Tortoises, terrapins and turtles – some common care tips and potential issues
Although a common pet, the chelonians (tortoises, turtles and terrapins) are one of our most underestimated and misunderstood domestic companions. Chelonians are all similar in appearance, but have some fundamental differences. Turtles generally live their entire lives in water, coming only on to land to lay their eggs, and have adaptations such as webbed feet specially designed for swimming. Tortoises on the other hand are generally entirely land-dwelling, and many can’t even swim, having strong but stubby legs. Terrapins are the in-betweeners, living a life half in water and half out on land, and share features of both turtles and tortoises.
The importance of a good environment
Above all else, the most important step in keeping any tortoise, turtle or terrapin happy is the providing the correct environment. Habitats vary widely, from dry, arid desert for species such as Star Tortoises or African Spurred Tortoises (the most common dry-land species in pet shops), to an enclosure requiring both land and see for a species such as the Red Eared Slider Terrapin (probably the most common tortoise found in pet-shops, and the type usually seen for sale in the Wanchai and Mong-Kok markets), to completely aquatic environments for species such as the Pig-nosed Turtle.
Research, Research, Research!
Make sure also to research the temperature, humidity and conditions required by the chelonian. And of course check make sure you check how big your pet will grow – some of those penny sized tortoises can end up growing to over fifty kilograms in adult body weight, and remember that many species will live for decades.
The long and short of it is that it’s vital to do the research before obtaining a chelonian to ensure that you understand their requirements and the correct habitat to provide. Over half of the medical conditions I see in domestic tortoises are related to their habitat – either not being able to get out of the water and bask, the enclosure being too warm or too cool, or too small for the tortoise. Environmental hygiene is also very important, turtles and terrapins can foul water quickly and enclosures require good filtration, or regular water changes.
The second most common cause of issues in domestic tortoises is incorrect diet. As with habitat and enclosure, dietary requirements vary widely between species. Most tortoises (the dry land dwelling species) are entirely vegetarian, and feeding diets with too little fibre or in some cases even the wrong types of vegetable and fruit will result in intestinal disturbances and nutritional imbalance. Terrapins and turtles however, including the Red Eared Slider and Pig-Nosed Turtle, are often omnivorous, eating both meat and vegetables and should be fed a mixture of vegetables, fruits, fish and meat.
For all pets, it can be an excellent idea to add some tortoise pellets (designed for your breed), as well as a mineral and vitamin supplement powder to the diet. Even with the best of efforts it can be difficult to fully balance a chelonian diet, and adding a high-quality commercially formulated product will help prevent any nutritional imbalances, whilst maintaining a natural diet.
Correct housing and diet will prevent the vast majority of issues, however even with the best care and nutrition there are a number of conditions to watch out for. The most common diseases we see with pet chelonians include respiratory disease, shell-rot, vitamin A deficiency and metabolic bone disease.
Respiratory diseases are probably the most common issue affecting domestic tortoises and terrapins, but their signs are often quite subtle. A runny nose, open-mouth breathing, eye infections, heavy breathing or lack of appetite are all common signs of respiratory tract infection. For a tortoise or terrapin who stops eating, is lethargic or seems unwell, respiratory illness is always a suspect, and your vet may need to take a chest x-ray to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment is generally with a course of antibiotics, and in some cases injections may be required. Unhygienic or inappropriate surroundings are a common cause of respiratory infections, so the best prevention is good care.
Shell rot is the common name for shell infections of turtles and terrapins. Shell rot can either be dry (usually a fungal infection) or wet (often a bacterial infection). Shell rot often starts with an injury, but in some cases can be due to an overly humid environment. The shell will often appear cracked, damaged and in severe cases may bleed. At times sections of the shell can also become loose or peel off. After a longer period of infection, an affected turtle or terrapin’s shell will appear moth-eaten and damaged. Treatment is generally via twice-daily application of an iodine solution such as Betadine and in some cases oral antibiotics.
Vitamin A deficiency is also a common issue for domestic tortoises and terrapins, especially those seen in Hong Kong. It is most common in pets kept indoors and fed a very bland or single ingredient diet. The most common sign of vitamin A deficiency is swollen, inflamed eyes that if severe can become blind. Along with broadening and improving the diet, the main treatment for vitamin A deficiency is a series of injections to restore the vitamin balance.
Metabolic bone disease occurs when a tortoise and terrapins, or a reptile, develops bone weakness and osteoporosis. Metabolic bone disease is generally due to a nutritional deficiency, but there are a number of possible factors. All tortoises and terrapins require exposure to ultraviolet light (such as sun-light or reptile-specific fluorescent lighting) to produce vitamin D3, which is vital in proper bone growth and development. In addition, they require adequate calcium in the diet, which is often lacking in simple or single-ingredient diets (such as tortoises that are only fed on prawns). Common signs of metabolic bone disease include a weak, flexible shell, swollen jaw, and in severe cases pathological leg fractures. Treatment is generally based around improving the lighting of the enclosure or allowing the tortoise to bask in sunlight for a couple of hours per day (with shade as required), in addition to supplementing the diet with either liquid calcium or a calcium powder dusted on to the food.
In summary, tortoises, terrapins and turtles make fascinating pets, but their requirements for care vary greatly. Illness and diseases are often a product of diet and housing, and careful research and fact-finding prior to obtaining a tortoise will prevent nearly all of the most common issues. Different types of tortoise have widely varying requirements, so careful preparation will save many troubles and issues, and keep give your tortoise a long and happy life. Tortoises are often very stoic, and only show signs of illness when they are seriously unwell. The most common early warning signs include a lack of appetite, lethargy, sleepiness, as well as physical discolouration or alteration to the shell. If you’re concerned your tortoise may be unwell I’d recommend seeking veterinary attention as soon as possible – most issues are relatively easy to treat if caught early, but can be more difficult to reverse if left.