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Many people have tortoises as pets which is a bit surprising given that they are a really big commitment. They are not a pet you can get and then just not worry about, you must be an involved tortoise owner. If you have a tortoise or are considering getting one, we will show you here how to take care of a tortoise. Remember that each species is different and may require specific care. Here we will speak generally but if you are unsure, you should always consult your veterinarian.
Another caution to you before pulling the trigger on a new tortoise is to make sure you trust the supplier. There are strict regulations in place to prevent the trafficking of endangered species and tortoise and turtles should never just be taken from the wild. Tortoises that are bred in captivity for resale are permitted but should still come with appropriate documentation. You want your tortoise seller to be knowledgeable and responsible because you will have questions for them.
Some of the most popular breeds of pet tortoises include the Sulcata tortoise, Hermann tortoise, Leopard tortoise and the Russian tortoise. Before you bring a tortoise home, make sure you do your research. See what species would work best for you and your family. Consider their full grown size. Some will require more care than others and have specific habitat requirements.
A Tortoise Habitat in Your Home
Your home will be your tortoise’s habitat so you absolutely need to consider this when getting a pet tortoise. Most tortoises need an indoor and outdoor space to be happy and healthy. Ideally, you will have at least a small yard where you can build an enclosure and a large room in which you can build a separate indoor enclosure.
1. Keeping Your Tortoise Indoors
An indoor enclosure for a tortoise should have 4 things: an adequate size, a light source, a water source and substrate.
The size of your indoor enclosure for your new baby tortoise will be different than the size it will need once it reaches full size. You’ll want to do your research and make sure the tortoise you get won’t grow too big (some can grow up to 2 feet long) to be properly accommodated in your home. To get you started, a baby tortoise will need at least 3 sq ft of space to call its own to thrive. This will need to be scaled as your tortoise grows.
Tortoises need light. They need the vitamin D to absorb and properly use the calcium they need for a strong shell and strong bones. They also need light to stay warm. For these reasons, you should have two lights in your indoor enclosure: a UV light (vitamin D) and a regular lamp such as a desk lamp (warmth). Failing to provide your tortoise with the correct light can quickly cause serious health problems, so make sure you don’t make the mistake of using inadequate lighting.
Your lamp should be at least 100W and depending on the species of tortoise you have, should be at a temperature of 30-35 °C. Your tortoise will need to have access to both lights separately and also have room to cool off in the “shade” away from the lights completely. If two lights are too much, you can also invest in a special mercury vapor lamp which will fill the place of both the UV light and lamp. This might be more expensive, but if your space is limited, it could be well worth the investment.
Your tortoise also needs water in its enclosure. A shallow container that allows your tortoise to stand in the water, place his or her head in but not be completely submerged. Ideally, you will want to dig out the bottom of the enclosure so that the water dish lies flat with the bottom surface. That way your tortoise won’t be constantly tipping over the water. If this isn’t possible, you can also purchase special water dishes for your tortoise. They are heavy so that the tortoise can’t turn them over. Make sure to keep the water topped up.
The last thing you’ll need for your indoor enclosure is a substrate. This is what will cover the floor of tour tortoise’s home. The type of substrate you should use will depend on the species of tortoise you have. Some common ones are sphagnum moss or peat moss or coconut coir for tortoises needing higher humidity. For species that require a drier environment, try things like coconut coir and grass clippings.
Your substrate should be about 4 inches deep. If you have a tortoise that burrows a lot then you will need to increase the substrate. A good rule is that if your tortoise is burrowing and hitting the actual bottom of the enclosure, then you need more substrate. Keep adding until they don’t burrow all the way to the floor. It’s in a tortoise’s nature to burrow, so you need to be prepared for this aspect of their behavior.
2. Keeping Your Tortoise Outdoors
For tortoise owners that are lucky to live in climates that are at least 60°F year round, most tortoise species will be able to go outside at any point during the year. If your climate is colder than this in the winter, your tortoise should stay indoors until the weather warms.
When keeping your tortoise outdoors, it is not recommended that you leave your tortoise unsupervised. Especially if they don’t have a secure enclosure and the outdoor space has not been checked for poisonous vegetation. Since turtles burrow, they can sometimes burrow under fences into the neighbor’s yard and beyond. Your job is to keep your tortoise safe!
Building an outdoor tortoise enclosure is similar to the indoor one. You’ll need the same water and substrate. The nice thing is that the tortoises will be able to bask in the sun so you won’t need any additional light sources.
As mentioned, one of the most important things about an outdoor enclosure for your tortoise is to make sure they are safe and won’t attempt a very slow escape while you’re not watching. You’ll need strong barriers to keep your tortoise contained. A barrier that they can’t knock over or get through – try using cinder blocks that are mortared together or anything similar that is strong and will stay in place. If your tortoise is a burrower, you may need to use wire mesh down the sides of the barrier to stop them from digging out of “jail”.
Think of this outdoor space for your tortoise as a playground. Plant safe plants that your tortoise can munch on, place shallow rocks for interest and you’ll also need a hiding place. A place where your tortoise can sleep, go for some shade or ride out bad weather. It is recommended that you build a hut by digging a hole in the soil, add a top and cover it with soil. Wood can be used to form the box as long as it is covered with soil. Of course, make sure the tortoise can get in and out easily.
If you have the space and the time, let your tortoise outside as much as possible if the weather is appropriate. Being outdoors, especially in the natural sun, is good for their shells. Frequent access to an outdoor environment will also provide more enrichment for your tortoise to keep them from getting bored.
Feeding Your Tortoise
Feeding your tortoise is obviously very important to their well being and it is something that will be different from species to species. For information specific to your type of tortoise you should consult an expert – either a veterinarian or even the seller of the tortoise, as long as they are reputable.
Generally speaking, a tortoise’s diet will consist of leafy green plants. Think of the spring mix salad you buy every week at the grocery store and just buy another one for your tortoise. In addition to the spring mix, it is usually safe to feed your tortoise other vegetables such as kale and broccoli. Mix them in with the spring mix and you should be good to go.
Depending on your tortoise you can also try foods such as celery and dandelion leaves and some tortoises will enjoy fruit every now and then. Processed and canned foods, as well as high protein foods, should be avoided completely.
We recommend buying organic veggies for your tortoise. This would be similar to the food it would get naturally by roaming in the wild. You want to avoid any toxic substances like pesticides.
When you first get your tortoise as a baby, they will need to eat softer foods. Their small jaws will find it too difficult to rip apart harder veggies, like the broccoli.
In addition to the food diet, your tortoise may require some vitamin supplements. This will depend greatly on the living conditions of your tortoise and more specifically, how much time they are able to spend outdoors.
Supplements are a tricky subject since what kinds and how much is dependent on many factors. The need for vitamin D from the sun may be adequate for your tortoise if you live in a climate that gets full sun year round while keeping the temperate at least 60°F. Other, less sunny and warm climates, may need to add calcium and/or vitamin D to their tortoise’s diet.
For the issue of supplements, you’ll want to discuss this with your vet. For example, if your tortoise’s shell is soft, that’s an indication that it’s not getting enough calcium and light. You can adjust the light but you may need to consider calcium supplements. Luckily they are pretty easy to use; they can usually be sprinkled on your tortoise’s food once or twice a week.
How To Treat Your Tortoise Right
When you get a tortoise, you are pledging to care for it for many years to come. There are things you can do to make sure you are treating it well and giving it the best possible quality of life.
1. Moving Your Tortoise
Tortoises can get very stressed out when they are moved away from their usual surroundings. Although visits to the vet can’t be avoided, you should bring a tortoise into a home you plan on staying in for a long time.
If you do need to move, there are a few steps you can take to minimize your tortoise’s stress. They should be transported in a box or opaque plastic container that is only just a bit larger than they are. Enough room for them to stretch their legs but not enough room for them to turn around or move within the box. Do not use a clear container as being able to see what’s going on will add to the tortoise’s stress.
The top of the box should be covered using a lid with air holes or a breathable material such as a blanket or towel. Keep the box dark to encourage your tortoise to go to sleep.
You should also put some substrate in the box. Use the same stuff as in their enclosure so it will feel familiar. The tortoise can then burrow a bit in the container to feel safer.
Finally, once your tortoise is safely in its new home or home from the vet, you should bathe it so that it can re-hydrate right away.
2. Handling Your Tortoise
You should always be careful when handling your tortoise. Never drop it. And, you should avoid picking up and handling your tortoise as much as possible. I know everyone wants to pick up their tortoise and cuddle it but it’s better for them if you don’t.
The best rule of thumb for handling tortoises is to let them come to you. They like to do things on their own terms so don’t force them. Lifting a tortoise from the safe ground is not an activity they enjoy. As a result, they can hiss, scratch, kick or even try to bite you.
You know your tortoise best but most won’t progress beyond greeting you as you bring them food. The best rule of thumb is to only handle your tortoise when you need to care for it. Not just for your enjoyment.
Whether or not your tortoise needs to be hibernated depends entirely on their species. Tortoise species that commonly hibernate in the wild are Hermann’s tortoise, Spur Thigh tortoise and the Marginata tortoise. Some species that do not commonly hibernate in the wild are the Leopard tortoise, the Africa Spurred tortoise and the Red Foot Tortoise.
Hibernation in captivity can be very dangerous. If you have a tortoise that requires it, the best thing to do is consult your vet on how to do it properly. Many cases have been reported of tortoises dying after being improperly hibernated.
Water is such an important component of your tortoise’s well-being. We mentioned earlier than both the indoor and outdoor enclosures should have a water source but why is that?
Tortoises don’t swim but they sure do need water. Like us, they need to stay hydrated, especially when they are young. A baby tortoise should be soaked in water once or twice a week. Make sure the water isn’t too deep as you don’t want to fully submerge the tortoise. They should be able to comfortably stand in the water with their head above it. Let them put their own head in the water if they choose. Never force them.
To avoid panic when bathing or hydrating your baby or adult tortoise, don’t plunge them yourself into the water. Instead, put the tortoise in the container that will become the water receptacle. Once they are inside, start to pour warm water over their shell. This simulates a rain shower and is much more natural for the tortoise. This way they don’t get the sudden, unnatural shock of being dunked in water.
It is believed that tortoises drink through both their necks and their tails. Once the tortoise is soaked in the water and feeling happy, you will likely see it start to drink. If you don’t see them drink, don’t panic. Older tortoises get a lot of water from the foods they consume so they just may not be thirsty.
Now you have all the tools necessary to have a happy and healthy captive tortoise. Follow these tips and remember: it’s our duty to replicate their natural, wild living conditions as much as possible. You and your tortoise will enjoy many wonderful years together.
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