Mediterranean Tortoises : Adult Tortoise Care
In the many years that I have been looking after tortoises, I have come to this sad conclusion. There are very few people that I have come into contact with over the years that know how to care for a tortoise properly. Their needs are simple and few, but first let me remind you that in this country (UK) we have no native tortoises; the reason being is that our climate is unsuitable for them. People think that a tortoise will acclimatise if they put it in their garden - nothing could be farther from the truth. The tortoise may exist, miserably for many years but it will not thrive and, eventually, it will die prematurely from malnutrition. It will never, ever acclimatise.
This caresheet will, hopefully, provide the information that will be necessary to ensure that your tortoise is happy, healthy and will live to a contented ripe old age.
Firstly, it must be said that we can never exactly match the conditions of the tortoise's native country but let us look at what can be achieved to make its life comfortable with some effort.
There are four things you will need:
1. A garden
2. A shed or greenhouse with electricity supply
3. Heat sources
4. A supplement
Let’s take the first requirement, a garden, and, regardless of what pet shop owners may tell you, a tortoise does need to be outside. They are wild animals and should never be housed indoors. At this point it should be remembered that we are talking about juvenile and adult tortoises, not hatchlings, which need to be housed in a vivarium part of the time during their first two or three years.
Firstly, your garden will need to be securely fenced or walled - remember that tortoises can dig and burrow. It should be reasonably flat with a large grass area which is never treated with weedkillers. It should then have an amount of clover dandelion and various other weeds growing in amongst the grass - your tortoise will then be able to roam about and graze naturally. If your garden has different levels or ponds or water features, you will have problems. Tortoises cannot swim, neither can they right themselves if they fall down steps. The only answer is to securely fence off a safe part of the garden which must be as large an area as possible. It must also have shady areas to enable the tortoise to shelter from the sun.
Secondly, a shed (a small tool shed will suffice) or greenhouse with an electricity supply connected, in which to hang your lamp. If you make a tortoise flap (same principle as a cat flap) your tortoise will be able to come and go from shed/greenhouse to garden as it likes. Tortoises do not like to be shut in, particularly in a greenhouse which can become unbearably hot. They should be able to come and go from inside to outside whenever they like, rather than keep picking them up and putting them in different areas. This is not natural to them. The aim is to give them the right conditions and leave them to get on with it. They are fascinating creatures and know exactly where to position themselves for the maximum benefit from their lamp or the sun. I have watched with interest on a warm sunny day, that my tortoises will position themselves at a 45 angle against the fence so they can catch the first rays of sunshine on the whole surface of their carapace (shell).
Thirdly, heat sources. For daytime heat you will need a basking lamp. These can be bought from agricultural merchants and are usually called pig lamps. They consist of a heat bulb with a safety guard and an aluminium shade plus chain and flex to suspend it from the top of your shed or greenhouse and, depending on the size of your tortoise, it should hang approximately 18 inches above the tortoise. It should ideally be connected to a time switch so that it comes on about 0800 and goes off about 1600. My tortoises use their lamps every single day. They are especially grateful for it when they emerge from hibernation in the spring as the weather in this country (UK) is usually quite cold & wet. It is their sunshine everyday, whether the real sun shines or not. Tortoises need to bask in order to bring their bodies to the correct temperature. When they have achieved this they will be ready to go off and look for food.
It is good idea to connect a dimmer thermostat to your lamp so that it automatically switches off when the correct temperature of about 25C degrees is reached. Greenhouses in particular get extremely hot during the summer and it would be unbearable if the heatlamp remained on. Needless to say, it would be a waste of electricity.
For night time heat I recommend the use of a tubular heater, the type normally employed in greenhouses. These can be bought from most good electrical shops or online. It should be connected to a thermostat set at around 25C degrees.
Fourth, a supplement. Tortoises in this country are deprived of the calcium and minerals found in the soil in their native countries. Supplements can be bought from pet shops specialising in reptiles. Vionate and Nutrobal are two good ones, Nutrobal being especially good for egg laying females and young tortoises. It is also helpful to scatter pieces of cuttlebone (same as given to cage birds). These are a source of calcium and help to keep the tortoise's beak trim.
So now let us assume that you have got a suitable garden, indoor housing, lamp etc and a happy tortoise.
As Autumn approaches you will need to think about hibernation.
Again, pet shops will tell you that you do not need to hibernate your tortoise.
Indeed, some of the tropical species never hibernate as their countries of
origin never get cold enough but here we are not talking about tropical
tortoises, we are dealing with Mediterranean tortoises which would hibernate
naturally in their native country. So, lets look at what you need to do in
order to hibernate your tortoise safely.
Adult tortoises housed as previously recommended will automatically sense when Autumn is approaching. Their appetite will decrease drastically as the weather becomes colder. Since it is heat which controls the tortoise's appetite, the use of the heat lamp must gradually be reduced - the aim is to keep the tortoise just warm enough to keep moving about so that it gradually empties its gut, ready for hibernation. A useful trick to help this is to give the tortoise frequent warm baths which usually encourages the tortoise to pass faeces.
An adult tortoise usually takes approximately 6/8 weeks to cool down prior to hibernating and, unless we get an Indian summer, tortoises are usu ally fast asleep for the winter by the end of October.
So, which is the best way to hibernate?
Firstly, there is the natural method. For the natural
method you will need a sheltered spot in your garden in which you need to dig
deep holes. Once the tortoise has cooled down and is now quite cold and
moves about very little, it can be placed in the hole and the dry earth piled on
top. For extra insulation pile dry leaves on top of the earth, then put a
piece of dustbin liner over that, just to make sure that the tortoise does not
get damp, should there be any driving rain. The tortoise, although half
asleep, should dig further down and settle itself for its winter sleep.
Using this method the tortoise can regulate its own preferred temperature by
digging up or down and, although the temperature may fall well below freezing,
the tortoise should be perfectly safe underground. The main thing to
remember is to keep them dry - they can stand cold but hate to be damp.
Do remember to check to make sure they have gone down properly and have not come back up to the surface. Mine do this sometimes and will need to be put down a second or third time.
Another method which can be used successfully is the dustbin method. Fill the dustbin with a multi purpose compost (this must not be damp) and sink the bin into the ground. The lid can then be suspended about an inch above the top to keep out the weather. The advantages of this are, you know exactly where the tortoise is, it should keep dry and it can dig up or down to regulate its temperature. The big disadvantage with this method is that you will have to dig an enormous hole in your garden and, if you have a really big tortoise or more than one, you will not need a full sized dustbin.
The Box Method. If you use this method you will need to do a lot more checking on your tortoise than the previous two methods. A hibernating tortoise will be far more aware of temperature changes if it is in a box but a lot of people use this method quite successfully. Here is the best way to do it. For one tortoise you will need two strong cardboard boxes, one a bit smaller than the other. Put the smaller one inside the larger one and fill the gap (the bottom gap is most important) with screwed up newspaper or any insulating material. Having done this, fill the inner box with dry multi purpose compost (do NOT use straw or leaves). Put your tortoise in the box, preferably in a stone built outhouse, not a greenhouse - a shed will be OK. If temperatures drop very low, it is a good idea to get a frost guard heater, which would automatically come on should the temperature fall below 5 Celsius. If you are going to use the box method, you must get a digital thermometer. This is placed on top of the box and the probe is put inside the box with the tortoise. This cuts out the guesswork and will tell you exactly what temperature the tortoise is. Listen to the weather forecast for your area, not forgetting that the temperature usually drops more during the night. Ideally, the temperature should not drop below 2 degrees and not rise above 5 degrees. However, a healthy adult tortoise should not suffer any harm if the temperature was to fall slightly lower than this for a short period. It would, however, be dangerous to leave the tortoise below freezing for a period of time as this may cause its eyes to freeze, causing blindness. A tortoise sleeping in a box can be checked regularly so long as you do not bring it into a warm place to do so. You can lift it out, check that it is OK and carefully put it back.
The Fridge Method. You can use a domestic fridge or a chiller cabinet. The temperature can be set to 5 Celsius and the tortoise placed in a box inside the fridge. If you use a domestic fridge, a portion of the seal round the door should be removed to let air in, or the door opened regularly. With this method you will obviously decide when the tortoise will wake up, as it will not do so naturally.
So let us now assume that your tortoise has hibernated successfully, using one of the above methods.
A word of WARNING. If, during the winter months, the temperature suddenly goes up drastically and your tortoise wakes up, thinking it is spring (let me say at this point, this is more likely to happen if the tortoise is in a box, rather than underground) you MUST keep the tortoise awake and not put it back into hibernation, even though the weather will undoubtedly turn cold again. When a tortoise wakes up from hibernation a substance to kick-start its appetite will be released into its body. If you put your tortoise back in its box, it may well go back to sleep but the next time it awakes, its body will not release this substance a second time, thus its appetite will be suppressed and (although one or two instances of this kind may not be too great a problem) if this were to happen a few times the tortoise will become anorexic and will need to be tube fed until it starts to eat again on its own - this can take some time. Once awake it must be kept warm.
Let us assume that your tortoise wakes naturally. In the spring, when temperatures rise, the tortoise will gradually emerge from hibernation. It will need a warm bath, its eyes bathing and generally checking over. It should then be placed under the lamp in your shed or greenhouse.
Springtime in our country is usually wet, cold and miserable and
it is therefore the most important time of the year to make sure that your
tortoise is kept warm and well fed.
It is always best to feed a tortoise on a natural diet. As well as being best for the tortoise it has the added benefit of being free. Dandelions (including flowers) clover, sowthistle are all easy to find in the summer and can be gathered, rinsed and kept for up to a week in the fridge in a plastic bag or box. A tortoise will also benefit enormously from being able to graze naturally on the lawn. Just be sure to avoid putting any weedkiller preparation on it. Most lawns have a good selection of weeds growing on them and, as the tortoise feeds, it also takes some grass along with the weeds. This is beneficial as it provides much needed fibre. A tortoise’s diet can be supplemented with spring cabbage, watercress, cauliflower, broccoli. These can be especially useful in springtime when the natural food is just beginning to grow. Try to avoid salad foods such as cucumber, lettuce (especially iceberg) as these foods are of little nutritional value and, although tortoises like them, if fed often they can become addictive.
Mediterranean tortoises do not require much fruit in their diets
but once or twice a week a small piece of apple, strawberry, tomato, melon, is
usually taken eagerly.
Tortoises do drink and clean drinking water in a heavy shallow dish should always be available (rainwater is better than tap water). Tortoises can often be seen with their heads down in puddles of rainwater during a summer shower. Once a week, give the tortoise a soak in tepid water up to its chin. Some will only ever drink when actually stood in the water and at times can be seen to take in copious amounts and then expel it out of the other end. This action actually flushes out any unwanted deposits from the tortoise’s kidneys.
What not to feed. Peas or beans (tortoises do not need
protein), banana, citrus fruits, dairy produce, meat.
Now you should have a good idea how to house, feed, and hibernate your tortoise. At this point it must be stated that tortoises do not always make good pets for young children. They do not appreciate being stroked, patted or handled unnecessarily. They are for watching, not touching. Some people reckon that their tortoise will come when called. This is unlikely, as their hearing is very poor. Tortoises do have different personalities, however, just like people. Each one is an individual.
Tortoises are quite valuable animals and it is a good idea to photograph the underside (plastron) of its shell which serves as the tortoise's fingerprint. There are no two alike so, if your tortoise should go missing, you will be able to prove ownership.