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Chelonians

Tortoises make very interesting and rewarding pets to keep, but having them as pets should not be undertaken lightly, and you should carry out lots of research before getting one. The majority of the problems that we see with tortoises are due to misinformation or incorrect husbandry. These generally could have been avoided if the owner had been better equipped or informed. The following notes are some basic information that mainly applies to the Horsefields tortoise and the Mediterranean species.

The most commonly seen breeds in the UK are the Mediterranean tortoises  such as Hermann's and Spur Thighed Tortoise. Tortoises can make very interesting pets, but special attention needs to be made to their environment and diet to ensure that they are kept happy and healthy. We recommend before giving a home to a tortoise that you research the care needed. This will help you decide if this is correct pet for your lifestyle.

Housing

 

Outdoors

Outdoor housing needs to protect your tortoise from predators such as rats, foxes and dogs. Your garden also needs to be secure so that they cannot escape, and to prevent your tortoise from burrowing or climbing out of their enclosure.

  • They need to be kept on dry, well drained substrate as this will help to prevent shell problems and respiratory infections.
  • They will require shelter from the rain and extremes of weather.
  • Their enclosure should be of a sufficient size to permit normal behaviour and will also require a range "micro" habitats such as rocks, plants to provide shade and a good selection of edible vegetation (make sure that any toxic plants are kept from the enclosure).
  • Tortoises like to create burrows and scrapes, preferring a "contoured" surface than a flat surface, as they use this for thermoregulation when basking. 
  • Enclosures can be constructed of a variety of materials such as brick, stone or treated timbers.

It is also an idea to provide a "tortoise conservatory" in any enclosure. This can be made from a gardeners cloche or cucumber frame but would need to be placed on a "rot proof" wooden base. This would allow the tortoise to enter and leave at will and they will quickly learn to use it in its daily thermoregulation cycle as the temperature in the "mini greenhouse" can easily be up to 10xb0C warmer that the temperature outside, even on overcast days. This can make a huge difference to the overall health of your tortoise and to feeding.

Indoors

It is important to ensure that your tortoise has adequate housing and space to move around and exercise. Tortoises rarely do well when housed indoors.

Vivarium

  • It has been shown that tortoises kept in glass vivarium type housing often display high levels of stress, are frequently lethargic and are likely to have higher rates of respiratory, and developmental problems, especially in juveniles, than those housed in well ventilated and spacious accommodation. This is because they will constantly try and get out of any enclosure where they can see though the sides, causing undue stress to the tortoise.
  • Should you wish to house them indoors then a tortoise table is the recommended environment rather that a glass vivarium type as they require much more space than most reptiles.
  • Tortoises do not respond well to barriers that they cannot see and inadequate housing with poor ventilation and temperature control will result in health problems for your tortoise.

 

Tortoise Table

Example of Tortoise table

  • With the tortoise table you can offer your tortoise a larger floor space in comparison to the classic glass vivaria, and allowing adequate ventilation. The larger floor space allows them to get the exercise that they require to keep them healthy, helping to reduce the risk of respiratory problems and poor bone development in juveniles.
  • It is much easier to provide flexible heating and lighting arrangements, which gives heat gradients, permitting normal thermoregulation.
  • It allows you to give your tortoise a more varied environment which would encourage normal behaviour.
  • There would be no danger from broken glass, and tortoise tables are usually easy to disassemble and relocate if required. Tortoise tables are much easier to keep clean as you would have easier access that with the glass vivaria.
  • Stress levels would be reduces as there would be no "invisible barriers".
  • Some people have used old wardrobes laid on their backs as successful tortoise habitats.

 

Artificial light and heat

All tortoise are dependent on UV=B to make their own vitamin D3. The UV-B reacts with the sterols in the tortoise's skin to produce vitamin D3. When housed out of doors they will get UV-B rays from basking in the sun, but if your tortoise is housed indoors then you will need to ensure that they have an adequate source of heat and light. This can be done in a couple of ways

  • You can have separate lighting sources one for heat and a second compact fluorescent tube for light and UV-B rays. The tortoise must be able to get within 6 inches of the tube in order to get adequate UV-B rays.
  • In recent years a new type of lamp has been introduced. This is a self ballasted UV heat lamp. Although initially more expensive they have the major advantage of offering high outputs for extended periods and provide a high quality of visible spectrum light, UV-A , UV-B and basking heat all in one source. This kind of lamp will meet all of their needs for illumination and for basking heat.
  • It is important that a temperature gradient is provided in the enclosure providing a "hot spot" where the tortoise can bask and a cooler area. Tortoises are not active all the time and will often move to a cooler area after feeding.
  • It is important to ensure that the lamp is fitted to their indoor environment in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. This would be 30 - 45cm above the basking position. The temperature needed for the hotspot varies with species and needs to be checked with a thermometer.
  • Make sure that the tortoise cannot fall onto their backs directly under the lamp as this can lead to fatal overheating especially in juveniles.
  • For your tortoise to maintain full activity you will need to provide approximately 14 hours of light and heat each day. Unless the room in which they are kept is particularly cold they should not need much heat or light overnight (tropical tortoises require different conditions therefore we would recommend that you check the correct conditions for you tortoise).

 

Diet

Tortoises in the wild roam over a large area, picking at bits of food along the way. In captivity they are often given large amounts of lush food which they do not have to go far to eat. This can result in them growing too fast and the shell becoming "pyramided". Tortoises should be fed as naturally as possible and young tortoises only to be fed every other day so that they grow slowly so that the shell does not become deformed.

  • Tortoises, in general, should be fed a diet that is high in fibre and calcium, low in protein, fat carbohydrate and sugar. So you should avoid feeding foods that your tortoise would not find naturally in the wild such as peas, cat or dog food or high levels of fruit. 
  • Diets based on lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber is not ideal and feeding of dry concentrated diets can be disastrous resulting in shell deformities.
  • You need to be really careful when designing a diet for your captive tortoise, the ideal diet would be a good variety of leafy vegetation and flowers with a calcium supplement but be careful that you avoid plants that are poisonous to them. 
  • A poor diet especially in young and developing tortoises will lead to health problems and growth abnormalities.

We recommend that you seek advice from the Tortoise Trust or other reputable organisations which have extensive information on tortoise care and diet before you take on the responsibility for caring for a tortoise.

Hibernation

Hibernation boxThe species of tortoises most commonly kept as pets in the UK do hibernate in the wild but for much shorter periods than those kept in captivity. A lot of people will attempt to hibernate their tortoise for 6 months whereas in the wild it would not be for longer than 10 - 12 weeks. Too long a period of hibernation can result in kidney or liver damage.Only tortoises that are fully fit and well should be hibernated. If they are underweight or have any health problems they should be kept awake and fed all winter. Juvenile tortoises can start having short periods of hibernation from about 4 years of age. If you are in any doubt phone the surgery to arrange for a consultation and advice from a Veterinary Surgeon.

The tortoise should be assessed whether or not it will be fit to hibernate around mid-August. It will need to have built up sufficient reserves of body fat which stores vitamins and water for the tortoise during its hibernation. Its eyes nose, mouth, legs and tail should be assessed for any signs of abnormalities and any problems should be looked at by your Veterinary Surgeon.

Tortoises should be hibernated with an empty gastro-intestinal tract. They will gradually eat less during autumn and should be kept awake without any food during the last month before hibernation to allow the gut to empty. Any food left in the gastro-intestinal tract could rot and cause the tortoise to die during hibernation, however it must have a full bladder so should be encouraged to drink before hibernation.

For the actual hibernation the tortoise should be kept dry and well insulated, and importantly at a stable temperature. Your tortoise should be packed in a small box containing a couple of inches of insulating material around it, this is then placed inside a larger box which again contains insulating materials. Temperature is CRITICAL, it must be kept between 0xb0C and 10xb0C. If the temperature is too low, the tortoise could freeze solid or become blind, too high and it could use up fat and energy reserves or wake up.

Once the hibernation period is over the tortoise should immediately be placed in a warm water bath so that it can drink, then placed under a heat lamp and offered food. The tortoise should be eating within a week, if it is not eating then veterinary advice should be sought.  

More info

The Tortoise Trust

British Tortoise Society