We are reaching the mid-point of our second season here at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, and we are seeing an increase in the number of pet desert tortoises surrendered to the Pet Tortoise Hotline. However, a large number of these pet tortoises arrive with a number of different health issues, most resulting from improper housing and diet. These can lead to a number of different conditions ranging from upper respiratory conditions to metabolic bone disease.
Since the entire shell of a tortoise is made up of bone and keratin, it is very important to feed them foods high in calcium to maintain the shell’s rigidity. As tortoises bask in the sun, they are not only soaking up the UV rays needed for calcium metabolism, but they are also warming themselves so that they can properly digest their food. Without the heat, even if they are eating, they are not digesting or getting the nutrients they need.
In one case we saw this year, three tortoises were surrendered to the hotline. They had been living in an aquarium without any heat or light and were fed lettuce for several years before finally being surrendered. By the time they came to us, their condition was so severe that they were only barely alive. Their shells were flat and so soft that they bent inward with the most gentle touch. In addition, their beaks didn’t develop properly, they had severe edema all over their bodies, and they were very ill. These conditions are the direct result of nothing more than the tortoises being housed indoors and not being fed properly.
In another case, a tortoise came to us severely emaciated with old dog bite wounds all over her carapace (see a post about this problem: Family Dog Loves Pet Tortoise Too Much?). Because the family dog kept trying to use her as a chew toy, she was kept in a closet without heat or light where she was fed lettuce and fruit (not ideal for tortoises). Today, that tortoise is emaciated because, even though she was given food, she was unable to digest it without heat and light. She is just one of a number of tortoises we are rehabilitating so that some day they will be healthy enough to be released to the wild where they will contribute to the recovery of wild populations.
Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.