How to Care for a Pet Tortoise
Tortoises are often common choices as house pets. Before you go out and adopt a pet tortoise, however, it is important to know the basics of looking after a tortoise. Although they are known to be long-lived animals in the wild, they need special attention and care to live out healthy and long lives in our homes.
This AnimalWised article brings together all the information you need on how to care for a pet tortoise, including key aspects such the different species of tortoise, legal and environmental issues, diet, housing and more. It is necessary to understand all these details so you can provide your reptilian friend with the best possible living conditions.
Choosing a pet tortoise
Tortoises are reptiles that, along with turtles, belong to the Testudines order. Unlike turtles, however, tortoises live on land and are herbivorous reptiles. They are among the most ancient reptiles still alive, having lived on the earth since the Triassic period over 200 million years ago. Tortoises also among the longest living animals in the world, with an average lifespan of 80 years, although some live up to 150 or 200 years. Another key characteristic that defines tortoises is the hard shell on their backs that protects them from predators.
Choosing a pet tortoise requires a lot of research. Since they live for so long, deciding to keep a pet tortoise means committing to a providing it lifelong care. People often mistakenly believe that pet tortoises do not need much attention. However, this is not true. Pet tortoises need plenty of space, a varied environment, and a proper diet to live long and healthy lives. In addition, individual species may have different needs in terms of food, environment and care. Keep reading for everything you need to know about caring for pet tortoises, to make sure you provide them the best possible life.
It it legal to keep a tortoise as a pet?
Tortoises can be kept as pets although there are certain important factors you should keep in mind before deciding to get a tortoise as a pet. Wild tortoise populations across the world have been falling steadily due to unethical hunting practices, habitat loss and, unfortunately, the illegal pet trade.
In fact, the exotic animal trade has led to an increased demand for turtles and tortoises as pets. Poachers and illegal trading have contributed to population declines, which is added to by the demand from pet guardians. Even pet owners with good intentions can inadvertently contribute to endangering tortoises, if they don't do their research first.
Therefore, it is crucial that you get a pet tortoise from a reliable source. This means you must research the place beforehand to make sure that the person or animal home is legally registered, not involved in poaching, and does not trade in endangered species. Furthermore, be sure of the species of tortoise you are adopting and make sure it is neither endangered nor illegal in your state. Check the official laws regarding ownership of exotic animals before you make your choice.
Finally, adopting is always a better choice than buying a pet tortoise, and it is a good idea to pick a bred or domestic tortoise over a wild one. Choosing a tortoise bred in captivity will also help ensure that comes to you healthy and free of diseases. As you can see, thorough research is imperative when choosing a pet tortoise.
Types of pet tortoises
If you need some more help choosing a pet tortoise, here are some of the common breeds or species of tortoises kept as pets:
- Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii): the Russian tortoise is among the smaller tortoises, measuring only about 20 cm. Russian tortoises are often trapped and taken from their original habitats making them a vulnerable species according to the IUCN. So, make sure you only get an individual bred in captivity. They require a terrarium, feed on plants and may hibernate in winter.
- Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca): originally from Africa and Europe, this species is also called the spur-thighed tortoise, and is found all over the world today. They have diurnal sleeping habits and a vegetarian diet. Greek tortoises are friendly and therefore frequently chosen as pets. However, in captivity they can live over 80 years so keep in mind that your tortoise may well outlive you.
- Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni): this is another popular breed or species of pet tortoise, and is originally from Mediterranean Europe. They are a ‘near threatened’ species according to the IUCN Red List, so be sure that you get an individual bred in captivity and not caught in the wild. They require a terrarium of at least 2 square meters in area.
- Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata): this species also beings to the groups of Mediterranean tortoises and is easily available in captivity, making for a good pet. It measures up to 30 cm in length and its diet is herbivorous. They require a lot of light during the summer, and they often hibernate in colder seasons.
Other common tortoise species kept as pets are the red-footed tortoise, sulcata tortoise, leopard tortoise, and others. To learn about more breeds of pet tortoises, consult this article on types of pet tortoises around the world. Remember that once you know the breed of your tortoise it is important to research its specific care needs and requirements as these can vary significantly between species.
What to feed a pet tortoise
As we have explained, tortoises are mostly herbivorous reptiles, though some species are omnivorous. Their diet is based mainly on foods of plant origin. Tortoises that are completely herbivorous should be given a diet high in fiber consisting of a mixture of leafy greens, grasses and hay along with with other vegetables and fruits.
Most of the tortoise's diet should come from vegetables such as zucchini, beetroot, turnip, lettuce, spinach, celery, cabbage and watercress. Others such as carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and pumpkins should be given only occasionally and in small proportions, as excessive intake can cause health problems. Fruits should also be given in limited portions. Apples, watermelons, figs, pears, melon, strawberries and figs are fruits you can feed a pet tortoise. If possible, try to include some wild plants such as dandelion and alfalfa for example. Never feed your tortoise cat or dog food. Always check with a veterinarian to determine the exact diet and quantity suited to your individual tortoise.
For omnivorous tortoise species, they will need some protein of animal origin in their diets. This should make up a maximum of 5% of the diet, as too much protein can be harmful.Insects, mollusks or worms are among the options you can choose from. Remember to thoroughly research the dietary needs of your species of tortoise. Once again, we recommend you consult a vet specialized in exotic animals if you are unsure about whether to give your pet tortoise animal protein and how much.
It is also very important to provide tortoises with enough calcium. Keep in mind that a good source of calcium is crucial for the correct development of a tortoise's shells and its bones. You can ensure your pet tortoise gets enough calcium by giving it calcium supplements specifically designed for domestic tortoises such as processed eggshells or cuttlefish bones. These can be dusted over the tortoise's regular feed, always keeping to the recommended doses for your tortoise species.
How often should you feed a tortoise?
The frequency of feeding for a pet tortoise depends on your preferences and hourly availability. The important thing is to ensure is that that the food provided covers the tortoise's daily nutritional requirements correctly.
Thus, there are owners who prefer to distribute the tortoise's feed in smaller rations throughout the day, while others prefer to provide a single, more abundant, ration and leave it to the tortoise to self-administer its intake and eat as often as it likes. It is essential to always comply with veterinary advice, so if the vet recommends a specific schedule, you should try to follow it.
How much water should you give a tortoise?
Tortoises need to have a permanent source of clean, fresh water that is easily accessible. However, some tortoises don't drink enough on their own. In these cases, a diet of vegetables rich in water is usually recommended. That said, it is best to encourage the tortoise to drink water directly. Make sure that their container or drinking fountain is cleaned and replenished daily.
Housing a pet tortoise - the terrarium
Proper accommodation is also an essential part of caring for a pet tortoise. Enclosures or tanks for tortoises are known as terrariums. The terrarium for a tortoise must be large enough for them to move in freely, allowing them enough space for activity. A good rule of thump is to have a terrarium 5 times larger then the tortoise. They can be located indoors or outdoors, although if weather permits a tortoise will be most happy outdoors.
Even indoors it is advisable to place the terrarium as close as possible tonatural sources of light and heat, such as a window or balcony. This ensures that the temperature of the terrarium does not drop too low and that the tortoise receives enough natural light. Tortoises are cold blooded, so they cannot keep themselves warm.
In fact, maintaining ambient temperature, humidity and luminosity of the terrarium are crucial to the tortoise's well being. To control these parameters, special full-spectrum lamps can be used when natural light is not available. These lamps allow the tortoise to have the approximately 10-12 hours of light it needs daily. They also help to maintain the temperature of the terrarium.
The ideal temperature for most tortoises is between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius during the day, with a 5-10 ºC decease during the night. Keep in mind that these values may be different depending on your species of tortoise. If temperatures fall too low, tortoise may begin to show signs of lethargy and flattening typical of hibernation. For more information on hibernation in tortoises, check out this article on turtle hibernation.
A good terrarium for your tortoise will have proper ventilation and solid construction to make sure the tortoise doesn't escape or dig its way out if kept outdoors. Include plants, rocks and soil to simulate the natural environment and give the tortoise places to explore. You can also include an aquatic space, such as a shallow pond. In addition to being a source for drinking water, this is is useful in the case of tortoise species that like to soak in the water.
Substrate for tortoises
Another basic element of the terrarium or tortoise pen is the substrate used. This is where the tortoise will spend most of its time, you should choose carefully. There are various substrate options available, with different ones being more or less adequate depending on the species of tortoise. On one hand, there are natural substrates, such as sand, foliage or earth. On the other, there are alternatives such as newspaper. In all cases, we recommend that you choose a substrate composed of large, non-toxic or non-irritating materials, which will not cause damage if ingested by the tortoise. The material should also be absorbent, otherwise urine will become a problem.
Whichever substrate you choose, remember that it has to be changed regularly. Cleaning the terrarium regularly to remove feces and urine soaked substrate is key to maintaining adequate hygiene. This will ensure that your turtle stays in comfortable and healthy conditions.
Diseases in tortoises
Tortoises, like all other animals, can get sick for a number of reasons. If you notice any of the following symptoms, take the tortoise to the vet immediately:
- Changes in appetite
- Swelling in the eyes
- Liquid coming from eyes, mouth or nose
- Coughing or sneezing
- Spots or discoloration or other abnormalities in the shell
- Swollen joints or difficulty moving
For more information about diseases in tortoises and how to treat them, consult this AnimalWised article on common diseases in turtles and tortoises.
If you want to read similar articles to How to Care for a Pet Tortoise, we recommend you visit our Basic care category.
- Ernst, C. H. and Barbour, R. W. (1989). Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. (1996). Testudo horsfieldii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1996: e.T21651A9306759. Retrieved on November 18, 2019.
- Uetz, P. and Hošek, J. (eds.). Testudinidae. Reptile Database Reptarium: Retrieved on November 18, 2019.
- Van Dijk, P. P., et al. (2004). Testudo hermanni. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2004: e.T21648A9306057. Retrieved on November 18, 2019.