When caring for reptiles, it is essential to learn about illness and diseases that they can be susceptible to, and Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is one we need to know about in tortoises. With tortoises, we often call MBD as Soft Shell Syndrome, and despite the belief, it is caused by calcium deficiency, this is not the only reason.
However, wildly accepted Metabolic Bone Disease or Soft Shell Syndrome results from poor husbandry. Learning the correct care for tortoises is essential, and easy to keep elements like this away with a proper diet and housing.
Essential factors in both the prevention and treatment of metabolic bone disease:
- A balanced diet that contains calcium, protein, and other needed nutrients.
- UV light exposure
- Heat lamp exposure
- Correct day and night cycles
- Large enclosure to freely move for exercise
These are some of the key points in keeping MBD or SSS at bay but let’s dig a little deeper on the subject. Getting a complete understanding will stand you in good stead of not only keeping it at bay but spotting early signs of it happening.
What is Metabolic Bone Disease?
The term “Metabolic Bone Disease” is a catch-all term that means a softening or deformation of a tortoise’s shell and skeleton. Some MBD is caused by diseases like ‘Fibrous osteodystrophy’ being the most common. However, most cases of MBD are caused by poor diet and incorrect care.
The most common symptom being ‘Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism,’ which has a more common name in turtles and tortoises called “Soft Shell Syndrome.”
The root cause of MBD will come down to one of three things in most instances. Calcium deficiency, too much phosphorous, or too little vitamin D, but not exclusively as poor temps, poor hydration can have a significant bearing. Tortoise pyramiding is also a system and labeled as NSHP.
Getting your tortoise’s diet and housing set up correctly from the start will dramatically reduce the chances of your tortoise developing MBD.
But Why is Calcium so Important?
Whenever a tortoise has problems with its shell, it is common to hear people ask about the tortoise calcium intake, but why is it important. Just as in humans, calcium deficiency can lead to us having a greater risk of bone fractures which is the same for tortoises.
Sometimes your tortoise will have problems with metabolizing calcium, so you need to know the signs of calcium deficiency. You should keep a close eye on your tortoise and know the symptoms even if you feel you are offering your tortoise everything regarding diet and UV lighting.
Hatchling tortoise will have a softer shell for 6-8 months, but the shell should quickly harden after this.
However, if your tortoise goes beyond this point without the shell hardening, then the chances are your tortoise is not taking on enough calcium. Soft Shell Syndrome will be straightforward to spot during this time, and it will appear your tortoise is outgrowing their shell.
What Are The Symptoms of Soft Shell Syndrome?
Whether new or old, people find it hard to spot early signs of soft shell syndrome, and in some, some don’t recognize the symptoms when they are extreme. Believing it is just how their tortoise breed looks.
NSHP or soft shell syndrome in tortoises shows itself in various ways, including softened, leathery, or rubbery shell. The problem is that before you see these more obvious signs to the eye, your tortoise may have issues with its bones.
Keeping a vigilant eye on your tortoise is always recommended, and looking for signs of shell pyramiding or raised scutes will give you an early warning something is not correct.
If you tortoise appears weak or starts to develop deformed limbs, splayed walking, dragging limbs, paralysis, and cloacal prolapses can all be early signs something is wrong.
If you leave Soft Shell Syndrome untreated, it, unfortunately, will lead to a slow and painful death of your tortoise.
IMPORTANT: Some tortoises, such as the Pancake Tortoise, have a “rubbery shell.” Also, don’t be overly concerned about hatchling tortoises having soft shells. This is normal as they need to be flexible to fit into an egg. You should only be concerned if the shell doesn’t develop into a hard shell after six months.
Risk Factors For Soft Shell Syndrome
We have already touched upon this throughout the article, but I feel it deserves its only section.
Catching Soft Shell Syndrome early is crucial and can be revered. However, I must say if the shell has become misshaped, this will be permanent.
If you leave Soft Shell Syndrome untreated, your tortoise will inherit many other problems, including and not exclusive to sore limbs. Eventually, A tortoise will be unable to move without pain, with the outcome being a painful death.
While the shell’s deformation is common in captive-bred tortoises, we should do our best to prevent it from happening. As is can lead to many graver consequences as we see above.
Soft Shell Syndrome Prevention
When I ever help anyone with Soft Shell Syndrome, they believe they are doing everything right. It can be a real puzzle, especially if you feel you are offing all the calcium your tortoise needs.
But it’s always worth having an extra pair of eyes to look over your setup, as in most instances, it is almost entirely due to problems in husbandry.
The big problem with this is that a tortoise requires more than just calcium to keep Soft Shell Syndrome at bay. UV lighting is a critical component in allowing the tortoise to process the calcium and take on other vital nutrients.
If you don’t supply or don’t supply UV lighting long enough, this can lead to SSS. Without the UV lighting, your tortoise will be unable to process the calcium you provide.
Don’t have anything in front of the UV light; even a transparent perspex sheet will dramatically reduce the effectiveness.
You want your tortoise to have direct unobstructed access to the bulb for around 8 to 10 hours per day.
The problems don’t stop there; without a heat source, your tortoise again will be unable to process the calcium.
All the components are needed to metabolize D3, which allows your tortoise to take on the calcium.
All components are key calcium source, heating, and UV lighting, and if you leave out one of the critical components, your tortoise will suffer.
Treatment of Soft Shell Syndrome
If your tortoise shows SSS signs, you want to take action as early as possible to reverse it.
If your tortoise is suffering from Soft Shell Syndrome and they are still eating and drink. You have more likely caught it early, and you should be able to treat and remedy it at home.
While it is commonly thought Soft Shell Syndrome to be a calcium deficiency, you may be tempted to overload your tortoise with additional calcium in the form of supplements and food in their diet. Try to avoid taking drastic steps; your tortoise will not appreciate being overloaded with a bitter supplement.
Our first step in remedying the problem is to take stock of your tortoise’s diet. Ensuring you have their diet on point is crucial, and each tortoise species has slightly different needs.
Next, you need to take a look at their living conditions. Are you supplying your tortoise with all they need to live a healthy life? Uninterrupted UV lighting for 8 to 10 hours per day along with a heat source.
Without these two components and for the right amount of time, your tortoise will be unable to metabolize calcium in its diet or supplements fully. You also want to make sure that nothing is blocking the UV light from covering most of the enclosure.
In most instances, you will find a problem in their diet or setup. If you can, I would ask someone more experienced to take a look. Two sets of eyes are better than one set, and most tortoise people will be happy to help.
Feeding your tortoise on a fully store-bought diet can lead to problems as it is well known that they can lack the nutrients required to keep your tortoise healthy. As tortoise owners, we want to replicate our tortoise’s diet as closely as possible to what they would have in the wild.
While store-bought greens can be used, you will want to supplement them with other wildflowers and greens such as dandelions and clover.
Calcium supplements are an excellent addition; however, there are a few things to keep in mind. Some people will jump the gun offering crushed eggs or supplements that are designed for people.
Supplement that is not designed for reptiles will often contain other minerals that are not intended for a tortoise. Leading to more problems for your tortoise than they started within the process.
You can get a calcium supplement designed explicitly for a tortoise, with the manufacturers saying it is impossible to overdose on. While this is great, they are still bitter and should only be sprinkled over food.
It’s common for tortoises to refuse point blank to eat their food when covered in calcium supplements. I can only put this down to the bitter taste.
If you have a tortoise that will not eat their food with calcium supplement on. Within the tortoise community, people have had great success adding the supplement to the tortoise bathing water. As your tortoise baths and take on the water, they will indirectly take on the supplement.
Cuttlefish bone and tortoise block are good additions to your tortoise enclosure. However, as your tortoise will only occasionally nibble at them, they are not the best solution, and the powdered calcium is best.
If you have done all the above and the problem is only getting worse and not better, you may need to visit a vet. I must point out that everything with a tortoise is slow, and the problem will not go overnight, but it shouldn’t worsen.
A vet will carry out many tests on your tortoise that we can not at home. The test will be able to show if your tortoise can metabolize the calcium we provide them correctly.
If your vet spots a problem, they will be able to offer your tortoise vitamin D3 injections and additional calcium supplements.
They will also be best to offer advice on getting the problem under control and revered.