can make an interesting pet, although they can present a challenge, due
to their size and dietary habits. Their diets vary based on species,
but all need quite a variety of foods, with careful attention paid to
the amount of roughage as well as calcium/phosphorus balance.
Many species are fairly large and need a
decent sized enclosure, preferably outdoors, so are suited to areas
with nicer climates. Depending on the temperatures where the tortoise
originates and the area where you live, it may be necessary to bring
tortoises indoors overnight or during cooler weather (and with the
larger tortoises providing indoor housing can be a big challenge!).
Some species need to hibernate, which can be very stressful on the
tortoise and requires special conditions. Tortoises can also live a very long time (anywhere from 50 to over
100 years), which means you must be prepared to provide a lifetime of
care and consider that your pet might even outlive you.
It is best, as with any reptile, to get a captive bred
specimen if at all possible. This isn't easy for some species, but the
capture and shipping conditions can be appalling, and result in
stressed animals which are then more prone to disease. It is also
possible in some areas to locate tortoises from rescues. Any new
addition should be checked for parasites and quarantined for a while to
ensure that it is healthy (if other tortoises are present).
species are quite aggressive with other tortoises, and if a couple of
males are kept in too small of an enclosure, fighting may result
producing potentially serious injuries around the eyes and on the legs.
It is vital to choose a tortoise species well - based on
housing and environmental needs, and diet requirements. Different
species have markedly different adult sizes, temperature and light
needs, diets, and some need to hibernate and some do not. Rather than
try to get into the details of care here we'll just compare of a few
species, and refer readers to the excellent care sheets that are
available on the internet.
When constructing an outdoor pen,
make sure it is strong and bury your fences if you have a burrowing
tortoise. Tortoises are quite strong, especially the larger ones, and
flimsy enclosures won't hold them long. Some tortoises also climb
surprisingly well so some may require a roofed pen. It is also very
important to make sure the enclosure keeps predators (including dogs)
out. Make sure there are no dangers in the pen - no poisonous plants,
shallow water only, and no sharp objects or small inedible objects
which may be accidentally ingested. Also for some tortoises, trying to
climb steps or other obstacles can result in them tipping onto their
backs, which may result in their untimely deaths.
Play sand/loam mix is by far the
best substrate. The amount of moisture can be easily regulated. Also it easy
to create a higher moisture/humidity area as well as a dry area in the same pen. This
way the tortoise has a choice of micro-climates. Loam is the best choice and
is readily available in northern states and the UK. Coconut coir can be used instead.
Tortoises require a range of temperatures to be provided for proper
thermoregulation. An area at about 75 degrees on the cool side with a bright basking area in the
low 90s is about as close to ideal as you can probably get. Be sure to
verify the temperatures with thermometers on both sides of the enclosure at the tortoises' level. As in
nature, tortoises require an overnight drop in temperature to maintain a healthy
immune system. 65 degrees is the absolute minimum temperature to keep a tortoise overnight. Sick or newly acquired
animals may be best kept in the 80s overnight to aid in their immune
response and combat the stress of adjusting to a new home. Heating pads and
hot rocks can be dangerous and shouldn't be relied on as a heat source.
Never use a heating pad near heat lamp or other heat sources. In nature
overhead heat is absorbed more effectively. Overheating is a danger esecially in
smaller quarters when they need the ability to move about to manage their
In the wild, these herbivores species primarily on grasses, shrubs and
succulent plants. In
captivity the ideal situation for these animals to sustain themselves,
is to just allow them to graze in a well planted chemically untreated
area of your yard. Large pens can be heavily planted with Grazing Tortoise Seed Mix.
Nutritious chemical free healthy foods are often freely available
in your yard or vacant lots. These include:
Easily obtainable grocery greens:
Aim for a high calcium to phosphorus ratio and low protein diet. When
fed in excess, foods high in oxalates have been implicated in binding
minerals including calcium. Moderation and variety is the key.
Long term ingestion of the chemicals commonly sprayed
on produce is a health concern. Choose organic greens when possible or
be sure to wash in mild soapy water and rinse well. Remove plastic and
metal wrappers so your torts don't accidentally ingest these.
Regularly Feed: Dark Leafy Greens such as: Endive, Watercress,Collard Greens,
Kale, Dandelion, Chicory, Escarole,
Radicchio, Turnip Greens, Opuntia (smooth or despined) Occasionally Feed:
Cabbage, Carrots, Carrot Tops, Red Leaf Lettuce, Romaine, Mustard Greens, Alfalfa
Hay, Parsley Rarely Feed:
Swiss Chard, Spinach, Broccoli, Bok choy, Iceberg lettuce, Sweet
Potatoes, Sprouts of any kind, Corn, Cucumbers, Beet Greens, Fruit in
Never Feed: Rhubarb, Beans of any kind, dog food, pasta
Sometimes when you obtain your tortoise you will find that it has not been fed an appropriate diet. In these cases a transition to a better diet will have to be made.
Getting them to eat healthier foods:
Mixing larger portions of things your tortoise likes in chopped "salads" and
slowly cutting back on "treat" foods in the mix, is one way to get them
adjusted to a better diet. If you tortoise is healthy and has water
available at all times, it wont hurt them to go a couple days without food,
especially if it helps them to be hungry enough to appreciate a healthier
diet. You might also try putting a bit of squash (or some other foods
that they especially like) in the blender and pouring this over the new
foods that you're introducing. This is a good chance to sneak in extra calcium in if needed.
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is a condition (or conditions) resulting in
abnormal bone growth and/or repair. It encompasses the following conditions
and syndromes; osteoporosis, osteomalacia, osteopenia, rickets, fibrous
osteodystrophy, hypocalcemia and nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism.
Causes MBD is generally the long term result of deficient dietary calcium and/or
vitamin D3. This results in a negative calcium:phosphorous ratio
and is caused by the following:
- Too little calcium or too much phosphorus in the diet. - The presence of substances in the diet that impair the absorption of
calcium (e.g. oxalates, phytates etc) - A deficiency of vitamin D3 from the lack of exposure to proper
amounts of UVB either from unfiltered sunlight or high quality UVB
lighting. - Inadequate protein or excessive protein. - Kidney or liver disease (which impair conversion of vitamin D to
it's active from), small intestinal disease and/or parasites (disrupts
absorption), and disease of the thyroid or parathyroid glands (produce
hormones which affect calcium metabolism).
These are minor contributors
- most cases are nutritionally based. - Improper (too cool) basking temperatures impair
digestion and therefore calcium absorption . It also inhibits the
production of D3 by UVB light.
Diagnosis The diagnosis is usually made from a dietary and environmental history as well as clinical signs.
Dietary and Environmental History
A proper diet is critical to the health of the
tortoise. In general you want a diet that's high in calcium, high in fiber,
low in phosphorous and adequate in protein. The tortoise also needs a proper environment.
Without this, even a perfect diet can result in MBD.
Some critical factors are UVB and moisture levels. Be aware that too much is just as harmful as too little. To strike a proper
balance, gradients are needed. The tortoise needs a warm basking area with UVB,
but it also requires a cooler section without UVB. This allows it to not
only regulate its body temperature, but to also control its UVB exposure.
The same is true for moisture. It needs a warm moist area as well as a cool
Weak limbs resulting in an unsteady gait and the inability to raise the
plastron off the ground when walking
A depressed posterior carapace
giving rise to the appearance of being humped back
The whole carapace
may be flattened rather than domed
Pyramiding of the shell
The shell appearing too
small for its body
Abnormal beak, often appearing like a
parrot's beak or a duck's bill
Bowed or deformed
Treatment and Prevention MBD is far easier to prevent than to treat. Some of the important issues
Dietary calcium. The best source of calcium is a varied diet.
Grocery store greens are often lower in calcium than the weeds and grasses available in the wild.
To make up for this it is often recommended that all food be dusted with
phosphorous free calcium. However, too much calcium can be as bad as too
little. Another problem that's often overlooked is that bone is
made of a variety of minerals including magnesium and boron. Calcium
powders don't provide these. Instead of just using calcium powder, keep cuttlebone available to the tortoises at all times. Cuttlebone is high in calcium and the
necessary trace minerals.
Low dietary phosphorous. If you follow the diet
guidelines on this site, this will not be an issue.
Adequate Protein. Protein is essential for muscle
growth. Young and active animals require more than older inactive
High Fiber. This is important for intestinal health.
Correct Lighting. A quality UVB bulb or daily access to
unfiltered sun is essential.
The above is not only important for prevention, but is also a critical
part of treatment.
The Leopard Tortoise is a large grazing species
that favors semi-arid (not dry), thorny to grassland habitats. However, it
is also seen in some regions featuring a higher level of precipitation.
They have a very attractive shell pattern. The shell pattern
acts like camouflage in its natural home range. It is found throughout
savannahs of Africa from Sudan to the southern Cape. In the United States it is one of the more popular tortoises and is
Scientific Name: Geochelone pardalis
Size: On average, leopard tortoises reach about 16-18 inches and 40-50 pounds (although some reach up to 24 inches and 70 lbs). This is one of the few
species where the male can be larger than the female.
Life Span:You can expect a leopard tortoise to live 50 years or more.
tortoise are herbivorous grazers so their ideal diet is high fiber
grasses and greens (at least 70%). Pesticide-free grass is good for grazing, and the
diet should primarily consist of grasses such at timothay or orchard
grass or hay. Small amounts of vegetables can be offered too. Don't
feed foods high in oxalates (beet greens, chard, spinach) or fruit (can
cause digestive upsets). Also, never feed dog or cat food or other
Supplements: Calcium/vitamin D3
supplementation is recommended daily for leopard tortoises (D3 is
especially important when housed indoors). Pieces of cuttlebone can
also be provided for gnawing and extra calcium.
Housing - Outdoors: Outdoor
housing is preferable for leopard tortoises where the climate allows.
Daytime temperatures should be 80-90 F (27-32 C), with a drop at night
to 65-75 F (19-24 C). They cannot tolerate cool or damp conditions. A
large sturdy enclosure with protection from predators is necessary,
along with shade, hiding spots, and access to a shallow pan of water
(deep enough to soak in but shallow enough that drowning isn't a
possibility). A dry grassy area that allows grazing is ideal.
Housing - Indoors: You
may need to bring your leopard torotoises indoors for part or all of
the year. Provide a large (4 feet by 8 feet minimum) enclosure. Grass
hay makes an ideal substrate. A UVA/UVB lamp is vital. A basking spot
at 95 F (35 C) should be provided, while the rest of the enclosure can
be heated to 80-90 F (27-32 C) during the day and 65-75 F (19-24 C) at
night. A shallow pan of water (deep enough for soaking but shallow
enough to prevent drowning) should be provided.
Notes: Do not hibernate, although they may slow down in the cooler months.
The Sulcata Tortoise is a large species from the Sub-Saharan area of Africa.
Although this is a very arid region, sulcatas requires constant access to
water. In the wild they avoid dehydration by digging long tunnels. They are
very well adapted to an arid environment.
When small they can be kept in large indoor pens. However, after a few
years they will out grow most indoor accommodations. These powerful animals
have been reported to bulldoze through sheet rock and patio doors.
Scientific Name: Geochelone sulcata
Common Names: Sulcata tortoise, African spurred tortoise
Life Span: Sulcata tortoises can live 80-100 years, perhaps longer.
Size: Sulcata tortoise are very large, reaching an adult length of 24-30 inches and weighing in at 80-110 pounds.
tortoises are herbivorous, grazing tortoises and need a high fiber/low
protein diet, provided with a variety of grasses and hays (at least 75%
of diet) along with some edible weeds and flowers (dandelions, clover,
endive, edible flowers, weeds, cactus pads). Small amounts of other
leafy green vegetables are probably okay, but avoid foods high in
oxalates (spinach, mustard and beet greens, kale, broccoli, and
cauliflower). Do not feed fruits, animal protein, or tortoise foods.
Supplements: Supplementation with calcium/Vitamin D3 is recommended.
Housing - Outdoors: These
large turtles need a sturdy fence and since they burrow the fence
should be extended underground. Shelter in the form of a doghouse or
small shed will provide protection from the elements. Building a heated
shed will provide a suitable shelter for colder weather. Daytime
temperatures can be up to 100 F , but they should have a heated
shelter if the night time temperature drops below 70 F. A
shallow pan of water should be provided, and a muddy wallow may be used
Housing - Indoors: With
the size of these turtles, housing adults indoors gets a bit
impractical. An outdoor heateed shed or greenhouse where they can live
when it is cooler is sometimes a better option. Temperatures should be
maintained at 80-90 F during the day, dropping as low as 72 F at night. In addition, a basking spot should be provided at 95 F. A UVA/UVB light is also necessary when housed indoors. A pan of
water should be provided.
Notes: Do not
hibernate. Also, make sure there is nothing that the tortoise can climb
on (steep surfaces, steps, etc.) and tip over onto its back. If they
end up on their back when you are not around to rescue them, it is
possible they will die.
The Red footed tortoise is a tortoise native to South America. It has also been introduced to many islands in the Caribbean.
It draws its name from the red or orange scales visible on its limbs,
as well as its head and tail. It is popular as a pet, though it is
protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that this species may not be exported from its home country without a permit. The red foot has a larger cousin, the yellow footed tortoise, also known as the Brazillian Giant Tortoise.
Scientific Name: Geochelone carbonaria
Common Names: Sometimes
also called red foot (or redfoot), redleg, or Savanna tortoises. There
is a slightly smaller variety called the Cherry-head as well.
Life Span: Red footed tortoises live up to 50 years, possibly longer.
footed tortoises often reach a length of 10-14 inches, although they
can be larger (16 inches or more). A slightly smaller "dwarf" variety
is also being sold, commonly called the cherry-head that only attains a
length of 10 - 12 inches as an adult. They can reach weights up to 30
Feeding: In the wild, red footed
tortoises are omnivores and eat a wider range of foods than many other
tortoises. It is important to not overfeed animal protein, though; one
very small serving of moistened low fat cat food or lean meat (e.g. 1
ounce for a full grown red foot) every 1-2 weeks is enough. A variety
of fresh leafy greens (dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens,
escarole; not lettuce, spinach or kale), vegetables, and fruits should
also be fed (they also tolerate fruit better than many other species).
A calcium and vitamin D3 supplement should be used.
Housing - Outdoors: This
species is tropical and prefers a humid climate. A sturdy escape-proof
enclosure can be provided, and a sprinkler or mister can be used to
increase the humidity if needed. A muddy wallow will be used by this
tortoise, as will a pan of water. An area densely planted with
vegetation provides a cool retreat. A doghouse-type shelter can be
used, and should be heated if night time temperatures drop below 65-70 F. Daytime temperatures can be up to 90-95 F.
Housing - Indoors: A
large enclosure is needed - 4 feet by 6 feet or larger. Cypress bark as
a substrate helps retain humidity, although paper will work and is easy
to clean. A UVA/UVB is necessary indoors, and the enclosure should be
heated, with a basking spot of 95 F and a gradient from about
80-90 F. Night time temperatures can drop to about 75 F.
A pan of water should be provided and the enclosure should be kept
humid. A hide should be placed at the cool end of the enclosure.
Notes: This species does not hibernate.
Scientific Name: Testudo hermanni
Other Names: Hermann's tortoise is
considered part of a group of tortoises sometimes called Mediterranean
tortoises, comprised of multiple Testudo species - including Hermann's tortoise, and the spur thighed tortoise.
Life Span: Up to 75 years or more.
Size: 6-8 inches.
should consist largely of leafy greens and grasses, supplemented with a
variety of other vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber,
carrots, etc.) and fruits (apples, apricots, grapes, melons, peaches,
strawberries etc.) in smaller quantities. In the wild they will take
some insects, slugs, and carrion, but feeding of these is not necessary
and too much animal protein is harmful (never feed dog or cat food).
Supplements: Use a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement on the food.
Housing - Outdoors: House
outdoors if possible. Day time temperatures should be 80-86 F, and can fall to 65-70 F at night. These small tortoises
are pretty active and can climb and burrow well, so the pen should be
escape-proof. Shelter from extremes of weather is necessary, as it
protection from predators. A shallow pan of water can be sunk into the
ground for easy access.
Housing - Indoors: A
fairly large enclosure is necessary (2 feet by 4 feet). A soil/sand mix
or cypress bark can be used as a substrate. A basking light should provided with a basking spot at about 95 F, and the ambient
temperatures in the range mentioned above. A shallow pan of water
should be provided.
Note: Needs to hibernate - but only if otherwise healthy.
Please call the Merrick Veterinary Group at 516-379-6200 to schedule your tortoise for an examination with Dr. Marder or Dr. May today.