Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lady's first egg hatched today!

Lady's first egg finally hatched! She is a healthy and perfect little Russian tortoise hatchling, and weighs 16g.
Finally out! 
This wee baby had NO hurry to get out of her egg. She didn't pip until day 68, and then she sat in there, looking out of the little hole she had made, for 3 days! When we came home from church today, she was finally out of her egg.

The lopsided shape will even out in a few days
She was rolled diagonally inside the egg, so she is still quite lopsided, but that will even out as her shell hardens, and she'll be a normal little oval baby. Look at her little nuchal scute (it's the one right above her head) - it's split in half, making it look like a perfect little heart!

16 g of pure cuteness
She is dark, and very domed. Her Mom and Dad are both sunflower yellow with black markings, and very domed, so she's going to be a beauty!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dissection of a failed tortoise egg

Yesterday my son and I dissected a Russian tortoise egg that had stopped developing and dried out. Inside we found moldy icky stuff, but also a tiny blue tortoise fetus about 1.5cm long. It was truly amazing to see how fully formed it was, with tiny claws, little scales, closed eyes, a stubby tail, a little beak, and all the scutes on its shell.

My fingernail and the foot of a tiny penny-sized tortoise fetus from a failed egg.
Since not everyone enjoys reading about or seeing pictures of this kind of thing, I am not creating a blog post about it here. However, if you would like to see pictures (no gore, just a tiny fully-formed penny-sized blue tortoise fetus), here is a link to my article on the Tortoise Forum: "Egg dissection"

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pip pip pip! First Fall Russian tortoise baby hatched!

I am so excited to share with you that Mila's first egg hatched last week! This was the first time she ever laid, and the egg was quite large, at 30g. 63 days incubating at 89 degrees F later, the egg pipped (which means the shell started to crack where baby was pushing through).

Do you see the tiny pip there on the left side of the egg?
Tortoises, just like many other animals, hatch at their own pace, some faster, some more slowly. It is super important to let them come out on their own. If rushed (helped), a weakened, unmotivated baby may be the result, or the yolk sac may not be fully absorbed.
For this reason, as hard as it is, I just moved the pipping egg into a separate container in the incubator, with a moist paper towel, and then left it alone.

1.5 days later, the head and front leg are out
This baby took its time to hatch: one and a half days later, a tiny head and an arm were hanging out of the egg. It was responsive to light shining into the incubator, and was clearly breathing, so I continued to just leave the wee tyke alone.

48 hours after first pip, Mila's baby is out!
Finally, 48 hours after pipping, Mila's baby finished hatching and burst out of her shell! Looking at her through the window of the incubator, she looked very fat and more domed than Timmy's Spring hatchlings.
Mila, the baby's Mama
As a reminder, I posted a picture of Mila above - she has a pretty greenish shell that is unusually domed. When I got Mila's baby out of the incubator to give her a quick look-over, I could see that she resembled her mother a lot!

Hatched Oct. 15th, perfect, fat, and weighing 20g!
 This wee girl surprised me with her size - at 20g she is quite large for a Russian tortoise hatchling. She has fat rolls on her legs, she has a double chin, her shell is very domed, and my favorite part: she has a handlebar mustache!

A pretty greenish-brownish shell like her Mama
I am so proud that Mila is a Momma now. I am also happy (and a little surprised!) that Mila's huge, very elongated egg hatched out a perfect baby.

Cute little belly, with the yolk sac mostly absorbed
Baby's belly markings look like a clover leaf. Her yolk sac was mostly absorbed when she hatched - confirming that she knew what she was doing when she waited to come out of her egg.

Having her first soak
After 4-5 days in the incubator with daily soaks and mistings, I moved the baby into the baby enclosure. She is a little go-getter, very quick, and very curious. I see her scrambling all over the enclosure, burrowing down into the moist moss at night and several times throughout the day. She also takes teenie tiny bites out of tender greens.

Photo shoot with a dandelion
We got lucky last weekend with some amazing sunny weather, so I brought all the tortoises outside for some time in the natural sunlight. I took some pictures of Mila's baby next to a dandelion. Cute little green fatty!

So tiny, but already on the go! was hard to get a good picture of her, because she was moving around so much. "Here I come, world!" she seemed to be thinking. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Updated Baby Russian tortoise pics

The Russian tortoise babies are getting so big! Duchess hatched at the end of May weighing 14g, and now weighs 59g at not quite 5 months old. I thought you might like some pictures of Duchess (Timmy's Spring baby #2), who is the hatchling I'm keeping.

Stay tuned for baby pictures of the brand new hatches... coming VERY soon!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How to make home-made calcium blocks for tortoises

Tortoises need calcium in order to build strong bones, a strong shell, and healthy organs. Ideally, they are fed a widely varied diet of nutritious weeds and dark leafy greens that have high levels of bio-available calcium in them. Adding a sprinkling of a healthy plant-based supplement such as TNT can help significantly. However, sometimes a tortoise's calcium requirements go beyond what is found in the plants we can provide. 
Some tortoise keepers rely on sprinkling calcium powder on tortoise food. However, this has the danger of causing a dosage beyond what a tortoise needs, and may actually cause health problems. For this reason, I like to provide healthy tortoises with calcium sources that they can help themselves to, as needed. Tortoises seem to have a good instinct about when their body needs more calcium.

Some tortoises readily eat cuttlefish bone on their own.
Cuttlefish bone (found in the bird aisle of most pet stores, or available in bulk online) is a good option. However, not all tortoises seem to care for cuttlebone. Quarry chalk is a good source of calcium. It is widely available in the UK and some other countries, but is hard to come by here in the US. Finally, man-made calcium blocks are another good source of calcium. Some such products are available in the pet trade. However, I have found them to be ridiculously expensive, and they often have undesirable ingredients such as sugar or artificial dyes and flavors. For this reason, I did a little research, and decided to try making my own calcium blocks.  

The home-made calcium blocks are tortoise-approved!
After seeing how ridiculously easy it is to make the home-made calcium blocks, I wanted to share the recipe and procedure with you, so that you and your tortoise(s) may benefit from it as well. 

First, you need to decide on the calcium source. Food-grade calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is one good option, sometimes called Limestone flour (available e.g on Amazon). Another, more affordable and more easily available source is so called Agricultural Lime (CaCO3) - I got it at our local feed store for $8 for a 50lb bag! Agricultural lime is produced by pulverizing limestone or chalk, and is commonly used as a soil amendment. Please make sure to read the label CAREFULLY: you want to make sure that it not so-called hydrated lime, that it does not contain Magnesium Carbonate, and that it does not have any other ingredients and impurities in significant amounts. Here is the kind I bought:

One of many good options
The only other ingredient you will need to make lime blocks is water.
For tools, you will need:

  • a large mixing bowl 
  • a sturdy spoon to mix with 
  • and some kind of mold that will withstand 200 degrees F (93 degrees C). I used a silicone muffin pan that I got at Goodwill for $2 
  • an oven, pre-heated to 200 degrees F (93 degrees C)

It took a little bit of mixing and adding to find just the right consistency. Here is the ratio of ingredients that I found to work best:
  • 1.5 cups of warm water (H2O)
  • 7 cups of CaCO3 powder (Ok, sue me; I used a liquid measuring cup to measure the dry powder, which I know is a no-no in cooking... but in this case it worked fine, since I was just aiming for keeping track of the ratio that worked)

Calcium Carbonate powder
First, I measured the Calcium Carbonate Powder into the mixing bowl. Then I made an indentation into the powder, and slowly poured the warm water into it. Then I very carefully stirred the mixture, to minimize clouds of powder flying up and all around. The mixture quickly gets very thick, so you really do need a sturdy spoon made of metal or wood. A spatula didn't cut it.

Yum! Calcium paste!
Keep on mixing until there is no more liquid on top, and no more pockets of powder at the bottom. It will get progressively tougher to mix, and will start looking like mortar or thick plaster of Paris.

Next, spoon the Calcium Carbonate + water mixture into the molds you have chosen. The amount I made was exactly the right amount to fill all 12 wells of the muffin pan, plus 1 small cup.

NOTE: Please DO NOT dump excess slurry down your drain. It can clog your drain and/or wreck your in-sink disposal. I took the bowl outside and hosed it down. It is perfectly safe just to dump it onto your garden or your lawn. 
In fact, if you don't have a lot of tortoises, and don't want to have the remnants of a 50lb bag (minus 7 cups) of agricultural lime sitting in your garage... just spread the rest into your lawn, or dig it into your flower beds or raised garden beds!

Soon-to-be Calcium blocks
Next, carefully place the mold into the oven. I used a cookie sheet under the silicone muffin pan since it is a bit wobbly. Set the timer to 1 hour.

Bake the calcium cakes
After 1 hour of baking, open the oven door and carefully pull the oven rack out far enough that you can safely touch the calcium cakes. You will notice that water has risen to the top of them. Use a paper towel or napkin to wick off the excess liquid. This will significantly cut down on the drying time.
Bake for another 2-3 hours, depending on your oven. I checked every hour to remove more liquid, and after a total of 4 hours, they looked completely dry, and had shrunken in the molds.

Carefully remove the mold(s) from the oven, and place somewhere to cool down. This took a long time. I used our handy dandy infrared thermometer to check the temperature of the calcium blocks, and waited for them to almost be cool enough to touch.
Once they are cool enough, carefully remove each calcium block from the mold, and place it on a cookie drying rack. They should come out easily. I let them sit like that overnight, just to make sure all the moisture had dried out.

12 beautiful calcium cupcakes.
The next day, I put one of these beautiful calcium cupcakes into each of the tortoise enclosures, and packed the extra ones into ziploc bags for later use. Within minutes of placing the cakes into the enclosures, the tortoises congregated around them, and took a few nibbles. Pretty soon, they were sporting cute little calcium mustaches... 

Jill approves.
The part that really made my day: Amber, my XXL female Russian tortoise had just laid eggs. She has been stubbornly refusing to eat cuttlefish bone, and does not eat weeds if I have sprinkled them with calcium. However, by evening, her calcium cake looked like this:

Amber loves her calcium cupcake!
I hope you have fun making your own calcium blocks, and that your tortoises enjoy them as much as mine do! Please keep in mind that in order to properly absorb calcium, a tortoise needs UVB to produce vitamin D3. You can read a little more about this HERE.

Ps: When you mist your enclosures, please avoid spraying the calcium cakes too thoroughly (you might take them out briefly), because otherwise they may disintegrate.

Pps: You might experiment with mixing in ground up weeds, or a little bit of carrot juice for a nice orange color... however, my tortoises (even the ones who NEVER eat cuttlefish bone!) heavily approved and helped themselves to these calcium cupcakes within minutes of placing them into each enclosure.

Ppps: I am not the inventor of home-made calcium blocks. There are several conversation threads on the Tortoise Forum (e.g. HERE and HERE) that mention them long before I ever thought of making them. They don't however, mention the exact ratio of water and CaCO3 (Calcium Carbonate) that works best. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

More Russian tortoise eggies!

This last month has been very rewarding in the tortoise egg department. Three of my Russian tortoise females laid eggs for the first time. Mila laid one single but large egg outside. Lady laid 3 beautiful eggs outside a couple weeks later, and today my HUGE (9"SCL) female Amber laid eggs for the first time, too.

Lady, digging a nest hole outside, and in the pic below, her 3 eggs.
Amber has been pacing and digging test nests outdoors for a few weeks, but nothing quite seemed to please her. She was covered by a male for the first time in August, so she may have not been nesting seriously yet. However, last week the weather got cold and I had to bring the tortoises inside. Within a day, Amber started digging nest holes again. The substrate in her tortoise table is generous, but not deep enough to dig a nest hole (6"+ deep), so I added 1.5 more bags of ACE topsoil to provide her with deep enough substrate (have I mentioned she is a BIG girl?!).

Well, she got really serious about digging nest holes yesterday, and again this morning, and finally this afternoon she laid 2 big, beautiful eggs. One weighs 34g, one weighs 30g (the big one came first). She was absolutely exhausted after that. After a good soak she is now dug in for the night.

Amber digging her nest hole by the basking spot, and her eggs.
This means I currently have 6 eggs in the incubator, due to hatch ever 2 weeks starting October 15th-ish. Things will be busy in the hatchling care department this Fall!

I should mention that breeding Russian tortoises is more involved than just throwing together a male and a female. This was the first year I got eggs, and I believe there is a direct correlation with the following factors:
  1. The tortoises hibernated this winter
  2. The tortoises spent the Spring and Summer outside. This means they had LOTS of space to roam, good fresh and varied food, and plenty of natural sunshine. 
  3. I added a second male to my 6 girls. Roz is a cutie, but he strangely is only interested in my Timmy girl. He ignores other females. The new captive-bred male Duke is a rapist is not as choosy. Clearly he has "done his job" fertilizing these eggs. 
  4. The tortoises had constant access to cuttlefish bone, which they helped themselves to generously.
  5. The females (and males) are in excellent health, and at a good, healthy weight.
As mentioned in previous posts, males can be very aggressive towards females, and so care must be taken to protect the females from constant male attention. A ratio of 3 females per 1 male is recommended for the sake of the female's sanity. Even then, it may become necessary to separate the male temporarily or permanently.

One of this Spring's hatchlings
Stay tuned for hatch announcements, which are sure to come throughout the next weeks and months!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A reminder about tortoises bullying each other...

It is time to bring up the issue again of keeping two (or more) tortoises together.
When new keepers ask about getting another tortoise, long term keepers usually chime in to recommend against this.
The main reason for this is that either subtle or obvious bullying will result, and outright bloody fighting can occur that can lead to death.

This is an older pic... but it demonstrates well what I am talking about. Those three are not cuddling, even though their heads are resting on each other's shells. Those three are COMPETING FOR THE BEST BASKING SPOT.
Death can result from multiple tortoises being kept together, even when no active fighting is visible. Tortoises can be VERY sneaky. They will hog the best basking spot from their 'buddy' which results in the other tortoise not being able to reach proper body temperatures to digest their food. They will sit on the biggest part of the food pile, preventing the other tortoise from eating. They will intimidate through head bobbing, biting, and ramming. A bullied tortoise is often perceived as 'more shy' or 'not as active' - and can become so withdrawn that it stops eating and dies.
When keepers chime in to point out that their tortoises are the exception because they "like to cuddle" and that they "always eat together" - what they are observing is actually subtle, non-violent bullying.
Again, an older pic. These two are not having a relaxed lunch together. They are ravenously eating every weed they can grab, while hoggishly sitting on top of the weeds TO PREVENT THE OTHER FROM GETTING TO THEM.
Now, we humans love to put our anthropomorphic interpretation into the things our little reptilian friends do. We seek out companionship, and so our assumption is often that our tortoise wants to have a friend, too. Please don't let this happen at the expense of your tortoise.
As a keeper of 8 adult Russian tortoises (plus the babies that result), I know that I am not abiding by the '1-tortoise-rule' - HOWEVER, the tortoises spend the warm season in a LARGE outdoor area, with many different hides, holes and houses, many sight barriers, and plenty of room for a tortoise to escape from the others. When the tortoises are indoors, they are separated into different tables. 
This outdoor area looks large, but there is still sometimes conflict. We are working on an expansion!
If you look at the set-ups of other keepers who SUCCESSFULLY keep multiple tortoises, you will see that they have extensive outdoor space. An indoor set-up generally is NOT sufficient to keep multiple tortoises together in the long run.
Please don't feel attacked by this post if you already keep several together. There are quite a few options with you that don't require re-homing a tortoise: creating a large outdoor space, building a bunked set-up to separate the tortoises, etc. - there are a lot of options, even on a tight budget and without a ton of space!
For more information on this subject, please read the following blog post:

In the meantime... spoil your tortoise rotten, and work on improving (or creating) their outdoor space!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Keeping tortoises cool on hot days

When Summer finally comes, and the weather heats up, it is SO important to make sure your tortoise doesn't overheat or dehydrate! I will outline a few simple but important precautions you need to take to insure your tortoise remains happy and healthy, even during a heat advisory.
Being outdoors is so good for tortoises... but can also be dangerous!
First, always keep in mind that if the air temperature is 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), the ground temperature in the sun can easily be 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), which is unsafe for our chelonian friends!

In the wild, tortoises have the opportunity to dig deep into their burrows to enjoy cooler temperatures and even to aestivate (Summer version of hibernation). They can seek out DEEP shade under bushes and trees and rock crevices. They can roam for miles in the morning to find a suitable spot to hide from the midday sun.

In captivity, keepers often only provide flimsy hides that don't actually insulate tortoises from the heat. Some outdoor enclosures don't have deep shade from trees or bushes, and the substrate is too shallow to dig into. Tortoises can be trapped, and may suffer from heat stroke if left in the beating sun for too long.

(some tortoises like to dig more than others)
If your tortoise is outdoors, and the weather is warmer than 85 degrees F, your tortoise really needs to have some form of insulated hide that also allows it to dig several inches or feet into the soft, cool soil to regulate its body temperature. Such a hide can be built from wood and insulation material, or made from a sturdy half-pipe or half flowerpot, with several inches of soil piled over top. You can plant sod over top to help keep the dirt in place (possibly with some kind of netting under the sod, to prevent erosion).

In the picture below, you can sort of see one of my insulated hides up against the wall. It is both attractive and useful! I made it from a sturdy plastic bin (once upon a time a recycling bin), with soil piled on top, and a little rock garden with succulents. Even on a hot day, the inside of the hide only rises to about 70 degrees F (21 degrees C). The soil inside is soft, and tortoises can dig about a foot down into it.

A hide that is insulated by dirt and a rock garden with succulents!
The tortoise enclosures are large, and are planted with several bushes, and a tree partially shades a portion of the tortoise yard all day long. As a result, the tortoises can decide which part of the temperature gradient they want to spend time in. They come out into the sun in the morning, to raise their body temperature. Then they eat and wander for a few hours. During the hottest afternoon hours, they hide away in the cooler, shadier areas. Then they usually come back out in the cooler evening hours, or they dig in for the night.

To help regulate the temperatures in their tortoise garden on hot days, I hose it down thoroughly every couple of hours. The tortoises have come to appreciate the cool rain shower from the hose - almost all of them come out to visit while I'm spraying down the outdoor tortoise habitats. On extra hot days I also set up an umbrella to shade part of the enclosure.

Another measure I take to help the tortoises stay healthy in warm weather is to soak them once a week. When it is not as hot, I let them self-regulate their water intake, since they do have a nice big planting saucer full of water to bathe in or drink out of. However, 100 degree weather can dehydrate a tortoise awfully fast.

8 soaking Russian tortoises
Here's the whole bale of my RTs, 6 females and 2 males, ranging from 4.5" to 9" SCL, all soaking in some cool water this afternoon. We have a couple of really hot days coming up, so even though they live outside, I soaked them in the kiddie pool to make sure they are well hydrated.

Using an infrared temperature gun to check the ground temperature regularly might save your tortoise's life.

If there is a heat advisory in your area, and you are not sure if you will be able to come home during the hottest hours of the day, it is safer to bring your tortoise into the cool inside (NOT the garage, which is often much hotter than outside!) for the day. Being in a boring bin is safer than being stuck in the heat!

CAUTION: If your tortoise has been outside in very hot weather, and is acting lethargic, is incessantly pacing, is foaming at the mouth, vomiting or is having neurological symptoms, IMMEDIATELY put it in cool water and run room temperature water over the top of its shell to help it reduce its body temperature. Then call an emergency veterinarian and seek help ASAP! Tortoises can die from heat stroke!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to find a good Veterinarian for your Tortoise (and maybe an excellent one!)

Finding a good veterinarian who is experienced and up-to-date on caring for tortoises (not just turtles) can be very difficult. Since tortoises live for a century or longer, there is a good chance that your tortoise will need to go to the vet at some point, whether for a beak trim, an injury or for an illness, or to be treated for parasites.

Mila, getting a check-up from Dr. Kelly Flaminio
In an ideal world, a tortoise keeper already has a relationship with a reliable and knowledgeable reptile vet before the tortoise has even been purchased or adopted. A check-up and a fecal exam (to check for parasites) should be done within the first two weeks of owning the tortoise. This is especially the case if you bought your tortoise from a pet store. If parasites or other problems are discovered by the vet within the initial 14 days, most larger chain stores will actually refund you the cost for the office visit and the parasite treatment.

We love our reptile vet, Dr. Kelly Flaminio!
Whether you are being proactive, or you already find yourself in over your head with a sick or injured tortoise, it is important to ask a few questions of the vet before trusting him or her with your tortoise's health.

First, how should you go about finding an exotics vet?
A good starting place is a list of vets that has been compiled by tortoise keepers on the tortoise forum HERE. This list is sorted by State, as well as by country. If you live close to a State border, you may want to check for clinics on the other side of the State line.
(Please keep in mind that not all of the vets on this list are guaranteed to be awesome.... they are however at the very least more likely to know how to provide healthcare for a tortoise!)

The TFO list of reptile vets in the USA and in the rest of the world.
Google can be of help, too. Entering "exotics veterinarian" in a map search near you should provide you with several options (Note: If your Google search brings forth a list of places advertising "girls girls girls" you might need to narrow your key words down a little more!). Follow the links to the vet clinics' websites, and see what they say about themselves. Often, Google listings already have ratings associated with the listing. Read the ratings carefully, keeping in mind that there are probably many happy clients who just didn't get around to writing a review.

Google map search for "exotics vet" or "exotics veterinarian"
When you have found a reptile vet who looks promising, give them a call, and politely ask them a few questions:
  1. Does this vet clinic have experience with tortoises, specifically? (you can even ask if they have experience with your specific tortoise species, e.g. Russian tortoises)
  2. Is this exotics vet familiar with the different care and dietary requirements of a tortoise in comparison to a turtle?
  3. How long has this vet been practicing? (sometimes a newer vet will actually have more up-to-date knowledge about tortoises!) 
  4. How long has this vet been providing healthcare for tortoises?
  5. How many tortoises does this clinic treat each month? 
  6. How often does the veterinarian treat reptiles in comparison to dogs and cats?
  7. How often does the exotics vet attend continued education events and conferences pertaining to reptiles and tortoise care?
  8. Is this vet able to trim your tortoises beak, if necessary? 
  9. Does this vet perform surgery on tortoises, should this ever become necessary?
  10. Is this vet available in the case of after-hour emergencies? (Not all are - in that case, please also ask for the contact information of an emergency vet who will see a tortoise. It is good to have this information on hand, should it ever become necessary.)
  11. Is this vet able to keep a tortoise overnight should treatment require an extended stay?
If you have a VERY large tortoise, such as a full-grown sulcata or even an aldabra tortoise, you may want to also ask if this vet does house visits. In some cases, transporting a vet is easier than transporting a tortoise... 

A few questions should be asked that pertain to the financial aspect of a vet visit:

  1. Is the first exam free? (can't hurt to ask - often it is!)
  2. How much is the exam fee? (within a town, this can vary greatly from one office to another!)
  3. Does this clinic do fecal exams for parasites in-house or externally?
  4. Are they willing to run a fecal exam without requiring an office visit? Then if parasites are found, and treatment is necessary, you can still bring your tortoise in for the office visit and to get treatment.
  5. Does the veterinarian give a price quote before performing a surgery or another procedure? Will different options be given? Does this vet clinic offer payment options if a high vet fee is incurred?
Armed with the above questions, you should be able to determine whether a vet will be able to help you and your tortoise.

Although currently in perfect health, this tiny baby tortoise
will likely need vet care at some point in her life.
We are lucky to have a wonderful and experienced reptile vet within easy driving distance of our home. Our veterinarian, Dr. Kelly Flaminio at the East Mill Plain VCA, is very knowledgeable, and we have had a very good experience with her care for several of the reptiles we own or foster. 

Because our reptiles have gotten such great care, I thought it might be useful to you to see a few of Dr. Kelly's answers to some of my questions:
Q: "How many reptiles does your veterinary clinic see on average?"
A: "Between 50-100 per month. Usually about 3 per day."

Q: "How long have you been treating tortoises?"
A: "I have been treating tortoises and other reptiles for about 5 years."

Q: "How often do you attend conferences and continued education events?"
A: "Twice a year."

Q: "What are the most frequent reptile cases you see?"
A: "We most frequently see new lizards parents bought for kids. Next, the most frequent cases are amputations and abscesses of various reptiles. Many reptile keepers don't bring their animal in until something bad happens, unfortunately."

Q: "What do you most frequently see tortoise patients for?"
A: "New tortoise pets often come in to be checked and treated for parasites and to have blood work done to ensure they are healthy. Long-term, tortoises most frequently come in for a beak trim. Some tortoises we see suffer from MDB (metabolic bone disease) from improper husbandry. In the Spring we usually see quite a few tortoises with URIs (upper respiratory infections) or pneumonia. Sometimes tortoises that have been found on the loose are relinquished to the clinic, and then we find foster homes for them."

Many of the above questions had already been answered in previous interactions: Dr. Kelly has extensive experience with tortoises, and definitely knows the difference between a box turtle and a tortoise. She is able to perform surgery on tortoises and other reptiles in-house. The clinic is able to keep reptiles overnight if necessary.

During my interview with her, Dr. Kelly also mentioned that local new patients to her clinic are welcome to print off the 'free first exam' coupon from their website. They will honor the coupon for reptiles as well as for dogs and cats.

Whether you have a very large tortoise, or a very small tortoise,'s a good idea to know a good reptile vet!
The above questions don't always guarantee that a vet is awesome. Sometimes, it will take several office visits to find a vet that will meet the needs of you and your tortoise. Many veterinarians are VERY GOOD veterinarians, but just haven't specialized on tortoises. Others might be operating off of out-of-date information.

There are a few RED FLAGS that indicate that a reptile vet is NOT a good tortoise vet:

  1. You are told to feed your tortoise 'more animal protein.' (this is based on a confusion over tortoises vs. box turtles)
  2. You are told to add cat food into your tortoise's diet (this is based on 35-year-old, outdated information that results in terribly deformed tortoises)
  3. The vet suggests treatment for parasites with medication other than Safeguard or Panacur (active ingredient fenbendazole). (other worm medications, such as ivermectin, can kill a tortoise!)
  4. You are told not to provide water in the enclosure (this is based on outdated, false information)
  5. You are told to use sand for substrate
  6. The vet claims to be able to tell you how old your tortoise is based on the 'rings' in his shell (tortoises are not trees. The rings are based on seasons of plentiful food and lack of food... which can happen several times throughout a year. The only way to know a tortoise's age is to know it's hatch date or at least hatch year).

Mila frowns on the idea of having her rings counted to tell her age.

If you live out in the country, it may be necessary to drive several hours to get to a good reptile vet. If the weather is very hot or very cold, be sure to accommodate your tortoise accordingly. A bin with some paper towels or cloth towels works well for a transport container. Never leave your tortoise in the car - you don't want it to die of freezing or heat stroke.
If it is necessary to cross State lines to get to a good reptile vet, please be sure to know the laws pertaining to bringing reptiles across. The last thing you want is for your tortoise to be confiscated, or for you to have to pay a fine.

The pictures have been posted with permission from Dr. Kelly. I have not received any payment or other incentives to write this blog post. It was purely written to help other tortoise keepers find an excellent reptile vet.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Keeping tortoises outdoors in the Pacific Northwest

Today I would like to show some pictures of my adult Russian tortoises in their outdoor habitat in our yard. My hope is that this will encourage more tortoise keepers to provide their tortoise(s) with an outdoor space.

Duke, eating weeds while sitting up on a rock - silly boy!
Keeping tortoises in the Pacific Northwest has a unique set of challenges in that it rains A LOT here for part of the year. However, it is actually possible to keep them outdoors all or most of the time from April through September or even October.

The benefits of keeping tortoises outdoors far outweigh the potential dangers, IF proper precautions are taken and accommodations are made. The natural sunlight provides heat and healthy UVB, which promotes healthy bones and a good hard shell. Being able to wander a much larger area keeps the tortoise's muscles strong. Wild Russian tortoises live in climates that are harsher than ours! They can THRIVE in our climate.

A morning view of our tortoise yard
In our climate, moisture can be a problem - Russian tortoises don't seem to mind chilly weather as long as they have the option to stay dry. We solved this problem by building the tortoise yard partially under the eves of our roof - about 2 feet out from our house wall stay completely dry, no matter how hard it rains. I have cut several buckets in half, and buried them under several inches of soil. They provide good hides for the tortoises to burrow into on cool or hot days.

A morning view of the tortoise yard- it gets much sunnier here in the afternoon!
Building an outdoor space doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. I used re-claimed materials off of Craigslist and from my neighbors' left over project lumber. The total cost out of pocket was $35 for this, which was for the decking screws to hold it all together.
I plan to expand the tortoise yard in the next few years, to go further out from the house, as well as going around the corner to the South side of the house. I already have some of the materials for this. I also am scavenging materials to build a little heated greenhouse, which would make it possible for the tortoises to live outdoors for several more months each year!

Jill and Mila basking in the morning sun
Russian tortoises are hardy critters, and even when the air temperature is only 60 degrees, the ground temperature in a sunny spot is often 30 degrees higher. You can help this by placing a flat dark-ish rock (or several) into the area the sun hits first in the morning. I've also set up little cold frames (miniature greenhouses), which I built from polycarbonate scraps I scored from a local garden center for a whopping $5 for a stack large enough to make 4.
Greenhouse made from polycarbonate remnants
I simply taped the triangles together using foil ducting tape, and ta-daaaa! Instant slightly warmer, dry basking area! These are very simplified versions of a cold frame.

Amber, hanging out in her pyramid in the quarantine area
My infrared temperature gun is an important tool - I quickly check the ground temperature in several spots before bringing the tortoises outside in the Spring. In the summer, the ground temperature can actually rise to 140 degrees F on a 90 degree (air temp) day (in that case, it becomes necessary to hose down the tortoise yard to cool it).
I like this one by Etekcity.
I bought it on Amazon, and it has worked for 4 years without needing its battery changed. 
When night temperatures drop below 58 degrees F, I bring the tortoises in at night. Otherwise, they stay outside 24/7 unless it is raining so torrentially that I know the gutters will fail, sending a waterfall over the edge of the roof into the tortoise yard.
The tortoises dig in for the night. Then as soon as the sun hits the tortoise garden (around 11am, since it's on the West side of the house), the tortoises come out to bask in the sunny spots. They wander around, graze, explore, and soak. By afternoon it really bakes out, and they retreat to the shady spots under the bushes. In the evening, they come back out again for another snack, or just to take a walk.

Indoors I have to separate the tortoises into multiple tortoise tables, based on who gets along with whom (or doesn't). Several are permanently in solitary confinement indoors. Outside, there are so many sight barriers, and so much space, that I am able to keep the tortoises together in the large tortoise garden. I keep a close eye on them to make sure nobody is being ganged up on, and I have a 'time out' area set up for them if separation becomes necessary. In the Springtime, the males couldn't be in the same enclosure because they kept fighting. Now they have mellowed.

A different view of the tortoise yard. I have blueberry bushes, gooseberry bushes, and raspberries growing in there. I've limbed up the blueberry bushes to where the tortoises can't reach the fruit or leaves, so they just benefit from the filtered shade. They like to eat the leaves off the raspberry vines, but the fruit is picked by us humans. The gooseberry bush is related to the currant family, so the leaves are safe for the tortoises. We pick the fruit for ourselves. I like that the bushes fulfill a dual purpose - food for us humans, and shade for the tortoises.

I have dug a nice deep trench under the wall of the enclosure, which I filled with cement pavers, so I don't have to worry about the tortoises digging out of their enclosure. My male Roz is an especially avid digger - he makes burrows so deep I have to reach in up to my shoulder to get him out. The walls of the enclosure are capped so the tortoises can't climb out either. Because I am confident the tortoises can't escape, it isn't too scary for me when one of the tortoises disappears for a few weeks for a snooze. I know they are healthy and have had plenty of food, so if the weather is hot or cold, I allow them to burrow down as they see fit. 

Lady (the very dirty tortoise shown above and below) disappeared at the end of April, and didn't show up again until last week. She is a big, heavy girl, so I wasn't worried. She came back out and went back to eating as if there had never been a 6-week nap. 

I provide water in several flat containers, such as the plant saucer in the picture below. Normally, this container is actually sunken into the ground, but one of the tortoises decided to dig under it, which pushed it up and out.

Some tortoises that are normally picky eaters or have a shy personality really blossom when they are outdoors. Little Jill (who isn't so little anymore!) is a shy picky eater indoors. Outside she eats like a piggy, and even bosses the bigger females around!

I had just hosed down the tortoise yard (including the tortoises) the morning before I took these pictures, hence the tortoises are unusually clean. They normally spend their Summer as grubby little piggies!

Now that it is summer, the tortoise yard has been grazed pretty bare - however, finding healthy weeds is no trouble here in the beautiful, green Pacific Northwest, so the tortoises eat well.

This year was the first year that my tortoises had babies - Timmy and Roz produced 6 beautiful, healthy hatchlings. I am keeping 1 of them, and the others have all been dibsed. Here are a few pictures:

At only about a month old, the babies only spend about an hour per day outside. The baby below is little Duchess (Baby #2), which I am keeping. Eventually I plan to breed her with Duke (our CB male, who is NOT her father) to produce some fine CB2 Russian tortoises in years to come.

Finally, I just have to show off my Amber - she is just shy of 9" long and weighs in at a whopping 1874g. She's a big, big girl! (freshly hosed down in the pic below... I plopped Duke into the pic for size comparison. He's a 5" male).