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Care of Tortoises in Captivity


Ailments and Treatment
To ensure that a captive tortoise retains good health, the conditions under which it is kept must be as near to natural as possible. A tortoise confined in a dirty enclosure with insufficient heating and an inadequate diet has little chance of survival. It will invariably develop one of the following ailments: respiratory infection, swollen eyes, soft shell, fungus or shell infection.

Treatment should be applied as soon as an ailment is noticed, regardless of how insignificant it may appear, as most of the above-mentioned complaints are virtually incurable when they develop to an advanced stage. The other alternative is to release the tortoise in its native habitat have not allowed its condition to deteriorate too far. It is pointless to begin treating an ailment before the cause of the trouble has been determined and rectified to prevent any recurrence.

When it is necessary to give a tortoise medicine orally you will need the help of another person who has patience and a steady hand, for the task is often difficult. Liquids should be administered with a plastic eye-dropper (never glass) after the mouth has been opened gently with a smooth object. The jacket of a ball-point pen or an ice-cream stick are ideal as they are unlikely to damage the mouth. If the medicine is in tablet form, dissolve it in water and draw the solution into an eye-dropper.

A different approach will be needed to treat a small tortoise. Providing it is not too ill to eat, the medicine can be mixed with its food. Placing a short-neck tortoise on its back and tapping it on the nose will often induce it to open its mouth if other methods fail.

To treat tortoises which are normally housed in large outdoor ponds it is advisable, if possible, to place them in a water-filled container where they are readily accessible and their progress can be watched. This also places them into quarantine, away from healthy tortoises. Small ponds and aquariums should be cleaned and disinfected regularly during the treatment.


Respiratory Infection
Captive tortoises may develop respiratory infection if the temperature of their enclosure is continuously low. Quick detection is of the utmost importance, for in an advanced state it is usually fatal. The first sign of the onset of respiratory infection is often a loss of appetite, but this alone is not a positive indication - a tortoise may stop feeding over a period for a variety of reasons. Further symptoms are: drooping of the head, lack of the usual alertness of the eyes and discharge from the mouth and nose in the form of bubbles or liquid. A distinct "wheezing" may also be detectable as the tortoise surfaces to breathe. This ailment is usually due to inadequate heating, so the first step is to increase the temperature of the water and the enclosure. It may occasionally be brought about by a rapid temperature rise, perhaps due to a faulty thermostat. Storage in a cold or draughty container during a long trip back from a collecting ground may also cause respiratory infection.

In treating this serious complaint I have had considerable success with antibiotics such as sulphadiazine, sulphamezathine or aureomycin. In liquid form an approximate does of 30mg a day for three to four days should be administered to a tortoise with a carapace length of 22.5 cm and correspondingly smaller doses for smaller tortoises. This allows for spillage which may occur, but if a full dose is taken, treatment for the following day should be omitted.

At the completion of the treatment the tortoise should be allowed a further three to four days in quarantine to show signs of recovery. If there is no improvement, treatment should be repeated using a different drug. It is not advisable to continue treatment for too long as this may have fatal consequences.


Swollen Eyes
Swelling of the region around the eyes is often the result of the tortoise being confined in unclean conditions. The prevention of this common ailment is simple. If the water is kept clean and renewed regularly the problem will no longer arise. This ailment may also appear after hibernation or a sudden drop in temperature. The eyes of an afflicted tortoise should be treated with an antibiotic, in cream or powdered form, and the tortoise must then be kept out of water for twenty four hours. A few days after being returned to the water the procedure can be repeated until the condition is cured. Another effective method of treatment is the administration of a fiver per cent solution of Protargol or Argyrol to the eyes; the tortoise is then kept out of the water for four hours.


Soft Shell
This condition often leads to the death of small tortoises. A deficiency of calcium and lack of sunlight are the primary causes. All tortoises have soft shells on hatching, but by the time they are a week old a slight firming of the shell should have taken place. If the tortoise is no supplied with adequate calcium during it's early stages of development, the firming of the shell may not eventuate. To overcome this problem the addition of calcium lactate or simply a block of plaster-of-paris to the water has been widely advocated and is undoubtedly of some benefit, but the most reliable course is to offer the hatchlings only a natural diet. Small fish, water snails, mosquito larvae and other water insects contain everything needed for normal development.

A tortoise kept in an outside enclosure should receive an adequate supply of sunlight, but those kept indoors must be taken out regularly on warm days because they also need the sunlight. A shaded area must also be provided where they can retreat if they become too hot.

Another treatment is the addition of 500mg of aureomycin or terramycin to the water of an average size aquarium. These antibiotics are effective against other ailments which often accompany the soft-shell condition.


The first indication of a tortoise being attacked by fungus is usually the appearance of greyish patches on the claws. If this condition is not checked it may spread rapidly over the entire body. The affected area should be painted with Codeine or mercurychrome and/or a sixty percent diluted alcohol solution can be applied. The tortoise should be kept dry for about two hours before returning it to the water. This procedure can be carried out twice daily until the skin resumes its normal colour. As an added precaution an aquarium an aquarium fungicide can be added to the water while the treatment is in progress; this should be continued for at least a week after treatment is finished. With an adequate amount of sunlight available, it is unlikely that this particular affliction will appear. The use of an ultra-violet ray lamp positioned 60cm from the tortoise for one minute, three or four times a week, often helps. A similar treatment may be applied for shell infection and soft shell.


Shell Infection
Shell infection often begins as an abration on the plastron caused by a tortoise's continued contact with irregular surfaces within its enclosure. A rough concrete lip on your pond will have particularly severe results. The scars that follow shell infection are permanent and it is therefore important to design an enclosure which will not cause this condition.

Tortoises, like other reptiles, periodically shed the outer covering of their shields. If, due to some deficiency, this outer covering is overdue in lifting off, an infection will often develop underneath. Before treatment can commence the outer scale must be removed  with a pair of tweezers. It is usually apparent if the shield needs to be removed as it will have begun to lift slightly at the edges. If the shield is firmly anchored, do not attempt to remove it. Once you have access to the infected area, it should be cleaned and treated in the same manner as for fungus.


Parasites, such as leeches or mites, are often present on tortoises which have been collected from the wild. In small numbers they appear to cause little discomfort to their host, but leeches in particular can eventually cause the death of your tortoise when they reach plague proportions. They attack the body, eyes, carapace and inside the mouth and throat. The best method of removing them is to place all new tortoises in a strong solution of salt water until the leeches drop off. Kerosene, suggested by some authors, is not recommended - when the tortoises are washed and returned to their living quarters an oily film will appear on the surface of the pond or tank and may enter the tortoises' respiratory systems when they surface.


Scratches and Bites

To prevent infection of any scratches and bites that a tortoise may suffer, all open wounds should be treated with an antibiotic cream or powder and the tortoise kept out of water for at least twenty-four hours.


Two of the more common species found in tortoises are the slender Roundworm and the red Nematode worm. Both are rarely detected until found wriggling around on or near the bottom of your tortoise tank. At this stage you have an infestation. Adult tortoises are given 1g santonin with 1g calomel and, the following day, a full eye-dropper of castor oil. Smaller tortoises are given a smaller amount.

As trade names often disappear from the market and new ones are introduced it is often best to check with your local veterinarian regarding brands and amounts of medicines administered.