Responsible Pet Ownership: A Big Job That Everyone Needs to Do

Having a pet can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in life. You can form bonds that can literally last a lifetime, especially if you have a tortoise or other long-lived species. Opening your home and your heart to an animal is wonderful. However, it is also an enormous responsibility. Being a responsible pet owner doesn’t just consist of making sure your pet has food and water. In fact, responsible pet ownership should begin before the animal ever comes home with you.  360

The first step to becoming a responsible pet owner is planning. Do you already have a specific type of animal in mind that you would like to have? Or perhaps you are looking for some type of companion animal, but are not really sure what type of animal would best suit your lifestyle? Either way, one of the most important aspects of the planning process is research. Every animal has different care requirements. Even different dog breeds have different needs.

Before you decide to get a pet ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I have time to care for an animal? For example, if you work or travel a lot, it probably is not a good idea to have a dog or bird or other animal that requires a lot of attention. Some animals need more attention and affection than others. It is not fair to the animal to be deprived of that because you are unable to give the necessary attention it needs. In some cases, lack of attention can even lead to behavioral problems, which let’s be honest, you probably won’t have time to deal with that either.  If you lead a busy lifestyle, there are plenty of lower maintenance pets out there that you can still form a bond with, but are also still happy to have their alone time while you are out and about.
  • Am I financially stable enough to pay for food, veterinary care (both preventative and emergency), toys (or other types of enrichment), and any other regular maintenance items the animal will require? PETS COST MONEY! Period. Food can be expensive. Veterinary care, especially anything unexpected, can be very pricey as well. If you are not independently wealthy and instead live on a budget then you need to decide how you are willing to spend your money. Is the animal’s care more of a priority than going out to dinner or buying a new pair of shoes? Can you afford decent pet food that will provide proper nutrition and still be able to pay your bills?  Do you have and are you willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars if your pet requires surgery or sustains a severe injury?  You should be willing and able to provide any reasonable amount of care that your pet may need.
  • Do I have enough space for the animal?
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    Hubrecht is slightly larger than my thumbnail.

    A great dane or a full grown sulcata tortoise will obviously need much more space than a bearded dragon or a cat. Make sure everyone can have a comfortable living space.

  • Will the animal grow significantly? This is mostly relevant to reptiles. A newborn sulcata might weigh all of about 15-20 grams. A red tailed boa might be a few inches long as a hatchling. And then they grow up…
  • Are there any specific habitat requirements that the animal will need such as temperature, sunlight or UV exposure, humidity, access to water for soaking or bathing, hiding areas, specific substrates, a water filtration system, etc? Herps are the perfect example for this question. Bearded dragons, crested geckos, and chameleons are all lizards and all have completely different habitat requirements. My electric bill is outrageous. I keep the house cooler for my frogs (especially the tinc), but to compensate for that, I have high wattage heat lamps on the tortoises and bearded dragons so that they are comfortable too. My torts, turtles, and beardies all also require UV light. Since I can’t have them outside all of the time, they also have UV lamps on top of their enclosures. All of these lights are on timers since my work schedule varies. At one point, I had to stop taking rescues because I had no more available electrical outlets in my home and if I had plugged in one more power strip, my circuit breaker probably would have exploded. I even had frogs in my kitchen because space was so tight (BTW, I ate out a lot during that time)
  • What type of energy level does the animal have and will I be able to give the animal enough exercise or room to run/move? A monitor lizard needs to move around much more than a pac man frog. A border collie generally has more energy and needs to run/exercise more than an English bulldog.
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    Phoebe lounging on her couch. There are definitely animals out there with lower energy levels.

    A puppy or kitten is more energetic (and mischievous) than its adult counterpart. Also if the animal needs to come out of its enclosure for exercise, do you have time to spare for supervised play time or a space for the animal to exercise unsupervised?

  • Who will be providing the day to day care and maintenance for the animal? When I worked in the pet store, customers would constantly ask questions like “What would be the best type of pet for my five year old?” If you are buying a pet for your child, please do not be one of those idiot parents who think that they will never have to deal with the animal and that it will be a great way to teach your child about responsibility. Your kid is a kid no matter how responsible your little angel is and at some point you will end up having to feed, clean, and exercise the animal. If you are not willing to help your child with animal care and set a good example then don’t get a pet.
  • What is the life expectancy of the animal? A hamster lives about 2 years. A cat lives 15-20 years. A large parrot about 60-80 years. And then there are giant tortoises… If you’re a commitment-phobe, get the hamster.
  • Is anyone in the household allergic to the type of animal you want to get?  I can not even count how many times people have told me that they have to get rid of their pets because they are allergic to them.  Not to be Captain Obvious here, but that’s something you should find out BEFORE bringing an animal into your home. If you’re not sure or have never had exposure to a certain type of animal, go to a shelter, a pet store, or friend’s house and spend more than five minutes around the type of animal you’re thinking of bringing home.  The animal has no control over someone’s allergies and should not have to be bounced from home to home because you did not exercise a little common sense.

All of these questions should be asked and answered before bringing home any type of animal, even a cat or dog. Once you’ve answered these questions and have determined that you can provide proper care, then please obtain your pet responsibly. I am a huge proponent of adopting rescue animals. Most of those animals are in need of homes because their previous humans didn’t do any research or planning and ultimately decided that they couldn’t care for the pet for one reason or another. Other times, animals end up in need of homes because circumstances change (i.e. their humans passing away or becoming too ill to care for them).

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I adopted Matilda through a friend from the local herp society

There are plenty of rescues out there. You just need to look for them. And usually you don’t have to look too hard. Almost every major urban area in the U.S. has a local herp society. Even if the herp society doesn’t have any animals for adoption, they can often point you in the direction of someone who does. Some shelters take in exotic animals too. Here in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds exotic pet amnesty day events throughout the state. People who have exotic pets that do not want them anymore can drop their animals off at a specified location with no questions asked. The animals are then examined by veterinarians. Once they are given a clean bill of health, the animals can be adopted. You have to fill out an application and be pre-approved to adopt from these events, but it is a great way to give a forever home to an exotic animal in need. If you are looking to adopt cats and dogs, there are thousands of rescues throughout the country, many even being breed specific.

If you decide to buy from a breeder, buy from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder should be able to tell you who the animal’s parents are, exactly how old the animal is (birthdate, hatch date), specific care requirements, and any known genetic health issues in the animal’s lineage. Reputation is also very important when choosing a breeder. The herp community is especially good about giving feedback on the reputations of breeders. There are many outlets to find reputable breeders for the type of animal you are looking for. Check out a species specific blog or go to your local reptile show and ask around. Also be sure to buy captive bred animals. There are very rare cases for experienced herpers to have wild caught animals, but for the average hobbyist, you should not be contributing to the depletion of wild population numbers for any reason, especially the pet trade. Again, buy responsibly!

And finally, ‘tis the season for gift giving and pets make popular gifts. Giving a pet as a gift may seem like a grand gesture, and may initially be well-received. However, if all of the above information is not taken into consideration prior to giving a pet to someone, the animal and the new pet owner may end up in a very unhappy situation. Though impulse buying plagues the pet trade throughout the year, it is much more prevalent during the holidays. We want to see someone’s eyes light up at the sight of a new pet, but that initial reaction may not last forever. Reality sets in after a while when there’s poop to clean and maintenance costs begin to add up. Please make sure you buy the right gift for your loved one and make sure that gift will always been seen as a gift and not a burden.

I realize that I am being rather blunt here and perhaps even a bit harsh, but there is a reason why shelters and rescue groups all over the country are at maximum capacity.  We need to understand that these animals are relying on us for survival and that they are not novelties or conversation pieces that we can easily dispose of when we tire of them.  They are living, breathing, emotional creatures who deserve respect and the best care we can possibly give them.  Please remember that before choosing to take on such an important responsibility.

 

For More Adoption Info:

FWC Amnesty Day Events

South Florida Herpetological Society Adoptions

Reputable Bearded Dragon & Crested Gecko Breeders:

Allgood Dragons

Emily’s Geckos

Enrichment: Providing Mental Well-Being for Your Tortoise

What is enrichment?  The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Behavior Scientific Advisory Group (BAG) defines enrichment as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history.”  But what the heck does that actually mean, right?  Most zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, especially those that are AZA accredited here in the United States, are focusing more and more on enrichment.  Basically they want to be able to stimulate captive animals to exhibit the same behaviors as they would out in the wild.  Stimuli can be anything from types of foods offered, to various scents in the habitats, to noises, to exposure to other species, to puzzles and toys, and so on.

There are an infinite number of ways to provide enrichment for animals.  Those of you who have cats and dogs probably provide enrichment all the time without even realizing it.  Do you ever give your cat a toy mouse to play with?  How about giving your dog a treat or a rope toy?  Toys can hone your pet’s hunting or foraging skills.  The various smells and taste of treats or catnip stimulate your pet’s senses too.

301Exotic animals in captivity require these types of stimuli as well, regardless of whether they reside in a zoo or in your home.  Even if you bought your tortoise or other reptile in a pet store, it is not domesticated and still has wild instincts.  Your exotic pet can develop behavioral problems and possibly even have a shorter life span if not provided with enrichment.

So the really big question here is what kind of enrichment can you provide for a tortoise?  If you walk into a pet store it’s easy to find toys for cats, dogs, birds, and even small animals like hamsters and guinea pigs.  But what about reptiles?  They don’t exactly chase catnip filled toy mice or play fetch.

But there are plenty of ways to enrich reptiles and stimulate natural behaviors.  Whether you have a baby tortoise in a glass aquarium or table top enclosure or you have a larger tortoise in an outdoor enclosure, one of the easiest ways to provide enrichment is to change the habitat intermittently.  If the enclosure has plants or a hide box, occasionally move them to different areas of the enclosure.  It gives the animal an opportunity to explore a changed environment.  I also like to make the substrate different depths or form slight mounds of substrate for them to climb over.  You don’t want to make the mounds too steep or high though.  We don’t want to cause the tortoise to accidentally flip over.  Providing various types of substrates in the enclosure is also great enrichment.  However, do use caution with the types of substrates you provide.  Some substrates can cause impaction or choking hazards.

You can also stimulate your tortoise’s senses by providing a variety of greens, grasses, weeds, and herbs in his or her diet.  I like to add fragrant herbs like cilantro, parsley or dill to the regular diet.  Cilantro is particularly popular in my house, not just with the tortoises, but also with the bearded dragons and birds.  Edible flowers are also a great form of enrichment.

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

They stimulate senses of taste and smell like the herbs, and are also bright and colorful which are very attractive to tortoises.  I frequently feed hibiscus and marigold.  I also have some nasturtium growing in the raised garden bed that will be ready to feed out in a few weeks.  If you have your tortoise in an outdoor habitat, try planting some greens, grasses, or edible flowers right in the enclosure for your tortoise to graze on leisurely.  Food enrichment can also be provided by changing the size or shape of the pieces of food given to the tortoise.  You can change things up by sometimes breaking or cutting food into smaller pieces and then other times leaving the food in larger pieces or chunks.

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

While most people wouldn’t blink at the idea of giving a cat or dog a toy to play with, I often get side-ways glances and raised eyebrows when I tell people I buy toys for my tortoises.I make sure to buy sturdy dog and cat toys so that they can’t eat or break them.  KONG dog and cat toys seem to work well for them.  I like to put some small treats like corn kernels in the KONG and let them figure out how to get the treats out.  One of the cat toys has a rattle inside of it that they like to push around and play with too.  I even put the toys in the bath tub with them sometimes so they have something to keep them occupied while soaking (my little ones seem to get bored after about 7-8 minutes of being in the bath).

Bath time with the toys

Bath time with the toys

You should always supervise your pet’s time with toys just in case the toy breaks or your pet is actually able to bite or chew the toy apart.  If you have a larger tortoise like a sulcata or aldabra, you can also try giving them a Boomer Ball.  They are a little pricey, but very sturdy for larger, stronger animals.

Behavioral conditioning helps stimulate cognitive brain function or basically keeps the animal’s brain active.  I have begun target training with my tortoises.  I did this for a couple reasons.  The first is that I know it’s a great form of enrichment for my tortoises.  The second is that, let’s face it, when my tortoises are full grown, I won’t be able to just pick them up and move them if I need to.  I have to have a way to get them from point A to point B that won’t break my back.  Because they’re small right now, I simply use a solid black pen with different colored pencil erasers as my target stick.  I use a pink eraser for Tambara and a yellow eraser for Kada.  I hold the target stick in place and say “(the tortoise’s name), target”.  When the tortoise goes to the target stick and touches her beak to the tip of the target stick she gets a kernel of corn as a reward.  I only use positive reinforcement training with all of my animals.  If she does the wanted behavior, she gets rewarded.  If she doesn’t do the behavior, she doesn’t get a reward, period.  I never shout, make scary noises, or hit my animals.  Negative reactions only cause your animals to be fearful of you and can damage or destroy any type of bond you have or may have in the future.  I will provide more detailed training information in a future post, but know that if you do want to train your tortoise or other reptile, it takes PATIENCE.  Reptile brains don’t work like mammal and bird brains.  They don’t react as quickly and you need to understand that to be successful.

And lastly, if you can socialize your tortoise, that is also a wonderful way to enrich him or her.  Though they are safely separated by a mesh enclosure, my tortoises spend almost all of their outside time with my bearded dragon, Matilda.  It’s great for all three of them to experience being around another species.

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

They also get to encounter a variety of wildlife when they hang out on the patio.  I have a squirrel, three cardinals, two doves, and what seems like hundreds of anoles that come to visit daily.  I also get the occasional snake or frog that stops by to get a drink after I water the garden.  The sights, sounds, and smells of other animals stimulates their senses and their minds in ways that no toy or food ever could.

Most zoos construct enrichment plans that detail what the goal of providing the enrichment is.  It’s not necessary to be that detail-oriented with your tortoise at home, but it’s still a good idea to make sure you provide a variety of stimuli.  It’s very easy to get into a habit of just giving different types of food and thinking that’s enough enrichment, but it’s not.  You want to stimulate the whole mind and body so that your tortoise stays happy and healthy.  If you have other enrichment ideas, please share with us.  I always like to hear about tortoises having fun.

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Kada visiting her neighbor, Odin, the bearded dragon

For more information on enrichment and enrichment items please visit:

AZA Enrichment Page

Boomer Balls

KONG Animal Toys

Happy, Healthy Eating

Kada really digs in to her pellets

Kada really digs in to her pellets

There are many different options for feeding your tortoise.  There are commercial pelleted diets and there are more natural diets.  I’m not completely against feeding the pelleted food.  There are a lot of vitamins and minerals packed into those pellets.  Many animals, even cats and dogs, do not receive proper nutrition.  So, if pellets help you provide a balanced diet for your tortoise then go for it.  However, along with the vitamins and minerals, there is a lot of other unnecessary stuff packed into those pellets as well.  Some of them are too high in fat and protein to be fed regularly.  Because of this, I do not recommend that commercial foods be a main staple of your tortoise’s diet.  I feed my tortoises Mazuri tortoise diet about 2-3 times per month.  I feed it for two reasons.  First, simply because they love it.  My tortoises like to eat (even things that aren’t food!), but they inhale the pellets. It’s like watching a kid enjoy a giant ice cream cone.  And second, it provides an additional type of food enrichment for them.  Commercial diets should not be the only source of food for your tortoise.  Again, mine only get some a couple times a month even though I feed them 3-4 times per week.

The more natural approach (and more healthy approach in my opinion) is to feed a natural diet.  Greens, grasses, hays, weeds, flowers, and herbs are types of foods that a tortoise would eat in the wild.  Currently I am growing a variety of greens in my garden.  I have a mesclun mix, arugula, red winter kale, endive, and romaine lettuce growing.  Dark, leafy greens are more nutritious.  However, greens such as spinach are high in iron and should be fed sparingly to avoid causing any health problems.  Dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are all good options that are relatively easy to find in a grocery store.  I also have hibiscus, marigolds, cilantro, dill, and parsley growing to add to the greens for enrichment.  There are several edible flowers that are relatively easy to grow at home, even on a patio or in a window box.  See my “Links” page for a list of safe plants and another list of toxic plants to stay away from.

Tambara digging into a fresh hibiscus flower

Tambara munching on a hibiscus flower

The tortoises also have access to hay every day, but I rarely observe them eating it.  I do still have to buy hay.  I definitely don’t have the means to grow any such crop on my patio, though I wish I did.  I most often feed them orchard hay, but will occasionally change it up with timothy, Bermuda, or brome hay.  You can buy bags of mixed hay at your local pet store.   If you happen to live near a feed store (supplies for larger animals like horses), check them out as you may be able to find more varieties of hay.

My little ones also get the occasional bits of vegetables as treats.  I have green beans currently sprouting.  Sulcatas and most other tortoises should not get treats like that too often though, especially anything too high in sugar.  These sweeter treats can actually damage or destroy the good gut flora in their digestive tracts.  Without this gut flora they will not be able to properly digest food which can lead to severe health problems.  The diet should be high in fiber and low in sugar.  So it’s best to avoid fruits and choose veggies carefully if you do want to give a special treat.

As far as supplements, this is a rather debatable topic among tortoise enthusiasts.  Some feel that if the tortoise is fed a proper diet, supplements are completely unnecessary.  Others believe that supplements should be added to food regularly.  I, personally, am in the middle.  The amount of supplements you add to your tortoise’s food will depend on the rest of the diet being fed.  Juveniles and females carrying eggs will need a little more calcium than adult males or females not carrying eggs.  How they get the vitamins is up to you.  I add a light dusting of Superveggie supplement powder by Repashy to their greens about 2-3 times per month.  Though I still give a supplement, it’s not too often.  Mine don’t seem to mind the powder on their food either.  I have heard from other tortoise keepers that their torts won’t eat if there is a powdered supplement on the food.  You might have to experiment a bit if you find you have a picky eater.

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No need for a big yard…just soil, water, sunshine, seeds, and love

The main reason why I started my garden was so that I can know exactly what is going on the food while it’s growing.  One suggestion to keep in mind if you do buy greens from the grocery store is to try to buy organic.  I know it may be a bit more expensive, but it will also be much better for your tortoises’ overall health.  While the amount of pesticides and fertilizers in produce may not be toxic to a 150 lb human, the amount of those pesticides and fertilizers could be toxic to a 150 gram baby tortoise, especially if that produce is 50%-90% of its diet.  And yes, I do realize that there are organic pesticides that can be used on organic crops.  However, many of them are still safer than pesticides that are not organic.  If you have the space to start your own garden, I strongly urge you to.  You don’t even need a big yard.  You can grow lettuce in pots on your patio or even grow some microgreens in small pots inside your house or apartment.  It will be so much healthier for your tortoise and it’s fun!

Some of the most important things to remember when it comes to nutrition for your tortoise are to provide variety, focus on the healthy stuff, stay away from sweets like fruit, try to buy organic, and make sure you are providing a good balance of vitamins and minerals in their diets.  Of course, if you have any questions or concerns, you should always contact a veterinarian, preferably one that specializes in exotic pets.  Happy, healthy eating to you and your tortoise!

How The Tortoise Garden Grew

I’m an animal lover to the core.  I always have been.  Even as a child I preferred the company of animals rather than that of people.  Growing up I had dogs, cats, turtles, gerbils, and mice. I didn’t have the pleasure of having tortoises in my life until adulthood.  In fact, the first exposure I had to tortoises was at The Baltimore Zoo (now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore) where I volunteered in the education department back in 2001-2003.  To be honest, they weren’t my favorite animals, but at the time I was not into herps in general (stay tuned for more on that in later posts).  Over the years, as a vet tech, I saw them as patients, but very rarely.  I also cared for them while working for a pet store chain (I’ll eventually get into that as well).  I still didn’t see the big deal.  Then in 2011, I came to The Palm Beach Zoo where I had the opportunity to work with three amazing Aldabra tortoises and well, I fell in love.

The gentle giants quickly became a favorite of mine and I spent every spare minute I had in their exhibit with them.  For me, spending time with them allowed me a little bit of peace in an otherwise chaotic and exhausting life.  With my new found love of tortoises, I began reading up on them as much as I could.  I spent hours searching for any information I could find from basic information, to ideal habitat conditions, to enrichment ideas, etc.  I couldn’t get enough of them.

Every August I attend the National Reptile Breeders’ Expo in Daytona Beach, FL. In 2013, I walked through the doors at 10:00 am when the doors opened and by 10:15 am I had two newborn Sulcatas in tow.  I was elated!  They were so ridiculously cute I couldn’t stop looking at them.  I want to be clear – I DO NOT ADVOCATE IMPLUSE BUYS when it comes to animals.  Though I was not planning to buy these little ones, I was very well aware of what I was getting into when I did decide to take them home with me.  That being said, I still had A LOT of research to do when I came home.  I had spent my time at the zoo caring for tortoises that were native to grasslands and swamps.  I now had a desert species with different needs.  So that’s how I got to where I am now.

Obviously, it’s more than a little difficult for most hobbyists to reproduce the exact habitat conditions of wild Sulcata tortoises.  So, with captive bred animals, herpers have to improvise.  I’m very fortunate that I live in sunny South Florida where they can get natural sunlight all year long.  But, when it comes to food, I don’t really have access to many of the native African plants that these little guys would make a meal of.  Sulcatas are herbivores, known for munching on pretty much any plant they can reach.

My babies, Kada and Tambara, were only about two days old when I brought them home (they both still had their egg tooth).  I happily fed them greens and hay like a good tortoise mom should.  But, over the weeks and months I began to wonder about store bought produce and pesticides. So I began buying organic greens for them.  Now, like most animal people, I am not made of money so as the tortoises began growing (rather rapidly) so did my grocery bill.  I started playing with the idea of starting my own garden so that not only could I decrease my weekly grocery bill, but also so I could know exactly what types of chemicals were being used or not used on the food that these tiny little animals were ingesting.

What’s the big deal about starting a garden, right?  Well, for me it was a very big deal.  You see, some people have a green thumb.  Plants flourish under the care of an elite group of people.  I was not one of the elite, not even close.  In fact, I always told people that I didn’t have a green thumb, but instead a black thumb.  Plants generally died if I so much as looked in their general direction.  I could nurse an animal back from the brink of death, yet suck all of the life out of a thriving plant with one touch.  It was quite remarkable, but something I was not proud of.  So for the sake of my tortoises, I decided to sacrifice a few good plants and try my hand at gardening.  It was a pretty rough start, but over the last year and a half I’ve managed to learn a few things and even grow a couple veggies in my tortoise garden.

So I guess you could say my blog is about tortoises, gardening, and the lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) from both.  Enjoy!