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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation

So you (or your child) wants... A tortoise!. Do you realise the pitfalls?

  1. A tortoise is not a toy, it is a living creature and also a very much endangered one.It will suffer if handled too frequently.It is certainly not for children under twelve whose hands have not developed large enough or strong enough to carry a struggling tortoise.Sufficiently strong to even break the grip of an unwary adult, a tortoise can suffer great trauma or broken limbs and shell from being dropped. A tortoise should only ever be handled with two hands, they hate being picked up, it is not natural to them.
  2. Have you considered its environment? Is your garden large and secure enough - a tortoise will escape if it possibly can.They are expert climbers and have been known to climb walls, fences and even trees. Some dig and conceal themselves deep in the soil. Are the plants in your garden poisonous to a tortoise? Although they seem clever in many ways, they do not necessarily have enough sense or instinct to differentiate between what is good to eat and what is toxic.Do you use weedkiller? - or even worse slug pellets, which are fatal to a tortoise and will cause it to die a slow and painful death.
  3. A tortoise has a metabolism which is directly coupled to the temperature of the surroundings; it cannot either feed or digest its food properly if it is cool - ie below about 20°C.On those cold days in early and late summer, have you all the right facilities to keep it at the right temperature indoors under a lamp? A pen with a wooden floor is preferable and you will need plenty of newspaper as a tortoise is not fussy about when and where and how often it needs to discharge urine and faeces.
  4. Some tortoises need to hibernate in this country. Have you the facility to do this successfully? The animal will start to slow down and cease to feed at the end of September and needs to completely clear its gut of food to prevent a build-up of toxins over the winter months.It will need a quiet, cool, dark but frost-free place to spend the winter months. A cool attic is probably the best place but it needs to be well insulated from the heat of the house.The hibernating area must be rat and mouse free or your pet may be found to have been literally eaten alive during the winter.
    Have you access to suitable insulating material for the animal to sleep in? Not hay or straw which may be infested with mites or cause respiratory problems.Shredded paper from an office shredder is ideal or if this is not available then newspaper can be used.
  5. A tortoise, like all other animals, can carry many germs. Hands should be washed after handling especially if there are other tortoises present as they can spread faecal deposits onto each other. They also carry parasites such as worms and flagellates. Ideally they should be wormed by the vet every other year at least. Never use the same utensils, plates, knives etc for their food and its preparation as you use for the family.Children must never, however tempting, pick up and eat the food left out for the tortoise.
  6. Do you have a vet who knows and understands the problems of reptiles and tortoises in particular? Not all vets have the specialist knowledge and successful treatment can be lengthy and therefore costly - especially when X-rays and laboratory samples are needed. Never take chances with a tortoise's health, always seek veterinary advice if you suspect sickness in a tortoise.
  7. Would you recognise the signs of a sick tortoise? They take a long time to die and it is often too late before the signs are seen. Avoid any tortoise with breathing problems and nasal discharges.In these cases even the best reptile vets will acknowledge that the prognosis is bad. Note the faeces, they should ideally be dark and firm, any sign of runniness or undigested food is a bad sign - probably a severe case of worm infestation.A healthy animal is bright, walks sturdily on the tips of its legs, has clear eyes, no discharges, no flaking of the shell, and above all - has a pink mouth and tongue.
    A pale mouth indicates anaemia, a yellow build-up on the tongue could be 'mouth rot'.It can prevent the animal feeding, is contagious and is difficult to treat.Some older animals need hand feeding a couple of times a day. This may be due to blindness, either through the natural ageing process or because it has had its eyes frosted during hibernation. Do you have the time, skill, and above all, patience?
  8. What would you do at holiday time? Do you know anyone who has a suitable garden to look after your pet? Once again, do they use chemicals or slug pellets? Can they house your tortoise away from their own animals to ensure there is no cross infection?
  9. Don't be tempted to purchase a hatchling or an exotic species. Pet shops are all too keen to sell you one of these but young tortoises and certain exotic species such as Leopard, Hingeback and Horsfield's Tortoises need specialist care. The dealer will tell you they are "captive bred"; so they may be! but where? - and how did they find their way into the UK? Leopards in particular, are subject to worm ingestion. Despite what the salesman tells you, hatchlings are not easy to look after and care for without a lot of knowledge and can die without warning during at least the first four years. There seems to be a popular myth that a captive bred tortoise needs no licence. Walk away if in any doubt .... !
  10. Whereas most elderly tortoises taken from the wild and brought into the UK before the importation ban seem to be solitary creatures, captive bred hatchlings benefit from the company of others. If you are considering buying a hatchling, can you consider buying two - to avoid the new pet pining for companionship and leading to stress and possible death?
  11. Have you a garden pond?If you are considering a tortoise, then fill it in or raise the sides by at least 300mm with an overhanging coping-stone to prevent the tortoise climbing in. If it falls in, it will almost certainly drown.
  12. Do you have other pets.Some dogs are simply not comparable with a tortoise; they may pick it up and bite it causing shell damage, loss of limbs, severe trauma and even death. Goose droppings are fatal to tortoises.
  13. Tortoises do not survive on supermarket foods alone. Lettuce and tomato are all very well but these foods do not provide the many necessary nutrients to keep a tortoise healthy. Do you have time to collect wild growing food, dandelions etc for your tortoise, especially during the months when these plants are scarce? Are you sure it is from an area where no pesticides or weedkillers have been used?Taken from grass verges, the plants will possibly be contaminated by vehicle exhaust deposits. All food should be thoroughly washed before use. Do you have space in your garden to allow wild food to grow?

Finally, tortoises have been on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. They can live longer than us with suitable care and attention, sometimes for over a hundred years - can YOU give such a creature total commitment.......