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Hemp Beddding and Substrates for Tortoises - Danger Warning

By A. C. Highfield


This common substrate and bedding material is increasingly being linked to serious injuries and deaths.

Dedicated to the memory of "Rolo"

Hemp has become an increasingly popular substrate for use in indoor terrariums and also for overnight bedding. The material is primarily manufactured as bedding for horses, but its use with small animals has been growing. Many tortoise keepers have also adopted it. Unfortunately, along with this growth in use we have received a considerable number of reports of injuries caused by sharp 'splinters'. We decided to obtain some hemp that was being sold for tortoise use and investigate further. The potential for harm was immediately evident. There were numerous pieces with extremely sharp ends and of sufficient strength to cause deep penetrative injuries. The reports we have suggest that eye injuries, injuries to the cloaca and tail, and in males to the penis are the most common.

We have also heard of such pieces becoming embedded in the tissue of the throat and mouth, the nares (nose) and at least two cases where it is suspected that death resulted from ingestion and a recent case where this was proven beyond doubt. As a result of our examination, we conclude that we cannot recommend this material. In our opinion, the presence of such very hard, sharp splinters represents an unacceptable danger to tortoises.

We also have reservations about its effectiveness in providing adequate microclimates. We would urge all members currently using hemp substrates to reconsider.

Since publishing the above in our newsletter we received the following very distressing report:

Rolo was a little Sulcata no more than two years old. He lived with
another Sulcata and both were kept on hemp. There were also dogs in
the house. I do not know how, but one of ths dogs got hold of Rolo
and thought he was a play toy. The result was a broken leg, the front
of his plastron chewed off and the rear maginal scutes also chewed
off exposing the thighs.On top of this there were many puncture

Six weeks after the vet started treatment, the owner decided she
could not cope and asked for him to be put to sleep. At this time I
was visiting the vet with my ancient Ibera called Grandma. The vet
asked if I would take Rolo and try to get him feeding. I of course
said yes and that was the beginning of a beautiful but tragically
short relationship with this sweet little tortoise.

Rolo was tube fed three times a day, lived in a large table on flat
puppy trainer pads (more comfortable than newspaper) these gave him
something to grip on and helped him get around with his broken leg
still strapped up. Rolo was surrounded with lots of different tasty
things to eat, but he refused to even taste them. Last weekend it was
wonderful weather so Rolo and I sat on the lawn (lots of dandies in
my lawn) hoping the sun and fresh air wound tempt his appetite. He
did not want to eat but he was settling in and ambled around the lawn
happily. What a little soldier he was.

Two days later Rolo collaped I phoned the vet an rushed him back to
the veterinary hospital. They put him on a drip and gave him a shot of
antibiotics. He was unconscious when I left him and he never
reagained consciousness. Next day Rolo was dead and I was in pieces.

The vet rang to ask if he could do a postmortem, I just wanted to
bring him home and lay him to rest, but I knew that any information
about the cause of death may potentially save another tortoise. So
the postmortem was carried out on Thurday.

The results showed that there were no internal injuries or infections from the dog attack, but what had killed him was a piece of hemp that had been ingested and passed right through the wall of his gut. The  vet has photographs of the injury and he has agreed to give me a  copy. I will post these in a folder called Rolo when I get them and if anyone is not convinced that hemp can kill they can just take a look at the photographs.

Andy Highfield did some tests on hemp a few weeks back and said that
the Tortoise Trust would not recommend its use. I did notice a number
of people post on different forums about how they had used it for
years and had no problems. This is why I have posted Rolo's story -
please don't let him have died in vain. Hemp is dangerous and I would not want anyone to suffer like Rolo and I have.

All my hemp is gone and I am puting some nice large trays of sand and
soil in the indoor part of my enclosures for the torts to bed down at
night. They seem to think it is a great idea.

Thanks for reading this, and Rolo says act now hemp is not safe.