Tortoises are not very prone to digestive upsets but it pays to take care of their diet and if you remember just a very few basic things then they should have no problems. Constipation is usually because the tortoise is dehydrated, diarrhoea is often because it is suffering from worms or has had too much fruit in its diet. Sensible feeding and cleanliness of the environment are the basic keys to making sure that the animal’s gut flora remains balanced and with frequent baths for hydration that should be all the tortoise needs to stay healthy and free from gut problems.
In the wild, a tortoise is an omnivore when pressed by circumstances, but by inclination it is a vegetarian. Feeding it only one thing, such as a proprietary dried food, even if it is soaked first, is not good for it. For a start, it is usually very high quality nutrition and in the amounts that the average tortoise eats in one day will be very bad for it. It is best to try and replicate the diet it would have in the wild, which means very little fruit, nothing cooked and also a good selection of many different textures and colours. A regular soak is the best way to make sure that your tortoise does not get constipated and the rule here is to always supervise a tortoise when it is in water and keep it so that its head does not go under. If the constipation is already a problem, the bath can be deeper, over its back if it will tolerate it and the best way is to hold it at an angle so that the back end is well and truly under water and the head is clear. The water should be hand warm. This often has dramatic results in resolving constipation, so be ready for that!
Preventing diarrhoea in tortoises
Oddly, much the same advice pertains as for constipation and diet is the key. As long as you are sure that your tortoise does not have worms, the main way of preventing diarrhoea is to keep fruit to a minimum and feed processed foods according to the instructions on the pack. If the tortoise has diarrhoea it is best to take it to the vet at once, especially if the stool is very loose or is tarry and black. A tortoise can dehydrate very quickly and can become ill and prone to other infections. If the tortoise is ranging free it is not always possible to tell quickly whether it has diarrhoea, but if it has it will usually be quite miserable and there may be faeces or wetness around its tail.
Treating bowel problems
Treatments for constipation and diarrhoea are again surprisingly similar, in that changing or at least addressing diet issues is the key. Increasing fibre is often all that is needed to treat constipation, with additional bathing and soaking to help hydration. If the diarrhoea is persistent or foul smelling then it is really important to take the tortoise to the vet – unless you know that the animal has eaten too much fruit or something which will have made its stools loose, it is better to take no chances. If the constipation does not ease after a day or so it is also wise to visit the vet. Sometimes tortoises eat stones or other indigestible things as they wander round the garden and these can impact the gut. No amount of soaking or fibre will shift these and indeed if the bowel gets too active with the additional fibre, it may actually cause damage if the blockage is implacable.
Get to know your tortoise
The best way to prevent constipation and diarrhoea from becoming a problem is to really get to know your tortoise and make sure that you touch base with it every day. If left too much on its own, a minor problem can become quite serious by the time you notice it and anyway, you will not notice small changes in bowel habit unless you get up close and personal with the tortoise. There is no need to physically examine it every day, just make sure that you see at least one stool a day and that you have a rough idea of the animal’s timetable. That way you will be able to be present at feeding if you suspect there is a problem and may even witness the passing of a stool. This can be very helpful because a constipated stool can look quite normal a while later, especially if it gets wet or trampled. When and if you take the tortoise to the vet with this problem, it will help the treatment of the animal enormously if you can give details of its lifestyle. This will include what it eats, its average activity levels, how much it sleeps, how many times it defecates and urinates and any problems it appears to have with pain at these times. This may seem like animal husbandry at its most basic, but it could save your tortoise’s life.
Diet is very important and there are any number of ways of getting advice, but commonsense is the best guide. Trying to replicate as much as possible the tortoise’s natural diet is certainly a good starting point, but if you can let it wander round the garden and choose for itself you might be surprised at what it will eat. Bramble ends are very succulent and many tortoises love them, as well as ice plants, rose suckers and pansies. The lawn will get mown as well, but perhaps a little too slowly to be of any practical help!