INTRODUCTION: Numerous tortoise species exist in the world, with Russian Tortoises, Redfoot Tortoises, and Leopard Tortoises being some of the most commonly kept as pets. Adult size varies with species, and many can live 20-50+ years. Any potential new tortoise owners should research their species of interest extensively, as some grow to be over two feet in diameter, and may require large indoor and outdoor enclosures.
Cage – Rubber Maid and other plastic containers work better than glass aquariums for tortoises. If you do use an aquarium, paper should be attached along the sides (outside of the tank) to create a solid looking barrier for your pet. The size of the enclosure is based on your tortoise’s size, and will need to be increased as your pet grows. Ideally, the enclosure should be about 10 times as long as the tortoise’s length and 5 times the tortoise’s width. Tortoises are often good climbers, and the height of the enclosure should be about 3 times the length of your pet. Giant species, such as G. sulcata, will eventually need a custom enclosure, a room, or indoor/outdoor pen.
Basking area – An appropriate basking area should be set up on one side of the enclosure, and is essential to promoting natural behaviors and ensuring your pet’s health. The basking area should include a heat source (e.g. incandescent bulb, ceramic heat fixture, other heat bulb) and a UVB light source. The UVB bulb must be within 18 inches of your turtle (no glass/plastic in between; metal screening is okay), and should be replaced approximately every 6 months due to a significant reduction in UVB wavelengths over time. The heat and UVB fixtures should be on for approximately 10-12 hours daily. Combination heat and UVB bulbs are available as an alternative. The temperature of the basking area should reach approximately 90-95 degrees F. A digital thermometer with probe is recommended to monitor the temperature in this area.
During the warmer months, you may expose your tortoise to natural sunlight, however be sure to not leave your pet outside in an enclosed container/tank, as it may overheat. You may even be able to build a secure outdoor enclosure for your pet using screening or sturdy fine mesh fencing. The enclosure should have a top and bottom (can be buried), to prevent escape (tortoises can dig and climb), and avoid the danger of predators, such as raccoons, dogs, and cats. Always supervise your pet when outside unless you are positive the enclosure is completely safe and secure. Dog runs and fenced areas can be used for giant tortoises, but it is still recommended that the enclosure be secured as previously described.
Heating Pad – An under the tank heating pad or a red light bulb may be used to provide extra heat at night, but the cage temperature does need to drop into the lower 80’s – upper 70’s. It is recommended that heating pads be used with rheostats (thermostats) to prevent overheating. We have had good luck with heating pads from beanfarm.com. Cobra T-Rex heating pads are similar and available in many pet stores.
Substrate – Newspaper/paper towels are the safest substrate to use for tortoises, especially hatchlings. As the tortoise grows, you can switch to a particulate substrate such as a recycled newspaper product like Carefresh, or to damp cypress mulch for humid species. If using a particulate substrate, always feed your tortoise on a paper plate or piece of newspaper to lower the chance for intestinal blockage.
Sunlight – Try to expose your tortoise to natural sunlight as much as possible during the summer months. DO NOT leave your tortoise outside in a glass tank or an enclosed container because it will overheat. Try building an all screen enclosure for your tortoise with an area that is shaded throughout the day. Keep in mind that tortoises are great diggers. Dogs, cats, raccoons, etc. like to eat tortoises so DO NOT leave your tortoise unattended outside unless you are positive the cage is secure.
CLEANING: Tortoises are generally considered to be very messy/dirty animals. Excess food, waste material, and shedding skin and scales collect in the environment rapidly. Ultimately, keeping your pet tortoise’s enclosure clean is one of the most important steps you can take to ensuring its health and preventing disease.
Greens – For most tortoises, 70-80% of the diet should consist of a variety of dark leafy greens such as: Collards, romaine, kale, red/green leaf lettuce, endive, mustard greens, escarole, etc.
Fruit – If you have a S. American species such as a Red or Yellow Foot tortoise, you need to add healthy fruits into the diet. Try kiwi, all melons, papaya, mango, all berries and some banana.
Hay – Timothy, orchard grass and alfalfa hay are good sources of fiber for all species of tortoise. It may be difficult to digest if your tortoise is not adequately hydrated or is a hatchling. Wait until your tortoise is about a year old to start offering hay. You can order hay from www.oxbowhay.com. If you have a grazing species, such as G.sulcata, hay should be the largest portion of the diet.
Complete Diets – 20-30% of the diet should consist of a complete tortoise or iguana diet such as: Rep-cal, Reeds, Zeigler, Scenic, Pretty Pets and Quantum www.herpnutrition.com. Be sure to use a pelleted diet, and soften it in water before giving it to your tortoise.
Water: Keeping your tortoise adequately hydrated is very important, even for desert species. Offer a shallow, non-spill bowl in the enclosure. It should be small enough that the tortoise cannot climb into it, flip over and drown. All tortoises should be soaked in shallow warm water for 15-20 minutes. Hatchling and young of all species should be soaked daily and misted 1-2 times daily. Soak adult desert species 1 time weekly and adult tropical species 2-3 times weekly.
Vitamin Supplements: You should use a calcium supplement with vitamin D3 3-4 times weekly, and a multivitamin (with Vit. A; no D3) once every other week. If your tortoise’s diet consists of at least 50% complete pellet diet, this supplementation may not be necessary.
PREVENTATIVE HEALTH CARE: Appropriate husbandry and water quality are the most important factors in keeping your pet aquatic turtle healthy. In addition, we highly recommend an annual physical examination with an experienced reptile veterinarian. Signs of illness in turtles include pink or red skin, lethargy and/or decreased appetite, pitting or the shell or carapace, nasal/eye discharge, bubbling fluid from the mouth, or balance issues when in the water. Female turtles frequently become reproductively active in captivity, whether or not a male is present, and intervention may be required to prevent egg impaction and address associated problems. Valuable diagnostic testing that can be performed on aquatic turtles includes fecal examination, radiography (x-rays), ultrasonography, blood work, etc.