Tortoise Basics for Prospective or Beginner Tortoise Owners

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Tortoise Basics for Prospective or Beginner Tortoise Owners

Welcome to what is more or less Tortoises 101. If you are here, most likely it is for one of two reasons - either you are considering purchasing your first tortoise, or you have already brought your new tortoise home and need some help getting it established.

Some of the things I say here may be different from what you have read in other places on the internet. You have a choice whether or not to follow my advice. But please understand, I am not only speaking from my own 17 years of experience as a tortoise keeper, but also from the experiences of many of my fellow forum members, coupled with advances in research.

Now, with that out of the way, let us get down to business. I would never deliberately encourage a truly interested party to not get a tortoise; I have found too much joy in them myself. However, it is important to understand what you are getting into. Are you sure a tortoise is right for you?

Do I really want a tortoise?

There are a few things to think about when deciding to get a tortoise. Tortoises can potentially live for hundreds of years. They are, quite literally, a lifetime commitment. Is that something that you are ready for?

Tortoises do not make good pets for young children. Handling them too often can cause undue stress and illness. Tortoises spend a lot of time basking and sleeping, and this can quickly cause a child to lose interest. Children often forget to feed, water, and otherwise care for pets. If you chose to get a tortoise for your child, you must understand that you the parent are ultimately responsible. The tortoise may belong to your child in name, but you will be the one that needs to make sure the tortoise is properly cared for. No exceptions. Do not get a tortoise for your child unless you are willing to take on the responsibility of a new family member yourself.

Expense - yes, tortoises are expensive, and I am not talking about just the initial purchase price for one, either. The lighting they need to stay alive and healthy is expensive, and needs to be replaced at regular intervals. Their enclosures can be expensive. Their bedding is another expense. Plus they need to eat. They need fecal examinations for parasites, worming medications, and vet visits when they are sick. These things are not optional, but necessary. Is a tortoise a financial burden that you are willing and able to undertake?

When you have to travel or be away from home, is there someone that you can trust to care for your tortoise? This is no less important than if it were a cat or a dog staying at home. If you leave home, you need to make preparations ahead of time to make sure your tortoise is cared for. Do you see this being possible for you?

Last but not least - tortoises don't really do, well, anything. At least not when compared to a kitten, a puppy, or a parrot. They do eat, and they make poopy messes of their water bowls. Sometimes they stomp around the outer walls of their enclosure. Other times they consent to taking food from your hand, opening their mouths wide and showing off their little pink, heart shaped tongues. And sometimes they fall asleep in funny poses, or fling substrate out of their hides enthusiastically. But they don't play with strings, and they don't chase balls. To some people's standards, they can be a "boring" pet. They do learn to react to their owners, but mostly just in the capacity of wanting to be fed. If you want a pet that you can "play" with, a tortoise most likely will not fit the bill.

After all that, a tortoise is still what you want? When you are considering bringing a new tortoise home, you should have proper housing already prepared. In order to properly plan for the enclosure, you have to have an idea of what type of tortoise you would like to keep.

Choosing a tortoise

There are several factors that go into choosing the right tortoise for you, including your climate, living situation, available space, and experience. Hatchlings are typically better left to experienced owners. Sometimes even with the best of care, a hatchling can still fail to thrive. In the wild, this would be a simple part of natural selection - only the strong survive. In captivity, it involves a lot of heartache for the invested owner. If you are just starting out with tortoises, and in particular if there are children involved, I urge you to stick to tortoises that are at least one year of age and already past the delicate hatchling state.

While there are many, many species of tortoises, there are a few that are more readily available. I will only be outlining a few choices here. If there are others you are interested in, please ask questions and do as much research as possible to better understand the needs of those particular species.

You also want to be sure that the tortoise that you choose is healthy. A healthy tortoise should have clear, wide open eyes, lacking any swelling or weeping. Watery eyes and bubbles around the eyes are signs of overheating and/or dehydration. They should feel heavy and solid, rather than light and hollow, like a card board box with nothing in it. They should be strong, and able to resist gentle tugging on a limb. The best tortoise to choose would be the one that you observe moving around and eating prior to purchase.

African Sulcata tortoise - Geochelone sulcata (also sometimes known as African Spur-thigh, Spurred Tortoise, or African Desert tortoise. Not to be confused with the Mediterranean Spur-thigh or Greek tortoise.)

Sulcatas are one of the cutest and most personable hatchlings, and certainly only gain in personality as they reach adult-hood. Hatchlings are readily available and not very expensive. There are two main problems with Sulcatas - the high hatchling fail rate, and the immense size they eventually attain. These tortoises are most appropriate for those with some tortoise experience, those who live in a climate that remains warm year round, and those that own their own home. Sulcatas can certainly be maintained indoors, but it takes a lot of tolerance and space. An adult Sulcata will reach 24" or more and 150 pounds or more. They urinate and defecate profusely, pace for hours on end, and eat - a lot. For a tortoise that can live outside and graze naturally this is not a problem, but I am sure you can see why this would never work in a small apartment.

Hatchling Sulcatas can be fragile, and can sometimes fail for no discernible reason. They often suffer acute Metabolic Bone Disease, most often as a result of dehydration, and it is difficult to save them once they start to go downhill. Since dehydration can result with the breeder or at the pet store, it is possible that even with good care once they reach their new home, they still can unexpectedly become ill and die. For inexperienced tortoise owners, it is best to start with a yearling or older tortoise.

For more on Sulcata tortoises, visit:

The Sulcata Station

The Sulcata and Leopard Tortoise
How to Raise Sulcata Hatchlings and Babies

Russian Tortoise - Testudo Horsfieldii (Horsfield's Tortoise)

Russian tortoises are hardy to the extreme, and with their smaller size, can make fantastic tortoise companions. Males typically reach a straight carapace length of 5 to 6 inches, while females can be a bit larger, up to 8 inches. In rare cases they can achieve 10 inches, but this truly is rare and not the norm. Russians come from one of the harshest climates in the world, and in the wild can hibernate or aestivate (summer sleep during dry seasons) for up to 9 months out of the year.

Russian tortoises available in the pet trade are usually wild caught sub-adults. At 4-5" in length, they are most likely 6-10 years old, and although many pet stores will say that they are captive bred yearlings, this is untrue. Because they experience less than ideal conditions during importation, they can have health issues, mostly centering around intestinal parasites. As I already mentioned Russians are very hardy tortoises, and in most cases a trip to the veterinarian for a fecal examination and de-wormer routine is all that is needed. It is however very important that this is done, because in captive situations parasite infestations can quickly become a major health risk.

The small size of Russians makes them ideal long term companions, particularly for those that live in apartments or rent their homes. Because imported Russians are older, they tend to do very well for beginners, provided they have a medical check-up to remove the danger of parasites. These parasites are of no danger to the owner.

For more on Russian tortoises visit:

The Russian Tortoise

Redfoot Tortoise - Geochelone carbonaria (Redfooted Tortoise, Cherryhead Redfoot)

More and more Redfoot tortoises are being seen in the pet trade as captive breeding becomes more common place. Most of those we actually see in the petstores are still “farmed” individuals. These tortoises are raised on farms in South America in near-wild conditions and imported to the U.S. once they have reached legal selling size (4” or larger.) Adult Redfoots will typically reach 10-12" in length, and older individuals can even reach 16".

There are different races of Redfoots, originating in different locations. Cherryhead Redfoots often have brighter reds, slightly bulbous red noses and darker plastrons (bottom shell.) Some petstores will claim that Cherryheads are "dwarf" Redfoots. This is untrue. While Cherryheads (also called Brazilians) typically stay a bit smaller than their cousins from other locales, they are far from dwarves. Any adult Redfoot is going to require a space of no smaller than 4' X 8' as an adult, no matter what locale they are.

Redfoots, as all tortoises, benefit from spending time outside in climates where it is appropriate for them to do so. They are a water and humidity loving tortoise, and thrive in warm, humid states such as Florida. Established Redfoots do well for beginners, provided they follow the proper care and have the space to dedicate to them.

For more on Redfoot tortoises visit:

Home's Hingeback Tortoise - Kinixys homeana (Forest Hingeback, not to be confuse with the Serrated Hingeback or Kinixys erosa)

Home's Hingebacks are another tortoise that is heavily imported to the United States. They are a shy, very quiet tortoise than initially wants nothing more than to hide, although some individuals can become quite outgoing as their time in captivity lengthens. They are often appealing to beginner tortoise keeper's because of their incredibly low purchase price, but they are not a good choice for beginners. The stress of importation takes a heavy toll on them, and often they are severely dehydrated, loaded with parasites, and refuse to eat.

Those typically available in pet stores are 4-6" in length. They grow to around 10", although very old individuals can be closer to 12". They are not a highly active tortoise and an enclosure that is no less than 2' X 4' can be used, although larger is always better. These tortoises are best left to those that already have some tortoise experience, but if you choose to purchase one, please have it tested and treated for parasites and make sure to keep it well hydrated.

Kinixys erosa are also sometimes available in the pet trade, but they are typically more expensive than a homeana. The care is more or less identical, although they do grow to be slightly larger than a homeana and that should be provided for.

For more on Home's Hingeback tortoises visit:

The Home's Hingeback Tortoise

Greek Tortoise - Testudo graeca ssp. (Golden Greek, Mediterranean Spur-thigh)

There are many subspecies of the Greek tortoise, but all are beautiful little tortoises. Some subspecies only achieve 5" in length. Others can be as large as 10", with the largest females reaching up to 12" rare cases.

The size enclosure needed for a typical Greek tortoise is similar to that of a Russian, and perhaps a little larger, making them another good candidate for those that live in apartments or smaller dwellings. They are easily cared for, and established individuals are suitable for beginners. If your climate allows for it, it is advisable to allow them some outdoor grazing time in an area that is free of pesticides and safe from predators. Their diet in the wild consists of mainly leafy green weeds and it is best to replicate their wild diet as close as possible.

For more on Greek tortoises visit:

"Golden Greek" Tortoise

Housing a Tortoise

The Enclosure

The first and foremost thing to think about is the actual enclosure itself. It can consist of many things. Large aquariums, kiddy-pools, large storage tubs such as Christmas tree bins, or custom built tortoise tables or other wooden enclosures can all be used. A bookshelf laid on its back with the shelves removed and a shower curtain liner firmly stapled in makes a quick and inexpensive enclosure. Many people with only basic carpentry skills have built both practical and beautiful enclosures. There are many examples of this both in the Tortoise Photos section and the Enclosures section of the forum.

The type of tortoise that you intend to keep and how long you want the initial enclosure to last will go hand in hand. While a hatchling Redfoot tortoise will be perfectly happy in a 20 gallon long aquarium, the same tortoise is going to require a 4' X 8' enclosure in just a couple of years time, with a few upgrades along the way. A hatchling Sulcata will be perfectly happy also in a 20 long aquarium, but keep in mind that right here on the forum we have a member with a 4 year old, 19" Sulcata. No adult Sulcata will ever fit in an aquarium or tortoise table; for that, you need an entire back yard. A Russian tortoise, on the other hand, can live its entire life in a Christmas tree bin or modest size tortoise table. It is up to you to do research, ask questions, and decide what is appropriate. Planning ahead is important. If you live in a home with little or no backyard, it is not wise to bring home a Sulcata, no matter how tiny it is at the time. It will not stay that way, and you do not have decades to work with as many will lead you to believe. Many people however keep Redfoots, Hingebacks or smaller Mediterranean species in apartments with little or no trouble.

Do not be afraid to be creative with your enclosure. Many things can work. If you think of something that saves you a lot of money, by all means feel free to use it as long as it will keep your tortoise healthy and safe.

While it is ultimately the keeper's choice on whether or not to allow their tortoise to free roam the household, there are many dangers in free roaming. The floor is a colder place than you realize, and there also can be dangerous drafts and cold spots. In order to digest their food and be healthy, tortoises need to have a source of heat, because they are cold-blooded and do not create their own such as people do. Tortoises require UV lighting or sunlight to remain healthy, and they cannot receive this indoors on the floor. We use chemicals to clean our homes that can prove dangerous to tortoises, and small things on the floor such as hair, strings, and small toys can cause choking or impaction. A tortoise can even be accidentally stepped on. In short, it is best to provide your tortoise with a space of its own that will keep it safe.

Please also keep in mind that any container that you choose as an enclosure needs to be water tight. This is an important factor in creating a proper microclimate for your tortoise. There will be more on this subject as you read through the article.

One thing that I do want to caution against is purchasing "package" enclosure deals from what we call the "big box," or chain pet stores. The lighting and substrate in these packages or kits is often highly inappropriate, and it ends up being much more cost effective to purchase the proper items piece meal, rather than having to ad to a kit already purchased. These enclosures are also most often too small for long term housing.

Outdoor Enclosures

When possible, your tortoise should have access to the outdoors. An outdoor enclosure should provide the same needs as an indoor enclosure. There should be space for walking and grazing, access to both sunlight and shade, places for a tortoise to hide and feel secure, and protection from both predators and escapes. For ideas on creating safe and even very attractive outdoor enclosures, take a look at the Enclosures section of the forum.

A Note on Hibernation

Many tortoise owners live in areas where it becomes too cold for tortoises to stay outside during the winter months. Not all species of tortoise hibernate, and so therefore must be cared for through out the winter months in an indoor setting. Sulcatas and Redfoots are probably the most notable two that do not hibernate, but any of the African or Asian species also need to be cared for indoors. Russians, Greeks, native Desert tortoises, and many others do, in the wild, hibernate through out the winter months. However, in captivity, it is not necessary to hibernate.

For the first year at least that you own your tortoise it is not advisable to hibernate. Your tortoise could be suffering an ailment or have some health issue that could cause hibernation to become deadly. Because tortoises bear illness so stoically and take such a long time to indicate that there is a health problem, a lengthy period of observation is greatly recommended.

Tortoises that hibernate in the wild can be kept indoors during the winter months without any danger to their health. Not hibernating a tortoise has never been shown to harm them in any way. Hibernation is simply a tool they use to survive in less than ideal conditions. When we can provide ideal conditions year round, there really is no reason not to.

Many areas in the United States and also in the UK and other European countries are colder and wetter than winters in the home ranges of our tortoises. Cold and wet conditions can cause severe respiratory problems, which pose a very big problem. In areas where a lot of rainfall is received in the late fall and early winter, there is even a risk of your tortoise drowning in its burrow.

Obviously, you can see that the risks of hibernating a tortoise can be great. Since there are no known risks to not hibernating, the logical conclusion is that the safer option is to maintain your tortoise indoors through the winter months in a properly heated and lighted enclosure.

Also, many tortoise will slow down slightly in the winter months. They may be less active and eat less. However, if your tortoise stops eating completely, becomes lethargic, and refuses to open its eyes, please do not assume that it is hibernating. The onset of hibernation requires shorter daylight hours coupled with lower temperatures. A tortoise kept in a heated enclosure or even at room temperature is not "hibernating," but in fact starving. Turning off the lights in the enclosure and not feeding will not create hibernation conditions. In the wild, tortoises dig a burrow and retreat to where the earth maintains a constant 40*F. They will move up or down in the earth as needed to maintain the proper temperature.

If your tortoise is exhibiting the above symptoms, please seek help immediately.


Once you have chosen your enclosure, you need something for the tortoise to dig in, and defecate, urinate, and walk on.

There are a lot of options. Not all of them are good ones. Cedar or pine bedding is highly toxic and will kill your tortoise. Substrates made up of calcium based sand are an improper choice, as they do not hold moisture well and can both be irritating and cause impactions. Ground corn cobs and walnut shells are also very dangerous, as they can cause deadly impactions if eaten. Sheets of newspaper/newsprint, shredded paper or small animal beddings do not work because there is no way from them to hold moisture and create the microclimate that your tortoise needs. Alfalfa pellets also do not work, as they are difficult for the tortoise to walk on, and can cause permanent muscle and leg damage, and it will mold quickly if it becomes wet. Another major drawback to all the substrates that I just listed is that they do not allow the tortoise to burrow.

Aspen bedding can be used, and is safe, but it does not allow for the application of humidity. I only recommend using aspen in areas where there is a high relative humidity and with species that don't require a high humidity level, or if a humid hide is used. Timothy hay can also be used as a dry substrate.

Substrates also differ a little from species to species. For instance, cypress mulch is a good choice for Redfoot tortoises, which do not tend to dig, need a humid environment, but benefit from a drier surface due to a tendency to develop shell rot. Cypress mulch holds moisture in the lower layers even if the surface dries out some, and allows for good drainage. Cypress mulch can be purchased at your local garden supply center at very low prices, and is suitable for other species as well.

Some keepers prefer a mixture of ground coconut coir and playsand. Others prefer the coir by itself. Still others use orchid bark or organic topsoil, or a mixture of two or more suitable substrates. It depends both on personal preference and what is available to you in your area. The important thing is that it is safe for the tortoise, and allows for water to be added to create a humid microclimate. The substrate should be damp, but not wet. A good way to determine the proper amount of moisture is to squeeze the substrate in your hand. It should be moist to the touch, but not so saturated that you can wring water out of it.

For a planted enclosure, organic topsoil covered with a layer of coconut coir or cypress mulch works well. The plants can be planted directly into the substrate.

Small rocks should always be avoided as they pose both a choking hazard and an impaction hazard if ingested.

Lighting and Heat

Lighting and heat most often go hand in hand. There are two important aspects - warmth and UV exposure. Tortoises need both in order to be healthy and survive. Heat is extremely important. Tortoises are cold-blooded animals that do not produce their own body heat. In order to be active and properly digest their food, they have to be kept warm. This is usually done by providing a basking area that is between 85* and 100*F, with the other areas of the enclosure being cooler. The exact temperature of both your basking site and the ambient temperature of the enclosure will vary from species to species.

For warmth alone, there are a few different options. Regular incandescent light bulbs do provide heat. There are also dedicated basking bulbs made especially for reptiles, but they cost more than a regular incandescent bulb, which can usually be purchased four for $1 at any store. Incandescent blacklight bulbs can be used to provide nighttime heat.

Ceramic heat emitters also provide heat, but no light at all. They can be purchased at pet supply stores in many different wattages. You will often see ceramic heat emitter shortened to CHE. Ceramic heat emitters, as well as incandescent blacklight bulbs are good choices when providing warmth for species that prefer lower levels of light, such as Redfoot and Hingeback tortoises.

Deciding what wattage to use depends mainly on how cool the ambient temperature of your home typically is. If your home remains relatively warm year round, choose a lower wattage, and you can lower the heat source closer as needed to increase temperature in the basking/hide areas.

All heat sources must be well secured to prevent burns and fires. Dome light fixtures, both those that are made especially for reptiles, brooder lamps, or utility lamps can be used. Do not rely on the clamps that often come with these lamps to provide security against lamps falling into the enclosure or on the floor and causing a deadly fire. Lamps should be hung from above, either secured to the ceiling by means of a hook or wire, or attached to a lamp stand. Lamp stands can be purchased from pet supply stores or built yourself of you are handy. Hanging your lamps above the enclosure is important for another reason. In the case of UV lighting, the rays are best utilized by the tortoise if they are coming from directly above the tortoise, rather than on an angle. Angled lights can also cause distress to the tortoise's eyes.

The needed temperature of your enclosure will vary from species to species. It is important to determine what the individual species of your tortoise needs, and to measure the temperature both at the basking site and also at the far reaches of the enclosure using an accurate digital thermometer. Thermostats made for reptile enclosures can be a very useful tool in maintaining the proper temperature.

There are also several options for UV exposure. UV is important for tortoises, because the only way that they can absorb calcium is if they are receiving enough Vitamin D3. If a tortoise is unable to absorb calcium, they will develop a disorder called Metabolic Bone Disease, or MBD. In young tortoises this most often results in death, and even older tortoises can develop soft shells, deformities, and lose the use of their legs. There are only two ways a tortoise can receive Vitamin D3, and that is through exposure to UVA/UVB lighting, or supplements.

There are two types of florescent UV bulbs. One is a T8 style linear florescent tube, the other is a coil, or compact florescent, often called a CFL. Whether or not the amount of UV light that a linear florescent will emit is enough to prevent MBD is very questionable. Many tortoises will develop MBD even if these lights are used. Compact florescent UV lights have in some cases proved dangerous. They are very bright and can cause retina damage and even blindness. Florescent UV lighting should be replaced every six to twelve months. Please also keep in mind that when using a florescent bulb for UV, a second bulb or emitter is required to provide the necessary heat.

There is a great option that combines both light and heat- UV producing Mercury Vapor bulbs, usually shortened to MVB. MVB bulbs produce more UV than linear florescents, and also provide necessary warmth. They are more expensive than linear or compact florescents, but last longer and remove the need for two separate bulbs for heat and UV. (Please keep in mind you may also need an incandescent blacklight or ceramic heat emitter to provide nighttime warmth, especially for very young tortoises.)

UV bulbs need to be placed at a certain distance from the floor of the enclosure in order for the UV wavelengths to be useful to your tortoise. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the package when placing the UV light. The best distance is typically twelve to eighteen inches. In the case of MVB lighting, purchasing lower wattages allows for closer placement of the bulb without danger of overheating your tortoise.

There is no substitute for real sunlight. The more time that your tortoise can spend outside, the better. Tortoises that receive at least 20 minutes of natural sunlight several times a week do not necessarily need supplemental UV lighting while indoors, unless they will be inside for prolonged periods.

Please understand that sunlight coming through windows or through the glass wall of an aquarium will not provide UV exposure. The glass filters too many of the UV rays for them to be useful, and even screen covers can dramatically reduce the amount of UV that your tortoise receives.

If you have concerns about your tortoise receiving enough Vitamin D3 through UV exposure, you can add a Vitamin D3 supplement to their diet. There are many powdered calcium supplements with added Vit. D3 available at pet supply stores. This type of supplement is made to be sprinkled on the tortoise's food. Receiving enough Vitamin D3 and calcium is especially important for hatchling and growing tortoises to prevent MBD related deaths and deformities.

For more on Vitamin D supplements visit:

Vitamin D Supplements - Dosage Information


Every tortoise needs to have some where to hide. Tortoises are shy by nature, and a tortoise without a hide is a stressed tortoise.

Hides can be as simple as a cardboard box with a hole cut in it. Flower pots turned on their side and half buried in the substrate work well also, as do the half logs sold in pet stores. You can be creative and use things that you have around the house or are inexpensive.

You should have at least two hides available to your tortoise, one on the cool side of the enclosure, and one on the warm side of the enclosure. This allows the tortoise to choose how warm or cool he wants to be, and still feel comfortable and secure. It is also a good idea to have a hide somewhere in between the warm and cool side.

Humid hides - as the correlation between providing humidity and preventing pyramiding becomes more widely accepted and proven, I strongly suggest that the hides that you provide for your tortoise, in particular for hatchlings, yearlings, and subadults, are humid hides. You can add a plain sponge to the top of your hide, and keep it damp to create a humid hide, or fill the hide with dampened sphagnum moss. Another simple hide is to use a plastic shoebox or other appropriately sized waterproof container, cut a door in the side, and fill it with a damp substrate such as coconut coir or sphagnum moss.

When using humidity in your enclosure, through misting, humid hides and humid substrates, it is extremely important to keep the enclosure, including the cool end, at 80*F or above. Humid hides should be placed in the warmer areas of the enclosure, such as near basking spots. Cold, damp conditions will invariably cause respiratory infections or pneumonia. Respiratory infections are often called RI.

For more information on respiratory infections visit

Respiratory Infections for Tortoise Keepers

Feeding a Tortoise


All species have slightly different feeding requirements, but I am going to give some basic information.

Most tortoises will eat Spring mix, Santa Barbara mix or Rocket mix readily. These mixes are usually available at your local grocery store, and are a mix of different greens. It is a good thing to use as a base for your tortoise's diet during the winter or when pesticide free weeds, flowers and grasses are unavailable.

Dandelion greens, turnip greens, grape leaves, hibiscus flowers, broad leaf plantain, and grasses are other things your tortoise will most likely enjoy, as long as you know they are pesticide free. Avoid feeding an abundance of vegetables. Summer squash, zucchini and sweet potato are fine as part of a balanced diet. Some tortoises require more grasses, some more weeds, and forest tortoises even eat mushrooms to get the fiber needed for a healthy diet.

Do not feed a high volume of fruit to most tortoises. Some, such as the forest species like Redfoots and Hingebacks, can tolerate and even need more fruit in the diet, but most of the grazers such as Sulcata, Greek and Russian tortoises do not need a lot of fruit, and an overabundance can cause intestinal problems. Once in a while as a treat is fine.

For most species, feeding any sort of cat food or other animal protein is very bad. Overfeeding (animal or meat) protein to grazing species stresses the liver, kidneys, and bladder, and can result in renal failure and deformities. Redfoot tortoises and Hingebacks are again exceptions to the rule as they require some animal protein in the diet. Earthworms, hydrated cat kibble or lean canned fish such as mackerel or salmon can be offered once weekly or bi-weekly.

Calcium powder should also be sprinkled on the food a couple times a week. There are many different brands of calcium powder made for reptiles. Calcium carbonate powder or coral calcium can be purchased at health food stores. You can also scrape a serrated knife over the soft side of a piece of cuttlebone (the same as provided for pet birds, and available at pet supply stores) and sprinkle the resulting powder onto the food. Whole cuttlebone should also be placed in the enclosure for the tortoise to eat at leisure. Often they will ignore cuttlebone for weeks or even months, and then suddenly eat it all when instinct tells them they need more calcium. Eating the cuttlebone also helps keep the beak of your tortoise from becoming over grown.

For more diet information, I would like to point you in the direction of my nutrition article, Nutritional Considerations for Tortoises - The "Balanced" Diet Revealed

Water and Food Dishes

The pet store may have told you that your tortoise does not need a water bowl. This is not true. Tortoises need to drink water as much as any other life form, and depriving them of that is not only cruel but can cause dehydration and death. Tortoises do not get enough from the food that they eat. Fresh water should be available at all times.

Tortoises like to soak in their water dishes. The water dish should be large enough for the tortoise to fully enter it, but shallow enough that it does not pose a hazard for drowning. Flower pot saucers, trash can lids and water heater drip pans (for very large tortoises,) Frisbees, paint roller pans, commercially made dishes, cat litter pans and any other appropriate containers can be used. The water level should just cover the bridge between the carapace (upper shell) and plastron (lower shell.)

Many tortoises will defecate and urinate (poop and pee) in their water dish, so it is important to keep the dish clean, and give them fresh water daily.

The best food dishes are an unglazed flowerpot saucer, a very flat rock, or a piece of slate or slate tile. This makes it easy for the tortoise to get to its food, and also helps to keep the beak and nails from becoming overgrown. Slate tiles can be purchased at Home Depot of Lowes for only a couple of dollars. If your tortoise has a tendency to drag its food into the substrate, a flowerpot saucer will help contain the food and remove the danger of the tortoise ingesting the substrate and possibly becoming impacted.


Soaking your tortoise is a very good idea. Most tortoises will use this time to void their bladder and bowels as well as drink water. It helps to keep them hydrated and healthy.

The water should be warm, but not hot to the touch. Fill the container to the level of the bridge between the carapace and plastron (upper and lower shell,) and soak the tortoise until the water cools, typically 10-20 minutes. Many will plunge their heads completely under the water, and draw in big gulps. This is completely normal, and the tortoise will not drown, even if the nares (nostrils) are covered while drinking, provided that the water is shallow enough for the tortoise to raise its head above the level of the water. They often leave their heads submerged and drink steadily for several minutes. This too is normal.

You can set the container on a heating pad, heat register, outside in the sun, or put a lamp over it to keep it warm longer. Do not leave the tortoise unattended. All in all, soak for probably 10-20 minutes. You can do this daily, every other day, or once a week, it is up to you. Babies should be soaked more often.

If you have a tortoise that is sick, or not wanting to eat, you can do a baby food soak. The method for this is simple. Prepare a soak for your tortoise. As with regular soaking, the water should be warm but not hot to the touch, and the level of the water should just cover the bridge between the carapace (upper shell) and plastron (lower shell.) Into the water, mix one jar (or less for smaller volume soaks, but a good portion of around 40% of the total volume) of human baby food. Carrots or butternut squash seem to work the best. To the water can also be added bird vitamins of the kind that are mixed with water (Vitasol is one) and I have also used human baby vitamins (such as Enfamil Poly Vi Sol.) Another great option is to add a liquid calcium carbonate solution, which can be purchased over the counter and is particularly a good choice for tortoises that have soft carapaces or plastrons, or very fine grade, suspendable calcium carbonate powder. The soak should be placed in an area that will allow it to remain warm for 15-20 minutes, such as on a heat pad, under a heat lamp, or next to a heat duct.

The symptoms under which I use/recommend this treatment are - lethargy, refusing to open eyes, puffy eyes, refusing to eat, and softness of the shell. Sometimes antibiotic therapy will cause a tortoise to go off its feed for a few days, and these soaks can be used at that time, also.

Please understand that this is not a replacement for veterinary care. This is simply a tool to use to help strengthen a weak tortoise and to help bolster a weak immune system or to help provide extra calcium and nutrients.

Other Health Concerns


Earlier in the article I mentioned a correlation between humidity and preventing pyramiding. Pyramiding is a condition where the scutes of the carapace are raised in exaggerated "pyramid" shapes. Pet stores often tell people that pyramiding is normal or even desirable - this is not true. Very few species of tortoises exhibiting any raising of the scutes in the wild.

In years past, it was believed that pyramiding was caused by excess protein in the diet. While improper diet is one aspect of an unhealthy tortoise, there are other aspects involved in raising a tortoise with a smooth shell and dense bone structure.

Provided that your tortoise is receiving a balanced diet, has proper lighting/heat/sun exposure, has a large enough enclosure and is receiving enough exercise, and is provided with a substrate that allows for a humid microclimate, there is one more very simple thing that you can do to help prevent pyramiding. Mist your tortoise directly on the carapace at least once, and as much as 3-4 times a day, until it is thoroughly wet. This is not an idea that is really all that new, however it is one that is becoming more widely accepted and several of our members have shown this to be a key in preventing pyramiding in captive raised tortoises. This is important especially for tortoises that are very young and still growing. In smaller, younger tortoises there is a strong instinct to hide from predators, usually in underground, humid burrows or buried at the base of plants. As a tortoise matures they spend more time above ground in the search for food, and can handle slightly drier conditions. Once the pattern for smooth growth is set in a young tortoise, it leads to continued smooth growth and a healthy adult life.

For more information on preventing pyramiding visit:

Pyramiding in Tortoises
RF Caresheet
The End of Pyramiding

Tortoises and Other Pets

Other family pets such as dogs and cats can prove a serious danger to your tortoise. Dogs and tortoises should never be allowed to mix. Even though a family dog may initially ignore a tortoise, and may continue to ignore a tortoise for years to come, allowing a dog to have access to your tortoise (both indoors and out) can be a deadly choice. All dogs are predators, and tortoises are viewed as a perfect chew toy. Even a cat can prove deadly to a small tortoise. It is your responsibility to protect your tortoises from other pets.

A Final Word

I truly hope that reading this article will give you insight into raising and maintaining a healthy tortoise. Tortoises do make wonderful companions and interesting pets. Because of their longevity, they command our respect and our best efforts in caring for them as well as we can. Do not forget to enjoy your new pet - now and for the rest of their, and your, life.

Copyright © Kristina Duda, January 11, 2011

For questions and discussion pertaining to the topics raised in this article, please refer to the discussion thread found at the Tortoise Basics for Prospective or Beginner Tortoise Owners discussion thread.
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