How to Care for a Tortoise

Tortoises have been on the planet for over 200 million years, which means that these exciting creatures walked the earth at the same time as dinosaurs.[1] They make enchanting pets and are fun to watch and to care for. However, since they’ve been around a long time, they’ve had plenty of time to pick up a few preferences and to develop a thorough list of personal care needs. This means that caring for a tortoise is a bigger commitment than you may think and that it takes time and dedication to make sure that your tortoise stays healthy and strong. If you want to learn how to start caring for this incredible creature, see Step 1 to get started.

Choosing Your Tortoise
Choose your tortoise. Tortoises come in many varieties and there are many factors to consider when it comes to choosing one, from the way you want your tortoise to look, the environment your tortoise prefers, and how much money you want to “shell out” on this shelled creature. Any type of tortoise you choose will make a wonderful pet for your family, once you commit to caring for this particular breed. Some of the more common breeds of tortoises include the Sulcata, Leopard, Redfoot, Yellowfoot, Greek, Russian, Hermanns, and Indian Star. Here are some things you need to know about choosing a tortoise:[2]
Size. Though the tortoise you bring home may be small and cute initially, tortoises can grow over two feet large after 5-10 years of care. If you’re really committed to having one for a long time, then you have to consider if you can care for a tortoise of a large size. This comes down to whether you plan on only caring for the tortoise indoors or outdoors. If you plan for indoors, then a smaller tortoise would be more suitable than a larger one.

Environment. Tortoises generally don’t do well in the cold, so if you live in a colder climate, you have to prepare to put your tortoise indoors for a part of the year (unless you keep it indoors the whole time). If this is the case, you should pick a tortoise that can do well indoors for at least part of the year. If you live in a very hot climate and want to keep the tortoise outside, this will be easier, but you may have to shade certain types of tortoises.

Price. Everyone thinks the Star tortoise looks amazing, but it can cost a pretty penny. When it comes to choosing your tortoise, you should consider how much money you want to spend.

Buy your tortoise from a reputable seller. It’s important to purchase your tortoise from a seller that you respect, who has a history of making a successful sale and who can promise that you have been given the tortoise under healthy conditions. Avoid getting your creature at a reptile show, because this may make it likely that you’ll buy him and won’t be able to get in touch with the seller again. Ideally, your seller should guarantee that your tortoise should live for at least a few days, though it can be hard to go beyond that because there’s no way he or she can check up on how you’re taking care of him.
Find a seller who prides himself in customer service, whether you are going to a pet store or finding your creature online. If your seller says that he or she will be easy to contact after the sale is made, then it’s more likely that you are making a solid transaction.

There are some legal restrictions on keeping or breeding some tortoises, especially Mediterranean breeds. If this is the case for the tortoise you want, then make sure the seller has a certificate from C.I.T.E.S. (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).[3]

Make sure you can make a long commitment to your tortoise. If you’re only around to take care of your tortoise for a year or two before you want to jump ship, then it may not be the ideal pet for you. Tortoises can live between 50 and 100 years, which means that your lovely pet may live longer than you. Don’t let this scare you, though; just make sure you get a pet tortoise when you live in a stable environment and know you can find someone to take care of him if you have to move or leave.[4]
You don’t need to be settled in one place for 50 years, but you should be prepared for many years of care for the new addition to your home.

Nourishing and Handling Your Tortoise
Feed your tortoise. The type of food your tortoise eats will largely depend on the species of tortoise you’ve chosen. It’s important to ask the source where you got the tortoise what you should make a part of its staple diet. In general, though, most tortoises eat mixed leafy greens, such as a typical “spring mix” you can find at any grocery store. When tortoises are babies, they need to eat softer foods, because their tiny jaws will find it hard to tear apart harder foods. Tortoises can eat most vegetables, such as broccoli, green beans, or kale, especially if you mix them in with the mixed greens, but it’s important to know what your type of tortoise needs. Your tortoise will also need a supplement to make sure that he or she grows healthy and strong. He will need a calcium supplement around twice a week, a multivitamin supplement two to three times a week, and a supplement with D3 if he is kept indoors and doesn’t get any sunlight.

Some tortoises prefer dandelion leaves, celery, lettuce, and sometimes fruit. Grapes are a good option to try.

Provide your tortoise with water. It’s important that your tortoise has enough water to stay hydrated and healthy. You can just pour some water in a shallow tray or saucer and sink it into the floor of the enclosure so that your tortoise can’t flip it over. It should be shallow enough so that your tortoise can easily stand in it and can place its head in the water without being completely submerged.[5]
Replace the water daily. Your tortoise should have its own bowl of water, whether it is outdoors or indoors.

Handle your tortoise with care. Never drop a tortoise; if their shell breaks, they will die. Never tap the shell of the tortoise, either. The shell is attached very closely to the tortoise’s spine with only a minimal amount of tissue between bone and shell. Taps and knocks on the shell are very painful to the tortoise. Though you may be dying to hold your pet tortoise, you should try to take it easy on holding it, or letting others hold it, too much. This can stress out your favorite creature and lead to inactivity. If there are small children around, explain to them that it would be better if they loved and cared for the tortoise from a distance. Too much handling can spook the tortoise.

Soak your baby tortoise in water a few times a week. Tortoises need to stay hydrated, especially when they are young. When you first bring home your tortoise, you should soak it in water a few times a week, so it feels fully hydrated, making sure to keep its head above water. Usually, after a tortoise is good and soaked, he will immediately begin to drink water. This will be a sign that everything is running smoothly. Remember that more isn’t always more when it comes to soaking your tortoise. Every other day at most should be just fine.

Choose the type of shelter you’d like for your tortoise. Ideally, you should provide some outdoor shelter for your tortoise. Some people believe that it’s inhumane to care for a tortoise only indoors. If you’re really committed to having one, you should be prepared to have some outdoor shelter for it, unless it’s a smaller tortoise or a variety that is really able to just stay indoors. If you’re committed to having an indoor tortoise only, then you should do your research and pick a species that can handle this.[6] You can also mix and match, keeping your tortoise indoors for the colder months and letting it roam outdoors during the warmer months. You should be prepared for both types of housing.

See the sections below for learning the proper care for your tortoise, whether it is an outdoor or an indoor creature.

Caring for a Tortoise in an Indoor Shelter
Have adequate indoor housing. If you want to house your tortoise indoors, then you have to think about what kind of an enclosure you want, whether it’s a glass aquarium or a terrarium. Just keep in mind that you should have at least 3 square feet available for a baby tortoise. A tank can work for a baby, but he will grow out of it pretty soon, and you’ll need to make sure your creature has enough room to grow.
You can use glass, but tortoises get frustrated because they try to walk through the glass. You can tape paper to the outside of the tank to keep them from getting confused.

You can also use a plastic sweater box or a cement mixing tub for a baby tortoise. They have the bonus of having foggy sides that won’t frustrate tortoises as much as glass.

The enclosure doesn’t have to be too high — just a few inches of height will do.

Provide your indoor tortoise with adequate lighting. If your tortoise is outdoors, then you don’t need to worry about him or her having enough light. But if your favorite creature is indoors, then you’ll need to make sure he gets enough light, and therefore Vitamin D, to be healthy. Here are some things to consider as you find proper lighting for your tortoise:[7] You should either use a desk lamp, which should have at least 100W of power for heating, and another UV light for your tortoise to bask in, or even a single mercury-vapor lamp to provide your critter with both heat and light.

The lamp’s temperature should be between 30-35°C, but this changes, depending on the species.

Make sure you position the lamp correctly so your tortoise is able to soak up the heat while also taking some breaks.

Not only is providing your tortoise with heat and light essential to his or her health, but it’s also helpful for your creature’s happiness. They actually love basking in the light!

Have the proper substrate for your tortoise. The substrate will cover the floor of your tortoise’s environment and will need to have proper composition to ensure the health and safety of your tortoise. The most important thing, whether your tortoise is outdoors or indoors, is to make sure that it is not overly moist, or your tortoise will be prone to infection. It should be well-drained while not being completely dry. The substrate depends on the species of tortoise you have. Here are some things to consider:[8] If your creature needs mid to high humidity, then your substrate needs to be able to hold moisture well. It should include things like coconut coir, sphagnum moss, or peat moss, in this case.

If your creature needs a more dry climate, then the substrate should include dry coconut coir, grass clippings, or shredded paper. You can also use flat newspaper for a low-cost option. However, shredded paper is better because it offers a more exciting environment.

Avoid using sand in the substrate, because tortoises may eat it and cause great harm to themselves.

When your tortoise is outdoors, the substrate doesn’t matter as much, as the natural environment should be suitable. You can add some peat moss to the environment, for additional stimulation. Just make sure that anything you add to the substrate is free of chemicals or pesticides.

Caring for Your Tortoise Outdoors
Create a protective barrier for your tortoise. Having your tortoise outdoors during normal temperatures is ideal for your creature. However, you can’t just place your tortoise out in the yard and let him or her do whatever he or she wants. Instead, you’ll need to have an escape-proof barrier so that he stays within his perimeter. You can use concrete blocks that are mortared together or painted or sealed wood walls.
Your tortoise will try to burrow under or dig in to the corners of their enclosure, so it should be nice and secure. If your tortoise burrows, you can add a wire mesh below the surface of the barrier to keep him safe.

Provide shelter for your tortoise. You’ll need some kind of shelter for your tortoise to make it feel safe, and to provide some shelter from the heat, the rain, or other elements that may be in the way. You want to keep your tortoise nice and warm and to keep it from overheating as well. Ideally, you should make a hide box for your creature, which will be where he sleeps and weathers the climates. You can make it out of wood and cover it with a few inches of sand, as well as a heating element for the cold weather, if needed. First, just dig a large hole. You can place a plywood barrier inside the floor.

Add a top to the hide box to shelter your tortoise.

Cover the shelter with dirt and soil.

Provide plants for your tortoise. You should keep an adequate amount of plants around for your outdoor tortoise so that he or she can eat and feel secure throughout the day. Look into the diet of your tortoise to see which plants are and are not toxic. In general, many tortoises will eat broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, any grasses, or clover.

Provide stimulation for your tortoise. Your tortoise should have an exciting environment to keep it active and busy. You can add some clump grasses to help your tortoise burrow, as well as to allow for some shade. You can add a few boulders to give your creature some privacy, as long as they aren’t too steep. You can also add some small trees for shade and shelter and just for the environment to look nice.

Keeping Your Tortoise Healthy
Protect your tortoise from other creatures. If you’re taking care of your tortoise outdoors, then you will have to take precautions to make sure it is safe from other predators, such as cats. If you have a dog, never allow it to be near the tortoise; even the gentlest dogs have been shown to attack tortoises without warning. Though it’s impossible to keep your tortoise completely safe from birds, foxes, or other predatory creatures, try to keep it as protected as you can by having lots of shelter and places for your tortoise to hide, keeping its enclosure intact, and keeping an eye on the outside environment.[9]
Some people recommend that you line a juvenile tortoise’s home with wire mesh to protect it from pesky creatures.

Help keep your tortoise healthy if he closes his eyes. Many people think that something is wrong with a tortoise’s eyes if he starts keeping them shut. In fact, this is rarely the case. If a tortoise keeps his eyes shut, it usually just means that something isn’t right with him, and most of the time, that just means he is not as hydrated as he needs to be. If this is the case, soak him in a bit of water and cover up his shelter a bit to make the environment more moist if he’s indoors. If this is a chronic problem, you can consider making your substrate more moist, or seeing a veterinarian if there is something indeed wrong with your favorite pet’s eyes.

Help your tortoise stay active by meeting his basic needs. Though it’s normal for baby tortoises to sleep for most of the day, if your critter is just completely inactive, then you have to start troubleshooting to locate the source of the problem. Here are some reasons why your creature may not be so active:
One of the most common reasons will be that your tortoise is too cold. Make sure that his enclosure is in a warm place relative to his environment. Cover it with wood or mulch or other materials to make it warmer if needed.

If your tortoise is indoors, then make sure he or she get enough light in general. Brighter lights help keep him active.

Make sure your baby tortoise is getting a regular soaking throughout the day. One reason he may be inactive is because he’s not properly hydrated.

See if your tortoise is being handled too much. Though you may want to hold your tortoise and to let your ten best friends hold him, too, this might actually be scaring your favorite creature. Try to minimize the handling, especially in the beginning, so that your tortoise can feel comfortable — no pun intended — inside his own shell.

Make sure your tortoise is getting a balanced diet. Check to see that your mix of greens, veggies, and supplements is giving your pet everything he or she needs.

Keep your tortoise’s shell firm. If your tortoise has a soft shell, then it’s likely because he’s not getting enough light. This is a rare condition for outdoor tortoises, but it can happen to indoor tortoises because it can be harder for them to have access to a steady light source. If your indoor tortoise has a soft shell, make sure that he or she is at least 8-10″ from the UV light source, and that the bulb is changed after at least 9 to 12 months to remain fresh and active.

Don’t drop your tortoise, as this may result in a broken shell and death.

Things You’ll Need
a nice hiding/sleeping place for them

food and water

a suitable container with air holes in the lid

bedding for the pet container

a heat lamp


Related wikiHows
How to Care of a Baby Tortoise

How to Take Care of a Russian Tortoise

How to Care for a Non Tropical Tortoise

How to Care for a Hibernating Turtle

Sources and Citations

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