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UC Davis Exotics Specialists Surgically Remove Inactive Tortoise Eggs

April 1, 2015

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UC Davis exotics veterinarians had to surgically remove inactive eggs from Tiny Tim.

VMTH "Case of the Month" - April 2015

Tiny Tim, an approximately 40-year-old desert tortoise, was brought to the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital because of a decreased appetite. The owners had acquired the tortoise in 1980 and never knew the sex, so it was given a masculine name. Once at UC Davis, though, it was quickly discovered that Tiny Tim was a female.

The hospital’s Companion Exotic Animal Medicine & Surgery Service began evaluating Tiny Tim by conducting multiple diagnostic tests, which included radiographs that easily identified her as a female. The x-ray images from the radiographs revealed six eggs in the main area of her body cavity. The shells of the eggs appeared heavily calcified and were abnormally thick.

Eggs in a tortoise can remain there for months or even years if she cannot find the proper place to lay them, or if there is a medical issue causing her to be unable to pass them. The thickness of the eggs revealed to Dr. David Guzman that they had been in the reproductive tract for a long time—at least since last breeding season—and were not fertile. (Tiny Tim didn’t have a known mate.) The eggs, however, were of normal size and could potentially be passed from her body without surgery.

Dr. Guzman, along with a team of veterinary residents, students, and technicians, began treating Tiny Tim with supportive therapy in an attempt to get her to pass the eggs naturally, including fluid injections under the skin and lukewarm water soaks. Tiny Tim was then administered injections of oxytocin. Oxytocin increases uterine muscular contractions, such that eggs are more likely to be passed. This all had to be closely monitored due to the risks of pushing the eggs into the bladder or coelom, or uterine tears. She was also given injections of calcium, since muscle contractions require calcium, and her blood work indicated that her calcium level was lower than normal. She was also given an injection of an antibiotic to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

Only three eggs passed with medical management, leaving three remaining. Medical management is preferable to surgically removing the eggs due to risks of anesthesia. However, with surgical therapy, an ovariosalpingectomy (removal of the ovaries and oviduct [uterus]) could be performed to eliminate risks of reproductive associated disease in the future.

It was determined that Tiny Tim was not going to pass the three remaining eggs at that time, so she was sent home for a week to see if the eggs would pass. There may have been underlying reasons why Tiny Tim wasn’t passing her eggs. One possibility was the lack of suitable places for digging burrows in which to lay the eggs. Desert tortoises dig multiple burrows as deep as 20 inches into the soil to hide their eggs. If the soil is too compact in her yard, Tiny Tim may have a tough time digging into it. Her owners dug up the earth in a few places so that the dirt was loosely packed. If she was able to dig, Tiny Tim may lay her remaining eggs and avoid surgery.

Unfortunately, she did not lay the eggs, and her inappetence continued. She was brought back to UC Davis a week later for one more day of oxytocin therapy. By the next morning, Tiny Tim had not passed any of the three remaining eggs so she was placed under general anesthesia and prepared for surgery. Dr. Guzman, assisted by veterinary residents, students and technicians, then surgically removed her ovaries, oviducts and the remaining eggs.

The surgery was longer than expected, but successful. The ovariosalpingectomy was performed using the prefemoral fossa approach, which utilizes the soft area of body wall just in front of the rear legs, such that Tiny Tim had a shorter healing time (about 6-8 weeks) compared to cutting through the shell (transplastron approach). Tiny Tim made a full recovery, and will not have to worry about any potentially negative reproductive issues in the future.

About the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital
The William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis—a unit of the #1 nationally ranked School of Veterinary Medicine—provides state-of-the-art clinical care while serving as the primary clinical teaching experience for DVM students and post graduate veterinarian residents. The VMTH treats more than 48,000 animals a year, ranging from cats and dogs to horses, cows and exotic species. To learn more about the VMTH, please go to Timely news updates can be received on its Facebook ( and Twitter ( pages.

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Rob Warren
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