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Psammobates (Geometric and Tent Tortoise) Care – Misty Corton (The Care Centre)
Psammobates oculifer - Serrated or Kalahari tent tortoise
Psammobates geometricus - Geometric tortoise
Psammobates tentorius - Tent tortoise
Left: Geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus)
Natural history: These small attractively marked tortoises are found in the Kalahari, Cape and Namibia. The Geometric tortoise is an endangered species and is subject to strong legal protection. These are all delicate small tortoises that are extremely difficult to maintain in captivity outside their natural areas. They are very prone to respiratory disease especially if housed with other species - as always, keep different species in isolated enclosures! Attempting to maintain Psammobates species in damp or humid areas is invariably fatal; they do best in an arid, sandy environment with as much natural food as possible.
General Care: Because of their small size they are best maintained in a secure enclosure situated in a dry sunny area with plenty of rocks both for climbing, basking upon, and hiding under. These species should have unlimited access to dry sandy soil, and the enclosure must be well planted with as much indigenous plant material as possible from their natural area. They have also been observed eating other plants and these can be chosen from the plant list below.
Plants marked with * are most important to
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)
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: The less you feed these tortoises on kitchen food the more you will encourage feeding on natural growing plants and ensure exercise and adequate nutrition. If they can be maintained totally on growing food, then this is desirable.
Suggested foods: Grated/thinly sliced cucumber, grated carrot/butternut/pumpkin, diced tomato, lettuce/cabbage (VERY small quantities), grated courgettes (zucchini), fruit (sparingly - paw-paw is the 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 about once a week. The odd bone and cuttlefish left lying in the enclosure will be chewed on, this helps keep their beak trim and provides additional calcium.
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. Weight them before hibernation and immediately after, become alarmed at any weight loss.
As with other species water should be provided in a sunken pond with sloped sides for easy access and safety, the top of a bird bath being ideal for this purpose. They are not often seen drinking but will do so when the need arises. Water should be changed daily, more often if soiled.
They should be checked each evening to ensure that they have bedded down in a dry protected area, and during periods of heavy rain they are better brought indoors and placed in a cardboard box lined with shredded newspaper in a secluded part of the house away from other pets or interference.
Being small tortoises it is necessary to protect their enclosure with netting or wire to ensure that predators such as crows, birds of prey or mongoose do not have access to them. These tortoises sometimes eat snails/millipedes and these should be provided occasionally. They can be aggressive and care should be taken not to house tiny babies with adults. Territorial males may also engage in quite vicious combat.
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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