I’ve noticed that my tortoise has been straining and grunting when going to the bathroom recently and only urates are coming out. What does this mean?
Unlike mammals, when reptiles eliminate waste, both the urine and stool components come out at the same time from a single opening. The urine appears as a chalky white material, called urates, sometimes accompanied with a transparent liquid component. The stool is the dark part of the dropping. If the appearance of the normal dropping has changed, there is usually a medical reason. One reason that a tortoise would have only urates passing is if it has not been eating normally. In this instance there are few or no stools in the digestive tract coming through, so only urine/urates are passed. If the cause of the decreased appetite is not obvious, medical assistance with a reptile vet is recommended. Typically this scenario does not lead to straining, so it unlikely to be the cause of your tortoise’s symptoms.
Since your tortoise is straining and vocalizing there is probably a physical problem. This may include blockage with a foreign object or mass in the digestive tract, a stone in the cloaca (the chamber that stores the feces and urine/urates before elimination), inflammation from parasites or other infection, or even problems passing an egg (in a female tortoise). Ultimately, the tortoise should be seen for examination and testing to determine the cause and necessary treatments.
This week I saw a tortoise with similar symptoms. It was straining and grunting and making quite a commotion. Upon exam it was determined that it had a stone in the cloaca, called a cloacolith. With the tortoise under anesthesia, I was able to break down and flush out the chalky and sharp-edged stone, comprised of layers of urates, to relive the obstruction. Fortunately, the tortoise seemed much more comfortable after the procedure.
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Max Conn, DVM is the owner of Cat & Exotic Care of the CentralCoast, a full service veterinary hospital dedicated to the special needs of cats, birds, reptiles and small mammals. Cat & Exotic Care is located in PismoCoastPlaza, 565 Five Cities Drive, 805-773-0228. More information can be found at www.catandexoticcare.com.
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