Beak Overgrowth in Turtles and Tortoises
Turtles and tortoises do not have teeth, but instead grab and chew their food using the sharp edges of their beaks. If an animal’s beak becomes overgrown or does not wear properly, it may have difficulty eating.
Signs of abnormal beak growth include:
- Overgrown upper beak
- Upper and lower beaks that do not meet evenly
- Difficulty grabbing, chewing and/or swallowing food
Poor beak alignment often begins when a turtle or tortoise is fed an improper diet when it is young and growing. Diets that are high in protein or low in calcium (e.g., dog or monkey foods) cause abnormal bone development that results in malformation of the reptile's skull. A broken jaw that does not heal properly may also cause an individual’s beak to grow abnormally.
Reptiles that are fed primarily soft foods may not have adequate opportunities to chew and wear down its beak. Turtle and tortoise beaks grow continuously, just like fingernails, so unless the underlying problem is addressed, the condition will worsen with time.
A significantly overgrown or abnormally worn beak can usually be diagnosed by simply observing a turtle or tortoise’s facial structure. Watching the reptile attempt to eat can also provide important information. X-rays may be helpful if a traumatic injury is suspected.
An uneven or overgrown beak can be reshaped using a Dremel tool or similar rotary grinding device. The procedure is not painful, and sedation is usually not necessary.
Living and Management
In many cases, an affected turtle and tortoise will need to have its beak trimmed regularly to manage its condition unless an underlying problem can be corrected. If the animal can chew properly, crunchy foods can promote normal beak wear. Otherwise, soft food may be necessary to make sure that the pet gets proper nutrition. To promote normal skull growth in young turtles and tortoises, feed them a balanced and varied diet that meets all of the species’ nutritional needs.
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