Making a home for your tortoise


Maryanne, one of the vets at Tiptree Veterinary Centre, has five tortoises ranging from little Bonnie to her giant leopard tortoise Fred (shown above). Maryanne takes a special interest in exotics, so we asked her for some advice about caring for tortoises.

Tortoises can live for over 100 years, so getting one is a big commitment.

Your tortoise’s diet should be high in fibre and calcium and low in protein and fat. Feeding your tortoise the wrong food can result in a lumpy shell, liver and kidney failure and other health problems.

Main diet: Grass and weeds such as dandelion, plantain, vetches, bindweed, chick weed, clover and sow thistle. These foods are high in calcium and fibre. Occasionally curly Kale, celery, Romaine heart lettuce and Cabbage can be fed but they are low in calcium and fibre and some have rasied phosphorous..
Occasional foods: Peppers (any colour), Nasturtiums and flowers, Geraniums, Petunia flowers and Cucumber.
Little amounts on rare occasions: Strawberries and apples.
Avoid: Banana, peas and beans. These are high protein.
Never: Meat and dairy products, bread or processed food.

If your tortoise spends time in the garden then make sure there are no toxic plants in their reach.

To make sure your tortoise is getting all the vitamins and minerals they need, you can give them daily supplements on their food. We have a wide variety to choose from in our waiting room and will be happy to explain the benefits of each one. The easiest way to add supplements is to pierce a few little holes in the top of the pot and shake it onto the tortoises food as though you were adding salt to a meal. Keep the whole container sealed and out of the sun.

Housing, lighting and temperature:
Tortoises under 3 years old should be housed in a vivarium, which should be well ventilated or in a tortoise table. We would recommend a soil substrate as they like to dig and it can keep up the humidity. It is important to keep the soil clean or parasites can build up.They should have a UV strip and the table or vivarium should be at least 3 foot long. A basking lamp should be placed at one end of the vivarium to generate a temperature of 28-30°c (check optimum temperature for each species) and the UV light should be about 8-12 inches above the tortoise. You can also place a heat pad against one wall of the vivarium or tortoise table if you need more heat. The temperature should be monitored and this is best achieved using a maximum minimum thermometer (these can be found in garden shops). If the sides of the vivarium are glass, make sure to cover the bottom strip so that your tortoise doesn’t see through the glass and spend all of its time trying to walk through the glass.

Adult tortoises can go outdoors during the day if the weather is warm enough (more than about 16 Deg C). Tortoises are good at digging and can sometimes climb so make sure that you have a secure run or fenced garden.

If you have a shed or outhouse with an electricity supply then you can set up a warm, properly lit area in there and cut a small hole in the door for the tortoise to come and go. Leave the lights on for between 8-12 hours per day.

Be careful when hibernating small tortoises. They should be given shorter hibernation periods and monitored carefully. Never hibernate a tortoise if you think it may be a tropical variety. We can help you identify what breed you have or if you send a photo to the Tortoise Trust they will check for you. You should also never hibernate a tortoise if you expect that they might be ill.

– Both eyes for swelling or discharge.
– The nose for discharge.
– The tail for inflammation, infection or a strong smell.
– Legs for any lumps or swellings.
– Ear membranes should be flat or slightly concave.
-Damage to the shell
– Inside the mouth for mouth rot (yellow cheesy substance in the mouth, deep red-purple tinge or small blood-spots).

If you notice any of these symptoms then seek medical advice and do not hibernate your tortoise.

Your tortoise may die if they are hibernated with undigested food in their gastro-intestinal system, so do not hibernate them if they have eaten in the last 4 weeks.

To hibernate your tortoise you will need to:
-decrease the daylight length and temperature gradually
– keep the tortoise dry  and well insulated by placing a small box in a larger outer box (wood or thick cardboard) and line the gap with chippings of polystyrene or tightly packed shredded paper. When placing the tortoise in the small box, place a couple of inches of insulating material around them (can be shredded paper, do not use hay or straw as these can form fungal spores).
– make sure the temperatures are stable and within the recommended range (maximum l0 °C and minimum 3°C) so that your tortoise doesn’t wake up to soon or become ill. Use a thermometer and check it regularly, hourly if necessary in very cold spells. If sustained low or high temperatures are noted, temporarily move the tortoises into a more suitable place until temperatures stabilize again.
– Routinely check your tortoise’s weight. A tortoise which is losing weight to the extent that it is approaching the danger line should be taken out of hibernation and artificially sustained for the remainder of the winter. Most healthy adult tortoises lose about l% of their body weight each month in hibernation. This is very easy to calculate. A l600 g tortoise put into hibernation in October will lose about l6 g every month. After 3 months hibernation it will probably weight l600 – 3 x l6 = 48, i.e. l552 g.
 While tortoises must not be put into hibernation with a stomach containing food matter, their bladders should contain water. Therefore tortoises should be encouraged to drink before hibernation, even though they are not allowed to feed.

If, when checking a hibernating tortoise you notice that it has urinated, get it up immediately do not put it back. Recent evidence leads us to believe that should this occur, the animal is in grave danger of death from sudden, acute dehydration. If this action does occur, begin re-hydration immediately by soaking in a luke warm water bath, and keep the tortoise awake for the remaining hibernation period in a vivarium or tortoise table. Research indicates that this problem is most likely to occur towards the end of the hibernation period, or in spells of unusually mild weather where the temperature rises above 10 °C or 50 °F. Check the tortoise regularly at such times.

Wake your tortoise up if the winter is going on too long.

Most tortoises enjoy having a bath and it helps keep them hydrated as they either drink or absorb water. To bath your tortoise fill a plastic tub or paint roller tray with warm water. It should be shallow enough that their mouth and nose is above the water. Leave them for about 10 minutes. Take care they do not get cold. This can be done a few times a week.

There are many different types of tortoise and it is important to read up about your particular breed as some can grow fairly big (like Fred, the giant leopard tortoise above). We are happy to discuss different breeds with you if you need more advice.

If you would like any more information then phone 01621 818282 (Tiptree Veterinary Centre) or 01206 561407 (Willows Veterinary Centre) to book an appointment with one of our vets. You can also visit our websites at or



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