Husbandry for Terrestrial Turtles & Tortoises

As with all animals, turtles have specific dietary and environmental needs that have to be fulfilled. Without these requirements, your pet will have health problems that ultimately lead to disease and death. Turtle/tortoise husbandry is not widely appreciated, and there are books, magazines, and even some pet stores that can give turtle owners insufficient or even incorrect information regarding their care. Listed below is a summary of facts that all turtle owners should know and include in their pet’s care regimen. Note: there are numerous species of terrestrial turtle that are kept in captivity, and each may have its own special requirements and “normal” values. This writing focuses on generalized principles.

Lighting: Turtles, like other reptiles, need specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light (290-320nm, the UV-B spectrum) in order to properly utilize vitamin D and calcium in their bodies. Without UV-B, even if the turtle is ingesting the proper amount of calcium, the body is unable to convert calcium into healthy bone. Stunting and softening of the shell eventually occurs. Sunlight is the optimal source of ultraviolet light, especially for these wavelengths. Owners that keep their turtle indoors should utilize commercial reptile lights that include at least 5% UV-B in their spectrum. Therefore, when selecting a light, make sure that the label with the light states this information explicitly. UV lights often have a life span of 6-9 months, so the effectiveness of the light may be gone even though the light is apparently working. Changing these lights regularly is therefore also important. During the warmer months, setting up an enclosure such that your turtle can be outside in natural sunlight would be most beneficial. Of course, this enclosure should be both escape-proof and predator-proof. Consider that many terrestrial turtles can and will burrow, so perimeter fencing may need to reach below ground level.

Temperature: The optimal temperature range for terrestrial turtles (e.g. box turtles) and tortoises ranges from 75 to 90° F. When arranging a set-up, either outdoors or indoors, make sure that there are areas of both heat/basking light and shade so that your pet can regulate their own temperature by moving to different areas within the enclosure. Take into consideration that some turtles hibernate in the winter; information on this phenomenon should be sought in other literature. Only healthy turtles should be permitted to hibernate.

Housing: Although a detailed discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this manuscript, land turtle/tortoise enclosures should mimic the natural environment (i.e. access to water for soaking and drinking, a habitat of mostly dry bedding). This being said, simple is often best. Elaborate terrariums can be difficult to maintain, so consultation with a wide variety of sources for husbandry information is suggested before attempting to construct such an enclosure. Moist environments in soil and bedding can in some cases promote fungal growth, and affect your pet's health. It is best if the environment can be thoroughly cleaned at regular intervals and kept as sanitary as possible. Tortoises are mostly solitary in the wild however they can usually be kept in groups in captivity. Even though turtles are able to withdraw into their shells, they often benefit by having hide boxes in their enclosures. They should feel they can hide from the outside world if they so choose. Dog bite s are a very common cause of turtle death, so supervise any interaction that your dog may have with your turtle.

Diet: The omnivorous turtles and tortoises (e.g. box turtle, red-foot tortoise, and yellow-foot tortoise) require nutrients provided in both animals and plant materials. A diet of 85% vegetables, 10% fruits, and 5% animal protein is suggested. Dog food is sometimes used as a protein supplement, but its use should be limited. Diversity is the key to a healthy diet. These turtles greatly benefit by having a combination of vegetables, fruits, insects, earthworms, slugs, and mealworms. Omnivorous species seem to enjoy brightly colored berries and vegetables such as strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, etc. Owners should make sure that vegetables with a high calcium-to-phosphorus ratio are fed more often than those with a lower value. Items such as dark leafy greens (kale, collards, dandelions (leaves, flowers, and stems), mustard greens, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and green peppers are excellent in this regard. Grassland tortoises (e.g. sulcata, leopard, and Russian tortoises) enjoy grazing on grasses and dark leafy greens. Staples include timothy hay, other grass hay, alfalfa hay, soaked alfalfa pellets, clover, dandelion, mulberry and grape leaves, and flowers such as carnation, hibiscus, and roses. Other possible offerings include bok choy, thawed mixed vegetables, green beans, peas in the pod, radishes, clover, corn, and carrots.

Feeding/Soaking in Water: While some turtles might eat every day (required for hatchlings and juveniles), adults can go for days (or even weeks!) without eating. Most pet turtles and tortoises are fed every 24-48 hours. Decreased appetite is a common indicator of illness in captive turtles, so feeding patterns should be observed and compared to the individual's history. Gastrointestinal transit time can range from one to several days in adults; therefore, it is normal if defecation only occurs a couple of times a week. Clean water is necessary for land turtles in several ways. Soaking in water stimulates most turtles and tortoises to eliminate. If fact, many tortoises will not empty their bladder until they have found water to soak in. Because turtles tend to eliminate in their water, it should be changed daily. Unclean water can cause anorexia and disease.

Disease: Common problems in land turtles include dog bite trauma, automobile trauma, respiratory infection, urinary bladder stones, egg binding, pneumonia, eye infection, ear infections, liver and kidney disease, metabolic bone disease, overgrown beak/nails, and shell deformities. Parasitism, infection (bacterial, viral, fungal), and neoplasia/tumor growth also occur. Decreased appetite or anorexia is a very common symptom of clinical disease. Seek veterinary attention immediately if loss of appetite occurs.

Preventive Care: Just like other pets, it is recommended that turtles and tortoises receive regular veterinary care. A complete physical examination is recommended every 6-12 months. An annual fecal examination is recommended to check for internal parasites. Blood tests are recommended every 1-3 years. At each veterinary appointment, discuss any questions or concerns you may have about your pet with your veterinarian.