How do turtles heal from injury to their shells?
You may have found a wild turtle with a bad crack in its shell.
You may have noticed some on your pet turtle or tortoise’s back.
How did it happen?
What will a vet do to fix it?
Will it heal on its own?
It is normal to be concerned about an injury to a turtle, wild or captive.
Shell cracks, even small ones, may lead to more severe and life-threatening problems like infections.
However, with proper veterinary care and attention, a turtle is more likely to survive an injury.
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Can A Turtle Live With A Cracked Shell?
Depending on the crack’s severity, most turtles, tortoises, and terrapins do survive a cracked shell. However, a cracked shell will require veterinary attention.
Any crack to the shell, since it is a protector of internal organs and bones, may mean potential internal damages as well.
Rest, recuperation, and proper stabilization and cleaning of the wound aid in proper healing.
Any extensive damage or exposure of internal organs will generally mean a turtle, tortoise, or terrapin will not survive.
If your pet has a cracked shell, we recommend contacting your exotics veterinarian.
If you find an animal with a cracked shell in the wild, we recommend contacting your local wildlife rescue organization for the next steps.
Exposed bone and bleeding are sure signs a turtle or tortoise needs immediate help.
Inexperienced turtle, tortoise, or terrapin keepers and enthusiasts may confuse patterns on the animal’s carapace or their hinges for cracks in the shell.
Ensure an animal has a crack in its shell before bringing them to a vet or wildlife rescue organization.
Common Causes Of A Cracked Turtle Shell
There are a few commonly seen causes of an injury to a turtle’s shell.
Dog Attack Or Attack From Another Predator
Unfortunately, a dog may find a turtle or tortoise in its territory and think it’s a new chew toy.
Since these animals tend to move slowly, they are easy for a fast-moving creature like a dog to catch.
A puncture wound to the shell, like a dog would cause, is more likely to cause internal infection and piercing damage than other causes of cracking.
You must take the turtle or tortoise to a vet or wildlife rescue organization right away if a dog has gotten it.
Outdoor captive turtles are more likely to come in contact with larger predators.
These not only include dogs but raccoons and birds of prey.
To protect any pet turtles or tortoises in outdoor enclosures, make sure to secure the top of your habitat with a cover.
Something as simple as wire mesh in a wooden frame keeps pets in without hurting them if they climb too close and keeps dogs and other predators out.
Turtle Or Tortoise Fights
Though they are usually not aggressive animals, males will fight each other over female turtles and tortoises during mating season.
These fights make it more likely a turtle will be pushed into a sharp or hard object like a rock, causing a crack.
Pet turtles and tortoises are well-known for their escape-artist tactics.
Sometimes, they are successful, and depending on where their vivariums are; they may fall over a distance to a hard surface.
This may cause a shell crack or another injury.
Make sure your pet’s enclosure is truly escape-proof.
You may want to set soft rugs or towels on the floor around it, just in case.
Many pet turtles and tortoises are accidentally dropped during handling, often by children.
Since they prefer not to be handled in general, they may fight to escape a human grip.
Make sure you or anyone who handles your pet knows the proper handling technique.
Handle gently but firmly to prevent escape.
Wild turtles may get injured by unintentional falls as well.
Hit By Human Machinery
When turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are most active in spring and summer, humans are most active outdoors, boating, farming, and driving around.
This is the year when turtles are often hit by cars, boats, or agricultural machines like tractors and threshers.
These machines’ height makes it difficult for people piloting them to see small, slow animals like turtles crossing roads, fields, or swimming past.
These large machines tend to cause more severe shell cracks and trauma to turtles and tortoises than predators.
It is not likely a turtle who’s had a run-in with a car or boat will survive, especially if the run-in has caused internal crush injuries.
This cause is more likely in captive turtles than wild ones.
A turtle in poor health, malnourished, or living in unhygienic conditions, may develop shell ulcers or pitting.
Their shells may also be weaker, especially if they are not receiving enough calcium.
A veterinarian will want you to address these husbandry causes before fixing the ulcers.
Can A Turtle Shell Repair Itself?
Yes, a shell will heal together, but it will take some time.
A turtle, tortoise, or terrapin shell is made of living tissues, mostly keratin.
When properly cared for, these issues will eventually and slowly knit themselves together, healing any cracks or injuries.
However, this healing does not mean you should just ignore the crack.
You will need to address it.
This is why we recommend taking any injured reptile to an exotics veterinarian or wildlife rescue.
They are better equipped to assess a shell crack and treat potential infections.
How Long Will The Healing Process Take?
Turtles and tortoises generally take longer to heal than other animals.
Usually, unless there is an infection, any soft tissue injuries underneath the shell crack will heal in 2-3 weeks.
The shell may take 4 to 18 months to knit together.
Some cracks may take years to fully heal and may need to be monitored as the turtle ages.
When Should I Take A Turtle With A Cracked Shell To The Vet?
Even if your pet or a wild turtle has a small and seemingly insignificant crack, you should contact a veterinarian for care anyway.
They have the expertise necessary to assess an injury and determine if anything has been injured internally or if an animal has developed an infection because of the crack.
If the crack is small enough, a vet should also give you information on treating your pet’s injury at home.
A veterinarian should address large cracks.
This especially applies to cracks with exposed bone or injuries which are bleeding.
Like those from dogs or raccoons, predator attacks cause puncture wounds that are more likely to get infected.
Any injury like this means you should call your vet or a wildlife rescue as soon as possible.
Larger wounds will require more specialist attention.
Turtles with “shattered” shells, or shells with multiple cracks, will need extensive rebuilding, usually with a combination of epoxy, resin, fiberglass patches, metal or plastic brackets (“bridges”), or zip ties.
This specialist treatment will take a lot of time, meaning your pet may be in the care of a vet for weeks or months before being released back to you.
In the case of wild turtles, it may be weeks or months before they are re-released into their former habitat.
If the turtle’s injury has affected their spinal cord, they will need ongoing rehabilitation.
If this happens to a wild turtle, it means they will need to be in captivity for the rest of their lives.
Your vet, or a wildlife rescue, will be better able to assess if the shell and body damage is too extensive, and euthanasia may be a more humane solution.
A turtle rarely survives extensive shattering of its shell, and the weeks and months required for specialist treatment and reconstruction may merely extend an animal’s suffering in an attempt to save it.
This is not an easy decision, especially if the injury has happened to your beloved pet.
However, it may be the only solution to the grave and life-threatening damage.
Can I Fix A Turtle Shell At Home?
There are do-it-yourself procedures for turtle & tortoise cracked shell repair.
However, we only recommend a do-it-yourself solution if there’s no exotics veterinarian in reach.
We also recommend taking the animal to an exotics veterinarian as soon as possible, as they will be able to check your work and adjust it as needed.
You may see older resources presenting a solution using fiberglass patches and epoxy resin after extensive and repeated cleaning of the wound.
However, this method is being phased out in favor of using plastic bridges or zip-ties to facilitate the shell tissues growing back together.
These methods do a better job of protecting a turtle from epoxy and other toxic chemicals getting into sensitive parts of their body.
It also allows for more frequent cleaning of the wound, preventing bacteria and other pathogens from being trapped in the turtle’s body.
Keep The Turtle Dry
It is vital to keep the turtle or tortoise completely dry as you are continually cleaning their shell crack.
Even if you are just waiting to go to the vet, keep the injured turtle in a separate, dry enclosure from the others.
Though this may be difficult for aquatic or semiaquatic turtles, since they are used to swimming, continued exposure to water will mean repeated exposure to dirt and bacteria, which will easily enter a cracked shell.
Also, keep the turtle or tortoise in an enclosure where they won’t get stuck to anything during the healing process.
The rebuilding process may involve many glue, and bridges and zip ties may get caught on items in a regular turtle enclosure.
A plastic container large enough for the animal with nothing on the bottom of it should work nicely.
Add A Bridge
Use either heavy-duty zip ties or a metal or plastic bracket, gluing each side of the bridge or block of the zip tie on either side of the crack with fast-drying epoxy glue.
This will encourage the tissues of the shell to grow back together without completely plugging the wound.
You should still be able to clean the crack with the brackets or zip ties there.
Clean The Wound
Use a chlorhexidine solution or diluted iodine on a q-tip to clean the wound every day for about a week.
You may also apply silver ointment every day.
Complete cleaning will keep the shell and other tissues free of pathogens or bacteria, which could cause a worse infection like shell rot.
Keep The Heat Up
Slightly higher temperatures will help boost your turtle’s immune system and facilitate quicker and easier healing during their recovery process.
Keep the ambient temperature in your quarantine enclosure at 80-85° degrees Fahrenheit (26-29° C).
Get The Turtle To The Vet
It is still important to schedule a vet appointment when able.
Your veterinarian will run tests, adjust your brackets if need be, and look for infections or defects.
In the case of an infection, your vet will prescribe antibiotics.
Administer any medication as directed for at least a week.
Young Turtles Will Need Extra Care
If your injured turtle is still growing, you or your vet will need to monitor the crack site as they grow, especially since it will probably take a few years for any crack to fully heal.
You or your vet may need to reapply bridges and clean the crack regularly.
Can A Turtle Survive Without Its Shell?
A shell is an integral part of a turtle’s body.
Not only is a turtle’s shell attached to its skeletal structure, but it also protects its vital internal organs.
To remove a turtle’s shell would be akin to removing a human’s skin and spinal cord.
A turtle would not survive, just as a human would not survive.
Shells not only provide protective armor for a turtle.
They further protect a turtle from germs, parasites, and other pathogens which cause disease and infection.
Shells protect the internal organs of a turtle, tortoise, or terrapin from becoming overheated.
Many turtles and tortoises can retract their heads and legs fully into their shells for further protection.
Not only is a shell a protective organ for a turtle or tortoise, but it also aids in tasks which require strength and leverage.
These include digging and balancing.
If you see a turtle shell without a turtle inside, it does not mean the turtle has outgrown its shell or is living without it.
A shell without a turtle is what remains of a dead turtle.
Do Turtles And Tortoises Feel Pain Through Their Shells?
The shell of a turtle, tortoise, or terrapin is made of keratin, the same material which makes up human hair and nails.
Just as humans feel pain through their fingers and toenails when they bump or crack them, a turtle or tortoise will definitely feel pressure and pain through its shell.
Just as it is essential to care for a damaged finger or toenail, it is even more essential to take care of a cracked turtle shell.
How Do Turtle-Shells Grow?
Since they are firmly part of turtles’, tortoises’, and terrapins’ bodies, their shells grow with them as they get older.
Unlike other reptiles, which shed their skin, aquatic turtles frequently shed the outer parts of their shells or their scutes.
You may have seen turtle-shell colored, thin pieces of keratin in your turtles’ enclosures.
These are shed scutes.
Most of the time, shell peeling, as it’s called, is a natural process of growth.
A turtle, however, may also peel frequently because of an underlying infection or illness.
Turtles also shell peel in order to rid their shells of dirt and algae, which may inhibit shell growth.
To promote healthy shell peeling, make sure all the controls in your turtle’s environment (humidity, temperature, water filtering) are appropriate and up to date.
Make sure you are giving your pet plenty of calcium to promote healthy shell development.
Yes, depending on the severity of the crack, a turtle can live with a cracked shell.
Over time, months to years, the tissue of the shell will knit together and fully heal the crack.
However, some cracks or shattering may be too extensive or severe, leading to a greater risk of the turtle, tortoise, or terrapin dying.
Any wound to the shell would increase the chances of potential infection, especially if the wound was caused by a larger mammalian predator.
If your pet turtle or tortoise has a cracked shell, contact your veterinarian.
If you find a turtle in the wild with a cracked shell, contact your local wildlife rescue organization.
Any size crack needs at least some veterinary attention.
We only recommend using do-it-yourself instructions if you absolutely cannot get the animal to a trusted expert.