Health, Husbandry and Security

- the Three County Tortoise Society and its commitment to the UK’s captive tortoises.


Throughout the 3 counties, the Three County Tortoise Society dedicates itself to the welfare of tortoises being kept as pets. This service, involving care sheets, telephone calls, website and  e-mail  contacts is of course not just available for members, but for the public as a whole, without charge. However, at the heart of this effort are the Health Check events held during spring and autumn. Often known as ‘Tortoise MOT’s, these offer members and the public a chance to have their tortoise’s health checked out at those crucial times pre and post hibernation.  It is at these critical crossroads in the tortoise’s life when an examination by a competent and experienced keeper can highlight the sort of problems which may require a change in the usual husbandry procedures, in order to literally save the tortoise’s life (i.e. overwintering, force-feeding, providing a heated vivarium and so on).

These Health Checks are not offered lightly however. There are some inherent risks taken in bringing many tortoises together in one hall, which all Health Check organisers are aware of, and go to great pains to minimise. Prime amongst these is ensuring that owner’s tortoises are kept boxed, and not allowed to mix with others at the venue, in order to avoid the spread of infections or parasites. To this end, all equipment used is sterilised between tortoises, including hands, and disposable rubber gloves are used wherever possible. All potential common cross infections can be controlled in this way, including mouth rot, RNS and worms. More rare and exotic infections, such as the herpes-style virus which can on rare occasions infect some species (e.g. Hermanns and Leopards) are less easy to contain. This is of course also true for the NHS, where 5% of all in-patients are likely to catch a serious infection from their stay in hospital. This does not stop us from attending hospital, for we know such a level of risk to be low. Similarly, a tortoise attending a Three County Tortoise Society Health Check (or a Vet’s surgery) as an out-patient stands very little chance of contracting anything serious. Indeed, the advantages far outweigh any  risks, with many dozens of tortoises lives being saved by our timely intervention each year.

There are two major elements to a tortoise health check. The first is obviously, to examine the tortoise. The second, just as vital, is to interview the owner. Being presented with an average looking tortoise, with no obvious problems, is not the whole story for the Health Check volunteer. Questions answered on diet, lifestyle, garden habitat, method of hibernation, and any behavioural idiosyncrasies all give clues which may lead to a better understanding of the tortoise as an individual, and, therefore, give a better insight into its current state of health. Past history is essential for these long-to-live, slow-to-change reptiles, and therefore the recording of any facts or details can help considerably in assessing the tortoise’s well being over a given period of time. To assist in this, the Three County Tortoise Society have developed and printed a health care document, known as the ‘Tortoise Passport’, it contains facts, contact numbers, and a comprehensive checklist for a health check worker to fill in for every visit. Additional inserts are available to gradually build up a series of health snapshots of the tortoise over many years. Again, this allows the tortoise to be viewed as an individual, and not be simply compared with the average for its species. Reading back through this document, a Health Check worker can view past comments, such as advice being given to go to the vets, treatment for problems now not evident, husbandry tips that have been suggested etc.  A chat with the owner follows up on these, ensuring a smooth continuity of care.

The most essential part of the Health Check must always be centered around the weight and measurement of the tortoise. Crucial for hibernation, and important in the early diagnosis of health related problems, this is a major aid to the Health Check worker in their examination of the tortoise. In order to Compare the tortoise’s length against its weight, it is expressed as a mathematical ratio, in order to standardise the result. This is known as the ‘Jackson ratio’ after Professor  Oliphant Jackson, who first developed it in the early 1980’s from his research into Mediterranean tortoises, in particular the Spur Thighed tortoise.
This ratio is most often seen as the familiar A4 sized graph, with two curved gradients, indicating above and below optimum weight for hibernation. This works best as a an introductory snapshot for owners of Hermann's and Spur Thighed tortoises, but it has its limitations, and has been sidelined in favour of the ‘ratio’ itself in the ‘Tortoise Passport’ document. This has been developed over the years since Jackson  to include all species, and all sizes. The use of this  ratio has many advantages over the more familiar graph. The most obvious is the need to get away from a graph, which has upper and lower limits of health marked on it. This can be highly misleading when dealing with the modern variety of species owned. Owners of Horsfield or Marginated tortoises for instance would find their pets in the ‘overweight’ and underweight’ areas respectively, regardless of their physical condition. Indeed there is a wide diversity of results even with Spur thighs, from the T. graeca graeca to T.graeca whiteii, and between males and females. Far better be it to treat each tortoise as an individual, calculating their ratio, and then comparing it to previous results. Viewing a chronological row of figures gives a quick and easy way of spotting any health trends in the animal, and this, along with the weight and length figures immediately above, gives a much better insight into what is going on with the tortoise.

Putting the same information on a graph leads to a cluttered and out of order grouping which becomes much more difficult to interpret. In addition, the accuracy of the graph is called into question at its extremities- with the very large tortoises, or with hatchlings (as admitted by Professor Jackson himself), and as the graph tends towards the horizontal and vertical in theses cases, minor plotting errors can lead to significant mistakes being made in the diagnosis of health in the tortoise. This is not the case with the ratio. Finally, as with ourselves, there are naturally tubby tortoises, and naturally lean tortoises. We can only really identify their physical type by a series of ratio calculations over a period of time- by knowing from observation and experience what is normal and healthy for that particular tortoise at a particular time of the year. This is what the ‘Tortoise Passport’ tries to make simpler. As for calculating a ratio? Well, don’t reach for Open University application forms just yet- try this: type the weight (in grammes) into a calculator. Divide by the length (in centimetres). Divide by the length again. Divide by the length a third time. The final answer is a simple Ratio which fits the Jackson Graph exactly. It should come out between 0.18 and 0.24 for Mediterranean tortoises, a little less for longer shapes (such as Redfoots or marginateds), and perhaps up to 0.26 for Horsfields.

An optional addition to the Health Check Passport is the Fingerprinting document. This provides a good quality photograph is provided to record their tortoise’s plastron as a method of identification in the event of theft. This includes a card insert containing security advice and the tortoise’s photograph for the Health Check Passport. This scheme relies upon the photographs being professionally taken by a competent photographer at health check meetings, special events and regional meetings. The advantages of this ‘roadshow’ approach has been to be able to keeo the cost low, and at the same time provide a quality service.


Paul Coleman