Beyond the initial outlay of buying your tortoise, perhaps the more important consideration is the cost to actually keep them, both in day to day recurring costs, as well as other one off investments.
Whilst tortoises certainly cost a fair bit to own, just how much depends on many factors, but feed and habitation expenses are by far the biggest guaranteed lifetime costs.
In very broad terms, keeping a tortoise for an average of 70 years will cost anywhere between $19,000 and $38,000 (£14,000 and £28,000). The minimum figure comes from the cost of commodities that cannot easily be saved on, including:
- Electricity to power heat and ultraviolet light bulbs (a guaranteed expense if you live in northern Europe or the USA)
- Replacement light bulbs
- Nutrition supplements
- Veterinary bills (obviously highly variable depending on individual circumstances)
- One off costs such as enclosure and hibernation equipment
More widely variable costs include:
- Food – this can either be a considerable cost, if you buy all the food for your tortoise, or essentially nothing if your tortoise lives outside for the warmest parts of the year, and is sustained on the naturally growing weeds and flowers in your yard or garden
- Substrate – the ground material for your tortoise enclosure, if used will need to be replaced fully every 4 to 8 weeks. Again however, tortoises that live outdoors will simply live on the grass and soil, and therefore no substrate will be required
- Insurance – a good idea for covering veterinary bills, which can run into considerable amounts if you are particularly unlucky. However if you choose to ‘take the risk’ and not have insurance you stand to save many thousands of dollars over the lifetime of your tortoise.
Costs in Detail
As touched on above, food can either be a considerable cost, or a negligible one. If you choose to, or need to buy food each week, a combination of pre-prepared dry food and shop bought salad and vegetables will come to about $7 (£5) a week.
If you choose to grow plants at home you can either use with what is already growing in your garden or yard, or else there are specialist mixtures of seeds available to buy that include seeds of some of the most beneficial plants for tortoises to eat. These cost about $7 (£5) or so for several thousand seeds, and will continue to grow for several seasons or more once planted.
Whilst the cost of electricity clearly fluctuates a lot depending on your supplier, and where you are in the world (not to mention when you are reading this!), to none the less give some idea, let’s consider that at the time of writing electricity costs 14.37p per kWh in the UK and 13.19 cents pe kWh in the USA.
As you may or may not know a kWh (kilowatt hour) is the cost of 1000 watts per hour.
If we consider that a typical heat lamp consumes 60 watts of electricity per hour we have:
1000/60 = 16 which is gives us 1/16th of 14.37p = 0.89p per hour or 1/16th or 13.19 cents = 0.82 cents per hour
So over the course of a 12 hour day you might use 14 cents (10p) of electricity or $4 (£3) per month
Professional Hibernation Services
Whilst it is certainly possible to put your tortoise into hibernation at home, it does depend on you getting the conditions just right to do it safely. If you’re not comfortable with this, there are services available that allow a third party to take care of this important task for you.
For a fee of around $150 to $200 (£110 to £150) such services will keep your tortoise in hibernation for a minimum period (typically around 3 weeks), with an additional fee for every week thereafter of $15 or £20.
In the long run this approach probably won’t work out as more cost effective than hibernating your tortoise yourself, notwithstanding the cost of a refrigerator or other specialist equipment for 2 or 3 hundred dollars, this is only a fraction of the cost you will spend on a hibernation service every year for many decades.
Getting clued up on how to go about hibernating your tortoise properly, is therefore a major cost saver in the long run.
Tortoise Table or Vivarium
Tortoise tables vary in both size, quality, and by extension, price. Whether you’re planning to keep your tortoise indoors long term, or simply until they are large enough to live outdoors semi-permanently, the main thing is that your tortoise table is at least 4” x 2” (1m x 0.5m).
A table of this size can range in price anywhere from $40 to over a thousand dollars, with more expensive models being made from superior timbers, and coming with extra features such as a built in cupboard/stand.
Vivariums (glass sided enclosures) are only suitable for tropical tortoise species such as Red Foot, or Yellow Foot tortoises. Such enclosures are generally built to a higher standard as they are designed to contain their own micro climate with high levels of humidity
Vivariums start at around $200.
Heat Lamps (Check Out Recommended Lighting Here)
Assuming your tortoise enclosure is not already fitted with one, you should expect to pay about $15 (£10) for a heat bulb holder.
Heat bulbs themselves are about $10 (£7) a piece, and typically I get through about 2 per year.
People often use a heat reflector to better contain the radiant heat from a heat bulb, these are generally more useful in outdoor enclosures where heat is lost to atmosphere. These cost about $30 (£22)
Indoor enclosures usually only need a single heat bulb, while an outdoor enclosure may need two or more depending on how large it is.
Other methods of heating such as ceramic heat emitters are an alternative to heat lamps, with the advantage being that they generally last a lot longer. These are around $30 (£22) each.
Heat mats are another method of heating reptile enclosures, although they aren’t generally recommended for tortoises.
Ultraviolet light is essential for tortoise health, the ideal source of which is the sun.
For indoor enclosures it is usually necessary to supplement with an artificial source of UV light.
UV bulbs come in different forms, but the best option is a strip lamp that spans the full length of the enclosure. It’s also important that the UV lamp emits UVB light, either partly or solely, as this is the wavelength most commonly found in the desert/semi arid locations where most tortoises are found in the wild.
A 60cm (2′) UV bulb costs about $30 (£22), and you’ll likely need to replace this twice per year.
In fact it’s worth noting that regardless of whether your lamp fails or not, you should still aim to replace it either every six months or year, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions. This is because the amount of UV given off diminishes over time, even though the bulb still appears to function correctly.
Calcium supplementation is essential for tortoise health, and luckily it isn’t an expensive provision.
I use a powdered calcium carbonate product which I sprinkle on my tortoise’s food 2 or 3 times per week, and even then a single container lasts a good year or more. These cost about $10 (£8) per container.
A cuttlefish bone is another good natural source of calcium, which you can pick up for a few dollars, or even for free if you live in a part of the world where you can salvage them from the sea shore.
Tropical species aside, it’s a commonly held belief that tortoises don’t require humid living conditions.
Whilst it’s true that most tortoises live in dry climates, a degree of humidity is always present, whether in the air or underground in the burrows they dig.
You can either simulate moderate humidity by ‘misting’ your tortoise enclosure with a quick pump of a spray bottle a couple of times per day, or a perhaps more natural approach is use damp moss placed in the hide area to create a kind of damp air ‘micro climate’ in that particular area.
Moss suited to this task is available for around $10 (£8) per bag, and if kept moist and free of detritus should last for a year or more.
For indoor enclosures by far the biggest consumable cost is the floor substrate. There are several different choices available on the market, each with their advantages and disadvantages, not to mention their detractors and those who champion them.
The two substrates I have used with the greatest success are soil based substrates, and straw bedding.
Soil Substrate – $20 per 20 liters
Straw bedding cost – $20 per 20 liters
Keep in mind that you’ll need to fully replace the substrate in full every month to two months, depending on how soiled it is, so multiply the figure by 6 or 12 to get the price per year.
So for example, in the worst case scenario the substrate cost would be around $240 (£175) per year.
When you decide to go on vacation you obviously need to make arrangements for who will look after your tortoise during your absence (providing you don’t choose to take them with you that is!).
If you don’t have a willing volunteer, or don’t wish to burden anyone you know with caring for your tortoise the next best (or possibly even better) option is to pay for your tortoise to board with a reputable carer.
I choose to use the service provided by my local specialist reptile pet store as I know that they know tortoises better than most, and always provide a great service. They charge about $7 (£5) per day.
It’s far better to have someone who genuinely cares about tortoises look after yours for you so that you can have peace of mind and focus on enjoying your vacation, rather than spend the time worrying.
Whether you choose to insure your tortoise or not really comes down to how you assess risk.
The obvious consideration when it comes to owning a tortoise is of course that they are so long lived. For a creature that lives for over 70 years, the odds of running into health issues or accidents are quite likely over such a long period of time.
Typically there are different levels of pet insurance, available:
- Accident only – Covers costs in the event of accident only. Illnesses and diseases, both new and existing, are not covered
- Time limited – Covers both accident and disease but only a set period of time. Conditions occurring after the term, and pre-existing conditions are not covered
- Lifetime – Covers all conditions up to a set value that resets each year
- Maximum benefit – Covers all conditions up to a much higher value that does not reset each year, therefore claims can keep being made until the full value is reached.
Accident only policies are the cheaper option, but not necessarily appropriate for the generally low risk lifestyles of tortoises, while time limited policies might be useful during more risky times of the year such as when your tortoise is hibernating.
Depending on which policy you choose you’ll pay between $5.50 and $13.50 (£4 and £10) per month, or between $70 and $140 (£50 and £100) per year.
Routine Veterinary Bills
Aside from expensive procedures and treatment for illness, which is likely to be covered by insurance, there are other more routine reasons for taking your tortoise to the vet which are a smaller, but not insignificant expense.
The first expense of this nature is the cost of getting your tortoise’s claws and beak trimmed. This isn’t a regular occurrence, and largely depends on the lifestyle of your tortoise, and how much natural wear and tear keeps these parts of their anatomy short.
I generally find that I take my tortoise to the vet every couple of years to get a trim, and it costs about $30 (£22). You can of course carry out these procedures yourself, but because of the risk of injuring your tortoise it isn’t generally advisable unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing.
The expense is a ‘once over’ checkup to ensure your tortoise is ready for hibernation (if applicable to your tortoise). Again this isn’t strictly necessary, but given that hibernation isn’t an entirely risk free process, it’s well worth getting the opinion of a professional, just to make sure your tortoise is fit and healthy enough to hibernate.
Depending on where you live in the world, you may find that your tortoise has been microchipped as a legal requirement prior to being sold. In the UK this will be evident from the ‘Article 10’ certificate supplied with your tortoise.
In other locales, or with species that don’t require certification, the choice to microchip your tortoise is down to you. It is a good idea to do so, just in case your tortoise escapes or is stolen, it may help with tracking them back down again.
For the sake of $27 (£20) or so, it’s well worth having a qualified veterinary practitioner implant a microchip in your tortoise, although keep in mind it is not recommended to do so until they have reached at least 10cm (4″) in length.
Security features/Outdoor Enclosures
Sadly tortoises are the target of thieves more often than they ought to be, so depending on your circumstances it may be necessary to invest in some security features
For tortoises kept indoors this is a lot less critical but keeping a webcam pointed at your tortoise table is well worth doing, both from a security point of view, and for when you want to check you tortoise is okay when you’re not around. A decent webcam that fulfills this purpose need not cost more than about $40 (£30).
Outdoors you’ll want to make sure your enclosure is designed in such a way as to withstand any attempt at a break in. Clearly the specifics of how you choose to do this will vary wildly, whether through the materials you choose to construct the enclosure from, the choice of locking mechanism, or even simply where you choose to situate the enclosure.
As a rough estimate I would certainly allocate $200 (£150) to constructing/purchasing a secure outdoor enclosure.