My tortoise’s shell is peeling. Should I be concerned? It is only right to feel worried when you find that your tortoise’s shell is peeling, especially if you’re a new tortoise parent, but shell peeling is a natural process that tortoises go through. As a tortoise grows, it slowly, gently and naturally sheds skin and shell as it grows up. Unlike snakes, the shedding won’t occur in one uniform piece, but instead in flaky patches. Shedding helps tortoises grow new skin, grow a bigger shell, and helps rejuvenate the body to protect it from diseases. It is a perfectly normal cycle that happens throughout their lives.
What are tortoise shells made of?
Tortoise shells have a carapace (the top or dorsal shell) and a plastron (the bottom or ventral shell), both of which should always be hard. These parts are connected to the side of a tortoise’s body as a way to protect its organs and the majority of its body. The tortoise shell is made up of visible sections referred to as scutes. Scutes are made of keratin, the same substance that your fingernails and hair are made of. The keratin sits over a layer of epithelium, which then covers the bony shell beneath. The epithelium secrets newer and bigger scutes under the outer scutes as the tortoise grows. A tortoise’s shell is part of their skeletal structure, and thus they cannot take off their shell. Shedding thus won’t happen inside the tortoise’s shell, just the outside.
Why is my tortoise’s shell shedding?
Tortoises don’t actually shed their shells. Instead, they shed the outer layer of keratin that protects the shell. Some reasons your tortoise might be shedding:
- Your tortoise may be growing
A tortoise shells’ primary reason for shedding is to grow. To ensure growth, the epithelium will grow new scutes which push their way outwards to replace the old scutes. These old scutes are then in turn forced from the tortoise’s body, making them look like they’re peeling prior to coming away. If the old scutes remained in place, this would make it difficult for the tortoise to grow to its full size with a healthy shell. Just as humans shed skin, tortoises need to rejuvenate their scutes with a fresh, healthy later to avoid brandish old wear and tear.
Some ways you can tell this is happening are:
- Shell increases gradually in size
- Shell becomes stronger and firmer
- Scutes become more translucent
- New layer of scutes develop underneath the old shell
- Your tortoise may be sanding their shell
Tortoises love to burrow and hide underground, which means that its shell may grind against the substrate the tortoise moves in and out of. You may find bits and pieces of your tortoise’s shell peeling away because of it. This is nothing to worry about as it's very common in some tortoises’ species and does not put them at risk for infection.
- Your tortoise may be sick.
Despite shedding being a natural process, illness or injury can sometimes cause a tortoise to shed unnaturally. Watch out for these signs and if they appear, bring your tortoise to see a vet.
- Develop skin or scutes that are unhealthy
- Scutes will flake off in patches
- Red, inflamed, discolored, or bleeding marks will be left behind
- Skin has a strange texture, appears irritated or creates an unpleasant smell
- Abnormal shedding of scutes
- Tortoise’s fragile organs are exposed
- Shell rot
- A type of ulcerative bone disease
- Causes scutes of a tortoise’s shell to fall out
- Internal organs are exposed
- Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
- Caused by an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus in the body
- A weakened carapace and plastron
- Shell is vulnerable to cracks and fractures
- May cause scutes to peel off until none are left
- Shell Pyramiding
- Scutes are pushed upwards
- Weakens shell structure and susceptible to breaking and peeling off
How to help your tortoise to shed?
You might get irritated by all the flaking skin or brandishing patches that don’t seem to come off. Never peel off the skin directly! Here are some ways to help the shedding process without hurting your tortoise.
- Increase the humidity of your tortoise’s enclosure. The old skin becomes softer in moist environment which makes it easier to peel off. Using grass and mulch that have a high moisture-retention can also help with humidity.
- Soak your tortoise in water regularly. This will help the skin come loose naturally, especially the outer layer of dead skin. Moreover, soaking your tortoise can also help your tortoise to stay hydrated, thereby making the new skin underneath healthier and more effective in pushing off the old skin.
- Keep your tortoise’s enclosure clean. A dirty enclosure will make it difficult for your tortoise to shed in clean flakes. This will also minimize the risk of infection as your tortoise regenerates its clean, and provides your tortoise fresh, clean objects to rub against and naturally remove flaking skin.
We’ve come to the end of the article! The shedding cycle should be a stress-free process for your tortoise. If you see signs of illness or distress, or even if you’re in doubt regarding medical matters for your tortoise, consult a vet immediately.