Andy C. Highfield
Animals which refuse to feed are a common complaint of reptile keepers. The problem is particularly common with regard to tortoises, for although these animals have a reputation as 'easy to keep', the fact is (in common with other herbivorous reptiles) that they are actually very sensitive indeed to environmental and dietary mismanagement. The difficulty is compounded in the case of Mediterranean tortoises, where hibernation presents further dangers for the unwary keeper.
If a Mediterranean tortoise refuses to feed on emerging from hibernation, two main possibilities deserve immediate investigation;
1) Is the animal severely underweight?
2) Has it suffered damage in hibernation from exposure to dangerously low temperatures?
Something in the order of 75% of all reported cases of 'post-hibernation anorexia' can be attributed to one or other of these factors. Frost-damage is particularly common following a severe winter, and despite advice to the contrary, many owners still fail to check temperatures frequently and to move their animals to a safer place should an extended cold period occur. It can take as little as a few minutes exposure to sub-zero temperatures to cause severe - and often permanent - damage to a hibernating tortoise's eyes. Retinas haemorrhage and lenses suffer acute damage as they literally freeze solid then thaw out. The effect is identical to that seen in frozen water pipes. Tortoises which have suffered damage of this sort cannot see, and a tortoise whose vision is impaired will rarely feed. Such animals frequently appear disorientated and may move in circles.
The problem of underweight tortoises is best dealt with by prevention rather than cure, but should it occur then the most effective recovery regime involves initial rehydration followed by support feeding. It is very important to stress that whenever a sick or non-feeding tortoise is encountered, it is absolutely essential that an accurate veterinary diagnosis is obtained. Other than rehydration, no other action should be taken until this is done. As many reptile keepers will know, veterinary expertise in this area is not as widely available as it could be, but an effort should be made to seek it out. Do not be satisfied with a vitamin-injection and "come back next week". Insist that your veterinary surgeon makes every effort to identify the root cause of the problem and also insist that the diagnosis is properly explained to you, along with the proposed course of treatment. If you are not satisfied with the explanation, then ask for a second opinion. It is regrettably the case that many animals which could certainly be saved with good veterinary treatment are lost because of poor diagnoses and inappropriate medication.
One very common mistake when encountering a non-feeding tortoise is to begin force-feeding immediately. This is an error which can lead to the death of the specimen. It is infinitely safer to concentrate initial efforts upon rehydration only. Tortoises have particularly fragile renal systems, and the effects of dehydration can be amplified by too enthusiastic force-feeding. It is normal practice at the Tortoise Hospital, for example, to only start force- feeding after hydration has been restored and regular urination has commenced.
It is also very important to ensure that the dietary profile of force-feeds is appropriate to the species true needs. It is, therefore, not appropriate to force-feed tortoises which are naturally herbivorous with high-fat and high- protein animal derived products such as cat or dog food. Such foods will only serve to raise blood urea levels to potentially lethal concentrations. Similarly, although often recommended, artificial feeds such as 'Complan' are so low in dietary fibre that they can cause acute constipation. There is further evidence that some animals may be lactose intolerant. A far better option is to liquidise green-leaf vegetable and plant matter. This is much less likely to cause secondary gastric upset.
The delivery of fluid is certainly the most vital 'first-aid' step. Some tortoises will drink if placed in a shallow dish with the water level approximating chin height. Other animals may refuse, or be in such a weakened condition that they are unable to respond. In such cases, fluid is most effectively delivered by means of a syringe and stomach tube, or, under veterinary direction, by direct injection into the body.
It cannot be emphasised too much however, that in each case it is absolutely essential that adequate steps are taken to identify and treat the underlying cause of the difficulty. Support and maintenance without diagnosis and appropriate treatment is not sufficient. From records of animals admitted as 'non- feeding' at the Tortoise Trust over the past 5 years, I have compiled a list of the statistically most common underlying causal factors in order of frequency. This list is by no means comprehensive, and is not intended to be used in place of qualified veterinary diagnosis. It is however useful insofar as it reveals precisely which conditions are most frequent in particular species. As such, it may assist keepers suddenly presented with a tortoise 'off its food':
LEOPARD, REDFOOT AND YELLOWFOOT TORTOISES
© A. C. Highfield 1989-1999.