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Pet Tortoise Care

Serenah McKay
Mediterranean tortoise

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.

Pet Tortoise Habitat

When considering how to care for a tortoise as a pet, your first consideration should be 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 it indoors.

Outdoor Enclosures for Tortoises

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. Follow these guidelines to construct a proper outdoor pen:

  • 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 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 Tortoise 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.

In setting up your tortoise table, keep these factors 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.
  • It should have a base of materials, called 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.

Tortoise 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

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.

Russian tortoises
Russian tortoises

Other Stressors

  • Don't let other pets "play" with your tortoise. Dogs are especially likely to cause injuries to tortoises.
  • Confinement to 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.

Veterinary Care for Your Pet Tortoise

Tortoises are considered exotic pets, and you'll need to find a veterinarian with experience caring for reptiles. Take your tortoise for an exam as soon as you bring it home to identify and treat any health issues it may have.

Common Tortoise Illnesses

According to the Turtle Rescue of Long Island, a common illness among tortoises in captivity is 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?

Check with your nearest herpetology group regarding ownership laws in your state. Some states require permits to own certain breeds of tortoises.

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. With careful attention to your pet's needs, you'll have an entertaining and endearing companion for years to come.

Pet Tortoise Care