The Tlady's Guide




Adapted with kind permission from a paper by Glenys Crane

Tortoises are reptiles and therefore 'cold-blooded'. When the weather is warm they are warm and when it is cold so are they. They have been one of the world's most successful inhabitants, perfectly evolved to suit their environment, climate and food plants. Then we expect them to live in England where:-

1.   The winters are too long, meaning an extended hibernation period.

2.  The summers are too short, not always giving enough time for them to eat a good variety of cultivated and natural foods to enable them to gain weight, remain healthy and enjoy themselves.

3.  Our springs and autumns linger on interminably, not warm enough to induce them to eat yet not cold enough to stop activity, using up their valuable reserves and decreasing their weight. There is also the very real danger of a sudden frost causing fatalities. You will become an avid follower of the daily weather forecasts!

These are the two seasons you are most likely to have to keep your tortoise indoors under a heat lamp to give him access to a 'summer' temperature of about 16C at the cool end of his pen to a maximum under the light of about 28C (it must be a light, not a ceramic-type heater, as they need the benefit of light stimulation).

Having him wandering about the living room or kitchen is not good enough. At floor level he will be too cold and will have no appetite. And your carpets will never be the same again! This is the time your tortoise might drive you mad as they are not the tidiest of creatures, prone to scrape up all newspaper substrate and defecate over food, churning all into a very smelly 'soup' before sleeping on it! Many become very restless indoors, being independent characters who prefer the outside.

There is no doubt about it, it is quite hard work to keep a tortoise healthy and happy in this country and it is quite a commitment to your time. If you are out at work all day you will hardly every see your tortoise as he will awake after you have left the house and be asleep before your return. Consequently you will have no idea how he is faring and you will not find him a very rewarding pet.

Tortoises like a lot of space and the freedom of a south-facing garden, which contains a lawn with clover and dandelions on which to browse, flower beds and rocks upon which to clamber would be ideal. They love sunbathing on concrete paths at the beginning of the day, which soon become as snug as warm toast and they then become very active and agile. Drinking water should always be available in a shallow receptacle sunk into the ground such as an old plate, cat tray or plant pot saucer. They need to wade in and put their heads down to drink. You may never see them do this as they derive a lot of moisture from their plant diet. but they do occasionally surprise you.

If he has to be in a pen, make it large and of varied terrain, with a stony area for his claws and access to sun and shade throughout the day. Ensure the walls are escape-proof, tortoises are agile and persistent and can easily climb wire fences. A solid boundary also prevents him looking and fretting to where the grass is greener. Always ensure he is in a purpose-built rain proof house or stone 'cave' at night as foxes often 'play' with tortoises they discover. He may only receive teeth marks on his shell but he could lose a leg.

Ensure you find a vet who deals with reptiles as their whole metabolism is so different to 'normal' warm blooded pets that many vets have not found it necessary to study them. Some vets will honestly admit they don't know much about tortoises but beware the ones who don't wish to lose face and bodge along as best they can. Injections often prove fatal and vitamin injections should never be necessary to an animal with adequate varied diet. It's easy to overdose a cold-blooded animal whose slow metabolism does not adequately use up an administered drug.

When you first acquire your tortoise he may go 'off colour' and quiet. Just because he's cold blooded doesn't mean he hasn't any feelings, he will be missing his old familiar surroundings and may take a week or two to get used to his new home and routine.

If you keep more than one tortoise you will soon see they all have individual personalities, likes and dislikes. If you have males and females you must be prepared to have a separate area for the males, who quickly become over-amorous (to put it politely!) and give the females no rest, causing stress and related illnesses as well as actual bodily harm due to butting and love-biting! In the wild tortoises can spend many days without encountering each other but in the confines of even a large garden they are all unnaturally close.

If your tortoise seems to prefer only a small variety of food it may be that this is all a previous owner has offered - if so do persevere to introduce new tastes. They get to like many things but easily get 'hooked' onto a favourite, to the detriment of their health. They can also get habituated to being hand fed, say after nursing through an illness and it may be quite frustrating to try and get them to feed independently again. They also seem quite seasonal in their tastes, shunning one thing at a particular time which they adore at another so keep persevering.

It is an excellent idea to weigh your tortoise regularly and check him for swellings etc., (if an abscess is allowed to form, the pus, the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk in a tortoise, can eat into and destroy nearby bone tissue). You will soon see a picture of his annual weight fluctuations and gain a better idea of if he is thriving. If he seems at all seedy do not hesitate to seek medical advice as, with his slow metabolism, if you wait until he really looks bad it will probably be too late to treat him. He should be bright-eyed and alert, walking with his shell raised off the ground. If well fed, he can also be very indolent and spend most of the day lolling in the sun.

Many people recommend de-worming at least once a year, each summer. It's easy for captive tortoises to get quite a build-up of worms, which doesn't help their general health, due to re-contaminating themselves because of a build-up of faeces in a contained environment. You should keep their areas extremely clean.

If your tortoise is not heavy enough to hibernate, or shows signs of ill health you must be prepared to keep him awake all winter - a quite demanding, smelly and expensive business. If you cross your fingers and hibernate a suspected ill tortoise you will probably find either a dead or much sicker tortoise in the spring and will pay for the quiet winter with heavy vets bills and intensive nursing which could include daily stomach tubing.   Hibernation itself, anyway, is not without its chores as you have to monitor the temperature of the area in which the tortoise if hibernating as a freezing temperature causes the brain tissues to freeze.

If you wish to have a tortoise as a pet for a child please think again. They are certainly endearing creatures of great character but children generally soon lose interest as they are not cuddly, soft or warm and their strong legs and claws soon prise off the grip of little fingers wanting to hold them. A guinea pig or a kitten would be a much better choice and much less hard work. Tortoises are by far the most demanding animal I have ever owned out of quite a varied selection. Forget about the time when nearly every garden had a tortoise - nearly every tortoise died during hibernation then, mainly due to the ignorance of its owner and we are still learning.................

Always remember, a tortoise will only function well at the temperature it was 'designed' for - not our English climate. It's up to you to ensure it is kept in an environment and temperature as much like its country of origin as possible and to this effect you will probably become a devoted follower of the weather reports.

Having laid down these rather daunting facts, once you have got used to all their special requirements, you will find them rewarding individuals to know.

These notes are by no means meant to be comprehensive and are only my personal thoughts and observations based on many years experience, discussion with other tortoise keepers and reading of the ever expanding literature available.

Glenys Crane