Body Condition Scores for Desert Tortoises
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2012
Nadine Lamberski, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Escondido, CA, USA


Body condition scoring is a visual appraisal system that estimates average body energy reserves without using scales, calipers, or calculators.1,2 Since individuals can vary in size and shape, weight alone is not a good indicator of body condition. The body condition score (BCS) is based on an evaluation of muscle mass and fat deposits in relation to skeletal features and has been adapted to the desert tortoise. This score is dynamic and should improve if the animal is eating and body energy reserves increase. Conversely, the score will decrease if inanition persists or body energy reserves are depleted. A tortoise’s body condition will change with life stage, stage of reproduction, season of the year, drought, food availability, and disease. Therefore, this management tool can be used to monitor and compare populations over time.

BCS ranges from one to nine, with one being emaciated and nine being extremely obese. Assigning a BCS is a two-step process. The numbers are divided into three groups.

Step 1: Choose the grouping that best describes the tortoise at the current point in time.

a.  Under-condition (1–3): best assessed by degree of temporalis muscle atrophy and prominence of the sagittal crest

b.  Good condition (4–6): best assessed by degree of temporalis muscle development

c.  Over-condition (7–9): best assessed by degree of subcutaneous fat deposition.

Step 2: More accurately define the score by selecting one of the three numbers within the respective group. Choose the best fit for that individual at the current point in time.


The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the staff of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, Las Vegas, NV, in the development of this protocol.

Literature Cited

1.  Bewley JM, Schutz MM. Review: an interdisciplinary review of body condition scoring for cattle. The Professional Animal Scientist. 2008;24(6):507–529.

2.  Stevenson RD, Woods WA, Jr. Condition indices for conservation: new uses for evolving tools. Integr Comp Bio. 2006;46:1169–1190.


Speaker Information
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Nadine Lamberski, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Escondido, CA, USA

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