Can Dogs and Tortoises Co-exist
Frequently, when we get questions about pets and wildlife interacting, the worry is about how local wildlife can harm our furry family members. While, this is a concern, in the Tampa Bay area it is more common that wildlife is injured by our domestic pets. The decrease in songbird populations being linked to outdoor cats is certainly well documented, but we want to address another concerning wildlife injury we’ve been seeing lately-tortoises attacked by dogs. In most of these cases, the dogs are not aggressively trying to injure the tortoise, rather, they are most likely playing, and their sharp teeth damage the tortoise’s shell.
The tortoises we share our neighborhoods with tend to live in half-moon shaped burrows. They are generally passive and do not make aggressive moves towards our pets. Many times, dogs will be surprised by the “moving rock” in their backyard and will use their mouth to investigate. This can result in severe damage to the tortoise and we commonly see fractured shells, damaged lungs, and broken limbs associated with dog bites. The lungs of the tortoise lie directly under the top shell, or carapace and are easily punctured by a crushing bite. Many of the injuries require extensive treatment and a long (many months) recovery, in some extreme cases it may even require amputation of a limb. Depending on the extent of the injuries, some tortoises can never be returned to the wild and are kept in refuges for education. Unfortunately, frequently, the damage caused by these dog bites can result in injuries too severe to treat and the tortoise must be humanely euthanized.
Keeping our Tortoises Safe
Dogs can be trained not to interact with tortoises by using positive reinforcement techniques such as rewarding them with a treat when they see but do not pursue the tortoise. Ideally, you would train your dog to come to you when they have found a critter in the yard. This training can be extended to include tortoises as well as snakes or even rodents which may carry potentially harmful diseases. By investing a little time in this type of training, you may simultaneously protect wildlife and your pet. Until fully trained, it is ideal to keep your dog on a leash when outside in an area where we know tortoises are present. If you have a tortoise on your own land, consider creating barriers between your pet’s normal play area and the tortoise’s burrow. Once again, this may better protect both the tortoise and your pet. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species and share their burrows with over 350 species called commensals, meaning one species benefits without harming the other, and they include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Both the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the federally protected eastern indigo snake have been known on occasion to take refuge in tortoise burrows and may strike an overly curious canine. If you are setting up barriers, keep in mind that the tortoise should always be able to move freely to and from their burrow. Gopher tortoises are a threatened species and it is illegal to take one as a pet, harass them in any way or to destroy their burrows.
What If You Find an Injured Tortoise?
If your dog does attack a tortoise, or if you just find a tortoise that has been injured, it is essential to seek care for it as soon as possible. It is important to note that only permitted wildlife rehabbers are legally able to accept responsibility for the care of these animals. You should not attempt to repair its wounds on your own. Another important note is that you should never move the tortoise to water as they are terrestrial animals and are not adapted to water.
You can reach Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife via call or text at 813-598-5926. The rehab organization will triage the tortoise and arrange for veterinary care if needed.
Dr. Churchill is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Veterinary and has been practicing for over 8 years. She has a wide range of experience with both domestic animals as well as wildlife. Dr. Churchill currently works at West Park Animal Hospital, which serves Westchase, Keystone, Odessa and Oldsmar and the surrounding communities of Tampa.
Danielle Churchill, DVM
Special thanks to Kelley Caton of Kelley’s Dog Blog for the use of her photo of Jedi investigating the gopher turtle on one of their many walks.
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If you happen to find any wildlife in trouble, please report it to Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife, a Federally and State Permitted Rehabilitation & Non-Profit Organization. The fastest way to reach us is by texting (813) 598-5926 and we will dispatch a volunteer as soon as possible.
Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife https://owlsnestsanctuaryforwildlife.com/