Natural history: This is the most widely distributed tortoise in southern Africa. Found throughout the savannas of Africa, from Sudan to the southern Cape. They are commonly kept as pets and adapt well to captivity in most areas barring coastal Natal where the humidity affects them adversely.
General care: These large tortoises need a large area if confined in an enclosure, though it is preferable to give them the run of your garden if possible. If you cannot do this and have to construct an enclosure, work on a minimum of a 6m X 4m area for two tortoises. A lack of exercise leads to muscular problems and should be avoided. An arid grassy area is much preferred, with dry sandy areas for sunbathing. This tortoise requires large amounts of grasses in its diet, and it is a common mistake in captivity to feed exclusively on 'wet' kitchen food. On the correct diet their droppings should be well formed and fibrous. Too much kitchen food leads to diarrhoea and other digestive problems and should be avoided. On no account should dog/cat food be provided - these are high in protein which results in shell deformities and in the long term, in kidney disease. Fruit should be avoided at all costs too - it raises lactic acid levels in the gut and promotes intestinal parasites. Leopard tortoises do not eat any fruit in the wild.
Studies have shown that digestion of food prepared from the kitchen takes 3-8 days, whereas natural growing food digests in 16-28 days, a much slower and more natural process which their systems are designed for. Plants can be grown in trays or pots and replaced when required. These tortoises do best on a natural high fiber diet.
A leopard tortoise area should be sunny, and well planted with different grasses and plants for natural feeding. Plants can be chosen from the list below:
Plant list for captive Leopard tortoises (* indicates much favoured):
(leaves & Flowers)*
grass (Cynodon dactylon)
Weeds (* indicates vital to diet):
major (Broad leafed plantain)*
Unsuitable plants high in oxalates:Sedum morganianum
Aracea (arum lily)
Rheum rhabarbarum (rhubarb)
The Chenopodiacea family which includes beet greens, spinach and chard should be avoided as they contain oxalates.
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
Additional feeding: Feed one to two times weekly if required. This encourages feeding on natural growing plants and ensures sufficient exercise and adequate nutrition. Ensure there is plentiful growing food planted all the time.
Suggested foods: Sliced cucumber, thinly sliced carrot, sliced butternut/pumpkin, sliced tomato, lettuce/cabbage (VERY small quantities), red and green sweet peppers, sliced courgettes (zucchini). This food should be offered in the early morning, and any uneaten food removed by lunchtime. A good vitamin/mineral supplement should be added to the food once a week. The odd bone and whole cuttlefish left lying in the enclosure will be chewed on, this helps keep their beak trim and provides some extra calcium. Avoid feeding fruit to leopard tortoises as this raises lactic acid levels in the gut and can increase the chance of internal parasites, colic and loose droppings.
Lets explode the myth about lettuce: It is high in nitrates and is converted in the mouth into compounds that produce nitric oxide - a potent antibacterial chemical. The "disinfectant" effect of this chemical was tested and salivary production was high enough to kill even E.coli 0157 (the deadly bacterium that is so often responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning). A small trial conducted with volunteers on a trekking expedition through Nepal and Tibet showed that those who took nitrate tablets suffered less vomiting, diarrhoea and infections than the rest who did not. Contents: Protein 0.9g, Carbohydrates 2.9g, Fat 0.9g, Fiber 0.5g, Phosphorus 22mg, Calcium 20mg, Iron 0.5mg, Sodium 9mg, Potassium 175mg, Vitamin A 330iu, B1 0.06mg, B2 0.06mg, B3 o.3mg, B6 0.005mg, Folic acid 10.3mcg, Vitamin C 6mg, Vitamin E 0.5mg. So often I hear people "barring" the use of lettuce or condemning it as a "bad" food. Its not all bad, and along with a good balanced diet can actually be benificial. What is NOT recommended is a diet of lettuce alone as this will not provide all the nutrients your tortoise needs.
Soaked rabbit pellets can be used occasionally to add variety and extra fiber to the diet.
Tinned or pelleted dog/cat food should never be used for leopard tortoises.
Some Leopard tortoises will utilize a sleeping area constructed out of poles with a roof, or a drum on its side, but many prefer to creep under large grassy plants such as Pampas grass, where they are sheltered from any adverse weather. It is best to ensure that they sleep in a dry area that is protected from heavy rain. These tortoises seem to be badly affected by RNS (Runny Nose Syndrome), and this can be aggravated by keeping them in damp conditions. High humidity is their worst enemy. In their home range the humidity level at its highest is around 40%, so higher than this you will encounter problems. One reason it is not a good idea to keep any lepard tortoise baby in a glass tank.
It must be borne in mind that these tortoises are extremely powerful, and will push their way through any flimsy or inadequate fencing used to contain them. Ensure that you use solid strong fencing in any enclosures.
Sunken water ponds must be provided, as these tortoises like to bathe in very hot weather. A shallow pond is easily constructed using concrete, with wire for reinforcing. It should have shallow sloping sides for easy access and departure. The depth should be calculated taking the size of your tortoise into account. They push their heads well under water to drink. Any such pond should be placed in a shady area as water heats very quickly in any tropical climate. Water should be changed daily, more often if soiled by food or faeces. A drain valve fitted in the base will facilitate easy water changes.
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. ANY bad smell coming from the shell should be investigated immediately and the tortoise taken to your vet.
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: 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 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 tortoises are very hardy in captivity, and most problems are caused by faulty nutrition, high humidity 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, 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. PLEASE NOTE THAT BAYTRIL SHOULD BE USED WITH EXTREME CAUTION IN THIS SPECIES AS ALLERGIES OCCUR.
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, particularly leopard tortoises. 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. If a culture is out of the question these tortoises respond very well to Amikacin 10mg/kg every 48 hours, placing tortoise under heat during treatment.
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 persists, and 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 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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