Choosing Your Pet
Housing Multiple Species
Tortoises for Beginners
A tortoise is not typically a top of mind animal when it comes time to choosing your next pet. With that said, tortoises are unique looking animals which make them stand out among other animals at a pet store (the same can be said about aquatic water turtles). Therein lies the problem. Many people who end up purchasing a pet tortoise, do so on an impulse. They might think these pets are easy to care for and only really require a fenced backyard as a pen and a few heads of lettuce for food; but the true reality is that they have special requirements that not every owner will be able to provide. Furthermore, each tortoise species has different needs so even if you already have one, it doesn’t mean your new pet will thrive in your current setup (See how to take care of a turtle for additional info).
Choosing Your Pet
It’s important to note that you should only buy pet tortoises from a reputable breeder or pet store. Don’t take a tortoise out of its natural habitat. For one they might have diseases but also, they don’t adjust well to life in captivity and tend to have a higher mortality rate then captive bred species. Additionally, more often than not it’s illegal to capture tortoises in the wild. Check with your local agencies to educate yourself on the rules and regulation. Also visit the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species for more useful information on the pet trade and endangered species.
You can also check your local animal shelters or rescue group as there are occasionally ones that have been dropped off by owners that can’t provide the proper care for them.
Inspect a Tortoise before You Buy
You need to closely inspect any pet you buy and a tortoise is no exception. The following are some tips that you should follow when inspecting your potential pet:
- Check the eyes for swelling or redness as this can be a sign of an ear infection or abscess. The eyes should be clear and not cloudy
- If the tortoise consistently breathes with its mouth open, it can be a sign of a respiratory infection.
- The nares of the nose should be open and free of discharge. Closed nares can be a sign of an abscess or a history of chronic infections.
- Inspect the mouth and make sure it is a health shade of pink. brown mucous, bleeding or thick saliva can be a sign of illness.
- The shell should not be soft and not feel hollow. The scutes can have minor imperfections but they should not appear rotting, infected or deformed
- The hind legs should not be constantly extended since this can be a sign of constipation, bladder stones or other problems.
- The tail and cloaca should be free of fecal matter since that can be a sign of intestinal parasites or a bacterial infection
Can you Provide the Proper Care?
Before you purchase a tortoise, you first need to decide if you have the space. A vivarium (aquarium), even a decent size one, is no home for a tortoise, even a small one. All tortoises, no matter their size, need a suitable pen to roam around in. Outdoor pens need to be secure to keep them from escaping and safe to keep out predators. Additional lighting and heating might also be needed if you live in a cooler climate (see turtle habitat setup for more info).
Housing Multiple Tortoises
Any one tortoise breed can be from a completely different habitat than another. Any type of climate from hot and humid year around to ones that have cold harsh winters. This means each species will require different temperatures, humidity. Additionally, each will then of course have different dietary needs. For these reasons, it’s important to know what species you are getting and whether you have the ability to care for them.
Don’t Keep Different Species Together
As explained above, each tortoise species is different from one another and require different care but it’s not uncommon to find tow different breeds that have the same temperatures and dietary requirements. However, this doesn’t mean you should house them together. The main reason for this is simple; each individual tortoise might potentially be carrying a diseases that they are resistant to but the other tortoise is not. Letting two species share a habitat even for just a brief time, say during cleaning time, is not recommended. Additionally, for your tortoises’ health and your own, you should always wash your hands after handling a tortoise.
Another reason you should avoid housing multiple tortoises in the same pen is because they all have different temperaments and don’t always get along. This tension can lead to stress or injury which can shorten the lifespan or your pet.
Not only are you likely to see fighting when you house different species together, but you can often see two adult male tortoises of the same breed fighting. The best way to describe a tortoise fight is when one rams the other in attempt to knock it over. While this sight might not look serious, biting can occur which can lead to injury.
If one male is outmatched or constantly picked on, it’s living situation can become very stressful. Usually you can separate the two males for a short time but if the fighting persists, you might need to find an alternative living situation. One viable option includes adding more hiding places or large rocks or logs. This helps the two males from constantly seeing each other.
If you want multiple tortoises and don’t have a large living space, get females as they don’t fight like the males do.
Tortoises for Beginners
There are several species that are commonly found in the pet trade that are suitable for beginners. The following is a list of tortoises that don’t grow to enormous sizes and are typically more hardy than other breeds. There are a few exotic breeds available but they should be avoided; especially if they need to be imported from overseas.
Originally found in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Europe, the Greek tortoise or Spur-thighed tortoise prefers warmer temperatures between 79*f to 89*f (26*C-32*C). When fully grown this breed only reaches about 7 inches long (18cm). The Greek or Spur-thighed tortoise is not to be confused Spurred tortoise; the later breed is one of the largest breeds there is (2.5ft or 83cm). The color of the Greek varies from browns to olives and even yellows (Golden Greek). These guys are also often confused with the next turtle on our list, the Hermann’s tortoise (See the characteristic differences).
Native to the southern portions of Europe, the Hermann’s enjoys temperatures between 73*F to 99*F (23*C -37*C). It’s one of the most readily available tortoises in the pet trade market and is partly due to this breeds intelligence as they have been known to recognize their owners. This breed grows to about 10 inches (25cm).
The Leopard tortoise originates from the southern parts of Africa around Sudan and south where it lives in temperatures between 80*F to 90*F (27*C – 32*C). At maturity, the Leopard breed can reach about 20 inches (.5 meters). The scutes on the shell has an attractive dark brown and tan pattern and the skin is mainly tan to yellow. Some tortoise species are known to be diggers but this one is not one of them other than to dig for breeding nests.
The Pancake tortoise gets its name from its flat carapace shell. This breed originates from parts of Africa and enjoys temperatures 80*F to 89*F (27*C – 32*C). The flat shell allows this tortoise to climb well and fit into cracks within the rocks of its natural habitat. Adult Pancakes can reach up to 7 inches (18cm). If you get one of these, provide it with plenty of rocks for it to use as a hiding place.
From South America, the Red Footed tortoise gets its name from the red coloring on the scales of its feet but it can also have red coloring on its head. A Red Footed will thrive in temperatures in the 70s to 80s (22*C -28*C), a basking area of 93*F to 97*F (34*C – 36*C) and high humidity (80%). This species when fully grown, will grow to about 15 inches (38cm). The requirement of high humidity will make it necessary to get a mister to keep the living space moist. The most practical solution involves a spray bottle and a soaking tray (find out more in our habitat setup section). A benefit to having this species is that it doesn’t hibernate so you can enjoy it year around and not have to worry about proper turtle hibernation care.
The Russian tortoise (horsfield’s) can be found in its natural habitat of Southern parts of Russia and into the regions of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. This is why this breed enjoys a dry environment with temperatures of 75*F to 85*F (24*C -29*C) and a basking area in the low 90s (32*C). Russian tortoises don’t grow to large sizes, only about 8 inches long (20cm) making it good for beginners. However, this breed likes to burrow into the ground and they are also good climbers. Extra precautions needs to followed when building their habitat. It must be secure enough that your pet can’t dig under its pen fence or climb up and out of it.