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



Letter in BCG Newsletter No.126 from Helen Bond, BVM&S, MRCVS, Devon

As a veterinary surgeon having a great deal of interest in tortoises, I am becoming very concerned about the increasing number of very young Mediterranean tortoises being brought into the surgery in very poor condition, having been bought at local pet shops. The new owners often have very little knowledge, and are being given scanty if not erroneous advice on their care and husbandry. Some of the tortoises are less than 4cm long, weighing only 20g and already having wrinkled and pitted plastrons, and are being sold as one year old. They are being sold along with a tank and heated pad to fit! Perhaps members would like to call in at their local pet shop to see the general condition of tortoises being offered for sale, and check the advice being given, and also that they are being sold with the appropriate licensing.

I would be grateful if members could also raise the public awareness of the difficulties involved in rearing such tortoises in our climate. To people who enquire about buying a tortoise, I normally give the BCG Membership Secretary’s address and recommend they join the Group first. Sadly, I am often not able to give the advice until it is too late, and I am yet again presented with one of these poor miserable little creatures which has little hope of survival.


BCG Newsletter No.127, Jan/Feb 1999

Stephen J. Divers, BSc, BVetMed, CBiol, MIBiol, MRCVS.

The recent letter by Helen Bond (Newsletter No.126) concerning the plight of many neonate and juvenile tortoises highlights a problem that has been persisting for years. At the Exotic Animal Centre we see a huge number of recently purchased tortoises that are very ill indeed, and in most cases their illnesses are due directly or indirectly to poor husbandry and nutrition. Such captive mis-management is usually obtained from a well-meaning pet shop owner or fellow tortoise keeper, but alas poor advice is often the norm. I would recommend any owner to take their recently purchased tortoise, be it Mediterranean, Asian, African or American, to a veterinary surgeon experienced in reptiles for a post-purchase examination. At such a visit physical examination, worming, blood sampling and microchipping can be performed, and if abnormalities are detected the purchaser has a much better grounding to return to the vendor for a refund or replacement. In addition, quality advice concerning captive environment, husbandry, nutrition and pet insurance can be sought from a qualified professional.

Below is a list of recommendations that I make for every hatchling and juvenile tortoise (Testudo and Geochelone spp). I would be grateful if BCG members would photocopy and circulate these guidelines to their local tortoise community, especially pet shops.

The vivarium

Glass tanks, even with completely open tops, are poor enclosures due to the lack of ventilation that leads to the build-up of stagnant air, which can lead to runny eyes and noses (conjunctivitis and rhinitis) and even progress to pneumonia. In addition, many tortoises will try to escape from an enclosure that they can see out of. Tortoises do not respect glass as a barrier, and will often rub limbs and noses until they bleed and become infected. Better to use a wooden vivarium with a 2-inch ventilation panel running midway along the entire back wall; additional ventilation can also be positioned at either end. If the sliding glass doors are positioned on a wooden plinth so the tortoises cannot see out, they will enjoy greater security.


Do not use under-floor heat mats with tortoises! Tortoises have evolved over millions of years to employ their carapace as a solar panel to gain warmth from the radiant sun. If you must use a heat mat position it against the back wall, but I still don’t recommend them for tortoises. I also do not like spotlights as the sole heat source, as when turned off at night there can be no temperature provision unless a secondary heater is employed. My recommended system is a conical ceramic heater (with porcelain holder and reflector) positioned at one end of the vivarium. Such heaters must be controlled by a thermostat, but do have the advantage of being useful to provide day-time and night-time heating. In general, a focal basking area of 88-90°F (30-32°C) and a general air temperature gradient of 75-85°F (24-29°C) works well. At night the temperature should be lowered to 70-78°F (21-25°C).


Natural unfiltered sunlight is the best form of illumination for any tortoise, but during inappropriate weather it is vital that a broad spectrum light source is used. At the current time and given the scientific research that has recently come out of America, I am of the opinion that the ZooMed Reptisun 5.0 light is currently the best commercially available light source. There are many lights available and many market themselves specifically for reptiles; however, their UVB output is often inadequate and their ability to generate vitamin D synthesis is too poor. Of course, the high UVB blacklights do produce a lot more UVB, but the unnatural blue glow must be offset by the addition of a white light. Even when using a Reptisun it is essential that:

  1. the light is positioned within 12" of the tortoises
  2. the light is replaced every 12 months.

See Everything under the Sun - Natural and Artificial Lighting for Chelonia for more information.


Herbivorous baby tortoises should be offered a finely chopped mixture of leafy greens (75%), vegetables (15%) and some fruits (10%). There are a number of commercial wet and dry foods available for tortoises but they have not been properly evaluated to date. However, I would suggest that such diets should not be fed dry, but soaked to provide additional water, and that they do not constitute a majority proportion of the diet. The diet should be supplemented daily with Nutrobal. Do not use SA37 or Vionate, as the calcium to phosphorus ratios of these two products are inadequate. One major problem is over-feeding, and I would suggest restricting feeding to perhaps just one hour each morning and monitoring the tortoise’s weight gain and growth. Over-feeding causes poor conformation and metabolic diseases.

As you can see, the costs involved with providing a proper environment for a young tortoise are not small, and I would estimate start at around £120, which may well be more than the cost of the animal itself. All prospective owners should budget for the necessary equipment and pet insurance when considering buying a tortoise.