Is a tortoise a good pet for a child?


For a parent, choosing a pet for their child can be difficult. You will need an animal that is resilient enough to withstand the whirlwind of activities kids often find themselves in, but also gentle enough that they wouldn’t end up hurting your kids by accident. Not many animals fit this description well, but do tortoises? Can a tortoise be a good pet for a child?

So is a tortoise a good pet for a children? Tortoise are great pets but not necessarily for young children. It takes a certain level of maturity to care for a tortoise and a tortoise is not as reactive to owner as say a cat or a dog. Also the need for good hygiene is important due the risk of salmonella.

Tortoises are definitely hardy creatures that live very long lives. But in order for us to take advantage of their resilient nature, all of their needs will have to be met. Unfortunately, a lot of these needs can be difficult for a young child to provide on their own. There are also plenty of factors that can make it tricky for a child to keep a tortoise as a pet, such as the risk of being infected with salmonella.

Now, is it impossible for a child to keep a tortoise as a pet? No, it’s definitely not impossible. If you understand the risks and the amount of work involved and are willing to put the effort in, then it can work out nicely for you and your kids. Let’s delve further into this and see if tortoises do make good pets for your kids.

Tortoises as Pets for Young Children

There is a general consensus amongst tortoise keepers that tortoises are not a good match for kids as pets, especially so if the kids in question are younger than 6 years old. Kids this young generally don’t have the emotional maturity or patience needed to care for a tortoise, especially hatchlings. A tortoise whose needs aren’t met during their formative years will end up developing problems during adulthood, some of which will have permanent consequences, like metabolic bone disease.

On top of that, younger children may not be able to understand that tortoises don’t react to their owners the same way dogs or cats do. Tortoises are not overtly affectionate like dogs or cats, nor do they appreciate being touched a lot. This makes tortoises at risk for injury, especially if your child plays rough with it. If you’re not around to supervise play, then the child might accidentally hurt or even kill a younger tortoise.

The tortoise isn’t the only one whose safety is a concern. Tortoises are generally mild-mannered creatures, but if they are agitated, a tortoise might claw or even bite a child. This is a very uncomfortable experience and may even lead to an infection. Generally, however, if a tortoise feels threatened, they’re more likely to retreat into their shells or run away, or at most, do a shoving motion in an attempt to fight back.

Hygiene is also something you’ll have to worry about if you decide to let a younger child keep a tortoise without supervision. Young children have the tendency to put almost any object in reach into their mouths. Of course, this is a natural learning process for kids, but for a child to put a tortoise into their mouth is definitely a bad thing in terms of sanitation, for reasons we’ll expand further later.

If you’re adamant about getting a pet tortoise for a child who is 6 years old or younger, then be prepared to be the one meeting most of the tortoise’s needs yourself. You can’t expect a young child to understand the many responsibilities of raising a tortoise, so you’ll have to meet them yourself. You will also need to keep a sharp eye on your child whenever they are playing with the pet tortoise, so they don’t hurt it or themselves.

Another thing you’ll need to consider is the age of the tortoise you’re getting. Older tortoises are more resilient compared to hatchling or juveniles, and the margin of error when it comes to caring for their needs is a lot more forgivable.

Tortoises as Pets for Older Children

If we’re talking about an older child, say 7 or 8 years old onwards, then it could be a much different story. Older children have the capacity to understand what they’re getting into when taking care of a pet tortoise. Even if they don’t have the required understanding or knowledge, it is much easier to teach an older child the needs of a tortoise and have them meet those needs themselves. By this stage, older children will also respect tortoises and whatever difference they have compared to other animals.

Older children will be able to practice restraint better than a toddler, so the risk of injuries to both the tortoise and the child are lowered significantly. Supervision can also be kept to a minimum without risking the child or the tortoise.

Still, while having an older child would make the whole thing much easier, there are still plenty of risks involved when allowing a child to have a tortoise for a pet. Namely with regards to hygiene and sanitation. One of the biggest issues that children are at risk for when taking care of tortoises is Salmonella, which we’ll be talking about that next.

The Problem with Salmonella

Whenever you handle tortoises, which children often enjoy doing, you are at risk of getting salmonella on you. Salmonella is a type of bacteria that causes salmonellosis, an infection characterized by severe diarrhea, fever and vomiting. In the United States, salmonella is one of the most infamous diseases that you can receive from an animal. Salmonella itself is extremely dangerous to people, especially children, and can even cause death if not treated properly.

Salmonella is typically carried in tortoise and turtle droppings. They usually carry the bacteria inside their guts and are expelled with their poop. If an animal is a carrier, there wouldn’t be any physical indicators that they are actually infected.

Now, the biggest outbreaks of salmonella are generally caused by aquatic turtles, most notable of which is the Red-Eared Slider, a popular turtle species kept as a pet. The reason why turtles get such a bad reputation over this is because turtles pretty much swim in the same water where they poop. Simply touching a turtle’s shell can transfer salmonella on your hands if they were infected or have been swimming in a contaminated aquarium.

Tortoises are a lot more manageable, since they generally poop on land, and unless they accidentally step on it, the salmonella on the poop shouldn’t be spread much farther than where it was dropped. Even if they do poop inside their water dish or whilst soaking, simply throwing the water out and rinsing the water dish properly should be enough to prevent contamination.

Still, in order to completely eliminate the chances of spreading or contracting salmonella, proper hygiene needs to be observed, namely proper handwashing before and after handling pet tortoises. If your kids aren’t the type to wash their hands properly, or worse, the types that are still putting things inside their mouths, where things shouldn’t be, they’re definitely at risk of getting infected.

Beginner-Friendly / Child-Friendly Tortoise Species

If you can trust your child to be matured enough to take care of a tortoise, or at least you’re able to supervise them round the clock whenever they interact with it, then it’s safe to get them a tortoise as a pet. Of course, some species of tortoise are better for children than others. You’d want a tortoise that is easy to take care of, wouldn’t get too large, and of course, personable enough so your child will still have fun interacting with them. Here are some candidates for you to choose from.

Russian Tortoise

The Russian Tortoise is a native to Russia and the Middle East. They are very hardy tortoises, and are quite adaptable, being able to thrive even in suboptimal temperatures and humidity. This makes them perfect for beginners, especially children.

Another aspect that makes them great for beginners is that they’re relatively small, even when fully-grown. They wouldn’t take too much space at home.

Red-Footed Tortoise

The Red-Footed Tortoises thrive better in environments that have similar conditions to their home range. They live in South America, mainly in and around the savannahs of the Amazon Rainforest, and hence would require an enclosure with higher humidity. This makes them slightly more difficult to take care of, but they are still quite adaptable.

Red Foots do have an inquisitive nature and would come up to their owners whenever they see them. Some would even “beg” for food. This personality can be quite endearing and can help children empathize with them better than most tortoise species. Cherryhead Red-Footed Tortoises are a subspecies of Red Foots that are native to Brazil that have a more vivid coloration and generally grow smaller than regular Red Foots.

Indian Star Tortoise

The Indian Star Tortoise is used to living in the extreme climates of India, having to deal with heavy rainfall during the monsoon season as well severe drought during the dry season. This makes them highly adaptable, with a large margin for error when it comes to raising them. They are also very sociable creatures, making them a very endearing companion for your kids. They don’t grow large, growing no more than 12 inches in length when fully-grown.

Unfortunately, exporting Indian Star Tortoises has been banned in India, making breeders the only source for them, and they are not easy to breed. This makes the species a bit more expensive than most tortoises.

Final Thoughts

Keeping tortoises as pets is a worthwhile endeavor, and as a parent, it’s even better to be able to share this feeling with your child. Unfortunately, however, for a child to keep a tortoise as a pet, a lot of effort is needed, not just from your kid, but also from you. Whatever tortoise you decide to get, it’s not just your kid’s responsibility, it’s also yours. Luckily though, once you get a good rhythm going, tortoises are not only great companions, they’re also great tools for learning responsibility and respect for wildlife.

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