Tortoise Care For Beginners

Are you considering a pet tortoise but don’t know where to begin?

Reptile pets take a lot of care and research. 

You think a tortoise might be right for you, but you’re not sure what it will need. 

Do different species of tortoise need other substrates? 

What about heating and lighting? 

How much space will you need?

If you are a beginner tortoise keeper, you will want to thoroughly do your research. 

These are rewarding pets as long as you get their care right.

tortoise care for beginners

Tortoise Care For Beginners

Caring for a tortoise will take a lot of research and time. You will want to make sure you know how to take care of your specific tortoise species since each has different heating temperature, humidity, diet, and enclosure needs.

Before committing to a tortoise pet, you will want to make sure you are able to give them enough space. 

Even small tortoises need plenty of space to exercise, and if you are housing multiple in the same enclosure, you will want to provide enough space for each individual. 

Though many species adapt to living indoors, outdoor enclosures tend to be a better option for them. 

If your local climate does not allow for outdoor living for even part of the year, you may want to reconsider whether a tortoise is a suitable pet for you.

Many living spaces, including condos and apartment complexes, have rules prohibiting pet tortoise ownership. 

We strongly recommend you consult the rules of your lease or contract before committing to a tortoise.

Keep in mind all tortoise species have decades-long life expectancies. 

Some individuals have lived over a century in captivity! 

As long as you take good care of your tortoise, it will most likely outlive you. 

Make sure you have a plan for where your tortoise will go in the event of your death or if you are unable to care for them in old age.

Before buying or adopting, we strongly recommend researching trustworthy and reputable captive breeders. 

A captive-bred tortoise is more likely to thrive as a pet than a wild-caught one. 

Also, captive breeding does not put stress on potentially threatened or endangered wild populations. 

If you are considering a species which is endangered or threatened in the wild, you will want to look for sellers and breeders with a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) certificate.

What Your Tortoise Will Need

We have included a list of some of the basics of pet care for a tortoise.

Keep in mind details may vary depending on the species of tortoise you decide to buy or adopt.

A Sturdy Enclosure

Vivariums and tanks come in various sizes, constructions, and materials. 

Though glass is a popular material for all reptile pet tanks, tortoises may attempt to constantly walk through barriers they can see through. 

Taping paper to a tank’s walls may help with this issue. 

Other keepers have used rectangular cement mixing tubs or plastic sweater tubs for baby tortoises, though you will want to size any enclosure up as they grow.

Whether you are housing your tortoises indoors or outdoors, you will want to ensure they cannot escape from their enclosures. 

Since many tortoises like to climb, any tank or outdoor setup should have walls taller than all the tortoises in it stacked on top of each other. 

If you are building an outdoor enclosure, make sure to bury rocks or bricks at a significant depth around the inside of the walls so your tortoises cannot escape through digging.

You will also want to protect your tortoises from other pets and predators. 

A wire mesh top in a wooden frame on the top of an outdoor enclosure should be sufficient to deter dogs, cats, and raccoons.

Proper Substrate

Substrate has multiple uses, providing bedding, burrowing material, and litter in an indoor enclosure. 

It will be less critical in outdoor enclosures, as your yard’s normal ground should be sufficient. 

To decide on the right substrate for your tortoise, consider their species’s natural environment. 

Those from more humid environments will need moisture-retaining bedding like coconut husks, topsoil, or cypress mulch. 

If the species lives in more arid environments, they should have a substrate which stays drier. 

We generally do not recommend sand for a reptile substrate due to digestive impaction concerns. 

If you want to use sand, we recommend mixing it with organic, untreated topsoil first.

Avoid any substrate made from cedar, as the wood is toxic to reptiles.

 Lighting

If you are housing your tortoise outdoors, you will not need to worry about UVA or UVB lighting since they will get whatever radiation they need from sunlight in their native habitat.

However, if using indoor enclosures, tortoises will need a UVA and UVB light setup. 

UVA and UVB radiation are vital for reptiles since they regulate proper metabolism and aid in calcium absorption and vitamin D3 production. 

Without proper amounts of UVA and UVB lighting, your tortoise could develop severe health conditions like metabolic bone disease.

We recommend a tube bulb setup in a hood

Make sure to replace the bulb every six months or so since they tend to wear out over time.

Your tortoise will also appreciate a basking bulb. 

Tortoises will sometimes bask in the sun in the wild to thermoregulate, and since they can’t produce their body heat.

This is also a huge help with bad weather, specifically with cold weather. 

It’s not a big deal in warmer months, but in colder months, you’ll need this for sure. 

Heat

You will want to keep your tortoise’s enclosure at a similar heat range as their native environment. 

There are a few different items available to heat your tortoise’s indoor enclosure. 

These include ceramic heat emitters, under-tank heat mats, and heating bulbs. 

If you choose under-tank heat mats, make sure the ones you buy have thermostat controls. 

Also, make sure to put something protective between the bottom of the tank and the substrate layer.

Avoid reptile heat rocks, as these are most likely to cause severe burns to your pet.

Water Dish

Tortoises do not drink water like dogs or cats. 

However, they do need a regularly-cleaned fresh source of dechlorinated water for soaking. 

You may also want to give your tortoises weekly baths and perhaps mist their food with water before giving it to them.

A shallow dish big enough for your tortoise is a perfect way to keep them hydrated. 

Shallow is the crucial word here–tortoises are not aquatic like turtles and may drown in too-deep water. 

To keep it from tipping, dig a hole in the substrate and situate it there. 

Keep in mind your tortoise may poop in the water.

Balanced Diet

Unlike many reptile pets, tortoises are almost entirely herbivorous, meaning they are plant-eaters. 

They should be eating a mix of grasses, hays, some vegetables, and dark leafy greens in captivity. 

Some species may be offered fruit as an occasional treat. 

There are some species which will also eat the occasional live insect as a high-protein extra. 

You will want to make sure your tortoise is getting enough calcium in its diet. 

Some owners add a powdered calcium supplement to their pet’s food two to three times a week. 

Others keep a cuttlefish bone in their tortoises’ enclosure, letting them nibble on it at their leisure. 

Younger tortoises will need either softer or crisper foods to start. 

Since their mouths are still developing, you will want to make sure they can chew and digest what you feed them.

Good regular foods for tortoises include:

  • Dandelions and their leafy greens
  • Endive
  • Parsley
  • Timothy Hay
  • Arugula or rocket
  • Collard Greens
  • Mustard Greens
  • Carrot Tops
  • Clover

Foods you should avoid feeding your tortoise too often include:

  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Tomatoes
  • Oranges and other citrus fruits
  • Greens high in oxalic acid or oxalates, like spinach, kale, watercress

While many pet stores and online retailers sell commercially-formulated tortoise pellets, these are not necessary for a complete and balanced tortoise diet. 

They may be convenient, but they are not the best option.

Toxic foods for tortoises which should be avoided include:

  • Ivy
  • Daffodil
  • Avocado
  • Juniper
tortoise habitat

Are Tortoises Good Pets For Children?

Despite their smaller size, tortoises are not generally recommended as a good pet for young children. 

They are harder to care for than other, more conventional pets. 

They are also not great with handling. 

Children are more likely than adults to drop a pet tortoise or turtle while handling. 

This being said, if you let children interact with your tortoise, you should let them know a tortoise is a primarily hands-off creature. 

While it may be a disappointment for them, children easily learn to appreciate some animals from afar.

Tortoise Species Considered Good For Beginners

There are several species of tortoises frequently seen in the pet market and with reptile keepers. 

For various reasons, including ease of care and friendly, docile natures, these listed species are considered great for beginning tortoise keepers. 

If you’re looking for strictly indoor tortoise options we have a post dedicated to the best tortoises for the indoors you’ll enjoy.

Indian Star Tortoise

Note: Since these tortoises are endangered in the wild, make sure you are buying a captive-bred one, not a wild-caught one. 

Look for a CITES certificate when choosing an Indian star tortoise breeder.

These beautiful tortoises are native to dry, scrubland areas of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. 

Their carapaces are lined with distinctive star patterns. 

They do best in social groups, so you may want to invest more than one if this is the tortoise for you.

These are medium-sized tortoises, growing to 7-12″ inches (18-30 cm) in adulthood.

While this is a popular pet tortoise species, they tend not to be as hardy and are prone to more health issues if their environments aren’t quite right. 

They also tend to be shyer than other species.

Marginated Tortoise

Marginated tortoises are endemic to Mediterranean Europe and the Balkan mountain range. 

They have notable flaring of the bottom rear of their shells, often referred to as a skirt.

These tortoises typically grow over 12″ in length in adulthood (over 30 centimeters), so you will want to provide them with enough space. 

This especially applies if you are housing multiple in the same enclosure.

Marginateds are generally friendly towards their human keepers and thrive better in groups than they do alone. 

You should only keep marginated tortoises with other marginateds to prevent crossbreeding with other species. 

Marginated tortoises are well-known for breeding with other species of tortoises in captivity if allowed.

Leopard Tortoise

Leopard tortoises have spotted patterns on their carapaces, which gave them their name. 

They live in the Eastern and Southern savannahs of Africa. 

These tortoises are the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world!

Though they only grow in length to 10-18″ inches (25-45 cm), they will weigh 40-50 pounds (18-23 kilograms) when fully grown.

Leopard tortoises are popular for their gentle and docile natures. 

Unlike other escape artist tortoises, they tend not to dig or climb. 

While you should still make their enclosures as sturdy and protective as possible, extra security measures like burying rocks by walls are not as necessary for a leopard tortoise.

Egyptian Tortoise (AKA Kleinmann’s Tortoise)

Egyptian tortoises are spread in small populations through Egypt, Libya, and Israel. 

They have a variety of carapace patterns in light and dark browns.

These tortoises are on the smaller side, though females tend to be larger than males. 

They grow 8-12″ inches in length (20-30 cm).

Note: Due to individuals’ transportation into the captive pet trade and other reasons, these are now critically endangered species in the wild. 

Look for a CITES certificate when searching for an Egyptian tortoise breeder.

African Sulcata Tortoise (AKA African Spurred Tortoise)

The African sulcata tortoise is the third largest tortoise species in the world. Despite their size, these are extremely popular as pets. 

In the wild, they live in arid and semiarid regions of Africa. 

They have light brown or tan carapaces, plus extensions on their legs called spurs.

African sulcata tortoises grow to 24-30″ inches in adulthood (61-76 cm). 

These gentle giants will top out at an average weight of 80-110 pounds (36-50 kg)!

Frequent handling, especially when young, will cause a sulcata tortoise some stress. 

Most of the time, however, these tortoises are docile and curious–sometimes too curious for their good. 

Their size will also mean more food over their lifetime. 

Since they love to dig and explore, these, more than any other species, may wreck your yard and tip over any items you keep in their way.

Pancake Tortoise

These unique tortoises are native to Tanzania and Kenya. 

They are named for their flattened, not domed, shells. 

They do best in social groups, so if you want a pancake tortoise, you may want to invest in more than one. 

As long as there are enough food and space to go around, you should have no trouble.

Pancake tortoises are definitely on the smaller side, only reaching 6-7″ inches in adulthood (15-18 cm).

Note: This species is threatened in the wild. 

A CITES certificate should help you determine a reputable captive pancake tortoise breeder.

Greek Tortoise

Greek tortoises are technically a family, not a species of tortoise. 

There are a few subspecies which are often confused for one another. 

In spite of their name, Greek tortoises live mostly in Africa, with scattered populations in Europe and Asia.

They have square-patterned carapaces in ivory, brown, and black colors.

These are smaller tortoises, which adds to their popularity. 

They only grow up to 10″ inches (25 cm) in length.

Though they don’t appreciate handling, Greek tortoises are generally engaged and friendly. 

When they get used to you and know you are the one feeding them, they will be drawn to you. 

Their temperaments and their smaller size put them among the most popular pet tortoises.

Red-Footed Tortoise

Red-footed tortoises live in tropical rainforest environments in South America. 

Since they live in a different type of environment from other tortoises, you will need to keep an eye on their humidity levels with a hygrometer and make sure their enclosures are the proper temperature with multiple thermometers.

Healthy humidity levels are critical for all tortoises, but especially these ones.

These are large tortoises with red marks on their heads and feet. 

Red-footed tortoises grow to 10-16″ inches (25-41 cm) in length in adulthood.

Their larger size does put a lot of beginners off of owning a red-footed tortoise. 

However, they are often recommended because of their friendly and docile temperaments.

Russian Tortoise

Contrary to what their name suggests, Russian tortoises live in sand and clay deserts in Iran, Pakistan, and China in the wild. 

They have domed carapaces, which are brown to olive green in color depending on the individual.

These are smaller tortoises. 

They grow to 8-10″ inches in adulthood (20-25 cm).

Russian tortoises are a popular choice for tortoise owners. 

They are hardy in many different climates and at lower temperatures. 

They also have feisty and engaging personalities. 

However, many currently in the pet trade tend to be wild-caught rather than captive-bred. 

We strongly recommend searching for a captive-bred one if you think a Russian tortoise may be for you.

Hermann’s Tortoise

Hermann’s tortoises live in forests and on the rocky hillsides of Mediterranean Europe. 

There are two subgroups of Hermann’s tortoise, the Eastern and the Western. 

They have strong legs and yellow and brown carapaces. 

They are surprisingly active tortoises and like running and burrowing. 

Make sure to reinforce any enclosure.

They are smaller, only growing to 6-8″ inches (15-20 cm) in adulthood. 

Unlike other tortoise species, Hermann’s tortoises might like occasional live insect treats for the extra protein.

Hermann’s tortoises are popular because of their smaller size. 

Like other tortoises, they are gentle pets, though they may bite in defense. 

If you like the Hermann tortoise we have a post on how to care for Hermann’s tortoise you’ll enjoy.

Final Thoughts

Caring for a pet tortoise will take some research and time. 

Different species of tortoise will have different enclosure setup and dietary needs. 

It is essential you learn what your specific tortoise will need and whether you will be able to provide it before committing to a tortoise pet.

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