Tortoises: The Complete Guide To Caring For Tortoises

The fascinating fact about tortoises is that some of them have been around to watch entire human civilizations wiped off from the face of the earth. Plus, having Master Oogway as your pet animal is pretty cool in itself.

Therefore, while the idea of having a pet tortoise may seem exciting, there are certain things you need to understand when it comes to caring for your pet tortoise. This article will answer those questions to equip you better to keep your pet tortoise at its happiest! Keep reading to understand how you should care for pet tortoises fully.

Introduction to the Tortoise Species

The very first thing that you need to know about the tortoise species is that it is a part of the larger turtle family and is classified as a reptile. While most people simply assume that tortoises and turtles are amphibians, that is not the case.

Tortoise close up

Turtles and tortoises are just cold-blooded reptiles that can also be found in water bodies. Tortoises are almost exclusively land-based reptiles.

With some tortoise species growing extremely large, you must be thorough with your research about which species of tortoises you should be bringing home.

While known primarily for the long lifespans that often extend beyond a century, Tortoises are also known for being notoriously slow in their movement. Tortoises can be found in a wide range of locations due to their enormous number of species.

Semi-arid zones are home to the great majority of species. Deserts, grasslands, mountainsides, scrub woods, and sand dunes are all possible habitats for them.

The Appearance of a Tortoise

Tortoises have high-domed shells or carapaces and are cold-blooded reptiles. They are also called ectothermic animals. Now, the only exception to the generic appearance of the high-domed shell is the pancake tortoise species.

Tortoise

As the name suggests, its shell resembles a pancake and is flat in appearance. Now, in likeness to their water-based counterparts, the turtles, tortoises too, resort to withdrawing their necks and heads into their shell structures.

A characteristically unique feature about tortoises is the presence of their shell, despite being vertebrate creatures, along with the placement of their pelvic and pectoral girdles in their ribcages.

Tortoiseshells are generally comprised of about sixty individual bones that have a layer of scutes on them. These scutes form the visible patterns and segmentation on the tortoiseshells, giving them a unique appearance.

The bottom portion of a tortoise’s shell is referred to as the plastron. The plastron is connected to the upper portion of the shell by way of bridge-like structures.

The compound that forms the shells is the same compound that our hair and fingernails are made of – keratin. Therefore, tortoises, too, feel pain and impact on their shells, much like we can feel them against our fingernails.

An intriguing fact about a tortoiseshell is that the number of rings on it is often used as a method to estimate the average age of any given tortoise.

You will be interested to know that the tortoise species does not really have teeth in its jaws. However, these reptiles have a strong beak that they often use to bite into and hold different things, including their food.

Some common characteristics across all species of tortoises is a set of thick and cylindrical limbs that are similar to those of an elephant, a distinctive type of anatomy in their hind limbs, and the presence of either two or lesser numbers of bony protrusions (known as phalanges) on their extremities.

Tortoises also show sexually dimorphic characteristics. This essentially means that female tortoises are different in physical characteristics as compared to male tortoises.

Having said that, how can you identify a tortoise to be either male or female? Well, a male tortoise’s tail is typically kept drawn toward the sky. It is also substantially longer than those of female tortoises. 

The overall anatomy of the tortoise is such that it can’t really thrive in water even if it wanted to. Their large, almost-spherical shells are simply not suited for swimming.

Further, their limbs are helpful for activities like burrowing, digging, etc., rather than for floating or propelling themselves in the water.

What Should You Feed Your Pet Tortoise?

Tortoises are essentially herbivorous. Therefore, typically, even in the wild, tortoises are observed to enjoy leafy foods and other vegetarian sources of nutrition and sustenance.

Given that this species is primarily herbivorous, you must ensure that you feed your pet tortoise a supplemented and mixed diet that delivers all the required nutrients to your pet tortoise.

Here are the three food items that should constitute the bulk of your pet tortoise’s daily diet:

Commercially available pet tortoise food

With various options of commercially available tortoise food in the market, you can choose anyone after discussing it with your veterinarian and providing it to your pet tortoise in its daily diet.

Types of hay

Hays like high-quality timothy hay and alfalfa are also inclusions that you can offer in your pet tortoise’s daily diet. These hays are excellent dietary fiber sources that help keep your tortoise’s digestive health at its best.

Different types of fruit

While you shouldn’t feed your pet tortoise fruits on a daily basis, adding freshly cut fruits to its meals every third or fourth day is a great way to introduce variety and vital sources of micronutrients to its overall diet.

Kiwi, melons, oranges, and specific types of berries are all great fruits to include in your pet tortoise’s meal plan.

Fresh produce and vegetables

Fresh vegetables such as kale, dandelions, mustard, and collard greens should make up roughly 80% of your pet tortoise’s daily food, depending on the species.

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Toss in some green or yellow bell pepper, sweet potato, squash, or cauliflower for variety. All of these should be served fresh on a daily basis and should constitute the majority portion of your pet tortoise’s daily diet.

Supplemental nutrition

The unfortunate fact that research finds is that despite being on good diets, tortoises suffer from issues that are caused by nutrient deficiencies. This is primarily because the diet of a pet tortoise lacks essential vitamins and minerals.

Now, tortoises require calcium and vitamin A. Therefore, you must make it a point to use supplemental nutrition and include it in your pet tortoise’s diet by occasionally dusting your pet tortoise’s main diet with commercially available supplement powders.

Behavioral Traits in Tortoises

Generally speaking, both in captivity and in their natural wild habitats, tortoises are fairly harmless and reclusive. They don’t engage in fights and physicality unless challenged by another male tortoise.

Therefore, you must be mindful of placing your pet tortoise with another male pet tortoise in an enclosure. Another behavioral trait that you will have to be aware of is managing your pet tortoise’s stress levels.

Tortoise in shell

This is because when stressed to a certain extent, your pet tortoise will suffer from overall ill health. When your tortoise is young, you should avoid physically handling it excessively. As an adult, it will be quite large for you to handle it. 

Tortoises also use their tortoiseshell to protect themselves and hide in it when faced with any signs of danger. Another absurd behavior that tortoises engage in is that of urinating when faced with a threat.

Another facet of their behavior in captivity is walking or pacing in their enclosures. Walking is perfectly natural for your pet tortoise because it is their innate instinct to scour the ground and their surroundings for food.

This process, considering the ridiculously slow pace of tortoises, can take hours on end. Therefore, you should try to house your tortoise in an enclosure as large as possible. Suppose you use a vivarium to accommodate your pet tortoise.

In that case, it might get confused by the transparent boundaries and the world that lies outside it. To help with the confusion, try covering the bottom section of the glass.

You will also observe your pet tortoise pant or breathe heavily, or even hiss at times. Typically, this happens when a tortoise eats its food and seldom signs that your tortoise feels unsafe. Your tortoise may also squeak from time to time.

Now, unless your tortoise makes squeaking noises when it isn’t mating with another tortoise, you should head to your veterinarian’s clinic to rule out or diagnose any signs of respiratory disease or infection.

Another type of behavior that is typically observed in tortoises is that of head-butting and banging. Headbanging or butting might signify mating rituals or dominance in tortoises since tortoises are not particularly known to be social animals.

Males will frequently bob their heads at females before attempting to mate. If both tortoises are male, a fight may ensue, with one tortoise being flipped over. Males will also smell the tortoise’s cloacal area, which emits pheromones.

This aids the male in determining both the gender and the species. Tortoises are extremely rare to mate with other tortoises. Males aren’t the only ones that engage in these behaviors. Females who are gravid, or carrying eggs, will become hostile as well.

You can also find your tortoise butting its head if there is another male tortoise in its area. This is because your pet tortoise is asserting his territorial supremacy. From time to time, tortoises also use this behavior to intimidate young tortoises or different species of animals.

There is no specific timeline that tortoises will begin displaying such aggressive behavior. Still, most pet tortoise owners report that their pet tortoises begin to headbang after the age of forty.

How do Tortoises Reproduce?

Before we explore how tortoises actually reproduce, there are a few facts about their reproductive behavior that you must understand. To begin with, most tortoise species often commence their courtship rituals in the spring season and often continue after summer.

This period of courtship rituals generally takes place after their hibernation periods. But, the actual mating season has been found to vary depending on their location in their natural habitats, the type of environment that habitat is experiencing, and so on.

Sulcata tortoises, for example, can be seen procreating at any time between June and March. Still, mostly, you will see this happen after the monsoons.

On the other hand, red-footed tortoises will reproduce at any time in a given year but choose to lay eggs in June through September.

If you actively wish to pursue breeding your pet tortoises, it would be ideal if you spent some time researching about them to ensure that you aren’t accidentally causing them to inbreed.

This is because inbreeding in tortoises, even in just closely related ones, reduces the chances of healthy and viable eggs or even malformed hatchlings. You will also have to take care to ensure that the tortoises you wish to mate belong to the same subspecies.

This is because reproduction between two tortoises that belong to different species results in the laying of fertile eggs, and therefore, no hatchlings. 

Further, because the size of a tortoise’s shell determines when it reaches sexual maturity, the age at which they attain sexual maturity varies, largely based on where they dwell.

Captive tortoises generally reach sexual maturity before the age of 4 years because they have access to consistent and requisite nutrients through their controlled diet.

But in the wild, tortoises take as much as two decades, sometimes more, to mature and be prepared to mate.

As a pet tortoise owner, you must discuss with your specialized vet when you should mate your tortoise to ensure good health and the laying of healthy and viable eggs.

Even though the methods of courtship differ amongst species, they all have one thing in common: violence. Male tortoises bite female tortoises, ram their shells into them, and aggressively circle them.

Male tortoises favor larger female tortoises. Therefore, you should try to ensure the presence of two larger females if you plan on housing your tortoises together.

Doing so will ensure that the mail tortoise doesn’t fixate on only one of the other two females in the tortoise enclosure. 

The female tortoise will often acquiesce and retract inside her shell after repeated advances by the interested male tortoise; this is the signal for the male to initiate mating.

The male tortoise will stand firm on his rear feet and place his front legs on the back of the female tortoise’s shell, which is made easier because the male shell’s bottom is somewhat more concave than the female’s.

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You may witness him moving his back legs to ensure his tail is aligned with the females’. After getting into position, the male will proceed to pound the ground with his feet while simultaneously grunting and hissing till he’s finished.

Remember that tortoise reproduction is pretty harsh on the ears simply because of how loud it is. 

Interestingly, research shows that female tortoises can preserve sperm in their bodies for up to four years after the act of sexual intercourse with a male tortoise. Therefore, you won’t be able to tell by way of a specific timeline when your female tortoise will lay eggs.

However, in the wild, egg-laying is most common in the spring and summer when the weather is warm, and the conditions are ideal. Nevertheless, there is no set season, and they can lay their eggs at any time.

When the newborn tortoises near the conclusion of their development inside their eggs, they extend out, forcing their beaks through the eggshell. Their beaks have an egg tooth, a bony projection that helps the tortoise emerge from its egg.

The tortoise will use their legs to get out of their egg and out of the nest once the shell has been broken. Tortoises, unlike sea turtles, do not all leave the nest at the same time, with up to 3 weeks between the first and last hatchlings emerging.

What is the Largest Threat to Tortoise Species?

There is no doubt concerning the fact that tortoises and the entire turtle family are inching toward extinction at an alarming rate.

This is mainly due to humankind’s approach toward modernization and the rapid depletion of nature’s resources along with the natural habitats of wildlife.

Black Tortoise Standing

A lot of this danger to the tortoise species is also attributed to extensive poaching activities and non-scientific methods of dealing with tortoises, even as pets.

Even though some significant efforts are being taken to reduce the rate of extinction of one of the most ancient species of animals humanity has ever witnessed, the global population of tortoises and their water-based counterparts, turtles, is rapidly dropping to extremely low levels.

Differences Between Tortoises and Turtles

Side view of cute Lepidochelys olivacea turtle swimming underwater of blue sea on sunny day

The phrases turtle and tortoise (and terrapin) are used differently in different parts of the world. They don’t always reflect the scientific distinctions between these animal families.

Before we explore the technicalities of the differences between tortoises and turtles, there is an easy way to remember the general difference between the two reptiles.

While both turtles and tortoises belong to the biological order of reptiles called Testudines, tortoises are exclusively restricted to a land-based natural habitat. This means that tortoise species simply form a subset of the larger turtle family of reptiles.

Therefore, it goes without saying that the two reptiles share some common physical and behavioral characteristics. Tortoises and turtles both have:

  • Scutes (thick, hard and bony plates) composed of keratin are wrapped in a bony shell.
  • Tortoises and turtles have connected ribs and vertebrae to their shells.
  • Both the reptiles wear a pelvic girdle inside their rib cage.
  • To reproduce, both tortoises and turtles lay eggs in dug dirt or sand nests on land.
  • Being reptiles, they are cold-blooded and rely upon the surrounding environment to regulate their body temperature.
  • Both tortoises and turtles lack a set of toothed jaws. Instead, both of them use beak structures to execute the functions of teeth.

Now that we know the similarities between these two reptiles let’s focus on the primary differences between tortoises and turtles.

The difference in natural habitat

The most important distinction between tortoises and turtles is that tortoises are exclusively terrestrial creatures, whereas turtles, much like amphibians, prefer to live in or spend much of their time in the water.

Tortoises lack the ability to swim and must rely solely on land to survive. They can live in a variety of conditions, including grasslands, scrub vegetation, complete deserts, and tropical forests, despite their preference for semi-arid areas.

Further, turtles can be entirely aquatic (except while laying eggs), partially aquatic, or largely (but almost never entirely) terrestrial. Freshwater species of turtles can be found living in and around most aquatic settings, whereas sea turtles rarely leave the ocean.

The difference in the shape of turtle shells and tortoiseshells

Apart from box turtle and some mud turtle species, the general shape of turtle shells is such that it allows them to be efficient in the water. Therefore, they are flat and aerodynamically efficient in gliding and cutting through the water.

Tortoises, on the other hand, sport shells that are almost useless in terms of their efficiency in the water. They are large, cumbersome, and shaped like domes.

However, tortoise shells are such that they are more efficient in terms of offering protection against common land predators.

Turtles shed their scutes whereas tortoises don’t

Turtles are known to shed their scutes on a routine basis since it allows them to get rid of older scute growth and replace it with a new layer of scutes.

Their sunbathing behavior is primarily motivated by the fact that staying in the suns makes their scutes dry and, thereby, easy to peel off.

However, even if their scutes don’t shed naturally, they will actively take steps such as rubbing against the bark of trees to relieve old scutes forcibly. On the other hand, their land-based tortoise counterparts don’t engage in the shedding of their scutes.

In fact, tortoiseshells are bulky in older tortoises because they don’t ever shed. This ensures that the keratin of their shells continues to grow and further thickens the shell structure, and provides an appearance of layers to their shell.

The difference in the shape of their limbs

Put simply, turtles have limbs that resemble flippers, to an extent, with elongated extremities that have claws protruding from them. Their feet also have webbings to help them push against the water and move forward while swimming.

Tortoises, on the other hand, have limbs that resemble those of an elephant. Their legs are cylindrical and thick, and heavily padded that allowing them to support the weight of the tortoise’s body and the shell.

The easiest way to distinguish between a tortoise and a turtle is to look at their limbs.

The ability to swim

As we mentioned, tortoises are exclusively land-based reptiles. Therefore, tortoises generally avoid water altogether, except when it comes to cleaning themselves and drinking water. Because of their thick, cumbersome, and domed shells, they aren’t intended for swimming.

On the other hand, Turtles are built for aquatic existence and are great swimmers, with their sleek body and shell forms and webbed feet or flippers.

Locations where they are found

Turtles and tortoises thrive in tropical and semi-tropical areas since they all demand warm temperatures outside.

Turtles and tortoises are incredibly adaptable animals, with turtles found on every continent except Antarctica and tortoises found on every continent save Antarctica and Australasia.

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The most diversified number of tortoise species may be found in Africa, while you can find the most diverse range of turtles in Southeastern North America and Asia.

Preferred diets of tortoises and turtles

Tortoises and turtles both require a lot of nutrients and minerals for proper shell growth, but their diets are very different. Tortoises are mostly herbivores, though their diet varies according to their species and age.

They have a diverse diet, feeding on leaves, weeds, grasses, fruit, and vegetables when they come across them over long distances.

Turtles are omnivores who eat a similar variety of vegetables as tortoises and augment their diet with protein sources such as worms, insects, jellyfish, and tiny fish.

What is the Average Lifespan of the Tortoise Species?

Tortoises live an average of 90 years, and as they grow older, they also become larger. Tortoises have been known even to live perfectly healthy lives beyond the age of 100.

In fact, Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise living on the island of Saint Helena and estimated to be 188 years old, is the oldest currently alive terrestrial animal. 

Types of Tortoise Pets

Some of the best types of tortoises that you can have for pets are given below. Make sure you consult with your local veterinary practice whether they have the knowledge and expertise to care for an exotic species of a tortoise before you bring home a pet tortoise.

  • Leopard tortoises
  • Mediterranean Spur Thighed tortoises
  • Indian Star tortoises
  • Red-footed tortoises
  • African Spur Thighed tortoises
  • Pancake tortoises
  • Greek tortoises
  • Sulcata tortoises
  • Marginated tortoises
  • Egyptian tortoises
  • Hermann’s tortoises

These are some of the best species of tortoises to keep as pets, especially if you plan on being a first-time tortoise owner!

Do Tortoises Make for Good Pet Animals?

Tortoises do make for good pet animals primarily because of how little maintenance they need. Many people keep tortoises as pets because they are quiet, cute (particularly as baby tortoises), and obviously don’t lose fur.

Black Tortoise In Close-up Photography

On the other hand, tortoises can live for a very long time (anywhere from 50 to 100 years). However, all said and done, if you adopt one as a pet, be prepared to care for it for the rest of your life and keep in mind that your pet may outlast you.

Setting Up Housing for Tortoise Pets

Setting up housing for tortoise pets can be tricky if you aren’t aware of your tortoise’s environmental needs and requirements. Here are some factors you must consider when setting up a living space for your pet tortoise in your home.

Tortoise terrariums

Because many tortoise species are quite large in size, you should try and place them in an enclosure as large as feasible in your living space.

If you can also set the tortoise terrarium in an outdoor area like your backyard or verandah, it would be ideal for your pet tortoise. However, this is only ideal if you live in a geographical location where the general weather conditions stay mild to moderate.

Remember that you may have to bring your tortoise and its enclosure inside the house if the weather becomes excessively cold for your tortoise species.

Hibernation is required by some species, which can be quite stressful for tortoises and necessitates unique environmental conditions.

Discussing with your specialized vet the necessary conditions required can go a long way in making your pet tortoise’s hibernation periods as comfortable and close to natural as possible.

Regulating the climate within the terrarium

Being cold-blooded animals, you will have to create a living environment that mimics your tortoise species’ ideal natural living conditions.

You may have to make use of artificial heat in colder climates. However, you should never go beyond the ideal temperature range for pet tortoises. Doing so can result in physical discomfort and illness in pet tortoises.

Lighting conditions for pet tortoises

Indoor tortoises require at least 5% UVA/UVB light. UV output will diminish long before the light bulb burns out. Therefore, you should replace such light bulbs every 6-9 months.

Taking Care of a Pet Tortoise

Here are two of the most common things to remember when caring for your pet tortoise.

Handling a tortoise

To begin with, you should avoid handling your tortoise too frequently and, as far as possible, avoid it. But for pet tortoises, you should get them accustomed to some amount of handling as young tortoises.

When handling your tortoises, you must hold them firmly but not too tightly and support their shells entirely. Further, try not to pick them up too high. Tortoises are also quite timid animals and therefore may not respond well to physical advances, so be gradual in initiating contact.

Bathing a tortoise

While you don’t need to bathe your pet tortoise too frequently, a lukewarm body cleaning session every once in a few weeks is a good idea to maintain your pet tortoise’s hygiene and skin health.

You should place your pet tortoise in a tub of water that is extremely shallow for your pet tortoise to drown in. Using a clean toothbrush, simply scrub your pet tortoise’s shell until the dirt and grime are washed away.

Once your tortoise is clean, dry it thoroughly using soft towels or cotton wool.

What Signs of Illness do You Need to Look Out for in Your Pet Tortoise?

A tortoise can live as long or even longer than most human beings. However, to live a truly long and healthy life, it must be free of illnesses and diseases.

We have listed some of the health problems that are commonly observed in tortoises. Noticing the signs early will help you seek your vet’s expertise and nurse your pet tortoise back to its prime health.

  1. Parasite infestation
  2. Poor shell health
  3. Malnourishment
  4. Dehydration

Conclusion

Pet tortoises are great pets only if you know how to care for them properly. This article will prepare you for ensuring your tortoise lives a long, healthy, and content life.

Before you decide on bringing a pet tortoise home, be sure to research the needs of different species thoroughly and whether your living environment is suitable for a pet tortoise. You can also refer to our detailed articles on the various aspects of caring for pet tortoises.

FAQs

Which is the oldest tortoise in the world?

The oldest tortoise in the world is Jonathan, who is a giant Seychelles Tortoise. His age is believed to be around 188 years.

Which is the largest tortoise species in the world?

The Aldabra Giant Tortoise species is the largest tortoise species in the world.

Is the tortoise species classified as amphibians or reptiles?

Tortoise species are almost exclusively land-based creatures and are classified as reptiles.

Are tortoises good swimmers?

No, tortoises are not good swimmers.

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Gulshan
Hi, I am Gulshan, a pet blogger, and author. I've been working with the local pet groups for the past five years. I have been fascinated by our pets and am here to share that wonder with you.