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Anna, Reptile Expert, Biologist
Category: Reptile
Satisfied Customers: 11418
Experience:  Have owned turtles, snakes, amphibians, and lizards. Study and provide habitat for wild herps.
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I have a 22 year old russian tortoise that was given to me.

Customer Question

Customer: Hi, I have a 22 year old russian tortoise that was given to me. She has swollen hind legs and drags them when she is moving around. I have a 5 year old female russian tortoise, so I know this isn't normal. The new tortoise is eating well, I feed them spring mix, lots of kale, some parsley, and occasionally apples, pears, strawberries,carrots for a little variety. Neither will touch the commercial tortoise foods. I brought her to a vet, thhat was supposed to have some expertise in reptiles and was given a calcium supplement that she hates- she will stop eating if its put on her food. I alternate a heat lamp at night and UVB lamp during the day. Im assuming that she has normal droppings but haven't seen her go.
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Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Reptile
Expert:  Anna replied 1 year ago.

Hello and welcome. Thank you for requesting me. I apologize for the delay. I was not online at the time you posted your question, and am not sure why I was being shown as online. I just logged on and saw your request. Do you know what kind of care the tortoise received before you got her - UVB light or not, food, etc.? Who was the vet you saw? Thank you.

Customer: replied 1 year ago.
She was seen at All Creatures Animal Hospital in East Amherst NY. I am not sure of her exact diet, but she was given to me with grassland tortoise food (zoo med brand) and I had shared our tortoises food lists with the owners a year ago. We have had her for 3 months now and she is eating a diet that is high in Kale and other Calcium rich foods. She's not as active as our younger tortoise, but does get around without using her hind legs. She also came with her own UVB light, I know they used it.
Expert:  Anna replied 1 year ago.

Thank you for getting back to me. I'm working on your answer, and will post it as soon as I have it typed up. I'll be back shortly.

Expert:  Anna replied 1 year ago.

Thank you for waiting. This tortoise has classic symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), so the vet was on track with a calcium supplement. However, that doesn't go far enough. I recommend that you get a new UVB light as soon as possible. We don't know how old the present one is. The lights give off visible light for years, but after about 6 months, no UVB light is emitted. Since UVB is invisible to us, we aren't aware of this. Also, if a coil/spiral bulb is used, they are inconsistent in output. They may put out enough UVB to damage the eyes, or so little that MBD isn't prevented. I recommend the Reptisun 10.0 in the straight tube style.

Also, pick up a cuttlebone. These are sold in the bird department of pets stores and are very inexpensive. Just place it in the enclosure. Don't use the holder that comes with it. Most tortoises will eat cuttlebone, and that is a good source of calcium. Kale, and a number of other so-called calcium rich foods actually promote MBD. The calcium they contain is in the form of an oxalate, which binds calcium to a form the body can't use. That leads to a deficiency. I suspect you got your information on feeding from a pet store, an outdated book, a misinformed breeder, or a less than reputable website. Unfortunately, such information is often incorrect. Those commercial foods are worthless. Tortoises need a high fiber diet. Greens are important, but greens alone don't contain enough fiber. Hay and grasses should be a big part of the diet. Buy some tasty varieties of hay. Oxbow packages high quality hays for pets. I found one company that will ship Oxbow products. The botanical blend would be best for tortoises because it has a mixture of hays and herbs:

Of course, greens such as dandelion, collards, and turnip greens are also good, but your tortoise really needs the fiber found in hays and grasses.

You can read much more about diet at the following reputable site:

The same site has a good care sheet:

The only way to reverse MBD is to provide both calcium and UVB. If your tortoise won't eat the cuttlebone, you'll need to find a vet who can provide an injected form of calcium. The vets you saw are actually reptile vets, and they should be able to help with this.

If you have more questions, let me know in a REPLY. I hope you'll be able to nurse the tortoise back to health.


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