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When tortoises won't feed

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':

Incorrect environmental maintenance accounts for the vast majority of problems in the
Kinixys group. These tortoises are extremely sensitive to excessively dry conditions, and will refuse to feed if the captive environment is in any way inappropriate. The same cause is responsible for many other problems frequently encountered with these tortoises such as ear abscesses, infected eyes and nasal discharges. Other common problems include urinary tract parasites (such as Hexamita parva and similar flagellate organisms), cilliate organisms and 'worms'. Laboratory analysis of urine and faeces samples is advised in all suspect cases.

Flagellate, cilliate and 'worms' account for a high proportion of problems in these species. In particular,
Hexamita parva (a highly pathogenic urinary tract parasite) is often seen in Leopard tortoises. This produces a debilitat- ing, wasting condition and if untreated will lead to death from renal failure. The urine of infected animals may smell strongly of ammonia. Urgent veterinary treatment is essential. The organism usually responds well to Metronidazole ('Flagyl'). Feeding low-fibre and sugar-rich foods seems to encourage parasitic proliferation. A high-fibre, low sugar diet is much more appropriate.

Most of the comments applied to Hinge-back tortoises apply equally to box turtles, with environmental failures pre-eminent among the causes of ill- health and refusal to feed. Perhaps the most common problem of all in box turtles is that of ear abscesses, which are almost entirely attributable to lack of humidity and maintenance at excessively high temperatures. If box turtles are kept under mild, damp conditions with adequate access to clean bathing water then ear abscesses and, closed, 'sticky' eyes are rarely encountered. Keeping box turtles in a hot, dry indoor vivarium is almost guaranteed to induce them.

Post-hibernation problems are an obvious problem area, but other factors too are frequent contributors to the veterinary casualty department. The dreaded 'Runny Nose Syndrome' is perhaps the most insidious of these. Although it can be initiated by poor environmental maintenance, most cases appear to be the result of infection with bacterial or viral pathogens. Certainly, the condition is most frequent in large, mixed collections and it can have truly devastating effects. Prevention is infinitely better (and far less costly) than cure. Do not mix naturally non-sympatric species (including subspecies), and do not allow mass feeding together - this is a guaranteed way to spread every pathogen and parasite present to all and sundry. Good hygiene is vital in any reptile collection and should be given the priority it de- serves. Necrotic stomatitis ('Mouth Rot') is another condition which is easy to spread and difficult to treat. Routine mouth checks are definitely a good idea. Infectious diseases are second only to hibernation failures as a cause of non-feeding in Mediterranean tortoises - third place is held by nutritional disorders, a topic which deserves a separate commentary of its own.

All cases of non-feeding should be considered as indicators of an underlying, primary problem and not as the problem itself. Tortoises refuse (or are unable) to feed for a specific reason. That reason must be identified and corrected. Force-feeding alone is not the answer. At all times seek qualified, specialist veterinary assistance. You can help your vet by providing accurate but concise observations and relevant details of the animal's history. Where you suspect parasites, collect samples of urine and faeces and present them for microscopic analysis. If you keep a number of animals, you may even like to consider investing in your own microscope to perform initial and regular parasitic screening. It can contribute greatly to the early detection of pathogenic organisms within the collection before they cause serious damage.

A. C. Highfield 1989-1999.