Treating Sight Damaged Tortoises
Andy C. Highfield
The recent winter proved to be one of the coldest on recent record in the UK, with overnight temperatures plummeting to below -26 degrees Celsius in some places. One result of this is that there was also a huge increase in deaths in hibernation due to freezing and also in frost-damaged tortoises that survived, albeit with problems. Since 1986, of course, we have distributed our free Safer Hibernation guide, and also give detailed advice on how to avoid this situation on our website, but sadly, it still happens, which proves that we still have a long way to go in making owners aware of this danger.
In this article, I want to deal specifically with what to do if you encounter a frost-blind tortoise. Over many years we have developed some rehabilitation techniques that can not only save lives, but can in some cases, aid recovery to full vision.
I would stress that it is vital that qualified veterinary advice is obtained and that where possible, we highly recommend seeking out a vet who has special knowledge of reptiles. Our user forum (www.tortoisetrustforum.org) has a list.
The first thing is to learn to look out for signs that a tortoise could be sight-damaged. These signs often include a combination of the following behaviours:
These are all good indicators that something is seriously wrong. It is important that any tortoise with these symptoms is seen by a good vet without delay. The sooner support and treatment is provided the better the long-term prognosis. Sadly, we often find (even as late as June) people contacting us saying “my tortoise has not eaten since coming out of hibernation”. These tortoises should have been detected and treated within days of getting up. Instead, after weeks or months without feeding, they are now not only blind, but emaciated and dehydrated in addition.
It is no use trying to ‘tempt’ a sight damage tortoise to eat. They just will not respond to that. More active intervention is required.
The first priority is to rehydrate them. This is absolutely critical as dehydration itself will cause major problems and can lead directly to death if not dealt with as a priority. It is always worth trying the simple ‘soak’ method to encourage voluntary drinking first. Place the tortoise in washing-up sized plastic bowl with tepid water up to about chin height. Splash the water around the head and over the shell (this often stimulates a drinking response). Hopefully, the tortoise will place its head down and begin drinking deeply. It may urinate at the same time, in an effort to get rid of accumulated uric acid that will have built up in the bladder over winter. Repeat this twice daily at first. You can add a small amount of an electrolyte product such as Reptoboost (Vetark Ltd.) to the daily soaks and this will aid further hydration and provide some additional enzymes to help establish gut function. If the tortoise will not take fluid voluntarily, however, the use of a syringe and stomach tube will be necessary. For a typical tortoise in the 1 kg range, start with 10 ml, twice a day. Again, the use of an electrolyte solution is recommended. If you do not have access to a specialist product such as Reptoboost, good use can be made of the human rehydration products available at all pharmacies, for example Dioralyte, which consists of sugars and salts (glucose, sodium chloride, potassium chloride and disodium hydrogen citrate). After several days of this, and only after urinary output has been established, it is time to think about general nutrition.
It is a common mistake to start force-feeding immediately. This is extremely dangerous. On no account begin feeding until a good state of hydration has been established, and until some urinary output has been observed. Tortoises will have extremely high levels of blood urea after hibernation, and will also have large concentrations of uric acid in the bladder. These levels must be reduced before feeding commences. The only way to do this is to concentrate on hydration first, and leave feeding until later. Starvation is not an immediate danger.
Once urinary output has commenced, which usually only takes a few days if adequate amounts of fluid are being provided, the focus can change to general support and maintenance. I prefer to feed (initially at least) using a syringe with attached catheter feeding tube. This is very safe and it allows a precisely measured quantity to be provided quickly with minimum handling. Also, once regular urinary output has commenced the rehydration solution can be exchanged for plain water.
The tube should be cut so that it is approximately 3/4 the length of the tortoise. Make sure the cut ends are not sharp or jagged. A larger bore tube is best, as fine bore tubes tend to clog easily. The amount required will depend on the size of the tortoise, but it is vital not to over-feed. If anything, veering slightly in the direction of under-feeding is much safer. Over-feeding, especially in the early phases of treatment can lead to fatalities, as food simply builds up, undigested, and results in blockages. Start slowly, and give the digestive tract time to begin working normally. We have found that once every three days is a good initial regime. This can be gradually increased, but only after the tortoise begins to pass faeces. Until then, take it slowly.
As a guide, 10 ml for a 1 kg tortoise every 3 days is about right. You should increase or decrease this proportionally. Note that this is in addition to the continuing fluid intake.
The oesophagus in tortoises is located just behind the tongue, towards the right side of the neck. Once the tube is past this point it should pass easily and freely all the way down. Never - ever - force it. Slightly wetting the tube with water will help it slide down nicely.
In early years we used to use baby foods for tube feeding, but now, much better options are available. Once such product is the Oxbow Hay Company ‘Critical Care’ assist feeding formulations. The ‘fine ground’ version is especially suited to tube-administration. This is available in both herbivore and carnivore formulas. Soak the powder as directed, then administer by tube slowly and carefully. Obviously, for Mediterranean tortoises species, the herbivore type is used. You can also use fully hydrated, mashed commercial tortoise pellets as the basis for a tube-feeding regime. The Testudo Pro-Alpin range is especially suitable. Many normal commercial pellet diets can have dangerously high protein levels and a poor overall balance, so be careful. This is a very different situation from normal feeding, and used carefully in such a role, such products can be both safe and effective. They are quite high in fibre, and although not as easy to tube as he Oxbow Critical Care, they can add some much needed variety to a potentially long-term tube feeding regime. With juvenile tortoises in particular, we recommend adding some extra calcium in the form of Nutrobal or Zolcal-D to the tube feeding formula. You can also use a kitchen liquidiser to produce a mash of suitable flowers, and green leaf material to supplement the prepared formulas.
Keep all feeding equipment clean and disinfected. Never share syringes or tubes between different tortoises. Fresh syringes can be purchased in bulk at low cost (around 10p each) from veterinary supply companies.
It is very difficult to say how long this feeding regime may be necessary. It can be weeks. It can be years. I remember that Jill Martin once maintained a tortoise like this for eight years before it one day, without started to feed for itself. Continue to provide the opportunity for self feeding - you never know. Jill refused to give up on tortoises. So should you. Sometimes, a sudden recovery just happens. It is certainly not hopeless. Many of these tortoises do recover.
A few other cautions when working with sight damaged tortoises. Because they do not move easily, and cannot detect shade, be ultra-careful if giving them outdoor time on hot days. They may just sit there and overheat - possibly with fatal consequences. Make sure this cannot happen. Finally, always keep a close check on their digestive functions and general health. These tortoises are very vulnerable. With good care, however, we believe they can continue to enjoy life and deserve to be given the chance to make a full recovery. We do not recommend hibernating sight damaged tortoises again. We have heard of relapses following this, even if no further freezing takes place. We believe it is safer to over-winter them in future.
Help and advice from other experienced keepers can be obtained via our user forum at www.tortoisetrustforum.org