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Turtle/Tortoise Frequently asked Questions

Compiled by Darrell Senneke

Please note that these are general answers to frequently asked questions. They are not intended to be all encompassing for all species but rather to be a help for people just starting out in the keeping of chelonians. To attempt to cover all the questions frequently asked by those just starting out would be an insurmountable task. For that reason we limited the questions on this FAQ to twenty-five.  We strongly encourage everyone to read all the information you can find regarding the care of your specific turtle or tortoise before you aquire it.

Click on the FAQ questions below to go directly to the answer.

My turtle / tortoise's droppings / urine is white! What does this mean and what should I do? What do normal droppings look like and how often is "normal"?

2)  My turtle / tortoise hatched 3 days ago and still has not eaten - what should I do?

3)  I live in an apartment and just saw / bought the cutest baby sulcata - what can I expect from him? How long does it take a sulcata to get really big?

4)  My turtle / tortoise just mated - when can I expect eggs? How will I know if she has eggs?

5)  Can my tortoise swim?

6)  Should my tortoise have water available all the time?

7)  Exactly what is and how often should I soak my tortoise?

8)  What is Salmonella ? People at the pet stores went on and on about it. I have children...should I get rid of the turtle?

9)  I was told that I needed to separate different types of turtles from one another, but other breeders say it's no problem??

10) I have dogs. Can I have turtles in with the dogs?

11) How much water does my Box turtle need for swimming?

12) How do I know if my turtle / tortoise is eating enough?  How often and how much should I feed?

13) I just found a turtle crossing the road. What kind is it and can I keep him? What does it eat?

14) How often should I have my turtle checked for worms?

15) I just purchased a 4 inch turtle or tortoise - please include some information about start up costs?

16) What do the numbers like 1.3.8 mean when someone is talking about their animals?

17) Do tortoises need to drink?

18) What should I put on it's shell?

19) What should I look for in (and when should I look for) a veterinarian?

20) Our turtle seems to be eating rocks on the bottom of her tank!  What do we do about this?

21) What's the difference between a tortoise and a turtle?

22) What is pyramiding?

23) How frequently to use vitamin and mineral supplements? Can you give too much calcium?

24) How far away and what wattage should my basking light be?

25) If your turtle or tortoise has any of the following symptoms the best advice is to see a veterinarian.


1)  My turtle / tortoise's droppings / urine is white! What does this mean and what should I do? What do normal droppings look like and how often is "normal"?

[Alex {Carter}Dempsey] The white substance is urates (concentrated uric acid). It's a perfectly normal product of protein metabolism, but if it's being passed more than a couple of times a week, it can indicate too much protein in the diet.

Urates should be anything from totally liquid, to about the same consistency as toothpaste. If they're hard or gritty when they're expelled, this indicates dehydration (which is common in terrestrial species kept in vivaria) and if left untreated, dehydration rapidly proves fatal. The tortoise should be bathed immediately by standing it in a bath of shallow, luke-warm water. This should be done daily, until the urates return to normal. Generally, this bathing should be done two to three times every week (more often for hatchlings, who can dehydrate more rapidly than adults).

Re: Stools. A healthy turtle/tortoise produces quite firm, well formed feces. If they contain undigested food, or are runny, then the possibility of parasites should be ruled out by analysis of a stool sample by your vet. If this isn't the cause, then a low fiber diet is the likely culprit. This can be avoided by taking care to feed coarser foodstuffs that are closer to the diet of the species in its natural habitat. Feeding too much fruit, especially to species that wouldn't encounter much naturally, can also cause diarrhea. Frequency of defecation obviously varies depending on how much the turtle/tortoise is eating. If they appear to be straining to produce feces (or haven't gone for several days) try more frequent and prolonged bathing, which can ease mild cases of constipation. If this fails to encourage defecation, a trip to the vet is necessary to rule out the possibility of an intestinal obstruction.


2)  My turtle / tortoise hatched 3 days ago and still has not eaten - what should I do?

[Martha Messinger, George Patton and Darrell Senneke]  Many neonates do not eat food for several days or a week. The yoke sac provides them with nourishment until they do eat. Even after the yolk sac is no longer externally evident, internally it is still providing nourishment.

For Box turtles try tiny earthworms, slugs, very thin slices of peeled cucumber.  Many times an earthworm is too large, so I break it up into several small pieces.  This causes the pieces of earthworm to wiggle and the excitement of several pieces "wiggling" will entice the new neonate to eat. Slugs are very slow moving. A newly hatched neonate does not have good coordination and will be able to catch the slug.

For aquatics good starter foods are small worms and brine shrimp with perhaps a little romaine lettuce. Some people have reported good success using well washed tubifex worms as a starter food.

For tortoises generally the same foods fed the adults are used as starter foods. In exceptionally stubborn cases a small amount of nectarine, peach or cucumber can often tempt them but be sure to get them onto a proper diet based on the species as soon as possible once they are eating.  I have seen tortoises go three weeks after hatching before taking their first foods.


3)  I live in an apartment and just saw / bought the cutest baby sulcata - what can I expect from him? How long does it take a sulcata to get really big?

[ULf Edqvist] You can expect a very nice and personable pet, but also a fast growing, furniture-moving 'eat and poop-machine'. A fully grown sulcata can weigh as much as 70 kilogrammes, and will easily move a piano. Spurred tortoises are indeed fast growers, especially in captivity when they are often offered many times the amount of food they would eat in nature and often food far 'richer' than their natural diet. Growth rates are largely dependant on the care given, but it is not uncommon for 5 year-old sulcatas to weigh in at 10 kilos or more - and by then they are not even close to halfgrown. In the wild, it would take over twice that time for them to reach that size due to the limited food availibility in the Spurred tortoise's natural habitat.


4)  My turtle / tortoise just mated - when can I expect eggs? How will I know if she has eggs?

[Darrell Senneke] Turtles are often solitary in the wild so if they meet they usually breed. This is because if they had to wait till the perfect time many would not meet another turtle at that time.  Turtles and tortoises practice what is called sperm retention. What we mean by this is that the female can hold the sperm within her for long periods (years in fact)   to be used as the eggs develop. The eggs developing is triggered by environmental factors which cause hormone production which triggers the formation of the eggs. The female then uses the stored sperm to fertilize the eggs.  I have had female box turtles lay fertile eggs three years after being separated from any male.

The way to tell if a female turtle or tortoise is ready to lay eggs is based on simple observation. If it is an aquatic kept in a habitat without a large land area or adequate nesting area it will usually act as if it wants out and be very persistent about it.  If it is a terrestrial turtle or tortoise it will pace, sometimes even stopping to sniff the ground. This is a good indication that it is looking for a nesting site.  At this point it is necessary to provide a nesting location for the turtle or tortoise.  If you think the turtle may be gravid (holding eggs) and it refuses to lay when provided with a nesting location or it exhibits none of the indications noted above a veterinarian can take a radiograph (X-ray) to determine for certain if eggs are present. .


5)  Can my tortoise swim?

[Terry Carman]  No, tortoises generally can not swim. Tortoises are terrestrial, which means that they live on land. Unlike aquatic turtles, tortoises lack webbed feet.  Should a tortoise by accident fall into a pond or swimming pool it could sink to the bottom like a rock and drown.

It is therefore very important when planing an  enclosure for your tortoise that it has no access to large bodies of water other than a very shallow dish to drink from. The dish must be shallow enough that the tortoise can drink easily, without  falling into the dish or flipping on its back trying to climb up to take a drink or out after taking one. Also when planing an outdoor enclosure you must make sure that you do not build it in an area of your yard which will flood during a heavy rainfall, (drowning the trapped tortoise). If you plan to hibernate your tortoise outdoors do not allow it to hibernate in an area which may flood. (Drowning the tortoise as it hibernates).

There are some species of tortoise that can swim and enjoy doing so but they are the exception rather than the rule. Always study the natural history of any animal you wish to care for to ascertain its particular needs.


6)  Should my tortoise have water available all the time?

[ULf Edqvist) As a rule of thumb - Yes. However, for some species it can be extremly difficult to keep a water bowl inside the enclosure. In those instances, it is recommended that the tortoises are given the opportunity to drink several times weekly.


7)  Exactly what is and how often should I soak my tortoise?

[Marissa Adams] Soaking is a very crucial element in the proper care of your tortoise. It assists in keeping your tortoise hydrated, which in turn helps to keep the tortoise's system flushed.  No matter what type of tortoise you have, soaking should be a regular part of your care schedule. In the wild tortoises have different ways to keep themselves hydrated that are not always duplicated or possible in captive care.  For instance, many species of tortoises from arid climates will dig long, deep burrows which they retire to during the heat of the day. In these burrows, the humidity may be much higher than outside in the sun. This "microclimate" humidity keeps the tortoise from dehydrating, which helps to prevent problems that captive specimens may develop, such as bladder stones.

The tortoise does not always need to actually drink while soaking in order to hydrate itself.  Tortoises are also often able to absorb fluids through the cloaca.  Do not be alarmed if you notice that your tortoise urinates and/or defecates while soaking, as the warm water will frequently stimulate them to void.  Depending on the species you keep, soaking frequency should vary.  Although two - three times per week at the very least is a good schedule for a hatchling, a juvenile can be soaked twice a week, and an adult the same.

To correctly soak your tortoise, the water should be lukewarm and no deeper than the juncture between the bottom shell (plastron) and the top (carapace).  You should soak for at least five to ten minutes each time and make sure the tortoise is clean and dry when it goes back in its enclosure.


8)  What is Salmonella? People at the pet stores went on and on about it. I have children...should I get rid of the turtle?

[Mark Verduin]

The Agent:
Salmonella = gram-negative, short, rod-shaped bacteria. Distribution is world-wide, with +/- 2000 serotypes, each with different names and various specific hosts(in other words, each type has its own particular host animal)

The Disease:
Salmonellosis, or food-borne disease.  Results from a complex of environmental contamination and infected humans, mammals, reptiles, and birds.  Reptile - associated salmonellosis is not a new phenomenon; in the early 70's pet turtles were responsible for an estimated 280,000 cases in the US each year, leading to a ban on all interstate shipment of pet turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches.   After this ban, there were an estimated 100,000 fewer annual cases of turtle-related salmonellosis ocurring in children from 1 to 9 years of age. However, the rate of reptile-associated salmonellosis has been steadily increasing  since 1980, probably due to increased popularity of reptiles as pets, mainly the common green iguana.

Now, all animals are possible carriers of salmonella; let me state, however, that it is not their (the animal's) fault if the owner becomes ill. The illness comes about due to improper hygiene practices associated with caring for these animals.  Using common sense and following these guidelines(from the US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention) will protect any responsible reptile owner and their families/household visitors from acquiring this disease:

          1)      Reptile owners should ALWAYS wash their hands after handling reptiles and their cages.
          2)      Persons at increased risk for infection or serious complications (i.e., children under 5 yrs of age and immuno compromised persons) should avoid contact with reptile pets.
    ***3)   Reptiles should not be kept in households with children under 1 yr of age or immunocompromised persons; families expecting new children should give away their pet reptiles before the baby arrives.***
          4)      Reptiles should not be kept in child-care centers (This is already law in many states).
          5)      Reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely throughout the house.
          6)      Reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and other food preparation areas to prevent contamination.  Kitchen sinks should NOT be used to bathe the animals or wash the animals' dishes, cages, or aquariums. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be throughly cleaned and sanitized afterwards.

        ***NOTE:  I personally do not agree with #3,  but, that is a personal opinion and in no way reflects the position of CDC on this matter...

        Basically, yes, turtles can carry salmonella and we can get salmonellosis from them; HOWEVER, if we follow a few simple common-sense guidelines and good hygienic practices, we can greatly reduce, if not eliminate completely, our risk for catching this disease from our beloved pets.


9)  I was told that I needed to separate different types of turtles from one another, but other breeders say it's no problem?

[ULf Edqvist] There are several valid reasons not to mix tortoises and turtles of different species in the same enclosure. Below are the three reasons I feel are most important.

1) Many species are incompatible because of differing environmental needs. It goes without saying that the compromises one is forced to make when trying to satify the needs of, f.e. a Spurred tortoise from the arid subsaharan Africa and those of a Hingeback from the deep tropical forests of the western and central parts of the same continent, are doomed to condemn at least one, and most likely both tortoises to a slow death.

2) Maybe the most important factor that speaks against mixing different kinds of turtles and tortoises is the risk of cross infection. Chelonians naturally harbors many organisms that, while not posing any danger to the carrying animal, might be lethal to an individual of another species. This risk, according to some, is especially large when the species in question originate from different parts of the world, while the risk is said to diminish (but not disappear) if the animals in question are captive bred and raised.

3) The third reason not to mix different varieties of turtles or tortoises together is the risk of them harming eachother. The breeding behaviour in many species is quite rough, involving butting, biting and ramming, and while a female of the same species is 'built' for that particular type of rough handling, a female of another species is most likely not equipped to come out of such an ordeal unharmed.

The conclusion: - Do try to avoid housing different varieties of chelonians together, the gain (in space) is simply not worth the risk of injury, disease - or even death.


10) I have dogs. Can I have turtles in with the dogs?

[Darrell Senneke]  I can count on one certain thing to happen every year. Someone will inform me that their dog mauled their turtle or tortoise. These people are nearly always shocked, as their dog never showed any interest or aggression towards the chelonian in the past. Dogs can not be trusted with turtles and tortoises. Often after years of indifference the dog will suddenly decide that the tortoise is simply a bone that moves. I lost the first two tortoises I ever owned on the same night to my  pet collie. This dog had shared a room in the house with the tortoises for six years prior to the attack.


11) How much water does my Box turtle need for swimming?

[Martha Messinger and George Patton] For Terrapene species approximately 2 to 3 inches is sufficient, depending on the size of the turtle.  The turtle needs to be able to have its head out of the water without straining its neck.  I find that the plastic "coaster" (used under flower pots to catch excess water) are ideal for this purpose. You will want the size coaster that the turtle can easily crawl in and out of.


12) How do I know if my turtle / tortoise is eating enough?  How often and how much should I feed?

[Tess Cook] There are several factors to consider when determining how much and how often to feed your turtle or tortoise. Observe it's activity level and note whether it is an omnivore, herbivore or strictly a fish or insect eater.

A chelonian in an indoor terrarium may not require as much food as one which lives in a large outdoor enclosure. Also a herbivore will need more food, more often then the same size omnivore. A pinky mouse is packed with a lot more calories then the same volume of dandelion greens. Therefore study the natural habits of your animal and keep accounts of how much, when and what you offer. Keep regular weight measurements and make adjustments if you notice weight lost or gains. After awhile you'll learn the specific requirements to keep your individual animal well fed and healthy.


13) I just found a turtle crossing the road. What kind is it and can I keep him? What does it eat?

[David Haynes] While it is certainly possible for knowledgeable people to identify a turtle or tortoise from a reasonably complete description, it would probably be better for you to try to identify it yourself. The easiest way to do this is to compare it to pictures of turtles native to the area where you found it. Most areas of the world have fewer than about 10 different turtles, so for most of us it should not be too difficult. Almost all areas of the world have some sort of field guide to the reptiles and amphibians found there, but if there is no such guide for your area there are a couple of worldwide turtle books that you can use.

It is impossible in a short FAQ to list all the herp books, so I will mention only three; please understand that there are many, many more. For the United States and Canada the easiest to find is probably Conant and Collins,  Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern and Central North America) which pictures, discusses, and maps all the turtles except two found in California and one from Arizona. Two readily available worldwide guides are Ernst and Barbour, Turtles of the World and Peter Pritchard, Encyclopedia of Turtles Start by looking in your local library (ask the reference librarian for help), then try large book stores. If you develop a real interest in turtles, you should buy (or hint for as a gift) one or several of the books that cover your area. The popular ones can often  be found in used book or thrift stores.

If you find a turtle or tortoise generally speaking, no, you should not try to keep it. Wild caught animals are much more difficult and expensive to care for than captive born. Some are illegal to remove from the wild, your local game authority can tell you the rules for your area. Most good field guides, however, do give some indication what each species eats and how it lives in nature. Any captive turtle will do better if the husbandry replicates its natural environment as closely as possible.

Once you have checked the books as best you can, please feel free to ask for help identifying the cause and cure for husbandry problems you run into. Most "turtle" people are delighted to help any way they can.


14) How often should I have my turtle checked for worms?

[Glen Jacobsen] All turtles/tortoises should be checked by a reptile vet when you get it and again a month or two later.  If your animal is alone, living inside, you should have it checked yearly or if you notice marked changes in droppings.  If it is living with other animals or spends some time outside, it should be checked twice a year and also if you notice marked changes in its stool.


15) I just purchased a 4 inch turtle or tortoise - please include some information about start up costs?

[Paula Elis. Morris] You are not buying 'just a turtle'. . .
You'll need a variation of the list below to provide a humane and healthful environment for a turtle/tortoise of this size.

20"-deep x 30"-wide x 9"-high terrarium  $130
Full spectrum (UVA/UVB) lighting $ 48
Ceramic heat emitter and reflector   $ 55
Veterinary exam and fecal analysis   $ 25
Vitamin & calcium supplements  $ 12
Shallow glazed ceramic tip proof water dish (not applicable for turtle) $   8-$12
Bird/raccoon/escape proof outdoor enclosure 6'x6' Variable
Sunlight, fresh air, and water FREE
TOTAL $282 - minimum


16) What do the numbers like 1.3.8 mean when someone is talking about their animals?

[Darrell Senneke]  These numbers are a naming notation used to indicate the make up of a population of one species. The first number denotes total males in the group, the second number denotes total females and the third total unsexed young. If I were to say that I had 1.3.8 Testudo ibera it would indicate that I had one male, three females and 8 young that I did not know the sex of.


17) Do tortoises need to drink?

[Glen Jacobsen] Yes!   Be aware that after drinking most tortoises urinate vast quantities.


18) What should I put on it's shell?

[Glen Jacobsen] Medications, only if it is injured, otherwise nothing.  Tepid water and a brush may be used to remove dirt,       excrement etc. from the carapace and plastron.  If it is absolutely imperative that you mark a turtle for identification, a small dot of fingernail polish may be used.


19) What should I look for in (and when should I look for) a veterinarian?

[Glen Jacobsen] You should look for a good reptile vet BEFORE purchasing a turtle/tortoise.  If there are no good vets in your  area, this should be considered BEFORE purchasing one instead of after.  References for a vet can be made by other vets, a local veterinary college, ARAV (The Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians), your local herp society or the Tortoise Trust.  Don't be afraid to ask questions BEFORE taking your animal to the vet.  How many turtles have they seen?  What species and for what ailments?  What were the results of treatment?  Can they provide names and phone numbers of satisfied customers?  What books or resources do they use?  Do they keep any turtles themselves?  Are they a member of ARAV?  of the local herp society?


20) Our turtle seems to be eating rocks on the bottom of her tank!  What do we do about this?

[Jody Karlin]  Nothing, it is normal behavior for some species to consume gravel ie..Diamondback Terrapins do it religiously. Although the exact reason for this is open to debate, the most prevalent theory is that the gravel aids in the digestive process.  Don't worry about blockage, they will "pass the stones", so to speak.


21) What's the difference between a tortoise and a turtle?

[Glen Jacobsen and Darrell Senneke] Strictly semantics.  All are chelonians.  All chelonians are turtles. There is indeed a regional variance in the naming of chelonians. With the advent of modern communications this regional variation is becoming blurred.

In the USA -  a turtle is found in or around water and a tortoise is found on dry land.  A terrapin is a turtle that is found in brackish water.  In general, look at the back legs.  If they are webbed, call it a turtle.  If they are stumpy (like an elephants) call it a tortoise.

In the UK they apply  terrapin to freshwater chelonians, tortoise to land chelonians, and turtle to oceanic dwellers.

In Australia 'tortoise' is used for everything except sea 'turtles'.  (There are no land chelonians native to Australia)

Terrapin is also occasionally used as the name for any turtle that is to be eaten by humans in both the UK and USA.


22) What is pyramiding?

[Andy Highfield]  Excessive quantities of protein can seriously impair the calcium metabolism, and in addition can lead to massively accelerated growth and early sexual maturity. This is readily observed in many captive-bred hatchlings, where 2-year-old specimens raised on high protein diets frequently weigh four to five times the weight which they could reasonably expect to attain in the wild, demonstrate abnormally advanced sexual behavior and, almost invariably, deformed pyramid-like scutes and grossly distorted carapaces. This latter effect is even seen in cases where otherwise adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D3 have been provided.

In severe cases the carapace is weak and bulging and the horny shields or scutes are raised and pyramid-like especially along the central vertebral line. Radiological examination reveals gross distortions and separation of the underlying bone as well as poor bone density.

The solution is not to provide excessive quantities of protein and to ensure that mineral and vitamin levels are carefully balanced and are available in sufficient quantities.


23) How frequently to use vitamin and mineral supplements? Can you give too much calcium?

[Jody Karlin] To be honest, I am a naturalist, I prefer to determine the correct, varied diet, offering my animals their full compliment of essential vitamins and minerals, with a special emphasis placed on vitamin A, vitamin D (in the form of D3) and a calcium to phosphorus ratio of at least 2:1, preferably higher.  I am also a realist, and play it safe by sprinkling the meal with pure calcium carbonate powder and one of the many available vitamin supplements once a week. Of course, feel free to be more cautious and add these supplements twice a week. Overdosing with oral supplements is not that common, injectibles, maybe.

In the absence of excess D3, to much calcium will be handled by bodily hormones, and harmlessly, passed through the urine. In case of a combination of high levels of calcium and D3, the potential exists for mineralization of the animals soft tissue. But I think, "A wise man knows what to overlook".


24) How far away and what wattage should my basking light be?

[Glen Jacobsen] Distance should be adjusted so that the light is beyond the reach of your animal, an animal (or animals) crawling up on his back and any splashing water.   Wattage should then be adjusted to provide a temperature AT THE TOP OF THE BASKING ANIMAL'S SHELL of 90-95F (32-35 degrees C).  If two or more animals can bask on top of each other, check the temperature at the top of the shell of the top animal.  If too many animals are trying to bask on top of each other, provide more basking areas for them.  You do not need to use "full spectrum" incandescent lights.  A reflector flood or spot type light, within a reflector hood, works best at focusing the light and warmth on your animal.  If nighttime warmth needs to be provided, use a ceramic infrared emitter rather than a light to allow for a day and night cycle.


25) If your turtle or tortoise has any of the following symptoms the best advice is to see a veterinarian.

If the animal is blowing bubbles out of its nose or mouth.
If the animal is wheezing.
If its eyes are swollen shut or will not open.
If an aquatic turtle is swimming in a lopsided manner.
If there is blood in the stool or urine.
If there is an unusual swelling anywhere on the animals body.
If the shell has white areas or weeping areas on it or appears to be eroding on the edges.
If its droppings are or a constant liquid nature rather than firm.
If the animal appears lame when walking.
If the animal will not eat.
If the animal's shell has been compromised by accident or animal attack