by Andy C Highfield
Contrary to popular belief, tortoises of the types most commonly kept
in Britain as pets do actually hibernate in the wild. They do so, however,
for much shorter periods than they are subjected to in this country.
Here it has been commonplace to attempt a hibernation of up to six or even
seven months, whereas in the wild these same tortoises have been used to
a hibernation rarely longer than ten to twelve weeks. We believe
in replicating natural conditions as closely as possible in respect of
hibernation periods, and so we do not recommend giving your tortoise an
Most fatalities occur either near the beginning, or at the end of the hibernation period. The reasons for some of these fatalities will be discussed in detail later, but you can certainly improve your tortoises chances greatly simply by limiting the period of hibernation to not more than 20 weeks at the outside. This, it should be stressed, is for a perfectly fit specimen which is fully up to weight.
Tortoises which are anything less than 100% fit, or are in any way underweight, will require a proportionally shorter period of hibernation under carefully controlled conditions; possibly they may even need keeping awake and feeding over the entire winter season.
The following information applies to the most common species of 'pet' tortoise found in the UK, Testudo graeca and Testudo hermanni. It also applies to Testudo marginata, a much rarer species, which has also been imported during the past 50 years. In general, the requirements of T. hermanni , T. graeca, and T. marginata and are all very similar.
Many tortoise owners ask us to identify what species their particular tortoises belong to. The following notes should clarify the position, although specific identification can sometimes be very difficult for non-experts. This is mainly due to the very large range of natural variations in shell pattern, size and colourations encountered, even within members of the same species. However, the general characteristics of each principal 'European' terrestrial tortoise are as follows.
TESTUDO GRAECA ('Spur-Thighed' or 'Common' tortoise).
The main characteristic of T. graeca is that two small tubercles or 'spurs' are to be found on the thighs, one to each side of the tail. This is by far the easiest way to identify a member of T. graeca. Most tortoises imported into the UK within the last 50 years originated in North Africa. Towards the end of the period of import, just before the CITES controls on international trade took effect, most specimens came from Turkey. There are in fact several very different tortoises contained within the generalised 'graeca' group - some have recently received individual taxonomic recognition. For more on this subject, see the Tortoise Trust's specialist publications. NB. T. ibera was formerly T. graeca ibera.
TESTUDO HERMANNI (Hermann 's Tortoise).
The Hermann's Tortoise is quite obviously different from T. graeca; it lacks thigh tubercles or spurs; also the tail is long and fairly pointed, with an additional hard, bony tip. The tail of a male specimen is, of course, much longer than that of a female. T. hermanni are also flatter and wider in the carapace than T. Graeca, and are uniformly much lighter in colour, most being a golden-yellow hue, although some, mainly those originating in Italy, may have a deeper olive-green or chestnut appearance.
TESTUDO MARGINATA (Marginated or Margined Tortoise).
T. marginata are found naturally only in southern Greece - in fact they are the only 'Greek' tortoise which is actually exclusively Greek in origin. They are somewhat rare, and have been a protected species for a number of years. Adult specimens of T. marginata can grow up to 300 mm long, and they possess a distinctively 'flared' and elongated posterior margin - hence the name. Testudo marginata is a large and impressive tortoise,and has a quite distinct appearance. The males have a distinctly narrow waste and very large flared posterior marginals. Females are much 'rounder' over all,and do not have quite such a profound flare.
Tortoises which are provided with the incorrect diet for their species can suffer serious problems, particularly in respect of the liver and kidneys. If these are damaged, the risks associated with hibernation are very greatly increased. Whilst some tropical tortoises do require animal protein, desert species do not nor do 'common' or Mediterranean tortoises. So, despite what you may have read elsewhere, do not provide meat products to 'common' tortoises. In the long term, it can kill. Tortoises require a diet which is:
Meat products are totally the opposite, and lead to enhanced urea levels (which damage the kidneys) and to a massive build-up of fats in the liver. The high phosphorous content of most meat products also seriously affects the Calcium-Phosphorous (Ca:P) ratio of the diet, which in turn leads to acute nutritional osteo-dystrophy or "lumpy shell syndrome'. Our own tortoises not only survive, but thrive without any meat products whatsoever. They breed successfully and the hatchlings have beautiful, perfectly formed shells without lumps, bumps or pyramids. Living proof that claims of the ''necessity" of meat for tortoises are entirely inaccurate.
A good diet for Mediterranean tortoises would comprise the following;
20 % mixed green vegetables (cabbage, lettuce, spring greens, etc.)
10% varied fruits (peach,pear, melon, tomato, mango, apple, etc.)
45 % coarse weeds and grasses (sowthiste, carrot tops, dandelion, grass)
5% added 'Vionate' mineral-vitamin supplement + extra calcium lactate.
Grass is actually quite a useful food for tortoises, but is not adequate by itself. It is particularly useful as a source of dietary fibre. Certainly many giant tortoises enjoy it as part of their natural diet and young grass shoots are equally favoured by most other tortoises. Dandelions and parsley are really excellent, having a positive Ca:P ratio and being particularly rich in vitamin A (14,000 i.u/ 100g for dandelion, 11,000 i.u/l00g in the case of parsley). When feeding weeds, be sure that they are free of weedkiller or other lethal contaminants. On the same subject, never use slug pellets or other garden chemicals anywhere near tortoises.
This is perhaps an appropriate point to remark on vitamin injections.
Unless the tortoise is suffering from a specific vitamin deficiency disease,
injections are not recommended. Certainly we do not approve of 'routine'
vitamin injections before hibernation. If a tortoise is truly vitamin-deficient
at this point - and this is extremely unlikely if it has been given a reasonable
diet - then do not hibernate it. Injections will not cure
the problem. Far better to build up vitamin and mineral stores gradually
by providing a well balanced diet and sprinkling 'Vionate' on the food
regularly throughout the year. Genuine cases of acute vitamin deficiency
in tortoises are actually quite rare; it is usually only found in those
which have been subjected to an extremely poor diet over a very long period
or where the tortoise is otherwise ill. We suggest, therefore, that
you do not routinely have your tortoise injected with vitamins, which it
almost certainly does not need. Vitamin injections in any case
do not help tortoises to survive hibernation. This is accomplished
by good husbandry alone.
In order to survive hibernation in good condition, tortoises need to have built up sufficient reserves of body fat; this in turn stores vitamins and water. Without fat, vitamins and water tortoises die of starvation or dehydration. Adequate reserves of body fat are vital to tortoises in hibernation; they live off these reserves, and if the reserves run out too soon then the animal's body will begin to use up the fat contained within the muscles and internal organs, eventually these too will become exhausted. At this point the tortoise will simply die in hibernation. All this can be avoided; simply and efficiently. The method of testing is quick, accurate and saves lives. It is called the 'JACKSON'S RATIO', and was developed by the late Dr. Oliphant F. Jackson, MRCVS, a leading veterinary surgeon and an expert on reptile physiology, medicine and treatment.
The 'Jackson's Ratio' graph is very easy to use. Step One is to measure your tortoise using a ruler calibrated in centimeters and millimeters. If you find it difficult to work using these measurements then work in inches and multiply your result in inches by 25.4. Alternatively, use a ruler calibrated in both inches and metric measurements, and read across the scale to find the metric equivalent of your result in inches.
Measure the total carapace length of your tortoise in a straight line, not including the hump. If you measure over the hump your result will be totally misleading. The easiest way to accurately measure a tortoise is to place a ruler on a flat surface, with one end up against a wall or other right angle. Place the tortoise on the ruler, with the head and front legs fully retracted and squashed up against the wall. Now read the length of the tortoise off the ruler.
Next, weigh the tortoise as accurately as you possibly can - kitchen scales are ideal. Both length and weight are critical, so do take extreme care to ensure that both results are spot on.
Using the graph provided project the length up the graph in a straight line, i.e. a tortoise measuring exactly 200 mm long should weigh very close to 1600 g. or 1.6 kg (the upper line of the graph). If it weighs only 1200 g (1.2 kg) or less then it is seriously underweight and should not be hibernated.
Ideally your tortoise should be up to weight (the top line of the graph), or slightly over it. If they are then as far as fat reserves are concemed they are in good condition and fit to hibernate.
Under no circumstances should you ever attempt to hibernate tortoises which are on, or approaching, the lower line of the graph. Their chances of survival are nil.
Equal in importance to the Jackson Ratio Graph is a visual check for any signs of illness. You should do this anyway, as a matter of routine, throughout the year, but just before hibernation is even more important than usual.
These basic checks in conjunction with a weight check form your essential pre-hibernation examination. Provided your tortoise is up to weight and no other abnormalities can be detected, then you may begin preparation for hibernation. The golden rule, however, at all times is IF IN DOUBT SEEK EXPERT ADVICE. Our experience is that owners who fail to act promptly when problems occur usually end up, sooner or later, with a dead tortoise.
One final, and critically important point before we actually deal with how to hibernate your tortoise. Very many tortoises die each year because owners attempt to hibernate them whilst they still contain undigested food matter within their gastro-intestinal system. It is natural for tortoises to gradually reduce their food intake as the autumn approaches. A tortoise's digestive system is governed to a great extent by temperature, but generally speaking, when the animal's biological processes are slowing down it takes between 4-6 weeks for the food last consumed to pass completely through the gastro-intestinal tract.
Tortoises which are hibernated with food still remaining inside are
unlikely to survive in good health. The food decays, produces large
quantities of gas and causing tympanitic colic which brings about asphyxiation
due to internal pressure on the lungs. This error of husbandry is
also responsible for a number of serious, and usually fatal, bacterial
infections inside the tortoise.
The two biggest killers of captive tortoises in the UKare:
Hopefully you have taken note of the advice given on fitness for hibernation and so will avoid this problem. Even fit tortoises can die in hibernation if the conditions to which they are subjected are biologically incorrect; essentially this means :
Our recommendations are for an outer box or carton made from either wood or substantial cardboard - a tea-chest is absolutely perfect. The inside of this should be lined with blocks or chippings of polystyrene, of the sort used in house insulation or packaging. Alternatively, tightly packed shredded paper can be used. Straw is also O.K., but should remain a third choice only as it can harbour mould spores and other potentially irritant substances.
Select a second, (this time much smaller) box. Ideally this box should accommodate the tortoise fairly tightly , whilst still allowing for a couple of inches of insulating material all around the animal.
A box prepared for hibernation. Note the low-cost but very accurate digital thermometer
We are sometimes asked why two individual boxes are necessary. To answer this question one has only to monitor carefully the behaviour of a hibernating tortoise. A tortoise in hibernation does not stay in one place, but attempts to move, and it either digs deeper into its box, or climbs to the surface. If it is allowed unrestrained movement, there is a grave danger that it may burrow through the protective insulating layers and come into contact with the walls of the hibernation box. Here it is virtually unprotected and could very easily freeze to death.
The critical factor here is TEMPERATURE. Temperature is absolutely critical to a successful and healthy hibernation. Insulation merely slows down the rate of heat exchange, it does not prevent it altogether. Thus, no matter how well you insulate, if you subject your tortoise's hibernation box to sub-zero temperatures for an extended period it will still get too cold. Similarly, if you allow your tortoise's hibernation box to get too warm for too long it will begin to use up valuable fat and energy reserves, and may even wake up early.
These critical temperatures are:
MAXIMUM = 50 F or 10 C
MINIMUM = 32 F or 0 C (Freezing Point)
ALWAYS USE A THERMOMETER - IT SAVES LIVES!!
Under no circumstances whatsoever should a hibernating tortoise be subjected to prolonged exposure to temperatures higher or lower than these. Failure to appreciate the importance of this invariably leads to death and injury in hibernation. Blindness due to the eyes quite literally freezing solid is a particularly unpleasant consequence of allowing temperatures to fall too low.
The easiest way to check temperatures is to obtain a maximum-minimum reading greenhouse thermometer from any garden or DIY shop. Check it at regular intervals, hourly if necessary in very cold spells. If sustained low or high temperatures are noted, temporarily move the tortoises into a more suitable place until temperatures stabilise to a satisfactory level again. Today, some excellent electronic thermometers are available with built-in alarms if the temperature goes outside pre-set points. These are truly excellent, and can make a major contribution to hibernation safety.
An ideal temperature for hibernation is 5 C, or 40 F. At this temperature tortoises remain safely asleep, but are in no danger of freezing. Incidentally, it is important to point out that the advice that a hibernating tortoise should never be disturbed is completely invalid. It has absolutely no basis in biological or veterinary science, and should be ignored. You cannot possibly harm a hibernating tortoise simply by handling it.
A tortoise which is losing weight to the extent that it is approaching the danger line should be taken out of hibernation and artificially sustained for the remainder of the winter. Most healthy adult tortoises lose about 1% of their body weight each month in hibernation. This is very easy to calculate. A 1600 g tortoise put into hibernation in October will lose about 16 g every month. After 5 months hibernation it will probably weight 1600minus (5 x 16) = 80: i.e. 1520 g.
Whilst tortoises must not be put into hibernation with a stomach containing food matter, their bladders should contain water. Therefore tortoises should be encouraged to drink before hibernation, even though they are not allowed to feed.
If, when checking a hibernating tortoise you notice that it has urinated, get it up immediately do not put it back. Recent evidence leads us to believe that should this occur, the animal is in grave danger of death from sudden, acute dehydration. If this action does occur, begin rehydration immediately, and overwinter for the remaining hibernation period. We are undertaking further research into this phenomena, but early results indicate that the problem is most likely to occur towards the end of the hibernation period or in spells of unusually mild weather where the temperature rises above 10 C or 50 F. Check the tortoise regularly at such times.
|A little extra heat and light often helps....
If you have to 'overwinter' a tortoise, i.e. keep it awake without hibernating, you must provide adequate warmth. An ordinary room will not suffice. Direct radiant heat is essential. The easiest way to provide this is to fix an ordinary hanging reflector (spot) lamp of about 100 watts about 30 cm (12") above the tortoise. Clip-on type spot lamps are available at electrical stores and are also very useful in this application. This will provide both radiant heat and light. The tortoise can be kept in a wooden pen or large vivarium throughout this period, but it must be able to get away from the heat if it wants to. Do not use flammable materials on the floor and make sure the installation is entirely safe. WITHOUT RADIANT HEAT THE TORTOISE WILL NOT FEED. A 'basking lamp' system is absolutely vital when overwintering. This system can also provide valuable extra warmth early in the spring or at any other time when long periods of bad weather are experienced. Do not use immediaely before hibernation, however! Remember to allow at least 1 month fasting period before hibernation.
As the average mean ambient temperature begins to approach the critical 10 Cor 50 F point, a tortoise's metabolism will begin to reactivate in readiness for waking. Certain complex chemical and biological proces are initiated as the animal prepares to emerge into the spring sunshine. At this point unfortunately, it often runs into its first problem. In this country springs are cold, wet and miserable.
For us, this sort of weather may be merely unpleasant. For tortoises it can present rather more serious problems. Upon first emerging from hibernation a tortoise is depleted in strength, has a low White Blood Cell (WBC) count and is very vulnerable to infection. Unless it receives adequate quantities of heat and light it will simply 'not get going properly', and instead of starting to regain weight and strength lost during hibernation, may well refuse to eat and begin to decline.
This condition in its most serious form is known as POST HIBERNATION ANOREXIA, and has been the subject of some intense veterinary research over the past few years. How to deal with it is discussed in the next section. Hopefully you will have followed our previous instructions and your tortoise will emerge in good condition. As the temperature rises listen carefully to the hibernating box - you should begin to hear the first sounds of movement.
At this point, rather than follow tradition and wait for your tortoise to emerge from its hibernating box itself, you should remove the hibernating box from its winter quarters and warm it up by placing it close to a heater. After an hour or so remove the tortoise from its box and place it in a warm, bright environment.
Repeat the pre-hibernation health checks, then offer the tortoise a drink as soon as it is fully awake. Provided the temperature is correct, this should only take a matter of an hour or two.
Many people experience problems in getting tortoises to drink - in fact almost all tortoises will drink provided water is offered in a suitable manner. We recommend placing the entire tortoise in a sink or washing-up bowl filled with about 1 inch of very slightly warm water - less in the case of very small tortoises, a little more for giant specimens. Simply offering a small dish of water to the tortoise is not likely to stimulate a good drinkig response but actually placing it in water is usually successful.
Drinking is, at this stage, far more important than feeding. Both dehydration and the presence in the body of toxins dictate that every effort must be made to encourage drinking first, feeding later.
The tortoise must also be kept warm as described previously- it is absolutely vital that such temperatures are maintained in order to speed up activation of the tortoise's digestive system. As the tortoise awakes certain biological changes take place; one of the most important of these is the release into the bloodstream of a chemical called glycogen, which has been stored in the liver. This provides extra energy to give the tortoise an initial 'boost'. Feeding must take place before this is exhausted, or the animal will begin to decline. The glycogen level can be artificially boosted by providing water with glucose in solution daily - about 2 teaspoons per 250 ml dilution, at about 10-20 ml per day for an average sized animal. Do not continue this therapy indefinitely, or dangerously high blood-sugar levels may be attained.
All tortoises should very definitely feed within ONE WEEK of emerging from hibernation.
If they do not there is either;
In fact most of our own tortoises feed the same day they wake up, and the rest follow within a further 24 hours.
If your tortoise is not feeding by itself within one week of waking
up, take the steps described in the next chapter, and if this does not
produce results within a further three days, do not delay any longer -
consult a veterinary surgeon who has particular experience of reptile
husbandry, physiology and treatment. Seek the underlying cause
of the problem and do not be satisfied with non-specific 'vitamin injection'
therapy. There is always a logical and very good reason for a tortoise
persistently refusing to eat, and generalised vitamin deficiencies are
highly unlikely to be responsible. Good diagnostic techniques, combined
with an understanding of reptile metabolism and function, will invariably
produce a satisfactory answer. Out of literally thousands of tortoises
we have seen over the years with feeding problems, from ancient Galapagos
giants to tiny newly hatched babies, we have never yet seen one suffering
from anything which a general non-specific 'vitamin injection' would correct.
It is highly unlikely, to say the least, that yours is the exception.
Whatever you do, please do not delay. A tortoise which refuses to
feed after a week or more of correct temperatures has a problem. It
is your responsibility to find out what the problem is and to deal with
In all probability, if your tortoise persistently refuses to eat it is seriously ill. You need expert help - without delay. Do not assume non-specific 'Anorexia':- the condition as seen in humans does not occur in tortoises. As a general guide the problem is most often caused by one of the following conditions. The ability of owners to recognise or eliminate these possibilities is all part of good husbandry, so you should very definitely familiarise yourself with the basic symptoms of these common health problems. All can result in a refusal to feed.
Usually due to freezing during hibernation.
Symptoms: lack of response to visual stimuli, refusal to feed, reluctance to walk, collision with objects when walking, moving round in circles.
Treatment: force feeding or hand-feeding, time and careful nursing. Once again however, dehydration is the main danger. We use Hartma's solution (an I.V. drip compound sodium lactate) given orally at 5% of total bodyweight daily in cases of severe dehydration, reducing as urination begins and the electrolyte balance is restored.
Can result from local infections or general debility. In Box Tortoises the cause is generally one of husbandry, especially a lack of access to wading water and insufficient air humidity. However, veterinary diagnosis is essential in all cases. Treatment: depends on cause, but often 'NEOBIOTIC' (Upjohn) eye-ointment brings rapid improvement. In very rare cases swollen eyes can also be an indication of acute Vitamin-A deficiency, especially in hatchling tortoises.
Symptoms: swelling in area of ear flap, refusal to feed.
Treatment: surgical removal by veterinary surgeon. If left untreated, not only is much suffering caused, but eventually fatality will result as the infection spreads. The same comments apply to abscesses in other locations; the legs are particularly vulnerable. Check legs (and especially the joints) for signs of unusual swelling or stiffness regularly. Reptile abscesses are usually hard, caseous lumps and contain cheesy yellowish puss and other infected matter. They do not respond purely to systemic therapy, surgical excision is essential in addition. We see many abscesses, the most frequent sites are the ears, the legs, the inside of the mouth and the nares (the nose). Tumours are virtually unknown in tortoises, so if you encounter a 'growth' you can almost guarantee it is an abscess or cyst.
May be mistaken for an ordinary cold. Rapidly fatal unless treated properly.
Symptoms: mucous and saliva in plentiful evidence, sometimes
foaming and frothing at mouth. Obvious difficulty breathing in acute
cases. Tortoise holds head high, at an unusual angle whilst gaping
and gasping for breath. This phase followed by collapse, unconsciousness,
and eventual death. From first symptoms to death in acute cases can
be as little as 4 hours, hence, at first sign of breathing difficulty
obtain expert help without delay.
Treatment: We have found that an injection of Oxytetracycline can be extremely effective in doses of 50mg/Kg. Ampicillin is also useful, again at 50mg/Kg. Repeat every 48 hours for a course of 5 injections. Do not deliver antibiotics to tortoises orally:- it is impossible to gauge the resultant blood serum level, and it will also have catastrophic effects upon the digestive system. Always treat parenterally (by injection) or topically (by direct application) as appropriate. Meanwhile keep the tortoise warm and fully hydrated (by stomach tube if it refuses to drink for itself). Prevention is obviously better than cure, so at first sign of 'cold-like' symptoms place under close observation. Pneumonia is unfortunately common in all debilitated tortoises, box turtles, and terrapins. The symptoms of a potential pneumonia should never be ignored - seek expert veterinary help at once if you suspect that it may be developing. A pneumonia is definitely a full-scale EMERGENCY situation.
Another very serious and unpleasant diseas of bacterial origin, which is invariably fatal without prompt and appropriate treatment. Sometimes called 'mouth-canker' or 'mouth rot'.
Symptoms: excess saliva production, refusal to eat, upon
opening the mouth a sponge or cheese-like yellowish deposit may be visible.
In addition, gums and tongue may have a deep red or purple tinge,
possibly speckled with blood.
This diseaseshould be regarded as highly infectious to other tortoises. Isolate suspected cases immediately and enforce strict hygiene precautions.
Treatment: as much infected matter as possible should be removed gently using cotton buds dipped in hydrogen peroxide solution. This should be repeated daily. Also the mouth can be gently rinsed with 'BETADINE' solution. Main treatment consists of the daily application of a topical antibiotic, e.g 'FRAMOMYCIN', in the form of calf anti-scour paste. This is continued until the mouth is completely clear of infection, and all lesions have healed. WARNING: some cases of stomatitis are unusually resistant to specific antibiotics. In such cases a laboratory analysis and sensitivity assay is essential. Reptiles suffering from stomatitis are at considerable risk of secondary infections, principally pneumonia, and require expert handling under conditions of exceptional hygiene.
In connection with hibernation, often the result of attack by rats.
This is entirely preventable, so take adequate precautions (surround
boxes with wire mesh and check regularly). If the worst does happen
clean with 50% dilute 'BETADINE' solution (NAPP Ltd), and
seek veterinary advice.
Treatment: essentially same as for any wound. If rats are the culprits then preventative antibiotic therapy might be in order. The same treatment is followed for minor cases of shell damage - but be careful not to confuse a minor injury with the first symptoms of something more serious such as necrotic dermatitis, for example. Really major traumatic injuries require expert treatment - however, tortoises are incredibly resilient creatures and with the proper care can often recover from what at first sight appear quite horrendous injuries. With prompt expert treatment such animals can not only survive but go on to lead a normal life and even produce hatchlings. Keep all sick tortoises or tortoises with wounds indoors as maggots can appear with frightening rapidity, especially in the eyes or around the nose. If discovered in this condition, remove the maggots and wash well immediately with a mild antiseptic solution.
Spontaneous vomiting should always be regarded as a serious symptom.
Caused by: Lack of digestive enzyme activity due to too low a temperature;
Parasite infestation ('worms'or flagellates), or ingestion of toxic
material affecting digestive system; Generalised septicaemia or bacteraemia.
Vomiting may also occur during force-feeding, or when handling too roughly.
Treatment: identify causal factor.
'Runny Nose Syndrome' appears to have several causes.
Symptoms: may refuse to eat.
Treatment: Place all infected animals in strict quarantine, as certain forms of the disease may be highly infectious. Infuse nostril with 4 drops per day of a nose-drop such as 'Tobralex' (Tobramycin) or 'Vista' (Neomycin + Methasone-N). Keep animal warm, but maintain good air circulation. MANY CASES ARE DUE TO ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES - INDOOR ENVIRONMENTS AND VIVARIUMS ARE OFTEN IMPLICATED. In persistent cases we have found that a broad spectrum injectable antibiotic such as the new drug BAYTRIL, (l0mg/Kg) produces consistently good results. A virus has also been implicated in 'R.N.S' - do not overcrowd tortoises.and beware of introducing infected animals to your collection. For more on this, see our special leaflet 'Tortoise Epidemics'.
Often the result of either dehydration or fatty degeneration of the liver due to incorrect diet.
Symptoms: tortoise reluctant to feed, inclined to hide
in corners or bury itself. Mouth inspection may (but not always)
reveal a yellowish tinge to mucous membrane and tongue. Undigested
food matter may also be passed.
Treatment: veterinary diagnosis essential. Keep well hydrated using plenty of water with just a pinch of glucose. Serious cases will require medication, Methionine is especially useful (200mg tablet every 48 hours).
Also known as 'shell rot'. An unpleasant disease of bacterial origin -any one of several specific organisms may be responsible.
Symptoms: fluid, sometimes bloody, 'leaking' from shell.
Fluid can often be seen underneath the plates, which may also develop a
Treatment: depends upon what bacteria involved, and how advanced. However, exceptional hygiene is a must. Daily scrubs with undiluted 'BETADINE', all loose material should be removed using 'MALATEX', and a topical antibiotic applied daily. Framycetin, Gentamicin or an agent of similar potency against Gram-negative organisms is essential. Surgery may also be required. A disease which requires expert diagnasis and treatment if the animal is to survive. Untreated cases invariably prove fatal.
Common in debilitated animals.
Symptoms: pale mucous membranes, weak and listless.
Treatment: depends on cause, so veterinary diagnosis essential. It should be stressed that an accurate veterinary diagnosis of the cause is vital - parasite infestations are one likely factor as are acute renal or hepatic problerns.
Symptoms: manifests as a smelly, unpleasant leak or
discharge from the tail.
Treatment: irrigation of cloaca with 'BETADINE. solution via catheter. Veterinary diagnosis essential, as one possible contributory factor is flagellate infection - this will require special treatment - see under 'PARASITES'.
Frequently associated with parasite infestation. A sample can be examined by your veterinary surgeon for traces of flagellate cysts or worm ova.
Tortoises are particularly prone to two types of worm, long, greyish-looking creatures called ASCARIDS and a smaller, very thin whitish type called OXYURIDS. Both respond to treatment with a Fenbendazole-type wormer called 'PANACUR', adminisered orally. Another really excellent (Oxfendazole-based) tortoise wormer is called 'SYSTAMEX' or 'SYNATHIC' (Syntex Ltd). Both 'Panacur' and 'Synathic' should be administered in the form of a liquid suspension, or 'drench', at a dose rate of 3 ml per Kg body weight. This would be an enormous dose for a mammal, but is perfectly correct for tortoises. ON NO ACCOUNT ADMINISTER ORDINARY CAT OR DOG WORMING POWDERS OR TABLETS TO TORTOISES. These may include chemicals which are toxic to reptiles.
Flagellate protozoanorganisms are another potential parasite. Flagellate infection often manifests as diarrhoea, sometimes tinged with blood and mucous. It can be serious, and expert veterinary advice should be sought. The recommended course of treatment often involves the use of Metronidazole (e.g. 'FLAGYL' ). An effective dose-rate is 160 mg per Kg over 3 days, or a single larger dose of 260mg/Kg in both cases delivered orally. Keeping tortoises too warm overnight or feeding excessive quantities of fruit appears to encourage protozoan proliferation. Hexamitiasis is a highly pathogenic infection of the urinar and renal system symptoms include thickened urine which smells strongly of ammonia. This is invariably very serious, but can be treated with Metronidazole. Never ignore such a symptom, or irreparable renal damage may occur.
Generalised septicaemia can occur as a secondary result of any bacterial infection, but is particularly common in connection with necrotic dermatitis and abscesses.
Symptoms: weakness, vomiting, collapse, unconsciousness,
Treatment: antibiotic required urgently, especially Framycetin or Gentamicin by injection at 10mg per Kilo. Repeat dose at recommended intervals.
Finally, a few general observations.
Avoid extended use of antibiotics where possible. Some antibiotics, such as Lincomycin or Oxytetracycline can cause considerable digestive upset. Where a definite non-response is noted, resistance may be suspected, so change the antibiotic. This is not a complete list of tortoise diseases, nor a recommendationfor 'DIY,' as far as treatment is concerned. It is merely a guide to what CAN happen, and what to expect if it does. The main keys to successful treatment of sick tortoises are prompt recognition, and accurate diagnosis followed by appropriate medication. Never rely upon guess-work and always seek the underlying cause of any problem. Examinations should be thorough and complete, and where necessary laboratory diagnostic tests should be employed.
Always, without exception, consult a qualified veterinary surgeon and never attempt self-treatment or use antibiotics or other prescription medicines without veterinary supervision. Do not be afraid to seek out a veterinary surgeon with special knowledge and experience of reptile treatment.
CAPTIVE BREEDING PROBLEMS
Most of the hatchlings we see have been seriously damaged by incorrect diets provided by insufficiently expert owners. "Lumpy'' shells and otherwise distorted carapaces are 100% avoidable if the correct steps are taken without delay. Hatchlings are very small and very sensitive. They cannot tolerate mishandling. The diet and environment must be exactly right if they are to survive and develop normally. Do not try to raise hatchlings by guesswork or by relying on outdated myths. Obtain expert advice at the earliest possible opportunity. Consult the relevant Tortoise Trust publications for detailed, accurate information. These can be obtained direct from our office as can the new video 'Incubation of Eggs & Care of Hatchlings'.