Comprehensive Tortoise Care: Types, Habits and Health 

Updated April 7, 2022
Smiling senior woman holding a tortoise in garden

The prehistoric-looking tortoise charms many with its calm, gentle demeanor and unhurried pace. There are myriad species of tortoises worldwide, but the most popular types of pet tortoises are the Mediterranean and the Russian. Both types of tortoises kept as pets grow to be between 6 and 10 inches long and thrive in the same conditions. These pets typically live long lives but need proper pet tortoise care to stay healthy and happy.

Types of Pet Tortoises

There are more than 60 species of the tortoise throughout the world, although a smaller number are commonly kept as pets. The ones that are kept as pets are fairly popular since they're entertaining to watch and they don't leave fur lying around the house. Keep in mind, tortoises have a long life expectancy, so they may not be the pet for you if you aren't looking for a lifetime commitment.

Greek Tortoise

Tortoise on hillside in Greece

Also known as the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, this species may live to be up to 125 years old and reach about 8 to 11 inches when fully grown. They have been known to live up to 100 years or more in captivity. The Greek tortoise needs a slightly warmer basking area than other tortoises, with a temperature between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The minimum enclosure size for these tortoises is 36 by 72 inches. They can live with other Greek tortoises, but two males can fight. This species is friendly but tends to find handling stressful.

Hermann's Tortoise

Hermann's Tortoise

This species of tortoise lives about 50 years, though some have been known to live over 100 years. There is an Eastern and Western version of Hermann's tortoise. The Eastern version is about 7 to 9 inches and tends to have brown to tan color tones. The Western version is about 5 to 6 inches long and has more vibrant colors, such as oranges and yellows. This species needs an enclosure with a temperature of 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with a basking area at about 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

This calm tortoise species rarely bites, but it will bite to defend itself against other tortoises, pets, or people. They don't enjoy being handled and prefer all four feet to stay on the ground.

Indian Star Tortoise

A Star tortoise on an early morning walk

This is a tortoise species that does not need to hibernate. They are known for being shyer than other tortoise species, but with a gentle temperament. They get their name from the star-shaped patterns on their shells.

They live between 30 and 80 years, so they're definitely a pet with a lifetime commitment. The Indian star tortoise grows up to 5 to 8 inches with females bigger than the males. Their habitat should be a minimum of 24 by 36 inches, with a basking area of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the non-basking area should be 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Unlike most other tortoise species, star tortoises aren't territorial, and multiple tortoises can be housed together. Similar to other tortoises, though, Indian star tortoises prefer not to be handled. If they are handled often, they can easily become stressed and ill.

Leopard Tortoise

The distinctively marked leopard tortoise forages for food

Leopard tortoises are on the larger side of tortoises kept as pets and are not as common as other species. Because of their size, which ranges from 10 to 30 inches, they do best in outside enclosures that are at least 10 feet by 10 feet.

They need a regular temperature of around 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and a basking area of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which means keeping them outside is not an option if you live in a cold climate. They are also a species that do not hibernate. While they are known for being friendly with people, they are not as keen on handling. They are also a long-term commitment, as they can live up to 100 years in captivity.

Red-Footed Tortoise

Red-Footed Tortoise walking outside

The red-footed tortoise hails from South America, and their natural habitat is humid, which makes keeping them comfortable in captivity a bit more work. They differ from other tortoises in that they need a more protein-rich diet and can be fed pinky mice. They can live up to 50 years and reach about 14 inches in length.

They need a large enclosure that is at least 4 by 6 feet. Their enclosure temperature should be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime hours and no cooler than 70 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Their basking area should be about 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

The red-footed tortoise doesn't prefer to be handled, although some can tolerate it. They're calm and easy-going, but they will bite if they feel their life is threatened. They are also known to burrow or hide when they feel stressed.

Russian Tortoise

Russian Tortoise Stretching while Eating Greens

The Russian tortoise, or Horsfield tortoise, grows to about 10 inches in length with the females larger than the males. They can live for about 40 years. They are one of the most popular tortoise species as pets because they're relatively easy to care for and don't grow to an overwhelming size. They need a habitat with a basking area of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit and the non-basking area should be 75 degrees Fahrenheit or above. They do not care for humid environments and a minimum habitat size should be 24 by 36 inches.

Russian tortoises are among the most active species of tortoise. They are one of the most popular pets for this reason. Not only are they active, they are also easy-going and responsive to their owners.

Sulcata Tortoise

African Spurred Tortoise

This is a large tortoise that can grow as long as 36 inches as an adult and weigh as much as 100 pounds. Sulcatas do best living in an enclosure outside where they'll have ample room to move. They can live around 70 years or longer.

They need an ambient temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or above and up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They are another species that do not hibernate. Despite their big size, they are known for being gentle and enjoying human interaction. This species is also known as the African spurred tortoise.

Male Versus Female Tortoises

In many species of tortoise, the females are larger than the males, which is one way to determine a tortoise's sex. Generally, males tend to have concave stomachs and females have flat ones, and males have longer, thicker tails than females do. There are also differences in the notch in the shell just under the tail, with females tending to have a U-shape and males tending to have more of a pointed V-shape. Otherwise, the differences between males and females vary depending on the species:

  • Greek tortoise - Males have a concave belly whereas the female has a flat one. The males have thick, long tails while females have much shorter, thinner tails.
  • Hermann's tortoises - Males have larger tails than females, but females overall are larger than males. The shell of the female points down to the ground in the back, whereas the males points or curves up.
  • Leopard tortoise - The females are larger than males and have higher shells with a rounder, dome-like shape. The males have longer tails and have concave bellies, whereas the females will have flat bellies and a short stub of a tail.
  • Red-footed tortoise - Males have longer, thicker tails than females and a concave belly. Females have a flat belly and stubbier tails. The male turtle's shell has an hourglass shape to it when standing and looking down at the turtle, whereas the females have a rounder shape.

Male Tortoise Aggression

While tortoises are gentle and often friendly creatures to people, you can experience issues with aggression between males. For this reason, it's advised to not keep males together in one enclosure. Some species can live together if the enclosure is large enough to provide them ample space to stay away from each other. This needs to be a fairly large space with hiding areas for both males to work, and if there is a female added to the mix, they will most likely fight during mating time.

Habitat Requirements

Hermann turtles eating salad

When considering how to care for a tortoise as a pet, you should address its habitat. Mediterranean and Russian tortoises are naturally suited for warm, arid climates. If you live in a region that offers plenty of warmth and sunshine for at least part of the year, you can keep your tortoise in an outdoor enclosure. However, when the weather turns cool or damp, it's time to bring your tortoise indoors.

Outdoor Enclosures

According to the Tortoise Trust booklet on tortoise care, wet grass or soil can lead to respiratory or shell infections. Therefore, it's important to provide your tortoise with a dry, well-drained area with both shade and full sun. To construct a proper outdoor pen, there are some factors to take into consideration.

Your pen must be large enough to allow for adequate exercise. Reptile Magazine recommends a pen for one or two adults be at least 2 feet by 4 feet, with walls going 6 to 12 inches into the ground and extending 12 inches above the ground.

The enclosure must be secure enough to keep predators out and the tortoise in. Tortoise enclosures need to have areas of soft soil because tortoises like to dig burrows and tunnels.

The enclosure needs a variety of areas such as rocks to climb on, shady plants to hide in, grassy sections, contoured surfaces, and edible vegetation. The pen should also have a sheltered area in case of rain or chilly weather.

Indoor Enclosures

The Tortoise Trust recommends tortoises be kept outdoors as long as weather conditions permit. When it's time to bring your tortoise indoors, the ideal enclosure is a structure called a tortoise table. These can be ordered ready-made from a pet supplier, but they are also an easy DIY project.

The same goes for your tortoise table. There are several factors to keep in mind. Like the outdoor enclosure, it should be nearly 2 feet by 4 feet to allow for sufficient exercise. It should be equipped with a high-quality UVB reptile lamp to provide adequate heat and light. The lamp should be left on about 14 hours a day.

The tortoise table should have a base of materials called the substrate. The substrate needs to be deep enough for burrowing. A good rule of thumb is 2 inches in depth for small tortoises and 3 inches for large ones. A 50/50 mix of sand and soil makes an excellent substrate.

Diet

Tortoises need foods high in fiber and calcium and low in protein, fat, sugar, and carbohydrates.

  • A diet of green, leafy vegetation and flowers is best because this is the kind of diet a tortoise would eat in the wild.
  • Tortoises especially love weeds like chickweed, dandelions, and clover.
  • For special treats, they'll enjoy salad greens, grated carrots, and cucumber.
  • Sprinkle your tortoise's food with a mix of calcium, vitamin D3, and trace minerals for optimal growth and health. You can buy these supplements from most pet stores and veterinarians.
  • In addition, fresh water must be available to the tortoise at all times.

Proper Tortoise Care Minimizes Stress

It's important you help maintain your tortoise's good health by minimizing stress.

Handling Your Tortoise

Russian tortoises

Tortoises tend to become stressed when handled frequently. This can adversely affect their health and activity levels. Reptile Magazine's care sheet for Russian tortoises states this species, in particular, is more resistant to handling, though all tortoises should be handled sparingly.

Other Stressors

  • Don't let other pets "play" with your tortoise. Dogs are especially likely to cause injuries to tortoises.
  • Confinement in a space that is too small also causes stress.
  • Tortoises don't like to be pinned down or have their movements restricted in any way.

Brumation

Many people tend to think of tortoises as hibernating species, but they do not technically enter into a state of hibernation. Instead, they become dormant during the colder months, enter an inactive state called brumation. Not every species of tortoise brumates. It is common among the Mediterranean species such as the Greek, Hermann's, and Russian tortoises and they generally brumate for 10 to 12 weeks. To hibernate a tortoise properly, there are steps to follow.

First, you will need to make sure your tortoise is healthy and able to hibernate. If there are any signs of illness, discuss them with your veterinarian immediately. This should be done by late summer in August.

A tortoise's diet will need to be slowly reduced as they get closer to hibernation, as they can actually die if they go into hibernation with undigested food in their stomachs and intestines. It can actually take four to six weeks for their systems to be entirely food-free.

Tortoises can brumate in a sturdy box made of wood or cardboard that is filled on the bottom and sides with insulation such as shredded paper or wood chips. A second box is placed inside which should be big enough for the tortoise to fit but limit them from moving around. The box should be kept in a room where the maximum temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit and no lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping a thermometer in the room is important to ensure that your tortoise is brumating at a safe temperature.

Check on your tortoise regularly to make sure they are not losing excessive weight during brumation periods.

The tortoise in brumation will begin to wake up on its own as the temperature reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit and increases. At this point, tortoise owners should remove the tortoise from their box and place them in front of a heater and light to help it to come out of brumation. They should also be provided with water so they can clear out their kidneys and become hydrated. They should also be fed within about a week after coming out of brumation.

Veterinary Care

Tortoises are considered exotic pets, and you'll need to find an exotics veterinarian with experience caring for reptiles. Take your tortoise for an exam as soon as you bring them home to identify and treat any health issues they may have. Watch their normal behavior to identify any abnormal clinical signs.

Respiratory Illness in Tortoises

According to the Turtle Rescue of Long Island, a common illness among tortoises in captivity is a respiratory infection. Take your tortoise to the vet immediately if you notice:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Wheezing
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Discharge from the eyes and nose

Respiratory infections are generally treated with antibiotics.

Are Pet Tortoises Legal?

Some states require permits to own certain breeds of tortoises. For example, the Mojave Desert tortoise is covered by the Endangered Species Act and in Nevada, you can only keep one as a pet if you adopt it through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife program. In this case, you are considered a custodian, and not an owner, of the tortoise. Owners who had their tortoise prior to August 4, 1989, are grandfathered in to keep their pets. Keeping one in Arizona, California, and Utah requires a permit.

The Endangered Species Act also covers the Gopher tortoise and permits are required to keep one in Alabama and Florida. They are illegal to be kept at all in Georgia and South Carolina. If you're uncertain about a certain species of tortoise in your state, you can contact your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office for more information.

Understand How to Take Care of a Tortoise

A tortoise can live anywhere from 40 to 100 years, or even longer, so adopting one is a lifetime commitment. Choosing the right type is critical, as they will likely be with you for your lifetime. With careful attention to your pet's needs, you'll have an entertaining and endearing companion for years to come.

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Comprehensive Tortoise Care: Types, Habits and Health