Sadly many people choose to own a tortoise without properly educating themselves about how to look after their pet correctly. Most of the time this isn’t the fault of the individual, but instead the information, or rather misinformation presented online.
The internet isn’t fully to blame for the spreading of misinformation however; much has been passed down through generations of tortoise owners and other misinformed sources.
Either way, let’s dispel a few tortoise myths that are commonly peddled as truth.
Myth 1: Tortoises Enjoy Being Held
Being cold blooded animals, you can be forgiven for thinking that tortoises would welcome feeling the heat from your hands heat up their bodies.
It’s true that tortoises can tolerate a reasonably wide range of temperatures, often moving to warmer and colder spots in their enclosure throughout the day to regulate their temperature. However, the important thing is that they remain able to keep full control over their own body temperature.
By picking them up, you take away your tortoise’s choice over how hot or cold he or she wishes to be, and in fact, your warm hands could well be too hot for them.
Besides the temperature issue, tortoises may become distressed when you hold them as they aren’t too keen on being restricted in this way. For all we know they may instinctively believe they are being pinned down by a predator, so thinking in these terms you can see it’s more humane to leave them be as much as possible.
In other words, save your cuddles for the cat or dog!
Myth 2: Tortoises Are a Good Pet For Young Children
Much of the appeal of tortoises stems from them being perceived as ‘safe’ and ‘predictable’, which in turn makes people think they make good pets for young children. This however is not the case at all, and young children aren’t good for tortoises as much as tortoises aren’t good for young children.
Young children are naturally very ‘hands on’, and indeed this is how they learn about the world around them before they are able to make sense of it using other means. Tortoises however don’t appreciate being manhandled at the best of times, let alone at the mercy a heavy handed toddler!
Babies and toddlers are also prone to exploring the world using their mouths, and being the relatively helpless creatures they are, tortoises are quite likely to find themselves being put in the mouth of a child that isn’t able to differentiate between their pet and an inanimate toy.
This might sound crazy, but trust me it happens!
As well as being extremely distressing for the tortoise, this is also a prime means of passing on salmonella to the child. Almost all tortoises carry salmonella, so the risk of infection is considerable via this route of transmission.
Suffice to say tortoises and young children shouldn’t be freely allowed to make contact with one another, with their interactions instead limited to observing one another from a distance.
Older children and teens on the other hand may benefit greatly from the responsibility of caring for a pet such as a tortoise, as long as they are sensible and mature enough to attend to the requirements of a creature that isn’t explicit about its needs and desires.
Tortoises are certainly not suitable pets for those with a limited attention span or a tendency to forget about their responsibilities!
Myth 3: Tortoises cannot feel pain through their shell
A common misconception is that the shell of a tortoise is more like the sacraficial shell of a hermit crab than the living exoskeleton it truly is. This has led many ignorant people to engage in cruel behaviour such as carving information like a name into the plastron of their tortoise believing that it will not cause any distress.
The reality is that the shell is very much alive and therefore able to feel pain just like any other part of the body.
Myth 4: Tortoises Only Grow Large Enough to Suit Their Enclosure
Somewhat bizarrely there is a belief among some owners that a tortoise somehow knows to stop growing when it reaches a size that meets the limits of their enclosure. Hopefully it won’t be a surprise to learn that they have absolutely no concept or control over this, and will continue to grow until they reach the size they would do naturally under any circumstances.
Once your tortoise reaches 3 to 5 years of age you need to make provision to move them into a larger enclosure than the tortoise table or vivarium people typically start out with. Ideally this should be outdoors and large enough to see them into maturity. Obviously the larger this enclosure is the better, but I suggest 12’ x 12’ (2m x 2m) is the absolute minimum to aim for.
Keeping a larger tortoise in an unsuitably small enclosure will be distressing to the tortoise, who will feel trapped in their unnaturally crampt surroundings.
Myth 5: Tortoises Are Simple to Rehome if They Become Too Much of a Burden to Care For
Stemming from the fact that, at the outset, tortoises are a niche pet with limited appeal, you will likely find it difficult to rehome your tortoise should you ever wish to.
Zoos are unlikely to take on a tortoise of questionable provenance, and usually prefer to source hatchlings from a supplier they are familiar with, if indeed they are looking to add to their tortoise collection in the first place.
Even if you do find a potential buyer you’ll need to make sure you have all the relevant documentation if your local law requires it. For example in the UK many tortoise breeds require that their original Article 10 document be kept with the tortoise when it is sold. This document cannot be copied, and if lost you will not be able to legally sell your tortoise, forcing you instead to give it away. Check out this article for more information on the practice of selling tortoises.
Tortoises should really be seen as a life long commitment, and in fact, given the longevity of many breeds you should even give some thought as to who will care for your tortoise after you are gone.
Myth 6: Tortoises Can Roam Freely About The Home or Yard
I must admit that this is a myth I have fallen foul of myself in the past, although I now know better. The belief is that tortoises can roam freely about the home without any risk of coming to any harm.
This simply isn’t true, and even if they are not harmed by other pets, falling objects or by their ill informed decision to chew through an electrical cable; they will almost certainly defecate on your carpet at some point, which is never much fun to deal with!
Allowing your tortoise to roam freely outside of an enclosure outdoors is equally as, if not more perilous, with risks ranging from a predatory attack, to being struck by a car, or simply disappearing into the undergrowth never to be seen again.
The lesson here? Whether indoors or outdoors, always keep your tortoise contained in an enclosure. Even if you’re around to supervise, tortoises can move pretty quickly when they want to, so even with your back turned for a moment your tortoise could soon be off out of sight and in potential danger.
Myth 7: Tortoises Only Need Eat Lettuce Leaves
Whilst you will likely need to rely on shop bought food for your tortoise much of the time, this doesn’t mean you can be ignorant about the nutritional value of what you provide. Lettuce leaves contain little nutritional benefit and really only serve as a source of hydration.
The truth is that tortoises require a varied diet in order to stay healthy, just as we do. So it’s essential to have a combination of salad leaves, weeds, and vegetables regularly available for your tortoise to eat, as well as clean water and calcium supplementation.
At the same time of course there are a number of foods you should actively avoid giving to your tortoise, and those that should be avoided except as an occasional treat, including foods high in sugar such as strawberries and other non citrus fruits.
With the exception of a handful of breeds such as Red Foot tortoises, tortoises are exclusively herbivorous and must not be fed animal protein of any kind.
Check out this article for more detailed information about which foods you should and should not give to your tortoise.
Myth 8: You Can Carve Your Name And Contact Details on Your Tortoise’s Shell
Following on from myth 3, the premise behind this practice is obviously to be able to permanently mark your tortoise with your contact information so you can be contacted by the finder of your tortoise should you ever be unlucky enough to lose them. The problem is that deliberately damaging the shell in any way is both cruel and painful to the tortoise.
Far from being an expendable growth such as our fingernails (as some believe them to be), a tortoises shell is a living part of their anatomy, more akin to human teeth than fingernails. And like human teeth, a tortoise’s shell is more than capable of feeling excruciating pain should someone try to drill or scratch into it.
Instead of physically marking your tortoise, the best thing to do in this day and age is to have them microchipped. Whilst not strictly pain free, the process of implanting a microchip can be carried out safely by a qualified vet, and is over very quickly. Perhaps most important of all, the tortoise suffers no permanent injury in the process and their quality of life will not be impacted as a result.
Myth 9: Tortoises Are Adapted to Temperature Extremes so The Temperature in Their Enclosure Doesn’t Need to be That Closely Regulated
Whilst it’s true that older tortoises are slightly more resilient to temperature extremes that hatchlings and juveniles cannot safely cope with, it isn’t correct to say that tortoises, even older ones, should not have their temperature monitored.
Assuming extremely high temperatures can more or less be countered by having a hide and plenty of water available, the greater concern is over very low temperatures.
Most hibernating species of tortoise can cope at lower temperatures down to about 2 °C (35.6°F) during hibernation, but of course hibernation is a process that needs to be carefully managed and prepared for.
Even at temperatures not low enough to encourage a full state of hibernation, tortoises will naturally become lethargic and slow their metabolism when temperatures drop, which in the wild usually coincides with night time. Having a slower metabolism at night is the natural state for a tortoise, so this isn’t a problem.
Where it does become a problem is when temperatures remain low throughout the day as well as night, leaving the tortoise unable to carry out vital activities such as metabolising food correctly.
To ensure your tortoise does not suffer any adverse health effects as a result of extremes of environmental temperature, you must use a thermometer to keep a close eye on the temperature in your tortoise enclosure to ensure it stays within reasonable bounds.
Myth 10: Tortoises do Not Have Teeth And Therefore There is no Risk of Being Bitten
They might not have teeth, but tortoises still have strong jaws to enable them to cut and chew their food. Therefore, as unlikely as it might be (which, incidentally, is very unlikely), tortoises are indeed capable of biting fingers and drawing blood.
Again, the chances of this happening are slim, but it is important to be aware that it is nonetheless still possible. It’s also yet another good reason not to routinely pick up your tortoise, no matter how tempting this may be.
If your tortoise is inclined to chase you, this may also be more likely!