Beginner Mistakes

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The Dog Trainer
10 Year Member!
Platinum Tortoise Club
Jan 9, 2010
Location (City and/or State)
Southern California
To comment on Tom's article, go here:

Over the years many of us, myself included, have made many of these mistakes, and we have certainly seen them made many times by others. With springtime upon us and many new tortoises hatching into the world I thought it might be helpful to point out some commonly seen errors. Please note: this thread is intended solely to be helpful and NOT to ridicule, humiliate, poke fun at, or otherwise hurt anyone's feelings. I openly admit to making some of these mistakes myself in the past, so let the first finger be pointed at me...

1. Buying a tortoise from the WRONG source. We all know which sources are good and which sources are bad. Some of the new people just getting into reptiles or tortoises don't know yet. If you are new to the tortoise world, ask around a bit, but do it privately so people can speak more freely. This is what the "Private Message" feature is for.

2. Shopping at, and taking advice from pet stores. There are definitely exceptions to this, but the majority of pet stores don't know tortoises at all, and give terrible advice. Also, most of the products they sell for tortoises and other reptiles are not just useless and over priced, but sometimes dangerous. Most of my tortoise products come from hardware stores and Walmart or Target type stores.

3. There are lots of good substrates to use. Sand of any kind, rabbit pellets, dry compressed grass pellets, and hay are NOT one of them. If someone has told you to use one of these, I would seriously question anything else they told you too. These substrates are too dry, and in the case of using all sand, it is potentially dangerous.

4. Water bowls. The pet store ones are not suitable. The sides are too steep and they are too tall. You need a shallow one so that if the tortoise ever manages to flip and land in the water, they don't drown. I like to use terra cotta plant saucers because they are wide, low sided, shallow, offer good traction to tortoise feet and are easy to clean. There are other suitable ones too.

5. Not having a water bowl for a baby is a mistake too. They do NOT get enough water from the food they eat and even though some of them do come from desert type areas they have ways of conserving hydration in the wild that they do not have in captivity. Babies don't walk around in the hot sun in the middle of the day in the desert. Please allow your baby to get a drink when it wants one.

6. Temperatures. Temperatures are everything to a reptile. Not properly measuring, knowing, checking, adjusting and maintaining the proper temps is a huge mistake. Every tortoise owner ought to have an infrared temp gun and a remote probed thermometer. There are four temps to know and watch. Warm side, cool side, basking spot, and night. You need to know all four of these. This should make it obvious why a single stick on thermometer alone is NOT adequate. One of the biggest mistakes I see is letting a tropical tortoise get too cool, especially at night. They need it dark at night, but also warm. I like ceramic heating elements for this, but colored incandescent bulbs will work too. Please MONITOR your temps. It can literally mean the difference between a healthy, thriving tortoise, and a sick or dead one.

7. Hatchlings of all species should be soaked every day for the first few months. It hurts nothing, and might save their life. This does not mean setting them in their shallow water dish and walking away. They need to be soaked in a tall sided tub with warm shallow water. Water temp should be 85-95 and anywhere from 15-30 minutes is fine. It is very dry where I live, so I will soak brand new hatchlings in the morning and then a second time after sunning on a hot day. In most cases, once a day is enough.

8. All tortoises need places to hide and feel secure. Further, I don't know of a species that won't benefit from having a real humid hide. It is a mistake to have an open, barren enclosure with nowhere for them to tuck into and hide. If you see them housed in this way in a pet store, it should be a good indicator of where that store stands on tortoise knowledge and their level of proper care. If they can't drop a simple hide into the enclosure, what else are they NOT doing?

9. This next one is really more of an opinion, but it is shared by many others. In most cases it is a mistake to keep and raise tortoises in pairs. I have seen this cause a lot of problems. If any one wishes to debate this or see debate on this one, please go to the thread in the debatable section titled "Pairs". Tortoises do not need a "buddy". They are solitary animals, not highly social pack animals. Their own species is usually seen as competitors, mates or combatants. They can often get along in the right groups, but they are also just fine all alone. This does vary among the various species. Redfoot and leopard tortoises often get along just fine for example, while sulcatas and russians often don't. Here is the debatable thread for those who want to talk about it:
IF you choose to keep more than one tortoise in an enclosure, you NEED to have an immediate plan and all the equipment and supplies to separate and house them individually, in case there is a compatibility problem. This should be considered part of the purchase price when you buy that second tortoise. If you don't have the money or the room for additional enclosures, then you don't have the money or the room for additional tortoises.

10. Again with an opinion... I have personally witnessed the death of many tortoises due to mixing species. I recommend against it, and feel that it is a mistake. Any debate or dissent should be taken to the "Mixing Species" thread in the debatable section. I'm not here to debate it, I'm here to share what I believe to be a mistake.

11. Diet. Store bought foods are okay, but there is so much more to offer that is better for our tortoises. Many of the alternatives are also free or much cheaper too. Look into weeds like filaree, mallow, hawksbit, dandelion, sow thistle, plantain, clover, wild mustard and garlic, etc... Mulberry leaves. Rose and hibiscus leaves and flowers. Grape leaves. Spineless opuntia cactus pads and fruits. Organ pipe cactus. Grasses and hay for some species. Mazuri tortoise chow. ZooMed tortoise chows. Marion red stick tortoise chow. Not to mention the endless supply of things you can grow yourself. The leaves and flowers from any of the squash family plants are great. Sunflower leaves. Pansies, gazanias, nasturtiums, rose of Sharon, etc...the list is endless.

12. Over supplementation. Our tortoises need supplements. Caclcium especially. But care should be taken not to over do it. They need a little bit two or three times a week. They don't need spoonfuls every day. Too much calcium can interfere with the absorption of other minerals and trace elements and can cause all sorts of problems. So give them some, but take it easy.

13. Raise your hand if you have ever lost a turtle tortoise or other reptile by taking it outside for some fresh air, sunshine and exercise... A LOT of hands just wet up. Mine did. It is a mistake to take your tortoise outside into your yard, a park, or an apartment courtyard without a proper, safe enclosure. Something bad will eventually happen. Maybe not the first time, maybe not the first month, but eventually it will. Apartment complexes and parks use pesticides and weed killers, even sometimes when they say they don't. Not worth the risk. Even in your own yard, it is human nature to become complacent. It takes seconds of innattention for a small tortoise to completely disappear. I have had it happen personally. I have heard SOOOOOO many people say, "he was sitting right here, and I just turned a round for a second to ______, and he was just gone!" I'm begging you, don't be this person. It feels absolutely awful. Kiddie pools are like $10 from Walmart. Here are a couple of threads outlining very simple ways to do this:

14. Enclosure size. The catch phrase says it all. "The bigger, the better." So many times people want to know the minimum size enclosure for their adult russian or young sulcata... We should be asking what is the MAXIMUM. Tortoises need LOTS or room to roam and explore. Walking actually helps their digestion, similar to a horse. By the time we finish putting all the "furniture" in a typical indoor enclosure, there is hardly any room left. There is no species that I think belongs in a 10 or 20 gallon, even as a tiny hatchling. Its just too small. In my opinion a 40 should be the minimum size even for a tiny Testudo sp. hatchling. There is no reason that you can't put a 9 gram hatchling into a 100 gallon size enclosure for its first set up, or larger. Juveniles and anything larger ought to be spending the majority of their time OUTSIDE, weather permitting of course. In the wild, some of these tortoises would walk MILES in a day. No one has ever finished building an enclosure and thought to themselves, "Hmmm... should have made it smaller..." By contrast, every time I finish a build, indoors or out, I wish I had made it bigger. Give your tortoise as much room as you can, just make it safe.

This thread is intended to help new people wade through some of the conflicting and often overlooked info out there. It is not intended as an absolute instruction manual for EVERY situation, species and potential problem. There are a lot of generalities here, and this reflects what I have generally seen to be the case. Some of this is opinion and certainly debatable, but please do not debate it here. Start a new thread in the "Debatable" section and we can all discuss it there. Thank you for reading. Please pass on any of this info that you find helpful to anyone you know that has anything to do with tortoises.
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