Complete Guide For Pet Tortoises

Tortoises are interesting creatures that will definitely bring you joy as you watch them, potter, around. Tortoises are long-life animals with a very high life expectancy. The oldest recorded tortoise was 175 years old. The tortoise named Harriet was collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006 under the care of Steve Irwin in an Australian zoo. It is believed that the tortoise was likely about 250 years old as she wasn’t a baby when she was found.

Tortoises are for life pets as they can live for 50 to 100 years while caged. This means that you will have a friend for life. 50 to 100 years is a long time to care for an animal, and it means that you have to be willing and capable to commit to caring for these reptiles for such a long time. Some people have gone out of the way to include pets such as tortoises in their wills so as to ensure they are well taken care of even after their caregivers die. Tortoises are great and interesting animals to domesticate but also high maintenance as they are kept outside their natural climate. The task requires great commitment so as to achieve rewarding results.

tortoise AS pets

It is important to consider the type of tortoise and its pros and cons before deciding on the tortoise to keep as a pet. Different tortoises have different living requirements; thus, it’s important to choose one that fits your lifestyle.  Different tortoises prefer different temperatures, habitats, diets and grow to different sizes. The most common species for tortoises for pets include Sulcata, Russian, Greek, Hermann’s, and Leopard, Yellow Foot, Red Foot, and Indian Stars tortoises. Tortoises from hot areas have lighter colored shells than those from cooler areas. The easiest species of tortoise to care for are the Hermann’s, the Sulcata, and the Turkish Spur-thigh tortoises.

It is always wise to choose a captive-bred pet tortoise as the capture and shipping of tortoises from the wild can be appalling and stressful to the reptile, making them more susceptible to diseases.  When taking in a pet tortoise, you should check them for parasites and quarantine them for several days to ensure that they are healthy.

Be sure to do detailed research about the species of tortoise you are considering keeping before bringing them to your home. You should also consider the tortoise species you already have if you are not a beginner, as some tortoise species can be aggressive to others. Not all tortoise species can coexist, so you should carry out thorough research before settling on the pet tortoise to keep.

Housing arrangements for tortoises

Tortoises are fairly large pets that require a decent-sized enclosure, preferably an outdoor enclosure. Pet tortoises are better suited in warm climates than in cool climates. Consider where the tortoise is coming from before making their housing arrangement. Some tortoise species like to hibernate, and this greatly influences the type of housing arrangement to be made.

A fully grown tortoise thrives in an enclosure that is at least 50 gallons in volume so they can roam freely. They also require a well-ventilated and well-lit enclosure with a screened lid. These animals love to sun bask and are most active during the day. Your enclosure should be strategic to a place where there is abundant sunshine, or else you can light it for about 12 hours with a specially designed bulb that replicates the sun’s ultraviolet rays. If you want to observe the tortoises at night, consider getting a night-specific bulb that will not disturb their sleep.

Tortoiseshells are made from calcium. Vitamin D from sunshine is therefore essential to tortoises to prevent soft shells.  Soft-shelled tortoises are very rare in outdoor tortoises and can be treated by ensuring the tortoise has access to a steady light source.

An outdoor pen should be strong and ensure you bury your fences if you intend to keep a burrowing pet tortoise. Large tortoises are quite strong, and weak enclosures will not hold them for long. The enclosure should be roofed as some tortoises climb very well. Climb steps or other obstacles in pen might result in the tortoises tipping onto their back. The roof will also keep away predators like dogs and other intruders.

Outdoor or indoor enclosures?

For all captive animals, it is ideal for providing a home that is similar to their natural habitat, and therefore, the outdoor enclosure is the best option for tortoises. If it is not possible to keep them outdoor, ensure you set up an outdoor pen for at least some months in a year. Tortoises that can be kept indoors are hatchlings, ill tortoises, and those not healthy enough to hibernate. Indoor pen settings have limited space considering the fact that tortoises need space to be more comfortable.

A glass tank is not the ideal enclosure for indoor housing as they are small and poorly ventilated. Big tanks can be hard to move in and difficult to clean. Providing a temperature gradient for a tortoise might be very difficult unless the tank is very large of which is not the case in many situations. Tortoises also feel exposed and vulnerable in transparent enclosures and usually spend a lot of time trying to push through the transparent glass.

For the indoor enclosure, consider a homemade wooden enclosure called tortoise tables.  They are large wooden boxes with a lot of space and fairly short sides. UVA/UVB lighting and heat lamps can be suspended over the tortoise table for light and heat.

Plastic storage containers can be used for small tortoises that do not require space. These plastic containers are lightweight and easy to clean and also come in large sizes too. Ventilation may be an issue because of the tall sides, but many owners usually cut down the sides or drill holes in the container sides for more ventilation.

What are the temperature requirements for your pet tortoise?

Keep the enclosures damp and toasty so as to give the tortoise a homely aura that resembles their habitats in warm climates. The degree of heat and humidity varies with various tortoise species. For instance, the Greek tortoise thrives in slightly cooler and wetter environments with up to 80% humidity, whereas the Russian tortoise thrives in slightly warmer and drier environments with about 50% humidity. If you are keeping different species of tortoise, it is best to keep one side of the enclosure warmer with a high watt heat bulb and a nice flat rock for basking and the other side cooler with a shelter for the shade and privacy. Keep a thermometer at each end to monitor the temperatures. You can switch off the heat bulb at night and use a ceramic heat emitter for warmth.

It may be necessary to bring pet tortoises indoors overnight during cooler weather, depending on their climatic adaptation prior to adoption. Indoor housing can be a bit of a challenge for the larger tortoise species. Different tortoise species thrive in different temperatures.

For the Greek tortoise, the daytime temperature in the warm side of the enclosure should be between 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 to 85 on the cooler side. Nighttime temperatures should be between 65 and 75 F in the whole enclosure. The Russian tortoise requires a nighttime temperature of 65 to 75 F, a daytime temperature of 70 to 75 F on the cooler side, and 95 to 100 F on the warmer side.

What do you put in your tortoise enclosure?

Blending 2 or 3 inches of calcium sand with some soil or bark will make a Greek tortoise more comfortable and will feel at home. A 2-to-3-inch layer of coconut fire or bark bedding will help a Russian tortoise to feel right at home. Keep the environment exciting and with many areas for the tortoise to explore. Decorate the tank with lots of plants and sticks, and edible vegetables. Add some boulders and small trees for privacy and shelter, as most tortoises love to hibernate.

Uproot any threatening plants that could be poisonous to the tortoise or cause a stomach ache and clear away sharp, small, and inedible objects that may be accidentally consumed by the tortoises. The waters should be shallow as tortoises are not swimmers like turtles. Instead, add bathing dishes where the tortoises can have a little play in the water and also drink from them. Moist hides and dirt mounds are great choices for tortoise enrichment.

Always keep the space clean by scooping waste once a week and changing the bedding once a month.

Feeding tortoises

Tortoises are herbivores and feed entirely on vegetables. Tortoises require a variety of foods with a balance of roughages and calcium/phosphorus nutrients. Their diet should include green leaf vegetation and flowers and limit excessive fruit and cat or dog food. The diet should be in line with the foods found in the wild.  The best plants to feed tortoises are in the sunflower family and include the chicory, endive, escarole, radicchio, dandelion and lettuce. These two don’t have all nutrients required, so it is advisable to feed the tortoises a variety of plants.

Tortoises with gut parasites self-medicate with bitter, toxic plants like poppies and buttercups.  Healthy tortoises, on the other hand, prefer sunflowers because they are tastier. Cruciferous plants, in their chemical content and palatability, are in between the tasty sunflowers and the bitter poppies. You can also grow your own tortoise-friendly weeds in your backyard.

Tortoise diets vary with the species in question. Some tortoise species have voracious appetites and need large amounts of food.  When taking in a tortoise as a pet, you should also consider the time for daily food preparation and the cost of food for a tortoise.

Water for tortoises

Are you wondering how you will keep your tortoise hydrated all through? Baby tortoise needs to stay hydrated all through therefore should be soaked in water regularly. Bath the baby tortoise couple of times a week. The bowl of water should be shallow such that the head is above the surface and at a cool temperature. Adult tortoises should always have a fresh bowl of water. The tortoise will start drinking the water when it is hydrated enough. Consider buying a tortoise pool for your pets and keep it in their tank.     

Tortoise health

Tortoises, like all other reptiles, are prone to respiratory infections. Pet tortoises raised in the wild due to unsanitary conditions are more likely to suffer respiratory infections. A sick tortoise might exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Discharge from the eyes, mouth or nose
  • Swollen body joints
  • Less drinking or eating
  • Discoloured shell or other shell related problems
  • Loss of weight
  • Runny droppings for more than two days.
  • Hiding in the shell for a longer time than usual.

Respiratory infections are treated with antibiotics, so it is important to consult a reptile veterinarian when you observe the above symptoms in your tortoise. Keep the tortoise warm when it’s undergoing medication to boost its effectiveness.

Tortoises are likely to suffer Metabolic Bone Disease (MDB), which results from a calcium-deficient diet. Lack of calcium will show in the shell of a tortoise. If it’s a young tortoise, the shell might grow at a very slow rate. Older tortoises develop weak bones in their legs, leading to difficulty in walking and or suffering bone fractures. MDB is treatable, but the longer it persists lower the chances of recovery. To prevent MDB, ensure to feed your tortoise with a calcium-rich diet and expose them to sunlight or UVA/B rays.

Mouth rot, also known as stomatitis, is also a common disease in tortoises. It is caused when bacteria in the mouth gets into an open wound which in turn causes infection in the gum and mouth lining. Keep the tortoise water supply clean as you seek vet attention. Tortoises are also susceptible to parasitic infection and can be observed by the worms in their poo.

When you bring in a new tortoise pet, let it adjust to its new home for about four days before you handle them. Handling them immediately might cause stress to the animal. Also, maintain a high level of cleanliness with your tortoises. Proper sanitation is key to happy tortoises and keeps away bacteria that might harm the pets. Leaving old food, droppings, urines, and sludge in the enclosure is a sure way to invite bacteria. Clean your tortoise’s tank often, at least once a week.

The tortoise beak

The beak is an extension of a tortoises’ mouth which aids in eating and drinking water. Tortoises use their beaks to groom themselves and dig out food as well. The beak of a tortoise is very delicate and requires special care as they are prone to infections. If by any chance, the beak of your tortoise starts getting dry, chapped or cracked, you should trim them. An overgrown beak hinders the tortoise from proper feeding, and pulling its head into the shell becomes difficult. Beak overgrow varies with tortoises. Some need their beak trimmed twice a year, while others rarely require a beak trimming.

Consult a reptile veterinarian if you are not sure if the beak of your tortoise needs trimming. It is advisable that you have the vets trim the beak for you because if it’s done incorrectly, it causes bleeding, severe pain and disfigurement. Trimming a beak is stressful to the tortoise for at most one day.

To maintain the short tortoise beak ensure you feed the animal on a flat rock and offer them a cuttlefish bone.

Reproduction of a tortoise

Everything about tortoises is slow, starting from their growth, movement, and reproduction. Some tortoises don’t reach maturity until the age of 20 or more. Captive desert tortoises are discouraged from mating. If you are domesticating multiple tortoises, it is advisable to separate the sexes so as to prevent breeding. This is meant to control the population of these long-living creatures and also reduce stress among the animals. A tortoise can hatch up to 26 babies in a year, so if you do not control the breeding, there will be an overpopulation of tortoises.

Reproduction in tortoises is dependent on the size rather than the age of the tortoise. Female tortoises are ready to reproduce when the length of the upper shell is about 7 to 8 inches. This means that a wild tortoise might be 15 to 20 years old before it breeds, and a well-fed tortoise in captivity may breed in half that age. Courtship and mating in tortoises occur when they are not hibernating. The tortoise lays eggs with the clutch size wholly dependent on the size of the tortoise. The common clutch size consists of 6 to 10 hard-shelled, slightly oblong, dull-white, and ping pong ball-sized eggs. The eggs are incubated for 90 to 100 days, depending on the temperature of the nest.

Being a pet owner

A tortoise can learn to recognize their owners. It may take time, but eventually, the reptile can recognize its caregiver. They are smart animals and will know you by your scent, behavior, and scent. These animals associate their owner with food and security. Always pay attention to your tortoise and be patient with it. As you continue knowing each other more, you will create a bond that can stand the test of time.

As a pet tortoise owner, avoid lifting it a lot, and if you have to, hold it from the mid-section and not the feet when lifting. Always wash your hand before and after handling a tortoise.

What can reduce the lifespan of a tortoise?

As we have already discussed, tortoises have a very long life expectancy of up to hundreds of years. However, the life of a tortoise can be cut short by factors such as hunger and diseases.

Starvation and malnutrition are the slowest and saddest death for tortoises. It is usually painful and stressful to the animal, so always stay on top of your tortoise’s diet. Make sure you feed them the right diet to avoid poisoning.

Injuries, mostly from grotesque mishandling, are the next killer of tortoises. Tortoises do not fancy being picked up, so you should restrain yourself from the temptations of carrying the pet around. When dropped, they may injure their inner body, causing death. Children have been noted to contribute too much dropping of the tortoise. Keep your children away from the tortoise.

Diseases and illnesses also contribute to the death of tortoises. Diseases may arise as a result of poor sanitation, bad food choices, and lack of proper ventilation that causes MDB. They also arise from infected beddings and decorations or even hand with bacteria. Most of these diseases and illnesses can be prevented with proper sanitation and exposing the tortoises to the sun or UVA rays.

Behavioral characteristics of tortoise

Some species of tortoise enjoy living alone, and few others like having friends around. It is advisable to carry out thorough behavioral research about the species of tortoise you want to keep so as to design their living arrangements. Tortoises are territorial creatures and may not take too kindly interference by intruders despite them being other tortoises. Male tortoises, especially, cannot coexist as they fight too much and end up injuring each other. This mostly happens if there are females around. If you want to keep many tortoises, ensure you have a large enclosure that can accommodate the number your intent to keep without interfering with each tortoise’s territory.

Tortoise also portrays emotions just like other animals. These could be feelings of joy, sadness, fear, anger, jealousy, and anxiety. A scared tortoise pulls its head and limbs back into her shell, and others try to run. Tortoises are also capable of feeling pain, both emotional and physical. They wince when hurt, and one can observe feelings of sadness, loneliness, and grief in tortoises.


Tortoises are not aggressive in nature but are territorial and moody. On rare occasions, they may be triggered to be aggressive. Scenarios and situations where tortoises can be aggressive include:

Females when carrying eggs. Gravid females can sometimes feel threatened and feel the need to protect their eggs. When they feel threatened, they acquire an aggressive stance with their legs high and necks extended. The tortoise might hiss, bob their heads, or even bite the threats.

Two males kept in the same enclosure will most probably fight and show aggression against each other in an attempt to show dominance. They show aggression towards one another when they wish to mate with the same female tortoise.

A hungry tortoise can be an angry and fussy tortoise. If the food provided is not enough or not of their liking, the tortoises can become aggressive or choose to eat foods they only like disregarding their nutritional needs.

If incompatible tortoise species are kept in the same enclosure, the tortoise may show aggression toward one another—tortoise-like living with their own species and rarely mate with a different species.

A bored or under-stimulated tortoise appears frustrated and aggressive in the enclosure. It is wise to include balls and toys to occupy the tortoises and relieve them of stress. Tortoise, however, does not like human disturbance where you keep coming into their enclosure and touching them a lot. They need their space, so it’s better if you limit your interactions with the pet inside the closure.

To minimize potential aggression in tortoises, ensure you do not put two males together unless you introduce them to the enclosure at the same time so that none of them feels superior to the other. Also, add female tortoises to the enclosure with one male to avoid agitation from loneliness. During the mating season, avoid putting one female with two males as they will fight over her. Keep each species of tortoise in their separate enclosure. Pair tortoises of the same size together to avoid size superiority.

Ensure there is plenty of space to roam and burrow and also ensure abundant food supply in the enclosure—lower temperatures in the enclosure during the mating season to avoid the pre-mating aggression. When interacting with them, let them out of their enclosure, so they do not feel as if their territory is being invaded. Also, avoid overhandling the reptiles, especially if they are not well socialized.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Is tortoise good as children’s pets?

Answer: Tortoises are high-risk and high-maintenance animals. Children under the age of 12 are not recommended to keep tortoises as pets as they risk injuries and malnutrition. Children under 12 are not mature enough to understand the level of care and hygiene that a tortoise requires.

Question: How do I introduce my dog to my tortoise?

Answer: The best way is to first have your tortoise in a protected area and allow the dog to walk around it. Allow your dog to investigate the tortoise under your supervision. Provide a box to hide under if they get stressed, or alternatively, you can put them far back in the secured area if they retreat back into their shell. Never let loose both the tortoise and the dog without supervision, as the dog might attack the tortoise.

Question: How do you know a tortoise is enjoying your touch?

Answer: Tortoises are sensational animals and enjoy physical acts like rubbing and scratching. The shell of a tortoise has numerous nerve endings; therefore, they can really feel when you rub, scratch, or pat them. Observe how they react when you rub their shell or scratch their head gently. If they extend their neck out in a relaxed manner, it means that they are enjoying the act. They might also try to return the favor if they love what you are doing by clumsily rubbing against you or touching their nose to your hand. They also show affection by following you around and bumping against you for some pats. To encourage affection in tortoise’s you can talk to them and show them that you are seeing them.

Question: How do I know if my tortoise is happy?

Answer: An excited and happy tortoise willingly moves towards the center of its attention. The tortoise will run or move as fast as they can, and you can tell they are happy by the speed and surety of their movement. An excited and determined tortoise can never be distracted by anything. Happy tortoises will have their limbs and head relaxed out of the shell and just sited in one spot.

Question: How do I know if my tortoise is sad?

Answer: Unhappy or bored tortoises are destructive in nature. They become unruly when bored and may overturn water dishes and food bowls, dig up the plants or even try to climb out of the cage. To calm a bored or sad tortoise, you can get them some toys to play with or take them out of their enclosure and have a nice play session with them.

Question: Is keeping a tortoise as a pet illegal?

Answer: This depends on one’s country of residence. In some countries, it is illegal to breed, sell or own a tortoise and in others, you only need a license to keep these reptiles.  In the United States, the C.I.T.E.S. regulations cover the right to breed, own and sell common species of tortoises. To sell a Mediterranean tortoise, for example, one needs a certificate issued by C.I.T.E.S.   

Question: Can a tortoise swim?

Answer: Tortoises are not designed for swimming. The feet are not webbed, and they have no buoyancy. Leopard tortoises’ can float and swim slowly as their large shell is dome-shaped, giving them an extra lung capacity that aids buoyancy. Tortoises can hold their breath for a very long time.   

Question: Can a tortoise live without its shell?

Answer: A tortoiseshell is fused with its bones so they cannot slip on and off it. The shell is to the tortoise the same as the skin is to humans. The shell is full of nerve endings and really hurts when damaged. A shell always grows as the tortoise grows as it’s also a part of the exoskeleton. The top of the exoskeleton is fused to the spine and ribs of the tortoise.

Question: Can tortoises survive with a broken shell?

Answer: A broken shell is like a gash in your skin or a cracked fingernail, so it’s not an immediate death sentence. However, a cracked shell is a very serious medical condition as it can lead to major infections. Shell cracking can be caused by falling, lack of calcium, enough sunlight, and kidney or liver diseases.


Tortoises are incredible and intriguing creatures to keep around. Always carry out thorough research and read a guide on how to nature these amazing reptiles to be the most adorable pets ever. Also, consider the fact that your tortoise most probably will outlive you, so it is advisable for you to make plans on the management of the tortoises with your absence. Tortoises are of high maintenance and require great commitment to achieve great results.

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