Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
  Issue 5 June 2008
It's been a while... In this Issue

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  1. It's been a while..
  2. Feeding Tortoises - Part 4
  3. Health Q & A
  4. In the News
  5. Tell Us What You Think
  6. Feedback and Updating

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Other Articles & Resources

Feeding Tortoises - Part 4

By A. C. Highfield

A practical guide to avoiding dietary disasters


  • Try to ensure that all diets are as varied as possible - in this manner a wider cross-section of natural trace elements will be made available.
  • Do not dose with 'pure' vitamins unless under veterinary direction - some pure vitamins, including vitamins A & D, are highly toxic if taken in excess. These should only be used as part of a treatment program to correct a properly diagnosed specific deficiency.
  • Provide vitamins orally rather than by injection, where required, unless there are compelling veterinary reasons to the contrary.
  • The regular use of a safe, properly formulated multi-vitamin and mineral preparation will ensure that dietary deficiencies do not occur.
  • The best supplements for tortoises are phosphorus-free, contain a wide range of mineral trace elements, include vitamin-D3, and are free of added amino acids.
  • If you maintain tortoises outdoors in a geographical zone where natural UV-B irradiation closely approximates that of the habitat in nature, then you many not need to provide additional oral D3 supplementation, though calcium and other trace elements should still be provided. Keepers in northern climes are generally advised to rely upon oral D3 supplements.
  • Artificial UV-B lighting may be used, but fluorescent tubes should be changed regularly (at least every 6-9 months) and multiple tube installations will be necessary to ensure adequate UV-B exposure for most species. The new UV-Heat self-ballasted mercury vapour lamps are excellent, and provide an ideal combination of high levels of UV-B and UV-A, with good quality visible spectrum rendering, with radiant heat for basking and improved vitamin D3 synthesis.
  • Carnivorous turtles, and tortoises with a high degree of omnivory, will receive a significant proportion of their D3 needs from the animal protein proportion of their diet.
  • Aim for a high calcium, low phosphorous content diet.
  • Avoid plants high in oxalic or phytic acid.



These are real questions from real tortoise keepers. If you have a similar question that requires answering you can submit it to us at Tortoises Question .We cannot promise to answer it here, but if it is of general interest we may do so.

Q. I understand the need for a calcium supplement, but can I use egg-shells? I read somewhere that these are a very good source of calcium.

A. Eggshells are not a good source of calcium, in fact. They can also contaminate your animals with salmonella. A far better, safer source of calcium is plain calcium carbonate. This can be obtained very cheaply, in bulk, from animal feed stores. You can also use any food-grade calcium supplement, or any phosphorus-free specialty reptile supplement. We strongly recommend avoiding the use of poultry eggshells.

Q. If Mediterranean and Desert tortoises do not eat meat, where do they get their protein from? I thought they needed at least some meat so that they got some protein in their diet?

A. Flowers, leaves, seeds and grasses contain perfectly useable levels of protein, especially for the slow fermentation-based digestive tract of these tortoises. Think about some of the largest mammals around, elephants and giraffe! They are also exclusive herbivores and easily meet all of their protein requirements from the vegetation they graze upon. It is a common misunderstanding to assume that “meat = protein” and “vegetables = no protein”. This is completely untrue. Even some vegetable matter can be dangerously high in protein for tortoises; peas, beans, alfalfa and beansprouts in particular are far too high to be used safely.

Q. Can I use Tofu to give extra protein as it is derived from vegetable sources?

A. No. It is very high in protein, and is also high in phytic acid. In addition, it is very easily digested which means that it is even more damaging than feeding plain peas and beans. Tortoises that are maintained on a correct diet do not need ‘extras’ like this. It does far more harm than good.

Q. The reptile expert at the pet store says that all that a tortoise really needs is a vivarium and a diet of lettuce and fruit. Your site does not agree with this. Who should I believe?

A. It is very difficult for beginners when they receive such conflicting advice. Before we show you the actual effects of the method your pet store 'expert' is recommending, we would point out that pet stores are interested in making a sale. They also want to sell you expensive vivarium equipment in addition to the animal. We are not trying to sell you anything - we are merely trying to prevent your animal suffering as a result of incorrect advice. Our advice is free. We strongly recommend that if you are unsure, join the Tortoise Trust e-mail list. There are more than 1,000 keepers on that list from all over the world who can give you totally impartial help and advice. That said, this is what will happen to your tortoise on the diet this 'expert' is suggesting:

Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) raised in a vivarium tank and fed on lettuce and fruit. There is severe reduction and deformity of the carapace, typical of a diet that was grossly deficient in calcium and/or vitamin D3. The beak is also severely overgrown.

Fishtank-type vivaria are NOT appropriate environments for terrestrial tortoises. Many thanks to tortoise rescuer Marty La Prees for donating this photograph. The tortoise is now in a suitable environment on a proper diet. Unfortunately, the deformity can never be reversed.

Q. One book I have says to feed cheese and boiled eggs to tortoises. What do you think?

A. Show me where tortoises get cheese and boiled eggs in the wild…. no, you should never feed items like this. Pizza, burger, ice-cream, bread, milk, donuts, monkey chow, vegetable oil or any one of a dozen other totally unnatural and inappropriate foods that might be ‘recommended’ by some books or websites also fall into the same category. There is a simple rule: if a tortoise does not eat the same item, or something very similar, in the wild there is no reason to offer it in captivity. It is not necessary and is far more likely to do harm than it is to do any good.

Q. My tortoise has a white, chalky discharge with its urine. I was told this means it is suffering from too much calcium in the diet - is this true?

A. No. Definitely not. This is uric acid, and it has nothing at all to do with calcium. It is a by product of the protein metabolism in reptiles and in birds. If it is concentrated and thick it suggests one of two conditions: an excess of dietary protein, or dehydration. It is normal to see some uric acid, but too much requires investigation and a possible change in your husbandry practices.

Q. Instead of using a calcium supplement, can I guarantee enough calcium intake by only choosing vegetables that have a better than 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus?

A. In theory, yes. In practice, however, probably not. The difficulty here is knowing that the items you select contain the levels of calcium that you expect them too. Short of having each item analysed individually (hardly practical) there is simply no way of telling what they actually contain. Published tables look fine in theory, but they only give approximate averages, and produce typically varies from published levels by several hundred, or even several thousand percent. I would certainly not advise relying upon this kind of information for such a critical purpose. Adding a calcium carbonate supplement is 100% safe, and can guarantee that adequate levels are available.

Q. Why should I choose a “phosphorus free” supplement rather than a supplement that contains a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus? Isn’t phosphorus important too?

A. Yes, it is. It is also very abundant in just about all green, leafy vegetables and plants, and there is therefore no need at all to provide any more. It is calcium that tends to be seriously deficient in herbivore diets, not phosphorus. By using a 2:1 ratio supplement, you may increase the overall amounts of calcium and phosphorus available to your tortoise, but you will do nothing much to improve their ratio. You need an absolute minimum ratio of 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus. This is a minimum, not an optimum ratio. We aim for a minimum 3:1 ratio. Many self-selected items in wild tortoise diets have a 5:1 ratio or better.

Q. Is it OK just to use calcium carbonate as a supplement, or should I be concerned about other trace elements?

A. Adding calcium carbonate is a safe way to prevent calcium deficiencies (provided vitamin D3 is also available) and the protein content of the diet is within safe limits for the species in question. You are correct, however, in pointing out it will not help with other potential mineral deficiencies. This is why in addition to daily use of calcium carbonate, we also use a general multi-mineral supplement. These contain many micro-nutritional elements that may otherwise not be present in a captive diet. Examples of such products include ‘Miner-All’ and ‘Nutrobal’. We use these a couple of times a week, and find that this does appear to be adequate to prevent such deficiencies. We increase frequency for juveniles and egg-laying females.

Q. I keep a Geochelone sulcata (African spurred tortoise) and I live in Arizona. My tortoise is outdoors almost all year. He is doing well, but I worry if I need to provide an oral D3 supplement in addition to the calcium I have always provided daily?

A. You are fortunate to live in an area with a high concentration of sun-loving reptiles and many days a year of cloudless skies! Like your tortoise, they are successfully synthesizing their D3 requirements from the UV-B component of solar radiation. In your situation, we believe you have no need of any oral D3 supplementation. In you lived further north, or in a cloudy area, however, that situation would change. In such regions, at least some regular oral supplementation is highly advisable.

Q. Many books I have read suggest that I should use a vitamin-A supplement regularly? What do you think?

A. On a good diet, as suggested above, this is not necessary. Certainly, we do not advise use of ‘pure’ vitamin A or D supplements as there is a possibility of overdose with all of the fat-soluble vitamins if used in this manner.

Q. Can I use ‘liquid sunshine’ D3 drops instead of spending all that money on expensive UV-B lighting systems?

A. We absolutely do not recommend products like this. They are potentially very dangerous (see answer to vitamin-A question, above). Overdoses are very possible with ‘pure’ D3 products. Avoid them.

Q. Can tortoises become overweight?

A. Yes, they can. Species which naturally have very short annual activity cycles, due to hibernation, estivation, or both are especially susceptible to problems of this nature resulting from the excess or ‘glut’ of food available in captivity. Species such as the Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) and Geochelone sulcata (African Spurred tortoise) are notoriously difficult in this regard. We have seen some truly obese examples. In fact any tortoise maintained on a really inappropriate diet will become overweight, and ultimately may suffer from fatty infiltration of the liver. Any diet that is high in saturated fat is almost guaranteed to produce this outcome in an herbivorous tortoise.


Reprinted with permission from The Tortoise Trust

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Health Q & A


I've read some Ball Pythons don't eat a lot in the winter time. My 2 ft. ball python hasn't eaten in a month, I keep offering him a live mouse and he won't eat it. The mouse and the snake will actually touch noses sometimes, and the snake will move away! He's always eaten perfectly fine before. Should I just think balls don't eat alot in the winter, or is there something wrong. Could it have to do with mites? He's having problems with mites.


It's not unusual for ball pythons to take a break from eating for awhile. As long as the snake is healthy (with good body weight) and doesn't lose weight at an alarming rate during its fast, it can probably not eat until springtime if necessary without any problem.

You've got a much bigger problem on your hands--Get Rid Of Those Mites ASAP! They could be one factor in your snake's lack of desire to eat. Also, mites are probably vectors for some nasty, untreatable diseases, which they can spread throughout an entire collection. Make sure you not only treat the snake for the mites, but also treat the snake's cage. Wash it thoroughly to get rid of mite eggs that have been laid in small cracks and corners (use a brush). You also need to treat the area surrounding the cage because mites often leave the cage to lay their eggs.

Throw away all the bedding material and any cage furniture that may harbor mite eggs, and use newspaper as a substrate until you've got the problem solved. The paper will make it easier to see mites if they reappear. You may have to do treatments once every week for 4 weeks in a row (and whenever else you see new mites) to make sure you've killed any hatchling mites that have come from eggs that you missed. It can be a lot of work, but it's worth it to get rid of them.

By the time you've finally taken care of the problem, it will be obvious to you why I highly recommend that people do everything they can to never let mites into a reptile collection in the first place.


My 7 month old boa hasn't pooped now for a month and has been fed 4 mice. I put her in warm/lukewarm water, raised the temp, humidity in the enclosure and nothing worked. I've asked other people and the answers were both yes and no.


I don't see a problem. Why do you think the snake should defecate now? One month is not a long time at all for a boa to not "poop". Soaking the snake is not producing anything because the snake doesn't need to "go" yet. Keep feeding it, and don't worry about the snake "going" unless you see actual symptoms of a problem (which would be quite rare unless you deprived it of water or made some other major mistake).

It's good that you're observing your snake closely, but it's important not to overreact. Remember, snakes have a much different metabolism than mammals. The pattern will vary, but they can eat many meals before needing to defecate.

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