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Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 21 Feb 2020, 14:23
by Flash the tortoise
Hi there, i'm new to the forum, so please bare with me.

My other half got me a horsefield tortoise last December. I've had tortoises in the past but in the Sourhern hemisphere where the weather allows for them to be free range outside for 5 months of the year and the free range indoors for the rest.

So i am new at trying to replicate the best environment for this lil fella here in the Western Isles, Scotland.

When we got him we were told he was around a year old. He's 9cm long. His shell is hard. But it's been getting darker and bumpier since December. I believe this is not a good sign.

We were told not to feed him any brassicas, but things like the Crispy Florette stuff, white chicory and dandelions, plantain, from outside. It'll be a couple of months before we get to have any in these latitudes, so we are sticking to the supermarket stuff.

He lives in an open table. Initially he had a dual light for heat/uvb but realised the uvb% was too low, so it now has a 10%uvb light. The heat lamp is over a slate and it's around 34.5C under it. They are both at one end of his home. At the other end is his 'bedroom'.

We started having just wood chips from our local woodland as substrate. But since his behaviour changed i've read that horsefields also need humidity in their substrate, so he now has orchid potting mix in his bedroom and 2/3 coconut coir with 1/3 woodchip in his main living area. I've read so much contraficting things about horsefield tortoises' substrate that i'm sort of trying it all. So far, his behaviour seems tge same.

Behaviour. When he joined us he would bask most of the day, eat a handful of mixed salad leaves, get a bath on tepid water every other day for anything between 10 and 25min -until he showed signs of wanting to walk off-. He'd have daily wees and a poo every 3 days or so. He'd half bury himself in the woodchips to sleep.

About 4 weeks ago, maybe less, he stopped eating but started to get mega active. He'd literally spend 5-6 hours walking around his environment, up and down his tree bark, falling backwards, getting himself on his feet, climbing again, falling again, walking around... he'd try to climb off his environment too... I do let him out ibto the room to wonder but he just spends all the time walking around pretty fast, not settling anywhere.

In the past 3 weeks he's only eaten 3 times and very little. I give him a bath as always, but he wouldn't stay for more than 3 min if at all. There's been no poo. Just a wee at his bath every now and again.

His eyes are shiny, there have been bubbles from his nose but only 3 times since he arrived.

He seems unhappy about sonething... but i just don't know what.

Would anyone be able to help me, please? I want this wee fella to be happy.

Thanks in advance. Carla.

Re: Horsefield behaviour

Posted: 21 Feb 2020, 14:26
by Flash the tortoise

Re: Horsefield behaviour

Posted: 21 Feb 2020, 14:27
by Flash the tortoise

Re: Horsefield behaviour

Posted: 21 Feb 2020, 19:59
by Nina
Hi Carla and many thanks for contacting us and welcome to The Tortoise Table!

Flash is a lovely little Horsfield (just for information, there is no 'e' in the middle of Horsfield, because they are named after Thomas Horsfield, a 19th century naturalist who discovered them). He has only been with you for a short time, and I can see that before he came to you he looks to have been grown too quickly (fed too much), and that is why his shell is bumpy.

Horsfields often develop bumpy shells, and this is because of their nature, which is formed by the environment they live in, in the wild. In their natural habitat they live in areas which are very cold in the winter, and they hibernate for a long time, and very hot in the summer (and they aestivate -- which is a bit like hibernation but in the heat). It's estimated that in the wild they are only awake for about three months of the year, and actively eating for only about 20 hours. So they are sort of programmed to 'eat for England' in the short time given to them. In captivity with us, of course, they are presented with big plates of food every day and they eat too much and grow too quickly, forming shell deformities, and this can develop into metabolic bone disease, which is quite serious. But don't worry as there is something you can do about it.

When I got my first Horsfield she was very bumpy, but I have managed to get her subsequent shell growth to be smooth, and the bumps are not very evident now at all. The way to do this is to monitor his weight, and aim for an average growth of between 1g - 3g per month. This is only an average and some months he will grow more and some less, But aim for 1g - 3g. There are some guidelines on how much to feed (all he can eat in 20 minutes, once a day, enough leaves etc. that would make a little blanket to cover his shell once a day, etc.), but the best thing to do is to monitor weight.

Which is the UVB lamp in your set-up -- I wasn't quite sure -- is it the one in the middle? By the way your set-up looks very nice, and well done for getting him a tortoise table instead of a vivarium! UVB is really important, as that is what enables them to absorb and utilise the calcium in their diet. And calcium is really important (when you think about it, they are mainly shell and bone!). Are you giving him a good calcium supplement like Nutrobal? And leaving something like a cuttlefish bone in his table for him to nibble on when he likes? You can also get something like limestone flour or pure calcium carbonate powder to sprinkle on his food on days when he isn't getting Nutrobal.

Just a few other points. A temperature of 34.5 directly below his heat lamp, at the height of his shell is a bit warm. This might be because the slate is absorbing the heat, so you could try moving it. What you want to aim for is a temperature of about 30C under the lamp and a temperature of about 20C at the cool end (and he shouldn't need any heat indoors at night (as long as the temperature doesn't fall below about 13C or 14C, which it doesn't do in most modern houses).

The substrate. What you are using is OK, but there is a danger that mould can grow on wood chips, or that if a lamp burst then it could start a fire. The substrate they live on in the wild is a sandy soil, and so we try to approximate this in captivity. Most people use a mixture of sterilised topsoil and children's playsand (both of which you can get at places like Homebase or garden centres). Most people mix it 50/50, but my torts seem to like a bit more soil, so I mix mine about 60/40, and sometimes I put a bit of coconut coir in the mixture too. This substrate can get a bit dusty, so you need to give it a light spray every day or so (or just pour a bit of water on it and mix it up) -- the result should be just the teeny tiniest bit damp, not at all wet. And make it as deep as you can because Horsfields are a burrowing species and they like nothing better than to dig down and bury themselves completely.

His behaviour recently. Horsfields have a strong hibernation instinct and it is quite likely that this is what he is feeling at the moment. Try and keep the light in his table as bright as possible, and fortunately the days are getting longer now and he will sense that and should be fine, but if you have problems let us know. As you haven't had him long you are right not to hibernate him this year, but next year if you want help or advice on hibernation we will be happy to provide it.

It sounds to me like you are providing a pretty good diet, given the lack of wild food this time of year, but do have a look outside as plantain is usually around, sometimes sowthistle, and the low growing campanula in gardens stays green most winters. You can add a bit of Kale to his diet -- it is a brassica, and you are right not to feed many brassicas -- but it is the best of the brassicas as far as tortoises are concerned, and a little of it in his diet should be fine.

Bubbles from nose. Did this happen after or during a bath, or just after he has had a drink? If so then that is OK, but if not and it happens frequently then he might be ill and you will have to consult a vet. It's probably fine but just thought I'd mention it.

So sorry to have gone on at such length! You might already have a good care sheet for Horsfields, but if you don't then here is a link to a good one: https://www.tortoise-protection-group.o ... 014New.pdf

I hope this helps and please don't hesitate to contact us with more questions, or if you have any problems. I think you and your partner are going to be excellent tortoise keepers and Flash is very lucky to have found a home with you.


Re: Horsefield behaviour

Posted: 23 Feb 2020, 12:16
by Flash the tortoise
Hi Nina

Thank you so much for your reply and all the info. We have tried to educate ourselves about keeping a horsfield -ta for the correction on the spelling. My foreign mind clings to known words and 'horse' was one of those-. There us information on the net but some of it is so contradictory.

I forgot to mention our Flash is 8cm long.

Here in the Western Isles we still don't have any of the plants that would grow further South. So anything green from last year is now woody or brown. I managed to find some plantain and a dandelion leaf a few weeks ago but Flash showed no interest. I'm waiting for the new growths to come up to see if he'd be interested. Although, as i mentioned in my previous post, he's not touching food at the moment -and i am not sure where he's getting all this energy from. Although he does end up making hinself very tired after hours of super activity and he puts himself to bed-. We are moving house soon and intend to grow some of the food ourselves, apart from sorting and outdoor environment too, so he can enjoy the grass.

His new UBV light is 10% and yes, the white one in the middle of the image. Is it no good? There's only 1 pet shop in the W.Isles and that's what they sold. -it was much more expensive than buying online, but we wanted to change to higher ubv fast-.

Would you happen to know a brand of sterialiased soil i could order online? Here we don't have much option of shops -at all!- and they don't sell much variety of anything.

The whole substrate thing has been mindblowing with all the different information about it. Different fact sheets say different things about substrate and temperatures...

So, just to double check, you think that his lack of eating and his overactivity are ok, right? Poor sweetie, he exhausts himself every day and i don't get where he gets his energy from.

We will be making his box double the size when we move too, so he can have more space... but i am not sure if this will be the answer to his hyperactivity.

Thank you so much for your help.


P.S. As soon as Flash sees me in the morning he tries to climb out of his box. I guess is because he knows i'd let him out for a bit? He used to sleep over my bump for a bit before warming up too -i'm pregnant- but now he just wants to walk around so he doesn't settle. Which is ok, but it's part of his change in behaviour.

Also, i bought powder calcium for sprinkling on his food, but since he's not been eating he's not had any for 4 weeks. I'll get him a cuttlefish bone as you suggest.

Re: Horsefield behaviour

Posted: 23 Feb 2020, 12:18
by Flash the tortoise

Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 24 Feb 2020, 13:52
by Flash the tortoise
Hi Nina

Regarding the bubbling off his nose, it's not something i've noticed often nor for extended times at all.

Today i picked him up and put him on my bump, but, like in the past 4 weeks, he didn't settle. I did give him some strokes on his shell and he started to relax and get sleepy. At some point he yawned and his eyes went puffy, teary and then i noticed he bubbled through his nose for about 30 seconds. Then it was all gone and his eyes went less puffy, back to normal.

I put him in his tepid water bath and he wouldn't stay. I put him back in his box and offered some leaves but he's not interested in eating. He's now landed twice on his back trying to climb off his box.

I suspect that as per the last 4 weeks he will spend the next 2-5 hours energetically going around his home trying to climb up the walls. It worries me because i don't know where is he getting the energy from.

I don't have scales so i can't weight him either.

Anyway, i thought i'd describe today's behaviour, which is more or less what we've been having for the past 4 weeks.



Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 24 Feb 2020, 19:15
by Nina
Hi Carla,

I'm so sorry to be late in responding to your emails! Ihave a friend who is seriously ill in hospital and i've been spending most of the days up there. Thanks so much for the photos of Flash -- he is gorgeous (and he looks very happy resting on your bump too)!

I am worried about the bubbling from his nose. Did it happen just after he had a drink or had been in the bath? If not then it is possible he has something called 'RNS' (runny nose syndrome), which is a rather serious respiratory condition. Horsfields aren't particularly prone to getting it, but it is possible. If it happened just after he had a bath or a drink then it might just be that he got some water up his nose and was breathing it out.

Re your UVB light. You need to put it in a reflector shade of some sort, to protect your eyes from the UVB rays that it produces. If you can't get a reflector shade then you can make one out of some aluminium foil, just wrapped around the cord so that all of the light shines down and you are not getting it in your eyes, as it can cause damage to your eyes, in the same way that looking into the sun can cause damage.

I think you should definitely get some scales. Just ordinary digital kitchen scales are all you need. Something like this: but any decent digital scales will do, as long as they weigh in increments of 1g. I'm sure you could order them online if there is no shop on the island that carries them. And if you send me your address (don't post it here, but send it to ) and I'll pop a free copy of our Tortoise Observation Records booklet into the post for you, and then you can keep all your records regarding Flash (growth, equipment changes, vet details, etc.) all in one place.

Did you manage to get the temperature under the light to less than 34.5C? That is really too warm for him, and I wonder if his energetic activity might be trying to get out of the heat (that probably isn't the case, but it's a possibility). Do keep on bathing him though -- in nice warm water, about the temperature that you would bathe a baby (lol, it will be good practice for you!), as tortoises can go a long time without food, but they get dehydrated very easily.

Try offering some tasty treats. Most tortoises like cucumber (do peel it as most cucumbers have been sprayed with insecticide), and the calcium powder will also stick well to the cucumber. If you find something that he really likes, then cut it up really small (teeny tiny pieces) and wet it thoroughly, and then gradually add other teeny tiny pieces of a different food, wihch will stick to his favourite food so he can't help getting some of the new stuff with the other food. Then you gradually increase the new stuff.

I hope that helps, and do keep us informed about the bubbles in his nose.


Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 26 Feb 2020, 11:04
by Flash the tortoise
Hi Nina

Thank you, again, for the advise.

The bubbling, that morning, happened before his bath and soon after he woke up. When it happened the first time i rushed to the seller to ask him -he's got horsfields at home too- but he said that if it doesn't happen often it can be dust he gets overnight. I've been keeping an eye ever since, but that morning, before the bubbling, i did realise his substrate was very dry. So i sprayed it a bit.

I'm not sure if i should keep an eye or take him to the vet -the only vet in the island and not exotic trained :( -

I've put foil over the ubv light, thank you!

Yes, we lifted the lamp so the temp is around 30C. If he was getting hot where the lamp is, wouldn't he go to the other end of his table for cooler temp? I'm so confused by all the climbing up...

The night before last he fully buried himself at night and yesterday he didn't come out, so we left the lights off. This morning he came out and i gave him a bath. He stayed! And for about 10min too! But he woukdn't take any food and he's now back to trying to climb out of his table, falling on his back, getting himself back on his legs and repeating the whole thing. It breaks my heart to see him struggle :(

We are about to move so i'll send you our new address as soon as we are in :)

Thanks again for all your help.


Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 26 Feb 2020, 20:21
by Nina
Hi Carla,

I am a bit worried about the bubbling. A bit of dust in the nose doesn't usually cause that. The only harmless cause as far as I know is some water getting in the nostrils, but a more serious cause is RNS, and this is a serious condition that needs antibiotics. If your non-exotics vet is a good one, then he will be willing to consult with good reptile vets. The Dick School in Edinburgh has an excellent programme and I wonder if anyone there would be willing to consult with him and advise him on what tests to do. But it doesn't have to be a Scottish practice he consults. One of the best vet practices in the country is Holly House Vets in Leeds, and they do referrals from other vets. Here is a link to the exotics section of their website I know that Sarah Brown is really excellent, and I'm sure your local vet could consult with her.

Well, you're right that if there is a cooler area on the table he can go back and forth from cool to warm areas. I'm not sure that I knew what temperature the cooler side was, but the 34.5 was really too warm. So if you have a cooler temperature of around 20C that he can go to, then that isn't the cause of his constant climbing. How big is his table? Is it posible to make it any bigger (if you can't make it longer or wider, could you add another section on perpendicular to the existing table -- so it becomes and 'L' shape and fits in a corner? I know space can be difficult, but tortoises do like to explore and roam around, and some tortoises just get bored and keep trying to get out -- it's not uncommon.

I just thought of something that you could do that wouldn't make his table any bigger but would give him extra space to explore. I've always had a second level in my tables, and because I tend to feed them on the upper level they are always walking up and down the ramp that leads to the upper floor, in case any treats have been left there for them. If you nailed some boards around the outside of the top of his sleeping area, to make a wall around it that is just high enough that he can't climb out, and then put a ramp up to that level, he could get more exercise and interest in exploring. I've attached a photo of my table showing the upper level to give you an idea of what I mean. And you can cover the ramp with something slightly gritty, like roofing felt (the stuff they cover shed roofs with), to give him traction when he is climbing up and down. Just an idea.

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Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 27 Feb 2020, 18:04
by Flash the tortoise
Oh wow! That's a super table!!! We are definitely expanding Flash's. We are waiting to move to do so. We are planning to make it wider.

I'll see what the vet says regarding his bubbling. I've not seen it again -it's only been seen 4 times since we got him in December- but if it worries you it worries me.

He's decided to stay in his room today. It's about 18C there. The cooler side of his table is around 20C at the moment. Same temperature as the rest of the room where the table is. There is a lot of scratching coming from his room. When i check on him his eyes are shut so i reckon he's asleep trying to bury himself more. Maybe he does want to hibernate and it's too warm for him even in his room?

Thanks again for your support. I hope your friend is getting better.


Re: Horsfield behaviour

Posted: 27 Feb 2020, 18:25
by Nina
Wider would be good -- in fact any increase in space would be good -- and do think of making a second level -- mine love theirs and it gives them extra space without increasing the footprint of the table.

I think I would consult the vet about the bubbling -- better safe than sorry thin -- and he or she could also give him a general check-up at the same time. And do take a relatively fresh sample of poo with you, so that it can be checked for parasites. You can keep a sample in a sealed container overnight in the fridge if necessary, and it's always good to have a tortoise checked out for worms, etc., as they are easily cured but can cause problems if they build up too much in the system.

It's possible that he's looking to hibernate, but I wouldn't attempt it this year, as it's getting late, plus you need to know that a tortoise is 100% healthy before putting them into hibernation. It's also possible that he is just being a Horsfield They are a burrowing species and love nothing better than to bury themselves completely (sometimes causes panic as you think they've escaped!). If you want hibernation advice next year, let us know and we can send you some really good guidelines on how to prepare him for hibernation and the hibernation itself.

Do let us know how he gets on.