The most important piece of advice we can give you is ‘know what species of tortoise you have and read up on it’. Different species require different things and if you get it wrong the tortoise will eventually become very ill and may die. Another thing to read up on is how big is the tortoise going to grow then you’ll know what size accommodation to provide; and remember that they can live for decades.
Tortoises need a diet that is high in fibre and calcium, and low in fat, protein and phosphorus, so step away from the dog and cat food. In the wild tortoises feed on a wide range of vegetation, which ensures they get all the nutrients’ they need. Because we have put them in captivity we have to keep their diet as close as possible to what they would eat in the wild. If you have to buy commercial food please read the ingredients as anything high in protein and contains sugar must be avoided: these are not the natural diet of tortoises. Stick to natural.
Read up on your species, as the wrong diet will eventually lead to health problems. For example, the African Hingeback eats mainly a mixture of grasses and hay, while a Burmese Brown mainly eats weeds and vegetation.
Make sure you wash vegetables, weeds and fruits to ensure there are no pesticides on them.
The mineral of concern with tortoises is calcium as this is important for many reasons, including growth of shell and skeleton, egg production and muscular function. There are calcium supplements on the market but do some investigating before you buy as some are too low in the calcium:phosphorus ratio. Go for products like Nutrobal (Vetark) and Arkvits (Vetark) that have ratios of 46:1 and 30:1. Below is a list that provides a good calcium:phosphus ratio:
Dandelion, plantains, sow thistle, rape, vetches, clover, dock, chickweed, dead nettles, wild pansy, hibiscus, nasturtium, bramble, mulberry, roses, cabbage, turnip, beet tops, mustards greens, parsley, broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrot tops, romaine lettuce, spring greens, swiss chard, kale, spinach, endive, watercress, chicory, mint and Chinese leaves such as pak choi.
Care needs to be taken when feeding spinach, swiss chard, cabbage and beet greens as these contain oxalates that bind calcium reducing its absorption by the gut. So feed them sparingly.
Food should be chopped or shredded, as tortoises’ just bite and swallow. Fed from a dish or on a tiled area away from the substrate.
Water and bathing
Water should be provided in either a bowl or try and no deeper than is necessary to allow the tortoise to stand in it with its head fully clear of the surface. The dish should be sunk into the ground with easy access in and out. You must keep the water clean as the tortoise will often urinate and defecate in it, so changing it at least once daily is a must.
Bathing your tortoise in tepid to luke warm water (again the water level being correct for the size of tortoise), for 10 minutes a couple times a week encourages good hygiene and good hydration of your tortoise.
The accommodation and its environment should reflect the species of your tortoise; and bare in mind how big it will grow so you can accommodate for it. Even though the accommodation set up will vary, the basics will always remain the same. There should be an area for feeding, an area for drinking, heat, lighting and substrate. Try to keep the environment as close as possible to the natural environment of the species that you have.
The substrate will depend on your species too, as desert species will need a sandy, well-drained substrate: while tropical species require moist leaf litter, moss or crushed orchard bark. Take care with the types of substrate as sand, cat litter, crushed corn cob or walnut shells are not recommended due to the risk of ingestion and intestinal blockage.
The best way of housing your tortoise indoors is to use a tortoise table or some other sort of open enclosure. Keeping the tortoise in aquaria and fish tanks are not good for its health due to the enclosed nature of the tanks, there is a lack of air flow and therefore causes the humidity to become too high, this in turn causes respiratory and other health problems. Avoid anything with glass walls, as the tortoise will try to walk through anything it can’t see and will therefore continually bump its head.
Heat and Lighting
In their natural surroundings the sun provides the heat, along with the ultra violet light (UVA and UVB) that the tortoise needs. So when your tortoise is kept indoors these must be artificially provided.
Tortoises need a heat lamp to bask. They are cold blooded which means they can’t regulate their own body temperature; they rely on the climate in which they live to adjust it. This is why you don’t see tortoises in cooler climates. Both the eating and activity behaviour relies on the amount of heat provided. The cooler it is then the tortoise will fail to feed properly and it will become less active. For heat sources then both the infrared ceramic heaters and ordinary spotlights are suitable. 40 to 100 watt bulbs can be used and placement of these bulbs in regards to how close to the tortoises it needs to be depends on the wattage used and the size of the enclosure. Be aware that a tortoise wandering around the house will not maintain its correct body temperature. Heats mats are not an ideal way of keeping a tortoise warm, remember the sun shines from above, and heat mats produce the heat under the tortoise, which can cause ventral heating of the digestive tract.
Tortoises need UVA light in order to maintain their general behaviour patterns and remain active and healthy. UVB lighting is needed in order for the tortoise to produce vitamin D3, which allows the metabolism of proper amounts of calcium. Without UVB lighting the tortoise will eventually get metabolic bone disease. This causes the bones to become soft and eventually the tortoise will die.
UVB lights loose their ability to provide adequate lighting over a period of time, so it is recommended that you change them every 12 months. Make sure that the lighting that you are providing has been designed for reptile use, as not all fluorescent tubes are appropriate. Many lamps and bulbs state that they are ‘full spectrum’ or ‘wide spectrum’, but they differ in the amount and the wavelengths that they provide. So it is very important to check the UVB wavelength; between 280 to 315nm is the range needed for vitamin D3 production. These lamps have a drawback that the wavelengths that they emit are of relatively low intensities and therefore must be placed in close proximity to the tortoise. Please note that UVB does not pass through glass, so if you keep your tortoise in a conservatory or a greenhouse it will still require a UVB lamp.
Other forms of lights that emit UVB rays are mercury vapour bulbs. These emit both UVB and heat, so these can be used to provide the light and the basking heat sources. They also emit effective levels of UVB rays for a much longer period of time, so you don’t have to change them as frequently.
The length of time you leave the lighting on for varies from species to species. Remember that for species from temperate climates this would also naturally vary throughout the year. So again, know your species.
In the summer when the weather is warm tortoises can be kept outside. The area needs to be safe from predators, escape proof and tortoise friendly, so check those plants and weeds for anything harmful. Care also will need to be taken if you spray pesticides or insectides in your garden. Predators include dogs, cats, foxes, badgers, herons, crows and magpies.
If your tortoise can’t have the run of the garden then provide a pen of ample size and place it in the best spot for both sun and shade so they can regulate their temperature. Again make sure the pen is escape proof and predator safe. Remember tortoises are excellent diggers.
Make sure adequate sleeping quarters are provided while outside as tortoises are intolerant of damp and health problems will arise.
You should start to prepare for your tortoises hibernation ideally at the end of October, when you can start to reduce the night and day temperatures of your vivarium slowly over a couple of weeks until the tortoise shows no signs of feeding. Continue reducing the temperature and start counting the days from when they last fed. Ideally they should stop feeding four weeks before hibernation, as food in the stomach can cause bacteria present to multiply and cause infection and gas production that is potentially fatal. Also always do a final check of its mouth for any bits of remaining food, as rotten vegetation is a major cause of mouth infection during hibernation.
Whilst they shouldn’t be put into hibernation with a stomach containing food matter, their bladders should contain water. Therefore they should be encouraged to drink before hibernation to keep them hydrated and also to take water into the bladder so that they can pass waste from the blood to there.
Keep accurate records of weight before and during hibernation and don’t hibernate it if it’s underweight. A tortoise that is losing weight to the extent that it is approaching the danger line should be taken out of hibernation and artificially sustained for the remainder of the winter. Most healthy adults lose about 1% of their body weight each month in hibernation. Check for any lumps, bumps, wounds, a runny nose, closed eyes, swollen ears and again do not hibernate a tortoise that is showing signs of illness or disease, get it checked over by the vet.
During hibernation your tortoise will need to be kept in a dry, well insulated properly prepared accommodation. The box should be big enough for it to turn around in and don’t be tempted to punch air holes into it as this would cause the temperature to fluctuate. Make sure that temperatures are kept stable and within safe tolerances, ideally at 5c/40f. At this temperature tortoises remain safely asleep, but are in no danger of freezing. Different people have different ideas as to what materials to use in the hibernation box. Some use polystyrene chips, shredded paper, hay, straw, garden compost, but what ever you choose it’s the stable temperature that needs to be right.
Should your tortoise wake up during the winter don’t feed it and return it back to hibernation. Once it is up and feeding it should stay up and be placed in a vivarium in which it can be kept warm throughout the winter.
If when checking a hibernating tortoise you notice that it has urinated, then wake it up and begin to hydrate it immediately as it is the water in the bladder that keeps it hydrated during hibernation. This tends to happen mostly towards the end of the hibernation period or in spells of unusually mild weather, so it’s worth keeping an eye on as dehydration kills tortoises hibernating.
Don’t leave your tortoise in hibernation until late April or early may, it will have been down far too long and could be in serious trouble. Tortoises should ideally be up by the end of March.
Finally and most importantly make sure you know the species of your tortoise as not all tortoises hibernate.
Tortoises tend to start waking up around March when the weather becomes very mild. Because this countrys springs are cold, wet and miserable, you should remove the hibernation box from its winter quarters and place it in a warmer environment. Warm the tortoise gradually, as too quickly and the bacteria in its guts may start to cause problems. Warming the tortoise may take a few days.
During this time you should get your vivarium warmed up to the mid 70’s f (22-24c). As soon as there is movement it is important to place the tortoise in a bath of luke warm water for about ten minutes to rehydrate it. Then you can return it to the warm vivarium. This should be done every day for about ten days. The temperature of the vivarium should be gradually increased over the next few days by one or two degrees until it reaches the low 80’sf (26-28c). They need this constant warm temperature through our spring up until the summer, as our spring temperatures are very unstable, and we don�t want the tortoise to go back into hibernation; once it’s awake it should stay awake. Again check these temperatures as they may vary for different species.
It is important to encourage eating and drinking as soon as possible. This aids the elimination of uric acid and other toxins that have built up in the kidneys over the hibernation period. Animals that have not urinated or eaten within one week of waking require veterinary attention. Unless the tortoise receives adequate quantities of heat and light it will ‘not get going properly’ and may refuse to eat.
Don’t forget to do your post hibernation health checks to make sure there are no signs of illness or disease.
If the weather is warm and dry during the day then the tortoise can go outside, but at night and on cold, wet or frosty days they must go back in their vivarium.
Common Illnesses and Disease
Here has been listed the ailments that we have come across here at our practice, all of which needs veterinary attention. To find out about other illnesses and diseases there is a list of websites to visit below. If you do have to bring in your tortoise to the vets and it needs hospitalising please inform us of what species it is and its requirements. This will aid a faster recovery.
Post Hibernation Anorexia
This is defined as not eating in the days and weeks following waking from hibernation. Post hibernation is a vulnerable time for the tortoise because when it awakes it will be weak and have a low white blood cell count therefore making it open to all kinds of infections and illnesses. This is why we must do all your pre-hibernation health checks and make sure your tortoise goes through all the rules of starving and bathing before hibernating to reduce the risk of post hibernation anorexia.
So possible causes could be:
- Excessive hibernation period
- Leucopenia (low white blood cell count), which could be present due to poor prehibernation health, stress, or seasonally related changes in reproductive hormones. An excessive hibernation period with no white blood cell regeneration will lead to a very low white blood cell count and immunocompromise on waking. If the tortoise is warmed too quickly then bacterial, viral or mycotic agents will replicate faster than the tortoise is able to regenerate white blood cells, leading to infections such as stomatitis, rhinitis or septicaemias.
- Disease or trauma during hibernation, these can be from rat bites, frost damage and so on.
- Inadequate pre-hibernation management.
- Undetected chronic disease.
Stomatitis (mouth rot)
A serious and unpleasant disease, usually of bacterial origin. Without treatment it is fatal and it highly contagious to other tortoises. Symptoms include excess saliva production, refusal to eat, upon opening the mouth a sponge or cheese-like yellowish deposit may be visible. In addition, gums and tongue may have a deep red or purple tinge, possibly speckled with blood.
A deficiency of calcium and lack of sunlight are the primary cause. All tortoises have soft shells on hatching, but by the time they are a week old a slight firming of the shell should have taken place. If the tortoise is not supplemented with adequate calcium during its early stages of development then its shell may never eventuate.
The infection of worms occurs due to the ingestion of contaminated food with worm eggs or a build up of eggs within an area. . This is why you should feed on a separate area to where the tortoises defecates and another to why you should wash any food before feeding. By removing faecal matter as soon as possible it reduces the risk of build up of worm eggs in the environment and therefore less chance of the tortoise picking them up on its feet or shell. The treatment of worms depends on the type identified and their numbers present.
This can be caused by worms or protozoa, a change of diet or feeding too much fruit. Once under control it can take a few weeks before the faeces firms up back to its normal state.
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