Every tortoise is a little different but they all have the same basic needs. Knowing more about tortoises as pets will help you decide whether or not one is right for you. Tortoises can also live a very long time (anywhere from 50 to over 100 years), which means you must be prepared to provide a lifetime of care and consider that your pet might even outlive you.
Tortoises can make interesting pets although they can present some challenges due to their size and dietary habits.
Diets vary based on species but all tortoises need quite a variety of foods with careful attention paid to the amount of roughage as well as the calcium/phosphorus balances of their food. Some species have voracious appetites and also need a large amount of food. Time for daily food preparation and the costs associated with the amount of food a tortoise eats should be taken into consideration.
Many tortoise species are fairly large and need a decent sized enclosure, preferably outdoors, so they are best suited to areas with milder climates. Depending on the temperatures where the tortoise originates and the area where you live in, it may be necessary to bring tortoises indoors overnight or during cooler weather (and with the larger tortoises providing indoor housing can be a big challenge). Some species also need to hibernate which can be very stressful on the tortoise and requires special conditions.
When constructing an outdoor pen make sure it is strong and that you bury your fences if you have a burrowing tortoise. Tortoises are quite strong, especially the larger ones, and flimsy enclosures won't hold them for very long. Some tortoises also climb surprisingly well so they may require a roofed pen.
It is also very important to make sure the enclosure keeps predators (including dogs) out. Make sure there are no dangers in the pen including poisonous plants. Provide only shallow water, no sharp objects, and no small, inedible objects which may be accidentally ingested. Also for some tortoises, trying to climb steps or other obstacles can result in them tipping onto their backs which is something that should be avoided. Most tortoises will also need some sort of shelter outdoors such as a dog house (many owners often heat these).
Purchasing the Right Tortoise
It is best, as with any reptile, to get a captive bred one if at all possible. This isn't easy for some species but the capture and shipping conditions can be appalling and result in stressed animals which are then more prone to disease. It is also possible in some areas to locate tortoises from rescues. Any new addition to your household should be checked for parasites and quarantined for a while to ensure that it is healthy (if other tortoises are present).
Some species are quite aggressive with other tortoises and if a couple of males are kept in too small of an enclosure fighting may result producing potentially serious injuries around the eyes and on the legs.
Choosing a Tortoise Species
It is vital to choose the right species for you based on housing needs, environmental needs, and diet requirements. Different species have markedly different adult sizes, temperature and light needs, diets, and some need to hibernate while others do not. Be sure to research each individual species of tortoise you are considering prior to acquiring your new pet. Common pet tortoises include Russian, red-footed (and cherry head varieties), sulcata, Greek and radiated tortoises but there are also many others.
Tortoises can make great pets but they aren't for everyone.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT