Although tortoises are hardy creatures, they are living tanks after all, keeping one as a pet can be a tricky proposition. They are tough, but they can still be vulnerable to illness, even ones that can permanently damage them even after correcting the issue. For animals that can live longer than we do, that can be a cruel thing to live through. Of course, permanent illnesses can be mitigated with the right care.
Raising a healthy tortoise involves replicating the same conditions that they are used to in the wild. That includes getting the correct temperature, diet, sunlight, even the humidity. If you live in a place that is the exact opposite environment of what your tortoise is used to, then you will need a lot of special equipment to keep them healthy and happy.
Of course, this is not an impossible feat. In fact, it’s quite doable, provided that you know what you’re doing. And hopefully, after reading through this care guide, you will.
Forest Tortoises vs. Desert or Grassland Tortoises
Before we get into the actual care guide, you need to understand that every tortoise species has their own unique needs. Naturally, if we try to write a care guide for every tortoise species out there, we would be at it for quite a while. So, to keep things short and less confusing, we can divide tortoises based on their natural habitats.
There are two major types of tortoises based on habitat: forest tortoises, also known as tropical tortoises, and desert, savannah, or grassland tortoises. It’s important that you understand which type of tortoise you are keeping, and you can do so by researching where they live. Cherry-head Red Footed tortoises, for example, live in the in the Amazon rainforest, so we can surmise that they are a forest tortoise.
Accidentally giving forest tortoise care to a desert tortoise can cause health problems, particularly with the diet.
If you are interested in getting a tortoise check out our guide on the best type of tortoise to have for an indoor pet below.
Forest tortoises live in, you guessed it, forested areas, or at least most of them do. These tortoises are used to living in places that see a lot of rainfall, so they require high humidity. Of course, since they live under forest canopies, they are used to not having direct sunlight. So, you don’t always see them basking. Forest tortoises are also more tolerant to lower temperatures than desert tortoises.
Although vegetation is abundant in the forests, they are generally lower in nutritional value. That means forest tortoises have a more varied diet than desert tortoises do. They will need to eat fruit about once a week, or around 30% to 40% of their diet. They will also need to eat animal protein at least once a month or every two weeks.
Examples of forest tortoises:
- Red-Footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius)
- Asian Forest Tortoise (Manouria emys)
- Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongata)
- Home’s Hinge-Back Tortoise (Kinixys homeana)
- Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea)
Desert tortoises, also savannah or grassland tortoises, live in arid environments in the wild, so they are used to lower humidity levels than forest tortoises are. In fact, some desert species have a hard time living in tropical or sub-tropical areas. They tend to get respiratory problems because of the higher humidity. They also bask regularly and are more used to higher temperatures.
These types of tortoises live exclusively off of grass and shrubs. Because the desert is such a harsh environment, the plant life there hoard whatever nutrition they can absorb almost jealously, making them very nutritious. This means desert tortoises can live exclusively on grass or weeds alone and still have a healthy diet. You can still offer them fruit, but too much of it can cause kidney problems. A fruit treat once or twice a year should be fine. They should not be given meat or any protein-rich food.
Examples of desert or grassland tortoises:
- African Spurred Tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata)
- Russian Tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)
- Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans)
- Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
- Greek Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
Setting up Your Enclosure
In order to keep your animal healthy, you will need a place to put them in within your home. This enclosure will act as a terrarium, or to be more specific, a herpetarium, with its own self-contained environment. Controlling the environment in this small area should be a lot easier than actually changing the entire room where your tortoise is kept.
If your looking to purchase a new home for your tortoise we have you covered with our guide to the best enclosure for your tortoise.
The first step you’ll need to take when setting up an enclosure is how big it should be. Tortoises may be slow creatures, but they do like to walk around, so a small enclosure is not good for them.
You will need an enclosure big enough for there to be a temperature gradient, where there is a hot spot and a cool spot. This will allow your tortoise to cool down when they feel too hot, and warm up if it’s a bit cold. It’s better to have an enclosure that is longer than it is wide, since this makes temperature control much easier. You will also need housing that has high walls to prevent your tortoise from climbing over and hurting themselves.
As to how large the enclosure should be, you need to consider a few things: how big your tortoises are, how many there are, and how old they are. A good formula to follow is getting an enclosure that is about 4 times their shell length by 8 times their shell length.
A tortoise that is a foot long, for example, should have an enclosure that is 4 feet by 8 feet at minimum. This is only for one tortoise. If you plan on keeping multiple tortoises in one enclosure, then you will need to double the space. Of course, if you are keeping hatchlings, a 4 foot by 8 foot enclosure is more than enough to hold 8 to 10 tortoises for their first year. Just make sure that you move them to bigger enclosures as they grow older.
Tortoise Housing Material
As for the material, it’s best to get something that retains moisture well, is opaque, and of course, durable. Wood is the best candidate for this. Not only does it retain moisture well and is opaque, you can also customize wooden enclosures to your liking if you are handy with tools. You can even buy commercial enclosures made from wood and customize them as your tortoise gets older, so you don’t have to build from scratch.
Glass is something you should avoid, even though most people think that they make good enclosures, given that glass is used to make aquariums. The see-through nature of glass can stress tortoises out. They don’t have a concept of what glass is and will try to climb through it. At best, they tire themselves out trying, and at worst, they will rub their noses raw. If you do want to use glass regardless, then at least block the view with duct tape.
A better alternative to glass enclosures are enclosures made from plastic, such as cement mixing tubs, Rubbermaid tubs or even sweater boxes. They are opaque and they are more durable. The downside to plastic is that they are not customizable like wood is, but they do make a good temporary enclosure for quarantine or transport.
Maintaining the Right Temperature
One of the biggest challenges to raising tortoises is the fact that they are endothermic, or cold-blooded animals. This means they don’t have the ability to regulate their own body heat, so if it gets cold, they stay cold. For humans, if it is 10 degrees colder than what we are comfortable with, we can still survive, albeit a little uncomfortable. For tortoises, 10 degrees colder, even for just an hour, is a death sentence.
Tortoises thrive in temperatures around 68 °F to 77 °F for the cool side and 86 °F to 95 °F for the basking area. Forest tortoises are tolerant of cooler temperatures and can survive on basking spots no warmer than 82.5 °F to 85 °F. However, they still shouldn’t have a cool spot lower than 62 °F.
You can maintain proper temperature using a basking lamp. Just make sure that the lamp itself is at least 10 – 12 inches above the basking area. This is to prevent eye damage or heat exhaustion on your tortoise. Note that the basking area should be placed on one corner of the enclosure, not in the middle, so your tortoise has space to move away from it if it gets too hot.
Another way to maintain heat is by using a heat mat. This is better for forest tortoises as they don’t actually bask as often as desert species.
If your wondering how long you should leave your heat lamp on or what the best heat lamp for your tortoise is check out our guides below.
Similar to how we do not do much work in the dark, tortoises also need light to function normally. Now, when talking about lighting for tortoises, there are two terms you need to worry about: UVA and UVB. Both UVA and UVB are in the same ultraviolet spectrum of light but have totally different effects on your tortoise. They are both produced naturally by the sun, but for indoor enclosures, you will need to use UV lamps.
UVA is what your tortoise uses to see and live normally. It encourages normal tortoise behavior, like foraging for food, mating, or general movement overall. UVB is what your tortoise needs to produce vitamin D, which is vital for absorbing calcium. Basically, even if your tortoise has a calcium-rich diet, if they don’t have vitamin D, they can’t benefit from the calcium they ate.
Nowadays, most commercial UV bulbs produce both UVA and UVB, but it always pays to check your bulbs. You can place UV bulbs alongside the basking lights, just make sure that they are far enough from the tortoise to prevent causing damage to their eyes. Some UV bulbs, like halogen bulbs, produce heat as well, so you don’t need to get a basking light anymore.
Getting the Humidity Right
Another challenging part to raising tortoises is maintaining the humidity. Tortoises absorb water through the atmosphere, and the lack of humidity can cause them to get dehydrated. Proper humidity also helps prevent pyramiding and can help with shedding, even though tortoises rarely shed. If you live somewhere that is typically dry or arid, then raising and maintaining humidity can be difficult.
A good way to maintain humidity is to keep the surrounding area moist. You can do this by spraying water into your tortoise enclosure once or twice a day and by keeping a clean source of water within the enclosure. However, most of your humidity control will come from your bedding or substrate. More on that later.
Of course, you also would not want to make your enclosure too humid. Not only does high humidity cause respiratory problems on some desert species, it can also encourage the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. Keeping an area moist, but not too wet is a balancing act you will have to play to raise a healthy tortoise.
For desert tortoises, the best humidity levels are between 30% to 60%, while forest tortoises require humidity of about 50% to 80%. Hatchlings will need higher humidity, at least 10% higher than their adult counterparts.
For more information on the correct humidity for your tortoise we have a full article on it below.
Bedding or Substrate
The substrate acts as the base of your enclosure. Not only is the substrate the thing your tortoise walks on, it also plays a vital role in maintaining your enclosure’s environment, especially the humidity. Good substrate should remain moist for long periods of time, loose enough to be dug through, solid enough to be walked on, and safe, in case your tortoise ends up swallowing it.
Good substrate includes regular soil, coco husk, and sphagnum moss. Bad substrate includes walnut shells, sand, rabbit pellets and pine or cedar shavings, which are toxic.
Now, this might seem controversial to some people, but there are breeders that do away with traditional substrate altogether. Instead, they use perforated rubber or plastic mats on top of moist towels. The moist towels maintain humidity, while the perforated rubber mats allow the moisture to seep through. This creates a more clinical setup that is easier to clean, but it does prevent tortoises from practicing their natural habits, which includes digging.
If your wondering what we recommend for your tortoise check out our article below on the best bedding for your tortoise.
Finding Good Enrichment
Just like us, tortoises can get bored, despite their overall sluggish nature. They do appreciate good enrichment, but you don’t need to do anything too outlandish to meet this need. Sometimes, adding a potted plant is more than enough. They can even help with the humidity. Just make sure that it’s safe to eat in case your tortoise takes a bite.
Substrate that allows your tortoise to dig can also help with enrichment. You can also add places where they can climb over, like rocks or pieces of wood. This can also help them trim their claws naturally, and a good place for your tortoise to get a good scratch.
About their Diet
Tortoises are predominantly herbivorous. Most of their diet is comprised of grass and weeds, but how much of it depends mostly on the type of tortoise they are. Desert and grassland tortoises tend to eat grass exclusively, which comprise 80% to 90% of their overall diet. The rest is a mixture of other plants and fruits.
Basically, you will be feeding desert tortoises green leafy vegetables most of the time. The vegetables you find in the supermarket are very nutritious. But they are meant for human consumption, so feeding these to your tortoise on a daily basis can make them obese. Try to limit the amount of greens you give them daily. For older tortoises, you only need to feed them greens once every two to three days.
Whenever possible, it’s best to let your tortoise graze outside. Just make sure that you watch over them. Of course, this might not always be possible, especially for people living in colder climates. But whenever it gets warm, try to make it a habit to let your tortoise graze on grass. This not only gives your tortoise a well-balanced diet, it will also help with lowering food costs. It’s also a good way for your tortoises to get sunlight.
Forest tortoises have a different diet. A huge part of their diet is still made up of grass and weeds, but a significant portion of it includes fruit, as well. Fruits like mango, papaya and watermelon are a good treat once a week. Just avoid any citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons. On top of that, forest tortoises also need animal protein. You can give them raw meat, cat food, earthworms, mealworms and super worms. Feed your forest tortoise protein only once or twice a month.
Everything you’ve read so far should not be taken with finality. What works for other tortoise keepers may not work out for you, and it’s your responsibility to do extra research on the matter. Do not just stick to one source for information. Of course, that being said, all of what is written here is accurate, and your tortoise will definitely benefit from the knowledge that you gain here.
Tortoises are resilient creatures, and there is a decent margin for error when raising them. They don’t exactly live perfect lives in the wild, either. Tortoise keeping is a huge responsibility, but it should also still be fun. Your tortoise won’t die the next day if you are one degree off or a few percentages lower than what’s needed. The trick is to simply correct the problem as soon as you notice them. Give the tortoise all the care they need, and things should turn out fine.