Tortoises can make fantastic pets, particularly for older children and adults. Many can live to be more than 50 years old, so expect your tortoise to become an integral part of the family for the decades to come.
Many assume that tortoises are robust, due to their tough shells. However, tortoises are delicate creatures and it is advised that young children are supervised at all times whilst handling them. If you can undertake the long-term responsibility of a pint-sized reptile, carry on reading.
All tortoises are protected under CITES regulations. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is a treaty that was drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against over-exploitation.
Mediterranean species of tortoise can only be legally sold if they are accompanied by their official paperwork, known as Article 10. All the information you need to know is available from the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) but will only really affect you if you want to sell your tortoise in the future or move abroad.
Creating A Home For Your Pet Tortoise
Tortoises are cold-blooded reptiles and thus they need a home which allows them to regulate their body temperature. There are often debates about whether a tortoise table or enclosed vivarium is best for your tortoise.
Tortoise tables are open-topped which, although may seem ideal in terms of ventilation, presents issues when it comes to setting a precise ambient air temperature. Tortoise tables are appropriate for warm rooms in homes where the temperature doesn’t drop below 22°C, day or night. In most homes, nighttime temperatures can dip by 10 or 20 degrees at night due to decreased activity, less use of electrical items, and turning off the heating.
For most, a wooden enclosed vivarium is the housing option of choice for their tortoise. Many argue that they do not offer the same ventilation as a table, which goes without saying. However, the ventilation they do provide is more than adequate for a happy and healthy tortoise.
Many vivaria are built with air vents at the top of the enclosure. As the enclosure is heated, warm air rises and exits via the vents at the hot end of the tank. As this air leaves, it drags in fresh air through the vent at the cool end of the tank. This constant airflow ensures that stagnant air does not form, which reduces the risk of respiratory infections and build-up of bacteria in your tortoise’s home. If you feel your animal needs more ventilation, you can always add additional vents. However, it is best for the door to be opened at least once a day and hopefully, your tortoise will get to experience life around the home and in the garden under supervision too.
Regardless of the path taken, each tortoise dwelling must be fitted with a thermostat-controlled heat lamp and reflector, to provide your tortoise with a basking spot of 30°C for 12 hours each day. At the opposite end, the temperature should be around 20°C. The temperature should never fall below 15°C and 10°C is extremely dangerous for your tortoise.
Your tortoise will need access to direct sunlight or a specialist Ultraviolet (UV) light which helps them to absorb the calcium they need for healthy bone and shell growth. Lights should be on for 14 hours a day.
Tortoises are not toy lovers, but their homes can be enriched. Platforms for climbing are a great idea, along with a smooth rockery area, and branches and shrubs to hide under. Having a section of the enclosure with a deep layer of sand and topsoil, covered in beech chips, is a great idea as tortoises enjoy digging. Furthermore, scatter food around the enclosure and encourage them to search for it.
Tortoises can urinate in high volumes, so it is best to spot clean their house daily. It is essential to have a full and deep clean once a week.
Feeding Your Tortoise
Tortoises can be fed a natural diet of greens, weeds and herbs. There are several varieties of complete processed foods on the market which are easy and convenient. However, if you are feeding your tortoise this mix, you must supplement their diet with a healthy amount of leafy greens.
Generally speaking, your tortoise can live solely on a diet of greenery as they need a high fibre, low protein and low sugar diet. You must ensure your pet tortoise receives daily calcium and vitamin supplements, which should be given alternatively.
To give your tortoise some variety you can mix up what they are fed and you can safely dabble between watercress, rocket, grated carrot and chopped sweet pepper. Dandelions, clover and plantain are all tortoise-safe options too. You will find your tortoise will have preferences and will soon let you know, but it is important to vary their diet.
Like all animals, your tortoise is allowed a treat. Strawberries, apples, kale, broccoli and spinach are all firm favourites. But, they should only be given occasionally as they can irritate your tortoise’s digestive system.
It is key to remember that plants that grow from bulbs are toxic for tortoises and can be fatal if ingested. Rhubarb leaves are also poisonous and bananas can cause digestive issues.
It is also important that your tortoise has plenty of fresh water from a shallow dish. Their water should be changed daily, or more if they decide to use their dish as a toilet.
Keeping Your Pet Tortoise Fit and Healthy
Despite their armoured appearance, tortoises can be easily injured and should be handled with care. It is best to lift them with two hands, one firmly holding each side of the shell. You may want to hold on tight as your tortoise may be a wriggler and they can be surprisingly strong.
Always supervise young children when handling your tortoise and always wash your hands before and after handling them.
Tortoises cannot groom themselves and appreciate a lukewarm bath 2-3 times a week. When preparing a bath for your tortoise, make sure the water is no higher than their lower shell. To give your tortoise a deeper clean, use a soft toothbrush gently on their shell. Never apply oils or chemicals to your tortoise as it can damage their shells.
A healthy tortoise has bright and clear eyes, actively searches for food, and explores its environment extensively. Its shell should be smooth and rounded.
As long as your tortoise is given the correct food, care, habitat, and attention, they are usually problem-free. Long-term problems can be avoided simply by looking after your tortoise correctly. However, all animals can get ill, so if your tortoise shows any sign of being unwell contact your vet.
Your Tortoise and Hibernation
Hibernation needs to be researched thoroughly as it is a complex procedure and completely unique depending on the breed and age of your tortoise. As a general rule, tortoises under 2 years old do not hibernate. Adult tortoises’ hibernation period should be limited to 3-4 months and protected housing is necessary for spring and autumn when the UK climate is not tortoise-friendly.
Tortoises need to hibernate in a controlled and protective environment, so many opt to use sheds or garages. Whatever method is chosen, your tortoise should be checked and weighed regularly.