Tortoises are responsive and personable reptiles that make great pets if their needs are met. Proper diet, lighting, and enclosure size are all important considerations, and care can vary significantly between species. The lifespan of a tortoise is also something to consider: some can live for 100 years or more with proper care.
This care sheet addresses the maintenance of most popular grassland and forest tortoises available in the pet trade. Be sure to gather all of the information you can from reputable sources on the care and natural history of your tortoise so that you are familiar with the exact needs of your pet.
varies with species
grasslands, deserts, and tropical forests
varies with species
varies with species
Fifty-three species of tortoise roam the world's grasslands, deserts, and tropical forests. They reach their greatest diversity in Africa, but are also found in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. All tortoises live on land and feed mainly on vegetation, though many species feed on varying amounts of carrion or small animals. They range in size from the four-inch-long speckled tortoise to the 500 pound Aldabra tortoise.
Setting up the enclosure
Tortoises require a lot of space. Only smaller species, such as the Russian tortoise, can be kept in commercial cages. Adults do best in enclosures that have been constructed to meet their needs. Height is not an important factor in cage size; the largest footprint possible should be used for any tortoise.
Glass aquaria are generally unsuitable: most sizes are not ideal due to the wasted vertical space and a limited footprint. Ventilation can also be an issue for tortoises found in dry regions. Large plastic bins and homemade wooden enclosures are ideal. Tortoises can also be housed outdoors with some precautions during the summer months.
Sand and soil-like substrates can be used with many species, either singly or in combination, depending upon the species. Food should be provided in large food dishes to prevent impaction due to ingested bedding. The substrate should be deep enough to the tortoise to burrow.
Light, Heat & Humidity
Tortoises need daily exposure to a light source that provides UVB radiation. Natural sunlight is best, but except in cases where tortoises can be kept outdoors year round with access to shade this option is not usually possible.
Fluorescent bulbs designed for reptiles are usually the best choice. High UVB output desert bulbs are usually best for any enclosure where the UVB source will be within 18 inches of the tortoise. Mercury vapor bulbs, which also provide heat, are suitable for large enclosures.
Most tortoises require a basking site of 90-95°F, but they must be able to move into cooler areas ranging from 75-88°F. As with most specific aspects of tortoise care, temperature requirements vary from species to species.
While desert tortoises will develop health problems in damp enclosures, low humidity has been associated with growth abnormalities in juveniles, notably "pyramiding" of the shell. Certain species from tropical forests may require access to areas of higher humidity.
Females and juveniles may coexist but must be watched as dominant individuals may prevent others from feeding. Males may fight with each other and potentially harass females.
Grassland and desert species have evolved to consume a diet high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. Grasses and herbaceous plants are their natural foods. Protein-rich foods should be avoided and fruit limited to an occasional treat. Native grasses, weeds, and flowers can make up the bulk of the diet when available. Honeysuckle, dandelion, clover, and many others can be used. Care should be taken to avoid unfamiliar or toxic plants. The balance of their diet can consist of greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard, romaine, and leaf lettuce. Avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce. Commercial grassland tortoise diets can be added to these plants. Dried hay, Bermuda grass, and orchard grass can also be used if finely chopped.
Forest species require a varied diet rich in leafy greens, fruits and vegetables, and protein. Moist cat food, canned snails, earthworms, or superworms can be offered weekly to fulfill their protein requirements. Care should be taken to avoid excessive protein, as it has been linked to growth deformities in several species.
As the calcium requirements of tortoises are high, food should be powdered with a calcium supplement. Additionally, a vitamin or mineral supplement should be used 2-3 times per week. UVB-producing fluorescent bulbs are essential for health: without the Vitamin D3 synthesized in the skin during exposure to UVB wavelengths, tortoises are not able to properly absorb and utilize the calcium in their diet.
Adult tortoises can be fed 5-7 times per week; juveniles should be fed daily.
Water should be available, but damp conditions present a health hazard, especially to species from arid regions. A 15 minute soak twice weekly should be provided if possible.
Daily Care and Maintenance
Check for swollen or runny eyes, wheezing, mucus, and shell injuries. Daily care includes removing feces, feeding, and supplying fresh water.
Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people. Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested. Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling any animal. Please speak with your family doctor or veterinarian for more tips on preventing Salmonella, or please read our care guide Cleaning and Disinfecting Recommendations for additional instructions.
When it comes to your new pet, knowledge is the best way to choose an appropriate addition to your family. Learn as much as you can about your new friend before you bring him home to ensure your pet enjoys a long, healthy life.
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact our reptile room at 717-299-5691 (option 7) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
UVB Bulbs with dome
Heat bulb with dome
Food & water dish - size relative to the tortoise
Cypress mulch or mixture of mulch, sand and/or coconut fiber varying with different species
Multi vitamin powder