Tortoises are generally safe to keep as pets because they rarely cause allergies. Rather than the tortoise itself, the bigger risk factor for allergies is the substrate found in the tortoise enclosure. So, choosing the right substrate can prevent any unpleasant reactions.
People can develop allergies to many different things, one of the most common being pets. Some are allergic to dogs, others to cats, and so on. But whoever heard of anyone being allergic to a tortoise? I’ll wager very few people, which isn’t surprising because it’s very rare.
That being said, if you notice irritation on your skin every time you hold your tortoise, it would be worth looking into this to try and get to the bottom of the problem.
The first thing to determine is whether it’s the tortoise, or another factor causing you problems. If you’d like to know more about keeping a tortoise if you have allergies, please read on.
Is the Tortoise Responsible for Allergies?
Generally speaking, it is extremely rare to see someone suffer any kind of allergic reaction to tortoises. Now, of course, it can happen in some rare circumstances, but it’s so rare that most of the time it’s not even considered a possible cause when symptoms appear.
Animals like dogs, cats, or others that have hair or fur commonly cause allergies, primarily because of the skin flakes or ‘dander’ that they shed. It’s highly likely you even know someone who is allergic to one of these pets.
Tortoises do not have any hair – therefore, they produce no dander. For this reason, they do not cause allergies, at least not the same type of allergy that animals with hair cause.
There are however some individuals with very sensitive immune systems that may develop pet allergies, as they react to proteins in the pet’s saliva, urine, and not just dander.
Dander can settle just about everywhere in a house – furniture, carpets, and in air. As a result, they are prone to cause allergies.
With tortoises, we know this is not the case, so developing an allergy to them is quite difficult. However, the enclosure substrate might become a source of allergens for some people.
When you keep a tortoise indoors, you need to find the right substrate for the enclosure, and sometimes, even mild substrates can give you annoying allergic symptoms. Thus, handling the tortoise or being near its enclosure will become an unpleasant thing because of the substrate.
You may incorrectly assume that the tortoise is the source of the problem, where in fact it is the substrate that’s the source of your irritation.
Which Is the Best Substrate to Avoid Irritation?
The best substrate you can use in the tortoise’s enclosure to avoid irritation, and which suits tortoises in general, is plain old garden soil. This is of course easy to get hold of, and it is one of the most natural substrates you can use.
You should use natural soil with no chemical additives such as perlite or fertilizers.
You can either use the soil as it is, or mix it with different binding materials to alter it’s properties slightly, such as peat moss, sand, or coconut coir.
Just keep in mind that any such additional material must also be free of chemicals and other unnatural additives that your immune system may not thank you for.
Be particularly wary of sphagnum moss as this can cause chronic skin infections in humans. Wood chips and mulches are also something to be wary of as they may contain mold spores that might irritate not only your airways, but just as importantly, the tortoise’s.
So the bottom line with prevention: if you want to avoid an allergic reaction, stay away from substrates that may be a haven for molds and spores.
How to Stay Safe When Taking Care of a Tortoise
If you have a tortoise and you believe you are suffering an allergic reaction to the enclosure substrate, there are several things you can do:
- Change the Substrate
As mentioned, some substrates tend to exacerbate allergies, and it is best to replace them with better ones that don’t cause irritation.
Plain soil combined with coconut coir or peat moss is the way to go.
However if for some reason even changing to this doesn’t work, you might need to undertake a bit of trial and error to see what does work. Just be sure you don’t choose a substrate that might be detrimental to the health of the tortoise.
- Keep Your Tortoise in Another Room
The tortoise’s enclosure doesn’t have to be in your bedroom, in fact it’s best practice not too.
Ideally an indoor dwelling tortoise will live in a spare room where it will stay undisturbed most of the time. Doing so makes it easier to avoid an allergic reaction as you’re not constantly exposed to potential allergens.
Of course, you’ll still be exposed when you feed or check up on your tortoise, but clearly a reduction in exposure is better than nothing.
Not only is keeping your tortoise in a separate room good from the point of view of allergies, but also from a general hygiene perspective.
Perhaps even more importantly, tortoises do not enjoy being in noisy environments, and may be afflicted with considerable stress if they are. Keeping them away from the hustle and bustle of daily life in your home will therefore ultimately be of benefit to their health.
- Wash Your Hands
After you handle the tortoise or any other item in their enclosure, you should always wash your hands. You may otherwise experience irritation if you are allergic to the substrate.
It also goes without saying that cleaning your hands after every encounter with your tortoise also prevents any contamination with other harmful microbes such as salmonella (which a large proportion of tortoises carry).
- Wear Gloves and Dust Mask
If you need to spend more time handling your tortoise or when clearing out old substrate to replace it, then wearing gloves and a dust mask is the best thing to do.
In fact I would recommend this as best practice for anyone, not just those with allergies. Not only because of the potential for exposure to harmful microbes, but also because the potential for dust inhalation is never healthy.
Wearing gloves will protect your skin from allergens and you can avoid any type of skin irritation using this type of protection.
- Installing HEPA Units
In case you or anyone in your home develop any allergic reactions simply just being in the presence of your tortoise, you should consider the use of a HEPA unit that helps filter air. This may be particularly appropriate if you have severe symptoms or you suffer from asthma, for some HEPA filtration units can be a true blessing.
It’s important to note that HEPA filters will keep the air clean of allergens, so it will only be effective if the airborne substrate is causing breathing trouble. It won’t help with skin contact based allergies.
So, if you keep the tortoise enclosure in your indoor living area, having a HEPA filter that runs all the time will make respiratory based allergies less severe.
The Bottom Line
You can keep a tortoise if you have allergies as long as you choose the right substrate and take other measures to protect your skin, and doing what you can to keep the air in your home free of substrate particulates.