Despite the common belief that many people easily keep a tortoise at the bottom of the garden, occasionally feeding it lettuce leaves – tortoises are actually a challenging pet and not really recommended for the beginner or casual reptile owner. Not only do they grow to impractical sizes, especially for indoor housing, but they also have complicated dietary requirements and habits. Thorough knowledge of the individual species and good husbandry is essential for the tortoise to thrive.
The Ban on Tortoises
In addition, many tortoises that were once popular as pets are now listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and are also covered by additional, EU-wide, legislation which controls sale, transport and possession within Europe. This means that you can no longer import, sell or trade tortoises in any way within Europe without a special permit. This can make locating a captive-bred tortoise quite difficult (never buy a wild-caught specimen and do not attempt to bring one in from overseas) although joining a tortoise organisation, such as the Tortoise Trust, can provide you with good specialist advice, listings for reputable breeders and even information about tortoises that need re-homing. If you do find a good, captive-bred tortoise in a reptile shop, make sure that it is sold with FULL DOCUMENTATION as otherwise you may be unwittingly supporting the illegal trade in wild animals.
The most popular species for pets include the leopard tortoise, Hermann’s tortoise (sometimes called Mediterranean tortoise) and the Mediterranean Spur-Thigh Tortoise – however, these are all listed now under the CITES endangered list. The Russian or Horsefield Tortoise, however, is still exempt and is also a popular choice as a pet.
One of the key things about tortoises is that they have incredibly long lifespans – from 50 to over 100 years – and this is something you need to consider when making a commitment to this type of pet. Not only will you need to commit to a lifetime of care but you must make provisions for a pet that could easily outlive you.
Many tortoise species have voracious appetites and careful attention must be paid to their diets: they must have a good variety, with particular emphasis on the amount of roughage in the diet. You must also closely monitor the calcium/phosphorous balance. This is too vast and complicated a topic to be covered in this article and specialist books and reptile experts should be consulted.
Ideally, tortoises should live outdoors and this means they may be more suited to areas with milder climates. However, you may still need to bring your tortoise in over night or during cooler periods, depending on the temperatures of its natural habitat and where you live yourself. If – as with many species – the tortoise grows very large, providing appropriate indoor housing can be quite a challenge.
Even if you feel that you can leave your tortoise outdoors the entire year, always provide some form of shelter, such as a doghouse, ideally with heating as well. For some species, a temperature drop will trigger hibernation and this is something that they need to do, although it can be a very stressful period and requires special prepartions. Consult a knowledgeable vet or reptile expert to make sure that your tortoise is in good enough condition to cope with hibernation and for advice on how to prepare for this vulnerable period.
Most tortoises will need a custom-built enclosure. Make sure that the outdoor pen is very strong as tortoises, especially large adults, are surprisingly strong and a flimsy structure will not last very long. As tortoises love to burrow, make sure that the fences are deeply buried – in addition, some tortoises climb very well so make sure that the pen has a securely-fitted roof as well. This not only prevents them from escaping but also keeps them safe from potential predators, such as dogs.
Features inside the pen will add interest but check that there are no poisonous plants or sharp or small objects that might be accidentally ingested. Any body of water should be shallow and also make sure that any obstacles (e.g. rocks, steps) won’t cause the tortoise to flip on its back while trying to climb it, as this can lead to death.
Some species of tortoise can be quite anti-social and even aggressive, particularly if males are kept together in too small a space. The resulting fighting can cause serious injuries around the eyes and legs. So always research your chosen species carefully and note their normal habits in the wild before attempting to find a cage mate for your pet. In general, tortoise species vary significantly in their housing, environmental and dietary needs, as well as their adult sizes, temperature and lighting needs so thorough research and choosing the right species is crucial to success.
This article is simply an introduction to keeping tortoises as pets and anyone with a serious interest should join a good tortoise organisation, get expert advice and do thorough research through specialist books.
We have 9 tortoises - my daughter was given 2 as a present 18 years ago. About 4 years ago they started breeding and we now have another 7 ranging from 1 month old to 4 years.
We have been living in Qatar, but will be relocating to the UK in the next year. Is there any way we can bring the tortoises home? And if so what's the best way to do this?
von - 5-Mar-17 @ 9:17 AM
what is the easiest and smallest type of tortoise you could have as a pet in the UK. with the lowest amount of maintenance? I keep looking and although the names of the breeds allowed in the UK are easy to find I cant find the differences between them.
Lucy - 12-Feb-17 @ 4:47 PM
Is there a specific time of year you should purchase a tortoise or can you buy them any time of year?
Meh - 24-Aug-16 @ 5:14 PM
chris - Your Question:
Hi we have had our tortoise about 38 years,, not sure how old he was when we purchased him,i would say about 2 or 3 maybe, he has been out of hibernation about 3 weeks now,he doesnt seem to be eating apart from 1 mouthful of iceburg lettuce,i have give him a bath and bathed his eyes and mouth with warm water out of the kettle,he has had a good poo. he seems to be getting a little stronger but his eyes still look bad, part closed and not as bright as they usually are,i am getting a little worried about him we know he isnt quite himself but we are very nervous of taking him to vet,dont know of any in doncaster that specialise in tortoises,please could you help with any advise.
When first emerging from hibernation a tortoise has a depleted level of strength and unless it receives adequate quantities of heat and light it will simply remain sluggish and continue to use up energy reserves by refusing to eat. Ideally, you need to raise its body temperature to around 30 degrees Celsius and a basking lamp can help here. Cataracts or a cloudiness of the eye may have been caused by your animal being exposed to freezing conditions while in hibernation. This may also account for its odd behaviour and difficulty eating.If your pet tortoise doesn't improve then a vet is a must. Vets are trained to care for all kinds of animals, so does not have to be a specialist.
ReptileExpert - 12-May-16 @ 10:39 AM
hi we have had our tortoise about 38 years,, not sure how old he was when we purchased him,i would say about2 or 3 maybe, he has been out of hibernation about 3 weeks now,
he doesnt seem to be eating apart from 1 mouthful of iceburg lettuce,i have give him a bath and bathed his eyes and mouth with warm water out of the kettle,he has had a good poo. he seems to be getting a little stronger but his eyes still look bad, part closed and not as bright as they usually are,i am getting a little worried about him we know he isnt quite himself but we are very nervous of taking him to vet,dont know of any in doncaster that specialise in tortoises,please could you help with any advise.
chris - 11-May-16 @ 2:30 PM
I have a new little spurthighed tortoise (mediterranean) who is roughly 2 years old. She seems to be gaining to much weight. Far more than the recommended 4g per month, last month was 30g, looks like heading same way this month and is starting to look a little bit puffy. She eats campanula, the odd dandilion, welsh poppy, plantain and a little bit of clover and tortoise weed mix and pansy flowers. We can't seem to find anything definitive on quantity of food per day. Are there any foods that are particularly calorific to avoid? Any help would be appreciated!!
Robyn - 20-Apr-16 @ 7:45 PM
@Sylv - the costs for one. If you are thinking of having a tortoise in an aquarium your electricity bills will shoot up, plus they need a large space to roam, so the expense of a pen and all the other equipment doesn't come cheaply. If you can't give it much attention or a mate then I wouldn't as I would rather see it out in its natural habitat - the wild. Tortoises can live for decades which means you will always be tied to having the responsibility of getting someone to keep an eye on it if you go on holiday. Besides aquarium tortoises aren't the most entertaining of pets - it doesn't take long to get bored of them. Garden tortoises are easier but they are very costly to buy because of the previous ban on them in the UK and then you have the responsibility of making sure they successfully hibernate every year. But if you have a big garden and plenty of space for them to roam then they make fab pets.
Rache - 20-Apr-16 @ 2:08 PM
Please tell me how I can purchase a tortoise, and what are the pitfalls in keeping one.
sylv - 19-Apr-16 @ 5:44 PM
Hello, my friend has offered me her tortoise ( which I am most excited about)as they no longer have time to care for it.
My grandparents had a tortoise which lived to be approximately 90 years old!
We are retiring and are looking to buy a canal boat. I would love to have this lovely tortoise and take it on our travels ( I say it as I don't know if it is M or F)
Would this be possible, any help or advice would be most appreciated.
We also have a caravan for inland trips and weekends and a house to use occasionally.
But we would mostly be on our canal boat.
Many thanks in advance
Dee - 20-Mar-16 @ 10:13 AM
My leopard tortoise is around 5 she is normally happy full of energy and healthy. She has not been for a poo in around 2 weeks and she hasn't eaten for 3 days. I've tried to hand feed her fibre to help move things along..aswell as 30 minute soaks in warm water. She also keeps moving out of the way of her basking light. Please help
beck - 14-Jan-16 @ 7:51 PM
Ju - Your Question:
My mums tortoise has come out of hibernation she is 2 or 3 years old. She wont open her eyes is this normal. Any advice would be appreciated thanks
Firstly, try bathing you tortoise's eyes in luke warm water, remember it has been asleep for a good while, opening its eyes may not come naturally. I have also included a link by the Tortoise Trust which outlines eye problems which can occur in frozen tortoises, which is halfway down the page. Please see link: here. However, this may not be your problem, but it is one to be aware of. I hope this helps.
ReptileExpert - 12-Jan-16 @ 12:33 PM
My mums tortoise has come out of hibernationshe is 2 or 3 years old .She wont open her eyesis this normal . Any advice would be appreciated thanks
Ju - 11-Jan-16 @ 6:42 PM
beckyjo - Your Question:
I have a horsefield tortoise, she's 2 years old. She lives on a tortoise table. Her heat & uv light get replaced after 12 months. I noticed a few weeks ago she was constantly rubbing her eyes. I took her to the vet who advised she was fine but to bath her daily. I've been doing this but for the last few days her eyes wot/can't open & she's lost her appetite. Other than this she seems her normal happy self. I took her back to the vet who was unsure what's wrong with her & is going to ask advice from someone else. The vet herself has 3 tortoises so isn't a novice. Any suggestions on what could be wrong or how to make her better. I feel so bad for her!
I have included a link to the Tortoise Trust herewhich says :'Infections usually respond to treatment with either Genoptic (gentamycin) eye drops or terracortril eye suspension. Mild cases respond to Neomycin or Chloramphenicol eye ointment. Where you see severely swollen eyelids there is usually a primary bacterial infection in which case a course of antibiotics will be essential. Some eye problems are simply an indication of vitamn A deficiency. Supply vitamin A and use a mild eye ointment, if the condition does not respond fairly quickly get veterinary help.'
ReptileExpert - 10-Nov-15 @ 2:16 PM
i have a horsefield tortoise, she's 2 years old. She lives on a tortoise table. Her heat & uv light get replaced after 12 months. I noticed a few weeks ago she was constantly rubbing her eyes. I took her to the vet who advised she was fine but to bath her daily. I've been doing this but for the last few days her eyes wot/can't open & she's lost her appetite. Other than this she seems her normal happy self. I took her back to the vet who was unsure what's wrong with her & is going to ask advice from someone else. The vet herself has 3 tortoises so isn't a novice. Any suggestions on what could be wrong or how to make her better. I feel so bad for her!
beckyjo - 9-Nov-15 @ 9:48 PM
Is so one there 2 1 month old Hermann ,does the heat lamp need to be all night
Mrs daniel craig - 22-Oct-15 @ 4:52 PM
Molly - Your Question:
Hi I'm getting a horse field tortoise and I live in England and I'm wound wrong can I keep it out side with a lamp all year long ? Also what lamp would I need
The Horsfield Tortoise is one of the most hardy species and can tolerate cooler climates. I have included a link to the Tortoise Protection Group factsheet here which should tell you all you need to know.
ReptileExpert - 28-Sep-15 @ 2:23 PM
Hi I'm getting a horse field tortoise and I live in England and I'm wound wrong can I keep it out side with a lamp all year long ? Also what lamp would I need
Molly - 27-Sep-15 @ 3:57 PM
i am about to purchase a Tortoise please can you tell me if I can leave him in a Garden Shed during the winter and in the garden in the Summer It will have an infra redlight in the shed and in a purpose build penand a secure run in the Summer thank you
Rontest - 14-Sep-15 @ 12:32 PM
I own a tortoise that is 3 yr. old and have had him since he was 2 weeks old.I am interested in purchasing another young tortoise as well.Please email me if you are interested in selling any of your babies.I do not resell, I love turtles and always have.
Awaiting your reply,
Suzi - 22-Jul-15 @ 5:30 PM
@BENNI - some people say about four months old, some say you can sell from hatchlings as soon as they become independent. You'll be able to tell, you just need to make sure they are thriving and healthy.
Isaac - 22-May-15 @ 11:37 AM
I have had baby tortoises and wonder how before he/she can be re-homed?They are eating and drinking well, moving around nicely.
BENNI - 18-May-15 @ 5:28 PM
@tiberius - almost any animal with our kind of breathing system can suffer the same afflictions as we do, including hiccups.
ReptileExpert - 27-Apr-15 @ 12:51 PM
@2measures - it is hard to say and would possibly be better to get a definitive opinion from a qualified vet. But it may be a small of a fungal infection which has arisen from it being cooped up over the winter months. Seems as though there is not too much to worry about if you say they fade.
Fee - 27-Apr-15 @ 11:37 AM
hi, can tortoises get hicups? Mine looks as though that's what he has but I've never seen this before, thank you x
tiberius - 24-Apr-15 @ 4:51 PM
We have had our tortoise for over 33 years, he has a vitamin jab each time he comes out of hibernation at the vets, however we have noticed in recent years that his shell appears drier than normal. and there are some dark spots on the shell though small with dark spots on his head and limbs, they do eventually fade, when he is feeding properly and outside, but I wondered if there is anything we should be giving him or treating his shell with when he first awakes. He has always woken bright eyed, and eats on his first day, we keep him indoors until he is feeding properly and given him a warm bath on his 2 or 3 day. Thank you.
2measures - 24-Apr-15 @ 10:05 AM
@Timothy - as he has just come out of hibernation it may be worth a trip to the vets in order to get some expert advice, especially as he is over 40 years old. A health check-up wouldn't harm and would ensure you may have him another 40 years.
ReptileExpert - 8-Apr-15 @ 12:24 PM
Our tortoise has lived in the garden since 1970.He is put in the shed in his large plastic container in October then comes out at the end of March. We feed him every day, sometimes he comes in the house and wonders around for an hour or so, then makes for the open door and fresh air. Last year he got into a neighbours garden where there were two dogs who scratched at his shell rather badly leaving it white for about two inches in the head area and half an inch at the back tail end area.We thought this might grow. Back to his normal colour, perhaps after hibernation but he has just come out and is still white. Should I put some sort of cream, lotion, oil, etc to help this heal?
Timothy - 5-Apr-15 @ 4:27 PM
@None - I have included some additional information from the Tortoise Trust here which may be of help. Tortoises do take a bit of care and if cared for properly could outlive you and your family, so if you decide on a tortoise as a pet be prepared to be in it for the long haul!
ReptileExpert - 9-Mar-15 @ 12:56 PM
Hi there. My daughter is 14 years old and has wanted a pet, any pet, for some years now. As a family we could not either afford, or give adequate time to, a dog or cat, therefore she has decided that a tortoise might be a suitable choice for a first pet. She has begun researching tortoises, the initial cost etc. but we would really appreciate some basic help with knowing about basic care, initial cost, running costs (such as living conditions, diet, climate control and anything related to health/vet bills) and the general do's and don'ts of having a pet tortoise. Any advice you could give would be very much appreciated. Thank you.
None - 6-Mar-15 @ 4:52 PM
I'm looking to buy a tortoise or ,I'm looking for one that doesn't exceed the length of about 12cm,doesnt hibernate and would be good as a first pet, could you please help me with this matter,thanks.