Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to find a good Veterinarian for your Tortoise (and maybe an excellent one!)

Finding a good veterinarian who is experienced and up-to-date on caring for tortoises (not just turtles) can be very difficult. Since tortoises live for a century or longer, there is a good chance that your tortoise will need to go to the vet at some point, whether for a beak trim, an injury or for an illness, or to be treated for parasites.

Mila, getting a check-up from Dr. Kelly Flaminio
In an ideal world, a tortoise keeper already has a relationship with a reliable and knowledgeable reptile vet before the tortoise has even been purchased or adopted. A check-up and a fecal exam (to check for parasites) should be done within the first two weeks of owning the tortoise. This is especially the case if you bought your tortoise from a pet store. If parasites or other problems are discovered by the vet within the initial 14 days, most larger chain stores will actually refund you the cost for the office visit and the parasite treatment.

We love our reptile vet, Dr. Kelly Flaminio!
Whether you are being proactive, or you already find yourself in over your head with a sick or injured tortoise, it is important to ask a few questions of the vet before trusting him or her with your tortoise's health.

First, how should you go about finding an exotics vet?
A good starting place is a list of vets that has been compiled by tortoise keepers on the tortoise forum HERE. This list is sorted by State, as well as by country. If you live close to a State border, you may want to check for clinics on the other side of the State line.
(Please keep in mind that not all of the vets on this list are guaranteed to be awesome.... they are however at the very least more likely to know how to provide healthcare for a tortoise!)

The TFO list of reptile vets in the USA and in the rest of the world.
Google can be of help, too. Entering "exotics veterinarian" in a map search near you should provide you with several options (Note: If your Google search brings forth a list of places advertising "girls girls girls" you might need to narrow your key words down a little more!). Follow the links to the vet clinics' websites, and see what they say about themselves. Often, Google listings already have ratings associated with the listing. Read the ratings carefully, keeping in mind that there are probably many happy clients who just didn't get around to writing a review.

Google map search for "exotics vet" or "exotics veterinarian"
When you have found a reptile vet who looks promising, give them a call, and politely ask them a few questions:
  1. Does this vet clinic have experience with tortoises, specifically? (you can even ask if they have experience with your specific tortoise species, e.g. Russian tortoises)
  2. Is this exotics vet familiar with the different care and dietary requirements of a tortoise in comparison to a turtle?
  3. How long has this vet been practicing? (sometimes a newer vet will actually have more up-to-date knowledge about tortoises!) 
  4. How long has this vet been providing healthcare for tortoises?
  5. How many tortoises does this clinic treat each month? 
  6. How often does the veterinarian treat reptiles in comparison to dogs and cats?
  7. How often does the exotics vet attend continued education events and conferences pertaining to reptiles and tortoise care?
  8. Is this vet able to trim your tortoises beak, if necessary? 
  9. Does this vet perform surgery on tortoises, should this ever become necessary?
  10. Is this vet available in the case of after-hour emergencies? (Not all are - in that case, please also ask for the contact information of an emergency vet who will see a tortoise. It is good to have this information on hand, should it ever become necessary.)
  11. Is this vet able to keep a tortoise overnight should treatment require an extended stay?
If you have a VERY large tortoise, such as a full-grown sulcata or even an aldabra tortoise, you may want to also ask if this vet does house visits. In some cases, transporting a vet is easier than transporting a tortoise... 

A few questions should be asked that pertain to the financial aspect of a vet visit:

  1. Is the first exam free? (can't hurt to ask - often it is!)
  2. How much is the exam fee? (within a town, this can vary greatly from one office to another!)
  3. Does this clinic do fecal exams for parasites in-house or externally?
  4. Are they willing to run a fecal exam without requiring an office visit? Then if parasites are found, and treatment is necessary, you can still bring your tortoise in for the office visit and to get treatment.
  5. Does the veterinarian give a price quote before performing a surgery or another procedure? Will different options be given? Does this vet clinic offer payment options if a high vet fee is incurred?
Armed with the above questions, you should be able to determine whether a vet will be able to help you and your tortoise.

Although currently in perfect health, this tiny baby tortoise
will likely need vet care at some point in her life.
We are lucky to have a wonderful and experienced reptile vet within easy driving distance of our home. Our veterinarian, Dr. Kelly Flaminio at the East Mill Plain VCA, is very knowledgeable, and we have had a very good experience with her care for several of the reptiles we own or foster. 

Because our reptiles have gotten such great care, I thought it might be useful to you to see a few of Dr. Kelly's answers to some of my questions:
Q: "How many reptiles does your veterinary clinic see on average?"
A: "Between 50-100 per month. Usually about 3 per day."

Q: "How long have you been treating tortoises?"
A: "I have been treating tortoises and other reptiles for about 5 years."

Q: "How often do you attend conferences and continued education events?"
A: "Twice a year."

Q: "What are the most frequent reptile cases you see?"
A: "We most frequently see new lizards parents bought for kids. Next, the most frequent cases are amputations and abscesses of various reptiles. Many reptile keepers don't bring their animal in until something bad happens, unfortunately."

Q: "What do you most frequently see tortoise patients for?"
A: "New tortoise pets often come in to be checked and treated for parasites and to have blood work done to ensure they are healthy. Long-term, tortoises most frequently come in for a beak trim. Some tortoises we see suffer from MDB (metabolic bone disease) from improper husbandry. In the Spring we usually see quite a few tortoises with URIs (upper respiratory infections) or pneumonia. Sometimes tortoises that have been found on the loose are relinquished to the clinic, and then we find foster homes for them."

Many of the above questions had already been answered in previous interactions: Dr. Kelly has extensive experience with tortoises, and definitely knows the difference between a box turtle and a tortoise. She is able to perform surgery on tortoises and other reptiles in-house. The clinic is able to keep reptiles overnight if necessary.

During my interview with her, Dr. Kelly also mentioned that local new patients to her clinic are welcome to print off the 'free first exam' coupon from their website. They will honor the coupon for reptiles as well as for dogs and cats.

Whether you have a very large tortoise, or a very small tortoise,'s a good idea to know a good reptile vet!
The above questions don't always guarantee that a vet is awesome. Sometimes, it will take several office visits to find a vet that will meet the needs of you and your tortoise. Many veterinarians are VERY GOOD veterinarians, but just haven't specialized on tortoises. Others might be operating off of out-of-date information.

There are a few RED FLAGS that indicate that a reptile vet is NOT a good tortoise vet:

  1. You are told to feed your tortoise 'more animal protein.' (this is based on a confusion over tortoises vs. box turtles)
  2. You are told to add cat food into your tortoise's diet (this is based on 35-year-old, outdated information that results in terribly deformed tortoises)
  3. The vet suggests treatment for parasites with medication other than Safeguard or Panacur (active ingredient fenbendazole). (other worm medications, such as ivermectin, can kill a tortoise!)
  4. You are told not to provide water in the enclosure (this is based on outdated, false information)
  5. You are told to use sand for substrate
  6. The vet claims to be able to tell you how old your tortoise is based on the 'rings' in his shell (tortoises are not trees. The rings are based on seasons of plentiful food and lack of food... which can happen several times throughout a year. The only way to know a tortoise's age is to know it's hatch date or at least hatch year).

Mila frowns on the idea of having her rings counted to tell her age.

If you live out in the country, it may be necessary to drive several hours to get to a good reptile vet. If the weather is very hot or very cold, be sure to accommodate your tortoise accordingly. A bin with some paper towels or cloth towels works well for a transport container. Never leave your tortoise in the car - you don't want it to die of freezing or heat stroke.
If it is necessary to cross State lines to get to a good reptile vet, please be sure to know the laws pertaining to bringing reptiles across. The last thing you want is for your tortoise to be confiscated, or for you to have to pay a fine.

The pictures have been posted with permission from Dr. Kelly. I have not received any payment or other incentives to write this blog post. It was purely written to help other tortoise keepers find an excellent reptile vet.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Keeping tortoises outdoors in the Pacific Northwest

Today I would like to show some pictures of my adult Russian tortoises in their outdoor habitat in our yard. My hope is that this will encourage more tortoise keepers to provide their tortoise(s) with an outdoor space.

Duke, eating weeds while sitting up on a rock - silly boy!
Keeping tortoises in the Pacific Northwest has a unique set of challenges in that it rains A LOT here for part of the year. However, it is actually possible to keep them outdoors all or most of the time from April through September or even October.

The benefits of keeping tortoises outdoors far outweigh the potential dangers, IF proper precautions are taken and accommodations are made. The natural sunlight provides heat and healthy UVB, which promotes healthy bones and a good hard shell. Being able to wander a much larger area keeps the tortoise's muscles strong. Wild Russian tortoises live in climates that are harsher than ours! They can THRIVE in our climate.

A morning view of our tortoise yard
In our climate, moisture can be a problem - Russian tortoises don't seem to mind chilly weather as long as they have the option to stay dry. We solved this problem by building the tortoise yard partially under the eves of our roof - about 2 feet out from our house wall stay completely dry, no matter how hard it rains. I have cut several buckets in half, and buried them under several inches of soil. They provide good hides for the tortoises to burrow into on cool or hot days.

A morning view of the tortoise yard- it gets much sunnier here in the afternoon!
Building an outdoor space doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. I used re-claimed materials off of Craigslist and from my neighbors' left over project lumber. The total cost out of pocket was $35 for this, which was for the decking screws to hold it all together.
I plan to expand the tortoise yard in the next few years, to go further out from the house, as well as going around the corner to the South side of the house. I already have some of the materials for this. I also am scavenging materials to build a little heated greenhouse, which would make it possible for the tortoises to live outdoors for several more months each year!

Jill and Mila basking in the morning sun
Russian tortoises are hardy critters, and even when the air temperature is only 60 degrees, the ground temperature in a sunny spot is often 30 degrees higher. You can help this by placing a flat dark-ish rock (or several) into the area the sun hits first in the morning. I've also set up little cold frames (miniature greenhouses), which I built from polycarbonate scraps I scored from a local garden center for a whopping $5 for a stack large enough to make 4.
Greenhouse made from polycarbonate remnants
I simply taped the triangles together using foil ducting tape, and ta-daaaa! Instant slightly warmer, dry basking area! These are very simplified versions of a cold frame.

Amber, hanging out in her pyramid in the quarantine area
My infrared temperature gun is an important tool - I quickly check the ground temperature in several spots before bringing the tortoises outside in the Spring. In the summer, the ground temperature can actually rise to 140 degrees F on a 90 degree (air temp) day (in that case, it becomes necessary to hose down the tortoise yard to cool it).
I like this one by Etekcity.
I bought it on Amazon, and it has worked for 4 years without needing its battery changed. 
When night temperatures drop below 58 degrees F, I bring the tortoises in at night. Otherwise, they stay outside 24/7 unless it is raining so torrentially that I know the gutters will fail, sending a waterfall over the edge of the roof into the tortoise yard.
The tortoises dig in for the night. Then as soon as the sun hits the tortoise garden (around 11am, since it's on the West side of the house), the tortoises come out to bask in the sunny spots. They wander around, graze, explore, and soak. By afternoon it really bakes out, and they retreat to the shady spots under the bushes. In the evening, they come back out again for another snack, or just to take a walk.

Indoors I have to separate the tortoises into multiple tortoise tables, based on who gets along with whom (or doesn't). Several are permanently in solitary confinement indoors. Outside, there are so many sight barriers, and so much space, that I am able to keep the tortoises together in the large tortoise garden. I keep a close eye on them to make sure nobody is being ganged up on, and I have a 'time out' area set up for them if separation becomes necessary. In the Springtime, the males couldn't be in the same enclosure because they kept fighting. Now they have mellowed.

A different view of the tortoise yard. I have blueberry bushes, gooseberry bushes, and raspberries growing in there. I've limbed up the blueberry bushes to where the tortoises can't reach the fruit or leaves, so they just benefit from the filtered shade. They like to eat the leaves off the raspberry vines, but the fruit is picked by us humans. The gooseberry bush is related to the currant family, so the leaves are safe for the tortoises. We pick the fruit for ourselves. I like that the bushes fulfill a dual purpose - food for us humans, and shade for the tortoises.

I have dug a nice deep trench under the wall of the enclosure, which I filled with cement pavers, so I don't have to worry about the tortoises digging out of their enclosure. My male Roz is an especially avid digger - he makes burrows so deep I have to reach in up to my shoulder to get him out. The walls of the enclosure are capped so the tortoises can't climb out either. Because I am confident the tortoises can't escape, it isn't too scary for me when one of the tortoises disappears for a few weeks for a snooze. I know they are healthy and have had plenty of food, so if the weather is hot or cold, I allow them to burrow down as they see fit. 

Lady (the very dirty tortoise shown above and below) disappeared at the end of April, and didn't show up again until last week. She is a big, heavy girl, so I wasn't worried. She came back out and went back to eating as if there had never been a 6-week nap. 

I provide water in several flat containers, such as the plant saucer in the picture below. Normally, this container is actually sunken into the ground, but one of the tortoises decided to dig under it, which pushed it up and out.

Some tortoises that are normally picky eaters or have a shy personality really blossom when they are outdoors. Little Jill (who isn't so little anymore!) is a shy picky eater indoors. Outside she eats like a piggy, and even bosses the bigger females around!

I had just hosed down the tortoise yard (including the tortoises) the morning before I took these pictures, hence the tortoises are unusually clean. They normally spend their Summer as grubby little piggies!

Now that it is summer, the tortoise yard has been grazed pretty bare - however, finding healthy weeds is no trouble here in the beautiful, green Pacific Northwest, so the tortoises eat well.

This year was the first year that my tortoises had babies - Timmy and Roz produced 6 beautiful, healthy hatchlings. I am keeping 1 of them, and the others have all been dibsed. Here are a few pictures:

At only about a month old, the babies only spend about an hour per day outside. The baby below is little Duchess (Baby #2), which I am keeping. Eventually I plan to breed her with Duke (our CB male, who is NOT her father) to produce some fine CB2 Russian tortoises in years to come.

Finally, I just have to show off my Amber - she is just shy of 9" long and weighs in at a whopping 1874g. She's a big, big girl! (freshly hosed down in the pic below... I plopped Duke into the pic for size comparison. He's a 5" male).