Friday 23 August 2019

Beware! Baby turtles can grow into giant reptiles

With Mr Swampy and, inset, a very cute and much younger reptile.
With Mr Swampy and, inset, a very cute and much younger reptile.
With Mr Swampy and, inset, a very cute and much younger reptile.

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

There are many myths in the pet world. Part of my brief for this column is to debunk the false beliefs that many people have about various issues in the animal world.

 This week's subject is typical: the mistaken idea that terrapins make good pets for children.

I can understand the initial appeal: baby terrapins are tiny (around the size of a two euro coin), and they have a charming appearance. The popularity of movies like the Ninja Turtles have made them even more appealing. Traditionally they are sold with a small tank, like a fish aquarium, with rocks and assorted toys to make it look more homely. Sadly, the cuteness stops within a few days of a terrapin arriving in a new home.

First, terrapins have specific, detailed nutritional and environmental needs. It isn't enough to leave them in their cold tank, feeding them flakes of 'turtle food'. If you do this, they live short, sad lives. Instead, you need to give them heated water, with a special light source over their tank so that they produce plenty of natural Vitamin D in their bodies. You need to feed them whole fish, guts and all, which tends to be too smelly and messy for many people. All in all, the correct husbandry of terrapins is enough to put many people off the idea.

Secondly, terrapins often carry Salmonella, a bacterial infection that can be passed on to humans. People need to remember to wash their hands after touching them. While this may be acceptable for adults, it is not the type of potential health hazard that parents want to have in their children's bedrooms.

Thirdly, if you do keep terrapins correctly, they grow bigger, and they keep growing bigger. They can end up being bigger than a dinner plate, and they can live for thirty years or more. Most parents don't think about this aspect when they first take on a 'cute' tiny terrapin. There is a serious animal welfare issue with terrapins being abandoned at rescue centres by owners who feel that they can no longer cope.

Dublin Zoo used to accept them as new residents, but the numbers grew so big that they now have to turn them away.

These days, people end up dumping unwanted terrapins in waterways and woodlands, where they live short lives before dying in distress.

Last week, I had a classic and extreme example of the terrapin-type scenario at my own clinic. One of my clients, Marc, was a successful terrapin keeper, looking after his pets in the optimal way. A friend of his came across an abandoned baby turtle, and he passed him on to Marc, since he knew that he'd look after the little creature properly. Marc was happy to take on the turtle, naming him Mr Swampy. He could tell straight away that the small reptile was not a classical 'Red Eared Terrapin', so he did some research. It turned out that Mr Swampy was a baby male Common Snapping Turtle, native to the Americas. It's a mystery how he ended up in Ireland, but Marc took on the responsibility of caring for him in the best possible way. He discovered some disconcerting facts: Mr Swampy was going to live for a hundred years or more, and he was going to grow much bigger than a terrapin.

At first, Marc kept him in a heated tank indoors, but as he grew bigger, he had to transfer him to a special large heated tank, measuring 5 foot by 7 foot, in a cabin in his back garden. He is fed turkey breasts, whole salmon and trout, and prawns. He loves swimming, but he isn't a cuddly pet: Marc soon discovered that Common Snapping Turtles are aggressive creatures, with a long muscular neck that can reach out and grab with the speed of a striking snake. Mr Swampy managed to bite Marc once, crushing his hand, and since then, Marc has been careful to stay well out of his reach.

Mr Swampy has thrived under Marc's care, and he has grown and grown and grown. Marc has had him for ten years now, and he weighs 24kg (nearly 4 stone). He is still growing, and at this rate, Marc thinks that he will have to set up an even bigger tank for him. He is like a giant turtle at this stage: nobody would ever have believed that the tiny mite who arrived a decade ago could have turned out like this. Mr Swampy is fortunate to have found an owner like Marc: many other people would have given up the expensive and time consuming burden of caring for him.

He has been a healthy turtle over the years, but recently, he has gone off his food, and Marc brought him to see me for a check up. As a vet in general practice, I have never seen a massive reptile of this type: it was like being presented with a dinosaur. I suggested that Marc should take him to a reptile specialist, but Marc wanted me to do an initial work up, and I was happy to do so. I love the fascination of working with a remarkable animal like Mr Swampy.

I checked him over, took an x-ray, and gave him some simple treatment. He'll be coming back for a review next week. Blood samples and more complicated treatments may be needed next. Hopefully his normal hearty appetite will soon resume.

If any parents out there are considering getting a terrapin or baby turtle: take a look at the photos of Mr Swampy, and think again! Pete uses social media to discuss some of the interesting cases that he sees in his vet clinic - see Pete the Vet on Facebook

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