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Stress in chelonians (tortoises, terrapins and turtles)

02 June 2017
11 mins read
Volume 8 · Issue 5


Chelonians are not commonly seen in general veterinary practice. Stress, distress and pain can be very difficult to observe or measure in this group of reptiles. As ectotherms they are totally reliant on the captive environment for provision of suitable conditions to maintain good health and wellbeing. This is essential to avoid environmental stress in chelonians. Stress in captivity is likely to be chronic, and is often due to poor husbandry or environmental conditions. Transportation, treatment and handling could also lead to acute stress episodes. Any treatment, extended stay or handling at the veterinary practice requires provision of suitable accommodation, which is often not available.

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act requires keepers, (and those with temporary responsibility), to ensure that captive animals are provided with:

Failure to meet these needs causes significant welfare issues. For tortoises, turtles and terrapins, the environment required is species-specific and will vary considerably. Table 1 shows the chelonian/testudine species, their natural habitats and feeding habits referred to in this article. Natural environments include desert, open savannah, Mediterranean hillsides, Russian steppes, freshwater, tropical rainforest and oceans. While animals in the wild will be subject to environmental stresses, the habitat must provide sufficient opportunities to keep these within manageable limits, otherwise the species could not exist in that locale.

Maintenance in captivity, to prevent stress and to maintain good health, requires that the conditions and husbandry mimic the natural environment, providing as much enrichment as possible. Enrichment in the captive environment could include provision of a variety of substrates, surfaces and slopes; microhabitats through use of plants, rocks, shade, shelter; opportunities for basking, hiding, burrowing as illustrated in the outdoor enclosures in Figure 1 and Figure 2. This often means providing both an indoor (Figure 3) and an outdoor habitat (the former for use in colder weather; the latter for warmer summer days).

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