The Ear, Nose & Mouth

The Ear

Tortoises don’t hear like humans do. They respond mostly to low frequencies and sounds. If yours seems to come towards you when you call, it has more than likely heard your footsteps or has seen you entering the room or enclosure. A tortoises eardrum is located just behind the mouth and is just below a small circular scale. This is usually flat or slightly concave. If you need to open the tortoise mouth for whatever reason try to avoid adding any pressure to this area. Bulging or swelling may indicate a problem such as an infection or abscess, it is advisable to seek advice from a vet in these circumstances so that any treatment can be given. The middle ear is actually connected to the rear of the mouth by a small tube called the Eustachian tube. If the tortoise has an ear infection secreted pus may appear at the internal opening.

The Nose

Tortoises have an extremely good sense of smell. They use their nose for all manner of things including identifying foods and using it to locate members of the opposite sex. All tortoises breathe through their nose, so any signs of breathing through the mouth could indicate a respiratory problem.

If a tortoise has recently consumed a succulent food such as Aloe Vera, small amounts of liquid may appear through the nostrils from the back of the mouth. Normally the nose and the area around the nostrils should be dry.

Respiratory infections are also commonly known as RIs. There are two different diseases they are called LRTD or URTD depending on where they are located. LRTD or Lower Respiratory Tract Disease is Pnuemonia and tortoises like all reptiles are susceptible to this. URTD is Upper Respiratory Tract Disease and is one that is located in the head or neck. This is commonly known as RNS (Runny Nose Syndrome) or the correct term rhinitis. This can be bought on by a sudden temperature drop or if a new tortoise is introduced that is a carrier. In both cicrumstances it is best practice to isolate the tortoise with the symptoms. Keeping it warm under a lamp for a few days. If the symptoms fail to clear up after a few days a course of antibiotics may be required. If the discharge from the nose seems to be of a gelatinous consistency or purulent it is more serious. In either case veterinary treatment is required.

It appears that only tortoises seem to affected by URTDs and it important to note that this can be caused by one or a mixture of the following.

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Stress
  • Poor Husbandry such as low temps or poor diet.

A discharge or substance coming from only one nostril may indicate a foreign body or a bacterial infection and as a result such cases will also need the attention of a vet and a suitable treatment which will be prescribed.

The Mouth

Located, well more hidden in the roof of the mouth is a very sensitive patch which is called the Jacobsen’s Organ. The job of the Jacobsen’s Oragan is to assist in a tortoises keen sense of smell. You often see a tortoise sitting or basking whilst it’s throat is pumping, this is because the tortoise is circulating air through the nose and around the mouth to detect sent particles.

A tortoises bite is very strong, however they don’t chew. They manipulate the food in their mouth where it is mixed with saliva before swallowing. If the maxilla or Parrot Beak as its sometime called is allowed to overgrow, it can cause major problems for a tortoise when eating. It can be easily corrected and is rectified by clipping, by carefully removing small bits at a time it then needs to be filed, it is important to only remove small pieces at any one time to prevent splitting, which can be another problem in its own. The introduction of tough food to the diet can help to keep this at a good length, such as cauliflower stumps, or the use of cuttlefish bones. Its also recommended to place their food on a piece of slate which also helps to file down their beak.

Another problem that can occur is an undershot mandible, which is the lower jawbone. An undershot manidble is also sometimes called bulldog jaw. This can be caused by either congenital misalignment or dietary deficiencies, it is alway best to get this or any signs of an undershot mandible checked out by a vet, as it may be impossible to correct.

An active tortoises mouth and tongue should usually be a healthy fleshy pink colour. But may change depening on what they eat. A toroises with an orange or brown mouth does not necessarily have jaundice, this can simply be caused by staining from the sap in thistles or dandelions for example. Behind the fleshy tongue of a tortoise is the glottis, this is the area where a stomach tube for force feeding should be passed through. It should always easily slide over the glottis and down the oesophagus. After waking from hibernation there can sometimes be a white or yellowish deposit around the inside of the mouth or on the tongue. This can usually be carfully scraped off with a little bit of firm pressure with the use of a cotton bud. It is then advised to wipe the mouth out with an antiseptic Betadine solution. Betadine should always be diluted with water as the solution straight out of a bottle is neat in most cases. You should keep a check on it over the next few days and if it hasn’t disappeared it could be a case of mouth rot (stomatitis), in this case it is best to see your vet as soon as possible. If your tortoise goes off of its food, you should inspect it’s mouth and if stomatitis is present, immediate treatment and isolation are essential to prevent it being passed onto other tortoise in the ‘herd’.

It’s a good idea to check your tortoises mouth often to check for any signs off infection or other problems. Even if nothing is found the tortoise will get used to you opening it’s mouth, if the need ever arises where you must open their mouth they will already be used to you doing it, which will make the job a little easier.