Turtle and Tortoise

Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers
e-mail: docgarner@safarivet.com

Box turtles are small, terrestrial chelonians with a unique hinged shell enabling them to completely withdraw their head and legs into the shell and close like a box. The tortoise tends to be larger, and the shell does not hinge. Most turtles prefer moist environments, where as, the tortoise tends to be found in dry environments.

Indoor Habitat: A wood or plastic box, at least 2 x 3 feet (3 x 4 is better) and 1 1/2 feet high is sufficient. A heating pad can be placed under the cage to generally warm the entire enclosure. A 60-75 watt light bulb, heat lamp or ceramic heater can be used to provide a focal heat source to heat an area of the enclosure to 85-90°F for basking. A Vita-Lite or other full spectrum light source is recommended. A hide box can be made from a wooden box or a flower pot with a hole to provide an area of privacy for shy specimens. A water dish containing about one inch of water and large enough for the turtle to soak in should be provided. The dish should be shallow enough to allow easy entry and exit by the turtle. A flower pot saucer or a shallow dish works well. Astroturf or rabbit pellets can be used as substrate in the bottom of the enclosure. Do not use pine or cedar shavings. The aromatic oils contained in the wood can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Always keep the water dish clean and change the water at least once a day. Water turtles require an aquarium in which to swim and a haul out area where they can climb out of the water to bask. A 60-75 watt light bulb, heat lamp or ceramic heater can be used to provide a focal heat source to heat the haul out area of the enclosure to 85-90°F for basking. A Vita-Lite or other full spectrum light source is recommended. An aquarium heater can be used to heat the water to 70-75°F. A filter pump and aerator should be used to maintain water quality. The tank should be maintained as one would for freshwater fish, using dechlorinated water and partial water changes (drain and replace 1/3 of water at a time) once weekly. Feeder fish i.e. guppies, goldfish, minnows, mosquitofish can be added to stimulate normal feeding responses. Tank decoration may include gravel and rock substrate and aquatic plants. Most turtles prefer to eat in the water, therefore to reduce fouling of the water, it is recommended to use a second, smaller tank in which to feed your turtle.

Outdoor Habitat: Keeping the turtles outside, at least in summer, closely duplicates their natural environment. Do not let turtles roam/eat in a yard that has had pesticides, snail bait or fire ant poison applied recently. The enclosure must be escape proof against burrowing. Burial of the perimeter fence 2-3 feet deep helps reduce turtles that try to tunnel out. A screen top should be used to keep predators (cats, dogs, raccoons and opossums) out and keeps the turtle in. A hide box in the shade must be provided. The area must be free of poisonous plants. (see toxic plant information sheet) A small pond can be constructed for water turtles using standard plastic preformed ponds with a water pump and filtration system. Placement in a area that receives filtered sun instead of direct sun is recommended to prevent overheating of water in the summer. Areas should be available to allow the turtle to haul out and bask in the sun.

Light: Turtles need several hours of exposure to natural sunlight every day. This helps them synthesize Vitamin D3. If you keep your pet outdoors several hours a day and there is sun and shade available in the enclosure, you don’t have to worry. If your turtle is indoors all the time, you have to provide a source of appropriate broad spectrum light.

Temperature: Environmental temperatures in the cages may vary from 70°F at night to 90°F during the day. Also, there should be hotter and cooler areas within the enclosure. Turtles, like all reptiles, regulate their body temperature by exposure to different levels of heat by choosing a temperature that is optimal for that animal. Temperatures that are too cool will put the turtle into a torpid state, where it is too warm for hibernation but too cold to eat and move. If a turtle stays in a torpid state too long it will frequently contract an infection or starve to death in cases of neglect.

What to look for in a healthy turtle/tortoise:

  • Alert, active and aware of surroundings
  • Good body weight i.e. feels heavy, good muscle development and tone
  • Normal shape to shell and shell should feel hard, not soft or flexible
  • No loose scutes or scales, no erosions on shell
  • Eyes bright, open, with no swelling or discharge
  • No swelling of the ears, legs, or rectal area
  • Nostrils open and free of discharge
  • Skin resilient and free of wounds, parasites, or ulcers

When to seek veterinary attention for your turtle/tortoise:

  • Pre/post purchase
  • Pre/post hibernation
  • Lack of appetite exceeding 2 weeks duration
  • Unable to urinate/defecate with or with out straining
  • Any overt signs of illness
  • Yearly in older pets

What diagnostic tests can be done and what may it tell us?

  • Physical Examination-body weight; general overall condition; abdominal palpation for eggs, bladder stones and/or fecal impactions; evaluation of oral cavity, eyes, and ears; auscultation of heart and lungs.
  • Fecal Examination-Direct examination for excess bacteria, protozoan parasites and/or abnormal cells
  • Fecal Examination-Fecal Flotation for parasite eggs
  • Complete Blood Cell Count (CBC)-Evaluation of number and physical characteristics of red and white blood cells for evidence of anemia (low red cell count), dehydration, infection, and/or inflammation
  • Serum Biochemistry-Evaluation levels of protein, glucose, liver enzymes, electrolytes, kidney enzymes and metabolites in order to assess liver and kidney function and general internal health
  • Radiographs-Broken bones, loss of bone density due to calcium deficiency, intestinal foreign bodies, bladder stones, eggs, organ enlargement, pneumonia and tumors
  • Bacterial/fungal culture of infected wounds, eye/sinus/oral discharges and fecal samples when indicated. Antimicrobial sensitivity testing of offending organisms in order to determine the most effective antibiotic treatments.

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