CARE OF THE TORTOISE
the Box Turtle and other land turtles.
A tortoise is also called a cheloid. A tortoise lives on the land, usually in a desert environment. In contrast most turtles usually live in the water. A tortoise and a box turtle are not the same species, yet for discussion this handout is for general information regarding land turtles. Box turtles, depending on the species can live in the woods, swamps, pastures or desert. Tortoises and box turtles generally cannot swim. With proper care box turtles and tortoises can live to be over a hundred years, although you should realistically expect less. It is illegal to keep wildlife in captivity in our state. If you have water turtles or other reptiles we also have separate handouts for these species. As a general rule one must not compare the treatments in one species to another, even with reptiles. Some products, such as an ivermectin deworming, can be fatal to cheloids (and turtles) yet safe for other reptiles.
The tortoise is mostly a herbivore which needs a high fiber diet with some protein. Since some pet foods contain an excess of vitamin A & D, only 5% or less of a chelonian diet is usually recommended as dog food. In comparison to box turtles, tortoises have much higher vegetable need in their diet (3/4+), with 10% fruits and less than 10% other foods (such as box cereals, eggs, pelleted fish, pet or bird foods). Reptiles are similar to their bird relatives; they do not do well on a diet with much fat or oil. As with turtles, tortoises can be fed some alfalfa, broccoli bananas, oranges, melons, mixed vegetables, spinach, Swiss chard and sprouts of seeds, beans or alfalfa. We advise also a low fat dog food (dry preferably but canned is adequate) plus some tuna or chicken as 1/4 or less of the diet. Similar to turtles, tortoises should not be feed over 10% of the diet as cabbage, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, melons and tomatoes; these foods do not have very much nutritional value. Pumpkin is high in Vitamin A. It is important to rotate and provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, in addition to the pelleted diet and a vitamin-mineral supplement. Feed your tortoise on a low profile plate or flat rock, to reduce the possible ingestion of sand, bedding and other substrate material. Tortoises should not receive excess iron supplements in their diet. A variety of food is important.
Turtles are omnivorous, which means they eat whatever they can catch, be it live or dead prey, fruits or vegetables. Box turtles and tortoises do have some differences in their nutritional requirements. The most common medical problems we see in reptiles is related to poor nutrition. A vitamin-mineral supplement with vitamin D3 is strongly recommended for reptiles, to be given 1x a week in a small amount. Buy a complete vitamin-mineral supplement for reptiles, not birds, dogs, cats, or other vitamin-mineral products for other species. You can place the vitamin/mineral supplement on fruit or vegetables, or mix it with canned dog food. The type of food requirements vary with each species. An adult turtle should be fed 2-3x a week. A turtle less than a year of age should be fed daily. A cold reptile will not eat or digest their food properly. Turtles can be fed an adult, low fat dog food as 1/4 of their diet. Apples, bananas, berries, broccoli, fruits, guava, mixed chopped vegetables (frozen variety), mushrooms, papayas, peaches, pears, pumpkin, squash, and yams can also be fed. Turtles may prefer foods of the lettuce and melon family, yet these less nutritious foods should be limited to less than 10% of their diet. We prefer that turtles be fed mostly a commercial, pelleted diet for their species. To teach a reptile to eat commercial diets we recommend you start to feed them insects or vegetables in a bowl. Later add the commercial diet on top of the worms, cheese, crickets, cooked eggs, fish, fruit, larvae, vegetables, yogurt and other prey. Gradually increase the amount of the commercial food. Feeding a lot of frozen fish can cause nutritional problems. Feeding live and dead prey can cause an increase in exposure to parasites and diseases. We recommend that up to 1/2 of the box turtle’s diet be fruits, vegetables and dog food, and the other half mostly a complete, pelleted diet. Another a rule of feeding is that a box turtle should eat approximately 1/2 of the diet as a complete food (including the low calorie dog food), 1/4 of the diet as added vegetables and up to 1/5 as fruits. Some turtles prefer to eat in private, and thus a hiding area is recommended. It should be noted that land turtles/tortoises are mostly herbivores, while the water turtles are mostly carnivorous in their diet.
Housing is an important consideration. A ten gallon aquarium can make ideal homes for small water turtle, but these are not usually the best for the box and larger turtles, unless used for temporary housing at night, etc. A box turtle should be in at least a 20 gallon aquarium container, or better yet for proper care we recommend a 24″ x 48″ x 15″ high habitat for one turtle . A turtle should have at least 10x as much movable space as its body takes up. We recommend that the “air tight” hoods not be used. Too much water or humidity can be harmful. Water condensation, or a fungus growth, indicates too much humidity is in the air. Screens on the top are the best remedy for too much moisture. A hide box or area is indicated for all turtles. It is important to enrich the environment of any animal which lives in a closed habitat. A burrowing area is also recommended. Indoors a wading pool can make an ideal habitat container. A shallow bowl of water is recommended. With the land turtles there is no need to let water sit and declorinate, which is different in the care of a water turtle. The bowl of water should not be over 1/2 the height of the shell and never deeper than 1/2 the width of the turtle. The plastic or glass bowls are not to be used if the turtle can destroy them. A permanent bowl is not necessary if you place the turtle in a shallow water dish for a 1-2 hour soak 3x a week. Most reptiles require a dry climate. The feces should be picked up daily. A fungus growth on the skin of a reptile indicates a veterinary exam is required. One will need to change bedding at least once every month with the daily feces patrol, or sooner if need be. The use of newspaper, carpet, alfalfa pellets, hay, straw, large wood chips, coconut shells and peat moss can all be adequate. Sphagnum peat moss does absorb more moisture than other materials. The aromatic wood shavings, such as cedar or redwood, are to be avoided in any pocket pets or reptiles. Potting soil, sand, clay, or gravel small enough to swallow is not recommended. Very fine sand may lead to an impaction if the reptile eats it (when eating their food). If you use a carpet for the floor it should be taken out and washed regularly; and any loose nylon fibers should be trimmed so they are not to be ingested. Dry bedding helps prevent pneumonias. When cleaning the habitat, use a 1/30 chlorine bleach solution, rinse and allow to air dry. These pets are ectothermic, which means that their body temperature is regulated by the surrounding air temperature. Being too cold or too hot can be detrimental. Supplemental heat needs to be considered, and a temperature of 65-85 degrees is ideal. A basking light for a desert tortoise should be at 80-95 degrees. The lizard “hot rocks” are harder for turtles to use than a light bulb in one corner of the habitat. Light bulbs can occasionally overheat the reptile’s home, and if used try to keep one end of the aquarium heated near 85 degrees and the other end at a cooler temperature (60 degrees at lowest temperature, 70 degrees is adequate). If a heat lamp is within 18” of a tortoise, turtle, etc. a shell burn can occur. There are porcelain heaters produce no light and can be ideal to use. Always place a thermometer inside various areas of the habitat to check on the temperature. Do not use the glass or mercury thermometers. Placing the aquarium near a window can result in overheating. A temperature over 85-90 degrees can cause some reptiles to become hostile. The full spectrum UV lights are not as important in turtles as they are in lizards. Yet we do recommend the UV lights since the full knowledge of each reptile species is not known. It is important to place your turtle outdoors in warm weather, for the benefits of unfiltered light and psychological reasons. If the habitat is outside, a chicken wire fence 2’ down, 2’ back and still buried 1.5’ back up should be on the inside of the fence to keep turtles from digging out, and the exact same outside the fence to prevent predators outside from digging in (besides a high fence). There are many types of box turtles; the rare-in-captivity Asian box turtle requires a semi-aquatic environment while the others should have only a small amount of water available. Some box turtles can climb a fence 18” high. Bushes and vegetation should be encouraged within the habitat. Also ask for our handout on poisonous plant listings for animals if you are building such a habitat. Snail bait, ant bait, routine insecticide and herbicide sprays and other toxic products must also be removed if you place a turtle out in the yard. Bring the turtle indoors when the daytime temperature is 60 degrees or less.
Tortoises and box turtles can sometimes be sexed, with the male having red irises, and the female’s eyes having brown irises. The female tortoise usually has a flat plastron or stomach while the male’s plastron may be curved. In the Desert Tortoise the plastron does not start to curve in a male until they are 10-15 years old. Male tortoises may also have a tubercule, which may appear as a jaw abscess, especially in the spring breeding season. In turtles and tortoises the female has a shorter, narrower, tapered tail; the male has a longer tail which is fatter tail near the base. The cloaca opening in the male is also farther back than the female; also see our reptile breeding handout for more information regarding Desert Tortoises and turtles being housed outside. If you do not plan to breed reptiles, we recommend you keep one per habitat to reduce aggression and fighting wounds. If you want to breed such turtles we recommend that you allow them to be outdoors with a lot of space. In the above turtle and tortoise are we have described some characteristics on sexing a turtle. It is also possible that a male turtle grunts while a female turtle hisses more, yet both sexes can hiss and grunt and this is not a reliable method to sex turtles. A female can have 1-6 clutches and 2-8 eggs per average clutch. Egg laying can vary up to 6 clutches and 50 eggs a year, depending upon the species. Sperm can live in some female tortoise species for years. We have more information on breeding reptiles. Most turtles have longer claws on the front feet (tortoise’s feet look like a small elephant’s foot, as they are mainly non?aquatic). The Desert Tortoise can live to over 100 years of age, while a box turtle can live 20 years with the proper care.
If you desire to let your box turtle or tortoise hibernate, you will need to provide them a box in a 50 degree area such as a garage. Newspapers or potting soil in the box can be ideal substrate. Each species is different in that most turtles hibernate, yet some tortoises do not. It is important to know that when preparing a turtle for hibernating do not feed them for 2 weeks, yet provide water. Keep them at 70 degrees or higher for this time period. One does not want food in their intestinal tract when it is below 60 degrees. After the 2nd week the temperature can be dropped to 65 degrees or so for a week. Later the temperature can be lowered down to 45-50 degrees. If below 45 degrees this can be too cold for a desert tortoise, and it is >60 degrees this is too high to hibernate, yet too cold to eat. Every month (2 months maximum), bring the pet out into a warm area to eat and drink water. Gradually awake the turtle from their hibernation when doing this. When removing a turtle from hibernation it does not hurt to soak them in warm water for a few minutes daily, for up to 2 weeks or until they are eating. Do not allow a sick reptile to hibernate, as they will awaken too sick to live. It is important to periodically weigh your reptile. When hibernating, reweigh them in the middle of and in the late hibernation periods. A turtle should not loose over 8% of its weight in hibernation. Treated sick turtles and ensure they are physically in a good condition before allowing them to hibernate. Turtles hibernating in cool areas need to be protected from predators, ants and rodents. One can supplement a sick turtle with force feeding twice a week, of a food such as Hill’s A/D if they are sick. Turtles and tortoises do not have to hibernate. If you want to keep the turtle outdoors year around, then ensure they have enough depth of soft sand and/or potting soil to hibernate in. The burrowing depth should be 2-3’, or below frost line. Cover this area with leaves or hay in the fall. It is thought that hibernation may help prolong the life of a turtle since this is part of a natural cycle; others disagree and so do we if the turtle is sick. Yet hibernation overall may keep a healthy turtle from being sick. Always weigh your turtle or tortoise 2x a year. A sign of sickness is weight loss, and obesity is unhealthy and to be avoided. We have available some charts for how long each species of turtle is thought to live.
All species of animals can have Salmonella bacteria found within their digestive system. To prevent this problem we recommend that you do not give warm water baths to your reptile in the kitchen sink or bathtub. If you are concerned we can run a fecal culture on your reptile pet and provide more information on salmonella. Unfortunately the treated patient will again become infected with the salmonella, and this bacterium does not usually cause a problem in reptiles. The live animals, fresh meat and other foods fed to reptiles will usually reinfect the turtle. Salmonella can be a “normal bacteria” living in reptiles. Diarrhea is a sign of the Salmonella infection. To prevent this zoonotic disease, in the 70’s laws were enacted to prevent the sale of turtles under 4”, as these younger turtles harbor a higher amount of salmonella.
This is only a general guide for land turtles and we highly recommend the individual species books available for the wide variety of reptiles. We have more information within our library that you may read at the clinic; a good website for each species is www.tortisetrust.org. Signs of sickness in reptiles can be trouble breathing, constipation or egg binding, diarrhea, ear infections, swollen eyes, lumps, mouth rot, shell/skin rot, a softening shell, swollen eyes, increased thirst and/or not eating for a week or longer. Humidity over 60% may cause skin infections and blisters to form. If a tortoise seems constipated it does not hurt to soak them for 20-30 minutes twice a week in warm, shallow water. We advise that you bring in a stool exam of all animals, including reptiles, so that we may run a fecal test for internal parasites.
The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic