Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


(Presented at the Symposium at the University of Bristol, 1990).


One of the most interesting facts about sick chelonians is that hardly anybody wants them. A dog or a cat that has been treated by a veterinary surgeon, has been recouperating in the surgery for a few days after treatment or an operation and is ready to go home, is usually received with open arms by its owner and nursed at home. Instructions are followed, pills and powders religiously adminstered and no one would phone up a total stranger and say: "My dog or cat has been ill, it is just back from the vet, can I bring it around to you so that you can look after it, feed it, provide heated premises, administer drugs, clean up the mess and then Ill have the animal back when it is better and can be put out in the garden again." Actually that is exactly what happens in the case of chelonia, as many B.C.G members (in the audience) can vouch for. In the case of sick "furries" the animals are considered to be better off at home, familiar surroundings are supposed to aid recovery. Why would this be different for tortoises?

Tortoises may be free wanderers in the wild, they appear to have established routines though and certainly display these in captivity. 1 would therefore like to make a plea for better nursing care at home and feel there is a real case for better nursing instructions. One of the first things to remember is that chelonia are slow healers. In fact they react slowly at every stage. They go downhill slowly as well, so slowly that you often only notice they are ill when the animals are in an advanced state. And that is one of the headaches we, the owners, give our vet; often the animals are taken to the surgery when they are very ill indeed and we then cheerfully blame the vet when the animal does not recover. The blame, however, should be put at our own doorstep for not observing early enough that the animal had an ailment. So watch your charge, observe it, get to know its eating habits, when does it go into its shelter, when does it come out. Get to know its favourite food, make sure it does not get hooked on one particular food item. This is, incidentally, a favourite trick of both tortoises and terrapins, and can give deficiencies in certain areas. So make sure of a balanced diet and above all, watch the tortoises' eyes. Chelonian eyes are the best indicator of their health.

Recognising illness

Heart, liver and kidney trouble may be difficult to diagnose for us as owners, but a great many things can be deduced from the eyes. They should be black and alert, any film or sunkenness, take your pet to the vet. Any unusual behaviour, cheek the animal, keep an eye on its weight. Cheek the movements and again, take it smartly to the surgery if you are not happy. My own favourite trick on assessing if my tortoise is healthy is by literally smelling it. Lift the animal up and smell it. A really healthy tortoise has a lovely smell of summer meadows.

A tortoise with stomatitis (mouth rot) may suffer from bad breath and display a rather yeasty smell. Skin infections and infected wounds have another peculiar odour, rather sweet and sickening. Tortoises with digestive problems and diarrhoea will smell of stale food or bad egg. Tortoises with kidney trouble smell very strongly of concentrated urine.

If the eyes are bulging and appear to have a whitish cover, the tortoise may suffer from a simple eye infection, but it could have hypovitaminosis (this is connected with a lack of vitamin A), it may also be an indication of something really seriously wrong like peritonitis. Again, get it to your veterinary surgeon without delay.

If the tortoise shows abnormal skin, not just the normal flaking off through growing, but if the skin is losing its cornified layer the tortoise may suffer from hypervitaminosis (= too much vitamin A). This is actually quite rare, but it does occur and can be quite serious in the case of females. Females suffering from this should not be used for breeding as it affects hatchlings.

Chelonian diseases are in many cases preventable and can often be attributed to incorrect diet and incorrect husbandry. Some diseases are easily rectified just by a change of diet or regular addition of a vitamin and mineral supplement. In many cases though, the way back to good health is slow, stitches in wounds take 6-8 weeks, shell repairs may take years, digestive problems take weeks rather than days and while the animals are recovering they need extra watching as our climate is often unkind and a vulnerable tortoise may get a nasty cold or a fatal pneumonia. We have also learned from our veterinary contributors that there are some illnesses of the individual animal which will not be passed on to others, and the infectious diseases which will be passed on. Obviously, any tortoise with an infectious disease requires immediate isolation, but even an animal that is merely weak or suffers from a dietary deficiency is often better kept in isolation or at least fed separately.

Facilities for care of sick chelonia

This brings me to the facilities needed to care for sick chelonia.

These facilities can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. You can provide a thermostatically controlled environment for ones suffering from rhinitis (Runny Nose Syndrome, RNS) and stomatitis (or mouthrot) victims. It can be a simple lightbulb in a fitting mounted on a wooden frame. (Fittings are obtainable from Texas, Woolworths etc. at very little cost, 96 pence).

Glass tanks can be used for smaller tortoises, but glass is not the tortoise's favourite material. Most of the animals go berserk and try to break out, using up and wasting valuable energy. 1 often "board" the tanks with a cardboard surround, if the animals cannot look out they behave often in a quieter fashion. Alternatives are make-shift runs near a heating-unit, a window or glass door. Heat-pads can be placed under a shelter. Anything is convertable to a vivarium, from wardrobes to teatrolleys.

Please remember that light is as important as heat, keeping the animals warm, but in semi-darkness will not make them feed. Tortoises need an artificial sun (e.g. a lightbulb) before they will feed. There is a reason for this which has to do with their vision. The innermost layer of an eye is called the retina and its function is to detect light. The human retina contains tiny particles called rods and cones, so called because of their shape. Cones allow for colour vision and give a sharp picture, rods are sensitive to low intensity light, in other words, they make you see in the dark. Now tortoises only have cones for photoreception so they have a sharp picture and they can see colours. But because of the lack of rods they have no night vision. You therefore have to provide an artificial sun, e.g. a light bulb. You can use an angle-poise lamp if nothing else is available.

Now for temperature. Tortoises are diurnal reptiles. They prefer a lower temperature at night and a high temperature during the day (65°F at night, 70-80°F during the day) and you should bear that in mind when nursing thern. A constant temperature is often beneficial with pneumonia cases, so be guided by your veterinary surgeon on what temperature to keep your ailing animal. It is also wise to remember that a tortoise kept in a high temperature must be given sufficient liquids to prevent dehydration.

Blocked noses and congested lung passages can be helped by giving a steambath. For smaller tortoises and the American Box Turtles, I would recommend a bucket, a plastic colander and a J Cloth or two. Pour steaming water into the bucket, place the plastic colander with the J Cloth on the bucket and the animal inside. Cover up with the second J Cloth and you have the best Turkish bath you can imagine. Please use a plastic colander as metal gets far too hot and may burn your animal.

Digestive sufferers can be helped by putting a heatpad under their night hutch and gently keeping their underside warm. Incidently, a tortoises's digestive system reacts very well to paw paw and live yoghurt.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is heating up tortoises too fast. If your tortoise comes out of hibernation and appears unwell do not immediately place it in a fully heated vivarium. Take it easy. Keep it dry and indoors. If it suffers from some sort of infection the heat will increase the infection as most bacteria and viruses love a bit a warmth and the tortoise's system has little resistance on emergence from hibernation. Make an appointment with your vet and try to start the digestive system up. If you suspect mouthrot because the animal is drooling from the mouth, a deep warm bath is not going to do much good, but you can wipe the front of the animal, wash the mouth out and pour warm water over the rear end so as to get the waste material out of the bladder. It will save your vet a lot of time if you have managed to clear out the waste material and even more if you have managed to tube feed some boiled, lukewarm water down the animal. Once your Yet has prescribed the right drugs and the system is working the animal can be placed in the heated surroundings.

First Aid. The Amateur's Gadget Department

First aid by you, the owner, to your tortoise can make all the difference to your pet's speedy recovery and will assist your vet greatly. For instance, if you have a pond, do you know what to do when your tortoise is found in your pond, presumably drowned? Do you know how to get the water out of the lungs, how to hold it upside down, pull its legs in and out, or even give it mouth to mouth resuscitation? The mouth to mouth is not recommended for snapping turtles! One of my neighbours once rushed in with a snapping turtle that had got itself wedged under a log and was found drowning. We did find a way to get the water out of the lungs by using a plastic bag. The animal was placed in the bag, and the bag was gently swayed so that it filled up with air. The bag was then held tightly at the top with the left hand and with the right hand, the bag was pushed in and out, slowly and counting like you would giving artificial respiration. The pressure of the air got the water out of the animal's lungs, it was placed in a shallow tank and taken to the surgery for further treatment.

The importance of the dietary requirements have already been emphasised and it has been shown what dietary deficiencies can do to our hatchlings. Some tortoises, young as well as old, will only need adding a vitamin supplement on a regular basis to get their particular deficiency corrected. The "Lumpy Babies" may remain lumpy, but if they are otherwise healthy, the lumps are merely a "cosmetic" matter.

Do not think your lovely hatchlings, even if kept totally separate, cannot get ill. They can pick up Runny Nose Syndrome, worms, can get chilled by cold weather or overheated by the sun. They can, in fact, give you trouble as they get out of the egg. Only a couple of weeks ago I had an example of this. I opened the incubator and there was a cracked egg with a baby on its back desperately trying to get upright. It was waving its legs about and when I tried to help it I discovered to my horror that it had almost absorbed its egg sac but the umbilical cord was attached to a totally formed, minute second baby. The second one was perfectly formed but had obviously died some time ago and there was a blood supply between the two animals. The alive baby was trying to rid itself from the dead one and a little tear had already appeared in the cord. As the dead baby had been in the sterile egg it had not gone off yet, but obviously something had to be done. I did everything according to the book, I panicked like mad. I could not put the baby down as it would bleed to death, I could not wait either. So I phoned my vet and she told me what to do. I needed betadine, cotton buds and a reel of cotton. The cord had to be tied off, then separated close to the tear. A cotton bud with betadine had to be used to disinfect. I did all that. As soon as the dead hatchling had been removed the live one gave a loud hiss and disappeared in its shell. It was put in a small box and went back in the incubator. 1 suspended the wound by placing folded tissues under the front and hind legs. I did not hold out much hope, but the next morning, alive it was. It only weighed 7 grammes, but it is now feeding. It will be very interesting to see if it actually survives. We have named it Perky and it will stay with us.

Hatchlings in captivity, being prevented from foraging for their own food and being kept too dry, can develop what I call "the Stone". The urine becomes concentrated and the white urate crystals slowly form a solid mass or bladder stone which the animals are unable to pass in the normal way. The very dry summer last year was not that favourable for young tortoises, and I had three hatchlings showing this phenomenon. Two of them passed the stone successfully with a bit of help, a drop of oil inserted at the rear end to lubricate and a pull with a little scoop made from a hairpin, but one of them had to be taken to the surgery.

An X-Ray revealed the stone was positioned rather unfavourably, sideways and the poor little thing had to be operated on, using a pair of hamster forceps. The hatchling came out of the anaesthetic well and started walking about and feeding, but a week after the operation it was found dead in its shelter. So make sure your hatchlings drink regularly and insist they sit in a bowl of water regularly. Force feeding is difficult with hatchlings, but you can open the mouth by pressing a wooden cocktail stick on the lower jaw, and using a very small pipette.

Very sick or dehydrated tortoises may have to be force-fed by tube feeding. This is actually very easy to do and your vet will show you the correct way of doing it. Worming is also better done by dosing direct into the stomach by stomach tube. Make up a liquid food by mixing the tortoise's favourite food items in the liquidiser. Sieve it to take out any lumps. Any left-overs can be frozen and kept for a later date.

If you have been given any pills to administer, grind the pills to a powder by using two spoons. (Not everybody has a mortar and two spoons do the trick just as well). Instead of sucking up the force-feed, fill up the syringe from the back and insert the powder about halfway. That way you make sure the drugs actually go in. Make sure you press the air out first. For adding extra calcium use a coffee grinder and grind up cuttlefish, eggshells or calcium tablets.

For the sick tortoises I add my "secret ingredient" to the liquidised food. I keep a bit quiet about my secret ingredient as it could be construed as cannibalism. From every clutch of freshly laid tortoise eggs one egg gets removed and put in the tortoise egg carton in the fridge. The raw egg gets added to the force-feed. One egg mixed in gives about a three day supply. There is no magic to it, no antibodies or secret powers. It simply is the most perfect food for a tortoise. After all, it sustains a tortoise embryo for over 10-12 weeks. Ailing juveniles and babies benefit from a stalk of cress dipped in some of the yolk. Of course, when the rest of the clutch hatches you will be practically hailed as a murderer. The guilt is quite terrible, but if the clutch proves to be infertile anyway, you wish you had used all the eggs, so there is no winning. One warning though, the eggs must be fresh. When I explained my trick to a fellow chelonia enthusiast he said he had "lots of eggs" he could use. He actually was too mean to jeopardise a future baby and wanted to use all the old infertile eggs from his incubator. That could actually make your animal rather ill as the old eggs may be decomposing and not safe to use.

Some of the little gadgets I keep are home-made. A peg with superglued ball pen clips serves as a terrapin feeder and doubles up as a maggot remover. Maggots are one of my pet hates. If your tortoises have wounds or bites or scratches, please wash these out carefully. Put Betadine on and smear some diluted Savlon round it. This will keep the flies at bay. Fly strike happens very easily and is preventable. Other gadgets are nailclippers and beak trimmers, but if you feel unable to use these, please go to your surgery and ask your vet to perform the task for you or even ask him to teach you how to use them.

Testudo Volume Three Number Two 1990