Bell's hinged tortoiseLeft: Bell's hinged tortoise (Kinixys belliana belliana)
Kinixys belliana belliana - Bell’s or Lowveld hinged tortoise*
Kinixys belliana spekii - Savanna hinged tortoise*
Kinixys natalensis - Natal hinged tortoise*
Kinixys belliana nogueyi – Western hingeback
Kinixys belliana zombensis – Southeastern hingeback
Kinixys erosa – Serrated hingeback
Kinixys homeana – Home’s hingeback
Kinixys lobatsiana – Lobatse hingeback*

* Occurring in South Africa

Natural history:

These tortoises are easily identified by their hinged carapace that allows the rear of their shell to close for protection of hind feet and tail. They are found throughout central and East Africa, and are equally at home on savannahs, coastal bush, grasslands and thornveld. K. homeana and K. erosa are shyer tortoises and prefer forest regions.

A very hardy and robust tortoise, they adapt easily to captivity and thrive in almost any climate, although some species of hinge-back from outside South Africa, such as Kinixys homeana and Kinixys erosa from West Africa are much more difficult to keep and require constantly high humidity.

General Care:

These tortoises can be allowed free run in a reasonably sized garden as long as fencing is adequate. They are adept at both climbing and digging, and escapes are common. If an enclosure is used, it should be at least 5m X 3m for a single pair and placed in a sunny area in your garden. They are fairly shy tortoises and enjoy a well planted enclosure providing them with both food and ample cover for hiding. Small shrubs and pampas grass are utilised for sleeping under and for retreating from midday sun. Hinged tortoises are active and eat very early in the morning, retiring to a cooler spot when the sun becomes too much for them, and emerging late afternoon to browse briefly before retiring for the night. These tortoises love sleeping in confined spaces, and any sleeping shelter constructed should just clear their shell and be well stocked with dry grass/leaves for them to burrow into. Change any bedding used regularly. These shelters can be made from blocks with fibreglass roofing, quarter drums well packed with dry grass, or ceramic flower pots laid on their side and anchored with a brick either side to prevent rolling. Plastic flower pots are not suitable, they do not retain heat and their surface provides no traction. Do not use straw of any description, this can harbour a fungus called Aspergillus which can cause a fatal pneumonia that is untreatable for the most part. Be meticulous about changing bedding, as they frequently urinate and or defecate in their hides. Damp contaminated bedding is the surest way to disease.

A sunken pond is utilized almost daily, as these tortoises love soaking. The top of a large birdbath buried to the rim is ideal, the sloping sides providing easy access to water with little risk of drowning. Water should be changed often as they usually defecate and urinate in their water. This is part of the ‘programming’ of many tortoises to conserve precious water resources: they will not voluntarily lose bodily water until they know a replacement source is available. Hinged tortoises also enjoy a spraying from a garden hose, as this simulates rain, and these species are especially active during and immediately following rainfall. This is when snails and millipedes emerge, and these feature high on the preferred menu of many hingebacks.

Any area intended for hinged tortoises (enclosure or garden) should be well planted with edible vegetation and weeds chosen from the list below:

Hibiscus (leaves & Flowers)*
Morus (Mulberry, leaves & Fruit)
Gazania krebsiana*
Barleria obtusa* (flowers)
Gerbera jamesoni (Barbeton daisy)
Dimorphotheca pluvialis (Cape Daisy)
D.sinuata (Namaqualand daisy)
Arctotis (African daisy)
Tradescantia (29 out of 30 species)
Aloe Vera (African)
Abutilon hybridium (flowers)
Mimula luteus & cupreus
Cotyledon orbiculata (green variety)
Painted Lady*
Echeveria fimbriata*
Echeveria coccinea*
Echeveria elegans*
Echeveria agavoides
Graptoveria debbi
Graptoveria bellum
Kalanchoe beharensis
Kalanchoe tomentosa
Kalanchoe rhombopilosa
Kalanchoe tubiflora
Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana
Lampranthus spectabilis
Lampranthus haworthi
Malvaviscus arboreum (flowers)*
Testudinaria elephantipes
Actotis
Testudinaria macrostachya (also called tortoise plant)
Lippia*
Lederbouria spp*
Violets (not African - English)
Petunias*
Alyssum
Watercress
Endives
Russelia Juncea (coral plant - flowers)
Mesembryanthemum (Lampranthus spp - ice plant)
Aeonium arboreum
Geranium (Pelargonium)
Aeonium haworthii
Agave parryi
Aloe kedongensis*
Cotyledon
ladismithensis
Chlorophytum comosum (Indigenous hen & chicken)
Schlumbergera spp
Calisia Repens (golliwog)*
Berula erecta
Callisia elegans
Bulbine natalensis
Bulbine latifolia
Albucalilly (flowers)
Eriocephalus africanus
Colocasia spp (not to be confused with elephants foot Alocasia macrorrhiza)
Mackaya bella (flowers)
White and blue Mazus*
Nylandtia spinosa (tortoise berry)*
Dichondra repens (wonderlawn)*

As many different grasses as you can supply from the following list: (They eat less grasses than leopard tortoises)

Couch grass (Cynodon dactylon)
Eastern Province vlei grass (Eragrostis lehmanniana)
Dew grass (Eragrostis pseudo-obtusa)
Bushman grass (Schmidtia kalahariensis)
Carrot grass (Tragus racemosus)
Beesgras (Urochloa pantcoides)
Veld grass (Ehrhartacalycina)
Darnel rye grass (Lolium temulentum)
Barnyard grass (Echinochloa crus-galli)
Mouse barley grass (Hordeum murinum)
Crab finger grass (Digitaria sanguinalis)
Dallas grass (Paspalum dilatatum)
Wintergrass (Poa annua)
Dropseed grass (Sporobolus africanus)
Kikiyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum)
Buffalo grass (Stenotaphrum secondatum)
Swazi grass (Digitaria swazilandensis)
Alfalfa (Lucerne)

Weeds:

Some weeds are vital to the tortoise diet, dandelion/chickweed for instance are very high in vitamin A, and plantain is high in fiber.

Plantago major (Broad leafed plantain)*
Plantago lanceolata ( Buckhorn, narrow leafed plantain)*
Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion most important)*
Cnicus benedictus (Thistle)
Galinsoga parviflora (Small flowered quickweed)
Opuntia (most types)*
Rubus cuneifolius (Sand bramble)
Paperthorn
Tribulis terrestris (common dubbeltjie)*
Arctotheca calebdula (Cape marigold)
Trifolium repens (white clover) Note: becomes toxic when dry.
Cerastium capensi (Cape chickweed)*
Silybum marianum (Blessed milk thistle)
Commelina benghalensis (indigenous wandering jew)*
Clover

Plants with * are preferred and should be plentiful.

If the enclosure/garden is well planted from this list, supplemental feeding should only be give 1-2 times weekly unless the tortoise browses well, in which case taper off feeding market greens gradually till he is on a totally natural diet. He should be weighed monthly and a record kept, this will enable you to know if he is obtaining enough food. Any serious weight loss indicates there is a problem brewing. Tortoises on a natural plant diet are usually active and have few health problems.

Unsuitable plants high in oxalates:

Sedum morganianum
Sedum frutescens
Aracea (arum lily)
Amaranthus (pigweed)
Begonia spp
Oxalis spp
Rheum rhabarbarum (rhubarb)
Crassulae spp
The Chenopodiacea family which includes beet greens, spinach and chard should be avoided as they contain oxalates.

Oxalic acid binds with calcium to yield insoluble calcium oxalate, which cannot be absorbed by the tortoise. Avoid feeding any plants or vegetables high in oxalates especially to hatchlings and adult females ready to breed.
The Brassica family, which includes cabbage, collards, kale and broccoli can cause goiter if fed in excess because they tie up iodine - they do not contain high oxalic acid amounts like spinach and chard. Goiters caused by this are rare and the feeding of a varied diet that is not heavily based on these plants should offset this tendency.

Suggested foods: Thinly sliced cucumber, carrot/butternut/pumpkin, sliced tomato, lettuce/cabbage (VERY small quantities), sliced courgettes (zuccini), Red or green sweet peppers, fruit (sparingly - paw-paw/papaya is the favourite). The object of slicing food for adults is to provide them with beak exercise thus avoiding overgrown beaks which can allow mouth rot to take hold. For hatchlings grate food instead of slicing. This food should be offered in the early morning, and any uneaten food removed by midmorning. A good vitamin/mineral supplement should be added to the food about once a week. The odd bone left lying in the enclosure will be chewed on, this helps keep their beak trim and provides some additional calcium. Cuttlefish bone, as used by bird keepers, is especially suitable. They are adept at identifying the soft side and this too provides beak exercise and occupational therapy.

Live food: All the hinged species relish snails, earthworms and millipedes, and an effort should be made to supply these once or twice weekly. Giving tinned meat as a substitute should be avoided where possible, natural sources are always preferable to processed alternatives. Snails can be easily found early evening especially after rain, and a short walk with a good torch should provide several snails at least. Millipedes can be attracted by placing a tin with holes punched around the bottom and filled with carrot peelings in a shady garden bed. Millipedes also congregate under dried leaves in shady areas. These tortoises learn fast, and if earthworms/millipedes are unearthed while you are gardening, they soon learn to approach and wait patiently every time you appear with a spade.

A tip from Jenny Vaughn from The Bridge November 1998: Garden snails can be frozen. First, put collected snails into a large container with a snap lid. Punch holes in the lid. Cover the bottom of the container with corn meal. Put a small margarine tub of water in the middle of the corn meal and seal the snails in the container. Leave for four days. The snails feces will be yellow and any impurities in their systems will have been purged. Put the snails into smaller sealable containers and freeze.

General:

Check tortoises at least once a week for ticks, long beak/nails, disease and shell injuries. Be alert for any bad smell coming from the tortoise as this could indicate serious disease. Before any new animals are added to your existing stock they should be quarantined for at least six months to one year. It is wise to take any new tortoise to a competent veterinarian for a complete physical check-up to avoid infecting your other tortoises with disease and or parasites. It should be noted, however, that some diseases, particularly viral diseases, are almost impossible to detect until it is too late. Asymptomatic carriers are commonplace. Be extremely cautious whenever introducing new animals, and never - ever - mix different species together. This is the surest way to guarantee serious health problems.

Shell care: Once a month during summer give your tortoise an all over "scrub" with diluted Betadine solution (it should resemble weak black tea) and a soft nail brush (or a human baby hairbrush is ideal!), at the same time examine shell for any defects or signs of scutes lifting. Any loose scutes should be removed, and the area scrubbed and then allowed to dry. Keep an eye on this area to ensure it does not develop into shell rot, and if any of the surrounding scutes loosen remove those too. Do not apply any substance to the shell, as this can affect their ability to maintain body temperature. Paint in particular can be harmful. If large areas of scutes start loosening it’s a sign of trouble and you should seek vet help immediately.

External parasites: If any ticks are found, remove manually by grasping with tweezers/forceps and flipping the tick onto its back, it will loosen its grip and can then be removed without the head remaining behind to cause infection. Dab the spot with a little Betadine to prevent infection. Ticks can also be coated with mineral oil, this also causes them to lose their grip. The tortoise should be dipped in a solution of Tritix (Amitraz) 1-2ml per litre water. Ensure this solution does not enter eyes, ears or mouth.

This dipping will have to be repeated periodically to maintain effect as there will be ticks in the environment if you found any on your tortoise.

Internal parasites: Hinged tortoises are infamous for harboring parasites, both worms and protozoa. Some of them can harbor many different parasites without coming to any harm as long as the animal stays stress free and well nourished. Many tortoises in the wild are infected with either worms or protozoa in small numbers. If this tortoise is removed from his habitat and kept in captivity, it is quite likely that this will cause stress, which in turn affects immune response. This creates an ideal environment for parasites to flourish and cause disease. A faulty diet can cause the same thing, for example too much fruit raises lactic acid levels in the gut providing the ideal breeding ground for many parasites.

It is recommended that tortoises are dewormed once a year where a single species is kept, and twice a year where there are mixed collections. However, no matter how safe, Panacur (used to treat worms) is still a drug and can affect gut function adversely if used unnecessarily. The best route to take is an annual fecal check. Take a fresh dropping to your vet and ask him to test for parasites, and then dose accordingly if any are found in large numbers. Be aware that small numbers of protozoa and even some worms can be normal gut residents without causing any harm, so it is not always strictly necessary to treat any infection. If you have a mixed collections of tortoises, a twice yearly fecal is strongly recommended.

The subject of worms is a vast one and covered elsewhere. It is good to be aware though that general health and nutritional state, can affect whether or not your tortoises stay free of infection. Poor diet and overuse of fruit leads to impaired gut function and creates the ideal environment for parasites to flourish and harm their host. Lowering the immune system will have the same effect, causing your tortoises to become susceptible to disease and or parasite infection. Many factors can dampen the immune system - stress (such as a change of environment, diet or aggressive companions/other animals), adverse weather, no access to water, and undue handling.

General: At least once a month, examine your tortoise’s mouth, this allows him to get used to being handled and can help if ever you need to medicate or treat him. Be gentle, grasp the head firmly and use thumb and index finger to create pressure at the corners of his mouth, at the same time pulling down on the bottom of his jaw with your right hand. Once you have mouth open place a finger in the corner of his mouth at the back (their "bite" is weakest here) or prop the mouth open with a plastic spoon handle. Examine the inside of his mouth, membranes and tongue should be a healthy pink. Look for any yellow deposits or signs of debris collecting around the edges of his mouth. Check on smell too as any foul odour indicates problems and should be attended to immediately. Another less invasive technique is to "hand feed" a favoured diet item while lying in front of him, and while he eats examine mouth carefully.

Eyes should be bright and clear, any swelling or discharge needs urgent attention. Having said this it should be noted that females "tear" just before laying, and this should not be mistaken for eye infection. Many "eye infections" are simply caused by a lack of vitamin A, a good diet prevents this. Any swelling of ears or tympanic membrane needs urgent treatment as well.

Weigh your tortoise monthly, any undue weight loss can indicate problems ahead. Keep a record book of his weight, any diet or disease problems can be noted down as well, this will help your vet diagnose any future problems.

Common health problems: If kept in a sunny area and allowed natural feeding, exercise and privacy you should encounter few problems. These endearing small tortoises are very hardy in captivity, and most problems are caused by faulty nutrition or bad husbandry.

NOTE: Drug information mentioned here is for veterinary use only! It is illegal to use or administer any drug without a veterinary consultation, it is also dangerous for the animals in your care as many drugs can have serious adverse effects. Do not attempt to treat your animals yourself.

Eye infections: This should be suspected if there is any swelling, reluctance to open eyes or discharge. If he is otherwise active and eating well then chances are it’s a local infection. Terramycin ointment can be applied twice daily if prescribed by your vet, ensuring that the ointment gets "into" the eye and is not just smeared over eyelids. An eye suspension works best here, query your vet or your pharmacist.

Before applying ointment clean the eyes with a little cooled boiled water and cotton wool, repeat this each time ointment is applied.

Abscess: Usually occur in the ear area, but can occur elsewhere too. This will need veterinary treatment, your vet will lance the abscess and instruct you in how to syringe it out twice daily with Chlorhexadine/diluted Betadine. An abscess should not be stitched after draining as it will simply reoccur. Depending on the initial cause, a systemic antibiotic may be prescribed.

RNS (Runny Nose Syndrome): This is common in humid areas and consists of a nasal discharge that is usually clear. First a test should be done to ensure the tortoise does not have a severe worm burden, as this can mimic RNS, such a tortoise will often "splutter" liquid from the mouth or nose. Next suspect is a foreign body, examine nares carefully under good light and see if plant matter/grass seeds are perhaps lodged in nares, if so remove and treat with drops as outlined further on. If no worms are found then a regime of antibiotic nasal drops is used. Common antibiotics used are Terramycin, Baytril, Amikacin, Tylosin. Ask your vet to dilute 2ml antibiotic with 1 ml saline in a syringe. Each day hold the tortoise in a semi-upright position, wipe nostrils clean and instill one drop of antibiotic into each nostril allowing it to drain into nasal cavities. Keep him like this for a minute or two. Do this preferably toward late afternoon so that his eating pattern is not disrupted. This treatment is not invasive.

For the duration of treatment keep him warmer than usual as this helps to dry up secretions and boosts immune system. Ensure that any heat is fixed and that the tortoise is unable to dislodge it and thus cause a fire hazard. Heat is especially important during cold and wet weather. Do not stop the drops when you see his nose is dry, continue for at least a week to ensure the problem is well controlled. Many tortoises who get RNS relapse frequently, and then treatment has to begin again. Any discharge from a single nostril often indicates a foreign body as the cause.

A tip for vets from Chris Tabaka DVM: Do you use gentamicin Sulfate/betamethasone ophthalmic drops much there for tortoise URT disease? I've been using them two to three times daily in the eyes and also nostrils of a couple of recent cases in combination with the classic baytril 10 mg/kg every other day for two weeks with 100% success in a couple of chronic cases here. I think it is primarily the betamethasone that is decreasing the inflammation in the airways and thus eliminating the classic wheezing but the antibiotic duo seems to be knocking out the responsible bugs at the same time. Nothing like transforming "wheezy" the drippy eyed tortoise into a healthy, bright eyed tortoise.

Chris Tabaka DVM

If at any time you notice other symptoms, such as laboured breathing, gasping or rattling from the chest, then get veterinary help as soon as possible as this could be pneumonia. This is most often treated with a systemic antibiotic injected every two days. If your vet is not familiar with tortoises, advise him that some tortoises are allergic to Baytril.For vets treating pneumonia these tortoises respond well to both Baytril and Amikacin, placing tortoise under heat during treatment. Information for vets unfamiliar with tortoises: For injections use the muscles that attach the front legs to the plastron - bigger muscle mass, less pain, almost no chance for neuropathy.

Diarrhoea: Can be caused by faulty diet (too little fiber, too much fruit or wet food, overfeeding) or disease. If he seems to be active and eating well, chances are it is not disease. Rectify diet, reducing wet food and fruit, and add dry fibrous foods to his diet. Crushed rabbit pellets can help firm droppings, sprinkle these onto food as required, it is merely dried compressed alfalfa. Cut down on feeding to encourage browsing on natural food. Tortoises are programmed to cope with a slow diet of dry fibrous foods, if for any reason intestinal flora become disrupted this can cause a foul smelling diarrhea with whole pieces of undigested food present in feces. You can add any probiotic to his food – Benebac, Avi-pro probiotic, live yoghurt culture, or you can backfeed droppings from another tortoise of the same species (hatchling feces are ideal here). Any feces used should be first screened by microscope carefully to ensure you are not passing on parasites. Feed dry high fiber foods and the problem should clear up rapidly.

If diarrhea is accompanied by lethargy, anorexia or any peculiar smell, then get veterinary help immediately.

Disease general: If you see any of the following signs then get veterinary help as soon as possible: lethargy, anorexia, foul odour, swelling, discoloration of skin, discharge, absence of droppings or urine, weight loss, difficulty with locomotion and or breathing.

Injury: Most captive injuries are caused by dogs, lawn mowers, vehicles, aggressive companions and children dropping the tortoise. Injury can also be caused by sharp glass or garden implements left lying around.

If injury is minor, clean thoroughly with diluted Betadine or Chlorhexadine solution, remove any foreign bodies, then apply an ointment such as Flammazine (silver sulfadiazine). Cover with gauze and micropore if possible. Repeat daily till healing is well advanced and then keep up cleaning and leave to dry. Remove any dead tissue that is visible. At this point Necrospray (available from any vet) can be applied every two days or so, this will prevent infection and aid drying the wound. If any injury is major, do not attempt treatment yourself, take him to your vet as soon as possible. If your vet is unavailable, stop any bleeding and clean wounds until you can get help. Most important is the quick removal of any foreign bodies as these can cause infection later. Keep on hand some KY jelly, this can be applied to the wound after removal of foreign bodies and will prevent it drying out until you can get help. If any internal organs are exposed then quick veterinary help is vital. Wrap the tortoise in a damp towel and get help immediately.

Hibernation: Whilst tortoises in our climate do not strictly "hibernate", they do go through a "slowdown" of all activity. They will sleep more and eat less and generally just "park off" each day. Some will dig themselves into a "burrow" and remain there for long periods. Other than a general health check now and again leave them alone. Do not continue with ANY kitchen food during winter, this is a time when their digestive system needs a rest. Once spring arrives they will slowly become more active and start eating in larger quantities. It is most important for them to drink well during spring, this can be encouraged by "soaking" in a tub of tepid water to the level of their plastron (bottom shell) for half to one hour. Note: Ensure water level does not reach nostrils. They should drink and defecate during this time. Tortoises are temperature dependant, they will not eat until they are warm enough and the days lengthen. If at any time during winter you think your tortoise may be in trouble, warm him up under a lamp or heater (temperature 25-30 degrees C or 80-90 degrees F), soak him for half an hour in tepid water with electrolytes added and observe if he drinks. Weigh him before soaking and afterwards. Take him to your vet for a total physical.

Conversely, during very hot summer days tortoises will aestivate (go into a torpor) and will not eat. Available water during this time is critical as a tortoise can dehydrate quickly, although hinged tortoises are very adept at storing water in anal pouches for use during drought.

What to do if you think there is something wrong and you can’t get to a vet straight away: Place your tortoise under heat of some sort (temperature as advised higher above), and soak twice daily in tepid water with electrolytes added – any electrolyte solution from your pharmacy can be used. It is vital to maintain hydration, and to boost immune system by raising heat. Keep eyes from drying out by using a bland eye ointment.

Enjoy! Your tortoise is unique, they are amongst the longest living animals on earth. Each one has a different character and many become very tame with time. Take time to get to know his habits and preferences, his health and general well being will reflect your care – so give him the best you can! Common sense and good hygiene will prevent any disease transferring to you or your family, and hand washing after handling is a good idea. Limit children from handling the tortoise as they are more susceptible to worm infections.

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