Burmese & Indian / Sri Lankan Star Tortoises
(G. platynota & G. elegans)
Care sheet for general tortoise care - tortoises as pets, housing, diet, pro-active care, health, diseases, parasites, breeding
Care Information for Tortoises
Burmese Star tortoise
Read as many caresheets as possible, both about general tortoise care and about your tortoise species, to develop your own best way of husbandry. Observe your tortoise to see what works with him and what doesn't, and make changes accordingly.
Here's a broad tortoise caresheet courtesy of the Central Pets Educational Foundation (2001). I have added a few embedded personal comments. They are displayed inside square brackets [ ].
For Indian/Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoise specific care info, see the Star tortoise diet, indoor housing, lighting & heating, substrates, hideboxes, outoor housing, allergic keepers p.1 (more on substrates), and p.2 (enclosure materials, air quality etc.) pages.
Introduction - Part 1 of 7
This care sheet concerns the general care of tortoises. Tortoises are terrestrial turtles, reptiles that are characterized by a hard shell that protects their internal organs. The upper portion of this shell is known as the carapace, and the lower portion is known as the plastron. Rather than teeth, tortoises have hard beaks. Scientifically classified, tortoises are of the order Testudines.
Tortoises are often kept as pets, and the care of most species is very similar. While many tortoises are easy to care for, some may have specific lighting, temperature, or humidity requirements. In addition to this document, you should consult your tortoises's specific animal care information on the CentralPets.com website.
Before acquiring a tortoise, take the time to do research that will aid you in determining which type of tortoise is right for you. If possible, consult people who have owned that type of tortoise. Your research may also help you decide whether to obtain a wild-caught or captive-bred tortoise, as the two types may vary in ease of care, docility, and health. Some types of tortoise are essentially always wild caught, and others may be essentially captive bred, though many can be available as either type.
[Personal comment: If you are acquiring a tortoise as a pet, always buy a captive bred one. They are used to captive conditions and tend to be healthier, less shy, and more personable.]
When selecting your tortoise, be sure it is in good condition. Pick it up if you can; a healthy tortoise will feel solid or substantial, while an unhealthy animal will feel as though it has an empty shell. Any exposed area of the tortoise should be clean and free of swelling, and if you gently tug on one of the tortoise's back legs, a healthy animal will generally pull its leg back away from you. A healthy tortoise's eyes should be clear, bright, alert, and fully open, without any discharge. The nostrils and mouth should also be free from discharge, bubbles, or secretions. A healthy tortoise's breathing is silent and can be accomplished easily without the animal having to open its mouth. The shell of a healthy tortoise is not slimy, and does not exhibit any patches of discoloration. The beak should be clean and uniform, without any cracks or growths. Common sense should always prevail when selecting or trying to determine the health of an animal. Find out if there is a guarantee or if you can return the tortoise if a veterinarian determines it to be unhealthy.
When acquiring a tortoise, you should also find a veterinarian experienced in and knowledgeable about reptiles. It is good practice to have a veterinarian check over the tortoise to ensure it is free of diseases and parasites before exposing it to other reptiles you may have. This checkup should include microscopic examination of a fecal sample. Many wild-caught specimens as well as some captive bred specimens may have parasitic infections or other problems, which will need to be treated in order to improve the animals' health and reduce the threat to your other animals.
[Personal comment: Always quarantine new specimens for a minimum of 3-18 months.]
Housing - Part 2 of 7
Unlike many other varieties of turtles, tortoises are terrestrial. This means they live on land only and can not swim. Unlike many other reptiles, a tortoise might require a large area in which to roam, rather than a simple aquarium. You will probably have to devote quite a bit of space to your tortoise's enclosure. Because tortoises derive from a number of different climates worldwide, you will most likely need to research the origin of your tortoise's species in order to set up a suitable habitat for it. The goal in housing your tortoise should be to basically re-construct its natural habitat.
People living in temperate climates may find it easiest to keep their tortoises outside in an enclosure or fenced-in yard that is protected from predators. People planning to keep their animals indoors may want to convert an entire room or garage toward the creation of a tortoise enclosure. If indoors, the tortoise's enclosure should be large enough for it to move about. Usually it should also be fairly easy to light, heat, and humidify, or de-humidify as necessary. Many people choose to construct a tortoise pen from wood; the sides must be high enough that the animal cannot climb over them. Although some people keep tortoises in glass enclosures, they find that the tortoises have a tendency to bang into the glass. This is because tortoises naturally roam and will try to go where they can see. If you are constructing an enclosure that will need to be humidified, you should keep in mind that many materials will break down after prolonged exposure to moisture. You may want to consider using marine plywood if you plan to use wood. All types of wood should be sealed. Fiberglass resin works well for this. Just be sure that the sealant has had sufficient time to dry and air out before you place anything inside the enclosure. Other tortoise keepers use polycarbonate twin or triple wall material to construct their tortoise houses. Converted greenhouses are the choice enclosure of many people, as these may be pre-existing structures that can be fairly easily converted into an area that can suit the needs of a tortoise, in addition to being water impermeable. These large enclosures may be a bit easier to climatically control than many other open-air enclosures. You should remember that all of these materials, including most types of glass, block out ultra-violet light. If your tortoise is kept in a roofed or lidded enclosure that is lit by sun, you will probably have to use a screen or mesh top in order to allow sufficient ultraviolet, especially UVB, lighting to filter through. In walk-in enclosures, you may need to use full spectrum or UVB lighting on the inside of the enclosure.
Like most diurnal (active during the day) animals, tortoises will need consistent day length, which may vary seasonally. This set amount of daily light is known as the photoperiod. Most tortoises do very well on a 14 hour photoperiod. The light provided for your tortoise should be full-spectrum. Full-spectrum lighting is important because tortoises need ultraviolet rays in order to help them metabolize calcium by producing vitamin D3. The lights can be attached to timers that will maintain the photoperiod for you. Some timers are available that will simulate an entire seasonal light cycle with minimal effort on your part. If you keep your tortoise outside, the sun will provide such light for you.
The temperature required by your tortoise will vary depending on which species it is. Most experienced tortoise keepers will keep a thermometer in their animals' enclosures to be sure that the heat level is appropriate for their animals. Indoors, incandescent bulbs or ceramic heaters work well to create the temperature gradient needed by your tortoise. Heating elements or heat lamps can be useful for turtles and tortoises and are best applied over the tortoise enclosure, as the tortoise's anatomy is designed for overhead heat. Heating the underside of your tortoise can cause it serious health problems. Often the environment that is right for your tortoise will include a basking spot in addition to the overall ambient temperature. Usually a single focused heat source will work well to create a basking spot for your tortoise. However, if it is too close to the enclosure, it may result in serious burns or overheating. The focal point for the basking spot may be a flat rock or a plank, or any other sort of low platform you find appropriate. In order to test the temperature of the basking spot, you may place your hand where the tortoise will lay. The heat intensity should be that of noon-day sun in the summer. It should feel even and should be gentle enough that your animal could fall asleep under it without overheating. The requirements for the humidity level, like the temperature, will vary from tortoise to tortoise.
Usually there are three types of habitats that will be suitable for a tortoise. All will have some similarities; for example, the overall daytime temperature should to be accompanied by a nighttime temperature drop, or tortoises may become stressed. The first sort of habitat works well for tortoise species native to fairly hot, dry regions. This sort of environment is very well ventilated and includes direct heat. The lighting for such an environment should be direct. In some drier, hotter climates, such enclosures may be constructed outdoors by fencing off parts of a yard. Some people may choose to use a dehumidifier in the room where they keep their tortoise. Many people will find that good ventilation may minimize the humidity level.
The next sort of habitat has medium humidity. Again, people living in temperate climates may be able to create such a habitat by simply utilizing their outdoor space. This sort of habitat is similar to the first, but the temperatures may be somewhat cooler. In semi-humid climates, good ventilation is still advisable. However, such environments may utilize such items as plants to help trap in moderate levels of humidity. If keeping tortoises from semi-humid climates outside in hot, dry climates, you should probably keep your animals moist through use of a sprinkler system or spray from a garden hose. Some areas will be able to provide sufficient humidity naturally. Outdoor plants will provide shade for your tortoises, so if you do not have shrubbery, you may wish to consider planting some foliage. Be sure that it is non-toxic, however, as your tortoises may be apt to try to eat it. You may also find that your tortoises will appreciate a muddy or wet area where they can wallow to cool themselves. In all of these environments, provide a bowl of clean, fresh water at all times. You should ensure that the bowl is too small for your tortoise to drown in, should the tortoise tip over. Some tortoise keepers choose to allow their tortoises water only at regular intervals, since tortoises may soil their water very quickly.
The last sort of habitat is generally recommended for tortoises from tropical or jungle climates. If you have this sort of tortoise, try to construct an enclosure for it that has diffused light, as direct light may stress these animals accustomed to sunlight filtered through many layers of forest foliage. Planting non-toxic plants in the enclosure can help with this as well as make the enclosure more attractive. These tortoises, like many others, will need a basking spot but may not utilize it as much as those from less tropical climates. Their temperature should be kept fairly constant and should remain very warm. In reproducing a rainforest or jungle habitat, you will generally need to provide higher humidity. You may find that an automatic misting system will work very well for such a purpose. These will usually be easy to find at your local hardware or garden store. Or, if you are mechanically inclined, you may be able to construct your own using a timer and some pumps from a vehicle's windshield washing system. Tortoises living in such high humidity environments may also use a bathing pool. These species usually love to lie almost entirely immersed in their pools for hours. In fact, this soaking process may be necessary for the tortoise's general health and may also aid in defecation. This type of habitat is usually not as well ventilated as the others.
The substrate, or material that covers the bottom of your tortoise's enclosure, will aid you in keeping your animal and your enclosure clean. One caution in choosing a substrate is the possibility of your tortoise ingesting it. Even if it does not eat the substrate intentionally (as some might), there is the possibility that the tortoise may ingest particles of the material on the food it consumes. This is a problem because the grains or pieces may cause digestive impactions that can develop into a serious health problem for your animal. Even materials reputed to be digestible may cause such impactions. Although newspaper may be the easy, cheap, and obvious choice for drier habitats, it may not always be the best. Larger enclosures will need a lot of newspaper to cover the floor, and the sheets will be very easy for a digging tortoise to shred or scatter, effectively removing any shield between the tortoise and the bottom of its enclosure. Some people prefer to use wood shavings or wood chips in the bottom of their tortoise's enclosure, but pine, cedar, and redwood can be toxic.
Often in dry habitats a sandy or rocky type of substrate can work well, as long as the rocks are smooth enough that your tortoise will not wear down its plastron on them. The rocks should also be large enough that your tortoise cannot swallow them, in order to prevent choking or ingestion. Many people may choose to use rabbit pellets, as these have a dehumidifying property and are safe for the tortoise to eat if it so chooses. The biggest problem with such a substrate is that this type of material will become moldy if wet, and may prove toxic should your tortoise eat moldy pellets. Also, if your tortoise is eating them, a pellet substrate makes it difficult to control your tortoise's dietary intake. A grassy lawn (especially Bermuda grass) may be an excellent choice for many outdoor tortoise enclosures. Your tortoises may graze and the grass and other vegetation will serve to hold soil in place, ensuring that your tortoises do not eat sand along with their food. However, be cautioned: some tortoises can be quite destructive and your grassy substrate may become a dirt yard in a short amount of time. Also, if you plan to mow your grass, be absolutely certain that your tortoise is placed in a safe enclosure separate from the place you will be mowing. Although it is uncommon, tortoises have been known to develop digestive impactions from eating very long grass. For very moist habitats, the best substrate choices may be those that will facilitate maintaining a high humidity level. This may include sphagnum moss, peat moss, or leaf mulch.
[Personal comment: Rabbit pellets and alfalfa pellets used to be a popular substrate for tortoises, but they are not recommended anymore because they are very drying, mold quickly, can cause infections, and may induce walking problems. For more substrate info, see the Substrates and Allergic Owners p.1 pages.]
Even tortoises kept outdoors will appreciate some sort of structure in which to hide or spend the night. A good way to provide such a place for your tortoise may be to construct small open structures of block, plywood, or even a cardboard box for smaller tortoises. You should be certain these are sturdily set in the ground, as a digging tortoise could excavate the foundations and end up destroying the structure. Most tortoises will appreciate plant life or shrubbery that they can hide under to find shade. Plants will be especially helpful in enclosures for tortoises with high humidity requirements, as these will help to filter out direct light, in addition to helping maintain the moisture level of the enclosure. It may be difficult to maintain smaller plants, however, as tortoises will eat them or even uproot them on occasion. Apart from the hide spot, another fixture you might choose to include in your tortoise's enclosure is a patch of smooth large rocks or a similar structure that provides a place for climbing or basking. Again, you should be sure the rocks are firmly planted to avoid their displacement by a digging tortoise.
Cleaning your tortoise's enclosure regularly will facilitate keeping your animal healthy. Dirty enclosures can cause health problems in your animal. Many enclosures, for example those maintained outdoors, may be fairly easy to clean by simply washing them down with a hose. Usually the easiest way to ensure a sanitary environment in such areas is to remove waste materials from the area and to keep any items your tortoise uses regularly, like hide boxes or water bowls, clean. There are two types of cleaners available for use: mechanical cleaners and disinfectants. Both types are important in maintaining cleanliness. A mechanical cleaner will aid in physically removing dirt or other soiling. A disinfectant will help kill germs. You should use the mechanical cleaner before the disinfectant. Many people prefer to use a bleach and water solution to clean their tortoise's enclosure. Some will use commercial cleaners recommended by their veterinarians. Commercial household cleaners should generally be avoided, as they may contain ingredients that are toxic to reptiles. Again, if your tortoise is maintained in a yard or other outdoor area, such items may not be necessary. No matter which items you clean or what you clean them with, be sure that you rinse them thoroughly. Remaining residue may be unhealthy for your tortoise.
Although tortoises may be kept together, they are often best housed separately unless you know for sure that they are compatible. This will prevent territorial aggression between tortoises. If you do plan on keeping more than one tortoise, be sure that your enclosure has ample room for each animal to escape should another tortoise pose a threat. Also, you should try to keep different species of tortoise separate; tortoises housed together should usually be of the same kind. One good reason for this is that animals from different parts of the world will have different levels of susceptibility to diseases. A disease that may not effect tortoises from one area may be fatal to those from another area. Another reason to house tortoises separately is that they may become disinterested in breeding if constantly kept together, or the male may stress the females by constantly trying to breed. Tortoises whose sexes are maintained separately will often have more interest in mating than those that live together on a regular basis.
Diet - Part 3 of 7
As with all animals, tortoises will not thrive if they are not fed correctly. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are a major problem among tortoise owners who do not pay proper attention to the foods they offer their animals. In general, the diet of a tortoise should consist of mostly greens (and grasses if possible) and some vegetables. About ten percent of the diet may be made up of fruit. It is a myth that tortoises need lots of animal protein; in fact, excess protein may cause renal problems, liver problems, and abnormal shell growth. A good tortoise diet is actually low in protein, fats, and oils. It should instead be high in fiber content as well as in the vitamins and minerals provided in fruits and vegetables, in addition to having sufficient levels of trace elements. Many grasses (such as Bermuda grass) are ideal.
A proper diet may be achieved if a large variety of foods are fed. Dark green leafy vegetables are of special importance, since many are high in calcium. Collard greens, dandelion greens, turnip greens, and parsley are all good choices. Cabbage and plants in the cabbage family should be fed sparingly. Other foods that should be fed infrequently and sparingly are vegetables high in oxalic acid. Oxalic acid occurs naturally in a large number of plants. Oxalic acid may combine with calcium, iron, sodium, magnesium, or potassium to form less soluble salts known as oxalates, which can not be utilized by the body. Regular consumption of large amounts of foods high in oxalic acid may result in nutrient deficiencies, especially calcium. Examples of food high in oxalic acid are spinach, rhubarb, banana, and mustard greens. A grazing material such as grasses should be present, as tortoises will spend a significant amount of time grazing. Carrots are another very nutritious vegetable that tortoises frequently enjoy. You can offer the green leafy top in addition to the root portion of the vegetable. Tortoises may also be offered cactus pads without spines; these plants may be easy to grow and maintain in drier tortoise environments. Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) is one example of such a cactus, and tortoises can eat the fruits of this plant as well. The small portion of the tortoise's diet consisting of fruit can be met with almost any seasonal fruit. Tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, figs, and melons are good choices. Commercially formulated tortoise foods can make a nice treat for your tortoise from time to time.
One thing to keep in consideration is that, if fed one food consistently, tortoises can actually become "addicted" to it and will choose it over other foods offered to them. In such cases, this food should be eliminated from the diet in order to encourage the animal to eat a more balanced and nutritious diet. Feeding a wide variety of foods is best.
Although feeding an inappropriate diet can result in vitamin or mineral deficiencies, vitamins and minerals in excess can also cause serious health problems in tortoises. Such conditions may be brought on by overzealous use of vitamin or mineral supplements when they are not really necessary. Excess protein, for example, can prevent your tortoise from properly using calcium, and excess Vitamin A can cause eye problems in tortoises, just as a deficiency of Vitamin A can. Another deficiency that may be seen in some tortoises is an iodine deficiency, although usually tortoises can derive enough iodine from the water they are provided with. Overfeeding of kale, cabbage, or sprouts can also deplete iodine in a tortoise's body. If you suspect your tortoise may not be getting enough iodine, it may be a good idea to feed your tortoise kelp or seaweed tablets at regular intervals. Calcium is an especially important component of a tortoise's diet and can be obtained best by feeding tortoises a varied and balanced diet. However, some people may choose to supplement their animals diet with calcium by sprinkling a calcium powder over their tortoises' foods. If you choose to use a calcium supplement, be sure it is phosphorus free. Phosphorus can usually be obtained in sufficient quantities from normal items of the animal's diet. Another factor in calcium deficiencies may be inappropriate lighting; if your tortoise does not have access to full spectrum ultraviolet light, it cannot process calcium regardless of whether or not it is consuming the mineral.
One rather controversial aspect of a tortoise's diet is the practice of coprophagy, or feces eating. This is common especially in hatchling and young tortoises who need to acquire specific bacteria in order to establish a bacterial colony in their own digestive system. This bacteria helps them break down some of the foods that they eat. Some tortoises may eat the feces of other animals. Although in some species this may actually be an important source of vitamins, it may also be a very good way for disease to spread among tortoises. If your animals do have a tendency to eat feces, you should be sure that other animals like dogs or cats do not defecate in the tortoise's enclosure and that all the tortoises maintained in the enclosure are in good health in addition to being free of internal parasites.
Pro-Active Care - Part 4 of 7
Many tortoises fed on soft foods or kept on soft surfaces may begin to grow very long or sharp beaks or nails. Occasionally you may find that you will have to help your tortoise in shortening these items. However, keeping a rocky area or substrate in your tortoise's enclosure can help in naturally reducing the trimming intervals or eliminate trimming for the most part. When the tortoise walks over such an item, it will naturally wear its nails down. Trimming some tortoises' nails may not always be a good idea. For example, tortoises that dig, especially females who need to dig nests, may be aided in this activity by having longer nails. This is particularly true of the nails on their hind legs. If you must trim your tortoise's nails, you may find that trimmers bought at your local pet supply will work nicely to clip the nails. You may also want to have a styptic powder on hand. Trimming the nails can be quite simple if you have another person help you. One person may hold the tortoise while the other securely but gently grasps the foot. The goal in trimming your tortoise's nails is to take off the sharp tip at the end of the nail and no more. If you cut too deeply into the nail, you might penetrate the sensitive quick, the vein that runs down the nail. If this should happen, simply use a cotton swab to cake styptic powder onto the area until it stops bleeding. When attempting to trim your tortoise's beak, it is important to use special caution. Most experienced tortoise owners prefer to use a file rather than trimmers, which can break the animal's beak and cause serious problems. Some tortoise owners prefer to use a small motorized sanding tool, which can file away the beak more quickly than a handheld file. Again, this process will be facilitated by the presence of two people, especially if your tortoise is large. One person can approach the animal from behind, so as not to scare it, and grasp the tortoise's front legs securely. This will prevent the tortoise from retreating too far back into the shell and covering its head. The other person can use a hook to latch under the top of the tortoise's beak and gently but firmly tug until the animal's head is exposed. At this point the head can be grasped and held in position. Then, use a file to remove the growth or sharp edge from the beak, being careful not to remove any more of the beak than is necessary. When using motorized sanding tools, an alternate method may be simply to use the file to score a line between the beak and the offending overgrowth. Then the excess may be snapped off with your fingers. As aforementioned, be very careful not to crack or break the tortoise's beak or to remove too much, endangering the animal's health.
[Personal comment: If you are new to tortoises, do NOT try to clip your tortoise's beak yourself. Have a reptile veterinarian trim it, or ask him to teach you how to do it. If you don't know what you are doing, you can cause a serious injury.]
Health - Part 5 of 7
When holding a tortoise, support it with both hands. Most tortoises become stressed when they feel air beneath them, and they will be more comfortable if they are able to feel your hands supporting their feet. Supporting the animal in such a manner will also help reduce the possibility of it falling and being seriously injured. However, by maturity, some tortoises may have grown too large for you to do this or even to pick up! When handling your tortoise, you should also take the time to look at it closely and run your hands over it, checking for any signs of damage to the shell. Also look at the skin, examining it for any swellings or cuts. Examine the beak and nails as well. In this way, if your tortoise develops an external problem, you can usually detect it before it progresses to an advanced infection. You should always wash your hands with an antibacterial agent before and after handling your tortoise.
New tortoises may be stressed by a change in surroundings, and it is normal for them to be a bit shy for the first few days after they have been placed in a new or different environment. Many will hide or withdraw into their shells at your approach. However, after the initial acclimation period, healthy tortoises will begin to feel more comfortable with both you and their enclosures and will spend time exploring their new homes. You can help ease the transition by keeping human traffic and noise in and around your tortoise's enclosure to a minimum.
Keep records of breeding, origin, and illness. Some people may wish to keep feeding records as well. Never attempt to release a tortoise that has been kept in captivity back into the wild. It may be carrying viral infections or other diseases that could decimate entire populations of wild tortoises, who might not have a naturally developed resistance to such illnesses. Although some people believe that tortoises must hibernate, this is a myth. Although some are able to hibernate, it is simply a defense mechanism for surviving cold winters. Similarly, tortoises may have the ability to aestivate or bury themselves in mud to resist heat. This does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for them in moderate temperatures, and it may be best not to force your animal into hibernation or aestivation if it appears to be surviving well in the climate it is maintained in. Some tortoises can not hibernate and attempting to do so will likely be fatal for them. Desert Tortoises and Russian Tortoises are examples of tortoises that can hibernate although the temperature requirements for each are different. Leopard Tortoises, Star Tortoises, and African Spur Thigh Tortoises are examples of tortoises that cannot hibernate.
Zoonoses are diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans. People that are most at risk are those who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapies, infants and young children, the elderly, and those with a chronic disease that compromises the immune system.
Potential zoonotic risks: Aeromonas, Campylobacter, Citrobacter, Cryptosporidia, Enterobacter, Erysipelothrix, Klebsiella, Mycobacterium, Proteus, Pseudomonas, Salmonellosis, Serratia, and Yersinia enterocolitica
The best way to avoid these and any other zoonoses is to maintain sanitary conditions and to wash your hands before and after handling your turtle. If you suspect that you may have acquired a zoonotic disease, you should certainly bring it to the attention of your physician.
Diseases & Parasites - Part 6 of 7
Please note that this section is intended to serve only as a description of health problems and some possible treatment procedures. It should be seen as an outline, aiding to form your expectations of treatments and helping you recognize symptoms of problems. Unless you are qualified to diagnose ailments or to perform these treatments, you should see a veterinary professional.
Abscesses - infected areas of tissue caused by cutaneous or subcutaneous damage which has become infected before spreading into surrounding tissues.
- Physical Symptoms - nodules, firm to the touch and sensitive which may secrete a yellowish fluid or pus or may become crusted with dried serous fluid. The possibility of abscess development may be enhanced by stress-related immunosuppression.
- Cause/Transmission - a primary problem such as a wound, burn, bite, or parasite-related lesion that has become infected by bacteria leading to an abscess.
- Treatment - often the abscess will be lanced (opened up) and drained, then irrigated with a povidone iodine solution. Antibiotic ointment may be applied topically. Do not use cotton swabs or other items which may leave fibers in the wound. Consult your veterinarian. In more serious cases the abscess may be surgically excised.One of the main concerns with an abscess is its cause. If the original problem is not eliminated or isolated, abscesses may continue to develop.
Dystocia - sometimes known as "Egg-Binding" or "Egg Retention". This is a life-threatening situation that occurs when eggs or young cannot pass through the oviduct and cloaca.
- Physical Symptoms - lethargy, reluctance to walk, and in the case of lizards inability to properly use hind legs, stress.
- Cause/Transmission - abnormally formed or abnormally large eggs or young, two or more eggs attached to each other, obstruction of oviduct by cysts or abscesses, malpositioned eggs or young, lack of suitable nesting site, poor husbandry, internal parasites, poor physical health of reptile.
- Treatment - soak the affected reptile in tepid water. Consult your veterinarian. Commonly oxytocin or calcium borogluconate injections may be administered. Surgical removal of the eggs or young may be necessary. Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat or prevent septicemia.
External Parasites - arthropods that survive by feeding off of the host animal. Usually by sucking blood. The most common of these are mites and ticks. Mites are very small arthropods about the size of a pin head resembling small ticks (which are also mites). They live by sucking blood and are found on both captive and wild-acquired animals and have a life cycle of about two weeks. Long term infestations may cause scarring, scale damage, and small skin hemorrhages. Ticks are red or brown arthropods approximately 1/4 of an inch in length. They live by sucking blood and are usually easily visible.
- Physical symptoms - Ticks and mites are small insects with round bodies tightly attached to your animal's skin. Mite infested lizards may display signs of itching or skin irritation. Mites may be visible as tiny black, orange, or red bugs on the reptile or surfaces it comes in contact with. "Dust" of white or gray color may also be visible; these are the mites' feces. Mites are most commonly found around the the head and under scales. Ticks are visible on the surface of the animal's skin.
- Cause/Transmission - mites and ticks can crawl from one reptile to another. They may also be transmitted via handling and infested substrates or housing. Ticks are usually found only on wild caught animals.
- Treatment - remove ticks by plucking them off of the animal with forceps or tweezers. Be certain you have removed the tick's head or infection may result. Disinfect the area with a povidone iodine solution. Mite problems should be discussed with a veterinarian. Mites are often treated with an internal parasiticide will be recommended by a veterinarian. These are extremely effective. Occasionally strip insecticides are used. These may be risky, as there is a very fine line between the level of airborne toxin that will kill the parasites and the level that will harm your animal. When using such a strip, all water and food must be removed from the cage and you must make sure the enclosure is well ventilated. Place the strip in a plastic or cardboard container with holes cut in it to allow the parasiticide to escape. Be absolutely sure that your animal cannot touch the strip. Usually six millimeters of strip are used per ten cubic feet of cage space. After such a treatment, clean the cage well. This treatment may have to be repeated once a week for a month. Spray parasiticides like pyrethrins are available and are usually quite safe. They may be sprayed directly onto animals and the enclosure. Formulas made for kittens and puppies under 12 weeks of age may also be used no less than once each week. Most pet supply stores sell very safe parasiticides, although these may be less effective. Other highly effective external, spray formulas may be more toxic and will have to be diluted. In all cases be sure to read and follow the specifications on the packaging in addition to consulting your vet. Soaking is another way to temporarily remove the majority of the mites from a animal's body; however, it leaves the mites on the animal's head alive, and this is an area where they tend to congregate. The animal is placed in water and allowed to soak for an extended period of time. Rubbing olive oil over a reptile's body can also help to suffocate mites. This should only be done with adult reptiles and you must take special care not to get any oil in the reptile's eyes or nostrils. Again, mites in these areas will remain living and will repopulate the animal if left untreated. Ivermectin may never be used on tortoises or turtles. Remember that the enclosure must be thoroughly treated as well.
Eye Problems - infection, inflammation, or ulceration of the eye, eyelid, or eye area.
- Physical Symptoms - red, swollen, or partially closed eyes.
- Cause/Transmission - may be caused by injury to the eye, bacterial or viral infection, dietary deficiencies such as Vitamin A, respiratory infection, low humidity, dirty conditions, or generally poor husbandry.
- Treatment - isolate cause and remedy the problem. Keep the animal warm and consult your veterinarian. Sometimes antibacterial eye drops or ointments may be prescribed along with systemic antibiotic therapy.
Internal Parasites - parasites inhabiting the host's internal organs. Varieties range from single celled parasites (such as Monocercomonas and Giardia) to worms (such as tapeworms).
- Physical Symptoms - often there will be no symptoms although some animals may have decreased appetites, weight loss, or regurgitation. Subcutaneous parasites often can be felt just under the skin. Fecal or blood examinations by a veterinarian are the preferred methods of diagnosis.
- Cause/Transmission - internal parasites are usually passed from one animal to another through direct and indirect contact between hosts which can include infected prey items.
- Treatment - consult your veterinarian. Many will recommend medications such as Metronidazole, Oxfendazole, Fenbendazole, or Levamisole.
Metabolic Bone Disease - most commonly seen in, but not limited to, herbivorous lizards, a calcium deficiency that causes the animal's bones to soften or break easily. In severe instances when the disease is untreated, paralysis or death may result.
- Physical Symptoms - squeeze the animal's jaw gently. If it feels soft or if it "gives", the bones may have become soft. Lethargy or bent, collapsed backs or spines may be another symptom. Most commonly, swellings on the limbs are evident.
- Cause/Transmission - diets low in calcium or inability to process calcium due to insufficient sunlight/UVB exposure.
- Treatment - ensure your animal is fed a proper diet including high calcium greens, and that it has plenty of exposure to sunlight. Consult your veterinarian if the condition continues to worsen.
Respiratory Infection - bacterial or viral infections of the respiratory tract. Includes such diseases as Pneumonia or Runny Nose Syndrome (chronic rhinitis) [RNS].
- Physical Symptoms - nasal bubbles, mucous in the animal's mouth, gaping of the mouth, gurgling noises indicating fluid in the lungs, wheezing, coughing, or open mouthed breathing.
- Cause/Transmission - Stressful situations lower a animal's resistance to respiratory infections and some animals may be particularly susceptible to respiratory infections after laying their eggs, giving birth, having been transported, or being too cold or wet.
- Treatment - make sure the temperature and humidity in the enclosure is correct and remove it from undue stresses. Consult your veterinarian. Respiratory infections are usually treated with antibiotics.
Shell Rot - also known as Ulcerative Shell Disease (USD). This is an infection of the shell involving damage that had occurred previously. The damaged area has become invaded by fungus or bacteria. This disease may have both dry and wet forms. When left untreated, this may lead to general systemic infection.
- Physical Symptoms - fluid or blood seepage from shell, visible shell abnormalities.
- Cause/Transmission - shell abrasions, bruises, or scratches due to rough fixtures in the tortoise's enclosure, mating or territorial aggression, other violent physical contact with other animals, parasitic penetration, or burns from heat elements.
- Treatment - Clean the area with a povidone iodine solution. Consult your veterinarian. Generally topical antibiotics are applied, and systemic antibiotics may be prescribed or administered. Keep the affected tortoise dry. If it must soak, be certain the water is very clean.
Skin Infections - Skin is infected by bacterial organisms.
- Physical Symptoms - swollen, sensitive, foul-smelling, or wet skin.
- Cause/Transmission - infection of minor wounds or shell infections spreading to underlying or nearby dermal tissues.
- Treatment - Clean the area with a povidone iodine solution. Consult your veterinarian; some may not wish you to clean the skin prior to their seeing your animal, as this can prevent them from swabbing a culture from the affected area. Generally an antibiotic will be prescribed.
[Personal comment: If you are a new tortoise owner, always contact a reptile veterinarian for advice on any health issues or problems.]
Breeding - Part 7 of 7
The first and perhaps most obvious step in breeding your tortoise is determining which sex it is. Sexing your tortoise may be accomplished in several ways.
At maturity, most male tortoises have tails that are longer than those of female tortoises. Usually they will carry them to the side when they walk. The plastron of a mature male may be indented or concave, while the plastron of the female is often flatter. Also, the plastron's anal plates can vary in shape or size between the sexes of many tortoise species. At maturity, male tortoises are often smaller than females. When looking at the carapace from above, female tortoises of many species have broader waists than do males.
To mate your tortoises, it is usually advisable to introduce the male into the female's enclosure. When mating your animals, be sure that there is ample room or opportunity for the female to avoid the male should he become too aggressive. Often courtship behavior consists of the male ramming or butting the female, which rarely results in shell damage. Some male tortoises will also vocalize during courtship. Once the tortoises are ready to mate, the male will mount the female and locate her cloacal opening with the tip of his tail so that he may insert his penis and deposit sperm. The female may attempt to raise her shell to aid in copulation.
If you maintain your tortoises separately, you should replace the animals in their individual enclosures after mating. In enclosures where a large number of tortoises are kept together, one male may mate with a number of females. If the tortoises appear disinterested in mating, it may help to separate the sexes for a few weeks and then reintroduce them. Tortoises rarely encounter each other in the wild and often mate when they do. Creating occasional 'encounters' may encourage breeding.
Although mating may not appear successful, time lapse may be the key. Some tortoise species have the ability to store sperm in their bodies for up to two years. This greatly increases the chances of successful conception. Many tortoises will indicate pregnancy in their temperaments. Some gravid, or pregnant, tortoises may suddenly undergo a personality change. Some will become aggressive toward other turtles in their enclosure or their keepers. Others may stop eating. When the time to lay is near they may begin to restlessly move about the perimeters of their enclosures. More methods of detecting pregnancy involve monitoring weight gains or, if a problem is suspected, X-rays (or more difficult, ultrasounds) may be utilized.
Gravid females will need an area where they feel comfortable laying their eggs or they can develop problems. Often in outdoor enclosures, a clean, raised, slightly sloping site may be preferred by the tortoise. Loose or sandy soil may also encourage nesting, provided it is not so loose that it cannot hold its shape. Many tortoises will accept a nesting box with plenty of substrate. Large tortoises may often prefer a deep substrate and may to dig extensively during nesting. Many times tortoises will dig "test" holes prior to actually digging and laying their eggs. When maintaining tortoises in groups, females may prefer certain nesting spots to others and may actually dig up previous nests, breaking the eggs. If this becomes a problem, you may find it is easier to isolate nest sites after they have been used.
Once the eggs have been laid, they may be removed to be incubated at a specific temperature, in order to ensure proper fertility. Find out the temperature at which your tortoise's eggs will need to be kept. Humidity levels may also be a concern. Most experienced tortoise breeders will have their incubator prepared and running before the animal lays. Usually an incubator is a simple closed box filled with a specified ratio of vermiculite and water to create an appropriate humidity. The eggs are placed inside. Some ventilation is needed, as the developing embryos will require some sort of oxygen exchange in order to survive. Many times the sex of the hatchling tortoises can be determined by the temperature at which they are incubated. The temperature can also determine how quickly the eggs will hatch. It may be advisable to keep a thermometer in the incubator to be sure that the developing turtles are kept at the temperature you desire. Carefully remove the eggs from the nesting site and place them in the incubator. Avoid turning or handling the eggs while they incubate. Unlike birds, reptile eggs must not be rotated or turned. For some tortoises maintained in outdoor settings, eggs deposited in the ground may hatch under natural conditions provided the habitat, temperature, humidity levels, and season are suitable. If your climate conditions are similar to the natural environment of the tortoise, you may choose to leave the eggs in the ground to hatch naturally. This is reported to produce babies with a better survival rate. If you do this, be sure to watch for predators such as dogs, cats, and large birds, who might prey on newly hatched babies.
When the young tortoises first hatch, they may be quite round in appearance. Their plastrons may also be folded. This is because they are curled up inside the egg. These conditions will fix themselves in a few days, as the turtles develop. Often tortoise clutches will not all hatch simultaneously; some eggs may take longer than others. This is a natural phenomenon that helps prevent predators from grabbing all of the babies as they hatch. Attempting to break the eggs to aid the late tortoises in hatching may be fatal for them. It is better to wait until the tortoises begin to hatch on their own. When they are ready, the young tortoises will poke a hole in their egg with their egg tooth, or egg caruncle, which will disappear in a few days. After making an initial opening, the little tortoise will continue to enlarge the hole by biting it and pushing with its front legs. The process may take a few hours, and some young tortoises will remain in the egg for days after they have made the first break. In this time, the tortoise will absorb the egg sac attached to it and will gain strength. Some young tortoises can become glued into their eggs by membrane residue or albumen. In this case, you may try very gently wiping the affected areas with sterile water on a cotton swab. After the tortoise has emerged from its egg, move it into a special enclosure at about the same temperature as the incubator. Gradually you may adjust the temperature to a level more suitable for the young tortoise. Place the eggshell in with it, as the little tortoise may eat it in order to absorb calcium crucial to its development.
Please Note: This care sheet is copyright © The Central Pets Educational Foundation (CentralPets.com). It may be freely distributed provided that this notice and Copyright remains included and unchanged. We encourage veterinarians, clubs, pet stores, breeders, humane societies, and others to use this to educate people and promote better pet care. Additions, suggestions, corrections, and questions regarding this care sheet are welcome and should be directed to content@CentralPets.com
[Personal comment: This care sheet was originally posted in 2001 at http://www.centralpets.com/care/pets/reptiles/tortoises/an/1/2/petcare.php]
Links - diseases in tortoises
- African Tortoise - Metabolic Bone Disease, by Joe Heinen
- Care Center - Common diseases in tortoises, by Misty Corton, ZA, 2002
- Tortoise Trust - Recognizing veterinary emergencies, by Nadine Gill (Highfield), 2002
- World Chelonian Trust - Medical misinformation on the internet and how it can harm your tortoise, by Chris Tabaka DVM, 2003