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How to Take Care of a Pet Tortoise (Care Sheet & Guide 2021)

Nicole Cosgrove

May 6, 2021

Introduction

Tortoises are fascinating animals that, with proper care, are often known to outlive their owners. In fact, some of the oldest animals on the planet are tortoises! But tortoises don’t live long lives if they don’t get appropriate care. Many people get tortoises without fully understanding their care needs and unwittingly shorten their lifespan. If you have a new tortoise or are considering getting one, here are the things you need to know!

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Tortoise Facts

tortoise pet_Amaya Eguizábal_Pixabay
Image Credit: Amaya Eguizábal, Pixabay

In 2010, evidence was found in Britain of one of the earliest tortoises kept as a pet sometime in the 1800s. Owning tortoises dates back to the 1600s but it’s thought that prior to the 1800s, tortoises were only kept as food animals. There are 49 species of tortoises on the planet, and they range in size from 4-6 inches to over 3 feet long. Tortoises can weigh anywhere from 10 pounds to almost 1000 pounds.

Tortoises are known as some of the longest living animals on the planet and are considered to be the longest-lived vertebrates. The tortoise with the shortest lifespan, the Pancake tortoise, usually lives 30-50 years, while the enormous Galapagos giant tortoise can live to almost 200 years. The oldest recorded lifespan of a tortoise was an Aldabra tortoise named Adwaita that lived to around 255 years old. Harriet, a Galapagos giant tortoise, was believed to have been brought from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin and lived to be approximately 175 years old. Harriet passed away under the care of a famous family: Steve and Terri Irwin.

In case you were wondering, a group of tortoises is called a creep. Although, tortoises usually live solitary lives and it’s rare to see a group of them, especially in nature. You’re most likely to spot a creep in a zoo.

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Are Tortoises Good Pets?

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Image Credit: Onkel Ramirez, Pixabay

Tortoises make great pets…if you know what you’re getting into!

Once they feel safe and comfortable with you, your tortoise may approach you for food or scratches (yes, they feel touch on their shell!). However, they are naturally solitary and usually do not long for companionship from people or other tortoises, so don’t expect a particularly snuggly pet. You are likely to spot your tortoise out and about during the day, though, especially when it’s warm and sunny.

Tortoises don’t require a ton of day-to-day care outside of fresh water and food. You’ll likely spend more time balancing your tortoise’s diet to suit their nutritional needs and food preferences than you will providing direct care to your tortoise. Depending on your enclosure setup, your tortoise may need daily enclosure clean up. If your tortoise has a large outdoor enclosure, it’s unlikely they’ll need daily clean up.

Where Can I Get a Pet Tortoise?

Depending on what kind of tortoise you’re in the market for, you may have a really easy time or a really difficult time acquiring one. Many pet stores sell some varieties of tortoises, like Hermann’s tortoises and Russian tortoises. Other types of tortoises can be much more difficult to come by and will likely have to be purchased directly from a specialty seller online or a breeder. Sulcata tortoises are one of the most popular types of tortoises kept as pets but are difficult to come across in stores and will likely have to be purchased online. Interestingly, these popular tortoises reach over 100 pounds and have long enough lifespans to outlive their owners.

tortoise eating_congerdesign_Pixabay
Image Credit: congerdesign, Pixabay

How Much Does It Cost To Own a Pet Tortoise?

Your initial tortoise purchase will easily cost you $100-200 for the tortoise and supplies like a tank and food. However, that’s if you’re buying a tortoise on the low end of the cost spectrum. Some tortoises can easily cost you $1500 just for the tortoise. Your expenses are also going to vary depending on the size of the tortoise itself. You’ll likely purchase a tortoise at a small size, so your initial cost may be low. However, tortoises that get large will require large enclosures with plenty of open space and warm lighting, whether artificial or natural. Don’t forget that you’ll have to buy commercial tortoise food, calcium supplements, and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies for your tortoise.

It may be difficult to find a veterinarian that cares for tortoises, so it’s a good idea to check with vets in your area before you purchase a tortoise. One benefit of tortoises is they don’t require routine vet visits like many other pets do. However, this means that when you’re taking your tortoise to the vet, it’s likely because they’re sick or injured, which can easily cost you $100-1,000 or more.

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What Kind of Home Does My Pet Tortoise Need?

Enclosure

For small tortoises, a reptile tank will likely suffice. Large tortoises may require their own room or fenced off space. Ideally, all tortoises should have a safe outdoor space to spend time in as well. To set up an outdoor enclosure, you’ll need to make sure it’s protected from other animals and will keep your tortoise secure. The last thing you want is to check on your tortoise only to find them missing!

 Substrate

The substrate you use for your tortoise should be absorbent, so your tortoise isn’t left standing in waste. Coco coir, peat, and soil are all acceptable. Reptile substrate bark and mulch and coconut husk chips are all good substrates if your preference is something chunkier. For outdoor enclosures, your tortoise needs grassy areas and will likely enjoy having areas with dirt as well. Bermuda and Fescue grasses are recommended but not required. Make sure whatever grass or weeds are growing in the space are safe if your tortoise eats them.

 Light and Heat

For indoor enclosures, your tortoise will need lighting that provides UV rays. This helps with vitamin D production, which leads to calcium production. They also need a heat lamp that provides a warm space for them to maintain their body temperature. Ideally, you should have a light and a heat lamp, not one lamp for both jobs. The enclosure should have UV lighting in the majority of the enclosure, but the heat should be concentrated in one space, so your tortoise has the ability to go into and out of the space as needed.

 Accessories

Your tortoise won’t really require toys, but they will appreciate having an enclosure with different textures and things like caves and bridges or basking platforms. They also may appreciate plants or other items to rub against to scratch any itches.

 Food and Water

Your tortoise will need a dish that holds their water and is easy to clean so you can prevent algae and waste buildup. A food dish isn’t required, but it is a good idea because it will make clean up of leftover food much easier, allowing you to keep the enclosure hygienic.

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What Should I Feed My Pet Tortoise?

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Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay

Almost all tortoises are true herbivores, so their diet should reflect this. The base of the diet should be fresh veggies. On a daily basis, your tortoise’s diet should be approximately 80% vegetables, mainly greens. They are partial to things like mustard greens, collard greens, and dandelion greens. They can also have foods like sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and cauliflower. The diet should include fresh fruits like strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and melon. Fruits shouldn’t be offered daily, though.

The rest of the diet should be supplemented with a commercial tortoise food, which should be kept in the enclosure and fresh at all times. Calcium supplementation should be added to your tortoise’s food 2-3 times per week, depending on your tortoise’s calcium needs, which varies from species to species. A reptile multivitamin can be added once or twice a month as needed but talk to your veterinarian to make sure it’s age appropriate for your tortoise.

Your tortoise should always have access to fresh, clean water. Checking the water is especially important in outdoor enclosures to prevent evaporation and pests.

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How Do I Take Care of My Pet Tortoise?

Feeding

On a daily basis, you should offer your tortoise fresh veggies and free feed a commercial diet. Your tortoise will appreciate fruits and weeds, like dandelions and clovers, as well. Just make sure anything you pick is free of pesticides and wash it well. Fruits can be offered once or twice a week but shouldn’t be overfed. Other foods to offer as treats are things like alfalfa hay and calcium supplementation can be achieved with calcium powder, cuttlebone, or calcium blocks. If you have an omnivorous tortoise, like Red Foot tortoises, proteins should be offered sparingly weekly.

Handling

It’s unlikely your tortoise will appreciate being carried around, so this should only be done when necessary. Offering scratches and pets, especially during feeding time, will help build trust.

Shell Care

The most important aspect of shell care is providing adequate calcium in the diet. However, shells are part of your tortoise’s skeletal system, so it’s important to check it over for cracks and other injuries. Any shell damage should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Bathing

Your tortoise will only need a bath on occasion or when especially dirty. Bathing will help maintain health and hygiene, as well as improving hydration. A warm bath can also help a constipated tortoise get some relief.

Brumation

Brumation is a form of dormancy that is not true hibernation but is a period of torpor. Not all tortoises experience brumation, so check on the needs of your tortoise’s species. During brumation, activity levels and metabolism drop significantly, but your tortoise may be stimulated to come out for some sun and maybe a snack during warm days.

Enclosure Care

Your tortoise’s enclosure should be kept clean and hygienic. Absorbent or well-draining substrate should be changed out as needed and indoor enclosures should be wiped down routinely to prevent the build up of bacteria and waste.

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How Do I Know If My Pet Tortoise Is Sick?

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Image Credit: Capri23auto, Pixabay

Respiratory Illnesses

Tortoises will easily pick up respiratory illnesses, like pneumonia. If you notice a runny nose, labored breathing, swollen eyelids, or low appetite or activity level, then your tortoise should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Respiratory illnesses can advance in severity rapidly.

 Dehydration

Tortoises that are not being offered clean water or that are not consuming foods with water in them will quickly get dehydrated. The main symptom of dehydration is sunken eyes, but you may also notice a decrease in waste production. Mild dehydration can lead to constipation, but severe dehydration can lead to things like kidney problems and death.

 Malnutrition

If your tortoise begins to look swollen or puffy or you notice pasty or liquidy stools, then they may be malnourished. If you believe your tortoise may be malnourished, then they should be evaluated by a veterinarian. You will need to give the vet detailed information on your tortoise’s diet so they can help you make adjustments and rule out diseases causing malabsorption of nutrients.

 Shell Disease

Malnutrition, lack of sunlight, or a poor calcium: phosphorus ratio can all lead to shell softness and damage. It may even cause the shell to become malformed and misshapen. If you’re unsure the cause of the shell problems, talk with your veterinarian.

 Parasites

Tortoises that go outside are at risk for parasites. Weight loss, unusual stools, and evidence of abdominal discomfort can all indicate parasites. There are over the counter parasite treatments, but it’s a good idea to have your vet evaluate your tortoise to identify the parasite and the appropriate treatment.

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Conclusion

The top cause of illness and shortened life expectancy of tortoises is inappropriate care. Most people do not do this intentionally, but they are uneducated on the needs of tortoises. Before you get a tortoise, make sure you are willing to not only commit to the life expectancy of a tortoise but also to the nutritional and environmental needs required to keep them happy and healthy. Tortoises can make great, unique pets if you are educated and willing to provide them they life they need and deserve.


Featured Image Credit: Piero Di Maria_Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.