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Tortoises

Behavior

In general, tortoises are outgoing, active animals. While they start very small as hatchlings, many of them, such as the huge Sulcata (African spurred) tortoise, can grow quite large. Thus, before purchasing a tortoise, you must consider how much space you have available to house a tortoise. In addition, many tortoises live dozens of years. Before getting a tortoise, you also have to consider whether you are able to make such a long-term commitment. Click on the headers below for more information!

Healthcare

All tortoises should be examined by an exotic animal veterinarian both just after purchase, to ensure that husbandry and feeding requirements are being met, and annually to make sure tortoises stay healthy. In general, all tortoises carry some gastrointestinal parasites. Thus, their feces should be checked, and they should be de-wormed at least once. Proper preventative medicine, particularly with reptiles, whose health depends so much on their environmental conditions, is essential to helping ensure your tortoise’s well-being.
Above adapted with permission from the Zoological Education Network.

Environmental Requirements

  • Warm and humid: red-footed, yellow-footed, elongated, Burmese brown, Burmese black, Galapagos, Aldabra, Hinge back tortoises
  • Warm and dry: Sulcata, leopard, Egyptian, pancake, desert, radiated tortoises
  • Temperate and dry: Greek, Hermann’s, Russian, marginated tortoises

Housing

The larger the enclosure, the better. Aquariums, plastic containers, and reptile tubs all acceptable for smaller species. See www.kingsnake.com andwww.waterland.com for suggestions.

Larger species need penned off areas such as small rooms, screened in areas outside, or garages. Ensure all enclosures are safe from predators. Must have a secure, “night house” (i.e. wood box) for shade and safety. These houses may need radiant heaters during cooler nights.

Prevent accidental escapes by burying a foot of hardware cloth 8 inches deep around the perimeter of the outdoor area and placing at least a 2-foot high fence above ground.

Temperature

  • In general, depending on the species, provide air temperature range from mid-70s to 90-100˚F (in basking area)
  • At least 2 thermometers in cage is essential, with one on each end
  • Under-tank heat mats, pads, and heat tiles work well
  • Ensure heating mats, pads, and heat tiles are on timed thermostats to prevent overheating and fires
  • May need to provide additional air heaters (heat lamps or bulbs) to ensure air temperatures are warm enough
  • Water in enclosure must also be warm (mid-70s-80˚F)

Lighting

  • Best light is natural sunlight, unfiltered by window (glass filters out necessary rays)
  • Exposure to natural sunlight during warm months, even in colder climates, is ideal
  • House outdoors as much as climate permits
  • Whether inside or outside, provide a shade area to prevent overheating
  • Full-spectrum lighting containing wavelengths in the UVB spectrum (290-320 nm) is essential
  • UVB light is essential in making vitamin D in skin, which enables reptile to metabolize calcium properly and to maintain healthy bones
  • Typically, bulbs are either incandescent or fluorescent
  • Incandescent (traditional screw-in) full-spectrum bulbs provide visible (infrared) light and some heat. Most produce some UV light but not in the required UVB spectrum
  • Incandescent bulbs are good for producing heat but not UV light. Will likely need more than one incandescent bulb of varying wattage when using these bulbs for heat
  • Mercury vapor bulbs produce UVB and some heat. May need additional incandescent bulb for heat when using mercury vapor bulbs for UV light
  • Fluorescent, coiled, screw-in bulbs produce UVB and light, but little heat. Some compact fluorescent bulbs produce excess UVB and can cause “snow blindness” or conjunctivitis. Will likely need additional heat source (incandescent bulb, halogen bulb, or under-tank heater) when using fluorescent bulb
  • Combination units have full-spectrum fluorescent and halogen spot light for heat
  • Bulbs producing UVB and visible light should be on 10-12 hours per day
  • Change UV bulbs every 6 months
  • Full-spectrum lights must be about 1.5 feet away from where tortoise sits to provide adequate UV light

Humidity

  • Maintain humidity at 50-60% for most species
  • Monitor humidity levels with a hygrometer, available in pet stores
  • Need large water bowl for tortoise to be able to get into, but change water daily and clean bowls with disinfectant (dilute bleach, thoroughly rinsed) to decrease pathogens, since tortoises often defecate in water
  • Mist tortoise daily
  • Soak juvenile tortoises for 20 minutes twice a week to stimulate eating and promote defecation
  • Live plants help increase humidity
  • Humidifiers and drip systems available if very dry

Substrate

  • Slick surfaces (glass, plastic, newspaper) aren’t good because they don’t enable feet to grab
  • Acceptable substrates: pelleted recycled paper products (Yesterday’s News®, Carefresh®), reptile carpet (like astro-turf), sphagnum moss (although tortoises sometimes ingest this, so use small amount on top of other substrate). Mulch is not recommended because it is hard to keep clean and some tortoises ingest it, leading to gastrointestinal blockage
  • Avoid sand, soil, Calcisand®, rocks, walnut shells, coconut husks, wood shavings, as all may be ingested and cause gastrointestinal blockage

Diet

  • General recommendation is to feed 50-75% of the diet as green leafy vegetables, 5-25% as high fiber pellets, 15-20% as other vegetables, and 10% as fruit, with unlimited amounts of grass hay or untreated/unfertilized grass
  • Avoid feeding excessive amounts of asparagus, beets, and kale, as these may be associated with urinary tract problems if fed in excess
  • Most commercially available pelleted diets made for tortoises are too high (>24%) in starch. High starch tortoise pellets should not make up more than 5% of the diet
  • High fiber pelleted diets for primates and hoofstock (sheep, goats, other ruminants – see www.mazuri.com) are preferable to high-starch tortoise pellets
  • Hingeback tortoises and red-footed tortoises may require slightly more protein (i.e. very small amounts of canned dog food occasionally)

Supplements

  • Supplement 2-3 times per week with calcium supplement (phosphorus-free) (i.e. Rep-Cal®)
  • Store supplement in freezer to reduce oxidation and spoilage
  • Replace unused supplements every 6 months
  • Don’t over-supplement because can cause vitamin A and D overload

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