Posted By: Polly - Vet

A Summer of Shelled Warriors: Thriving Tortoises in the Heatwave

As the temperatures soared during the balmy days of May and June, our pet tortoises reveled in the glorious sunshine. The UK is home to various "Mediterranean" tortoise species, such as the spur thighed tortoise, Herman's tortoise, marginated tortoise, Russian or Horsefield's tortoise, and the Leopard tortoise. These cold-blooded reptiles thrive in their Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ), which typically ranges from 20 to 30 degrees Celsius. With the help of artificial heat sources and secure outdoor spaces, tortoise owners ensured their beloved shelled companions basked in the sun, nibbled on fresh grass, and indulged in natural behaviors, making this summer a truly memorable one for our tortoise patients.

A Summer of Shelled Warriors

Most of us enjoyed those balmy days of heatwave in May and June, but none more than our pet tortoises.

Most of the pet tortoises kept in the UK are “Mediterranean” tortoises: Testudo graeca, the spur thighed tortoise; T. hermannii, the Herman’s tortoise; T. marginata, the marginated tortoise.  Also common as pets are T. horsfieldii, the Russian or Horsefield’s tortoise, from eastern Europe. And from Africa, the Leopard tortoise, Geochelone pardalis.   We don’t have any native tortoises in the UK, largely because they require hotter, drier weather than we normally experience. Owners need to provide artificial heat sources to keep these cold- blooded reptiles in their Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone, or POTZ. This varies between species, but for those listed here, it’s between around 20-30 degrees Celsius. Below 20 degrees the tortoise will become lethargic and less keen to eat; below 18 degrees its immune system stops functioning, leaving it susceptible to infections. Above 32 degrees, the tortoise again becomes lethargic and will start to suffer from heat stress.

So daytime temperatures of around 27 degrees were heaven for a tortoise in the UK. If the owner has a secure area or pen (for tortoises are not only escape artists but are also irresistible to predators such as dogs), then the tortoise can go outside. This means lovely, unfiltered sunlight, which is essential for tortoises to produce their own Vitamin D and maintain healthy bones. Again, most of the year owners must provide ultraviolet light of the correct wavelength with a UV bulb. Even sunlight passing through a window isn’t useful, as the glass filters out many of the useful UV rays.  Outside, the tortoise can browse on fresh grass and weeds, close to their natural diet and so much more nutritious than anything we can buy in a bag. And they can exercise, explore, dig, and display many of their natural behaviours.

This Summer we’ve seen a lot of shelled patients in the Wells surgery. On 14th June alone I saw four separate tortoise patients! Here they are:

“Luna” is a juvenile Leopard tortoise who had lightly chewed by the family dog the previous week. Her owner saw immediately what was going on and, thankfully, intervened before more serious damage was done. She had brought Luna to the Shepton surgery straight away where vet Adam cleaned and dressed the wounds, started a course of antibiotics and gave pain relief, and hospitalised Luna overnight to check she didn’t go into shock.  Dog bites are a very common presentation in tortoises, they just seem irresistible to our canine friends. We take any bite wounds very seriously. The shell we can see is just a thin, nail-like covering over living bone, and, left untreated, infection will spread through the bone and under the shell, resulting in shell rot which is very painful and can, eventually, be debilitating and even fatal for the tortoise. Luna came to me on 14th June for a check-up and to redress her wounds, and she was doing very well. Her owner has since been doing an excellent job of cleaning, treating and redressing her wounds at home, and even giving injections of antibiotic every other day. I saw Luna again this week and her owner’s diligence is paying off. Luna’s wounds are clean and there is no sign of shell rot. She’ll continue on antibiotics for another 4 weeks, and her owner will keep treating the wounds for a total of 6 months to make sure they remain free of infection until the shell grows back.

“Shelley”, a young Horsfield’s tortoise, had also been providing innocent entertainment to the family dog. Shelley’s wounds were unusual, though. There were no puncture wounds to his shell. The dog had held him in his mouth and rubbed him from side to side on a concrete path. As a result, Shelley’s plastron (underneath shell) was generally very worn, right through the shell in places, but not very deep anywhere. It could have been so much worse, and, again, his owner was quick to realise what was happening, separate dog and tortoise and call the surgery.  We cleaned up the wounds with appropriate antiseptic, applied an antibiotic barrier cream and a dressing.  Shelley’s owners had to quickly learn how to continue treatment at home.  Two weeks later vet Greg gave him a check up and all was going well.

“Roo” is a Herman’s tortoise who had had a respiratory infection previously, and his owners were concerned this was returning. Respiratory signs in tortoises are tricky to assess, as we can’t listen to their lungs with a stethoscope as we can in mammals and birds, and they can’t cough or sneeze. A change in breathing effort or rate, wheezy noises or a runny nose are often all we can see.  These signs can just be the result of minor irritation or a mild upper respiratory infection (like a cold for us) but could also be masking pneumonia.  If in any doubt we tend to take x-rays of the tortoise’s lungs, as, if there is infection in the lungs themselves, we need to start intensive, multimodal therapy immediately and for a prolonged period. Fortunately, we didn’t feel this was necessary in Roo’s case, and with  a couple of little changes in husbandry to reduce dust levels he stopped making wheezing noises completely.

“Sheldon” is another Horsefield’s tortoise, who needed treatment for his overbite. Tortoises have a hard “beak”. Ideally, the lower part of the beak fits snugly just inside the upper part, so the sharp edges create a scissor action, allowing the tortoise to bite through leaves. In addition, at each side of the upper part of the beak there is a notch. The tortoise can rub the long, hard scales on its front leg against this notch, tearing away any bits of vegetation that are hanging out of the side of the mouth. It's a simple but surprisingly effective way of eating.  If the beak isn’t quite lined up neatly, however, not only does the tortoise find it difficult to eat leaves, but some parts of the beak will grow unchecked by normal wear and tear, and the beak becomes overgrown. Sheldon, unfortunately, has an overbite, so he finds it difficult to eat whole leaves and prefers soft, mushy food. Because of the lack of wear, his upper beak had become overgrown, and he had lost the side notches.  Using a high-speed burr, I shortened and reshaped his beak.  I suggested his owner feed him on a hard, abrasive surface, such as a rough tile, to help keep the upper beak worn down. Sheldon’s beak will never work perfectly, but with management from his owner at home, and regular beak trims at the surgery, he should manage fine.

- Polly Cornwell


At Wells Vets, we take great pride in providing expert care for our shelled warriors. This summer, we've encountered a variety of cases, from playful pups curious about tortoises to respiratory concerns and beak overgrowth. Our dedicated team of veterinarians promptly attended to each tortoise, offering specialized treatments and valuable guidance to their loving owners. As a practice with a passion for these unique creatures, we remain committed to ensuring the well-being of tortoises across the region. If you have any questions or concerns about your shelled companions, feel free to reach out to our knowledgeable team. Together, let's ensure a thriving and comfortable life for our delightful tortoise friends.

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