What You Need to Know If You Have a Pet Tortoise

When many people think of tortoises, they picture decades-old creatures roaming the Galapagos islands, but they can show up in backyards, too, because tortoises make great pets. Low-maintenance, unique, and cute in their own hard-shelled way, tortoises can be a delightful companion for the right owner.1

Not turtle, not terrapin, tortoise

The first thing to know about tortoises is that they’re unique from their more popular relatives. Turtles are better known, but they have flatter, thinner shells and smaller legs that are more suitable for water. Terrapins are even smaller, so it’s the tortoise with their thick, curvy shell and trunk-like legs that takes the heavyweight in this family.2

Here to stay

If you adopt a tortoise as a pet, be prepared for a long-term commitment. Although they’re pretty low-maintenance, tortoises live 50 to 70 years on average, sometimes making it a century or more. The oldest tortoise on record is 175 years, so you may want to make plans for your tortoise’s care should they outlive you.3

Veggies only

Tortoises are foragers by nature, so roughage and leafy greens should make up the bulk of their diet. Occasional insects like crickets may be acceptable, but the majority of their nutrition should come from the same grass-like goodies they would find in the wild. Carrots, lettuce, and berries make for tasty treats, but never meatier products like dog food.4

Territorial tortoises

Tortoises are skittish of other company, especially other tortoises. They’ll likely get used to being hand-fed by people, but male tortoises never appreciate the company of potential competitors. If you’re going to own more than one male tortoise, give them their own living spaces, and don’t let them cross paths. Expect a fight if they do, with biting around the eyes and legs.5

Dig deep

It’s not advisable to keep your tortoise indoors, but they do need some sort of shelter. A large dog pen will suffice as a refuge, but if you plant any fenceposts, be sure to go deep enough that these strong diggers can’t push their way through. It’s also a good idea to give them two inches of sand and mulch bedding for burrowing. A high roof also helps, as they’re surprisingly good climbers.6

Warm and bright

In addition to a deep foundation and a high wall, tortoises need as much light as possible. As reptiles, they require a heat source to maintain their body temperature, so give them ample space to sunbathe or a UVA/B light if they’re indoors. They prefer a temperature of about 95°F, and some owners put heat lamps inside their shelters with a basking spot to keep them warm.7

Health problems

Part of the reason tortoises need light with their heat is to preserve their shells. Without UV light, tortoises can’t process enough calcium, so their bones and shells will become brittle and thin. Tortoises also frequently experience respiratory infections, often due to stress and inadequate lighting. A discharge around their mouth and nose is the first sign, and the best remedy is antibiotics and more sunlight.8

Tortoise types

There is a diverse array of tortoise species, and their personalities often vary accordingly. The most popular breed, Sulcatas, have a yellow-brown, spiky shell and are notorious for their curiosity, often wedging themselves in tight spaces and attempting climbs too steep to handle. More colorful varieties like the red-footed or leopard tortoise possess intricate shell patterns and are more sociable with other reptiles.9

Stay calm

Many of the tortoise’s health problems stem from stress, so do what you can to keep your tortoise calm and relaxed. Their biggest stressor is being too cold, so keeping them warm will go a long way toward that end, but handling them too much will make them anxious, too. Let your tortoise enjoy its leisure privately, and they’ll end up that much healthier.10

Ethical sourcing

Many tortoises species are endangered, due in part to unethical sourcing practices. If you’re going to keep one as a pet, it’s very important to get your tortoise from a reputable source. Avoid random pet stores that may have obtained them unlawfully. Word of mouth and organized tortoise shows are the best means of acquiring your own slow-moving family member; expect to pay between $150 and 500. Once you bring it home, you’ve likely found a forever friend.

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