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The care of Mediterranean tortoises can at first seem confusing and complex.
This caresheet explains the basics of caring for a tortoise and all aspects of tortoise husbandry.
It is important to still find out as much information as possible about your chosen species and its specific needs either on this website or other sources of information.
IntroductionThis care sheet is intended to offer general advice on the care of Mediterranean tortoises. It does not tell you everything you need to know about caring for these tortoises but is intended as a starting point. Each area of tortoise care should be thoroughly researched before buying a tortoise and the individual needs of the species and sub-species concerned should be taken into consideration. These views are our own opinions from our experience with tortoises and are not necessarily in total agreement with other tortoise keepers or breeders. The information contained within this care sheet should, if followed reasonably closely, result in a happy and healthy tortoise.
HousingIn the past many tortoises (and especially young tortoises) were kept in aquaria and fish tanks or similar housing. It is now known that this is not suitable for Mediterranean tortoises of any age, because the lack of air flow due to the enclosed nature of an aquarium meant that the relative humidity was much too high for the tortoise (which comes from arid climes) and caused respiratory problems. The best way of housing your tortoise indoors, is in a tortoise table or some other sort of open enclosure. These should be made from wood or wood and polycarbonate and need to be large enough for the species concerned. An absolute minimum of 4 square feet for one tortoise is a guide size, but obviously the bigger the better. If you are housing more than one tortoise (and especially if you have a male and female(s)) you need to ensure plenty of space and some sight breaks within your set up.
Outdoors, a secure area is essential, especially for juvenile tortoises to prevent predation, theft, or escape. A surprisingly large number of native animals and pets would like to eat your tortoise with dogs, cats, foxes, badgers, herons, crows and magpies all being on the list. This outdoor area needs to be as large as possible with a variety of plants, soil and lawn being the best habitat. Many people provide all or part of a greenhouse for their tortoise to retreat to in cooler or inclement weather, but they also need to be able to access a cooler area than just the greenhouse to enable them to regulate their own body temperature. If a greenhouse is not available a wooden shelter (or dog kennel) with a rainproof lockable lid is essential in case of rain and to provide shelter and a cooler, darker environment should it be hot. The outdoor area also needs to be escape proof as Mediterranean tortoises are excellent at digging (especially Horsfield's). A run on a lawn is not suitable for a Mediterranean tortoise as the grass is too damp and may cause health problems.
HeatingMediterranean tortoises come from arid, warm environments where in the summer the temperatures frequently top thirty degrees centigrade and therefore need additional heat sources when kept indoors in the UK. The background temperature of the room in which the tortoise is kept needs to be at least 20 degrees centigrade and a basking lamp (or more than one if you have several tortoises living together) must be provided. These can take the form of an ordinary light bulb, a special reptile bulb which also emit UV radiation, or a ceramic heating element. Whichever you choose, the ground temperature under the basking lamp should be around thirty degrees centigrade and the lamp should not be close enough for the tortoises to be able to touch it (they will readily climb onto each other) to avoid burns. Heat mats and hot rocks are unsuitable for Mediterranean tortoises and will cause burns to your tortoises if used. There needs to be enough room for your tortoises to all be able to get underneath the basking lamp to ensure that each tortoise can adequately regulate its body temperature. In order to provide a temperature gradient within the tortoise enclosure, it is advisable to put all heating at one end, preferably the opposite end to the tortoises shelter. Care is necessary when placing other objects in your tortoise's enclosure that the tortoise cannot fall on its back under the lamp in an area where it would not be able to right itself as this could lead to dehydration.
LightingThe Mediterranean is an area which receives almost constant bright sunshine throughout the spring and summer months and this is what a tortoise is designed for. The sun provides the heat which the tortoise needs as described above, but it also provides ultra violet light in the form of UVa and UVb rays. In captivity this light has to be provided artificially for your tortoise and especially if your tortoise is to be kept indoors for a significant part of the year. Tortoises need UVa light in order to maintain their general behaviour patterns and to remain active and healthy. For instance, tortoises which get plenty of UVa light are reputed to be more likely to breed successfully. The main requirement of your tortoise is UVb light. Tortoises need a large amount of calcium in their diet in order to grow normally and produce healthy bones and shells. In order to metabolise this calcium your tortoise also needs adequate supplies of vitamin D3. In the wild, tortoises produce their own vitamin D3 from the UVb rays in the sunlight. In captivity it is vital therefore, if you do not want your tortoise to become seriously ill, that you provide adequate amounts of UVb light for your tortoise. In summer this is relatively easy if your tortoise is put outside in the sunshine. When your tortoise is indoors, artificial light is required and this is best provided by special fluorescent tubes (note:normal fluorescent tubes will not do) available from specialist pet stores. The normal UVb tubes (often rated 5.0) are sufficient and very high rated tubes may be detrimental to your tortoises' sight in the long term. The larger the tubes and the more you have the better for your tortoise, however it is advisable to have these tubes at one side of the enclosure (away from the hides/shelters and at the same end as the basking lamps is best) to provide a light gradient within the enclosure. Fluorescent tubes need to be situated as close to the tortoise as possible to provide adequate UVb light. If the tubes are more than 18 inches away from the tortoises then much of their effect will be lost. Fluorescent tubes give out a negligible amount of heat and can not be used as a substitute for basking lamps.
SubstrateMany different theories and opinions exist as to what is the correct substrate for tortoises. Although many people have success using shredded newspaper, old towels or alfalfa pellets and other such artificial substrates, we believe that the most natural thing is a natural substrate and suggest 2 ways of doing this.
For smaller tortoise tables, the use of seed trays with different substrates such as rocks, gravel, sand, compost and plants makes cleaning and changing the substrate easy and allows for preparation of planted trays which can then just be swapped.
Our preferred method is to use a 50/50 mix of clean sand (such as playpit sand) and topsoil to a depth of 3-4 inches as the substrate for the whole enclosure. Some gravel can be added to this mix and at least one area of larger stones/small rocks is essential to help keep tortoises claws in shape and to provide interest. Plants can then be added as well as sterilised logs (if found out doors first soak in very strong salt solution for 48 hours and then water for 48 hours and allow to thoroughly dry) to provide further interest and in the case of plants, food!
Feeding and SupplementsIn the wild Mediterranean tortoises cover large areas in search of their primary food: weeds. In captivity this diet must be imitated as closely as possible. There is still a lot of conflicting advice about the correct diet for tortoises, but the two important facts to grasp are firstly that it must be low in protein and high in fibre, and secondly that it should have a high ratio of calcium to phosphorous. In the wild your tortoise would naturally select such items itself, in captivity, you have to provide this diet and failure to do so will result in a deformed or unhealthy tortoise and ultimately a dead one.
Low protein dictates that these species should not ever be fed meat, cat/dog food or 'tortoise chow' in any form. This also suggests that items such as legumes (peas and beans) which are high in vegetable proteins should not be fed or should be fed extremely rarely. Other shop bought greens such as lettuce and cabbage etc. either have no nutritional value, or have a low ratio of calcium to phosphorous. Feeding these items is detrimental to your tortoise and results in over rapid growth, deformity, and death. Fruit and vegetables upset the balance of a tortoises natural gut flora and do not make up a significant part of a wild Mediterranean tortoises diet. These items should be fed in extreme moderation as a treat, or ideally not at all.
Mediterranean tortoises should be fed a diet which consists of broadleaved non-toxic weeds either harvested from a safe place (i.e. somewhere away from busy roadsides and where pesticides are not used) or grown specifically for the purpose. The flowers of many of these plants are as popular (or more so) as the leaves. Typical plants which should make up the bulk of a tortoise diet include dandelions, clover and plantains. A more comprehensive list of edible plants is found on our edible plants page. All food offered to your tortoise should be lightly dusted with calcium powder and twice a week a good vitamin supplement (designed for reptiles) should be offered.
Mediterranean tortoises live in areas where food is not abundant and therefore in the wild feed opportunistically. You can overfeed your tortoise even offering only weeds, and so we find that a good regime is to feed your tortoise as much as it will eat in one sitting four days a week. You could quite easily feed everyday with a smaller amount.
WaterAll tortoises, even those from more arid regions appreciate water and contrary to popular belief will drink on a fairly regular basis. Fresh drinking water should therefore be always available in both indoor and outdoor enclosures. Most tortoises enjoy a bath, and this can be a good time to examine your tortoise carefully. The water in the bath should be no higher than the bottom of your tortoises shell (tortoises can drown). Don't worry if your tortoise sticks its head under the water as the can hold their breath for some time. Your tortoise will often urinate or defacate in the water at bath time. This is normal behaviour as the tortoise is sure whilst it is stood in water that it will get some more to replace that lost from the bladder. Just remove the soiled water and replace with fresh. Bath water should be tepid to luke warm only.
ShelterAll tortoises like to get away from it all once in a while. In the wild, many tortoise species either burrow or partially burrow and make use of dense foliage and scrub to conceal themselves whilst they rest. In captivity, tortoises need to be provided with some sort of shelter in both indoor and outdoor accommodation where it is cooler and darker to enable them to regulate their behaviour and body temperature. Failure to provide an adequate shelter will result in a stressed tortoise. Shelters can either be proprietary hollow logs/caves, or a constructed wooden shelter big enough to adequately house your tortoise/tortoises.
HibernatingIn the wild, Mediterranean tortoises hibernate through the colder winter months from the year that they are born. In captivity therefore, in order to ensure normal behaviour (and especially if you are planning on breeding your tortoises), it is best to hibernate your tortoise if you can. A detailed explanation of the different methods of hibernation is beyond the scope of this care sheet, but can be found on the hibernation page of this website.
The normal method of hibernating a tortoise is to place the tortoise in a box with some insulation (dry soil or newspaper) and then to put this box inside a much larger box which is packed with insulating material such as polystyrene. This box must then be placed in a cool safe place (between 3 and 8 degrees centigrade) for the period of hibernation.
The two things which kill or maim hibernating tortoises, are extreme temperatures and predators. If the temperature rises above 10 degrees centigrade during hibernation, your tortoise will begin to wake up which will deplete its valuable energy reserves. If this happens often, then your tortoise may possibly even die or will be in a serious state of ill health in the spring. Conversely, if the temperature falls towards freezing point, your tortoise may literally freeze to death. Brief exposure to sub-zero temperatures can result in blindness and limb damage. Try to keep your tortoise in as stable an environment as possible and monitor the temperature with a minimum/maximum thermometer. Whilst your tortoise is dormant, it is very vulnerable to predators in search of an easy meal. The most common predators of hibernating tortoises are rats and mice. If your hibernation location is not secure from rats and mice (such as sheds or outbuildings), it is essential to totally surround your tortoise with fine gauge wire mesh to protect it from predation.
The other reason why tortoises fail to thrive after hibernation or die during it is incorrect preparation of the tortoise or poor pre-hibernation condition. Check your tortoise thoroughly several weeks before you plan to hibernate and if it shows any signs of ill health do not hibernate it at all. Also if your tortoise is underweight for its size, it should not be hibernated. The Jackson ratio (see hibernation page) can be used to decide if your tortoise is heavy enough to hibernate. Tortoises which are not fit or heavy enough to hibernate, should be overwintered in an environment which maintains artificially high levels of heat and light and fed throughout the winter period. To prepare your tortoise for hibernation, do not feed it for several weeks before hibernation and give it several baths to ensure a full bladder. Tortoises should be checked regularly during hibernation and woken if the is any perceived problem, or if they have urinated.
Health and HygieneIt is important to keep your tortoises' indoor and outdoor enclosures clean to prevent disease. Spot clean meticulously any faeces or urine in the substrate, and change all or part of the substrate on a regular basis.
Tortoises can carry bacteria (notably salmonella) which can be harmful to humans and especially young children. Always wash your hands after handling your tortoise or their equipment and don't use kitchen sinks/bathrooms for washing/bathing tortoises or their equipment.