Shell on wheels: OSU vets treating paralyzed tortoise

The staff at OSU's Boren Veterinary Medical Center used a skateboard to make Radar, a 70 pound Sulcata tortoise whose back legs are partially paralyzed, more comfortable. Radar, one of the newest residents at Oliver and Friends Farm Rescue and Sanctuary, is staying at OSU while veterinarians try to figure out why he can't walk. Photo courtesy of OSU Veterinary Medical Center staff via Oliver and Friends Farm Rescue and Sanctuary

Tortoises aren’t known for their speed, but Radar, a 70-pound Sulcata tortoise who recently came to Oliver and Friends Farm Rescue and Sanctuary, sometimes can’t move at all. Since Wednesday, the team at Oklahoma State University’s Boren Veterinary Medical Center has been trying to figure out why his back legs don’t work properly.

Radar came to Oliver and Friends from Oklahoma Tortoise Rescue on Aug. 26 with serious damage to his shell and problems getting around, co-founder Jennie Hays said.

The tortoise rescue reached out to her because Oliver and Friends has become well known for taking on medical cases that others can’t or don’t deal with. They often take animals that would otherwise die or be euthanized.

Shell on wheels: OSU vets treating paralyzed tortoise

Radar, a 70 pound Sulcata tortoise undergoing treatment for paralysis at OSU's Boren Veterinary Medical Center, suffered severe damage to his shell at some point, probably caused by a heat lamp or exposure to chemicals. 

Radar’s previous caretakers were under the impression he had suffered frost bite and wasn’t eating or passing waste because he might have ingested some wire.

Hays says it’s hard to know what has actually happened to rescue animals until they get checked out by a veterinarian. So she called on OSU’s teaching hospital, as she has for other extreme cases.

OSU surgeon Dr. Erik Clary operated on her hound puppy Milo, who was born with upside down paws. The veterinary staff at OSU also performed a major orthopedic surgery on one of her cows.

Hays said the staff told her they had never been able to perform that procedure on a cow before because most people wouldn’t pay for it.

She says at this point she has a pretty special relationship with the OSU veterinary hospital.

“I think it’s exciting for the students to be able to see unusual things and exotics,” Hays said. “I always have interesting cases.”

Now the staff at OSU is focusing on what might be keeping Radar from being able to move his back legs. He’s had a thorough exam, blood work and a CT scan, which didn’t show any broken bones or obvious injuries.

Shell on wheels: OSU vets treating paralyzed tortoise

"This is how you do a CT scan on a 70 pound tortoise." 

The vets have determined that Radar’s shell damage was likely caused by a heat lamp or a chemical burn and he doesn’t appear to have eaten any wire. He’s starting to eat well, which is a good sign, but they don’t have a clear answer for why his back legs work sometimes, then suddenly stop.

It could be an abscess or a mass or it could be some other type of spinal damage, they’re just not sure at this point. So the next step is an MRI, which is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

“The imaging will only 'maybe' tell us if there is a mass , whether of the abscess, tumor, or whatever variety and where it is. This is necessary as they can’t biopsy a mass (if there is one) if they don’t know where it is. We obviously can’t just go willy nilly drilling through his shell, Hays wrote Wednesday in a Facebook post. "Knowing if there is a mass doesn’t necessarily mean we can do anything about it either. It depends on where it is and all that jazz. However, if it is a treatable thing, such as an abscess, then we need the images to treat it.” 

To make Radar more comfortable while they look for an answer, the staff at OSU came up with a creative solution – place him on a skateboard.

He can’t always push himself, but the board puts his legs in a more natural position when he can’t move. Hays dubbed the tortoise “Tony Hawk” as she shared a photo the OSU vets had sent with her rescue’s Facebook followers.

The skateboard isn’t a perfect fit, but it may be similar to the solution Oliver and Friends adopts if the vets can’t resolve Radar’s issues.

Plan B involves creating a custom-fit, 3D printed shell with wheels mounted to it.

Shell on wheels: OSU vets treating paralyzed tortoise

Radar's appetite is good and he seems alert but the veterinarians at Oklahoma State University are still trying to determine why his back legs sometimes stop working. 

“I don’t take any animal in without a plan,” Hays said. “We’ve got chickens and goats in wheelchairs. My husband is pretty crafty.”

Radar isn’t their first tortoise. They already have another one that was run over by a lawn mower and will likely have special needs as he gets older due to those injuries.

Hays is focused on ensuring Radar has the best quality of life that he can, but that quest isn’t cheap.

His medical treatment has already racked up at least $850 in bills, which increase every day he stays in the hospital. The MRI will cost another $1,500-$1,800.

Oliver and Friends is asking people interested in helping to make a tax deductible contribution toward Radar’s care. Donations can be made through Paypal to or through OSU also has a way people can make donations by calling 405-744-7000 and pressing 1 for small and exotic animals, under Radar/Jennie Hays/Oliver and Friends.

For more information go to or follow Oliver and Friends Farm Rescue and Sanctuary on Facebook.

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

Recommended for you