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Routine Care (Husbandry)

In captivity, we should aim to replicate the tortoise's natural environment as closely as possible, and it is important to try and establish a similar routine pattern to that which the tortoise would follow in the wild.  In doing so you will be helping your tortoise to lead a healthy and long life.

When environmental conditions are favourable a tortoise should be kept outside, as the benefits from sunshine and being able to forage naturally far outweigh any advantages of keeping the tortoise indoors.  It is important that tortoises kept outside have free access to shelter and warmth.

Ensure that any tortoise enclosure, indoors or out, is escape proof, so that the tortoise can neither climb out of nor burrow under perimeter barriers.  Where possible ensure that enclosures are secured against predators such as rats, foxes, birds (such as Magpies, which can be a danger to very young tortoises) and even your pet dog.


Establishing routines is an essential part of your tortoise's well-being, and daily observations of your tortoise together with good, regular record keeping will prove priceless in helping you to reflect on and improve your approach to all aspects of general care and husbandry.


Heat and Light - Outdoors

In the wild, the tortoise's daily routine is controlled by the temperature of the environment.  When the weather is cold the tortoise will look for places of warmth to bask and when it is too hot it will seek out shade.

If it is warm enough for you to be outside in short sleeves, then it is warm enough for your tortoise to be outside, providing it has somewhere to warm up if the temperature falls. 

Some keepers have a cold frame or make a 'hot box' out of perspex or glass where the tortoise not only has shelter in rainy weather but can keep warm too.




Day and Night-time Heat and Light Requirement - Indoors

When a tortoise is kept as a pet in an enclosed environment the temperature should be controlled, usually by artificial means, to be as close as possible to what it would experience in its natural environmental conditions.

Light and warmth need to be available for 12 hours each day and complete darkness and a drop in temperature is required during the night.  Specialist good quality UVB bulbs are essential.   A digital thermometer with an external probe is good for checking ambient room temperatures and temperatures under the heat lamp.  Laser temperature guns are useful for checking the temperature, and they can also be used to check the temperature of the shell of the tortoise.  See Indoor Housing.

It is important to know your species of tortoise, as those from tropical areas have slightly different temperature requirements

Day-time

During the day the temperature in the basking area under the heat source should be approximately 30°C (86°F) at tortoise shell height, and the other end of the enclosure the temperature should be approximately 20°C (68°F).  This will provide a temperature gradient allowing the tortoise freedom to choose the temperature it requires.

Some keepers set their lamps on timers so that the lamps turn on and off automatically at the relevant times of the 12 hour on/off cycle.

Night-time

For Mediterranean species, no additional heat source is required at night in a modern centrally-heated home.  However, if the temperature falls below 12°C - 14°C (53°F - 57°F) at night, then a ceramic heat emitter that gives out heat but no light may be used, or an additional heater with thermostatic control can be placed in the room.  The ceramic heat emitter can also be attached to a thermostat to ensure the correct temperature.  Do not site a ceramic heat emitter anywhere near the substrate or any flammable materials, or where the tortoise could reach up and burn itself.

For species such as Leopards and Sulcatas, a higher night-time temperature of 16°C -17°C (61°F - 63°F) is required.


Please think of safety and ensure any electrical equipment in outside housing is installed by a qualified electrician, and that you don't leave any electrical wires trailing on the floor or touching the heat sources.

Play safe and think about having smoke alarms fitted in the rare event of a fire caused by a lamp exploding.


Bathing

Bathe your tortoise on a regular basis to help keep it well hydrated.  This is especially important if your tortoise is kept indoors under heat lamps and in enclosed environments. 

Some tortoises will drink in the bath water while others will choose not to but do give your tortoise time to take a drink and rehydrate.  A soak of approximately 15 - 20 minutes in tepid or luke-warm water will be sufficient.

Use a container which is deep enough so that your tortoise can't climb out of it, and fill it with enough water to reach just above the line where the top shell (carapace) meets the bottom shell (plastron).  During the bath, your tortoise may expel stored urine and drink to replenish its water supply.  The bath water may also stimulate your tortoise to defaecate.

If your tortoise is dirty and needs a good clean, then use a soft toothbrush to gently brush its shell and limbs.  After the bath make sure your tortoise's legs are dry before returning it to the soil substrate so that it doesn't accidentally rub its eyes with soil clinging to wet legs.

Hatchling and young tortoises should be soaked daily decreasing this to every other day as they grow older.  Older juvenile tortoises should be bathed 2-3 times a week and adult tortoises bathed weekly, but more frequently if kept indoors under heat lamps.

All tortoises should be bathed daily or every other day in the period of winding down in preparation for hibernation.


Only use fresh water and do not add detergents of any kind and NEVER polish/shine a tortoise's shell with oil or shell conditioners as they will clog up the pores.  Oils and conditioners are not natural and would never occur in the wild.

Humidity

Humidity is important in a captive environment to help prevent dehydration and the build-up of bladder stones, but it is worth remembering that different species of tortoise do have very different humidity requirements.  The levels of humidity we should aim for should resemble the humidity the tortoise would be exposed to in its natural habitat.

A simple guide to the relative humidity (RH), i.e. the amount of moisture in the air of the tortoise environment, is:  for arid and semi-arid species such as tortoises from the Mediterranean and Africa the RH should be around 45%-55%, while tortoises from tropical forest areas require the RH to be at least 80%.

Achieving a reasonable humid environment

As well as bathing the tortoise regularly you can provide your tortoise with a suitable microclimate to prevent fluid loss from the body.  You can do this by making the substrate deep enough so that the tortoise can dig down, and you can mist it daily using a water sprayer.  You can also provide good thermal gradients by having a hot and cool end to the enclosure so the tortoise has the freedom to choose a suitable area.

Adding plants to the enclosure will not only increase its attractiveness but will also provide places of shade and help to raise the humidity in the immediate tortoise environment.

For forest-dwellers, reptile automatic misting systems or, in smaller areas, good quality ultrasonic humidifiers can be set up.


Cleaning the setup

Daily spot cleaning is a good habit to get into (both indoors and out).  While the tortoise is out of the table, taking its bath, you can use the time to do a quick tidy up of the enclosure.  Pick out any faeces, clumps of soil wet from urine, and clean and refresh the food and water bowls too.  There are many reptile disinfectants, such as F10, available to help you sterilise the bath, the enclosure, and other equipment.

Clean dust from reflectors and lamp shades on a regular basis when they are switched off and temperatures have cooled down.

Feeding

Feed hatchlings and young tortoises daily or divide the portion in two and feed morning and afternoon.  Adult tortoises can be fed every day or you may choose to omit feeding for one day a week.  Provide mineral and vitamin supplements daily.  See the section on diet and mineral and vitamin supplements for more detailed information.  Clear away any uneaten food each day.

Monitor weight gain regularly to ensure a slow steady growth and adjust portions accordingly.


Water

Fresh drinking water should always be available.

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