Turtles and Tortoises

Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

Alligator snapping turtles inhabit deep water ways such as large rivers, canals, lakes, bayous, and swamps.  Alligator snapping turtles are found only in a select number of states in the southern portion of the United States.  Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Missouri are all inhabited by this species.  This species of turtle is extremely hardy but is listed as Vulnerable by IUCN.  Although they are renowned for their impressive jaw strength and aggressive nature, the snapping turtle is very timid under water but will become defensive on land.  However, young alligator snapping turtles are notorious for their fiery personalities.  It is recommended to avoid a snapping turtle out of its aquatic habitat due to their ability to turn and lunge with their impressively long necks to deliver a very painful bite.

This chelonian’s claim to fame is their hunting technique.  Alligator snapping turtles will lay on the bottom of their aquatic environment camouflaged with the muddy bottom with their mouths wide open.  Inside their mouth is a small pink vermiform (worm shaped) tongue that acts as a fish lure using Peckhamian mimicry.  Once the unsuspecting prey enters the jaws to nibble on “the worm”, the jaws are closed and the prey item swallowed.  This is not the only way these animals hunt, some individuals, especially juveniles, will hunt for their meals and ambush.

This species is renowned for their quick growth and long life span with proper care.  Alligator snapping turtles have become their own urban legend with claims of some specimens living well past 150 years.  On average, males are smaller than females with most males weighing 25-75 lbs and females weighing 70 to nearly 200 lbs!  The largest recorded representative of this species had a 31.5 inch long shell and weighed in at 316 pounds.  Generally, this species will have a shell length of between 15 and 26 inches.  Alligator snapping turtles are the world’s heaviest freshwater turtle!  Most of these animals in captivity are from the wild and females in particular become “antsy” during breeding season as they set out to find a suitable nest site.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating turtle eggs and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Quarantine
It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animal’s behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately from the other chelonians.

Temperature

The water temperature of the enclosure can be raised using under water heaters and under tank heaters on a thermostat to keep the water at 75-80° F.  Hatchlings should be kept around 78-80° F, however.  Animals from northern portions of the range require the cooler end while animals from the southern portion require the upper end of the temperatures.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  If a submersible heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns.  A general rule of thumb is a 55 watt water heater will work for a 40 gallon tanks, a 75 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank.

The air temperature in the tank can be easily raised using a basking light or a ceramic heat emitter.  Metal dome clamp lights work well for this.  Under tank heaters can also be utilized.  A thermometer should be place on the opposite side as the basking light and another thermometer placed at the level the chelonian will be while basking.  The ambient (air) temperature should be 80-86° F with the basking site reaching near 90° F.

Enclosure
Snappers are difficult to house due to their fast growth rate and impressive size.  This species loves to swim and explore their enclosures.  Hatchlings can be comfortably kept in a 20-50 gallon tank or equivalent container for almost a year.  An 8 inch long juvenile will require a 55-gallon or larger enclosure or similar size plastic tote.  Adults generally require a 200-800 gallon enclosure.  Stock tanks, modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs work well.  Remember, bigger is better!  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!  The water should be deep but the turtle must be able to stand normally without touching the water surface as this species prefers to walk along the bottom of their enclosures.  This species also requires the water to be visibly flowing as it would be in their natural habitat.  Ideally, the water should be deep enough for the snapper to stand and extend its neck to break the water surface with a portion of its head.

This species rarely basks outside of the water but they will float to the surface of the water to warm themselves.  Snappers do require a land area where they can haul themselves out of the water completely if desired.  Females are prone to wandering in order to find a suitable site for a nest and may require a larger enclosure or at the very least, a dig box.

Substrate
With snapping turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel that the turtle cannot fit into its mouth can be used.  Weekly agitation (stirring up the stones to give the filters a chance to filter out the debris) and siphoning of the debris.  A word of caution, if substrate is used; an under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.

Water

The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh and brackish water turtles that enjoy swimming.  Only use chlorine free water with an addition of aquarium salt to create a brackish environment with a specific gravity of 1.015-1.018.  A hygrometer and frequent salinity testing is required to maintain the water levels.  Care must be taken to only use aquarium salt and not consumable sea salt or iodized table salt.  Snapping turtles enjoy a mild current in the water which can be created using strong filters or water jets.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep water clean.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all aquatic chelonians.  These filters offer both mechanical and biofiltration and are less stressful to aquatic turtles as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  For full grown adult enclosures, it is recommended to invest in a pond filter with a secure inlet.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.  Alligator snapping turtles require flowing water in their enclosures to simulate natural environments.  Full water changes must be done weekly to maintain health and sanitation of the enclosure as well.

Lighting
As with most reptiles, snapping turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert D into D3 which helps the body absorb and metabolize calcium thus preventing the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body.

Accessories

Enclosure accessories are necessary for enrichment and promotion of healthy behavior patterns.  A hide area provided underwater in the form of a broken flower pot, sturdy and anchored rock structures, or commercially available under water hides are necessary to give the turtle a place to hide from sight.  This promotes a feeling of security.  However, as the snapping turtle grows, the hide box design will become increasingly more creative.  Artificial and real plants are fantastic and offer visual appeal as well as more hiding places.  Live plants may be eaten or uprooted but are enjoyed by snappers.  Duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth are easy to keep and find.

Alligator snapping turtles require lots of visual underwater barriers to help them feel more concealed.  Driftwood, rocks, stumps, and other creative obstacles are relished.

Feeding
Snappers less than 6 months old should be fed twice daily and turtles over 6 months old should be fed once every other day.  These animals must be fed in the water to facilitate swallowing as their tongues are not meant to push food to the back of the mouth for swallowing.  It is recommended to offer as much food as will be consumed in a period of 10-15 minutes to avoid obesity and water fouling from rotting food.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly and obesity is starting to be a problem the amount of food offered should be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

These turtles are omnivores as adults and primarily carnivores and piscivores (fish eaters) as juveniles.  Alligator snapping turtles will consume fresh water, crayfish, earth worms, pelleted diets, floating duck weed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth in their enclosure.  Likewise, they will nibble on floating leaves of lettuce which also offers them some enrichment.  The key to a healthy turtle is to offer variety in the diet.  Fish (not goldfish) can be offered to snapping turtles but it is preferred they either be slow moving or frozen-thawed as this species is not adept at catching fast moving prey and are more likely to scavenge a dead fish body or ambush their prey in the wild.  Insects such as earthworms, crickets, and snails should be offered as well as food items such as crayfish to younger and smaller snappers.

Supplementation with commercially produced turtle, trout, or catfish pellets.  Some owners prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellet diets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets to insure adequate nutrition and offer enrichment through variety and shape difference.

Sources and Recommended Readings
Turtles of the World   –   Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada  –  Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles  –  Russ Gurley
Aquatic Turtles    –   David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises  –  R. D. Bartlett

www.tortoisetrust.org   –   Tortoise Trust

​Feel free to call us if you have any questions (502) 241-4117

Charles J. Innis, VMD
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Introduction

Bell’s hingeback tortoise, Kinixys bellina, is one of the most common tortoise species seen in the pet trade. Unfortunately, the vast majority of specimens offered for sale are imported, wild-caught animals that have proven difficult to establish in captivity. It is a moderately large African tortoise, with adults measuring up to 22 cm and weighing up to 2 kg.  Adult males specimens have a much longer tail than females.  The preferred habitat of Bell’s hingeback is savanna and grassland. As these areas may exhibit strong seasonal changes in precipitation and temperatures, the activity of the tortoises may be restricted to particular times of the year. In South Africa , for example, Bell’s hingeback may become inactive during the cool winter months of May through September. Such seasonal patterns are likely important for successful captive breeding of the species.

Selecting a Specimen

A healthy hingeback should feel heavy and solid, roughly the same as an equivalent volume of water. A tortoise that feels light or hollow is likely dehydrated and malnourished. Hingebacks may be very shy so patience and gentle handling is necessary to allow inspection of the head and limbs. The eyes should be open and clear, or should open within several seconds of initial handling. Eyes that are swollen or sealed shut may indicate dehydration or conjunctivitis. The nostrils should also be clear. Any nasal discharge should raise suspicion of a possible respiratory infection. The skin should be thoroughly inspected for ticks, mites, swellings or lacerations. The shell may have a variety of injuries, some of which may be old and healed, and others that may be active areas of infection. If possible the mouth of the tortoise should be opened and the tongue and palate should be evaluated for signs of infection. If the tortoise passes feces during examination, evaluate the stool for blood, mucous, worms, or diarrhea. Finally, if circumstances permit, offer the tortoise some preferred food items (see below) to assess its appetite.

Acclimation

After acquisition, hingbacks may take weeks or months to become established. It is best to house newly acquired hingebacks individually. Initial housing should be a simple, quarantine enclosure so that feces, urine, and food intake can be closely monitored and to allow easy cleaning and disinfection. Glass aquarium tanks or plastic containers work well, and should be at least four times as long and twice as wide as the length of the tortoise. A simple substrate of newspaper or paper towels allows easy monitoring and easy cleaning. A hide box must be provided as most hingebacks are initially quite reclusive and appear to fare poorly if constantly exposed. Temperatures should range from 29-32 degrees C ( 85-90 degrees F) during the day to 23-26 degrees C (75-80 F) at night. Heat is best provided by overhead incandescent lights, but may be supplemented with ceramic heating elements or under tank heating pads. In this author’s opinion, heat rocks are of no use in tortoise husbandry. Some Bell’s hingebacks will bask under heat lights, while others appear to dislike bright light. The role of ultraviolet lighting in tortoise husbandry is controversial, but fluorescent lights that provide UVB light may be of benefit.

Bell’s hingebacks seem most active and have fewer eye and respiratory problems if kept at 60-90% humidity. Humidity may be maintained by misting several times daily, or covering the majority of the enclosure with plastic sheeting, leaving openings for the heat lights and ventilation.

The natural diet of Bell’s hingeback includes both plant and animal matter such as fallen fruits, grasses, snails, insects, and other invertebrates. New captives kept by the author have often accepted strawberries, cantaloupe, and earthworms as their first food items. It may take several weeks for a new arrival to begin eating regularly. If poor appetite persists, medical attention may be needed. When first offering food, it is best to observe from a distance, as many hingebacks will retreat if the human observer is noticed. Alternatively, the tortoise may be fed in its hidebox. Fresh water should be provided at all times in a shallow bowl that is large enough for the tortoise to fit its entire length. Hingebacks often drink large amounts of water.
Once the tortoise is accepting one or two food items regularly, it should be gradually converted to a more balanced diet. By thoroughly mixing new foods with previously accepted items, even stubborn specimens can be converted. A complete diet for Bell’s hingebacks should include high calcium, green leafy vegetables such as dandelion, clover, escarole, chicory, kale, etc; a fiber source such as fresh grass clippings (avoiding pesticides), alfalfa, or timothy hay; a variety of fruits and vegetables; and animal protein sources such as earthworms, pinkie mice, or a high fiber dog food. Commercial tortoise diets may also be offered in moderation. A varied diet is essential to avoid nutritional deficiencies. A powdered calcium supplement may be added to the food several times weekly and a multivitamin supplement may be added to the food once weekly.
Permanent Housing
Once established on a good diet, and free of parasites, Bell’s hingebacks may be set up in a more natural environment. If kept in groups, sufficient area and multiple hid boxes must be provided for individual tortoises to retreat from each other. Bark mulch may provide a visually appealing substrate, and the tortoises seem to enjoy burrowing. It must be changed weekly.  Take care that feeding stations are designed to prevent accidental ingestion of mulch.

Alternatively, and preferentially, outdoor enclosures may be used if climate permits. They must be designed appropriately as Bell’s hingebacks can be excellent climbers and burrowers. When kept outdoors, this author has observed that Bell’s hingebacks are most active at dawn and dusk, retreating to shady areas during most of the day. The only mid-day activity observed has been during and after rain showers.

Preventive Healthcare and Diseases

Bell’s hingebacks are often heavily parasitized. As such, thorough evaluation of feces by a veterinarian is essential. A deparasitizing program should be established, and hingebacks often need prolonged and repeated treatments to completely eradicate parasites. For very ill animals, more extensive testing and treatment may be recommended. Animals that have stopped eating, have nasal discharge, weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, or swollen eyes or limbs should be brought to the veterinarian.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Susan Horton, DVM

These inquisitive little chelonians are native to North America and have a unique hinge on their plastron that allows box turtles to withdraw their arms, legs, and head fully into their shells and seal up like a box.   These animals can stay in this position for hours.  In the pet industry, most of these turtles are from the wild due to the difficulty in reproducing the species in captivity.  There are two species of box turtle in the US .  The Eastern or Common box turtle (Terrapene carolina ) has two subspecies, the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major) and the Three Toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).  The second species is the Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornate).  With a life span of roughly 25-40 years, (and a few 75-100 yr olds), these intelligent turtles often become cherished family and sometimes generational pets.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.   Domestically bred box turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Special Characteristics 

Life Span
They have a 25-40 year potential but occasional centenarians recorded.

Size
Hatchling are 1-1 1/2 inches long and adults are 4-8 inches long.

Coloration
Color is extremely variable among species.

Temperament
Box turtles are docile and sometimes shy. They can become quite personable and will sometimes feed from their owners hand or follow their  owners when they are hungry.

Captive Care Requirements

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure the better!  Hatchlings and small juveniles can be kept in glass 20 gallon aquariums but will outgrow them and will spend a significant amount of time trying to “walk through” the glass.  Aquariums for adults must be large not only to offer the appropriate space needed for daily exercise and enrichment via foraging behaviors but also to allow for better air circulation.  A 40-gallon aquarium or larger is suitable for adults. Building custom enclosures is a viable option and has become quite popular. 4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 12 inch high enclosures are used to house two (female and female or male and female) box turtles comfortably.

Rubbermaid containers and under the bed storage boxes are extremely popular options for housing turtles of all ages.  An adult boxie can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container or concrete mixing container.  The large open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.  These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy and can be modified to suit the turtle’s needs.  Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over the holes.  If this method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially coming into contact with the turtle.  Outdoor accommodations should have a small pond of water for swimming and wading as well as an enclosed shelter.  Outdoor enclosures must be predator and dig proof.

Substrate

Reptile carpet or indoor/outdoor carpet with timothy hay on top is a great substrate for box turtles.  The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little extra toe exercise as a box turtle maneuvers over the textured terrain.  The carpet underneath is an excellent barrier between the boxie and the enclosure floor, especially when under tank heaters are utilized.  Other substrates to consider are newspaper/newsprint, paper towel, butcher paper, and alfalfa pellets especially in younger box turtles to monitor defecation.

Box turtles are known diggers and a “dig box” of just top soil with no additives should be provided to all boxies.  Great care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.  These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the box turtle while maintaining humidity in the cage. The substrate should always be moist enough to clump together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when pressed together in an owner’s hands.

Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as needed.

Pictured here is what I call turf toe.  It is a nail bed infection common in box turtles associated with malnutrition, unclean bedding and/or sharp Astroturf.  Some of the shiny Astroturf will cut the skin in between the nail beds, hence the name turf toe.  This foot pictured above was associated more with malnutrition, which lead to accumulation of dead skin at the nail base.  This dead skin started to constrict as it dried, cutting off circulation.  Next, bacteria from an unclean environment go to work and the result is pododermatitis.  This will take quite some time to heal (months).

Lighting
Box turtles, like all reptilian herbivores, require daily exposure to UVB lighting.  A 5.0 ReptiSun bulb helps prevent and correct calcium deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.  UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light cycle which should be roughly 12 hours a day.  All UVB bulbs must be no more than 18-24 inches away from the box turtle directly overhead and no closer than 12 inches.  The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is being produced.
No lighting is needed at night and is actually contraindicated.  Box turtles are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.  The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some boxies and should be avoided.  If extra heat is needed, an under tank heater or a ceramic heat emitter can be used as they have no light source.

Water

Clean water should be available at all times. The dish should be large enough for the turtle to get into and soak. Turtles often defecate in their water therefore the dish should be changed daily and disinfected weekly. It is also a good idea to soak your turtle in a shallow pan of lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes 2-3 times weekly. Always check water depth and temperature. Turtles can drown if left in too deep of water and are easily burned if water temperature is too hot.

Temperature

Box turtles thrive when their enclosures are kept between 74°F and 80°F during the day and with a basking site of 82-90°F.  Day time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.  Basking lights are essential to normal thermoregulation behaviors.  All under tank heaters, heat tape, and heat cables should be regulated with a thermostat to prevent injuries such as burns.  It is strongly recommended all heating implements be attached to the outside of an enclosure.  During the night, the temperature can drop as low as 70 °F.  The night time temperature should be maintained with a ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.

Humidity

These turtles do well in 40-50% humidity.  Ornate box turtles are towards the lower end of the range.  A dig box of dirt can be offered and used to maintain a higher humidity area around 70% which allows the box turtle to regulate its own requirements.  The moist dig box simulates the burrows box turtles inhabit when humidity needs to be increased.

Landscaping

There should be two hide boxes available for box turtles.  One should ideally be placed on the cooler side of the enclosure as well as one on the warmer side.  Boxies appreciate hiding places especially for their daily naps.  Hide boxes can be created from cork bark half logs, half terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.  It is necessary that the turtle be able to turn itself around in the hide area.

Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also offers enrichment and stimulation to the box turtle.  Cage accessories should be changed every week during cleaning to allow the box turtle to explore a new surrounding which not only stimulates their minds and feeds a natural behavior but also gives them a reason to exercise.  Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and destruction of the plants.

Water dishes should be offered not only for drinking but also for soaking.  Boxies enjoy soaking themselves and relieving themselves in their water bowls necessitating frequent changes.  The dish should be deep enough for the box turtle to cover up to their “elbows” when standing and large enough for them to maneuver in.  Soaking turtles for 10 minutes in luke warm water (84°F) 2-3 times a week will also work if a large enough water dish cannot be found.

Nutrition

Box turtles are omnivores that lean more towards the carnivorous side of the spectrum.  A stable diet of 50% animal protein or high protein foods, 40% vegetables and leafy greens, and 10% fruit is recommended.  Earth worms are an excellent source of animal protein and should be offered at every feeding.  A salad of greens such as romaine, escarole, swiss chard, mustard greens, carrots, peas, parsnips, etc should be offered every feeding as well.  However, these natural carrion eaters will relish small amounts of cooked chicken as well as beef heart once a week.Vegetables should primarily focus on calcium rich greens and beta-carotene rich foods.  Avoid feeding broccoli, spinach, and kale in large quantities as these foods can cause significant gastrointestinal and urinary issues including stones.  Avoid feeding dog or cat food as the excessively high protein levels can cause severe kidney problems.  It helps to remember that box turtles are naturally attracted to flowers, red foods, orange foods, and yellow foods.Juveniles should ideally be fed every day while adults should be fed every other.  A calcium supplement should be used 2-3 times a week and a multi-vitamin once a week to help balance the diet.  Box turtles should be fed during the day and misted prior to eating to stimulate a feeding response.  For finicky eaters, finely chopped salads and even pureed salads will help to train these turtles to eat properly.

Beak problems as demonstrated in this photo, are usually associated with malnutrition, sinusitis, or trauma.   I see this kind of beak most often associated with malnutrition.  Once they’ve gotten to this stage, a normal beak  occlusion surface can never be achieved.  This turtle will need regular beak trimming for the rest of it’s life.

Health

Annual checkups with blood work and stool checks are recommended. Turtles hide disease extremely well therefore, it is important to pay attention to any possible signs of illness. These may include: decrease appetite, decrease activity level, discharge from eyes or nose, selling of the eyes or anywhere else, noticeable weight loss, sunken eyes, overgrown beak and/ or nails, flaky skin or any abrasions. Turtles are susceptible to nutritional deficiencies and internal parasites. At any sign of illness, the turtle should be taken to a veterinarian, (familiar with reptiles). The most common household hazard for turtles is dogs. A dog can easily puncture the shell causing serious and life threatening damage. Any turtle bitten by a dog should immediately be taken to a reptile veterinarian.

Brumation

Healthy adult box turtles can be allowed to brumate but this practice is not necessary for good health and if done inappropriately can cause health issues.  An exam done by a qualified reptile veterinarian should be completed.  An accurate weight in grams should be recorded every two weeks during brumation.  At the weight check, the box turtle should be warmed slowly to room temperature and soaked for 30 minutes in warm water to facilitate hydration.  If any sign of illness is noted or the turtle looses more than 10% of its body weight, brumation should be discontinued and veterinary care sought.

To prepare a turtle for brumation, withhold food for 10-14 days prior to brumation.  Warm water soak the turtle every other day.  After 14 days, start to lower the ambient temperature to 65°F over 4 days.  Lower the ambient temperature to 60°F for 2 days and place them in their hibernaculum.  Maintain the turtle at 45-50°F for the duration of brumation (3-4 months).

A small plastic container with small holes makes an ideal hibernaculum.  A mixture of shredded or recycled newspaper product and peat moss fills the container two-thirds full and is moistened.  The turtle is allowed to burrow into this material for the brumation cycle.

To end brumation, slowly increase the ambient temperature over 4-6 days and soak every other day.  Once the box turtle is at normal temperature for 3 days, feeding can be resumed as normal.

Box turtles make wonderful companions.  They become quite tame and bond well with their keepers.  With the proper care and respect, they will live well for many years.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History 

These inquisitive little chelonians, also called “snake eating turtles”, Yellow Margined box turtles, and Golden-headed box turtles.  These turtles are native to the sub-tropical and temperate climates of China , Taiwan , and Japan and have a unique hinge on their plastron that allows box turtles to withdraw their arms, legs, and head fully into their shells and seal up like a box.   These animals can stay in this position for hours.  These turtles reach a shell size of 5-12 inches long.

In the pet industry, most of these turtles are from Taiwan where they are used for food and folk medic
ine.  With a life span of roughly 25-40 years, these intelligent turtles often become cherished family and sometimes generational pets.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.   Domestically bred box turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Enclosure 

The larger the enclosure the better!  Hatchlings and small juveniles can be kept in glass 20 gallon aquariums but will outgrow them and will spend a significant amount of time trying to “walk through” the glass.  Aquariums for adults must be large not only to offer the appropriate space needed for daily exercise and enrichment via foraging behaviors but also to allow for better air circulation.  A 40-gallon aquarium or larger is suitable for adults.  Building custom enclosures is a viable option and has become quite popular.  4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 12 inch high enclosures are used to house two (female and female or male and female) box turtles comfortably.  Since these animals are semi-aquatic, 25-50% of the cage should be a shallow water area.  At the very least, a large container for swimming that the box turtle can easily enter and exit for swimming is required.

Rubbermaid containers and under the bed storage boxes are extremely popular options for housing turtles of all ages.  An adult boxie can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container or concrete mixing container.  The large open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.  These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy and can be modified to suit the tortoise’s needs.  Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over the holes.  If this method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially coming into contact with the tortoise.  Outdoor accommodations should have a small pond of water for swimming and wading as well as an enclosed shelter.  Outdoor enclosures must be predator and dig proof.

Cage Accessories 

There should be two hide boxes available for box turtles.  One should ideally be placed on the cooler side of the enclosure as well as one on the warmer side.  Boxies appreciate hiding places especially for their daily naps.  Hide boxes can be created from cork bark half logs, half terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.  It is necessary that the turtle be able to turn itself around in the hide area.

​Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also offers enrichment and stimulation to the box turtle.  Cage accessories should be changed every week during cleaning to allow the box turtle to explore a new surrounding which not only stimulates their minds and feed a natural behavior but also gives them a reason to exercise.  Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and destruction of the plants.

Temperature 

Box turtles thrive when their enclosures are kept between 80 and 85 °F during the day and with a basking site of 86-95 °F.  Day time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.  Basking lights are essential to normal thermoregulation behaviors.  All under tank heaters, heat tape, and heat cables should be regulated with a thermostat to prevent injuries such as burns.  It is strongly recommended all heating implements be attached to the outside of an enclosure.  During the night, the temperature can drop as low as 75°F but we recommend no lower than 80°F.  The night time temperature should be maintained with a ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.

Humidity 

These turtles do well in 60-80% humidity.  A dig box of dirt can be offered and used to maintain a higher humidity area around 70% which allows the box turtle to regulate its own requirements.  The moist dig box simulates the burrows box turtles inhabit when humidity needs to be increased.

Lighting 

Box turtles, like all reptilian herbivores, require daily exposure to UVB lighting.  A 5.0 ReptiSun bulb helps prevent and correct calcium deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.  UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light cycle which should be roughly 12 hours a day.  All UVB bulbs must be no more than 18-24 inches away from the box turtle directly over head and no closer than 12 inches.  The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is being produced.

No lighting is needed at night and is actually contraindicated.  Box turtles are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.  The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some boxies and should be avoided.  If extra heat is needed, an under tank heater or a ceramic heat emitter can be used as they have no light source.

Substrate 

Reptile carpet or indoor/outdoor carpet with timothy hay on top is a great substrate for box turtles.  The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little extra toe exercise as a box turtle maneuvers over the textured terrain.  The carpet underneath is an excellent barrier between the boxie and the enclosure floor, especially when under tank heaters are utilized.  Other substrates to consider are newspaper/newsprint, paper towel, butcher paper, and alfalfa pellets especially in younger box turtles to monitor defecation.

Box turtles are known diggers and a “dig box” of just top soil with no additives should be provided to all boxies.  Great care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.  These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the box turtle while maintaining humidity in the cage.  The substrate should always be moist enough to clump together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when pressed together in an owner’s hands.

Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as needed.

Diet 

Box turtles are omnivores that lean more towards the carnivorous and insectivorous side of the spectrum.  A stable diet of 50% animal protein or high protein foods, 40% vegetables and leafy greens, and 10% fruit is recommended.  Chinese box turtles do not relish large amounts of leafy greens but will readily eat other shredded vegetables.  Earthworms are an excellent source of animal protein and should be offered at every feeding.  Roaches, crickets, slugs, snails and meal worms can also be offered and provide enrichment for these turtles.  However, these natural carrion eaters will relish small amounts of cooked chicken as well as beef heart once a week.

Vegetables should primarily focus on calcium rich greens and beta-carotene rich foods.  Avoid feeding broccoli, spinach, and kale in large quantities as these foods cause significant gastrointestinal and urinary issues including stones.  Avoid feeding dog or cat food as the excessively high protein levels can cause severe kidney problems.  It helps to remember that box turtles are naturally attracted to flowers, red foods, orange foods, and yellow foods.

​Juveniles should ideally be fed every day while adults should be fed every other.  A calcium supplement should be used 2-3 times a week and a multi-vitamin once a week to help balance the diet.  Box turtles should be fed during the day and misted prior to eating to stimulate a feeding response.  For finicky eaters, finely chopped salads and even pureed salads will help to train these turtles to eat properly.

​​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

​Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

Common snapping turtles are a common inhabitant of brackish, shallow slow moving waterways.  Snappers, as they are often referred as, will also take up residence in deep lakes and rivers.  Snapping turtles are found throughout North America in southern Canada , eastern and central United States , and down through eastern Mexico into northern South America .  Within this territory there are four definitive subspecies.  This species of turtle is extremely hardy and the northern inhabitants are extremely cold tolerant having been seen still active under iced over creeks.  Although they are renowned for their impressive jaw strength and aggressive nature, the snapping turtle is very timid under water but will become defensive on land.  It is recommended to avoid a snapping turtle out of its aquatic habitat if possible due to their ability to turn and lunge with their impressively long necks to deliver a very painful bite.

This species is renowned for their quick growth and long life of 25-40 years with proper care.  Most of these animals in captivity are from the wild and females in particular become “antsy” during breeding season as they set out to find a suitable nest site.  An interesting piece of American history surrounds this species as snapping turtles were used to locate human remains in creeks, rivers, and lakes by tying string to their leg and waiting for it to stop swimming presumably due to their new found meal.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating turtle eggs and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Quarantine

It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animal’s behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately from the other chelonians.

Temperature

The water temperature of the enclosure can be raised using under water heaters and under tank heaters on a thermostat to keep the water at 75-78°F. Hatchlings should be kept around 78-80° F, however.  Animals from northern portions of the range require the cooler end while animals from the southern portion require the upper end of the temperatures.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  If a submersible heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns.  A general rule of thumb is a 55 watt water heater will work for a 40 gallon tanks, a 75 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank,

The air temperature in the tank can be easily raised using a basking light or a ceramic heat emitter.  Metal dome clamp lights work well for this.  Under tank heaters can also be utilized.  A thermometer should be place on the opposite side as the basking light and another thermometer placed at the level the chelonian will be while basking.  The ambient (air) temperature should be 80-86° F with the basking site reaching near 90° F.

Enclosure

Snappers are difficult to house due to their fast growth rate and impressive size.  This species loves to swim and explore their enclosures.  Hatchlings can be comfortably kept in a 10-gallon tank or equivalent container.  An 8 inch long juvenile will require a 55-gallon or larger enclosure or similar size plastic tote.  Adults need a 2 foot deep by 4 foot long pond like enclosure.  Larger with this species is always better!  Stock tanks, modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs work well.  Remember, bigger is better!  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!

This species rarely basks outside of the water but they will float to the surface of the water to warm themselves.  Snappers do require a land area where they can haul themselves out of the water completely if desired.  Females are prone to wandering in order to find a suitable site for a nest and may require a larger enclosure or at the very least, a dig box.

Substrate

With snapping turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel that the turtle cannot fit into its mouth can be used.  Weekly agitation (stirring up the stones to give the filters a chance to filter out the debris) and siphoning of the debris.  A word of caution, if substrate is used an under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.

Water

The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh and brackish water turtles that enjoy swimming.  Only use chlorine free water with an addition of aquarium salt to create a brackish environment with a specific gravity of 1.015-1.018.  A hygrometer and frequent salinity testing is required to maintain the water levels.  Care must be taken to only use aquarium salt and not consumable sea salt or iodized table salt.  Snapping turtles enjoy a mild current in the water which can be created using strong filters or water jets.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep water clean.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians.  These filters offer both mechanical and biofiltration and are less stressful to aquatic turtles as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.

Lighting

As with most reptiles, snapping turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert D into D3 which helps the body absorb and metabolize calcium thus preventing the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body.

Accessories

Enclosure accessories are necessary for enrichment and promotion of healthy behavior patterns.  A hide area provided underwater in the form of a broken flower pot, sturdy and anchored rock structures, or commercially available under water hides are necessary to give the turtle a place to hide from sight.  This promotes a feeling of security and in the case of multiple cage mates, allows each turtle a chance to have some solitary time.  Artificial and real plants are fantastic and offer visual appeal as well as more hiding places.  Live plants may be eaten or uprooted but are enjoyed by snappers. Duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth are easy to keep and find.  Bog wood and rocks are always an excellent addition to a Musk turtle enclosure especially since these turtles like to crawl out of the water on branches to bask occasionally.

Feeding

Snappers less than 6 months old should be fed twice daily and turtles over 6 months old should be fed once every other day.  These animals must be fed in the water to facilitate swallowing as their tongues are not meant to push food to the back of the mouth for swallowing.  It is recommended to offer as much food as will be consumed in a period of 10-15 minutes to avoid obesity and water fouling from rotting food.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly and obesity is starting to be a problem the amount of food offered should be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

These turtles are omnivores and will consume fresh water, crayfish, earth worms, pelleted diets, floating duck weed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth in their enclosure.  Like wise, they will nibble on floating leaves of lettuce which also offers them some enrichment.  The key to a healthy turtle is to offer variety in the diet.  Fish (not goldfish) can be offered to snapping turtles but it is preferred they either be slow moving or frozen-thawed as this species is not adept at catching fast moving prey and are more likely to scavenge a dead fish body in the wild rather than catch one in their mouths.  Insects such as earth worms, crickets, and snails should be offered as well as food items such as small crayfish.

Supplementation with commercially produced turtle, trout, or catfish pellets.  Some owners prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellet diets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets to insure adequate nutrition and offer enrichment through variety and shape difference.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust, www.tortoisetrust.org

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Beautiful and large, these gentle giants will move furniture, plants, and anything that they find to be in their way.  The Swahili call these animals, “tortoise of the elders” due to their long life span and others refer to this grassland tortoise as the Mountain tortoise.  This animal will grow to be a large and long lived pet that will need large amounts of room and food to remain healthy in your home.

Zoos and shelters are inundated with these animals and most are no longer accepting new animals due to over crowding.  If you are interested in this tortoise, consider adopting a juvenile or an adult from a reptile shelter or supporting a local reptile sanctuary.
  
Natural History 

There are two subspecies of Leopard tortoise: the Stigmachelys pardalis pardalis which is the most common species found in captivity, and the Stigmachelys pardalis babcocki.  Leopard tortoises are found in eastern and southern Africa from Ethiopia to Botswana and South Africa.  The climate is dry and hot and the terrain is rocky with plains of dry or moist savanna, dry forests, thorn brush and grass.  This is not a hibernating species!

Description 

The carapace (top shell) is domed with steep sides with slightly conically domed vertebral scutes or “humps” to assist the tortoise in righting itself if it is knocked over on to its back.  The carapace is generally whitish, cloudy yellow to light brown, reddish brown, or olive with scattered dark brown to black spots, speckles, and streaks.  The pattern does however fade with age.  The plastron (bottom shell) is a yellowish color with black speckles and streaks radiating from the center.  The average carapace length for this species is 12-18 inches long but has been known to grow up to 31 inches.

​The skin of the Leopard tortoise is generally yellow or grayish-brown.  Occasionally, the skin will have black spots.  The rear legs have large, conical spurs on the heel.  The back side of the rear legs also has two very large conical spurs.

Juveniles have a rounded and relatively flat carapace.  The carapace is generally a dull yellow with reddish brown to black margins.  Growth during the first few months of life is slow with accelerated growths around 21-33 months of age.  At three years of age most will weigh around a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and five kilograms at 12 years old.  Once the tortoises are sexually mature the rate of growth severely decreases.

The Leopard tortoise has three defense mechanisms.  The first is to retract the limbs under the shell.  The second is to hiss loudly.  If the tortoise is picked up it will urinate copiously which is the third defense mechanism.


Sexing 

The male Leopard tortoise has a longer, thicker tail and the plastron scutes directly above the tail are pointed and appear to be the letter “V’.   The female has a shorter tail than the mail and the plastron scutes directly above the tail are long and rounded like the letter “U”.  Males are also notably smaller than females.

Enclosure 

Leopard tortoises are diurnal often retreating to shelter once dark.  Logs and bushes make excellent shelters as do turned over cement mixing trays with a door cut out, wooden hide boxes, etc.  All enclosures should be tortoise proof.  Solid wood trim or ram resistant bricks are essential for indoor and outdoor enclosures larger than aquarium tanks.  As the tortoise grows, a custom built wooden enclosure will be required.

Substrate for young tortoises should be rather simple and easily cleaned.  The most recommended substrate for juveniles is reptile carpet or butcher paper with hay on top of it.  Rabbit pellets are frequently used in the pet trade for hatchlings to juveniles but recently has been found to cause deformities in these fast growers due to improper positioning of limbs in hatchlings.   Ideally adults should be housed with hay substrate for their outdoor and indoor enclosures as well.  Daily spot cleaning is required with a complete substrate change every 2-3 weeks.  Gravid females (females with eggs) may require a dig box of dirt and sand to lay their eggs.  Rocks, tree trunks, boulders, and roots create obstacles and mental stimulation.

During the rainy season, the temperature is between 82° and 95° F.  This is best reproduced in a green house set-up or with circulatory heaters.  Metal vapor bulbs are excellent for the bright lighting and 95-104° F basking spot for large adult enclosures.  At night the temperatures should be around 68-86°F.  Proper ventilation will prevent over heating but drafts need to be avoided.

The lighting in the cage should replicate the lighting of the wild.  There should be a high level of illumination and heat.  Adults with large pens will require several UVB bulbs.  All tortoises should be exposed to UVB light or natural sunlight for at least 8 hours a day and total illumination for 10-14 hours.  Relative humidity of 40-60% is ideal during the day and 70-80% at night which can be accomplished by misting the substrate at night.

Hatchlings

Hatchlings can be kept in a 10 gallon tank and increased in size from there.  Remember, as your tortoise grows he will need a custom enclosure!  This is not a species that can be kept in aquariums all their lives.  Many people think they will not outgrow their cage like goldfish.  In both instances, of the tortoise and the goldfish, this is false and they will continue to grow despite cramped conditions.  As hatchlings grow they will need a two foot by two foot cage up to a four foot by eight foot cage.  A turtle table is an excellent set-up and many plans for these enclosures can be found on the internet.

Indoor enclosures should be spacious and heated.  Adults will require brick, concrete, and armored glass.  Some people use heated basements or attics where the whole or at least most of the space can be dedicated to the tortoise enclosure.  The enclosure space should be at least four times the carapace length.  If two animals are being kept together, double the size of the enclosure and add an additional 10% for each animal after three tortoises.

Outdoor enclosures should be large, sunny, and protected from the wind and predators.  An adjoining spacious and heated building is required if the tortoise is to remain outdoors year round.  Remember, the driest season in the mid-western United States is like the rainy season in its natural African habitat.  Some people use a green house to house their tortoise.  Leopard tortoises can learn to use a rubber flap dog door.  The enclosure should be free of large trees or high shrubs that will create large areas of shade.  Check with your local authorities before constructing any outdoor pen as permits may be required.  If the temperature is constantly below 60°F degrees bring the tortoise inside.  The fence to any out door area should be at least 12-24 inches into the ground and at least 18-24 inches in height.  A word of caution, escape attempts never cease and these tortoises will climb wire mesh fences.

Feeding 

Diet is the most important aspect of tortoise care and sadly, one of the most neglected and misunderstood.  Remember, you are what you eat, if you want a healthy and fully developed tortoise you must feed it healthy and appropriate foods.  Feeding foods to high in fat and protein will cause accelerated growth, shell deformities, and other health problems that will severely shorten the life of your pet.  Never feed bread, cookies, oats, pasta, rice, or cat/dog food!  These are harmful to your pet’s nutrition and health!

The primary portion (85%) of the Leopard tortoise diet should be grass and hay high in fiber.  Grasses, weeds, leaves, and flowers are essential to good health.  Fiber deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease and diarrhea while also making them susceptible to parasites.  A pasture of grass, dandelion, herbs, and clover outdoors is the best option for these animals.  If a pasture is restricted due to size, fresh cut works as well.  Orchard grass/hay, timothy grass/hay, and Bermuda grass/hay are excellent especially during those winter months when the tortoise may be housed inside.  Leopard tortoises should be given as much opportunity to graze outdoors as possible.

Vegetables and fruit should be fed out in smaller portions.  Vegetables should make up no more than 10% of the diet and fruit never more than 5% of the diet.  Too much fruit will cause diarrhea and colic.  Chopped salads are an excellent way to ensure a tortoise does not pick out their favorite foods only.   Vegetables for human consumption are high in protein and fruits are high in sugar both of which in excess are harmful to your tortoise.  Moderation is key in this case.  Dark leafy greens, endive, and cactus pads are favorites as well as pumpkin!

Calcium supplements should be given to adult tortoises two times a week.  Actively reproductive females should be given the calcium every day while gravid until they lay their eggs.  Calcium supplements should not have phosphorous in it.  Juveniles should be given calcium four times a week and vitamin-mineral supplements once a week until growing slows.  Hatchlings are given vitamin-mineral supplements once a week and calcium daily.

Clean, fresh water should always be available to Leopard tortoises.  These tortoises have an ability to store substantial amounts of fluid and also to discharge the substantial amounts of fluid as a defense mechanism as well.   Soaking weekly is recommended.  Water should be provided in a shallow water hole, pan or bowl depending on the enclosure. ​​

Common Medical Problems 

Secondary Nutritional Hyperparathyroidism (MBD, Metabolic Bone Disease)

This disease occurs for many reasons with the most common being hypocalcemia (decreased calcium in the body).  This can cause shell deformities, bone deformities, constipation, and even death in your tortoise.  This dietary disease is correctable but the damage to the body may not be reversed.  Please, make an appointment with Chicago Exotics if you notice any shell deformities.

Anorexia

Leopard tortoises typically feed well until mid-December when they will retreat into the corner of the enclosure and sometimes refuse food.  This is natural and normal.  When this happens make sure that all temperatures are appropriate.  If this persists past February, nasal discharge is seen, or diarrhea occurs, contact Chicago Exotics for an appointment.

Parasites 

Your tortoise can become infested or already have endoparasites.  These, if left untreated can be destructive to the health of your pet.  If you notice anorexia, diarrhea or extreme lethargy please contact Chicago Exotics for an appointment.

Pyramiding 

This is a form of MBD.  The shell has a build up of keratin becoming tall pillars before becoming soft and flattening.  Liver and kidney disease can occur with this as well.  Avoid lack of exercise, dehydration, grain based diets, fiber deficiency, and too much food.  This is common in the United States.  If you see signs of pyramiding call Chicago Exotics for an appointment.


References and Sources

Chelonian Library: Leopard and African Spurred Tortoise, Holger Vetker
Chelonian Research Foundation, www.chelonian.org
African Tortoise Care, www.africantortoise.com
Complete Herp Care:  Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises, E.J. Pirog

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

These small oval shaped turtles are only 3-4 inches long with horizontal yellow stripes along the face and neck.  With their tiny size, adorable markings, and fairly large snail crushing head these turtles are quickly becoming a favorite of turtle enthusiasts.  Their name comes from the three light stripes on the carapace which may be slightly distorted in hatchlings due to their keels which disappear with maturity.  The females are slightly larger than the makes but seldom grow past four inches in length.  These small little chelonians are found in the quiet fresh water swamps, canals, and ponds of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina although other species of Mud turtle can be found throughout the United States .

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Map turtles and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Map turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Quarantine

It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animals’ behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately (typically after) from the other chelonians.

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure for juveniles and adults the better!  This species loves to swim and spends larger amounts of time on land than its cousin the Musk turtle.  For this reason, it is better to set-up the enclosure to be two thirds aquatic and one third terrestrial.

Young turtles can be kept in 20 gallon long aquariums but will quickly need to be relocated to a 40 gallon breeder aquarium when they reach the juvenile and sub adult stage.  Most adults (especially females) will require a 50-100 gallon aquarium or equivalent enclosure.  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well.  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 9 inches, it will require 54 inches of aquarium floor space.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and Koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!

Substrate and Water Quality

With Mud turtles, it is recommended to have a bare tank bottom or with large river stones larger than the animal can consume accidentally.  The rocks, however, will require weekly agitation to keep the tank cleaner.  Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians as they offer mechanical and biofiltration.  Canister filters are generally less stressful to aquatics as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and disinfected with dilute bleach solution.  All cage furnishings should be removed and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water every 2-4 weeks as well.

The water for these turtles is critically important!  The water should be twice as deep as the turtle’s length at the deepest part.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep the water clean.  It is critical to maintain the pH balance between 6.6 – 7.6 and a slightly brackish salinity.

Temperatures

Typically, the water temperature should be maintained between 74°F and 78°F degrees Fahrenheit.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  Water temperature can be maintained using a submersible water heater or under tank heater on a thermostat.  If a submersible water heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns and biting.  A general rule of thumb is a 75 watt heater will work for a 40 gallon tank, a 55 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank, and a 200 watt heater for a 100 gallon aquarium.

The basking light should be over a flat stone such as slate or log.  Basking sites should be between 85°F and 92°F and easily accessible to the chelonian.  Metal clamp lamps work well for these sites.  The ambient temperature of the tank can be increased with under tank heaters and/or the basking lamp as well and maintained at 78-82°F.  During the night, under tank heaters or ceramic heat emitters can be used to increase the ambient temperature as it will offer no light.

Light Cycle

As with most reptiles, Mud turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert vitamin D3 into calcium and helps prevent the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body causing the body to absorb calcium from the bones.

Feeding

This species is highly carnivorous preferring to consume fresh water fish (not gold fish) and earth worms in captivity as adults.  The key to a healthy turtle is variety in their diet.  Small to medium sized fish (not goldfish), insects (crickets, earthworms, red worms), and snails are offered for the meat portion of their diet.  Hatchlings are generally fed insects.  Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellets is recommended as well.  Some people prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets or Mazuri Freshwater turtle diet.

In the wild, these chelonians embark on daily foraging expeditions throughout their habitat even stealing food from the mouth of other turtles!  In captivity, feeding varies with age and the energy output of the turtle.  Hatchlings are fed two times a day as much as they will eat in 10-15 minutes.  Adults are fed once a day and as much as they can consume in 10-15 minutes.  It is recommended to come up with a standard food amount for adult chelonians to be fed daily to monitor appetite changes.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly or the turtle is becoming obese then the food will need to be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
The General Care and Maintenance of Red Eared Sliders and Other Popular Freshwater Turtles, P. de Vosjoli
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust, www.tortoisetrust.org

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

Common Musk turtles, also called Stinkpots, are native to North America from south eastern Canada down through the south eastern and south central United States .  This semi-aquatic species of turtle prefers non-brackish water in the form of more permanent slow moving, shallow ponds, creeks, and lakes.  This species is heavily aquatic.  Although they are semi-aquatic turtles like the Red Eared slider and the Painted turtle, the Musk turtle only occasionally bask, preferring to enter shallower areas of water warmed by the sun than sit on a log or rock in the open.  However, when this species does bask, it has a preference for water logged branches that stick out of the water.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Musk turtles and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Musk turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Description

These chelonians have small oval carapaces with gray skin and yellow markings along the head from the nose to the just past the eye.  The yellow markings are actually two stripes. The southern specimens are usually darker colored than their northern counterparts.  Both the females and the males have barbells under their chin.  With large heads and strong jaws these turtles have a slightly comical look to them.  These turtles have been known to live for 30-50 years in captivity.

Hatchlings have strong keeled carapaces which smooth out as they mature until they have the smooth adult look.  This slow moving species is not only equipped with a powerful bite, but also a set of glands near the rear of the turtle that excrete a foul smelling thick liquid.  Males can be quite aggressive. Musk turtles top out around 4-5 inches in shell length but they have mighty attitudes.

Sexing and Reproduction

Between February and June, Musk turtles will start their breeding.  Mating typically takes place underwater and can be quite aggressive.  Care must be taken that a smaller female is not accidentally drowned by an overzealous male.  Females will lay between 1 and 9 shelled eggs and hatch out after 9-12 weeks.  Males are differentiated from females by their larger, thicker tails generally.

Quarantine

It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animal’s behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately from the other chelonians.

Temperature

The water temperature of the enclosure can be raised using under water heaters and under tank heaters on a thermostat to keep the water at 72-76 F°.  Hatchlings should be kept around 78-80 F°, however.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  If a submersible heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns.  A general rule of thumb is a 55 watt water heater will work for a 40 gallon tanks, a 75 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank,

The air temperature in the tank can be easily raised using a basking light or a ceramic heat emitter.  Metal dome clamp lights work well for this.  Under tank heaters can also be utilized.  A thermometer should be place on the opposite side as the basking light and another thermometer placed at the level the chelonian will be while basking.  The ambient (air) temperature should be 82-86 F with the basking site reaching near 92 F.

Enclosure

Glass aquariums are one of the best for these chelonians and the larger the better!  This species loves to swim and explore their enclosures.  Hatchlings and juveniles can be comfortably kept in a 20 to 29-gallon tank.  Adults need a minimum of a 29-gallon tank.  The bigger the better!  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well, generally the enclosures should be at least 24 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 18 inches tall. Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 5 inches, it will require 30 inches of aquarium floor space at least.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles should be at least 36 inches long, 18 inches high, and 12 inches wide and include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!  Remember that there needs to be at least a quarter of the cage as land where the turtle can completely pull itself out of the water to bask and dry dock as it sees fit.

Substrate

With Musk turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel can be used.  An under gravel filter is strongly recommended as well as weekly agitation (stirring up the stones to give the filters a chance to filter out the debris) and siphoning of the debris.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.

Water

The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh water turtles that enjoy swimming.  Chlorine free water depth should be around 10 inches in the shallow end and 24 inches deep in the deep end for adults and 3 to 4 inches deep for hatchlings.  Musk turtles enjoy a mild current in the water which can be created using strong filters or water jets.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep water clean.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians.  These filters offer both mechanical and biofiltration and are less stressful to aquatic turtles as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.

Lighting

As with most reptiles, Musk turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert D into D3 which helps the body absorb and metabolize calcium thus preventing the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body.

Accessories

Enclosure accessories are necessary for enrichment and promotion of healthy behavior patterns.  A hide area provided underwater in the form of a broken flower pot, sturdy and anchorched rock structures, or commercially available under water hides are necessary to give the turtle a place to hide from sight.  This promotes a feeling of security and in the case of multiple cage mates, allows each turtle a chance to have some solitary time.  Artificial and real plants are fantastic and offer visual appeal as well as more hiding places.  Live plants may be eaten or uprooted but are enjoyed by Musk turtles.  Duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth are easy to keep and find.  Bog wood and rocks are always an excellent addition to a Musk turtle enclosure especially since these turtles like to crawl out of the water on branches to bask occasionally.

Feeding

Musk turtles less than 6 months old should be fed twice daily and turtles over 6 months old should be fed once every other day.  These animals must be fed in the water to facilitate swallowing as their tongues are not meant to push food to the back of the mouth for swallowing.  It is recommended to offer as much food as will be consumed in a period of 10-15 minutes to avoid obesity and water fouling from rotting food.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly and obesity is starting to be a problem the amount of food offered should be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings ad three times a week for adults.

These turtles are primarily carnivores but will eat floating duck weed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth in their enclosure.  Like wise, they will nibble on floating leaves of lettuce which also offers them some enrichment.  The key to a healthy Musk turtle is to offer variety in the diet.  Small fish (not goldfish) can be offered to Musk turtles but it is preferred they either be slow moving or frozen-thawed as this species is not adept at catching fast moving prey and are more likely to scavenge a dead fish body in the wild rather than catch one in their mouths.  Insects such as earth worms, crickets, and snails should be offered as well as food items such as small crayfish.  Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellet diets is recommended as well.  Some owners prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellet diets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets to insure adequate nutrition and offer enrichment through variety and shape difference.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust, www.tortoisetrust.org

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

The Painted turtle like sliders and cooters are prolific and widespread.  The Paints are very common in captivity being small and incredibly hardy.  Many owners remark that their Painted turtle is not only “tame” but social and even seek human companionship especially if raised from a young age.  Paints are well known for their bright yellow markings streaking across their face, necks, and limbs which makes them an attractive pet and their availability makes them a very common pet.

Natural History

Throughout the United State , these beautiful turtles are seen in the quiet rivers, streams, ponds, and creeks enjoying the sunshine from a log.  In nature, these chelonians enjoy quiet fresh water with soft muddy bottoms and abundant aquatic vegetation.  Logs jutting up from the water and rocks make wonderful basking sites.  The Painted turtles in the colder climates hibernate in the winter although this is a practice not commonly recommended or practiced in the home.  Many new owners are concerned when their pet is found on the bottom of the aquarium unmoving or floating on the top of the surface.  This does not necessarily indicate that the turtle has died!  This species is commonly in these positions while sleeping.  If the turtle is easily roused when in this state it is safe to assume it is sleeping.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Painted turtles and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Painted turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Description

These chelonians are small to medium fresh water inhabitants with distinct yellow markings across the head, down the neck and limbs.  Red and orange markings are commonly found on the limbs as well.  The females of this species grow to twelve inches while males seldom reach past six inches.  The Western Painted turtle (Chrysems picta belli) has a green carapace with yellow reticulations and a bright red plastron.  The Eastern Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) has a black or olive colored carapace with or without a yellow stripe.  The peripheral scutes do have red marking and the plastron is typically a yellowish orange color with faint to no markings.  Southern Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta dorsalis) is one of the most attractive of the species with a dark green carapace with an orange stripe blazing down the midline.  The marginal scutes are well decorated and the plastron is red, yellow, or black.

Sexing and Reproduction

Males are generally smaller than the females at maturity.  Males also exhibit longer front claws which may curve slightly and longer, thicker tails.  The elongated nails of the male are used to stroke the females face to entice her to mate during the spring and fall and should not be cut.  The male will swim backwards facing the female and extending out the forearms to stroke her face.  If the gesture is accepted, the two will sink to the bottom of the aquarium to mate with the male on top.  Males that are much larger than the female must be watched so accidental drowning does not occur.  Panted turtles will typically lay three clutches of 6-10 eggs a year.

Females that are becoming restless and exhibiting nesting behavior (clawing at the basking spot, frantically searching, going off food, etc) should be removed from the enclosure and placed in a warm and dark box such as large plastic storage box with air holes.  Sand or moistened top soil (free of manure and pesticides) should be provided in the “nest box” to facilitate nest building and a less stressful egg laying process.  The female should be left overnight in the nest box and removed in the early morning for feeding (if eating) and swimming.  This may need to be repeated several times before eggs are successfully laid.  A female that feels insecure or does not have an appropriate nesting site will lay her eggs in the water or the basking site unceremoniously.

Quarantine

It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animals’ behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately (typically after) from the other chelonians.

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure for juveniles and adults the better!  This species loves to swim, bask, and explore their enclosures.  Many even enjoy items such as ping pong balls floating on the water surface as a toy!  Young turtles can be kept in 20 gallon long aquariums but will quickly need to be relocated to a 40 gallon breeder aquarium when they reach the juvenile and sub adult stage.  Most adults can be housed happily in a 100 gallon aquarium.  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well.  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 9 inches, it will require 54 inches of aquarium floor space.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and Koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!

With Painted turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel can be used.  An under gravel filter is strongly recommended as well as weekly agitation and siphoning of debris.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.

The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh water turtles who enjoy swimming so the chlorine free water depth should be equal to the total length of the carapace multiplied twice.  If the turtle is 9 inches long then the water needs to be 18 inches deep.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep the water clean.

Typically, the water temperature should be maintained between 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit depending on if it is a Southern species (towards the warm end) or a Northern species (towards the cool end).  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  Water temperature can be maintained using a submersible water heater or under tank heater on a thermostat.  If a submersible water heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns and biting.  A general room of thumb is a 75 watt heater will work for a 40 gallon tank, a 55 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank, and a 200 watt heater for a 100 gallon aquarium.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians as they offer mechanical and biofiltration.  Canister filters are generally less stressful to aquatics as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.

The basking light should be over a flat stone such as slate or log.  Basking sites should be between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and easily accessible to the chelonian.  Metal clamp lamps work well for these sites.  The ambient temperature of the tank can be increased with under tank heaters and/or the basking lamp also.  During the night, under tank heaters or ceramic heat emitters can be used to increase the ambient temperature as it will offer no light.

As with most reptiles, Painted turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert vitamin D3 into calcium and helps prevent the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body causing the body to absorb calcium from the bones.

Feeding

Hatchlings and juveniles are highly carnivorous (prefer meat) and become omnivorous (eating both vegetation and meat) as adults.  The key to a healthy turtle is variety in their diet!  Aquatic plants such as algae and duck weed are relished by these chelonians but most owners offer romaine lettuce, cantaloupe, banana, kale, mango, and strawberries as treats.  Water hyacinth, water lettuce and water cress can easily be cultivated at home with some diligence and offer enrichment and nutrition.  Small fish (not goldfish), insects (crickets, earthworms, red worms), and snails are offered for the meat portion of their diet.  Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellets is recommended as well.  Some people prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets.

In the wild, these chelonians embark on daily foraging expeditions throughout their habitat even stealing food from the mouth of other turtles!  In captivity, feeding varies with age and the energy output of the turtle.  Hatchlings are fed two times a day as much as they will eat in 10-15 minutes. Adults are fed once a day and as much as they can consume in 10-15 minutes.  It is recommended to come up with a standard food amount for adult chelonians to be fed daily to monitor appetite changes.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly or the turtle is becoming obese then the food will need to be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

Common Medical Concerns

Injuries
Very common in turtles who are housed together in small enclosures without adequate hiding spots.  Injuries caused by cage mate aggression are usually located on the legs, head, and tail.  Re-evaluation of the set-up is imperative and permanent separation may be the only solution.  All injuries should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Shell Rot
Commonly seen as pitting of the shell, sores on the shell, or damaged/lost scute coverings.  This can be a life threatening as well as disfiguring illness and must be addressed by a veterinarian.  If this is occurring, a re-evaluation of water quality and filtration is recommended.

Abscess
These swellings seen on one or both sides of the head are caused by poor water quality commonly.  These will not resolve on their own and must be treated by a veterinarian.

MBD
Metabolic bone disease is a major cause of deformity and death in hatchlings.  This is generally seen in turtles without access to UVB lighting, insufficient calcium supplementation, and those fed solely turtle pellets or dog/cat food.  This disease IS treatable by a veterinarian!  If the turtle is exhibiting a soft shell, limb deformities, or shell deformities, call for veterinary help as soon as possible.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
The General Care and Maintenance of Red Eared Sliders and Other Popular Freshwater Turtles, P. de Vosjoli
Life History and Ecology of the Slider Turtle, J. W. Gibbons
The Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta, M. Cohen

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

The Red Eared Slider (also known as RES and Red Ears) is an extremely prolific and widespread chelonian accounting for 70-85% of the turtle population in the United States !  The slider family in general is the most prolific species of freshwater turtle in the world!  Red Ears make wonderful pets being one of the hardiest chelonians available in the pet trade and at one point in time was exported in numbers as high as 10 million annually.  Many owners remark that their Red Ear is not only “tame” but social and even seek human companionship especially if raised from a young age!  Red Ears are well known for their bright red markings along the side of their necks which makes them an attractive pet and the availability of albino, pastel, and leucistic morphs make them a huge seller and a very common pet.  With the latest production of two headed turtles from breeders, these turtles have settled nicely back in the ranks of popular reptiles!

Natural History

Throughout the Mississippi Valley (from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico), these beautiful turtles are seen in the quiet rivers, streams, ponds, and creeks enjoying the sunshine from a log.  In nature, these chelonians enjoy quiet fresh water with soft muddy bottoms and abundant aquatic vegetation.  Logs jutting up from the water and rocks make wonderful basking sites.  The Red Eared Sliders in the colder climates hibernate in the winter although this is a practice not commonly recommended or practiced in the home.  Many new owners are concerned when their pet is found on the bottom of the aquarium unmoving or floating on the top of the surface.  This does not necessarily indicate that the RES has died!  This species is commonly in these positions while sleeping.  If the turtle is easily roused when in this state it is safe to assume it is sleeping.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Red Eared Sliders and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Red Ears are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Description

These chelonians are medium to large fresh water inhabitants with a distinct and very prominent red marking along the side of the head starting behind the eye will generally reach 9-11 inches long.  The carapace (top shell) is oval in shape and the rim near the back legs (posterior rim) is slightly serrated (ridged).  When Red Ears are hatchlings they exhibit bright green carapaces with bright yellow markings and plastrons (bottom shell).  As juveniles and adults, the carapace turns to an olive or brown color with yellow markings and black blotches.  Old males may have completely blackened carapaces but both genders will darken with age.  The plastron of juveniles and adults is yellow with a single dark blotch on each scute.  Aside from the characteristic red marking on the head, Red Eared Sliders have narrow yellow stripes running down their limbs.  RES also have yellow chin stripes as well.

Sexing and Reproduction

Males are generally smaller than the females at maturity.  Males also exhibit longer front claws which may curve slightly and longer, thicker tails.  The elongated nails of the male are used to stroke the females face to entice her to mate during the spring and fall and should not be cut.  The male will swim backwards facing the female and extending out the forearms to stroke her face.  If the gesture is accepted, the two will sink to the bottom of the aquarium to mate with the male on top.  Males that are much larger than the female must be watched so accidental drowning does not occur.  Red Ears will typically lay 2-25 eggs) between April and July and will hatch 65-75 days later if properly incubated.
Females that are becoming restless and exhibiting nesting behavior (clawing at the basking spot, frantically searching, going off food, etc) should be removed from the enclosure and placed in a warm and dark box such as large plastic storage box with air holes.  Sand or moistened top soil (free of manure and pesticides) should be provided in the “nest box” to facilitate nest building and a less stressful egg laying process.  The female should be left overnight in the nest box and removed in the early morning for feeding (if eating) and swimming.  This may need to be repeated several times before eggs are successfully laid.  A female that feels insecure or does not have an appropriate nesting site will lay her eggs in the water or the basking site unceremoniously.

Quarantine

​It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animals’ behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately (typically after) from the other chelonians.

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure for juveniles and adults the better!  This species loves to swim, bask, and explore their enclosures.  Many even enjoy items such as ping pong balls floating on the water surface as a toy!  Young turtles can be kept in 20 gallon long aquariums but will quickly need to be relocated to a 40 gallon breeder aquarium when they reach the juvenile and sub adult stage.  Most adults can be housed happily in a 100 gallon aquarium.  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well.  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 9 inches, it will require 54 inches of aquarium floor space.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and Koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!
With Red Eared Sliders, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel can be used.  An under gravel filter is strongly recommended as well as weekly agitation and siphoning of debris.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.
The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh water turtles who enjoy swimming so the chlorine free water depth should be equal to the total length of the carapace multiplied twice.  If the turtle is 9 inches long then the water needs to be 18 inches deep.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep the water clean.

Typically, the water temperature should be maintained between 72 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  Water temperature can be maintained using a submersible water heater or under tank heater on a thermostat.  If a submersible water heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns and biting.  A general room of thumb is a 75 watt heater will work for a 40 gallon tank, a 55 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank, and a 200 watt heater for a 100 gallon aquarium.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians as they offer mechanical and biofiltration.  Canister filters are generally less stressful to aquatics as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.

The basking light should be over a flat stone such as slate or log.  Basking sites should be between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and easily accessible to the chelonian.  Metal clamp lamps work well for these sites.  The ambient temperature of the tank can be increased with under tank heaters and/or the basking lamp also.  During the night, under tank heaters or ceramic heat emitters can be used to increase the ambient temperature as it will offer no light.

As with most reptiles, Red Eared Sliders do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert vitamin D3 into calcium and helps
prevent the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body causing the body to absorb calcium from the bones.

Feeding

Hatchlings and juveniles are highly carnivorous (prefer meat) and become omnivorous (eating both vegetation and meat) as adults.  The key to a healthy turtle is variety in their diet!  Aquatic plants such as algae and duck weed are relished by these chelonians but most owners offer romaine lettuce, cantaloupe, banana, kale, mango, and strawberries as treats.  Water hyacinth, water lettuce and water cress can easily be cultivated at home with some diligence and offer enrichment and nutrition.  Small fish (not goldfish), insects (crickets, earthworms, red worms), and snails are offered for the meat portion of their diet.

Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellets is recommended as well.  Some people prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets.

In the wild, these chelonians embark on daily foraging expeditions throughout their habitat even stealing food from the mouth of other turtles!  In captivity, feeding varies with age and the energy output of the turtle.  Hatchlings are fed two times a day as much as they will eat in 10-15 minutes. Adults are fed once a day and as much as they can consume in 10-15 minutes.  It is recommended to come up with a standard food amount for adult chelonians to be fed daily to monitor appetite changes.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly or the turtle is becoming obese then the food will need to be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

Common Medical Concerns

(Also see Common Health Problems)

Injuries
Very common in turtles who are housed together in small enclosures without adequate hiding spots.  Injuries caused by cage mate aggression are usually located on the legs, head, and tail.  Re-evaluation of the set-up is imperative and permanent separation may be the only solution.  All injuries should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Shell Rot
Commonly seen as pitting of the shell, sores on the shell, or damaged/lost scute coverings.  This can be a life threatening as well as disfiguring illness and must be addressed by a veterinarian.  If this is occurring, a re-evaluation of water quality and filtration is recommended.

Abscess
These swellings seen on one or both sides of the head are caused by poor water quality commonly.  These will not resolve on their own and must be treated by a veterinarian.

MBD
Metabolic bone disease is a major cause of deformity and death in hatchlings.  This is generally seen in turtles without access to UVB lighting, insufficient calcium supplementation, and those fed solely turtle pellets or dog/cat food.  This disease IS treatable by a veterinarian!  If the turtle is exhibiting a soft shell, limb deformities, or shell deformities, call for veterinary help as soon as possible.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
The General Care and Maintenance of Red Eared Sliders and Other Popular Freshwater Turtles, P. de Vosjoli
Life History and Ecology of the Slider Turtle, J. W. Gibbons

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

​Erica Mede, CVT

​Enclosure Style
Terrestrial
Natural Habitat
Tropical/Amazon Basin
Diet Style
Modified Omnivore
Life Span
>80 years
Size
12-18 inches(Carapace)
Temperature Range
 74-80 F (Basking 82-90 F)
Humidity
50-70%
UVB Required
Yes
Permits required in Illinois
None
Red Foot Tortoise
(Chelonoidis carbonaria)
Erica Mede, CVT
Red Foot tortoises, often referred to as Red Foots, the Red Footed tortoise, or the Savannah tortoise, is a moderate sized tortoise with most individuals reaching a carapace (top shell length) of 12-18 inches.  These South American chelonians are used to a moderate climate in the savannah to forest edges around the Amazon basin with a higher humidity than most of the larger tortoises seen in captivity.  Ventilation and air flow are very important however to prevent respiratory distress with the increased humidity.  Red Foots are an extremely popular tortoise in the pet trade primarily due to their moderate size and curious personalities.  They are very well represented in captivity especially in the southern United States.  The popularity of these long lived individuals causes problems in wild caught populations due to importation from Suriname and Guyana.  In the United States, there are many breeders who provide captive born tortoises.  Generally speaking, tortoises born domestically are smaller than their wild counterparts and exhibit pronounced scutes on their carapace, not to be confused with pyramiding.  Wild caught Red Foots tend to be larger individuals and exhibit smoother carapaces.
In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.   Domestically bred box turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.
Enclosure
The larger the enclosure the better!  Building custom enclosures is a viable option and has become quite popular. These tortoises grow extremely fast in their first ten years of life!  Enclosures ideally 4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 12 inch high are used to house a tortoise comfortably but larger is always better especially with larger individuals!
Rubbermaid containers and under the bed storage boxes are extremely popular options for housing tortoises of varying ages and sizes.  An adolescent Red Foot can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container or concrete mixing container.  The large open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.  These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy and can be modified to suit the tortoise’s needs.  Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over the holes.  If this method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially coming into contact with the tortoise.  Outdoor accommodations should have a small pond of water for swimming and wading as well as an enclosed shelter.  Outdoor enclosures must be predator and dig proof although this species is not overly prone to digging out of enclosures.

Enclosure Accessories
There should be two hide boxes available for Red Foot tortoises.  One should ideally be placed on the cooler side of the enclosure as well as one on the warmer side.  Tortoises appreciate hiding places especially during their daily naps.  Hide boxes can be created from all sorts of household items, half terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.  You can make these as naturalistic or basic as you desire.  It is necessary that the turtle be able to turn itself around in the hide area.
Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also offers enrichment and stimulation to the tortoise.  A word of caution though, plants must be non-toxic or if faux, be out of reach of the tortoise and their mouths! Cage accessories should be changed every week during cleaning to allow the tortoise to explore a new surrounding which not only stimulates their minds and feed a natural behavior but also gives them a reason to exercise.  Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and destruction of the plants.  During the spring and summer months, Red Foots relish the opportunity to wallow in mud.  Although messy, this is a phenomenal form of enrichment!
Water dishes should be offered not only for drinking but also for soaking.  Red Foots love soaking themselves and relieving themselves in their water bowls necessitating frequent changes.  The dish should be deep enough for the tortoise to cover up to their “elbows” when standing and large enough for them to maneuver in.  Soaking for 10 minutes in luke warm water 2-3 times a week will also work if a large enough water dish cannot be found although every effort should be made to offer a large dish or tray.Temperature
Red Foot tortoises thrive when their enclosures are kept between 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with a basking site of 82-90 degrees.  Day time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.  Basking lights are essential to normal thermoregulation behaviors.  All under tank heaters, heat tape, and heat cables should be regulated with a thermostat to prevent injuries such as burns.  It is strongly recommended all heating implements be attached to the outside of an enclosure.  During the night, the temperature can drop as low as 70 degrees.  The night time temperature should be maintained with a ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.  Large pig warming blankets are ideal for larger enclosures but again, must be maintained on a thermostat.
Please note, this is NOT a species that hibernates!

Humidity
These turtles do well in 50-70% humidity.  A dig box of moist dirt can be offered and used to maintain a higher humidity area around 80% which allows the tortoise to regulate its own humidity requirements.   This species loves to sit in mud wallows and this helps simulate that behavior.  Great care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.  These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the box turtle while maintaining humidity in the cage.  The substrate should always be moist enough to clump together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when pressed together in an owner’s hands.  Misting, daily spraying, and showers also helps increase humidity as well.

Lighting
Red Foot tortoises, like all reptilian herbivores, require daily exposure to ultraviolet B radiation (UVB lighting).  A Tropical 25 bulb (T25) from Zilla or a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb from ZooMed helps prevent and correct calcium deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.  UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light cycle which should be roughly 12 hours a day.  All UVB bulbs must be no more than 24 inches away from the tortoise, directly overhead and no closer than 12 inches.  The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it is still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is being produced.
No lighting is needed at night and is actually contraindicated.  Tortoises are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.  The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some tortoises and should be avoided.  If supplemental heat during evening hours is needed, an under tank heater, large pig warming blanket, or a ceramic heat emitter can be utilized.

Substrate
Substrate is one of the most highly debated topics, other than UVB lighting, in reptile husbandry.  Bedding, such as Jungle Mix is completely appropriate but requires frequent maintenance to prevent excess of feces, urine, and urates being collected as it is easy to over look it in naturalistic bedding.  As long as substrate is spot cleaned daily and replaced at least monthly, a Red Foot tortoise can be maintained on naturalistic bedding.
For those that may not be able to maintain a full naturalistic set up for substrate, an absorbent layer such as indoor/outdoor carpet, paper towel, newspaper, or butcher paper can be laid on the bottom of the enclosure and covered with timothy hay.  The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little extra toe exercise as a tortoise maneuvers over the textured terrain.  The carpet underneath is an excellent barrier between the tortoise and the enclosure floor, especially when under tank heaters are utilized.  Items such as alfalfa pellets can be utilized as well.
Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as needed.

Diet
Red Foot tortoises are primarily herbivores but do require a higher protein level than most herbivores due to their natural habitat.  With this being said, a small amount of protein such as 1-2 earthworms should be offered once every two weeks. Unlike their cousins in the African savannahs, Red Foot tortoises are attracted primarily to broad leafy plants and are opportunistic grazers of grasses and weeds.
A stable diet of 60% dark leafy greens and grasses, 15% vegetables, 15% fruit, and 10% appropriate pelleted diets (Mazuri tortoise diet or ZooMed Forest Tortoise diet).  Greens and vegetables should primarily focus on calcium rich dark leafy greens (red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, etc) and beta-carotene rich foods (carrots, parsnip, sweet potato, etc).
Avoid feeding broccoli, spinach, and kale in large quantities as these foods cause significant gastrointestinal and urinary issues including stones.  Avoid feeding dog or cat food as the excessively high protein levels can cause severe kidney problems.  It helps to remember that Red Foot tortoises are naturally attracted to flowers, red foods, and green leaves.
Juveniles should ideally be fed every day while adults should be fed every other.  A calcium supplement should be used 2-3 times a week and a multi-vitamin once a week to help balance the diet.  Tortoises should be fed during the day and misted prior to eating to stimulate a feeding response.  For finicky eaters, finely chopped salads and even pureed salads will help to train these turtles to eat properly.

This guide is to help you start with good husbandry techniques.  Personal preference and desire will shape how you keep your reptiles and that is completely fine.  Everyone keeps their pets differently and this guide is not exhaustive in the details of how to keep your pet.  Instead, we offer a jumping off point for owners.  Enjoy the journey of husbandry!  It is an exceptional bonding exercise for you and your pet!
– The Chicago Exotics Staff

​​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Natural History

Found naturally in the dry open landscapes of Aghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China this tortoise is also known as the Steppe tortoise, the Afghanistan tortoise, the Russian Box Turtle, and the Four-Toed tortoise.  Most Russian tortoises in the pet trade in the United States are wild caught and imported.  Despite being wild caught, Russian tortoises seem to remain active, friendly, and fascinating!

Description

Russian tortoises are a small species of tortoise with a brownish to black shell that fades to a tan color closer to where the scutes connect to one another.  The amount of tan varies with individuals.  The plastron of the Russian tortoise is a brownish color with large dark brown to black blotches. Their thick, stocky limbs make locomotion across smooth surfaces interesting but they are adept at moving over uneven terrain.  The shell length is typically between 6 and 10 inches with females being on the higher end of the range.  Russian tortoises have a skin color of yellow to light brown. These tortoises are friendly and curious by nature and learn to enjoy human interaction.

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure the better!  Hatchlings and small juveniles can be kept in glass aquariums but will out grow them.  Aquariums for adults must be large not only to offer the appropriate space needed for daily exercise and enrichment via foraging behaviors but also to allow for better air circulation.  A 75-gallon aquarium or larger is suitable for most adults.  Building custom enclosures with Plexi-glass, acrylic, wood, or screen is possible and allows for custom sizing.  It is suggested to research “tortoise tables” on the internet for ideas on materials and dimensions.  If wood is used it is recommended to seal the wood against moisture and allow it to sit for 48 hours prior to introduction of the animal.  Custom cages should be around 4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 8-12 inches deep depending on the length of the tortoise.

Rubbermaid storage containers and under the bed storage boxes are extremely popular options for housing tortoises of all ages.  An adult Russian tortoise can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container.  The large open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.  These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy and can be modified to suit the tortoise’s needs.  Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over the holes.  If this method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially coming into contact with the tortoise.

Cage Accessories

There should be two hide boxes available for Russian tortoises.  One should be positioned on the cooler side of the cage as well as the warmer side. Russians appreciate hiding places especially for their daily naps.  Hide boxes can be created from cork bark half logs, half terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.  It is necessary that the tortoise be able to turn itself around in the hide area.

Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also offers enrichment and stimulation to the tortoise.  Cage accessories should be changed every week during cleaning to allow for the tortoise to explore a new surrounding which not only stimulates their minds and feeds a natural behavior but also gives them a reason to exercise.  Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and destruction of the plants.

Water dishes should be offered not only for drinking but for soaking.  Russian tortoises enjoy soaking themselves and relieving themselves in their water bowls.  Daily cleaning will likely be needed.  The dish should be deep enough for the tortoise to cover up to their “elbows” when standing.  If a water dish deep enough for soaking cannot be provided it is recommended to soak the tortoise for 10 minutes in luke warm water 2-3 times a week.

Temperature

Russian tortoises thrive when their enclosures are kept between 70° and 80° degrees Fahrenheit during the day with a basking site reaching 95 degrees.   Day time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.  It is recommended that under tank heaters, heat cable, and heat tape be monitored and maintained with a thermostat to prevent injuries such as burns.  It is strongly recommended that ALL heating implements be attached to the outside of an enclosure and not inside despite the packaging claims.  Placing heat cable or heat tape inside an enclosure can severely burn the tortoise.  During the night, the temperature can drop as low as 70 degrees.  The night time temperature should be maintained with a ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.

Humidity

Naturally being found in drier regions with open landscapes the humidity in the enclosure should be 40-50%.  The dig box of dirt being maintained as a moist dig box will have a humidity around 70% itself when the tortoise digs into it and buries itself.  The moist dig box simulates the burrows Russian tortoises inhabit when humidity needs to be increased.

Lighting

Russian tortoises like all reptilian herbivores require daily exposure to UVB lighting.  A 5.0 ReptiSun bulb helps prevent and correct calcium deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.  UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light cycle which should be 12 hours a day.  All UVB bulbs must be no more than 18-20 inches away from the tortoise directly overhead and no closer than 12 inches.  The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it is still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is being produced.

No lighting is needed at night and is actually contraindicated.  Tortoises are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.  The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some tortoises and should be avoided.  If extra heat is needed an under tank heater or a ceramic heat emitter which gives off no light can be used.

Substrate

Reptile carpet or indoor/outdoor carpet with timothy hay on top is a great substrate for the Russian tortoise.  The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little extra toe exercise as the tortoise maneuvers over the textured terrain.  The carpet underneath is an excellent barrier between the tortoise and the enclosure floor especially when under tank heaters or heat cable is used for heating the enclosure.  Other substrates to consider are newspaper/newsprint and paper towel especially for the younger tortoises to monitor defecation.

Russian tortoises are known diggers and a “dig box” of just top soil (no additives) should be provided to all tortoises.  Great care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.  These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the tortoise while maintaining humidity in the cage.  The substrate should always be moist enough to clump together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when pressed together in an owner’s hands.

Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as needed.

Feeding

Russian tortoises are grazers by design ingesting any dry and fresh grass, leaf, stalk, or flower they come across during their daily foraging.  Their natural diet is high in fiber and low in protein.  A stable diet of broad leafy plants mixed with grasses (timothy, orchard, meadow, etc) is necessary such as escarole, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, endive, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, chicory, and mustard greens.  Dandelion greens tend to be a particular favorite of most tortoises.  These tortoises are crepuscular which means they are the most active in the early morning and evening.  Feeding should be done in the early morning.

Fruit should be avoided in the Russian tortoise diet as this is not natural to their diet.  Additions of fruit can cause bloat and should be avoided.  Flowers are an excellent alternative to fruit in the diet and can be offered as incentive to handling.  Hibiscus, hostas, roses, and mulberry leaves are generally relished and these treats are may be taken from an owners hand when offered.


SIGNS OF A SICK TORTOISE

Tortoises are especially susceptible to respiratory ailments and nutritional deficiencies. Signs to watch for include lethargy, bubbling from the nose, wheezing, swollen or closed eyes, lack of appetite for more than 2-3 days, loose stools, soft shell or abnormal shell growth or beak growth. Pictured below is a Russian with multiple problems related to husbandry and nutrition.

​Pictured below is a Russian with infected submandibular glands.  This is not to be confused with aural (ear) infections.  These glands are located under the jaw.  Any abnormal swellings or discharge from the nostrils or mouth should be checked out by your veterinarian right away.  We have been seeing a lot of tortoise herpes in the Mediterranean tortoises lately.
Sources and Suggested Readings

Russian Tortoises (Complete Herp Care), E. J. Pirog
Pet Owner’s Guide to the Tortoise, Simon J. Girling
Tortoises: A Beginner’s Guide to Tortoise Care, Andrew Highfield and Nadine Highfield

​​​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

Throughout central and south eastern United States , the soft sandy and muddy bottoms of rivers, lakes and ponds are home to the unique soft shell turtle.  These beautiful animals make unique display pets that will entertain folks for 30-40 years!  The Florida soft shell (Apalone ferox), Smooth soft shell (Apalone mutica), and the Spiny soft shell (Apalone spinifera) are the most commonly kept soft shells in captivity.

These turtles are exceptionally agile swimmers with lightening fast response time.  The Spiny and Smooth are up to 14 inches long and the Florida soft shell is a massive 24 inches long just in the carapace length.  The males are significantly smaller than the females.  The unique skin covered flattened carapace is devoid of scutes but there are firm carapacial bones over the spine and ribs just as there is in other turtles.  Their long snorkel like nose combined with their long necks allow them to remain submerged on the bottom of the river floor while still being able to breath.  The nostrils will poke through the surface of the water just like a periscope.

A word of caution with handling!  These animals have delicate skin which can be abraded easily.  Treat them gently and only handle them when necessary.  Also, their impressive claws on their feet and ability to stretch their necks half way down their carapace are excellent reasons to avoid handling.  The “fleshy” looking lips hide a very sharp cutting edge of their beak that can cause injuries deep enough for stitches.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Map turtles and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Map turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.

Quarantine

It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animals’ behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately (typically after) from the other chelonians.

Enclosure

The larger the enclosure for juveniles and adults the better!  This species loves to swim and bury themselves on the bottom of their enclosures.  Many even enjoy items such as ping pong balls floating on the water surface as a toy!  These turtles need to be placed in a low traffic area.  It is strongly encouraged to house these animals alone or in a breeding pair but caution should be used.

Young turtles can be kept in 20 gallon long aquariums but will quickly need to be relocated to a 40 gallon breeder aquarium when they reach the juvenile and sub adult stage.  Most adults (especially females) will require a 50-100 gallon aquarium or equivalent enclosure.  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well.  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 9 inches, it will require 54 inches of aquarium floor space.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and Koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!

Substrate and Water Quality

With soft shell turtles, it is recommended to have a layer of thick, fine quality sand as substrate in the tank.  This sand must be fine and of high quality to prevent the turtle’s delicate skin from being damaged.  Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians as they offer mechanical and biofiltration.  Canister filters are generally less stressful to aquatics as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the sand should be removed from the tank and replaced.  All cage furnishings should be removed and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water every 2-4 weeks as well.

The water for these turtles is critically important!  These are fresh water turtles who enjoy remaining submerged so the chlorine free water depth should be just to the level of the proboscis (the nose) when buried under the sand.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep the water clean.  It is critical to maintain the pH balance between 6.6 – 7.6 and a slightly brackish salinity.

Temperatures

Typically, the water temperature should be maintained between 74°F and 84°F depending on if it is a Southern species (towards the warm end) or a Northern species (towards the cool end).  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  Water temperature can be maintained using a submersible water heater or under tank heater on a thermostat.  If a submersible water heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns and biting.  A general rule of thumb is a 75 watt heater will work for a 40 gallon tank, a 55 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank, and a 200 watt heater for a 100 gallon aquarium.

The basking light should be over a flat stone such as slate or log.  Basking sites should be between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit and easily accessible to the chelonian.  Metal clamp lamps work well for these sites.  The ambient temperature of the tank can be increased with under tank heaters and/or the basking lamp as well and maintained at 74-80°F.  During the night, under tank heaters or ceramic heat emitters can be used to increase the ambient temperature as it will offer no light.

Light Cycle

As with most reptiles, soft shell turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert vitamin D3 into calcium and helps prevent the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body causing the body to absorb calcium from the bones.

Feeding

Hatchlings and juveniles are highly carnivorous (preferring meat) and become omnivorous (eating both vegetation and meat) as adults.  The key to a healthy turtle is variety in their diet!  Aquatic plants such as algae and duck weed are relished by these chelonians but most owners offer romaine lettuce, cantaloupe, banana, kale, mango, and strawberries as treats.  Water hyacinth, water lettuce and water cress can easily be cultivated at home with some diligence and offer enrichment and nutrition.  Small to medium sized fish (not goldfish), insects (crickets, earthworms, red worms), and snails are offered for the meat portion of their diet.  Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellets is recommended as well.  Some people prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets or Mazuri Freshwater turtle diet.

In the wild, these chelonians embark on daily foraging expeditions throughout their habitat even stealing food from the mouth of other turtles!  In captivity, feeding varies with age and the energy output of the turtle.  Hatchlings are fed two times a day as much as they will eat in 10-15 minutes.  Adults are fed once a day and as much as they can consume in 10-15 minutes.  It is recommended to come up with a standard food amount for adult chelonians to be fed daily to monitor appetite changes.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly or the turtle is becoming obese then the food will need to be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
The General Care and Maintenance of Red Eared Sliders and Other Popular Freshwater Turtles, P. de Vosjoli
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust, ​www.tortoisetrust.org

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Natural History

Sulcatas are found along the southern edge of the Sahara in Africa and created large burrows and tunnels during the dry season to escape the heat and dry conditions.  This species of tortoise was first imported into the United States in 1980 and has become a prolific captive breeding species!  Sadly, there is a decreasing population in the wild due to habitat destruction and human influence but in captivity there is an over population.  The Sulcata is listed as a CITES Appendix 2 species which means that captive bred tortoises can be sold and traded but wild caught tortoises are strictly protected.

Description

The record weight for a large male Sulcata was over 230 pounds and had a carapace over 2.5 feet long.  As with all animals, Sulcata tortoises grow at individual rates but all hatchlings and young tortoises grow fast.  The Sulcata is the fastest growing tortoise, especially in the first five years of life.  In optimal climates this species can easily reach 100 pounds within 15 years.  However, in the Midwestern United States and along the northern East coast of the United States , most stay around 30-50 lbs with few individuals becoming larger than that.  Despite the different climates these animals are kept in one thing proves the same across the board, Sulcatas are a hardy species.  Most Sulcatas in captivity have a longevity of 30-50 years and up to 120 years in the wild.

The carapace of Sulcatas is wider than it is tall.  In the wild, most individuals have a light tan carapace but dark brown is a common color especially in colder climates.  Sulcatas are called “spur thighed” due to the large conical projections on the back of the rear legs that act as another defense against predation.  Below the head there is a gular spike which is an extension of the plastron and used to flip rivals during courtship.

The Sulcata tortoise has three defense mechanisms.  The first is to retract the limbs under the shell.  The second is to hiss loudly.  If the tortoise is picked up it will urinate copiously which is the third defense mechanism.

Sexing

The male Sulcata tortoise has a longer, thicker tail and the anal scute of the plastron (right by the tail) is wider even at a young age.  The female has a shorter tail than the male.  Males have a concave plastron for aiding with copulation and also have larger gular scutes under the head  for flipping rivals.

Enclosure

Sulcata tortoises are diurnal often retreating to shelter once dark.  Logs and bushes make excellent shelters as do turned over cement mixing trays with a door cut out, wooden hide boxes, etc.  All enclosures should be tortoise proof.  Solid wood trim or ram resistant bricks are essential for indoor and outdoor enclosures larger than aquarium tanks.  As the tortoise grows, a custom built wooden enclosure will be required.

Hatchlings can be kept in a 10 gallon tank and increased in size from there.  Remember, as your tortoise grows he will need a custom enclosure!  This is not a species that can be kept in aquariums all their lives.  Many people think they will not outgrow their cage like goldfish.  In both instances, of the tortoise and the goldfish, this is false and they will continue to grow despite cramped conditions.  As hatchlings grow they will need a two foot by two foot cage up to a four foot by eight foot cage.  A turtle table is an excellent set-up for hatchlings and juveniles and many plans for these enclosures can be found on the internet.

Indoor enclosures should be spacious and heated.  Adults will require brick, concrete, and armored glass.  Some people use heated basements or attics where the whole or at least most of the space can be dedicated to the tortoise enclosure.  The enclosure space should be at least four times the carapace length.  If two animals are being kept together, double the size of the enclosure and add an additional 10% for each animal after three tortoises.  A trio of similar sized Sulcatas can be housed together in an enclosure that measures 16 feet by 16 feet.

Outdoor enclosures should be large, sunny, and protected from the wind and predators.  An adjoining spacious and heatable building is required if the tortoise is to remain outdoors year round.  Remember, the driest season in the mid-western United States is like the rainy season in its natural African habitat.  Some people use a green house to house their tortoise.  Leopard tortoises can learn to use a rubber flap dog door.  The enclosure should be free of large trees or high shrubs that will create large areas of shade.  Check with your local authorities before constructing any outdoor pen as permits may be required.  If the temperature is constantly below 60°F degrees bring the tortoise inside.  The fence to any out door area should be at least 12-24 inches into the ground and at least 18-24 inches in height.  A word of caution, escape attempts never cease and these tortoises will climb wire mesh fences or will tunnel under.  The tunnels can be up to 25 times the length of the carapace!

Substrate

Substrate for young tortoises should be rather simple and easily cleaned.  The most recommended substrate for juveniles is reptile carpet or butcher paper with hay on top of it.  Rabbit pellets are frequently used in the pet trade for hatchlings to juveniles but recently has been found to cause deformities in these fast growers due to improper positioning of limbs in hatchlings.   Ideally adults should be housed with hay substrate for their outdoor and indoor enclosures as well.  Daily spot cleaning is required with a complete substrate change every 2-3 weeks.  Gravid females (females with eggs) may require a dig box of dirt and sand to lay their eggs and adults in general love to dig.  Sulcatas are one of the three true tunnel digging tortoise species.  Rocks, tree trunks, boulders, and roots create obstacles and mental stimulation.

Lighting

The lighting in the cage should replicate the lighting of the wild.  There should be a high level of illumination and heat.  Adults with large pens will require several UVB bulbs.  All tortoises should be exposed to UVB light or natural sunlight for at least 8 hours a day and total illumination for 10-14 hours.

Temperature and Humidity

Relative humidity of 40-60% is ideal during the day and 70-80% at night which can be accomplished by misting the substrate at night.  During the day the temperatures should be in the 80’s with a basking spot around 95 degrees.  At night the temperatures should not drop below 72 degrees.  A consistent heating regiment can be maintained using basking bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, mercury bulbs (when the enclosures are larger), and under tank heaters.  In the cases of large adults, pig heat blankets may need to be used.

Feeding (See our feeding Sulcatas handout)

Diet is the most important aspect of tortoise care and sadly, one of the most neglected and misunderstood.  Feeding foods to high in fat and protein will cause accelerated growth, shell deformities, and other health problems that will severely shorten the life of your pet.  Never feed bread, cookies, oats, pasta, rice, or cat/dog food!  These are harmful to your pet’s nutrition and health!

The primary portion (75-80%) of the Sulcata tortoise diet should be grass and hay high in fiber.  Grasses (not rye grass), weeds, leaves, and flowers are essential to good health.  Fiber deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease and diarrhea while also making them susceptible to parasites.  A pasture of grass, dandelion, herbs, and clover outdoors is the best option for these animals.  If a pasture is restricted due to size, fresh cut works as well.  Orchard grass/hay, timothy grass/hay, and Bermuda grass/hay are excellent especially during those winter months when the tortoise may be housed inside.  Sulcata tortoises should be given as much opportunity to graze outdoors as possible.

Vegetables and fruit should be fed out in smaller portions.  Vegetables should make up around 20-25% of the diet.  Too much fruit will cause diarrhea and colic.  Chopped salads are an excellent way to ensure a tortoise does not pick out their favorite foods only.   Vegetables for human consumption are high in protein and fruits are high in sugar both of which in excess are harmful to your tortoise.  Moderation is key in this case.  Dark leafy greens, endive, and cactus pads are favorites as well as pumpkin!  For picky eaters, red vegetables and sweet foods tempt even the most reluctant eaters.

Calcium supplements should be given to adult tortoises two times a week.  Actively reproductive females should be given the calcium every day while gravid until they lay their eggs.  Calcium supplements should not have phosphorous in it.  Juveniles should be given calcium four times a week and vitamin-mineral supplements once a week until growing slows.  Hatchlings are given vitamin-mineral supplements once a week and calcium daily.

Clean, fresh water should always be available to Leopard tortoises.  These tortoises have an ability to store substantial amounts of fluid and also to discharge the substantial amounts of fluid as a defense mechanism as well.   Soaking weekly is recommended.  Water should be provided in a shallow water hole, pan or bowl depending on the enclosure.

References and Sources

Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises (Complete Herp Care), E.J. Pirog
Turtles of the World (Volumes 3), Holger Vetter
Leopard and African Spurred Tortoise: Stigmochelys pardalis and Centrochelys sulcata, Holger Vetter
The Care and Breeding of the African Spurred Tortoise Geochelone sulcata, Richard Wilson
African Spurred Tortoise Geochelone Sulcata In Captivity, Russ Gurley

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

What you feed your Sulcata is critical to its health and development

Sulcata tortoises evolved to deal with life in a semi-arid environment, where the only food available for much of the year is dry grasses and weeds. Sulcata tortoises require a very high-fiber, grass-based diet to stay healthy. If you feed the wrong foods to your tortoise, it will grow too quickly, develop a bumpy, pyramided shell, and may develop other health problems that could drastically shorten its lifespan.

Common Dietary Problems with Sulcata tortoises

There are five common dietary problems that owners of sulcata tortoises typically encounter when feeding their tortoises:

  1. Not providing enough fiber
  2. Providing too much protein
  3. Giving fruit or other sugary foods to grazing tortoises like sulcata and leopard torts
  4. Not providing enough calcium, or the right calcium/phosphorus balance
  5. Generally overfeeding the tortoise

How to Avoid These Common Dietary Problems

You are responsible for the health and well-being of your tortoise, so you must make the effort to feed the right foods, and in the right quantities. Here are a few suggestions to help you avoid the typical dietary pitfalls:

1. Provide enough fiber by feeding your tortoise a diet that is based predominantly on grasses with some edible weeds, leaves and flowers, as described in more detail below.

2. AVOID giving your tortoise foods that contain high levels of protein. This means that you should NEVER give your sulcata tortoise the following foods.

  • Cheese or dairy products of any kind
  • Cat or dog food of any kind
  • Legumes (peas, beans, green beans, soybeans or soy-based products like tofu)
  • Commercially available “tortoise diets” (such as Pretty Pets, Mazuri, Zoo Med, etc.)
  • Grains and Grain products (corn, wheat, barley, rye, etc.)
  • Vegetables in large quantities-All types of produce grown for human consumption-even dark leafy greens – are too high in protein for sulcata tortoises to thrive on. However, SMALL quantities, given ONCE IN A WHILE as a treat, don’t seem to be harmful.

3. AVOID giving your sulcata fruit! Even though sulcata love fruit, it’s best NOT to give them any, if possible. Grazing tortoise species such as leopard and sulcata rely on beneficial bacteria in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat.  If you give your tortoise large amounts of fruit, the acids and sugars in the fruit can actually change the pH of the tortoise’s digestive tract, and this pH change can cause the beneficial bacteria in the tortoise’s gut to die off. When large quantities of gut bacteria die, they release toxins that can cross the gut wall and enter the tortoise’s bloodstream, causing the tortoise to experience a form of Toxic Shock Syndrome that can be fatal.

4. Provide the right amounts of calcium and avoid foods that prevent calcium absorption. Sulcata tortoises require a great deal of calcium in their diet to help them grow healthy bones and shells. The Sahel area of Africa where sulcata naturally occur is a semi-arid region that has calcium-rich soils. Wild sulcata tortoises therefore get sufficient calcium by eating the grasses that grow in these calcium-laden soils.

Think about where you live and how you feed your tortoise. If you live in a semi-arid or arid area with little rainfall, the calcium levels in your local soil will be relatively high. Any grasses grown in such a calcium-rich soil will also be high in calcium, so if you allow your tortoise to graze at will on grasses grown in this soil, you might not have to give your tortoise much in the way of calcium supplements.

In choosing a calcium supplement, make sure you choose one that does NOT contain Phosphorus. Calcium (CA) and Phosphorus (P) are both necessary to build healthy bone tissue. However, the phosphorus available in most food items is used much more readily by the tortoise’s body than calcium, so you really don’t need to supply any additional phosphorus to your tortoise.

Rep-Cal is a good calcium supplement, and is available at many pet stores. However, a large bag of plain, powdered limestone (calcium carbonate) will probably cost you a lot less. You can find 50-pound bags of calcium carbonate at livestock supply stores or feed stores that sell poultry supplies. The best way to use Rep-Cal or powdered calcium carbonate is to sprinkle a small amount lightly over the tortoise’s food on a regular basis.

Certain foods contain oxalic acid compounds that prevent the body from absorbing calcium from food. You should AVOID feeding your tortoise the following foods regularly because of the oxalic acids in them:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Mustard Greens
  • Cauliflower

5. AVOID over-feeding your tortoise. Sulcata tortoises can experience a variety of health problems when they are fed the wrong foods-but they can also have problems when they are fed too much of the right foods.  Overfeeding is the single biggest mistake that most tortoise keepers make. Reptiles have slower metabolisms than mammals like dogs and cats, so they really do not need to take in as much food as you might think.

You should also consider the activity level of your tortoise. Can he go outdoors and walk around a secure yard everyday? Or does he stay indoors on a small tortoise table? If your tortoise is mostly sedentary, he doesn’t need to be fed every day-really! Every other day is fine, even though he may look up at you with pleading eyes in between feedings. A certain amount of “tough love” is required on your part to not give in.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Other

Shannon RW Brandl, CVT and Susan Horton, DVM
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Introduction

Aquatic turtles are very common as pets. Unfortunately they are also more difficult to care for than most people realize. Often times, inadequate care results in various health problems for turtles.  The most common turtles currently seen in the pet trade are: sliders, painted turtles, soft shell turtles, snappers, mud and musk turtles and map turtles.  Keep in mind that many other species are available, and one should always research the natural history of a particular species of turtle to properly care for it.

Captive Care Requirements

Housing
his varies according to size, number and species of turtle being kept.  A good rule of thumb for minimum cage size is that the combined carapace (shell) size of all turtles should not exceed 25% of the enclosures’ floor surface area.

Water Quality

This is absolutely one of the most important aspects of an aquatic turtles’ health. Poor water quality can quickly cause shell infections or even death.

  1. We recommend a bare bottom tank. A gravel bottom is harder to keep clean and turtles will often eat smaller pieces of gravel, which can cause serious problems.
  2. A good filtration system is necessary. The kind of filter you get depends on the size of the tank and number of turtles in the tank. Canisters filters or over the side filters are recommended. Remember to change the filter media frequently.
  3. Frequent water changes are necessary even if a good filtration system is in place. If the tank water begins to have an odor- it is overdue for a water change.  Use a dechorinator (and potentially one that handles chloramines as well).
  4. Periodically scrub and rinse the enclosure well to help remove residual bacterial growth buildup.
  5. After a water change, be sure to allow water temperature to return to normal rage before returning the turtle to its tank. Rapid water temperature changes can harm turtles.
  6. Salinity.  Research your turtle’s salt requirements.  Some species require a higher or lower  salinity at different stages of development.  Use a hydrometer to measure your water salinity and adjust as necessary.  I use the sea salt made for salt water aquarium fish when creating a brackish environment.

Unclean water conditions will cause severe shell erosion and ulceration, dermatitis, anemia, sepsis, and death.  Compare the healthy slider on the left to the poor fellow on the right.  Notice the differences in the skin and shell condition.  The fellow on the right became ill because of being kept inappropriately.  He will take months to heal and will be permanently scared.

Temperature

The water temperature should remain constant. A good range is 75-80 degrees. This is best accomplished with the use of a submersible aquarium heater. Use a heater protector over the heater to prevent burns if the turtle were to touch the heater when the heating element was on. Also, use a thermometer to help regulate the water temperature.

Basking area

​A dry area is necessary for the turtle to crawl out of the water, dry off and bask. The area can be made of a variety of materials but should allow the turtle to be completely out of the water and sturdy enough that is won’t collapse or tip over and trap a turtle under water.  There are some great acrylic ramps being made that are perfect for this purpose.   The air over this area should be slightly warmer than the surrounding air temperature. (80-85 degrees) This can be accomplished using a light bulb and reflector hood directed at the site.   A low wattage mercury vapor bulb works well.  The bulb wattage will need to be adjusted according to the tanks’ environmental conditions. Remember to always use a thermometer.

  1. Carnivorous – Offer a mix of commercial turtle pellets (combine 4-5 different kinds). Also offer live food. This includes: earthworms, slugs, snails, guppies, and freshwater smelt. (Wild caught sticklebacks and mosquito fish should not be fed because they can carry serious parasites)
  2. Herbivorous – Offer commercial pellet mix and a variety of greens including: kale, mustard greens, collard greens, and dandelion greens. Also, some aquatic plants such as hornwort and anacharis can be offered.
  3. Omnivorous – Offer a variety of foods from both lists.

Many turtles are carnivorous as juveniles and become more herbivorous as they mature.  Adjust their diet accordingly.

Lighting

A full spectrum fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb providing UVB light should be provided over the tank. Fluorescent bulbs should be no more than 12” from the basking site and should be placed on a timer to provide 12 hour light and dark cycles.  The fluorescent bulbs need to be replaced every 6-12 months, mercury vapor, every 3 years. There also should not be any plastic or glass between the bulb and the animal. A screen to is acceptable.At any sign of illness, the turtle should be checked by a veterinarian familiar with reptiles.   The most common household hazard for turtles is dogs. A dog can easily puncture the shell causing serious and life threatening damage. A turtle bitten by a dog should immediately be taken to a veterinarian.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

​Susan Horton, DVM

So many of the health problems we see with turtles and tortoise are related to improper environment or feeding.  Please research your specific breed’s requirements carefully.  I recommend UVB light for all turtles and tortoises.

Pictured here are some problems I see in practice.  If you recognize one of these problems in your turtle or tortoise , set up an appointment with us today!

Infection

Pictured below is redness found around the edges of the shell and where the skin and shell meet.  This is a sign of severe infection.

Severe infection around shell edges

Aural (Ear) Abscess

​Pictured below is one of the more common problems I see.  It is an aural (ear) abscess.  These can form from either infection, vitamin A deficiency, or both.  Fixing the problem involves correcting the diet, treating the infection, and removing the caseation (puss) in the ear canal.

Aural (ear) abscess

Aural (ear) abscess

With anesthesia and proper pain control (analgesia) the caseation is removed. The turtles pictured below and above made full recoveries.

Prolapsed Hemipenes

​Pictured below are a variety of prolapsed hemipenes.  The hemipene is a copulatory locking organ for reproduction found in the male.  In turtles and tortoises, it does not contain the urethra.  The prolapse can happen for several reasons ranging from MBD, trauma, infection, to cancer.  Most of these prolapses can be completely fixed if they come into the hospital as soon as it happens.  If to much time passes, as with the second picture, amputation is the only cure.

Fluid Under the Skin

Pictured below is a turtle with a pocket of fluid under the skin.  We call this edema.  This is what a burn can look like in a turtle that has come into contact with something hot.  In this case, the turtle’s enclosure was placed outside in the sun, and most of the water had evaporated.  The floor of the enclosure became to hot.

Fluid Under Skin

​Shell Damage

Turtles and tortoises should always be protected from the family dog or any other outside predators, no matter how big the tortoise is.  This poor fellow was attacked by the family dog.  See Happy Turtle Stories for shell repair examples.

​Tortoise Herpes

We’ve seen a lot of Tortoise Herpes virus lately.  The Mediterranean tortoises seem most susceptible, but it can appear in many species.  There is good medicine if it is caught early on.  Pictured below is a Sulcata with tortoise herpes.  The classic sign is white plaques in the oral cavity. It is only contagious to turtles, people need not worry about themselves.

Tortoise Herpes

​Critical Care

Critically ill turtles may need to stay in the hospital.  Pictured below is a turtle with a feeding tube placed in his esophagus.  This tube is helpful when medicine and feeding will be needed for a long time.

Feeding tube

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

By Phillippe De Vosjoli
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Husbandry factors are a common cause of many of the health problems affecting tortoises. Addressing husbandry issues is a critical component of the veterinary treatment of these popular animals.

Tortoises are members of the turtle family Testudinidae. Because of their mechanical-toy appearance, docility and endearing faces, tortoises remain among the most popular of all reptile pets. Thousands of imports and captive-bred tortoises are now sold annually in the pet trade, often to buyers who are uninformed about husbandry requirements. As a result, tortoises are among the reptiles most commonly seen by veterinarians.

Special Features

Tortoises have taken a unique evolutionary path. The normal defense of flight or aggression adopted by most reptiles has been replaced by the evolution of armor in the form of a shell. The tortoise shell (a vertebrate exoskeleton) has a compact rounded form with a low relative surface-to-volume ratio. What the implications? The shell offers minimal surface exposure to predators. Moreover, in terms of thermoregulation, heat once stored is retained for a long time. A tortoise that has been out basking may feel warm hours later as it rests in the insulating confines of its shelter. Because up to 50% of a tortoise’s weight (more in the case of thin animals) can consist of shell that is mostly skeleton, there are few species in which the effects of a multifactorial model of herpetoculture can be more easily observed.

Depending on how tortoises are raised, you will see in the course of their development differences in shell-to-body ratios and variations in shell, beak and nail growth. It should come as no surprise that various deformities and related health problems are common in captive-raised tortoises.

Selection

If one excludes the small numbers of rarer tortoises bred by specialists, the tortoise species sold in greatest numbers to the general public are the African spurred tortoise, the Leopard tortoise (now bred by the thousands annually) and the Russian tortoise, which is still imported by the thousands from Russia . Smaller numbers of Forest Hingeback tortoises are also imported for the general pet trade.

As a rule, the smaller species, particularly the Russian and Greek tortoises, are better choices as pets than the large tropical species, which will eventually require either outdoor pens (in warmer areas) or room-sized enclosures and expensive heating and lighting. Some species of tropical tortoises, such as the South American red-footed and yellow-footed tortoise, are especially suited for areas with a high relative humidity (70%+).

Housing

Except for juveniles up to 4″ long (which can initially be raised in tanks 36-48″ long), tortoises should be kept in sizeable pens, at least 12 ft square and preferably 24 ft square for smaller species. Their need for space makes many species unsuitable as long-term indoor pets. Larger species, such as African spurred and leopard tortoises, can exceed 60 pounds (e.g., 200 pounds for a very large African spurred) and require pens at least 16′ x 8′ for smaller animals and 16′ x 16′ for larger ones. If kept indoors, these tortoises will require room-sized enclosures that will be challenging to maintain.


Landscaping outdoor enclosures

All tortoises require shelter in order to feel secure and be free of the debilitating effects of chronic stress. Many keepers construct wood shelters for large species. Small dog houses or half-houses such as the plastic types with a top and snap-on bottom, can be provided for smaller species.

Other keepers successfully use clay flower pots placed on their sides and half buried in substrate. In addition, shelter and shade for savannah species, such as African spurred and Leopard tortoises, should be provided by shrubs or large grasses. Tortoises especially prefer shelters that lightly brush along the top of the carapace (top shell) when entered. The touch likely simulates that of foliage in the wild and can imitated with burlap, cloth or plastic, dried foliage or (if not eaten) artificial plants.

Leopard and Marginated tortoises have a domed shell that differs from the broad, dorso-ventrally flattened shell of the Gopher, Russian and African spurred tortoises. The latter are typically burrowers and ideally should be provided with enough substrate in which to construct burrows. An alternative is to dig hollows in the ground and cover them with wooden boards. Burrowing tortoises will choose to hide under the wood.

Temperature

As with other reptiles, providing the optimal temperature range for thermo-regulation is critical for the welfare of tortoises. Failure to provide adequate heat is a key factor in many diseases of these animals, including acute problems (such as life-threatening respiratory infections) and chronic disorders (such as shell deformities).

During warm months with daytime temperatures of greater than 75 degrees F (24 degrees C), tortoises placed in outdoor thermoregulate without the expense of spotlights and other heating devices. When housed indoors, tortoises should be offered a basking site under spotlights that can create a spot temperature of 85-90 degrees F (30-33 degrees C). All heat sources should be limited to only a portion of the enclosure. Ideally, both a thermometer and thermostat should be used to regulate the temperature at the basking site. The rest of the enclosure should be maintained at an ambient temperature to allow the tortoise to thermoregulate by moving between heated and unheated areas.

Outdoors, cooler areas are provided by shade and shelter. Providing heat for adults of large species of tortoises (as with other large reptiles) can be problematic and costly. To complicate matters, failure to provide appropriate cool spots can be fatal to certain species, such as the rarer Burmese and Bowsprit tortoises, so reference texts on specific species requirements should always be consulted when caring for tortoises.

Brumation (Hibernation) for the advanced keeper

Mediterranean species should be allowed to brumate at cooler temperatures for a few months. In areas of the U.S. with mild winters, these species can brumate in an unheated room of a house. Owners should consult texts that provide information on techniques to offer these species a cool rest period.

(For more guidelines on brumation, please refer to “Safer Hibernation and Your Tortoise” by Andy C. Highfield at www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/safer.html)

Drinking Water

Clean water should be made available at all times in a shallow water container that allows the tortoise to drink by tipping its head down. A shallow (less than the height of the shell) water container needs to be buried in the substrate with the edge just above the surface or, if its depth is about equal to the thickness of the tortoise’s head, placed on the surface of the substrate.

Diet

Most tortoises are strict herbivores, and many are primarily grass-eaters. In a sense, they are reptilian version of horses or guinea pigs, because they use hindgut fermentation to digest fiber. In captivity, most tortoises should be allowed to graze on grasses and weeds whenever possible. In addition, or as an alternative, various greens such as romaine lettuce, collard greens, mustard greens and dandelion may be fed routinely. Tortoises also like vegetables such as green beans, zucchini and other squashes. Tortoises consider red and orange fruit a treat, and these can be offered to constitute up to 5-10 % of the diet for savannah species and 25-30 % of the diet for tropical species (such as red-footed and Burmese). Mango, papaya, banana, cantaloupe, strawberries and watermelon are favorites.

The tropical species will eat small amounts of meat and invertebrates when available and can be offered pinky mice, slugs and nightcrawlers 3-4 weeks. Small African spurred tortoises kept outside in California relish any snails they can find. Many of the African species are programmed to eat white objects (calcium-rich bone fragments and snail shells in their native savannah) and ingest crushed cuttlebone and other calcium sources or white foreign bodies in captivity.

Fiber intake is critical for herbivores. All should be fed fiber sources such as grasses and browse when outdoors and grass hays (chopped or long-stem) when indoors.

Most diets of fresh graze or produce require supplementation with calcium, at a level of 1-2% of dry intake. Additions of calcium carbonate are needed for salads of commercial produce. Commercial pelleted diets sold in the pet trade have been fed successfully by some breeders when part of a diet that includes fresh graze, browse and produce. A potentially serious problem with commercial pellets is that they have low water content, and tortoises rely on adequate water intake (from food and drinking) for renal function. Diets of pellets exclusively risk dehydration.

Soaking

All tortoises benefit from a weekly soak of 30-60 minutes in shallow warm water. Many tortoises seem to be hard-wired to drink, urinate and defecate only when soaked. In these individuals, failure to drink from a container within a habitat should not be perceived as a lack of thirst or absence of dehydration. Tortoises fed dry commercial pellets should be soaked daily. Species from humid areas (such as red-footed and yellow-footed tortoises) should be soaked at least once weekly and also have water available in their habitats. All hatchings, as well as sick tortoises, should be soaked daily. Rescues, new imports and dehydrated patients passing visible white precipitated urates benefit from soaks twice daily.

Sources and Recommended Readings 

www.Chelonia.org

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Paul Gibbons, DVM  ABVP Avian and Reptile

One of the most important aspects of reptile care is temperature maintenance. Although reptiles are commonly thought to be “cold blooded”, a study of iguanas in the South American rain forest found that daily body temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. These lizards climb trees to bask in the heat of the sun and warm their bodies.  Every reptile species, however, encounters a unique temperature gradient in nature. For proper health in captivity, that gradient must be artificially simulated. Start by learning the specific needs of a species by purchasing books from the pet store, searching the Internet, or consulting with a reptile professional.  Then, get at least two accurate thermometers to measure your environmental temperature gradient.  Finally, set up a system that supplies the proper heat for your conditions.

Many options are now available to provide heat for reptiles. No single device is perfect, and I recommend different ones in different situations. Use one of the thermometers to monitor the coolest part of the enclosure. A primary heat source should heat the whole enclosure to the lower end of the species preferred range. Then, if needed, a secondary heat source may be used to raise the temperature of the basking spot.   Use thermostats to regulate each heating source.

Primary heating devices include heat tape, under-the-tank mats, incandescent bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, flood lamps, and space heaters. These heat sources can be dangerous if used incorrectly, and the manufacturer’s recommendations must be followed. For example, light bulbs larger than 60 watts require a porcelain based fixture.   Similarly, under-tank-heaters cannot be placed inside the tank, or they will cause severe burns.  For extremely large enclosures such as closets, rooms, and greenhouses, radiant or forced air space heaters may be needed.  If the heater uses gas, it is essential to monitor carbon monoxide levels. Rock heaters (“hot rocks” or “sizzle stones”) are not appropriate for use inside reptile enclosures.  These devices do not adequately heat the air around them, and frequently inflict severe burns in the animals they were keeping warm.

Heating the entire enclosure may be difficult unless the whole room is warm enough.  Often, a heat source is rated by how many degrees it can heat the enclosure above ambient temperature.  The primary heat source must respond to changes that occur in the home with varying seasons.  A change in the wattage of a bulb, use of a rheostat, or incorporation of a thermostat may be necessary to maintain the low end of a reptile’s safe range.

A secondary heat source might be needed to provide the upper end of the temperature gradient. The basking site provides heat necessary to activate digestive enzymes and stimulate the immune system. Most herpetoculturists use some type of overhead system, imitating the sun.  Use the second thermometer at this site to ensure adequate and safe temperatures.

Timers are useful to regulate the secondary heat source. If an incandescent bulb that emits bright light is used, the timer allows shutoff for darkness.  A basking spot may not be necessary at night for some species, since in the wild, temperatures can drop dramatically after sundown.  However, if secondary heat is still needed during darkness, a blue, red, or ceramic bulb may be used.

Every setup is different, so the devices used to provide heat will vary according to the size of the enclosure, the species of animal, and the ambient room temperature. Be prepared to fine-tune your system as the seasons change. Constant monitoring is needed to ensure that the heat sources are providing your reptile with its preferred optimum temperature gradient.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Listed below are some nutritious foods for you to incorporate into your family member’s diet.  Nutrition plays a major role in the health and longevity of any animal.  Keep in mind that moderation and variety are the keys to offering a complete, well-balanced diet. Some tortoises also require a large amount of timothy hay daily.

Vegetable/Fruit        Calcium            Vitamin A

Broccoli Leaves            Excellent            Excellent
Collard Greens             Excellent            Excellent
Kale                            Excellent            Excellent
Mustard greens            Excellent            Excellent
Swiss chard                 Excellent            Excellent
​Turnip Greens              Excellent            Excellent

Beet greens                 Good                 Excellent
Dandelion greens         Good                 Excellent
Endive                         Good                 Good
Escarole                      Good                 Good

Apricot                        Poor                  Good
Carrot                         Poor                  Good
Cilantro                       Poor                  Good
Cress                          Poor                  Good
Mache                         Poor                  Good
Mango                        Poor                   Good
Papaya                        Poor                  Good
Parsley                        Poor                  Good
Pumpkin                      Poor                  Good
Red Pepper                 Poor                   Good
Yam                            Poor                  Good

Boston                        Poor                  Fair
Romaine                     Poor                  Fair

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Home care for green iguanas and other reptiles with secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism

Initially I wrote this send home sheet for Green Iguanas since they were the ones I most often saw with this problem. Of course many more species are effected by this disease.  It is purely a disease of inadequate husbandry. This disease syndrome affects any reptile but most especially those reptiles with a very fast growth rate including but not limited to:  Sulcata tortoises, Leopard Tortoises, Bearded Dragons, Leopard Geckos, Chameleons, frogs, Thai Water Dragons, and of course Green Iguanas.

Your reptile has been diagnosed with a metabolic condition that took many months to develop.  It is critically deficient in calcium and/or vitamin D 3.    Young reptiles have a tremendous need for calcium as they grow.  When calcium is not available to them, they start to remove calcium from their own bones. This causes them to become soft and rubbery.  They fracture easily.  Muscle also needs calcium to function properly.  A calcium deficient reptile will tremor, have difficulty eating, walking, defecating, and urinating.  Diet, as well as environment both have contributed to creating this disease state.

​The recovery process may take months.  Many pets recover completely.  Some are left with permanent deformities or nervous deficits.  Some will die.  During the recovery process, your reptile will need you to help feed it and nurse it back to health.  Some reptiles take weeks before they start to gain weight and eat well on their own.  Their recovery hinges on providing the correct environment and nutrition.  This handout will help you through the critical stages of recovery.

Medications

Calcium supplementation

  • Calcium Glubionate – I will prescribe this after your reptile has been examined.
  • Pick out a powdered commercial calcium supplement that is phosphorus free.  Use this on the days you are not using the multivitamin supplement below.
  • Multivitamin supplement:
  • A powdered supplement should be added depended on your reptile’s current needs.  We will decide this after the exam.

Other

  • Decided at the exam.

Feeding

Hand feeding-choices for syringe feeding

  1. We use tube feeding formulas developed by Lafeber’s and others.  The amount will be decided at the exam.
  2. Powder one part rabbit pellets (run it dry through the blender) or use critical care by oxbow and three parts pedialyte.  Freeze in ice cube tray and serve thawed with a syringe.  This will work with herbivores.

Soaking

Soak your reptile in warm water for 20 minutes once to twice daily.  The water should not be above its shoulders.  If it is very weak, you will need to monitor it the whole time or hold up its head to make sure it does not drown.

Environment

Remove all climbing materials.  Your reptile is delicate in this condition and will fracture from falls.

Provide a UVB source such as the fluorescent Reptisun or mercury vapor bulb (even for geckos, though lower intensity needed).  There can be no glass or plastic between the light and the reptile.  The reptile should be no more than 12 inches away from the light, but no closer than 2 inches.  On sunny, warm days (80°F +), the reptile can bask outside.  Do not put it outside in an aquarium-it will cook.  Allow access to water and shade.  Provide predator protection.  They are fast when they warm up, be careful!

Proper temperature gradient in the cage is important. Follow the recommended temperature gradient for the species you keep.  For Green Iguanas, there should be a hot spot that reaches 95°F – 100°F.  The low-end temperature of the cage should be 80°F.  Do Not Use a Hot Rock for any species!!!!  Spot light bulbs coupled with under the tank heating systems work well.  A thermostat is recommended.  You should have multiple thermometers to measure your temperature gradient.

The reptile should be kept alone during recovery.  Undo stress from larger cage mates will hinder its recovery and/or continued health.

There should be a hiding place.  Sometimes covering up half the enclosure helps the reptile to feel more secure. Often times, small reptiles respond to us as if we were predators.  Until it gets used to you, give it security.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to provide helpful service to you and your pet.  Please follow through with you pet’s rechecks as they are important in its recovery.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

Overview
Ranaviruses are viruses belong to the Iridoviridae family and the genus Ranavirus.  Occasionally, amphibian ranaviruses are called iridoviruses rather than ranaviruses (which are different from the insect viruses called Iridovirus; insect iridovirus is not a ranavirus). Some of the isolates of amphibian ranaviruses have been named.  It is thought that the viruses are passed by direct contact or cannibalism or through the water.

Ranaviruses cause massive die-offs of amphibians.  These occur most commonly in mole salamanders (Ambystoma spp.), true frogs (Lithobates spp. and Rana spp.) and chorus frogs (Pseudacris spp.).  Ranavirus infections in turtles occur mostly in captive colonies of eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) and true tortoises.  At present, ranavirus infections appear to be limited to ectothermic vertebrates.  That is to say, any species of fish, amphibians (frogs & salamanders) and reptile (turtles & snakes) could be susceptible to the virus, although not all species have been documented with ranavirus.  It appears that larvae and metamorphs are most affected.  Adult morbidity and mortality occur less often.  It is unclear how many strains or species of ranavirus are infecting and killing amphibians and turtles.  As of 2013, ranavirus was known to infect more than 104 species and subspecies.  The virus generally cannot be cultured at temperatures above 30ºC, so it probably is not infectious to domestic mammals and humans.

Symptoms

Clinical signs of disease can often be nonspecific, but affected individuals usually present with subtle to severe hemorrhages in the ventral skin, especially at the base of the hind limbs and around the vent opening and swelling of the legs and body. Hemorrhages may be present from tip of chin to tip of tail ventrally and may be pinpoint or irregular patches.  White plaques in mouth, wheezing and swollen eyes may also be present in reptiles. Behavioral changes may include lethargy, anorexia and erratic swimming.  Turtles with ranavirus infection show weakness, swollen eyelids, discharge from the nose and mouth, and the tongue and palate may show dull white or thick yellow plaques. Occasionally, turtles may show ulcers on the bottom of their feet.  In general, the occurrence of an explosive mortality outbreak with signs of systemic hemorrhagic disease, or signs of chronic disease with skin ulceration and/or distal limb necrosis are potential indicators of infection with a ranavirus.

Prognosis

Ranaviruses are commonly lethal to larvae or young individuals, quickly spreading through populations that tend to congregate in large groups. Some amphibian populations can suffer up to 90% mortality. Adults can also become infected, but many are likely to survive the illness. However, once infected with ranavirus, the overall health of the amphibian may suffer and they can become more susceptible to other diseases and to depredation in the wild.

Transmission

The virus is primarily transmitted by contact between carriers of the virus and uninfected individuals. Humans may be the number one long-distance transmitters of ranavirus, due to our ability to travel great distances and visit many wetlands. Any animal or object that enters a wetland could potentially pick up and transmit the virus. The virus can then be passed to other individuals in the same wetland or be transported to other wetlands via the host’s movements. Depending on environmental conditions, the viruses can survive in water for several weeks outside the host, and for shorter periods of time under dry conditions. The virus is also transmitted through direct contact, cannibalism, and through the water skin ulceration.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is made through any of the following diagnostic tests: PCR, real-time PCR, virus isolation (followed by immunofluorescence or immunohistochemistry), and/or histology (followed by immunofluorescence or immunohistochemistry)

Quarantine

If Ranavirus is diagnosed, the affected aquarium/terrarium should be quarantined and all amphibians affected should be isolated.  Treatment should be initiated to prevent secondary bacterial infection and stress minimized. Tanks that have a quarantine and healthy tanks should have separate water sources.  To clean these affected tanks, remove debris from the tank surfaces, then disinfect.  Suggested disinfectant for housing facilities include Nolvasan (2%) and bleach (3%) for at least 1 minute. Rinse facilities well following disinfection.

Treatment

Medical management of the symptoms and preventing secondary bacterial infection and stress is the best treatment for a ranavirus; there are no specific drugs to kill a ranavirus nor is there a specific vaccination to protect against it.  Euthanasia of particularly ill animals may be considered.

Should you wish to know more about ranaviruses, there is an international symposium on ranaviruses that occurs.  Please check listings.

Works Cited
​European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. EAZWV Transmissible Disease Fact Sheet Ranavirus Infections in Amphibians. 2011. 5 March 2015. <http://www.eaza.net/activities/tdfactsheets/050%20Ranavirus%20Infection%20In%20Amphibians.doc.pdf>.
Green, D. Earle. “Pathology of Amphibia.” Wright, Kevin M. and Brent R. Whitaker. Amphibian Medicine and Captive Husbandry. Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 2001. 418-419.
James F. X. Wellehan, Jr. “Iridovirus Infection.” Mayer, Jorg and Thomas M. Donnelly. Clinical Veterinary Advisor Birds and Exotic Pets. St. Louis: Elsevier, 2013. 114-115.
Miller, Debra Lee. “Ranavirus.” Mader, Douglas R. and Stephen J. Divers. Current Therapy in Reptile Medicine & Surgery. St. Louis: Elsevier, 2014. 277-280.
National Wildlife Health Center. “Ranavirus.” 21 May 2013. National Wildlife Health Center. 5 March 2015.
Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. Ranavirus Frequently Asked Questions. January 2014. 5 May 2015. <http://www.northeastparc.org/products/pdfs/NEPARC_Ranavirus_FAQ.pdf>.
OIE. “Infection With Ranavirus.” 2007. World Organisation for Animal Health. 5 March 2015.

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