What can be done to fix a cracked shell?
The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions a turtle is the shell. This portable body armour is both their defining characteristic and the key to their evolutionary success.
I say this because a shell serves as protection from predators, which is a massive advantage for any small animal. With that in mind, it should be no surprise to us that for a turtle, a cracked shell is a pretty big deal!
Whilst shell injuries do occur naturally, studies have found that in many areas, anthropogenic (man-made) shell injuries are more common and more serious.
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An example of a species that illustrates this point is the endangered Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), who often falls victim to human activity in parts of its range.
In fact, one Canadian study found that Wood Turtles at an agricultural site had twice as many shell injuries and 2.7 times as many shell fractures as their woodland counterparts.
Natural shell injuries tend to be caused by predation from raccoons, skunks, and a whole host of other toothy animals.
In fact, I have even seen footage of an alligator chomping on a turtle for several minutes, before giving up because it couldn’t crack its shell! Though it sounds dramatic, attempted predation on adult turtles often results in gouges or scars that heal completely with time.
The problem with anthropogenic injuries, on the other hand, is that they tend to be severe fractures. This is because they are caused by cars, boats, agricultural machines or occasionally a fall – all of which can literally crack the bones of the shell.
This is the kind of injury you will most likely be dealing with if you find a turtle with a cracked shell, or if your own turtle has an accident.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at whether a turtle will die from a cracked shell, when to take the turtle to a vet, and how to fix a crack.
Will a turtle die from a cracked shell?
Turtles will not necessarily die from a cracked shell. Whether they survive depends on how extensive the cracking is, the care they receive, and whether infection sets in.
To understand how serious a cracked shell is, we need to understand the role that the shell plays in turtle biology and their immune system.
First of all, the shell is protection against predators and the outside world. It serves as a retreat to hide in, but also encases the internal organs to protect them from impacts. A serious shell injury can damage a turtle’s internal organs and impair its vital functions.
Secondly, the shell is a physical barrier to germs. The shell’s outer layer is made up of hard keratin (the scutes) and a sliver of living tissue underneath.
The bones of the shell are the next layer, under which the internal organs can be found. A crack that pierces the bone layer directly exposes the animal’s organs to outside pathogens – massively increasing the chances of infection.
Fortunately, exotics veterinarians can save many turtles with shell injuries. That said, you should let what I’ve said above guide your expectations: the smaller the crack is, the more likely it is the turtle will survive.
When to consult a vet
Before doing anything, make sure it is definitely a crack! This might seem obvious to an experienced keeper, but not for beginners. Most turtles have lines between the scutes on their carapace and plastron, giving them a patch-work appearance.
On older specimens the scutes can appear more sculpted and the lines deeper – but they are not cracks, and always follow the borders of the scutes.
Another thing that can be mistaken for a crack is the hinge present on some turtles.
Though most people associate a hinge with the terrestrial Box turtles (Terrapene and Cuora), some reasonably aquatic species also have one, a good example being the Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii). Again, a hinge is a natural feature and no cause for concern.
Tell-tale signs of a genuine crack are bleeding or exposed bone. If you’re certain it’s a crack, then attention from a vet is advised. If you can get to a vet, do so immediately – preferably to a reptile specialist.
When taking the turtle to a vet, consider the following:
I have seen successful veterinary treatment on cracked shells over the years… but helping a turtle with a shattered shell is much more complicated.
Often, these animals do not survive unless given specialist treatment. Rather, treatment prolongs their suffering for weeks or months. In my opinion, a turtle with a severely shattered shell should be euthanized, unless it can be taken to a specialist reptile vet.
If you take a turtle in this condition to a general practice veterinarian, you should have a frank discussion about what is fairest to the animal. Sometimes the hardest decision is the kindest.
What can be done to fix a cracked shell?
If you take a turtle with a cracked shell to a reptile vet, they will help with a combination of pain management, infection control and shell repair.
Pain management and infection control involve administering analgesics (pain killers) for the former, and antibiotics for the latter. If the injury affects the spinal cord, ongoing rehabilitation may also be required.
Shell repair is generally done by using “bridges” made of metal/plastic brackets or zip-ties.
These stabilise fractures because the “bridges” are glued to either side and keep them from moving. This allows the turtle’s natural healing ability to kick in.
It sounds simple, but mobile wounds never heal, and that is one of the reasons this method has received support from specialists.
Generally, a turtle undergoing this kind of treatment will need to stay at the vet’s for weeks or months before being released into your care.
After treatment, you will be given instructions on how to keep him/her safe during home recovery.
Formerly, fiberglass patches and wires were widely used, but these are being phased out by the bridge technique.
Some vets believe that the fibre glass technique added to the risk of infection, whereas drilling holes for wires could worsen cracking.
Below is a video of a vet who has a snapping turtle that came in with a cracked shell. It will give you a bit more perspective on how some vets will handle the issue.
I can’t get to a vet for days! What can I do?
This information is for an emergency scenario, where a vet is unavailable for more than 48 hrs and the cracks are fresh.
I wouldn’t normally consider this possibility, but the coronavirus crisis has shown me that anything can happen! If you can’t see a vet, follow these steps to stabilise the crack(s):
- Ignore Youtube videos telling you to glue the cracks together with epoxy resin or epoxy-soaked fiberglass! This can lead to epoxy dripping into the body cavity! Also, closing wounds with epoxy won’t allow for ongoing wound cleansing and treatment.
- Gently clean the cracks with wet cloth or cotton swabs and remove fly eggs, maggots or dirt with a pair of tweezers.
- Select a bridge material. Metal strips or metal/plastic brackets work fine. Thick zip ties also work.
- Identify each segment of broken shell and decide where to place the ends of your bridge(s).
- Use quick-drying epoxy to glue one end of a bridge to one side of the crack, and the other end to the other side of the crack. DO NOT let epoxy enter cracks!
Hold the two sides as close to their original position as possible until the Epoxy dries – making them join is ideal. Repeat the process for each crack until the whole shell is rigid.
- Apply silver sulfadiazine cream (“silver ointment”) to the wounds. This will help prevent infection. Re-apply daily.
- Keep the animal at a temperature of 80-85F (26-29C), and away from flies. This might sound a little warm for some species but will help immune function. A storage tub with holes covered by gauze works well. Add slightly damp paper towels to make it more comfortable.
- If the crack is on its carapace, give it a shallow bath for an hour each day. If the crack is on its plastron, put the turtle’s nose in water to drink, but don’t give it the bath. Water must not enter the cracks!
- Keeping trying to get to a vet!
Again, don’t try this unless there is genuinely no way you can get to a vet. It is painful for the animal, and less likely to succeed without analgesics and antibiotics. As always, bear in mind that stressed turtles will bite.
I hope this article has given you an idea of how serious a cracked shell is, and why tackling the problem on your own is not recommended. Dealing with an injured animal is always traumatic, and we tend to feel guilty whatever the outcome.
I know, I’ve been there. Notwithstanding, the silver lining in this situation is that if your turtle has a cracked shell, it is not necessarily a “goner”. With the help of an exotic animal vet, many turtles do make a full recovery.
Years ago, cracked shells had a low long-term survival rate, but these days some turtle rehabilitation specialists are reporting a survival rate of over 70%! Don’t give up hope!