Care Guide
 
for the Subtropical Grassland
Tortoises 

Tortoises Breeding Pens
 

Most of the species of tortoises we work with are from semi-arid, sub-tropical regions that receive limited rainfall and rarely if ever experience freezing temperatures. The following is a basic care sheet for those that we breed in-house (currently Golden Greeks, Indian Stars, and Pancakes) to give our customers the basics as to their care.  For temperate region species such as the Russian and Hermanns tortoises, the general care is the same. These tolerate much cooler winter temperatures (and require them for breeding) but otherwise need the same housing, care and diet as our subtropical  species.  Please take the time to read this care guide before purchasing your tortoise. The following information is geared towards their basic needs rather than specific breeding information. Some additional information can also be found in the Golden Greek article I published in the Reptiles Magazine special "All Tortoise" issue  for July, 2009.  I'll also try to include more detailed breeding information here as time permits.  Please note the following care sheet is only applicable for the species indicated. Other species may have significantly different needs so use this information accordingly. 

Good  sites to read for more detailed information on tortoises in general include "The World Chelonian Trust" (http://www.chelonia.org/), "The Tortoise Trust" ("http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/articles.html")) and "Chelonians  UK"  ((http://www.cheloniauk.com/).  Please read those sites' care sheets for their opinions and use what makes sense for your situation.

 

 

General Husbandry

General Temperament/Pet Qualities: Tortoises in general have very engaging personalities and many species become quite tame. They clearly react to their caretakers’ presence and often follow them around the yard or house when let out to exercise. Most are non-aggressive towards humans and other non-tortoise pets, easily fitting into domestic life. While some species get quite large or have exacting environmental requirements,  the ones we work with (Russians, Golden Greeks, Indian Stars, Pancakes) are moderate sized and relatively easy to accommodate. They mature to less than 10” and their environmental and feeding needs can be reasonably met by the typical pet owner. They are enthusiastic eaters of a wide range of vegetarian foods, making them easy to feed and less odiferous to house indoor verses many other  pets. Many do not need daily access to a water bowl in the cage (see "Watering" section below) instead taking weekly or alternate-weekly soaks) to met their water needs. Most also are well adapted to skipping multiple days between meals (hatchlings being an exception). Thus they can be safely left unattended for a weekend when you need to be away.  Just set your lights on timers and go. They are calm by nature and when given the proper care are very long-lived (50 years plus), making them an endearing, low maintenance addition to your family.  

Housing: They do best in open-toped terrariums with solid opaque sides such as large Rubbermaid containers (plastic livestock watering  troughs) or home-build wooden terrariums. We suggest a minimum floor space of 3’ x 2’ for single individuals but shoot for as large a home as your space allows. The amount of floor space is the primary consideration, not height. The main species we work with are dry heat lovers. They need access to a basking site that reaches around 95F and a background floor temperature in the mid  to upper 80'sF. This is easy to produce with a reflector type bulb shining over a large piece of  flat slate or other suitable rock (note: use a lighter shade of stone, avoiding  black rocks as they tend to absorb excessive heat). Just make sure the light is placed high enough to prevent the animals from reaching it and ideally have it shining down at an angle so the heated area is significantly larger  than the size of your tortoise. Do NOT use hot rocks or similar "in-cage" electric underbelly heaters. These will not suffice and can cause serious injury to your animals. An under-the-tank heating pad is ok for supplemental heat, especially for night heat, but the basking light is still essential. The area farthest from the basking site should be in the upper 70's F, permitting your animals to self-regulate their body temperature. Night temps should be cooler, typical of their native ranges (mid 70's in the summer, cooler for Russians in the winter, less so for the Golden Greeks, Pancakes or Stars).  We no longer recommend installing a UVB producing bulb as added vitamin D3 to the diet has a proven to be safer and more effective in our experience.  Note overly hot or sub-optimally cool daily temperatures will cause most tortoises to retreat to their shelter and sleep (hibernate or aestivate) until conditions improve.

We give them 12 hour days with all the lights going off at night. If your cage ground temperatures are getting below 75F at night (70F for Russians), then place an under-tank heating pad under the sheltered spot of the tank to increase your night time temperatures.  Overhead ceramic heat emitters are also a good choice for night heat. Avoid the red "night lights" as these are generally poorly designed for directing their heat where you really need it.

Bedding: We prefer to use 1/4" inch particle size coconut husk mulch for the bedding. It's very absorbent, somewhat soft, non-abrasive and splinter free.  Aspen shavings and cypress mulch are also commonly used beddings. We keep it only a half inch or so deep throughout most the pen but increase it to  6” deep in a sheltered corner.  Some breeders use soft Bermuda or Timothy grass hay as bedding. This is excellent but use it where you will not be adding any moisture as it will mold.  Likewise avoid alfalfa pellets in these situations.  Sand is generally not a safe bedding. Likewise avoid corncob bedding, crushed walnut shell,  calci-sand and super fine desert sands that are commonly sold in pet shops for bedding.  All these tend to cause health issues so they are best avoided. While we use millet and other small round seeds for bedding for our Uromastyx,  these are NOT suitable for tortoises.

Tortoises need a moderately deep spot somewhere in the substrate in which to partially bury themselves when at rest. They prefer to dig under some natural surface barrier such as a log, so we place a wide plastic decking board (8" x 12" x 1" thick) glued onto 6" x 4" bricks  in the cooler end of the tank to serve as an overhead shelter. The goal is to produce a shelter just high enough for the tortoise to bury under without scraping the top of its shell.  Note: make sure the board or rock is glued to its legs to insure it can’t crash down on top of a digging tortoise. These tortoises have poor tolerance to damp conditions so be careful to keep the cage generally dry. That said, you still need to make sure there is always some sheltered area in the cage that is just slightly moist. We lightly dampen the shelter area every other week and the whole cage every other month. The goal at that time is to make the substrate just slightly damp, not wet!  We also leave one other deep spot completely dry so the tortoises have a choice of bedding options. Usually the Russians will pick the slightly damp spot but the Golden Greeks like just a hint of dampness and will abandon any spot  that is any wetter. Note keeping all areas in the cage bone-dry all the time will lead to shell growth problems - especially in juveniles. They all need some place that has at least some low degree of moisture to keep the shell healthy.  Likewise overly damp conditions will eventually lead to shell rot or respiratory problems. Shell formation problems and respiratory issues are THE  biggest health issue with these tortoises. So we can't emphasize enough the importance of getting the shelter and cage moisture correct.  Again, have two shelter areas - one dry and one just slightly damp, with the rest of the cage dry, and you should be fine.

Note for hatchlings, we've found that ours do consistently better if housed in smaller 20 gallon long aquariums with fine-stemmed leafy timothy or similar grass hay as the sole bedding. We make it several inches deep in all but the feeding corner which remains bare. The hatchlings shelter in the grass most of the day and come over to the feeding corner at will to feed. To aid in shell health, we very lightly wipe down the shell with BagBalm skin moisturizer once every two weeks. This serves to aid in preventing pyramiding by limiting the scute edges from overly drying out (one of the main causes of pyramiding in desert habitat tortoises). .  

 

___ Dandelion Greens ___

Diet: These tortoises are strictly herbivores and most will not (or should not) consume meat or insects. Our primary diet is composed of yard weeds such as dandelion greens and blooms, clover leaves and blooms, as well as various store bought greens such as Endive, turnip greens, Bok Choy, Escarole, and Romaine (avoid head lettuces). It's best to limit the amount of spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard, kale or collard greens you offer. These either bind important nutrients or tend to induce metabolic problems over time. We supply edible flowers when in season including nasturtium, rose, clover, and especially hibiscus. We also offer  Mazuri Tortoise pellets lightly softened by briefly pre-soaking them in warm water. Mazuri can be used as the bulk of the diet if at least some greens are supplied as well. For animals needing extra weight gain, we also offer a few frozen mixed veggies (peas, cut green beans, carrots, corn, lima beans - all thawed/warmed before feeding) to the mix - but use these VERY sparingly with tortoises. Raw baby carrots are a better choice and are usually well liked. They also likely supply needed roughage as well as pigments that seem to aid in better shell coloration, especially in Greek torotises but possibly the Stars as well. We dust the food daily with Miner-Al – (Indoor version) calcium/mineral supplement (contains vit. D3 plus various minerals) and every other day with Repahsy Super Veggie Dust (a herbivore-specific vitamin supplement). Also when feeding peas etc, offer your animals a chance to soak in shallow warm water every few days to try and induce them to drink extra water.

When you’re going to be gone for a few days, try to keep some cactus pads in each cage (Opuntia sp, commercially produced as human grade food, found de-spined at larger grocery stores). These last for many days, allowing for periodic nibbling at will. The base end of heads of endive also work well for this purpose. These tortoises  commonly go months with minimal food in the wild and in general are overfed in captivity. This is not an excuse to feed them erratically - they still should have daily feedings most weeks. But is merely a warning against overfeeding them. Tortoises ALWAYS act hungry!  Be careful not to overindulge them.  Make sure they can always pull themselves nearly completely into their shells. If they can not, start feeding less store-bought greens and replace them with weeds like plantain or dandelion (see our Edible Wild Plants page for alternatives wild foods).  Ideally, you should obtain a gram scale and track their weight so you can be sure of how they are doing  (see our Supplies page page to purchase gram scales and the mineral and vitamin supplements and Mazuri tortoise diet we recommend).

Water: In captivity, these species get the vast majority of their water needs met by feeding on the water-heavy greens commonly used for their diet. Thus we don't routinely offer large open water bowls to them inside the cage.  High humidity is very problematic to these particular species and open water bowls in a small enclosure can become a health issue. Still, you can not rely on the greens as the sole source of water. Thus we periodically (every other week) soak them in a tub of very shallow (maybe ˝” deep), warm water (mid 80'sF), allowing them to drink their fill.  Most pass on drinking at these times, or drink very little, but most will at least occasionally drink during these soaks. This also allows us to gently clean their shells and probably helps hydrate living shell tissue (excessive drying of the shell is a leading cause of pyramiding). Allow them at least 10 to 15 minutes of undisturbed soaking and then return them to their cage. Any that drink profusely should be closely monitored for other signs of illness (especially weight loss or nasal discharge) and should be offered water soaks more frequently (at least once per week). 

 

___ Open-Ring Poultry Waterer ___

 

For daily drinking water, (essential for any in poor condition or on medication), the safest and most efficient method is to supply the water through the use of an open-ring "Poultry" waterer. Tortoises routinely defecate in their water, making it unsuitable for the next tortoise to drink.  Also, if  they get up-ended in a water dish, they can easily drown. Poultry waterers avoid these issues by only presenting a narrow ring of  water to the drinking tortoise - an area just wide enough to allow the tortoise's heads into the water but nothing else. They can readily drink but can not physically get into the water to defecate or accidentally drown. The narrow ring also limits evaporation,  helping to keep cage humidity low (essential for Golden Greek tortoises, less so for Russians). We still offer the every-other week soak to aid in shell maintenance even if they have access to the poultry waterers.  

 

Hopefully this covers the basic's you'll need to successfully keep and enjoy your tortoise for many years to come. Enjoy!


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Our "For Sale" Specimens: We offer both captive-born tortoises as well as field-collected specimens.  We try to cherry pick from the major importations to try to obtain specimens exhibiting the best contrasting shells for use as premium breeders or the most noteworthy companion animals.  We hold all our specimens until well acclimated (the biggest key to success with wild-collected specimens) before releasing any to our customers.

We are strong supporters of captive propagation efforts and are always looking to purchase additional healthy clutches produced by other breeders for resale to our customers. These are an excellent choice for pet and breeder specimens as long as they have been properly handled. They tend to be a bit more expensive than wild collected specimens, but if we don't support these efforts, the day will come when most species will be unavailable to future keepers. In our opinion, funneling a reasonable portion of wild-collected specimens into potential captive breeding programs is also one of the few legitimate justifications for collecting specimens from wild populations. Captive breeding also eventually reduces the demand for wild-collected specimens, easing pressures on wild populations. The extra cost is thus well justified. We constantly consult with other breeders to insure the specimens produced are as healthy and vigorous as possible. Thus if your goals are similar to ours -wanting truly the best specimens available with the best potential to thrive for you, please consider some of our tortoises, either field-collected or captive-produced, for your breeders or pets.

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Our availability is seasonal for hatchlings and sporadic for older individuals, so please e-mail or call us (360 435-2679) if you're looking for tortoises for companion animals or breeders.  We keep a "Wanted" list and fill it as specimens become available.  Please see "Deer Fern Farms Ordering / Pricing" for ordering information.  

 
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