Tortoises are often viewed as a lazy person’s pet, in much the same way that other reptiles or fish might are often perceived.
However, whilst it’s true there are a lot of things you won’t have to do as a tortoise owner, such as taking your tortoise for a walk and hosing them down after they’ve rolled around in the mud at the park, that doesn’t make their needs any less challenging, although they aren’t likely to be as physically demanding!
Tortoises are challenging to care for, requiring highly specific living conditions, and a specialist diet. Many species must also hibernate annually, a process which is challenging for all but the most diligent of owners to manage effectively.
Whilst many of the foods tortoises eat aren’t necessarily hard to come by, the difficulty comes from providing enough variety to meet all of their nutritional needs, and indeed to ensure you neither cause deficiencies nor dangerously excessive levels of otherwise vital minerals. This isn’t always an easy task
Consider calcium as perhaps the best example of this:
Many foods commonly fed to tortoises are high in oxalates such as spinach and other greens. Whilst small amounts of oxalates are unlikely to cause issues, too much will prevent the tortoise from being able to metabolise calcium quick enough, leading to kidney stones.
At the same time calcium deficiency is also a very common problem in tortoises, leading to poor shell and bone development.
Clearly it isn’t simply a case of providing too little or too much calcium, it’s more about the relationship between different substances found in different foods and the effect they have on each other.
Nonetheless, as the old saying goes ‘everything in moderation’, so you shouldn’t have any problems with dietary imbalances providing you are able to provide a wide range of different vegetables and leafy greens, such that the balance of vitamins and minerals stays consistent.
Tortoises are cold blooded animals, which in simple terms means they are unable to regulate their own temperature. Right off the bat this means you won’t get away with a rabbit hutch in the garden or a hamster cage in the living room to house your tortoise.
Tortoises require a heat regulated enclosure, either in the form of a vivarium (glass walled enclosure), or more suitably, an open topped tortoise table. Either way, a heat lamp (or lamps) are required, as is a suitable ultraviolet light to mimic the sun, which is vital for the health of a tortoise.
An outdoor enclosure is ultimately favourable over an indoor enclosure given that it will likelyl offer a greater amount of space, and also access to fresh produce straight from the soil.
However even if you are fortunate enough to be able to provide such a setup, you’ll still need to be able to provide the heat and UV light required for days (and entire portions of the year) when blazing sunlight isn’t in abundance. This can be both tricky and expensive to rig up outdoors.
Enclosures aren’t ‘fit and forget’ installations either. You must be prepared to regularly clean indoor enclosures both of tortoise waste and old food to prevent the spread of infections,both to your tortoise and potentially to you and your family.
Perhaps one of the hardest and most daunting things about caring for a tortoise is getting hibernation correct. Unfortunately it’s all too common to hear stories of people who have hibernated their tortoise with the best intentions, and for their pet to perish due to a mishap at some point during the process.
This can range from:
- Ambient temperatures that increase too much such that the tortoise wakes up continually, ultimately causing them to expel too much energy and leading to starvation.
- Poor choice of insulating material (any type of stringy material) in the hibernation vessel being a strangulation hazard
- The tortoise not being sufficiently heavy enough (with sufficient fat reserves) prior to hibernation
- Choosing to ibernate the tortoise for longer than would be considered safe for their size and weight
Preparation beforehand and careful monitoring during hibernation are therefore of critical importance if safe and successful hibernation is to be achieved.
Note that not all tortoises hibernate, with tropical species such as Red Foot tortoises being one of the most famous examples of a non-hibernating species.
Tortoises Can’t Tell You When They Feel Unwell
Perhaps one of the draws of owning a tortoise, for some at least, is that they won’t keep you awake at night howling, and leaving your neighbors feeling as though they need to put their house on the market.
But whilst your tortoise keeping themselves to themselves and being almost completely mute certainly has its advantages, it also presents a risk, chiefly that you might not be completely alert to any issues and ailments your tortoise is suffering from.
Paying close attention to your tortoise’s behaviour is essential if you are to notice subtle differences that could be an indicator that all is not well. For example if your tortoise seems lethargic or is eating less than they might normally it could be a sign of illness, but both will be hard to detect if you aren’t already familiar with what truly is their ‘normal’ behaviour.
Injuries Can be Difficult to Treat
A tortoise kept in captivity correctly shouldn’t be at risk of serious injury, but invariably injuries do happen, whether from a dog or animal bite, or a fall from a great height.
Such accidents can be life threatening if left untreated, especially when it involves damage to the shell.
Although shell injuries can often be treated, they certainly aren’t easy or cheap to treat, particularly large fractures which may become infected if dressings aren’t applied and changed properly.
Tortoises Carry Salmonella
Looks can be deceiving. Although tortoises are what might best be described as ‘harmless’, a vast proportion of them carry the gastro intestinal parasite salmonella. This can be present in the feces of the tortoise, or even on the skin or shell.
Whilst salmonella doesn’t seem to affect the health of tortoises, it is of course a cause of sickness in humans, and sometimes seriously so.
Keeping a tortoise therefore demands strict hygiene practices. You should wash your hands after every encounter with your tortoise, whether that’s handling them directly, or simply other items within their enclosure.
This is particularly important to instill in children, and needless to say very young children should never be left unsupervised with a tortoise, it isn’t unheard of for tortoises to find themselves in curious little mouths!
Vet Bills Can be Expensive
Whether as a result of injury as mentioned above, or from other illnesses, tortoise veterinary bills can be expensive.
This is largely because the specialist knowledge required to treat reptiles, let alone tortoises, is that much harder to come by than vets who are used to treating ‘conventional’ pets such as cats and dogs.
So not only will you (or your insurance) pay more for treatment, you might also have to travel further afield than you might like to access it.
Keeping Multiple Tortoises Can be Problematic
If keeping a single tortoise is challenging enough, keeping two or more presents a raft of other potential difficulties.
Keeping multiple females isn’t too much of an issue, as the tend not to be aggressive (although determining the sex of a tortoise can be challenging in itself). Keeping a male with females however can result in significant distress for the female as the male repeatedly mates with them, often leading to injury.
Keeping a male with a female (or females) can also of course lead to pregnancy in females, which isn’t ideal unless you plan to care for a litter of hatchlings.
It might be common knowledge that tortoises are some of the longest lived creatures on the planet, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to realise this when choosing to take on a tortoise as a pet.
The fact is tortoises are very difficult to rehome once you have one, so if you decide caring for your tortoise is no longer for you, you may struggle to find someone willing to take on the responsibility.
People erroneously think that zoos will willingly take on their pet, but the truth is that zoos are inundated with such offers all the time, and could not possibly hope to accept such offers given their limited capacity.
As for the public at large, most people in the market for a tortoise would rather spend less money on a hatchling or juvenile than more money on a larger specimen.
Make no mistake, there are more than enough pet tortoises to go around, and likely not enough people willing to care for them.
The upshot of all of this is of course, that you take on your tortoise as a lifelong commitment when you buy them. With many species living for upwards of 75 years, you will likely be outlived by your tortoise depending on when you buy them, so you will even need to think about who they are left to in your will!