The most common mistakes in keeping european tortoises

In my first article of our small series on the keeping of European tortoises, I described to you the species-appropriate, nature-oriented keeping in outdoor enclosures. In this article I would like to discuss the most common mistakes in keeping tortoises, which unfortunately still appear too often in veterinary and veterinary practitioners’ practices.

The reasons lie in incorrect advice given by the dispensers (especially pet shops) and a lack of information on the part of the keepers. If such mistakes are practiced over a few years, they can lead to dire health consequences in tortoises. Some of these consequences are irreversible and can even be fatal. Since tortoises cannot draw attention to their complaints due to the reptile-typical lack of facial expressions and vocalizations, they often suffer for years and are often presented to the practices much too late.

Terrarium keeping

Unfortunately, sometimes terrarium keeping is still recommended for tortoises. This is usually too dry and provides unnaturally low temperature fluctuations. Especially at night there is no significant lowering of the temperature. In combination with improper nutrition and lack of hibernation, this leads to so-called “vapor rears”. The results are a much too fast growth and atypical weight gain. Likewise, armor deformations such as the hump formation typical of this occur instead of a smooth armor surface. Also dehydrations are not rare.

The heat stones or mats sometimes advertised by profit-oriented sellers are completely unsuitable for tortoises and lead to a thickening of the abdominal shell (plastron). This grows, it experiences direct warmth from below, faster than the back carapace and so it comes to partly dramatic deformations of the animals. Correct for European tortoises is warmth from above. A selective heating of 38-40 °C is achieved by means of radiant heaters from the reptile trade. In the habitat of your tortoise there must be several temperature ranges, between which it can switch freely. Cooler and moist places must also be available. This can not be realized even in a large terrarium. Also the lack of space would be a shortcoming for a species-appropriate life, because healthy animals are quite agile. For an adult tortoise one calculates 10 m² of space requirement.

All these points suggest that only an outdoor enclosure can provide species appropriate husbandry.

Greek tortoise with hump formation of the shell due to husbandry errors Tortoise with normally developed smooth shell on white background

Wrong diet

European tortoises are vegetarians. However, they are often fed meat products such as minced meat or cat food, which leads to severe organ damage. Fruits, vegetables and lettuce also have no place in their diet. Even if your turtle would love to eat fruit, it favors the development of intestinal parasites, has an unfavorable nutrient composition and thus burdens your animal.

Also vegetables and salad have no place in the species-appropriate feeding of your tortoise, because they do not find such things in the wild. Your digestive system is therefore not designed to. However, some lettuce varieties can be fed for a transitional period if necessary, for example while caring for a sick animal in winter when natural forage plants are hardly available. Romaine lettuce is quite suitable due to its good calcium-phosphorus ratio. You can also feed Catalogna (Italian dandelion), arugula, endive and chicory or order food plants like Golliwoog and Flumi. As soon as natural food is available again, you should switch to it.

Calcium-phosphorus ratio / protein excess

On the shelves of pet stores you can find food pellets of various types. These are on the one hand purely artificial food and on the other hand in their composition often not at all compatible with the nutrient needs of European tortoises. If you do a little research, you’re sure to come across the topic of calcium-to-phosphorus ratios, which should be at least 2:1 in your tortoise’s diet. A higher calcium content is desirable. A poor calcium-phosphorus ratio can cause a variety of problems in the organism of your turtle. The most obvious one is poor bone development up to bone loss.

Excess protein is also detrimental to your turtle’s health. The protein content of the feed should not exceed 10%. Too much protein can lead to fatty liver, kidney problems and gout. Of course, not every tortoise owner can delve deeply into the biochemistry of nutrition. But this background knowledge proves important for turtle keeping in that you can avoid certain unfavorable foods (z. B. (industrial food, vegetables, fruits, salads) and choose food with a favorable composition.

By the way: a particularly calcareous soil increases the amount of calcium in the plants growing on it. Many turtle keepers therefore use lime chippings or gravel as a substrate for parts of their outdoor facilities.

Natural food

You can achieve a suitable composition by feeding them a wide variety of wild herbs. A small list of feedable wild plants can be found in my first article. Industrial food only fills the traders’ coffers, but you’re not doing your turtle any good by buying it. The same applies to all commercially available nutritional supplements (and, by the way, also to the completely unnecessary, even harmful shell care products such as shell oils and creams, which clog the pores of the shell).

Better leave less money at the dealer, because food for your turtle you will find plenty in nature. Fresh wild herbs and flowers, grasses, even wild herb hay in the summer, free-range cuttlebone for calcium – and your turtle is eating right. The keyword “raw fiber rich diet” is also met with this feeding method. This is important for the digestive tract, but also for the wear of the horny sheaths of the jaws. The latter often develops a so-called “parrot’s beak” or “hooked beak” if the diet is too soft. This can lead to the point where feeding becomes impossible.

Too fast growth due to wrong or overfeeding as well as lack of hibernation is unnatural and will eventually weaken the turtles. I found in my research the expression: a healthy turtle “starves itself big”. This may sound drastic, but in the wild it is actually the case that the animals spend a large part of the day foraging for food. In doing so, they mainly find relatively low-energy food in the form of wild herbs. The energy, which they take up, they convert also immediately again into movement. Since our privately kept tortoises in the vast majority of cases do not have as much space as free-ranging ones, this drastically limits their movement options. If they then also get high-energy food, unnaturally fast growth and overweight are pre-programmed.

Lack of winter torpor (hibernation)

The several months of hibernation is an indispensable part of the species-appropriate life of a European tortoise. During this time, your turtle’s metabolism will be down to a minimum. This has a regulating effect on the entire organism and ensures that – under otherwise good conditions – your animal does not grow too fast, the hormone balance remains in equilibrium and a healthy immune system can develop.

In hibernation your turtle does not grow. Excessive growth in adolescence would put excessive stress on the skeleton and organ system, which would have a negative effect on health and life expectancy. Therefore it is important for tortoises to be able to go into hibernation from the beginning, even in the first year of life. For the hibernation of very young turtles, it is sometimes recommended to shorten the duration: in the first year of life about two, in the second about three months are enough.

The hormone balance can be sensitively disturbed by a lack of hibernation, so that female animals can become infertile. Not that I would plead for a multiplication of reptiles, which are already kept in large numbers in our country, but such artificially induced hormonal disturbances are harmful for the health.

It has been found that in this area, too, the closest possible approximation to the natural living conditions in the animals’ natural habitat (habitat) is ideal. If you want to offer your tortoise a truly species-appropriate life, you should avoid everything that disturbs the natural rhythm of life of the animal.

Greek tortoise in its natural environment in Greece

Lack of UV source

The intake of UV-B rays is vital for tortoises, as they form vitamin D3 from it. Only then the absorbed calcium can be stored in the shell and bones. If your turtle is kept in a species-appropriate outdoor enclosure with sunbathing areas, the natural radiation of the sun is sufficient to cover its needs. In the case of sick animals that are kept in a transitional terrarium for a short period of time, a high-quality UV lamp would have to be added in addition to the heat radiator. This should cover UV-A and UV-B frequencies.

UV-A rays promote activity and, to a lesser extent, vitamin D3 synthesis in your turtle. They have a positive effect on metabolism and immune system.

If the UV supply is not guaranteed, there is a risk of damage to the bone system such as bone softening and deformities. There are pictures of “flat-grown” turtles whose shells are baggy in the back. This can lead to various problems. Female animals can be so u. U. not get to the egg-laying, besides, there is not enough space available for the organs in the abdominal cavity.

Some cold frames/turtle houses are therefore made of UV-permeable material.

Change between terrarium/apartment keeping and outdoor enclosure

I absolutely plead for keeping European tortoises outdoors. Therefore, I will mention the hourly stay outdoors here only briefly. Some turtle owners keep their animals indoors and give them the opportunity to stay in an outdoor enclosure for hours during the day in the summer season by moving them in the morning and evening. For turtles, unfortunately, being lifted up and torn away from their respective environment means increased stress, which can have a negative effect on their health.

Wrong medical advice

There are only a few really reptile-experienced veterinarians/animal healers in Germany so far. However, since reptile health involves a very specific set of problems, it does no good to introduce them to someone without reptile specialization. In case of doubt this can even do more harm than good. If you can’t find a trained specialist yourself, ask at a tortoise sanctuary, they will surely be able to recommend someone to you. A few stations are listed at the end of the first article in our series, feel free to check there.


Optimally, those interested in turtles should inform themselves about the optimal keeping conditions before taking in one or more of the fascinating reptiles and can thus avoid common sources of error.

Tip: A husbandry consultation with a reptile-specialized veterinarian or animal health practitioner can also be helpful beforehand. If you take over an animal from a sanctuary, the caretakers will be happy to advise you.

What dramatic consequences keeping and nutrition mistakes can have for the health of tortoises, was photo-documented on these pages:

Do you perhaps have a turtle with a problematic history?

What are the difficulties? If you like, tell us and our readers in a comment about it.

Maybe you can even recommend us a reptile-experienced veterinarian/animal healer of your confidence. We would be happy!

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