Let’s face it we’re living in a time of the MTV generation, and then some. We’re consuming and disposing of just about everything at a faster rate than ever, and while this raises a lot of questions, it (probably) isn’t of any great consequence when it comes to a lot of things. Pets of course aren’t one of those things.
The particular danger with tortoises is that being at the more unusual end of the pet spectrum makes them vulnerable to being a ‘flavour of the month’ type pet.
Unfortunately many people think of tortoises as being a fun accessory more than a serious pet, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. From the very specific husbandry, lighting and set-up requirements they demand, to the long term commitment that’s inherent with a owning a tortoise, there are lot of good reasons to at the very least think twice, or indeed maybe even think again before buying a tortoise.
Basically the bottom line is: they are NOT an easy pet to care for.
I know better than anyone how difficult it can be to look after a tortoise properly. When my son was born a few years ago, unfortunately my wife and I were so preoccupied that we neglected our then 16 year old tortoise, who we wrongly believed was winding down for hibernation. Unfortunately we found her dead one morning, and I believe the reason was because we hadn’t kept a close enough eye on the temperature in her hibernation box leading her to wake up too early, and ultimately starve.
It was a very sobering time for all of us, but it perfectly illustrates how even someone with the best intentions can get things drastically wrong. Make no mistake, tortoises are difficult pets to look after! I hope personally to have learnt my lesson, and that I won’t make the same mistake with my new tortoise. I implore you to do the same if you are interested in getting a tort of your own.
1) Size – They Get a Lot Bigger!
A lot of people find themselves wondering around a pet shop, spot a tank full of baby tortoises and become transfixed by just how ‘cute’ and small they are. They then buy one thinking that something so small will just slot into their lives, shoved in a varvarium in the corner of the lounge, and hey presto, a ready made talking point at dinner parties for years to come.
The reality couldn’t be more different. Whilst most breeds of tortoises will indeed remain small enough to fit into the palm of your hand for the first few years of their lives, nearly all will get bigger, some much much bigger! Certain species of Spur Thighed tortoises for example, can reach lengths of up to 30cm or more.
Having a bigger tortoises ultimately means you’ll need a lot more space (typically a dedicated fenced off run in the yard or garden) not to mention greater costs in terms of food, veterinary bills, and electricity. As a rough guess, you’re at least looking at the cost of caring for a fully grown tortoise being 3 times that of a hatchling, so be prepared for this!
2) Set-up Requirements
Even from the get go hatchling tortoises demand a lot of specific care requirements that people often overlook when they buy a tortoise.
Whilst reputable breeders and sellers of tortoises will endeavor to make sure prospective customers are not only informed of what they’ll need to properly look after their tortoise, they usually require you to provide tangible evidence of your set up in advance of taking your tortoise home.
Unfortunately not all sellers are as diligent as this and will be pretty blasé about such matters, which isn’t good for anyone, least of all the tortoise!
Tortoise’s require a decent amount of space, an enclosure with the right heat and UV lighting, the right food and supplementation, and an overall level of hands on management that some people might not expect, nor have the patience for.
3) Tortoises Are Not Cuddly
Tortoises have a unique charm and affectionate manner all of their own, however it couldn’t be more different from that of a ‘classic’ pet such as a cat, dog, or even a rabbit.
For the most part tortoises are quite solitary animals, and don’t require a lot in the way of physical affection.
If you’re in the tortoise husbandry game for the long term however, you will develop a close relationship with your tortoise over time. He or she will eventually recognise your voice and will respond positively to you touching their shell, or the skin on their neck.
4) You’ll Be Raising Them in an Unsafe Environment
Despite their tank like exterior, tortoises aren’t as indestructible as you might like to think they are.
If you’ve got other pets, in particular dogs, you’ll need to make sure your dog NEVER has access to your tortoise, even under your supervision. Dogs can be unpredictable, and it only takes one moment for them to mistake your tortoise as a squeak toy to lead to tragedy.
Similarly when the time comes to house your tortoise outdoors (which it will) you’ll need to be sure the enclosure is well protected against predators such as foxes, and indeed thieves.
5) Strict Dietary Requirements
With the exception of the red and yellow foot tortoise breeds, tortoises are strictly herbivorous, and require a steady diet of fresh high quality leafy vegetables, or better still dandelion leaves grown in your own garden.
What you can’t do is be tempted to be too adventurous with your tortoise’s diet by giving them too many sugary fruits. Some fruit is okay as an occasional treat, but cosistancy with the greenery is more important.
Besides food tortoises require calcium supplementation, which you must be prepared to provide alongside their food every day, as well as fresh water, including a full body soak (supervised by you) a couple of times per week that allows them to both drink, and absorb water through the other end of their digestive tract!
6) Salmonella Risk
A little known fact about tortoises, and indeed all reptiles is that they nearly all carry the potentially very nasty salmonella bacteria. This can be found not only in their gut, but also on their skin, and in their ‘waste’ deposits!
As long as you’re disciplined about washing your hands after each encounter with your tortoise or items they or their waste have come into contact with, then Salmonella doesn’t represent a threat to your health at all, but diciplined you must be!
Young children on the other hand are a different story!
7) You Need to Consider Who Inherits Your Tortoise
People don’t think about the future, it just isn’t human nature. That’s why young people are notoriously bad at things like paying into a pension or making a will.
Tortoise ownership is plagued by the same problem, and whilst we’ve old heard the old adage about a dog being for life, and not just for Christmas, this fact extends even further for a tortoise.
Whilst a dog might live 20 years or so, tortoises can in some cases live for a hundred years or more. So not only do you need to be prepared to spend the entirety of your own life caring for your tortoise, you potentially also need to keep in mind who will care for it after you’ve gone.
Whilst this might not seem like a big deal now, trust me, once you’ve spent decades developing a relationship with your tortoise you’ll want to be sure you leave it to the right person. So whether you choose your spouse, child, or best friend, make sure they’re a) happy to take on the responsibility and b) are clued up on what’s involved
8) Buying From Bad Dealers
As mentioned earlier, there are some pretty shady characters out there selling tortoises. The biggest red flag comes with dealers. Unlike breeders, dealers aren’t usually ‘tortoise people’, and their main concern is to make money, rather than ensuring the wellbeing of the tortoises they sell.
Buying from a dealer might not seem like a big deal, but if you’re helping to fuel an illegal or inhumane trading operation then it almost certainly is.
Dealers may also sell you a tortoise without legally required documentation if they think they can get away with it. Certain species, in particular the popular mediterranean Spur Thigh, or Hermann’s tortoises are required by law to be accompanied by what’s known as an ‘Article 10’ document. Without it they can’t legally be sold, so if you come across someone who’s willing to sell you an Article 10 tortoise without the document, you’ve probably got a bad egg on your hands.
9) If You Decide You Don’t Want Your Tortoise Anymore They Can be Hard to Rehome
Whilst tortoises can be pretty lucrative targets for criminals, rehoming them legitimately can be difficult.
If you’re looking to get the market rate for your tortoise, you might find very few potential customers come knocking. The reason? Well, why would you buy a 10 year old tortoise for £500 when you could get your own hatchling from birth for just £100?
Also, don’t forget the all important Article 10 document, if you want to get rid of your tortoise and you’ve misplaced it, then legally you can’t sell your him or her, you’ll simply have to give them away (if you can even do that).
10) Hibernation – You Can’t Just Leave Them to it
Hibernation is a like driving, if you take your eye of the road for just a second it can prove fatal.
As I mentioned above, my own low point as a tortoise owner came when my first tortoise perished as a result of me neglecting her during hibernation.
Hibernation is a tricky process all round, from ensuring you’ve got the right temperature controlled environment, to making sure your tortoise won’t be vulnerable to predators, or other hazards such as being strangled by the shredded paper that lines their hibernation box (as was sadly the case for a friend’s tortoise).
Even with the perfect setup it’s particularly important to closely monitor your tortoise during hibernation, particularly to ensure the temperature in their box stays within a safe range.
Whilst you might think of hibernation as being the most ‘hands off’ time of year for tortoise husbandry, in fact the opposite is true. You can’t visually inspect your tortoise and have no need to feed them, making it all to easy to let your guard down. But making sure you constantly monitor the temperature in their hibernation box is vital to ensuring your tortoise will survive hibernation.