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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of turtle and tortoise species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning turtles and tortoises.

Turtle Eye Ailments: Vitamin A Deficiencies and Eye Infections

Pet turtles, especially hatchlings and young specimens, are very commonly afflicted with Vitamin A deficiencies and eye infections, both of which usually render the eyes swollen and/or difficult to open. Eventually, the turtle will become listless, cease feeding and decline rapidly in condition.

Addressing Eye Problems

While turtle eye drops are available and can be effective in certain situations, a veterinary visit should be your first step when your turtle exhibits any type of eye ailment. It is important to determine the nature of the problem before attempting treatment, as an infection will need be addressed differently than a Vitamin A deficiency. Only a veterinarian can make this determination. You can apply eye drops as a safeguard, but do not attempt treatment without a professional diagnosis.

Good Husbandry as a Disease Preventative

Be sure to provide your turtle with ample UVB radiation (the Zoo Med 10.0 bulb positioned within 12 inches of the basking site, is ideal), a balanced diet, and an appropriately warm basking site, so that its immune system will be functioning at full capacity.

As is true for all reptiles, proper husbandry is the most effective medicine at our disposal – please write in if you need specific information concerning the turtles in your collection.

Further Reading

You can read more about addressing turtle eye problems on the website of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital.


Image referenced from Wikipedia commons and was first posted by Jmalik

Tortoise Diets: Mediterranean Species and Russian (Horsfield’s) Tortoises

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Judging from recent questions posted on this blog, there is a great deal of conflicting information available as regards the feeding of tortoise. The Greek or spur-thighed (Testudo graeca), marginated (T. marginata) and Hermann’s (T. hermanni) tortoises, collectively referred to as Mediterranean tortoises, and the popular Russian or Horsfield’s tortoise (T. horsfieldi) require a vastly different diet than do desert or rainforest adapted species.

While there is some flexibility as concerns diet, there are some general rules that should be followed. The following protocol has worked well for me in zoos and at home, and will hopefully help you in caring for these responsive and interesting reptiles.

Protein and Natural Foods

Mediterranean and Russian tortoises have evolved to process a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. In the wild, they feed almost exclusively on grasses, herbaceous plants and flowers, with fruit only sporadically available.

In captivity, high protein foods such as beans and dog/cat food should be strictly avoided. Fruit is not necessary, although a few berries can be given as a weekly treat during the summer.

Native Plants

In the warmer months, I use native grasses, weeds and flowers for 75-85% of the diet, with such accounting for nearly 100% of some specimens housed in outdoor zoo exhibits. In addition to wild grasses, the following are some native and introduced plants that can be offered to tortoises:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)

Hawkweeds (Pictis spp.)

Clovers (Trifolium spp.)

Cat’s ears (Hypochoeris spp.)

Mallows (Malva spp.)

Sedums (Sedum spp.)

Chickweed (Stelaria media)

Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium sp.)

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Plantains (Plantago spp.)

Please see the article on Toxic Plants referenced below for a list of species that may be potentially harmful to tortoises.


The balance of the diet is comprised of seasonally available greens (stems and leaves) such as kale, endive, Swiss chard and romaine. Other produce can be added as available, but avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce and use bok choy sparingly. Small amounts of yam and carrot are provided once weekly.

Commercial Diets

Zoo Med’s Grassland Tortoise Diet  is specifically formulated for Russian and Mediterranean tortoises, and can comprise up to 50% of the diet in winter or summer.

Winter Diet

During the winter, the diet of tortoises under my care typically consists of 70-75% commercially available greens and 25-30% Zoo Med Grassland Tortoise Diet. Grated yams and carrot can be offered once weekly as a treat. Some native plants freeze well, and can be stored for winter use.


I add Reptocal and Repti Calcium with D3 to all meals provided to growing tortoises, and 3x weekly for adults. A cuttlebone is always available as well .

Water should always be available, or the tortoises can be soaked on alternate days, during which time they will drink heavily.

Light and Heat

Russian and other tortoises will not be able to properly metabolize calcium or digest other nutrients unless provided with a warm basking site and high levels of UVB (I suggest either the Zoo Med 10.0 or a mercury vapor bulb).

Further Reading

For more information on tortoise care, toxic plants and growing food for reptiles, please see The Russian Tortoise, Reptile Gardens  and Toxic Plants .

Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Testudo image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by B kimmel.

The Russian or Horsefield’s Tortoise: an Ideal “First Tortoise”?

Tortoises are among the most highly-desired of reptile pets, but their care is fraught with difficulties, and captive death rates remain surprisingly high.  The plucky Russian, Horsefield’s or Central Asian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldi) is often promulgated as an ideal “first tortoise”.

A Cold Hearty Tortoise?

In many regards this is true.  Unlike most of its relatives, the little Russian tortoise is quite cold hearty.  Its range (three subspecies) extends from the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan to western China and south to Iran, and encompasses some very cold regions.  Tortoises living in the north may be active for a mere three months each year.

Living on Little

The Russian tortoise’s adaptation to a Spartan diet also suits it to captivity. Generally, it subsists upon dry grasses, with only limited access to flowers, herbaceous plants and fruits.   Individuals in some populations rarely encounter standing water.


Size also recommends the Russian tortoise as a pet…it tops out at 8.8 inches, and many are considerably smaller.

Nearly round in profile, the Russian tortoise is pleasantly colored in light to yellowish brown, and patterned with dark blotches.

Some Cautions

For all of the above reasons, it is a Russian tortoise that is often taken home by those new to tortoise-keeping.  Unfortunately, thousands perish each year, often because their owners were initially supplied with misleading advice.

Space and Cage Style

Despite their small size, Russian tortoises are far more active than other reptiles…even the largest of glass aquariums is inadequate.  You must think in terms of a 4-6’ x 4-6’ enclosure.

Glass aquariums, unless ventilated via fan, also do not provide sufficient air flow.  As humidity rises, respiratory problems are a near certainty.

Ideally, these tortoises should be housed outdoors throughout the warmer months.  Outdoor bird aviaries work well, although you may need to install an opaque, plastic barrier along the lower wall edge to prevent climbing. If you must keep your tortoise indoors, a custom-build enclosure is needed (please write in for details).

Environmental Conditions

Indoors or out, Russian tortoises require deep, dry substrates – grass and moist soil will not do.  A mix of sandy soil and oyster shell is ideal.  If unable to construct nighttime sleeping pallets (excavations), Russian tortoises become stressed and subject to dehydration-related disorders.

Pros and Cons

With proper care, the Russian tortoise can indeed be a most responsive and long-lived pet.  However, they are by no means animals to be purchased lightly.  Please consider your abilities carefully, and write in if you have any questions whatsoever.

I hesitate to discourage responsible people from keeping these fine animals…tortoises ranging from the tiny South African padloper to the massive giants of Aldabra and the Galapagos Islands have provided me with some of my most memorable herp-keeping experiences.  Yet I hesitate to paint too rosy a picture.  Please write in regarding your specific situation, and I’ll do my best to advise you appropriately.

The Russian tortoise owner must also take into consideration those other factors critical to the care of all tortoises – diet, UVA/UVB exposure, humidity levels, etc.. We’ll take a look at these and other subjects in future articles.

Further Reading

Please check out A Complete Guide to Russian Tortoises  in our Reptile Books Department.

An interesting article detailing the natural history of Russian tortoises in a harsh environment is published in the journal Ecography at


Feeding Box Turtles and Wood Turtles: The Importance of Commercial Diets (and how to trick your pet into accepting them!) – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for information on our prepared box turtle diets.

Natural Food Animals
Live mealworms, waxworms or earthworms mixed into canned or pelleted food should encourage your turtle to take a bite. Earthworms are a box turtle favorite and a highly nutritious food in their own right…they can comprise 25% or so of the diet. An occasional pre-killed pink mouse is usually a great hit with box turtles, but is not a necessity.

Canned Snails and Insects
Canned insects and invertebrates offer an excellent means of increasing dietary variety while adding to the attractiveness of commercial turtle foods. Box turtles avidly consume snails and slugs in the wild…canned snails are nearly always well-accepted by pets. Canned silkworms, grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms should also be offered.

Fruits and Vegetables
Commercial diets should also be supplemented with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears, berries of all kinds (berries are a favorite, but should form only a part of your pet’s salad), cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms and others. Sweet potatoes are usually a favorite. Avoid bananas, as turtles often eat these to the exclusion of all else, and they are not a natural food item.

Vitamins, Minerals and UVB Light
A vitamin/mineral supplement should be provided once weekly for adults, three times weekly for youngsters.

Box turtles should always be provided with a source of UVB radiation (via a fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb ) so that they can properly utilize the calcium that is contained in their diets. Please see my article on Reptisun UVB lamps  for further information.

Wood Turtles

Wood turtles can be fed as described above; although some individuals can be picky feeders, they tend to accept a wider range of foods than do most box turtles.

Further Reading
Please see my article Providing a Balanced Diet to Reptile and Amphibian Pets for further information on reptile and amphibian nutrition.

You can read about ongoing field research projects involving box and wood turtles in the Northeastern USA at http://www.turtleconservationproject.org/projects.html.


Feeding Aquatic Turtles…the Problem of Water Clarity and Quality

Many aquatic turtles make wonderful pets, but nearly all share one troublesome trait – they are messy feeders, and keeping their water clear is often a major challenge.  Today I’d like to present a simple, time-saving feeding technique and review some helpful products such as undergravel filters and gravel washers.

Separate Feeding Containers

In both zoo collections and with my own aquatic pets, I have found removing the turtles from their aquarium for feeding to be the most effective way of maintaining water quality.  Nearly all turtles adjust readily to this, and feed without difficulty in plastic tubs or other easily-cleaned containers.  I’ve had difficulties only with a few retiring species, such as mata mata turtles (Chelus fimbriatus) and giant soft-shelled turtles (Pelochelys bibroni).  For these, extra space and cover in the form of floating plants did the trick.

Leave the turtles in their feeding container for 20 minutes or so after they finish eating, unless such is stressful for them (turtles are very perceptive…some are uncomfortable in strange surroundings and will try to escape after feeding).  Elimination is swift, and many pass stored wastes shortly after eating.

Partial Water Changes

In terms of water clarity and ammonia management, partial water changes are as important for turtles as for aquarium fishes.  Soft-shelled and Fly River turtles (Carettochelys insculpta) are particularly sensitive to poor water quality, but it is a concern for all species.

When doing a water change, use a gravel washer to pull water from the very bottom of the aquarium.  This is a good idea even if you keep your turtles in a bare bottomed tank, and essential if you use gravel as a substrate.

I’ve found it very useful to siphon water from the aquarium into the feeding container at meal times – this assures frequent water changes and has allowed me to keep even quite large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and giant musk turtle (Staurotypus triporcatus) aquariums crystal clear.

A Caution

One important point: do not start a siphon by drawing on its end with your mouth to fill the tube, as aquarium water should never be ingested.  Lee’s Self-starting Gravel Cleaner  is the best model to use with turtles.  If you choose a sink-compatible gravel cleaner, be sure to drain the waste water out a door or into a basement sink, and not to one used for food preparation.

Undergravel Filters

An undergravel filter will turn your entire filter bed into a living filtration unit.  Gravel washing and partial water changes are still necessary, but if powered by a suitably strong aquarium pump, an undergravel filter will go a long way in easing tank maintenance.  I use them either alone or in conjunction with canister or other mechanical filters, depending upon the circumstances.

Food Selection

For those times when you must feed your turtles within their aquarium, choosing a suitably-sized food item will assure that less of it winds up floating about and clouding the water.  Please check out our pelleted turtle foods  for some ideas as to the sizes that are available.

Further Reading

Large species such as snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles are interesting, but pose serious husbandry difficulties for most hobbyists.  For some ideas and tips, please see my article The Captive Care of Snapping Turtles and Alligator Snapping Turtles.


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