Very little research has been carried out into poisonings in Chelonia, compared with that done on poisonings in humans, other mammals, fish and birds.  In the absence of definitive research, we may therefore have to assume that what isn’t safe for us isn’t safe for reptiles, and we must make sure that tortoises and turtles in our care aren’t allowed to come into contact with anything we consider poisonous.             

Tortoises often don’t appear to know which foods are good to eat and which are not, and there is some evidence of tortoises dying after eating plants such as Buttercups, Daffodils and Foxgloves, which are considered poisonous.  Neither do they know whether we have used weed killers, fertilisers, or pesticides such as rat poison, in areas where they are allowed to roam and graze.  Toxic plants and dangerous chemicals put our tortoises at risk of poisoning, so it is up to us to ensure that all the plants we offer, plant, or grow near our tortoises, are safe ones and that we keep all weedkillers, pesticides and fertilisers completely away from them.
Different plant lists may give varying opinions as to the safety of certain plants for reptiles, but the view taken by The Tortoise Table is that we should always err on the side of caution where our beloved tortoises and turtles are concerned.  It is, therefore, our responsibility to learn which plants are toxic and may poison our animals.

Identify the plants you have in your garden

Try to identify all the plants that you have in your garden or yard.  Make a list of their names and look them up on our website for a guide as to their safety.   If you can’t identify the plant yourself, or if it is not in our database, take a picture of it and either post it on The Tortoise Table forum or send it to us at contact@thetortoisetable.org.uk and we will endeavour to identify it and let you know if it is safe.

Alternatively, take a large cutting of the plant (including the flower where possible), to your local garden centre or nursery and ask them to identify it for you.  Once your plants have been identified, always write their Latin names down alongside the common name.  This is important as sometimes different plants share the same common names and can only be accurately identified by their Latin name.

What to do if you think your tortoise or turtle might have been poisoned

Seek immediate veterinary advice

Always keep your reptile veterinary contact details near your telephone as this will save time in an emergency.  If you know what your tortoise or turtle has eaten, take the plant or any packaging with you to the vet, as this will help him/her decide what the poison is and the type of treatment that your tortoise will need.

Urgent veterinary help is essential for a tortoise showing symptoms of acute poisoning

The signs of poisoning do vary and can include some or all of the following:  respiratory distress, excess salivation, choking, vomiting, tremors, convulsions or paralysis.  As death may occur as a result of poisoning, ensure there is no delay in getting your tortoise to a specialist reptile vet for immediate treatment.

Some poisons work quickly, with catastrophic effects, and some work slowly, causing damage as they gradually accumulate in the body.  With cumulative poisoning, the symptoms may include the tortoise showing signs of muscular weakness, the tortoise unable to lift itself to walk or unable to walk, and gastro-intestinal upset including diarrhoea.

Do not attempt to diagnose a case of poisoning yourself: specialist veterinary help should be sought as a matter of urgency.

If the poisoning is one that is cumulative, the tortoise should make a good recovery if the offending poison is removed, the tortoise is kept well hydrated and is fed on safe food so that the toxins can be eliminated from the liver and out of the body.

Prevention is always better than cure

  • Wash all store-bought products thoroughly, separating all leaves and removing any plastic or wire ties before offering to your tortoise.
  • When collecting leaves and flowers from plants growing in the wild not only wash thoroughly but also inspect carefully to ensure there are no leaves from plants and shrubs/trees which are toxic and that may have been collected inadvertently with the safe weeds you have collected.
  • Look at the condition of plants collected from hedgerows or verges before you pick them, and if they look to be withering or changing colour from green to a yellowish/brown do not collect.  This may be a sign that the Council or local farmers have been spraying with weedkiller.  A simple phone call to the local Council will identify for you where and when spraying is being undertaken.
  • In your own garden ensure that plants or trees that are poisonous are not planted anywhere near your tortoise enclosure.
  • Do not use weed killers, pesticides or lawn fertilisers on areas that your tortoises will be exposed to.
  • If you must use slug and snail bait  ̶  even if on the packaging it suggests that the bait is animal-friendly  ̶  apply it only to areas that are completely inaccessible to your tortoises, as your tortoise or turtle may still eat it.  Animal-friendly products usually contain substances that give the bait a nasty taste, but the poison chemicals are still the same so our advice is to avoid.  After eating slug bait a slug can travel several metres before it dies.
DON’T FORGET!  Information provided in this article is not meant to be a substitute for expert medical advice.  If you suspect that your tortoise has had an adverse reaction to any food, or has ingested poison in any other way, then specialist veterinary advice should be sought immediately.

With special thanks to Hannah Bould B.V.M.S., M.R.C.V.S., who reviewed this article to ensure that the contents were accurate.

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