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Veterinary Teaching Hospital

A leg for a longer, quality life

by Josh Babcock, College of Veterinary Medicine

Sometimes three legs are better than four.

Hulk, the Russian Tortoise, before surgery.

Take it from The Hulk, a 25-year-old, 5-inch long Russian tortoise that in many cases, can fit right in your hands.

The Hulk’s front right leg was so swollen he could barely peak his head out of his shell when he arrived at Washington State University last month, let alone get around.

“He is getting around well now,” said Terese Meyer, who runs Kennewick-based Northwest Tortoise. “He’s eating on his own, he is bright-eyed, adventurous; he is ready to live.” 

That wasn’t the case just a few weeks ago when Meyer brought The Hulk to WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital with two severely swollen right limbs.

Following a biopsy, exotics veterinarian Dr. Nickol Finch diagnosed The Hulk with tumorous calcinosis, a rare condition where calcified masses grow and spread under the skin. In The Hulk’s case, those masses, which may have been able to be treated if they were caught months earlier, grew so large it affected his mobility.

Ultimately, Dr. Finch had no choice but to amputate the leg.

“It’s always the last option, but it is an option,” Finch said. “We didn’t want to go that route, but we did for the sake of this tortoise and his overall quality of life.”

Meyer agrees, had the tortoise been brought to the veterinarian sooner, the amputation could have likely been avoided.

Now the 25-year-old reptile is bright-eyed, eating and happy with hundreds of tortoises as he recovers at the only nonprofit tortoise rescue in the Pacific Northwest – Meyer’s home.

“I try not to tell people how many (tortoises) I have,” Meyer said. “I’m kind of weird to start out with already.”

Currently, Russian tortoises are one of the trendy tortoises on the market. They can live up to 100 years in the wild, but due to improper care by owners, it is not likely for them to live past age 20 as pets. Meyer said many don’t even live a year.

A complete list of health information and other resources on how to properly care for a variety of common pet tortoises can be found on the Northwest Tortoise website. The materials are for novice or experienced keepers.

Finch and Meyer stress tortoise owners to pay close attention to odd behavior or health concerns in their animals. 

“We don’t have a good handle on how pain is sensed in reptiles, we just have to assume they do feel it,” Finch said. “Oftentimes, by the time you recognize a symptom it is already a serious health issue.”

As for the Hulk, he’s not quite out of the clear yet.

His back right leg still has some calcifications that will be removed in the coming weeks.

Finch and Meyer are still unsure what caused the tortoise’s condition, but they are certain he is better off than he was. Meyer said he was refusing to eat and she didn’t think he would have lived three more weeks without the surgery.

“What’s most frustrating is this may have been avoidable,” Meyer said.