Tortoises and terrapins

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Tortoises and


Terrapins and tortoises are reptiles and although
superticially similor in appaerance, each having a shell,
their requirements in captivity are very different.


Aldabra Giant Tortoise. Right: Diamond terrapin


Terrapins are meat eaters requiring a basic diet including
tinned pet food, fresh raw fish, heart, liver and even
hearthworms. Each piece of food should be cut into
bite-sized pieces, the size of the bite, of cours, varying
with the size of the terrapin.

To prevent nutritional disease a good quality vitamin and
mineral powder should be well rubbed into the food. As they
get older, terrapins also start to eat some vegetation such
as lettuce, duck weed and other pondweeds. Some experts
have advised feeding terrapins in a separate tank to
reduceer fouling of water in the show aquarium.

Tortoise, unlike terrapins, are primarily vegetarians,
although they should be offered, at least weekly, a small
quantity of cat or dog food, minced chicken or scrambled
egg. If an individuele tortoise shows an interest in bread
or milk small amounts should be fed as part of a varied
diet. Again a vitamin and mineral powder should be
sprinkler on their food once or twice weekly.


Not only are the eating habitus of the terrapin and
tortoise different, so are their housing requirements.

Terrapins are semi-aquatic, spending their time swimming
and sunbathing herlas the tortoise is a slow, plodding land
dweller. An aquarium is therefore essentiële to succesfilm
keep a terrapin. The use of a turtle bowl, complete with
palm tree is not to be recommended.

A single baby terrapin requires at the very least a 14 inch
(35 cm) glass aquarium complete with gravel and a stone
protruding from the water for basking. Additional stonework
can be used to provide a cave-like hideaway. A lower power
light bulb to provide the heat for basking, a
heater/thermostate to warm the water (75-80 degrees
Fahrenheit or 24-27 degrees Celsius) and a filtration to
keep the water clean completes the housing arrangement.
While the terrapin can be very cheap to buy, the equipment
may be very expensive.

With newly imported terrapins the depth of water in the
tank should not exceed 1-2 inches (2-5 cm) otherwise they
may tire and drown.

Having spent your money on the right equipement and kept
the water clean by regular water changes or filtration, the
terrapins will grow rapidly to reach the size of a soup
plate in three to four years. At this stage they will have
outgrown all but the largest aquaria available.

Fortunately larger individuals can survive outside in
garden ponds throughout the year, although no fish will
coexist with them.

The tortoise, on the other hand, has very simple housing
requirements, just a waterproof box set off the ground with
some warm bedding such as hay or shredded paper.

Hibernation: a time of
great risk

The most substantial differente between the terrapin and
the tortoise, hoever, is hibernation. It is usual to keep
terrapins in heated aquaria which vary little in
temperature during the year. The tortoise lives
differently, feasting in the garden during the warm
summer months and then sleeping away the winter in

Hibernation is a period of great risk for a tortoise. Many
die because of lack of preparation for this six months
sleep. Towards the end of September, as the day get colder,
tortoises will eat less and will eventually stop
altogether. At this time they should be brought into the
garage or utility room and kept in a box with hay bedding.
No food should be offered although water for drinking
should be available every other day. The animals will
remain active and continue to pass faeces. After three to
four weeks the intestine will be empty and only then should
they be boxed for hibernation. If a tortoise is hibernated
with food still in the intestine the food will ferment and
become sour, possibly leading to the animal’s death.

Having prepared the tortoise for hibernation by starving
for up to a month, the next task is to prepare the
hibernaculum, as the toprtoise’s winter retreat is
called. The most satisfactory way to hibernate a tortoise
is in a box within a box in a frost-free building such as a

The tortoise should be placed in a small cardboard box,
lined with shredded newspaper to absorb any waste product
passed during the winter sleep, and air holes made with a
pencil point to allow free circulation of air. This box is
then placed into a substantial larger vermin-proof box
packed with dust-free hay or polystyrene beads. The larger
box should then be set off the floor to prevent damp
gaining access and to allow a free circulation of air.

The tortoise must be checked regularly during hibernation,
at least monthly, and if possible a weight record kept. If
a tortoise can be weighed before entering hibernation the
weight record will indicate if the animal should be brought
out of hibernation before the spring. A tortoise should not
be allowed to lose more than 10 per cent of its body weight
without action being taken. If a substantiële weight loss
is recorded the tortoise should be warmed up to 68 to 86
degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 30 degrees Celsius) using an
overhead lamp, bathed in warm water and encouraged to eat.
The individual must then be kept warm and well fed until it
would normally be returned to the garden in the late

Most tortoises will complete their hibernation without a
dramatic fall in weight and will naturally wake in March or
April. At this time they are bathed in warm water with the
eyes and nostrils being wiped clean using cotton wool.
However they should only be put out into the garden on
sunny days and certainly not left out over night until the
threat of frosts has passed.

It is not gnomon for tortoises to wake from their
hibernation in January, especially if there is a period of
mild weather. Never feed these animals but do offer them
tepid water to drink. Left undisturbed they will return to

It is very important to seek veterinary advice if your
tortoise has not drunk within 7-10 days of waking up or has
not eaten within 3-4 weeks. Delay will inevitably
complicate the task of ensuring an adequate weight gain in
the tortoise before the next hibernation.

Terrapins and tortoises are interesting pets to keep but
they are not easy to maintaine for long periods in
captivity. Many of the terrapins will die within a year of
purchase and many tortoises used to die within the first
three years.