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Homopus (Padloper Tortoise) Care – Misty Corton (The Care Centre)
Homopus femoralis - Greater padloper
Homopus areolatus - Parrot beaked tortoise (Common padloper)
Homopus boulengeri - Karoo or Boulenger's padloper
Homopus signatus - Speckled padloper
Homopus bergeri - Nama or Berger's padloper
Left: Common padloper (Homopus areolatus)
Natural history: These five species are endemic to southern Africa - occurring mainly in the Cape and adjacent regions. Only the speckled and common padlopers adapt well to captivity as their diets are not highly specialized. Many are taken from their natural habitat each year, and subsequently die as a result. They cannot readily adapt to captive diets and climatic change.
General care: These small tortoises usually prove difficult to keep in captivity unless some effort is made to supply them with their natural food, that is, endemic plants from the Cape/Karoo regions. They are best kept in a very secure, landscaped, enclosure as they are adept at climbing and thus escape easily. Enclosures should be as large as possible and situated in a dry, sunny area. An attempt should be made to simulate their natural area, providing rocks for shelter, hiding under, and for basking. All enclosures should be covered with strong, protective wire-mesh to prevent access by potential predators, including birds. Padloper enclosures should also be well planted with a variety of succulents, grasses and other small plants chosen from the list below:
Plants and weeds with * are favourites
and should be plentiful in the enclosure.
Barleria obtusa* (flowers)
Opuntia - most species*
Gerbera jamesoni (Barbeton daisy)
Dimorphotheca pluvialis (Cape Daisy)
D.sinuata (Namaqualand daisy)
Arctotis (African daisy)
Malvaviscus arboreum (flowers)
White and blue Mazus*
Wandering Jew - all species
Mesembrenthenum (ice plant)
Golliwog* (Callisia repens)
Dichondra repens (wonderlawn)*
As many different grasses as you can supply from the following list:
Couch grass (Cynodon dactylon)
Eastern Province vlei grass (Eragrostis lehmanniana)
Dew grass (Eragrostis pseudo-obtusa)
Bushman grass (Schmidtia kalahariensis)
Carrot grass (Tragus racemosus)
Beesgras (Urochloa pantcoides)
Veld grass (Ehrhartacalycina)
Darnel rye grass (Lolium temulentum)
Barnyard grass (Echinochloa crus-galli)
Mouse barley grass (Hordeum murinum)
Crab finger grass (Digitaria sanguinalis)
Dallas grass (Paspalum dilatatum)
Wintergrass (Poa annua)
Dropseed grass (Sporobolus africanus)
Kikiyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum)
Buffalo grass (Stenotaphrum secondatum)
Swazi grass (Digitaria swazilandensis)
Many other succulent plants are also eaten, and studies are currently taking place to identify these. It is best to buy whatever you can and then watch to see if they are eaten and plan your planting accordingly (but take care to avoid any unknown plants which may be toxic or those that could have been sprayed with chemicals). A variety of grasses should be planted both for food and for cover. Flowers form a large part of their preferred diet. Seeds and roots are sometimes also eaten. These tortoises emerge for feeding in the early morning and again late afternoon. The remainder of their day is spent either sunbathing or hiding under cover, depending on the weather. If not provided with adequate cover they become stressed and agitated, will eat poorly and attempt to escape.
Unsuitable plants high in oxalates:
Aracea (arum lily)
Rheum rhabarbarum (rhubarb)
The Chenopodiacea family which includes beet greens, spinach and chard should be avoided as they contain oxalates. Oxalic acid binds with calcium to yield insoluble calcium oxalate, which cannot be absorbed by the tortoise. Avoid feeding any plants or vegetables high in oxalates especially to hatchlings and adult females ready to breed.
The Brassica family, which includes cabbage, collards, kale and broccoli can cause goiter if fed in excess because they tie up iodine - they do not contain high oxalic acid amounts like spinach and chard. Goiters caused by this are rare and the feeding of a varied diet that is not heavily based on these plants should offset this tendency.
Feeding: Fresh water must be supplied daily in a sunken "pond" with shallow sloping sides for easy access and departure. The surface of this "pond" must have a surface they can grip on - plastic bowls are not suitable. The tops of bird baths are ideal.
Houses must be constructed for shelter/sleeping. These can be attractively constructed using flat stones placed on top of bricks. Place these in such a way that they cannot be flooded during inclement weather. Bits of tree bark can be placed at various points, these are also used as cover, and are even eaten on occasion to supply essential amino-acids.
Additional feeding: Feed one to two times weekly. This encourages feeding on natural growing plants and ensures exercise and adequate nutrition. Rely as much as possible upon 'natural' graze within the enclosure.
Recommended foods: Grated/thinly sliced cucumber, grated carrot/butternut/pumpkin, diced tomato, lettuce/cabbage (VERY small quantities), grated courgettes (zucchini), fruit (sparingly - paw-paw is a favourite). This food should be offered in the early morning, and any uneaten food removed by lunchtime. A good vitamin/mineral supplement should be added to the food weekly. The odd bone and whole cuttlefish left lying in the enclosure will be chewed on, this helps keep their beak trim and provides additional calcium.
Lets explode the myth about lettuce: It is high in nitrates and is converted in the mouth into compounds that produce nitric oxide - a potent antibacterial chemical. The "disinfectant" effect of this chemical was tested and salivary production was high enough to kill even E.coli 0157 (the deadly bacterium that is so often responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning). A small trial conducted with volunteers on a trekking expedition through Nepal and Tibet showed that those who took nitrate tablets suffered less vomiting, diarrhoea and infections than the rest who did not. Contents: Protein 0.9g, Carbohydrates 2.9g, Fat 0.9g, Fiber 0.5g, Phosphorus 22mg, Calcium 20mg, Iron 0.5mg, Sodium 9mg, Potassium 175mg, Vitamin A 330iu, B1 0.06mg, B2 0.06mg, B3 o.3mg, B6 0.005mg, Folic acid 10.3mcg, Vitamin C 6mg, Vitamin E 0.5mg. So often I hear people "barring" the use of lettuce or condemning it as a "bad" food. Its not all bad, and along with a good balanced diet can actually be benificial. What is NOT recommended is a diet of lettuce alone as this will not provide all the nutrients your tortoise needs.
Shell care: Once a month during summer give your tortoise an all over "scrub" with diluted Betadine solution (it should resemble weak black tea) and a soft nail brush (or a human baby hairbrush is ideal!), at the same time examine shell for any defects or signs of scutes lifting. Any loose scutes should be removed, and the area scrubbed and then allowed to dry. Keep an eye on this area to ensure it does not develop into shell rot, and if any of the surrounding scutes loosen remove those too. Do not apply any substance to the shell, as this can affect their ability to maintain body temperature. Paint in particular can be harmful. If large areas of scutes start loosening it’s a sign of trouble and you should seek vet help immediately.
External parasites: If any ticks are found, remove manually by grasping with tweezers/forceps and flipping the tick onto its back, it will loosen its grip and can then be removed without the head remaining behind to cause infection. Dab the spot with a little Betadine to prevent infection. Ticks can also be coated with mineral oil, this also causes them to lose their grip. The tortoise should be dipped in a solution of Tritix (Amitraz) 1-2ml per litre water. Ensure this solution does not enter eyes, ears or mouth. This dipping will have to be repeated periodically to maintain effect as there will be ticks in the environment if you found any on your tortoise.
Internal parasites: Tortoises in captivity are infamous for harboring parasites, both worms and protozoa. Some of them can harbor many different parasites without coming to any harm as long as the animal stays stress free and well nourished. Many tortoises in the wild are infected with protozoa in small numbers. If this tortoise is removed from his habitat and kept in captivity, it is quite likely that this will cause stress, which in turn affects immune response. This creates an ideal environment for parasites to flourish and cause disease. A faulty diet can cause the same thing, for example too much fruit raises lactic acid levels in the gut providing the ideal breeding ground for many parasites.
It is recommended that tortoises are dewormed once a year where a single species is kept, and twice a year where there are mixed collections. However, no matter how safe, Panacur (used to treat worms) is still a drug and can affect gut function adversely if used unnecessarily. The best route to take is an annual fecal check. Take a fresh dropping to your vet and ask him to test for parasites, and then dose accordingly if any are found in large numbers. Be aware that small numbers of protozoa and even some worms can be normal gut residents without causing any harm, so it is not always strictly necessary to treat any infection. If you have a mixed collections of tortoises, a twice yearly fecal is strongly recommended.
The subject of worms is a vast one and covered elsewhere. It is good to be aware though that general health and nutritional state, can affect whether or not your tortoises stay free of infection. Poor diet and overuse of fruit leads to impaired gut function and creates the ideal environment for parasites to flourish and harm their host. Lowering the immune system will have the same effect, causing your tortoises to become susceptible to disease and or parasite infection. Many factors can dampen the immune system - stress (such as a change of environment, diet or aggressive companions/other animals), adverse weather, no access to water, and undue handling.
General: At least once a month, examine your tortoise’s mouth, this allows him to get used to being handled and can help if ever you need to medicate or treat him. Be gentle, grasp the head firmly and use thumb and index finger to create pressure at the corners of his mouth, at the same time pulling down on the bottom of his jaw with your right hand. Once you have mouth open place a finger in the corner of his mouth at the back (their "bite" is weakest here) or prop the mouth open with a plastic spoon handle. Examine the inside of his mouth, membranes and tongue should be a healthy pink. Look for any yellow deposits or signs of debris collecting around the edges of his mouth. Check on smell too as any foul odour indicates problems and should be attended to immediately. Another less invasive technique is to "hand feed" a favoured diet item while lying in front of him, and while he eats examine mouth carefully.
Eyes should be bright and clear, any swelling or discharge needs urgent attention. Having said this it should be noted that females "tear" just before laying, and this should not be mistaken for eye infection. Many "eye infections" are simply caused by a lack of vitamin A, a good diet prevents this. Any swelling of ears or tympanic membrane needs urgent treatment as well.
Weigh your tortoise monthly, any undue weight loss can indicate problems ahead. Keep a record book of his weight, any diet or disease problems can be noted down as well, this will help your vet diagnose any future problems.
Common health problems: If kept in a sunny area and allowed natural feeding, exercise and privacy you should encounter few problems. These endearing small tortoises are very hardy in captivity, and most problems are caused by faulty nutrition, high humidity or bad husbandry.
Eye infections: This should be suspected if there is any swelling, reluctance to open eyes or discharge. If he is otherwise active and eating well then chances are it’s a local infection. Terramycin ointment can be applied twice daily, ensuring that the ointment gets "into" the eye and is not just smeared over eyelids. An eye suspension works best here, query your vet or your pharmacist.
Before applying ointment clean the eyes with a little cooled boiled water and cotton wool, repeat this each time ointment is applied.
Abscess: Usually occur in the ear area, but can occur elsewhere too. This will need veterinary treatment, your vet will lance the abscess and instruct you in how to syringe it out twice daily with Chlorhexadine/diluted Betadine. An abscess should not be stitched after draining as it will simply reoccur. Depending on the initial cause, a systemic antibiotic may be prescribed.
RNS (Runny Nose Syndrome): This is common in humid areas and consists of a nasal discharge that is usually clear. First a test should be done to ensure the tortoise does not have a severe worm burden, as this can mimic RNS, such a tortoise will often "splutter" liquid from the mouth or nose. Next suspect is a foreign body, examine nares carefully under good light and see if plant matter/grass seeds are perhaps lodged in nares, if so remove and treat with drops as outlined further on. If no worms are found then a regime of antibiotic nasal drops is used. Common antibiotics used are Terramycin, Baytril, Amikacin, Tylosin. Ask your vet to dilute 2ml antibiotic with 1 ml saline in a syringe. Each day hold the tortoise in a semi-upright position, wipe nostrils clean and instill one drop of antibiotic into each nostril allowing it to drain into nasal cavities. Keep him like this for a minute or two. Do this preferably toward late afternoon so that his eating pattern is not disrupted.
For the duration of treatment keep him warmer than usual as this helps to dry up secretions and boosts immune system. Ensure that any heat is fixed and that the tortoise is unable to dislodge it and thus cause a fire hazard. Heat is especially important during cold and wet weather. Do not stop the drops when you see his nose is dry, continue for at least a week to ensure the problem is well controlled. Many tortoises who get RNS relapse frequently, and then treatment has to begin again. Any discharge from a single nostril often indicates a foreign body as the cause.
Diarrhea: Can be caused by faulty diet (too little fiber, too much fruit or wet food, overfeeding) or disease. If he seems to be active and eating well, chances are it is not disease. Rectify diet, reducing wet food and fruit, and add dry fibrous foods to his diet. Crushed rabbit pellets can help firm droppings, sprinkle these onto food as required, it is merely dried compressed alfalfa. Cut down on feeding to encourage browsing on natural food. Tortoises are programmed to cope with a slow diet of dry fibrous foods, if for any reason intestinal flora become disrupted this can cause a foul smelling diarrhea with whole pieces of undigested food present in feces. You can add any probiotic to his food – Benebac, Avi-pro probiotic, live yoghurt culture, or you can backfeed droppings from another tortoise of the same species (hatchling feces are ideal here). Any feces used should be first screened by microscope carefully to ensure you are not passing on parasites. Feed dry high fiber foods and the problem should clear up rapidly.
If diarrhea is accompanied by lethargy, anorexia or any peculiar smell, then get veterinary help immediately.
Disease general: If you see any of the following signs then get veterinary help as soon as possible: lethargy, anorexia, foul odour, swelling, discoloration of skin, discharge, absence of droppings or urine, weight loss, difficulty with locomotion and or breathing.
Injury: Most captive injuries are caused by dogs, lawn mowers, vehicles, aggressive companions and children dropping the tortoise. Injury can also be caused by sharp glass or garden implements left lying around.
If injury is minor, clean thoroughly with diluted Betadine or Chlorhexadine solution, remove any foreign bodies, then apply an ointment such as Flammazine (silver sulfadiazine). Cover with gauze and micropore if possible. Repeat daily till healing is well advanced and then keep up cleaning and leave to dry. Remove any dead tissue that is visible. At this point Necrospray (available from any vet) can be applied every two days or so, this will prevent infection and aid drying the wound.
If any injury is major, do not attempt treatment yourself, take him to your vet as soon as possible. If your vet is unavailable, stop any bleeding and clean wounds until you can get help. Most important is the quick removal of any foreign bodies as these can cause infection later. Keep on hand some KY jelly, this can be applied to the wound after removal of foreign bodies and will prevent it drying out until you can get help. If any internal organs are exposed then quick veterinary help is vital. Wrap the tortoise in a damp towel and get help immediately.
Hibernation: These tortoises may hibernate from June to September if kept outside their natural area. In this case they are best left undisturbed other than an occasional check on their welfare. Humidity is their worst enemy, and every effort should be made to ensure their enclosure is dry. Some will dig themselves into a "burrow" and remain there for long periods. Other than a general health check now and again leave them alone. Do not continue with ANY kitchen food during winter, this is a time when their digestive system needs a rest. Once spring arrives they will slowly become more active and start eating again. It is most important for them to drink well during spring, this can be encouraged by "soaking" in a tub of tepid water to the level of their plastron (bottom shell) for half to one hour. Note: Ensure water level does not reach nostrils. They should drink and defecate during this time. Tortoises are temperature dependant, they will not eat until they are warm enough and the days lengthen. If at any time during winter you think your tortoise may be in trouble, warm him up under a lamp or heater (temperature 25-30 degrees C or 80-90 degrees F), soak him for half an hour in tepid water with electrolytes added and observe if he drinks. Weigh him before soaking and afterwards. Take him to your vet for a total physical.
Conversely, during very hot summer days tortoises will aestivate (go into a torpor) and will not eat. Available water during this time is critical as a tortoise can dehydrate quickly, although tortoises are very adept at storing water in anal pouches for use during drought.
What to do if you think there is something wrong and you can’t get to a vet straight away: Place your tortoise under heat of some sort (temperature as advised higher above), and soak twice daily in tepid water with electrolytes added – any electrolyte solution from your pharmacy can be used. It is vital to maintain hydration, and to boost immune system by raising heat. Keep eyes from drying out by using a bland eye ointment.
Enjoy! Your tortoise is unique, they are amongst the longest living animals on earth. Each one has a different character and many become very tame with time. Take time to get to know his habits and preferences, his health and general well being will reflect your care – so give him the best you can! Common sense and good hygiene will prevent any disease transferring to you or your family, and hand washing after handling is a good idea. Limit children from handling the tortoise as they are more susceptible to worm infections.
Additional information :
This care sheet is presented here with the permission of Misty Corton. It originally appeared on The Care Centre web site. Husbandry and caring methods are dynamic and therefore it is recommended to check back at The Care Centre for updates.
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