on to the highest bidder. Eventually it ended up being used by ignorant and bored people as pets and children's toys. For years he was kept in a much too small terrarium under a desk lamp on newspaper and sawdust with permanent lack of sunlight. His owners were firmly convinced that they were doing something good for him and were busy fattening him up on lettuce, fruit and vegetables. When the first health problems became noticeable and expensive veterinary examinations suddenly became necessary, they quickly lost interest and sold him off at the nearest reptile exchange. Another animal dealer then tried to smuggle him across the border into Switzerland in order to sell him profitably in a rest stop parking lot to an eccentric lover of exotic animals as an expensive prestige object. However, it was discovered at customs and confiscated due to missing documents. He then ended up hypothermic in an overcrowded animal sanctuary, where it was quite overwhelmed to keep a Radiated Tortoise in a species-appropriate manner over the long term. Since Schelbi was now struggling with significant health problems, he was finally able to be placed in expert hands and in a species-appropriate husbandry situation.

Throughout his life, Schelbi suffered from serious deficiency symptoms and metabolic disorders such as dwarfism, rickets (deformation of the skeleton with a collapsed carapace), gout, fatty liver, chronic diarrhea with diffuse inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, and kidney failure. Although he was allowed to spend the last few years in a species-appropriate environment, he finally succumbed to the consequences of multiple organ failure. It is estimated that Schelbi was not even 40 years old. The martyrdom of the Radiated Tortoise Schelbi is representative of the suffering of many tortoises worldwide. Please help so that such tragic fates do not repeat themselves!

Specialized tortoise doctors in Switzerland

In principle, we recommend that you always have sick animals examined as early as possible in a practice that specializes in tortoises. Especially if you are unsure, it is better to visit the vet once too much than too little, because often the greatest need for action is required when you notice the disease. Therefore, find out in good time about a suitable and competent tortoise practice in your area. In Switzerland we can recommend the following veterinary practices:

  • Exotic Practice
    Dr. med. vet. Isabelle Zulauf
    Sinserstrasse 120, 6330 Cham, Switzerland
    Phone: +41 41 531 88 11
    In addition to the medical care of reptiles, the exotic practice also offers high-quality mixtures of various dried grasses, flowers, herbs and leaves, which are ideal for feeding tortoises.

  • Small animal and bird practice
    Dr. med. vet. Peter Sandmeier, Dipl. ECZM (avian)
    Täfernstrasse 11b, 5405 Baden-Dättwil, Switzerland
    Phone: +41 56 481 81 21
    Specializing in endoscopic sexing of tortoises

FAQ on the subject of diseases

FAQ "...I bought two baby ray turtles a few weeks ago. Initially, they walked around curiously in the terrarium and went to the food well. Now they just lie in a corner and hardly move. Now I always have to put them directly in front of the food to eat. What could be the reason for this?"2022-04-11T08:58:53+02:00

Radiated tortoises that sit inactive and inappetent in a corner for a longer period of time show unmistakably that they are in a suboptimal housing situation and/or do not feel well. Check honestly and self-critically the offered housing conditions. Also read and study the recommendations for keeping the animals described on this website (especially regarding light, temperature, humidity, hygiene and food). If there is no improvement after the elimination of possible deficiencies or husbandry errors, it must be assumed that the animals are already seriously ill. In this case, consult a specialized veterinarian within a reasonable period of time. With early detection and prompt treatment, the chances of recovery are better.

FAQ "...Help, my ray turtle shows the following syptoms "..."! What does my turtle have and what can I do?"2022-03-05T13:16:03+01:00

More and more often we receive e-mails via RADIATA.CH from concerned owners of radiation turtles, who describe to us the symptoms of their sick animals. Even though we would like to help in every single case, we are not veterinarians and cannot make reliable remote diagnoses. Through our work and experience with Astrochelys radiata, we can sometimes express a suspicion in some cases, based on the symptoms described, but you should always discuss and verify with the veterinarian of your confidence.

As a first measure, we always recommend quarantining sick animals immediately under comfort care. Always keep sick animals warm on a clean and easy to clean surface and offer fresh green food. Careful bathing in low, warm water can help stabilize the water balance and relax the radiated tortoises. If possible, visit a specialized turtle clinic as soon as possible, because often the most urgent action is required as soon as the disease is noticed.


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