EDITION - REFERENCE ONLY
see new, updated
text for latest, revised and
A C Highfield, with additional text By Annie Lancaster
It gives us considerable pleasure to be able to introduce you to this, the 5th and completely revised edition of "Safer Hibernation & your Tortoise". In the past 10 years over 70,000 copies of the previous editions have been distributed to tortoise owners in Europe, and a very great many lives have been saved as a direct result. It is my hope that this new edition for the United States will achieve similar success.
Unfortunately, a great deal of information presented to
tortoise keepers in the past has been grossly inaccurate
and sometimes positively lethal. Into this category
falls such advice as "never disturb a hibernating
tortoise", "make sure you leave plenty of air-holes in
the hibernating box", "give your tortoise one last meal
to see it through hibernation" and " provide plenty of
cat or dog food in the diet". The first is simply
incorrect, the last three can kill. How many unnecessary
deaths have resulted from owners following such
dangerous and misleading nonsense? We have a policy of
continually revising and updating this booklet to ensure
that it always provides the best information available.
A.C.Highfield Wales, United Kingdom, 1998
HIBERNATION & VARIETIES OF TORTOISE
Contrary to popular belief, most tortoises of the types
most commonly kept as pets do actually hibernate in the
wild. They do so, however, for much shorter periods than
they are frequently subjected to in captive collections.
It has been commonplace to attempt a hibernation of up
to six or even seven months, whereas in the wild these
same tortoises have been used to a hibernation rarely
longer than ten to twelve weeks. We believe in
replicating natural conditions as closely as possible in
respect of hibernation periods, and so we do not
recommend giving your tortoise an over-long hibernation.
Most fatalities occur either near the beginning, or at
the end of the hibernation period. The reasons for some
of these fatalities will be discussed in detail later,
but you can certainly improve your tortoise's chances
greatly simply by limiting the period of hibernation to
not more than 20 weeks at the outside. This, it should
be stressed, is for a perfectly fit specimen which is
fully up to weight. Tortoises which are anything less
than l00% fit, or are in any way underweight, will
require a proportionally shorter period of hibernation
under carefully controlled conditions; possibly they may
even need to be kept awake and feeding over the entire
TESTUDO GRAECA ("Spur-Thighed" or "Greek" tortoise)
The main characteristic of T. graeca are the two small tubercles or 'spurs' found on the thighs, one to each side of the tail. There are a number of different races, and even full species, currently referred to Testudo graeca (e.g., Testudo ibera): there is unfortunately not sufficient space here to describe them all adequately. Their taxonomy is in any case far from straightforward and in some cases is disputed - the Tortoise Trust publishes several guides to identification so contact us if you require more information.
TESTUDO HERMANNI (Hermann's Tortoise)
The Hermann's Tortoise is quite obviously different from T. graeca; it lacks thigh tubercles or spurs; the tail is long and fairly pointed, with an additional hard, bony tip. The tail of a male specimen is, of course, much longer than that of a female.
TESTUDO MARGINATA (Marginated tortoise)
T. marginata are found naturally only in southern Greece - in fact they are the only 'Greek' tortoise which is actually exclusively Greek in origin. They are somewhat rare, and have been a protected species for a number of years. Adult specimens of T. marginata can grow up to 300 mm long, and they possess a distinctively 'flared' and elongated posterior margin - hence the name. Testudo marginata is a large and impressive tortoise, and has a quite distinct appearance. The males have a distinctly narrow waist and very large flared posterior marginals. Females are much 'rounder' overall, and do not have quite such a profound flare.
TESTUDO HORSFIELDI (Horsfield's or Russian tortoise)
This species originates in Central Asia, principally in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is of a generally light-golden hue with black markings, reaches a maximum of about 250 mm , and combines the miniature spurs with pointed tail similar to T. hermanni. It has a 'stubby' squarish body, a long neck, and, most distinctively, only four toes per foot. Hibernation is recommended, but extra-special care should be exercised as this tortoise is particularly prone to respiratory and skin complaints. It requires a very low humidity environment, and must never be subjected to damp. Large numbers have been collected in recent years, and wild-caught animals are common in the pet trade. Most do not survive for long.
TERRAPENE (NORTH AMERICAN BOX TURTLES)
At least 4 varieties are encountered in the pet trade,
Terrapene carolina carolina (Carolina or Eastern box
turtle), T. carolina triunguis (Three-toed box turtle),
T. ornata (Ornate box turtle), and T. c. bauri (Florida
box turtle). At the time of writing all species are
still being sold as pets. Currently there is an export
ban on box turtles, causing an incredible number of
"surplus" turtles for sale in within the USA. Many who
do have box turtles overseas have experienced great
difficulty in trying to keep them alive in captivity.
These turtles are extremely sensitive to their
surroundings, and if proper conditions are not available
they die all too easily.
Several African species: Kinixys belliana (Bell's hinged
tortoise), Kinixys erosa (Eroded hinged tortoise),
Kinixys natalensis (Natal hinged tortoise) and Kinixys
homeana (Home's hinged tortoise). As their names imply,
all have as a major distinguishing feature a flexible
HOMOPUS TORTOISES (Padlopers)
Although extremely rare, we have encountered several specimens of these little South African tortoises in captivity. There are five species, all endemic to S. Africa; Homopus femoralis (Greater padloper), H. areolatus (Parrot-beaked tortoise), H. boulengeri (Karoo tortoise), H. signatus (Speckled padloper) and a recently re-discovered species known as H. bergeri (Nama or Berger's padloper). Most occur in Cape province.
GEOCHELONE SULCATA (African spurred tortoise)
Please be careful not to confuse this tortoise with the similarly named Spur-THIGHED tortoise (Testudo graeca). Unfortunately, Geochelone sulcata, the African spurred tortoise is very frequently mis-described as the "African spur-thighed tortoise" which understandably causes a lot of confusion for everyone. The Spur-thighed tortoise (T. graeca) and African spurred tortoise (G. sulcata) are very different animals indeed. T. graeca is a relatively small tortoise rarely more than 10" in length, while an adult G. sulcata is two and a half-feet long and can weigh almost 200 pounds!! In addition, Testudo graeca can hibernate while G. sulcata does not. The Tortoise Trust has books and other information dealing specifically with Geochelone sulcata if required.
OTHER TROPICAL TORTOISES
Geochelone pardalis is the African Leopard Tortoise.
Geochelone carbonaria is the Red Footed Tortoise.
Geochelone denticulata is the Yellow Foot Tortoise, and
Manouria emys is the Burmese Brown Tortoise.
Tortoises which are provided with the incorrect diet for
their species can suffer serious problems, particularly
in respect of the liver and kidneys. If these are
damaged, the risks associated with hibernation are very
greatly increased. While some tropical tortoises and box
do require animal protein, desert species do not, and
nor do 'common' or Mediterranean tortoises. So, despite
what you may have read elsewhere, never provide meat
products to 'common' tortoises. In the long term, it can
and does kill. Tortoises require a diet which is HIGH in
minerals and vitamins, LOW in fats and proteins and HIGH
in dietary fiber. Meat products are totally the
opposite, and lead to enhanced urea levels, which damage
the kidneys and cause a massive build-up of fats in the
liver. The high phosphorous content of most meat
products also seriously affects the Calcium-Phosphorous
(Ca:P) ratio of the diet, which in turn leads to acute
nutritional osteo-dystrophy or "lumpy shell syndrome".
Our own tortoises not only survive, but thrive without
any meat products whatsoever, they breed successfully,
and the hatchlings have beautiful, perfectly formed
shells without lumps, bumps or pyramids. Living proof
that claims of the "necessity" of meat for tortoises are
Romaine or red leaf lettuce, in very limited quantities.
Never use head lettuces such as iceberg, head lettuces
contain very little in the way of adequate vitamins or
minerals. Opuntia (spineless) prickly pear cactus, pads
and fruit. Sometimes referred to as "Nopales", the fruit
are often referred to as "tunas", watercress, dandelion,
naturally occurring non-toxic weeds, hibiscus flowers
and leaves, white (Dutch) clover, both leaves and
flowers, rose leaves and petals, and sowthistle.
We do not generally recommend the use of pellet-type commercial prepared diets, though some of these can have a role when rehabilitating sick or severely underweight tortoises. In general, their energy and protein levels, as well as their calcium to phorsphorus ratios are such as to make them unsuitable for use on a regular basis.
Add a mineral-vitamin supplement + extra calcium. The use of cuttlebone left in the enclosures allows tortoises to regulate the amount of calcium in the diet. Some tortoises like this very much, while others will not eat it. For those that won't, the use of a phosphorous free calcium supplement is recommended.
See our main article AVOIDING DIETARY DISASTERS for more on feeding and nutrition.
IS YOUR TORTOISE FIT TO HIBERNATE?
Many people are surprised when we ask this question, not as the first frosts are beginning to make their presence felt, but as early as mid-August, when the days may still be bright and hot! We ask in mid-August because, as far as your tortoise is concerned, this is when it reaches a classic 'go-no-go' situation as far as its biological clock is concerned. Leaving the decision on hibernation until September, October or November is simply too late. If a tortoise is not fit to hibernate by the end of August, then it is not going to be fit in October. In order to survive hibernation in good condition, tortoises need to have built up sufficient reserves of body fat; this in turn stores vitamins and water. Without fat, vitamins and water tortoises die of starvation or dehydration. Adequate reserves of body fat are vital to tortoises in hibernation; they live off these reserves, and if the reserves run out too soon then the animal's body will begin to use up the fat contained within the muscles and internal organs, eventually these too will become exhausted. At this point the tortoise will simply die in hibernation.
These basic checks form your essential pre-hibernation
examination. Provided your tortoise is up to weight and
no other abnormalities can be detected, then you may
begin preparation for hibernation. The golden rule,
however, at all times is IF IN DOUBT SEEK EXPERT ADVICE.
Our experience is that owners who fail to act promptly
when problems occur usually end up, sooner or later,
with a dead tortoise. One final, and critically
important point before we actually deal with how to
hibernate your tortoise. Very many tortoises die each
year because owners attempt to hibernate them while they
still contain undigested food matter within their
gastro-intestinal system. It is natural for tortoises to
gradually reduce their food intake as fall approaches
(this is one reason why, if they are underweight in
August, they will certainly not have put on any extra
weight by October). A tortoise's digestive system is
governed to a great extent by temperature, but generally
speaking, when the animal's biological processes are
slowing down it takes between 4-6 weeks for the food
last consumed to pass completely through the
gastro-intestinal tract. In other words, do not attempt
to hibernate any tortoise if it has eaten within the
last month to six weeks. Delay hibernation rather than
allow a tortoise to hibernate while the possibility of
undigested food matter within the intestine remains.
The two biggest killers of captive tortoises are:
Hopefully you have taken note of the advice given on fitness for hibernation and so will avoid this problem. Even fit tortoises can die in hibernation if the conditions to which they are subjected are biologically incorrect; essentially this means:
In practice the first is more easily accomplished. We will deal with both accommodation and conditions separately, and in some detail.
Our recommendations are for an outer box or carton made
from either wood or substantial cardboard. The inside of
this should be lined with blocks or chippings of
polystyrene, of the sort used in house insulation or
packaging. Alternatively, tightly packed shredded paper
can be used.
The critical factor here is TEMPERATURE. Temperature is absolutely critical to a successful and healthy hibernation. Insulation merely slows down the rate of heat exchange, it does not prevent it altogether. Thus, no matter how well you insulate, if you subject your tortoise's hibernation box to sub-zero temperatures for an extended period it will still get too cold. Similarly, if you allow your tortoise's hibernation box to get too warm for too long it will begin to use up valuable fat and energy reserves, and may even wake up early.
These critical temperatures are:
- ALWAYS USE A THERMOMETER - IT SAVES LIVES!! -
Under no circumstances whatsoever should a hibernating
tortoise be subjected to prolonged exposure to
temperatures higher or lower than these. Failure to
appreciate the importance of this invariably leads to
death and injury in hibernation. Blindness due to the
eyes quite literally freezing solid is a particularly
unpleasant consequence of allowing temperatures to fall
Hibernating Box Turtles (Terrapene species)
Box turtles require a higher level of humidity than do turtles or tortoises of other species. Also, the period of hibernation might need to be shorter, regular checks on your box turtle are simple, and will enable you to asses it's overall health status. Weight checks as well as visual examinations to check for respiratory problems during the hibernation period may be performed on a bi-weekly basis with little disturbance to the animal.
The correct hibernation protocols for box turtles should be as follows:
All of these items can be mixed together after soaking the sphagnum moss in a bucket of water, then squeezing it out so it is not "soggy," but still quite wet. Combining the sphagnum moss with the organic soil helps it to retain a good level of humidity, but not creating so much that the turtle is exposed to a "wet" environment. In the wild, box turtles are often found hibernating beneath the earth, under fallen logs, under rocks, or other areas that might have been used in the past by other animals. This allows the animals to maintain the humidity they need so they don't become dehydrated, and also provides shelter during rain or snow, at a temperature that is suitable. Depending on the soil temperature, the turtle will move up toward the surface or burrow deeper, keeping itself at a good constant temperature. In captivity, box turtles are often kept in areas that have little or no resemblance to their home territories. In order to ensure safe hibernation, please study the following guidelines.
In many areas of the USA, box turtles can safely be
hibernated in a place that they choose. If the area is
on high ground, the soil is soft enough for them to dig
deep enough to avoid freezing, and is an area that stays
damp, then a healthy turtle can be hibernated outside.
Rainfall is fine, and will not hurt a box turtle unless
flooding occurs. You can help the turtle along by
covering the area with dry leaves once they have "dug
in" to help prevent problems with frost. They often
choose an area such as the base of a bush, tree, or
other vegetation for their natural hibernaculum.
NEVER place a sealed lid on the top of the container! These turtles need to have a good oxygen exchange during hibernation. Sealing a container will cause a build up of lethal gasses. With many of the Rubbermaid type containers, a lid is provided. Holes may be drilled through the lid, at 2" intervals. Make certain the holes are large, but not large enough to let any predator inside! This helps to keep humidity up, keeps rodents and other pests out, and allows for good oxygen exchange.
Successful hibernation requires free air circulation.
40/45° F is a good temperature to aim for, but the
temperature does not need to stay constant, as the
turtles will move up and down in the substrate as
needed. This method also makes it far easier to carry
out regular health status checks. If you do find that
one of your turtles has become ill or appears to be
dropping too much weight, it is always possible to bring
it out of hibernation by letting it slowly warm to room
temperature inside. No turtle exhibiting any symptom of
illness or weight loss should ever be replaced to the
OVER-WINTERING OR NON-HIBERNATING
Sometimes, either for specific health reasons or because
the animal is of a tropical variety, hibernation may not
be possible. Where this is the case, the objective must
be to keep the animal alert, feeding and in good general
condition throughout the winter period. Provided that
temperatures are adequate, and that both food and light
are also available in sufficient quantity and quality,
over-wintering tortoises is not particularly difficult.
Suitable accommodation must be provided. Can we please
stress that no matter how warm it is, an ordinary room
in a house will not by itself keep a tortoise feeding
and in good health. A very special combination of
background heat, localized radiated heat, and high
intensity illumination is absolutely essential. The
tortoise requires this 'spot' or radiant heat source to
thermoregulate properly and to maintain its own body
temperature (when measured in the cloaca) at around 2-3
°C above that of the surrounding area (it does this
by heat absorption, rather like a dark colored stone
absorbs a great deal of heat from the sun). You cannot
keep a tortoise feeding adequately by background heat
alone, so please do not try. At night the tortoise can
be removed from its daytime accommodation and placed in
a warm box situated next to a radiator to sleep. Again,
it is important not to let it get too cold, certainly
never below about 45 °F. In the morning replace it
in its heated area for the day. Tortoises need
approximately l4 hours of adequate heat and light per
day in order to feed properly and remain in good health.
Your task, as owner, is to provide them with an
As the average mean ambient temperature begins to
approach the critical l0 °C or 50 °F point, a
tortoise's metabolism will begin to reactivate in
readiness for waking. Certain complex chemical and
biological processes are initiated as the animal
prepares to emerge into the spring sunshine. Upon first
emerging from hibernation a tortoise is depleted in
strength, has a low White Blood Cell (WBC) count, and is
very vulnerable to infection. Unless it receives
adequate quantities of heat and light it will simply
'not get going properly', and instead of starting to
regain weight and strength lost during hibernation, may
well refuse to eat, and begin to decline. This condition
in its most serious form is known as POST HIBERNATION
ANOREXIA, and has been the subject of some intense
veterinary research over the past few years. How to deal
with it is discussed in the next section. Hopefully you
will have followed our previous instructions, and your
tortoise will emerge in good condition. As the
temperature rises listen carefully to the hibernating
box - you should begin to hear the first sounds of
All tortoises should very definitely feed within ONE WEEK of emerging from hibernation. If they do not there is either;
If your tortoise is not feeding by itself within one week of waking up, take the steps described in the next chapter, and if this does not produce results within a further three days, do not delay any longer - consult a veterinary surgeon who has particular experience of reptile husbandry, physiology and treatment. Seek the underlying cause of the problem, and do not be satisfied with non-specific 'vitamin injection' therapy. There is always a logical and very good reason for a tortoise persistently refusing to eat, and generalized vitamin deficiencies are highly unlikely to be responsible. Good diagnostic techniques, combined with an understanding of reptile metabolism and function, will invariably produce a satisfactory answer. Out of literally thousands of tortoises we have seen over the years with feeding problems, from ancient Galapagos giants to tiny newly hatched babies, we have never yet seen one suffering from anything which a general non-specific 'vitamin injection' would correct. It is highly unlikely, to say the least, that yours is the exception. Whatever you do, please do not delay. A tortoise which refuses to feed after a week or more of correct temperatures has a problem. It is your responsibility to find out what the problem is and to deal with it effectively.
In all probability, if your tortoise persistently refuses to eat it is seriously ill. You need expert help - without delay. As a general guide the problem is most often caused by one of the following conditions. The ability of owners to recognize or eliminate these possibilities is all part of good husbandry, so you should very definitely familiarize yourself with the basic symptoms of these common health problems. All can result in a refusal to feed.
Usually due to freezing during hibernation. Symptoms: lack of response to visual stimuli, refusal to feed, reluctance to walk, collision with objects when walking, moving round in circles. Treatment: force feeding or hand-feeding, time and careful nursing. Once again however, dehydration is the main danger. We use Hartmann's solution Also known as Lactated Ringer's Solution (an I.V. drip compound sodium lactate) given orally at 5% of total bodyweight daily in cases of severe dehydration, reducing as urination begins and the electrolyte balance is restored. Other products, such as Pedialyte™ can be successfully used. High doses of vitamin-A have definitely been shown to assist, particularly in cases of retinal damage and (to a lesser extent) in cases of cataracts on the lenses. Most cases in our experience make a good recovery eventually, but in severe cases this can take several years. Identifying this requires expert diagnosis by vet. Blind or sight damaged tortoises should not be routinely destroyed. The Tortoise Trust Sanctuary can accept such animals for long term residency. We also have a separate caresheet on how to deal with such tortoises.
Can result from local infections or general debility. In box turtles the cause is generally one of husbandry, especially a lack of access to wading water and insufficient air humidity. However, veterinary diagnosis is essential in all cases. In VERY rare cases swollen eyes can also be an indication of acute Vitamin-A deficiency, especially in hatchling tortoises.
Symptoms: swelling in area of ear flap, refusal to feed. Treatment: surgical removal by veterinary surgeon. If left untreated, not only is much suffering caused, but eventually fatality will result as the infection spreads. The same comments apply to abscesses in other locations; the legs are particularly vulnerable. Check legs (and especially the joints) for signs of unusual swelling or stiffness regularly. Reptile abscesses are usually hard, caseous lumps and contain cheesy yellowish pus and other infected matter. They do not respond purely to systemic therapy, surgical excision is essential in addition. We see many abscesses, the most frequent sites are the ears, the legs, the inside of the mouth and the nares (the nose). Tumours are very rare in tortoises, so if you encounter a "growth" you can almost guarantee it is an abscess or cyst. This condition is extremely common in American box turtles.
May be mistaken for an ordinary cold. Rapidly fatal unless treated properly. Symptoms: mucous and saliva in plentiful evidence, sometimes foaming and frothing at mouth. Obvious difficulty breathing in acute cases. The tortoise holds its head high, at an unusual angle whiles gaping and gasping for breath. This phase is followed by collapse, unconsciousness, and eventual death. From first symptoms to death in acute cases can be as little as 4 hours, hence, at first sign of breathing difficulty obtain expert help without delay. Do not deliver antibiotics to tortoises orally:- it is impossible to gauge the resultant blood serum level, and it will also have catastrophic effects upon the digestive system. Treatment: Always treat parenterally (by injection) or topically (by direct application) as appropriate. Meanwhile keep the tortoise warm and fully hydrated (by stomach tube if it refuses to drink for itself). Prevention is obviously better than cure, so at first sign of 'cold-like' symptoms place under close observation. Pneumonia is unfortunately common in all debilitated tortoises, box turtles, and terrapins. The symptoms of a potential pneumonia should never be ignored - seek expert veterinary help at once if you suspect that it may be developing.
Another very serious and unpleasant disease, usually of bacterial origin (although viral forms are known), and one which is invariably fatal without prompt and appropriate treatment. Sometimes called 'mouth-canker' or 'mouth rot'. Symptoms: 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. This disease should be regarded as highly contagious to other tortoises. Isolate suspected cases immediately, and enforce strict hygiene precautions. Treatment: as much infected matter as possible should be removed gently using cotton swabs dipped in chlorhexidine solution. This should be repeated twice daily. Also the mouth can be gently rinsed with dilute 'BETADINE' solution. WARNING: some cases of stomatitis are unusually resistant to specific antibiotics. In such cases a laboratory analysis and sensitivity assay is essential. The oral cephalosporins have proved highly effective in some otherwise resistant cases. Tortoises with stomatitis will often need to drink each day, and may also require stomach tube feeding. Reptiles suffering from stomatitis are at considerable risk of secondary infections, principally pneumonia, and require expert handling under conditions of exceptional hygiene.
In connection with hibernation, often the result of attack by rats or similar predators (e,g,racoons). This is entirely preventable, so take adequate precautions (surround boxes with wire mesh and check regularly). If the worst does happen clean with 50% dilute 'BETADINE' or Chlorhexidine solution, and seek veterinary advice at once. Treatment: essentially same as for any wound. If rats are the culprits then preventative antibiotic therapy will be in order. The same treatment is followed for minor cases of shell damage but be careful not to confuse a minor injury with the first symptoms of something more serious such as necrotic dermatitis, for example. Really major traumatic injuries require expert treatment - however, tortoises are incredibly resilient creatures, and with the proper care can often recover from what at first sight appear quite horrendous injuries - even when confronted by a tortoise with a leg torn off, for example, it is important not to panic. With prompt expert treatment such animals can not only survive but go on to lead a normal life and even produce hatchlings. Keep all sick tortoises or tortoises with wounds indoors as maggots can appear with frightening rapidity, especially in the eyes, or around the nose. If discovered in this condition, remove the maggots and wash well immediately with a mild antiseptic solution.
VOMITING OR REGURGITATION
Spontaneous vomiting should always be regarded as a serious symptom. Caused by: a) Lack of digestive enzyme activity due to too low a temperature, b) Parasite infestation ('worms' or flagellates), or ingestion of toxic material affecting digestive system, or, c) Resulting from widespread septicaemia or bacteraemia. Vomiting may also occur during force-feeding, or when handling too roughly. Treatment: identify causal factor.
'Runny Nose Syndrome' appears to have several causes. Symptoms; may refuse to eat. Treatment: Place all infected animals in strict quarantine, as certain forms of the disease are highly infectious. Keep animal warm, but maintain good air circulation. MANY CASES ARE DUE TO ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES - INDOOR ENVIRONMENTS AND VIVARIUMS ARE OFTEN IMPLICATED. In persistent cases we have found that combining topical therapy with a broad spectrum injected antibiotic produces consistently good results. The organisms responsible are almost always Gram-negative pathogens such as pseudomonas, klebsiella or citrobacter. Mycoplasma organisms are also often involved.
Often the result of either dehydration or fatty degeneration of the liver due to incorrect diet. Symptoms: tortoise reluctant to feed, inclined to hide in corners or bury itself. Mouth inspection may (but not always) reveal a yellowish tinge to mucous membrane and tongue. Undigested food matter may also be passed. Treatment: veterinary diagnosis essential. Keep well hydrated using plenty of water with just a pinch of glucose. Serious cases will require medication.
Also known as 'shell rot'. An unpleasant disease of bacterial origin - any one of several specific organisms may be responsible. Symptoms: Fluid, sometimes bloody, 'leaking' from shell. Fluid can often be seen underneath the plates, which may also develop a reddish tinge. Treatment: depends upon what bacteria involved, and how advanced. However, exceptional hygiene is a must. Daily scrubs with undiluted 'BETADINE', and a topical antibiotic applied daily. Surgery may also be required. A disease which requires expert diagnosis and treatment if the animal is to survive. Untreated cases invariably prove fatal.
Common in debilitated animals. Symptoms: pale mucous membranes, weak and listless. Treatment: depends on cause. It should be stressed that an accurate veterinary diagnosis of the cause is vital - parasite infestations are one likely factor as are acute renal or hepatic problems.
Symptoms: manifests as a smelly, unpleasant leak or discharge from the tail. Treatment: irrigation of cloaca with 'BETADINE' solution via catheter. Veterinary diagnosis essential, as one possible contributory factor is flagellate infection - this will require special treatment - see under 'PARASITES'.
Frequently associated with parasite infestation. A sample can be examined by your veterinary surgeon for traces of flagellate cysts or worm ova.
Tortoises are particularly prone to two types of worm, long, greyish-looking creatures called ASCARIDS, and a smaller, very thin whitish type called OXYURIDS. Both respond to treatment with a Fenbendazole-type wormer. ON NO ACCOUNT ADMINISTER ORDINARY CAT OR DOG WORMING POWDERS OR TABLETS TO TORTOISES!!!! These may include chemicals which are toxic to reptiles. Flagellate protozoan organisms are another potential parasite. Flagellate infection often manifests as diarrhoea, sometimes tinged with blood and mucous. It can be serious, and expert veterinary advice should be sought. The recommended course of treatment often involves the use of metronidazole (e.g. 'FLAGYL'). Keeping tortoises too warm overnight appears to encourage protozoan proliferation. The main problem is likely to be in re-establishing normal digestion following a very severe flagellate attack. Hexamitiasis is a highly pathogenic infection of the urinary and renal system, symptoms include thickened urine which smells strongly of ammonia. This is invariably very serious, but can be treated with metronidazole. Never ignore such a symptom, or irreparable renal damage or death may occur.
Generalized septicemia can occur as a secondary result of any bacterial infection, but is particularly common in connection with necrotic dermatitis and abscesses. Symptoms: weakness, vomiting, collapse, unconsciousness, sometimes delirium. Treatment: antibiotic required urgently.
Avoid extended use of antibiotics where possible. Some antibiotics, such as Lincomycin or Oxytetracycline, or even Baytril can cause considerable digestive upset. Lincomycin is not especially useful, but there are times when oxytetracycline can be extremely valuable, so apart from minimizing the side effects by proper dosing and administration, few alternative options may exist. Some smaller species such as T. kleinmanni can react very badly to some antibiotics such as Ampicillin and Oxytetracycline as can hatchlings. In such cases, antibiotics must be used with extreme caution, and under conditions of intensive care where any subsequent dehydration or digestive flora 'scour' can be immediately controlled. Many bacterial organisms are found in tortoises, one of the most difficult of which to eliminate is Pseudomonas and similar Gram-negative organisms (e.g Citrobacter and Klebsiella). It is important to identify these where present, and to ensure by laboratory tests that they are sensitive to the antibiotic employed. Pseudomonas is found extensively in necrotic stomatitis. Where a definite non-response is noted, resistance may be suspected, so change the antibiotic.
This is not a complete list of tortoise diseases, nor a recommendation for "do it yourself" therapy as far as treatment is concerned. It is merely a guide to what CAN happen, and what to expect if it does. The main keys to successful treatment of sick tortoises are prompt recognition, and accurate diagnosis followed by appropriate medication. Never rely upon guess-work and always seek the underlying cause of any problem. Examinations should be thorough and complete, and where necessary laboratory diagnostic tests should be employed. Always, without exception, consult a qualified veterinarian and never attempt self-treatment or use antibiotics or other prescription medicines without veterinary supervision. Do not be afraid to seek out a veterinarian with special knowledge and experience of reptile treatment.
CAPTIVE BREEDING PROBLEMS
Most of the hatchlings we see have been seriously damaged by incorrect diets provided by insufficiently expert owners. "Lumpy" shells and otherwise distorted carapaces are 100% avoidable if the correct steps are taken without delay. Hatchlings are very small and very sensitive. They cannot tolerate mishandling. The diet and environment must be exactly right if they are to survive and develop normally. Do not try to raise hatchlings by guesswork or by relying on outdated myths. Obtain expert advice at the earliest possible opportunity. The Tortoise Trust has excellent material available on all aspects of captive breeding and raising all kinds of tortoises and turtles.
With all reptiles there are times when it may become necessary to resort to either force or hand feeding; particularly so in the case of anorexia, sight damage or where a tortoise for some other reason is unable to feed itself. Fortunately tortoises do not find this as distressing as mammals, and from the owner's point of view the procedure is both safe and relatively simple. We classify force-feeding in three basic stages; hand-feeding, which is really no more than an encouragement to feed normally; syringe feeding, which is less time-consuming and where alternative foods can be employed; and finally, stomach-tube feeding, where semi-liquid food matter is introduced directly into the digestive system by means of a tube passed down the animal's throat.
Ideal in animals which are not in a serious condition, and where encouragement to take food into the mouth is all that is required. It is frequently highly successful with sight-damaged animals. Suitable foods: sliced apple, pears, cucumber and melon, lightly dusted withRep-Cal and Herptivite. Technique: simply open tortoises mouth, and place food within. To open a tortoise's mouth efficiently and safely, simply grasp the animal firmly behind the ears and jaw with the thumb and second finger of one hand, and firmly force down the lower jaw with the thumb and first finger of the other hand.
Obtain a 5 ml or l0 ml syringe from your veterinarian. Alternatively suitable syringes are often sold in pet stores as baby bird feeders. This method can be used in conjunction with the hand-feeding (above). Suitable foods: liquidized fruits - prepared baby foods are ideal. To these can be added 'VIONATE' or other vitamin supplements. Technique: open tortoise's mouth manually (as above), and simply syringe small quantities of food onto the tongue to be swallowed naturally.
This sounds more drastic and difficult than it actually is. However, care must be taken a) not to cause physical damage, and b) not to spread infection. To avoid the former proceed slowly and gently, to avoid the second sterilize all implements thoroughly in 'MILTON' or Chlorhexidine. The method is invaluable with very debilitated or sick tortoises who are unable to swallow, or who need food by the quickest possible route. Special diets can be given using this method, and the precise quantity of food taken can be carefully controlled. It is also possible to deliver vitamins, drugs or other substances in exact quantities where required. Suitable foods: liquids such as plain water, water containing vitamin powders in dilution. Semi-solid foods such as plain fruit baby foods, again with added vitamins as required. We are opposed to the use of (lactose) milk-based high protein food preparations, even in severe cases of undernourishment. We have often noted serious side-effects where these are employed, possibly due to lactose intolerance in some animals, and in other cases we suspect that the high protein input is causing liver and kidney damage. We have, in any case, rehabilitated so many extremely underweight and undernourished tortoises without such materials that we can honestly see no need for them. Our general policy with ALL feeding is LOW protein, HIGH vitamin and mineral content, LOW fat and HIGH fiber. This most closely approximates the diet of a wild tortoise, and we are becoming increasingly convinced that excessive force feeding on unnatural substances is one reason why so many people experience high rates of mortality in such cases whereas our own experience is that such tortoises usually make a very rapid recovery. Technique: it is best if you see this actually demonstrated before attempting to apply it (the Tortoise Trust has some videos which show this procedure). For the record, however, the technique is as follows: Obtain a 5 ml or l0 ml syringe, also a dog catheter. Cut to size and fix to end of syringe (length of tube = just over half the length of tortoise). Lubricate lightly with vegetable oil. Place tortoise in an almost vertical position, extend neck and head fully in a straight line. Gently and slowly pass tube down throat, carefully avoiding the trachea, which is located just behind the tongue. Gently and slowly empty the contents of the syringe into the tortoise. The amount of food which should be introduced in this fashion has been the subject of some confusion. Our general recommendations are as follows. These figures have been extracted from our case records based upon several hundred animals and we believe them to be highly accurate. Sometimes figures are quoted which are many times in excess of these, but we believe that such over-feeding can prove extremelyhazardous, especially to a sick or relatively inactive animal.
Very large tortoises will require more. Monitor weight daily. Alternatively, 10 ml per Kg total bodyweight maximum per 24 hours plus fluids. Remember, these are approximate guidelines only. If the tortoise has been starved for a long time prior to beginning tube feeding reduce the quantity initially. Liquids should be provided in addition, preferably by inducing the tortoise to drink voluntarily. In cases of severe dehydration, begin hydrating with fluid at a rate of 4-5% of total bodyweight daily. If edema (puffiness, or swelling) is noted, and urination is not present, reduce level and seek expert advice; a diuretic may be necessary, as kidney function may be impaired. The most common cause of renal distress is due to solid deposits of uric acid literally blocking the kidneys; a combination of diuretic and oral Hartmann's solution is the most effective therapy, assisted by daily lukewarm baths and physiotherapy of the back legs.