Keeping Tortoises Alongside Other Pets

If you’re a tortoise lover there’s a good chance you’re a lover of other animals as well. If so you might be wondering if your tortoise can happily interact with your other pets, making you feel like the ‘Dr Dolittle’ you’ve always wished to be, or whether in fact the unfortunate realities of nature prevent such dreams being viable.

The short answer, sadly, is that it usually isn’t wise to let tortoise’s mingle with other creatures (or even other tortoises). In fact much of the time it isn’t even wise to let tortoises mingle with other tortoises, albeit usually for different reasons.  

You’ll hear mixed accounts from tortoise owners, some will say for example that their tortoise and dog coexist quite happily without a cage wall between them, while others will relay harrowing tales of their dog using the tortoise as a chew toy, with predictably disastrous consequences. Personally I know my wife used to let her tortoise and dog exist in close quarters and never suffer any ill effects as a result.

Dogs and Tortoises

Besides your tortoise it’s quite likely that your other pet is a dog, and as I mentioned above a dog’s relationship with a tortoise can be an unpredictable one to say the least.

Tortoises have limited natural defences against predators, so if a conflict is likely between your dog and tortoise, you can be fairly sure the tortoise will come off worse.

Ultimately of course it comes down to your own judgement to determine what you believe will be a safe environment for your tortoise, and you might well conclude that your dog’s personality is docile enough that they won’t inflict any harm on your tortoise.

You can normally read a dog’s body language to determine how he or she feels about a new arrival in their home, if they growl, bark, or appear anxious or aggressive towards the tortoise in any way, then it’s probably fair to assume the two aren’t going to get along.

Don’t assume either that just because your dog isn’t physically aggressive (ie biting nudging etc) towards your tortoise that it means the tortoise won’t be affected by its intimidating behaviour. You might not easily be able to spot it, but tortoises can be distressed by situations they deem to be threatening (such as being repeatedly barked at by a dog) which can lead to other problems such as a weakened immune system and increased risk of infections.

For what it’s worth, if it was me, I would always make sure my tortoise was protected by the sanctuary of his enclosure whenever my dog was around (if I had a dog). I’ve read too many tragic news stories of family dogs unexpectedly turning on young human babies to think that a dog can be considered stable enough not to behave unexpectedly when instinct takes hold.

Perhaps the most risky scenario is with a juvenile tortoise and a much bigger dog that can easily fit the entire tortoise in its jaws. A larger tortoise, for example a fully grown African Spur, is going to be comparable in size to a lot of dogs, therefore the dog is probably less likely to see it as a ‘toy’ at the very least. Although that still doesn’t mitigate much of the risk the dog poses to the tortoise, largely defenseless as the tortoise is.

Cats and Tortoises

Cats are a similar story to dogs in many respects; they play with things and they bite them, with the added threat of scratching thrown into the mix.

Again, with juvenile tortoises the risk is quite high that a cat will end up toying with it in much the same way as they do with mice and birds, so keeping juveniles well out of the way of your cat (if you have one) is imperative.

Things seem to take in interesting twist with older tortoises, with the tortoise becoming the aggressor in a lot of cases. Tortoises have widely been documented deliberately approaching a sleeping cat and biting it on the tail or leg.

This might sound unlikely, but it’s been seen happening time and time again. The real reason for this behaviour is actually believed to be the tortoise mistaking the cat as a potential mate!

Anyone who’s ever seen a male tortoise ‘courting’ a female will know just how apparently aggressive this can be, with the male biting the female as part of his mating ritual.

Cats on the other hand don’t generally appear to be particularly interested in larger tortoises, being well outside of their size remit as far as prey or playthings go.

So cats are probably a ‘safer’ bet to have living alongside your tortoise (if the tortoise is fully grown), particularly if like most cats they spend most of their time coming and going from your house, or asleep indoors away from the tortoise who will probably be living outside.

If you keep your tortoise’s indoors (juveniles or hatchlings for example) you need to take care that your cat can’t gain access to their enclosure. If you have an open topped tortoise table I would strongly suggest putting some sort of mesh covered frame on top of it as there are a couple of hazards to the cat, tortoise, and even you and your family if not:

  • The cat might choose to use the table as a litter tray, tempting as it is with its substrate lining. Besides making for an unpleasant environment for the tortoise, this could also pass parasites onto the tortoise
  • The cat might fall asleep next to the heat lamp, leading to burns or even fire, which is especially risky in your absence.

Diseases Spread From Tortoises to Other Animals

Tortoises aren’t poisonous (not any domestic species I’m aware of anyway) and they aren’t prone to spreading infection any more than other pets, with one possible exception: Salmonella.

Unfortunately a high proportion of tortoises, and other reptiles are infected with salmonella, and it’s so rife that you might as well assume your tortoise is infected.

It’s also unfortunate that there’s no way to cure your tortoise of salmonella, and worse still it lives to some degree or another on or in every part of the tortoise, but particularly in the digestive tract.

So for any animal, particularly a dog that might pick up a tortoise with its mouth, or a cat that might lick a tortoise, the risk of salmonella transmission is high, particularly if the cat or dog is old or in poor health. And as with humans the effects of salmonella infection can be severe and even fatal in some cases.  

Securing Your Tortoise From Potential Threats

As mentioned above there are a number of important reasons for keeping your tortoise and their enclosure out off limits for pets and other animals.

The best policy is to be disciplined about keeping a lid on your enclosure or enclosures so that nothing can hurt the tortoise and vice versa.

However allowing your tortoise to graze in your yard is of course a good thing, and I wouldn’t want to discourage it. I would simply limit allowing your tortoise to roam free for times when you are present to monitor the behaviour of both your pets, and any visiting wildlife.

Letting Tortoises Roam Free in the Home

It can be tempting to allow your tortoise to walk around indoors, especially if they’re indoors for the winter and you want for them to experience the same level of freedom as they might well have become used to outdoors.

I must admit that I too have allowed my tortoise to roam free in the house in the past, but looking back in hindsight it’s not something I would do anymore, particularly with young children around.

With cats and other animals who spend a lot of time indoors, having a tortoise roaming free in the same confined space can be a recipe for disaster if there happens to be a clash of ‘personalities’.

Not only that but as you probably know tortoises can’t be toilet trained, when nature calls they will just ‘go’ wherever they need to. So cleaning up tortoise poo is part and parcel of letting a tortoise roam free indoors, but even with the best will in the world it’s unlikely you’ll be able to clean up all traces of it.

Throw the risk of salmonella infection into the mix and you could have a real problem on your hands, particularly if other pets and young children are walking and crawling on the floor.

I think it’s a bad idea all round and would advise against it.

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