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CARING FOR YOUR TORTOISE

Tortoises are not the easy to care for, low maintenance pet that many assume they are. They are a watching pet rather than a cuddling pet and are certainly not a pet that is suitable to be left to the sole care of a youngster. However, as a family pet with their care under constant supervision from an adult, a tortoise is a tremendously rewarding and educational pet. 

Good care of your Tortoise equals good husbandry. Understanding the needs of your tort are the fundamental keys to great success and enjoyment as a keeper.

I like to think of the elements of good husbandry like the spokes of a wheel. Each spoke is needed to keep the strength of the wheel, if one or more spokes are missing, then the wheel looses its strength and it collapses. Thus, each aspect of good husbandry is essential in keeping your tortoise healthy, happy and strong.

Way back in the 1960s and 1970s most households in the UK had a pet tortoise. They were specimens stolen from the wild, shipped to the UK in huge quantities for those that survived to be sold in the pet trade for pennies .  Through ignorance, these tortoises were allowed to roam in the back gardens, fed a wholly unsuitable diet  and quite often having holes drilled through their shell so they could be tethered by a chain.

The mortality rate of these unfortunate tortoises was outrageous and due to the low cost and easy availability, they were regarded as a disposable pet and easily replaced if they died during the winter or befell some other horrendous fate. 

This myth created decades ago of what a lot of people refer to as 'the garden tortoise' which requires very little care, still rears its head in the hobby today.

One of the biggest mistakes I encounter, is that some people still don't equate that their tortoise is in fact a cold blooded reptile, unable to produce their own body heat.

The responsibility lies on us as the keeper, to provide and maintain consistently high enough temperatures nd conditions for our chosen species.

Heat

The Hermann tortoise is of Mediterranean origin and requires much higher temperatures and UVB light than the UK climate could ever provide.Under no circumstances should any tortoise be denied the easy access to a heat source at any time or equally be prevented from escaping it, should it become too intense.

The human body functions perfectly at 37c. If we get too hot we sweat to cool down, if we get too cold we shiver to increase our core temperature . a reptile relies on the sun to raise its core temperature and being able to escape to the shade to cool down. this is called Thermo regulation. The environment we create for our captive tortoises must provide the means for the tortoise to adjust its body temperature in this way.

Ambient heat is also very important the activity levels of your tort. The ambient (room) temperature must be of a sufficient level; so that it can support the basking temperature you need to provide. I use high wattage heat equipment and let the thermostat do the work.I set my basking thermostat to 32 to 35c (28 to 30c for THH) for the day time hours which helps to create a better ambient temperature and I set it to 20c at night for the same reason. If you have a 100wt lamp burning in a cold room you will constantly struggle to achieve the correct basking temperatures. Low night time temperatures will also lead to issues.

LIGHT

There are 3 types of light needed for the good care of your tortoise.

Firstly the light that provides heat to simulate the Sun,This enables the metabolism and immune system to work at full speed. Of all the basking lights I have tried over the years, halogen gives the best basking and activity behaviours.

Secondly is Ultra Violet Light which stimulates the special skin cells in the epidermis that produce vitamin D3 so that they can synthesis and absorb the calcium needed into their connective tissues and skeleton. the Uv lamp needs to be replaced at regular intervals as the UV production lessens over time. For the T5 12% UV tube `I would recommend that you replace every 12 to 18 months. a Tortoise needs between 12 an d14 hours UVB exposure daily.

Thirdly there is ambient light. this is every bit as important as ambient heat. Without sufficiently high light levels the tortoises pineal gland will not receive enough stimulation. This will result in decreased activity levels. LED lights are fantastic for adding extra light without interfering with your heat levels within the microclimate you have made. I prefer the 'cool white' spectrum which in my opinion is more like bright day light than the warm white options.

The video below explains in a really easily understood way, why all this trouble and expense is required to keep our shelled friends happy and healthy. Its the difference between SURVIVING and THRIVING.. 

HUMIDITY

This is a completely misunderstood and overlooked factor by many keepers. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of getting this right. Providing heat and light are the bare basics of care.. understanding humidity is more advanced. In the mediterranean the average humidity is 70% and at times goes higher. So what are the consequences of poor humidity levels ? 

The main detriment to a Tortoise that has been kept without adequate humidity is a condition referred to as 'Pyramiding'. this condition is a deformity of the shell (carapace) as it grows and the scutes become raised and pointed. There are many common theories banded about as the cause of pyramiding which are incorrect and disproved. These are things such as fast growth, protein in the diet and not hibernating among others which are in my opinion untrue and no more than the 'old wives tales ' of tortoise keeping.

A lack of humidity can dry the mucus membranes of of the respiratory system causing the tortoise to wheeze and whistle as it breaths and dehydration can be exacerbated by the lack of sufficient humidity. 

The provision of humidity for young tortoises can be done by the humid hide (see shopping list) method. For older torts the regular spraying of the top soil twice a day, paying particular attention to the basking area is advised.

It is important to remember that :

HEAT and MOISTURE = HUMIDITY

COLD and MOISTURE= DAMP 

Damp is extremely harmful to the health of your tortoise and you must never create a swamp like situation in the table/shed either. the aim is that any water you add can evaporate  in between applications.Ventilation is equally of importance. Regular bathing is of equal importance .. for a grown tortoise no less than once a week is advised.

SUPPLIMENTS

Dietary supplements are really important to give your tortoise with their food . You need a source of calcium and a vitamin supplement providing vitamin D3. 

despite having the state of the art T5 uv equipment, nothing will come close to the UV out put of the Mediterranean Sun. Is essential to boost the D3 intake to maximise the Calcium absorption . There must always be calcium available within the enclosure also. It can be in the form of cuttle bone or lump chalk 

So these are the spokes of good tortoise care and husbandry. Keep all these elements in mind and in practice and along with a good fresh weed and plant diet, you can eliminate a lot of the worries common in tortoise keeping.

HATCHLING CARE

The care of hatchling and yearling Tortoises doesn't , in principle, vary much from a grown tortoise. However, baby tortoises require extra special care so that they can grow in to strong healthy adults.

The initial care of a young tortoise lays down a blue print for the rest of its life.

Because they are so small it is easy for them to become too cold too quickly and to get too hot and dehydrated. Like any baby creature they will thrive with an established routine.

The following is a routine that I establish from the minute they leave their egg and take their first bite.

First thing in the morning it is important to start the day off with a nice warm bath. Make sure that the water is not too deep so that they baby has to strain to keep its head above the water line but ensure that the water is deep enough so that the tortoises tail is submerged under the water.

Sitting the tortoise in water not only allows the tort to lower its head into the water and drink, but they are also able to absorb water through the vent in their tail called the 'cloacae'. So even if you never see your tortoise drink, it is still being hydrated in the bath. 

When bathing your tortoise, the best temperature for the water is just warmer than finger temperature. I also place the torts bath under the basking lamp so that the water doesn't go cold quite as quickly. 

Bathing keeps the babies skin in good order, stimulates the tort to toilet and also stimulates the desire to eat.

A 10 to 15 minute bath every morning for the hatchling should be sufficient to hydrate the tort for the day ahead of 12 to 14 hours in 35c at its hottest. Never let your tortoise sit in tepid or cold water for any length of time.

Once bath time is over, I pour the water from the tub under the basking light and over the cave and place the tortoise to its slate for food. I then spray the table down, making sure I spray inside the bedroom cave to assist with the creation of ambient humidity.

Feeding for baby tortoises is just the same as for an adult and they should receive their supplements daily. The calcium demands of a growing baby tort are great while they are developing their skeleton and shell.

Babies thrive with routine and once established they will be happy and contented little creatures.

To care for a tortoise empathetically, is the key to getting it right. Its so important to gain an insight into the wild world of the tortoise. The Naturalistic Keeping and Breeding of Hermann Tortoises is my absolute favourite book and every Hermann keeper should own a copy.