How to Look After a Pet Tortoise: Beginner Guide for New Keepers


Did you know that prehistoric relatives of tortoises roamed the earth at the same time as dinosaurs? Pretty awesome right? Tortoises are very interesting animals to care for, but they are also high maintenance, as they are kept outside of their natural climate.

Does a tortoise make a good pet?

Caring for a tortoise as a pet is a great commitment and should not be taken lightly, however it is also an incredibly rewarding experience. Here are the key facts and some really important things you should know about keeping a tortoise.

How long does a tortoise live for?

Tortoises live for ages! Did you know that the oldest tortoise recorded was 175 years old called Harriet? It’s believed that Darwin collected her in 1835 and she came to England, but ended up in Australia Zoo where she was looked after by Steve Irwin until 2006. But she was likely to be nearly 250 years old as she wasn’t a baby when she was found.

Harriet, Darwin’s tortoise.

On average pet tortoises live between 50 and 100 years, that’s a long time to care for them so tortoises are for life, not just for christmas!

Although this means that you’ll have a friend for life, it also means that you need to ensure that you are willing and capable to commit to caring for them for this long. Funnily enough it’s not uncommon for people to leave their pet tortoises in their wills!

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dehydrated tortoise 3
Hermann’s Tortoises like to dig burrows.

What tortoise varieties make good pets?

There are many different types of tortoise and each tortoise type has its own little set of quirks. It is important when deciding which species of tortoise you would like to introduce into the family, as they all have different living requirements and you will need to select a tortoise on the basis of whether it fits in with your lifestyle, rather than its appearance.

Some tortoises prefer different temperatures, habitats, dietary requirements and grow to different sizes.

Tortoises from hot places tend to have lighter-colored shells than tortoises from cooler areas. The light tan sulcata originates from the southern part of the Sahara Desert.

The most common species of tortoise for pets are Hermann’s, Sulcata, Russian, Greek, Leopard, Red Foot, Yellow Foot and Indian stars.

Generally, the easiest species to care for are the Hermann’s and the Turkish Spur- thighed tortoises.

Tortoise Life
Hermann’s Tortoises

What is a group of tortoises called?

A group of tortoises is called a creep. But they don’t group together very often as they tend to be solitary roamers.

One of our pet tortoises taking a wander

What do tortoises eat?

Tortoises are vegetarians and fall into the herbivore category. This means that it is important to take care of their dietary requirements, as their diet should include predominantly green leaf vegetation and flowers, as this is what they would find in the wild and should avoid excessive fruit and cat or dog food. 

The best diet for a tortoise is weeds that you can forage.

Foraging for tortoise food

The best plants for Testudo tortoises are in the sunflower family, and in the subfamily Cichorioideae. These are

  • chicory
  • endive
  • escarole
  • radicchio
  • dandelion
  • lettuce

These plants don’t have all the nutrients; nothing does, including Mazuri, so the advice for a varied diet still stands.

However, the nice thing about chicory and its relatives is that they contain few or no anti-nutrients, like oxalate, goitrogens, etc. So, they are more palatable and less toxic.

In fact, Testudo species eat a lot of these in nature – probably more than any other plant. Tortoises with gut parasites seem to self-medicate with toxic, bitter plants like poppies and buttercups.

However, healthy tortoises with few or no parasites prefer sunflowers, probably because they’re tastier! Cruciferous plants are somewhere between the bitter poppies and the tasty sunflowers in their chemical content and palatability.

You can even grow your own tortoise friendly weeds from this kit!

How To Care For Your Tortoise’s Beak

Tortoise beaks are delicate and require special care. They are also prone to infection if not cared for properly. Here are some ways to keep your tortoise’s beak healthy and strong.

A tortoise’s beak is an extension of its mouth. It helps the animal eat and drink. The beak is also used to groom itself and to dig out food.

If you notice that your tortoise’s beaks are starting to get dry, cracked or chipped, then it is probably time to trim them. If you are unsure whether or not your tortoise needs to have his beaks trimmed, then you should consult your veterinarian.

Tortoise Food FAQs

Can my tortoise eat broccoli?

Broccoli contains goitrogens that interfere with thyroid activity and could damage the liver and kidneys and therefore is not recommended for your tortoise.

Can my tortoise eat spinach?

Spinach contains oxalic acid which binds with calcium and prevents absorption of it in your tortoise.  Spinach also has a high level of calcium oxalate crystals which contribute to the formation of kidney stones. 

Some of the calcium oxalate is in the form of needle-shaped crystals called raphides, and when consumed in large amounts these can irritate the skin and mucous membranes in the mouth and throat. So don’t feed spinach to your tortoise!

Can my tortoise eat cucumber?

Cucumber is 96% water and can help your tortoise with hydration, especially in summer. It does also contain some minerals and vitamins, including vitamin C. Cucumber is also a good way to give your tortoise medication if you need to.

Can my tortoise eat tomatoes?

Tomatoes are not good for a tortoise. Unripe tomatoes are toxic, ripe ones contain high sugar levels, high phosphorus and no calcium. Tortoises do find tomatoes tasty though, and the one situation in which it might be acceptable to feed it a little is when you need to give your tortoise some medication.

Can my tortoise eat bananas?

Bananas are not good for a tortoise, unless it is a Red Foot tortoise who originates from the Rain Forest where banana can be served sparingly as part of their mixed diet.

Can my tortoise eat cabbage?

Cabbage is from the brassica family. Too much brassica might cause goiter which damages the liver and kidneys. However, goiter is rarely seen in tortoises nowadays and was mostly a problem for a relatively few species (mostly the giants) fed almost exclusively cabbage.

You can feed your left over cabbage to your Russian tortoise, just don’t feed it all the time. Cabbage is actually a pretty nutritious food item with a decent Ca: P ratio and assortment of vitamins and minerals.

Can my tortoise eat buttercups?

It is generally safe for tortoises to eat buttercups, but not if it’s the only food they are offered. Buttercups have a high water content so they’re more likely to be urinated out than digested.

Why does my tortoise poop in their water?

Tortoises go to the toilet in water to keep themselves clean. The warm water also helps to relax their bowel and assist with passing their faeces which can sometimes be very hard if they are dehyrated.

How do I keep my tortoises beak short?

Feeding your tortoise on a flat rock will help keep their beak short so that it doesn’t require trimming. If it is overgrown, visit your vet reptile specialist to have it trimmed.

How do I trim my tortoise beak and claws?

Claws can be filed once or twice a year it they are overgrown. Never trim your tortoises beak at home as it has nerves and blood vessels and these may sustain irreparable damage, pain and disfigurement if done incorrectly.

Tortoise Life 2

How To Keep Your Tortoise Hydrated

Your tortoise needs to stay hydrated, especially when it’s a baby. Adult tortoises should have a fresh bowl of water regardless of whether they are inside or outside and baby tortoises should be soaked in water regularly.

When you first bring home your baby tortoise, you should bathe it a couple times a week. Set up a baby bath temperature bowl of water, reasonably shallow so that your tortoise has its head above the surface and place your tortoise in.

Once your tortoise is suitably hydrated it will begin to drink the water and this is a good sign that everything’s a-okay. Why not buy your tortoise a pool for their habitat?

Check regularly for signs of dehydration, especially in the warmer months.

Can A Tortoise Swim?

Most tortoises can’t swim. They just aren’t designed for it, no webbed feet, no buoyancy. Saying that though, Leopard tortoises are able to float and swim slowly. Their shell is large and dome shaped and gives them extra lung capacity to aid buoyancy.

Your tortoise can hold its breath for a very long time! Watch them exhale before they retreat into their shell to hide.

Tortoise Life 3
Leopard tortoise can swim – albeit very slowly.

What are tortoise scales called?

The scales on the carapace are called scutes. They are made of the same keratin found in fingernails and hooves. Scutes protect the bony plates of the shell from injury and infection. The growth rings around scutes can be counted to determine the approximate age of wild tortoises.

What to do if your tortoise keeps its eyes shut

When a tortoise keeps its eyes shut, it is usually a sign of Vitamin A deficiency or dehydration. Don’t worry as it is rarely serious but if symptoms persist for over a week, despite home treatment, then you should visit your vet.

Some simple home remedies are to soak your tortoise and cover up its shelter, so that it becomes more moist. If it appears to be chronic you can try applying a salt water solution to its eyes twice daily and feed them small amounts of spinach, as that is a source of Vitamin A.

Can a tortoise live indoors and outdoors in the UK?

Tortoises can live both indoors and outdoors. As there is such a variety of tortoise species you can choose which is right for you. Some species are actually able to live outside as well as inside, such as Hermann’s tortoises. This means that it is important that you check which species of tortoise is right for you and what their requirements are.

Some species will need to live inside, in hot temperatures. An example of these are the Greek tortoises, which require a temperature ranging from 65 to 105 degrees fahrenheit, depending on the time of day.

If you wish to keep your tortoise outside, then you should provide safe plants, a substantial shelter and a protective barrier to keep them from wandering off.


Treating a soft tortoise shell

Tortoises shells are made from calcium, this means that they need access to Vitamin D, otherwise known as light. Sometimes a tortoise can develop a soft shell, this is likely to be because they are not getting enough sunlight, so as you can imagine, this is a rare occurrence for a tortoise that lives outdoors.

The best way to treat a soft shell is to ensure that your tortoise has access to a steady light source and if your tortoise is indoors then place them 8-10” under a UV light source and change the bulb every 9-12 months.

Tortoises need a license and a microchip

Many ‘common’ species of tortoise are covered by C.I.T.E.S regulations. This covers the right to breed, sell and own a tortoise. Mediterranean tortoises should not be sold or offered for sale unless the seller has a certificate issued by C.I.T.E.S.

Never buy a tortoise unless you are sure that the breeder has the right legislation and if you breed and intend to sell the offspring, you will need to obtain a certificate beforehand.

You should be careful where you buy your tortoise from in general and should seek out a reputable seller as if you encounter any issues in the future you will want to be able to get in touch with the seller for advice and for some background. This means that it is probably best to avoid purchasing your tortoise from a reptile show.

Enrichment for Tortoises

Tortoises are intuitive creatures and so, in order to keep them occupied, require an exciting environment with lots of places to explore. If your tortoise is outdoors, you can try adding clumps of grass, which allows your tortoise to burrow and provides them with shade.

You could also add some boulders and some small trees to provide privacy and shelter. Bathing dishes allow your tortoise to have a little play in the water and also have a drink, so they also make an exciting addition to your tortoises environment.

Logs, rocks, bathing dishes, moist hides, and dirt mounds are good choices for tortoise enrichment.

Indoor tortoises are often kept on a special tortoise table.

READ NEXT: Complete Guide to Tortoise Enrichment for a Happy Tort


Your tortoise may love foraging in a ho-lee roller which you can buy here.

Can my tortoise feel when I touch them?

Your tortoise’s shell has nerve endings, so they can feel every rub, pet, or scratch and you’ll find they probably love it!

But as reptile biologist Matt Evans of the Smithsonian National Zoo Reptile Discovery Center demonstrates in this video tortoises genuinely enjoy physical contact, and they’ll even try to return the favor in their own clumsy way:

Tortoises enjoy tactile sensations; rubbing, scratching, that kind of thing.

“we’ll kind of rub their shell, scratch their head a bit and when we do that, they extend that neck out and they’ll look like they’re enjoying it”

Matt Evans, reptile biologist

Here’s a DIY Shell Scratcher idea from Wild Enrichment which we love!


DIY tortoise back scratcher

Does a tortoise make a good pet for a child?

A tortoise is not a good pet for a young child. Tortoises are at a higher risk of injury and malnutrition if left in the care of a child under 12 as they need a certain amount of maturity from their owner to understand the level of care needed. They also carry salmonella so hygiene is important by their handler to avoid illness.

Tips on how to introduce your dog to a tortoise

The easiest way to do this is to have your tortoise in a secure area, like a mesh run, so that they are protected from your dog. Give your tortoise a box to hide under in the run too so they tuck themselves out of the way if they get too stressed ( or you can put them in it if they just retreat back into their shell). Don’t make a big fuss and allow your dog to investigate the run whilst supervised.

Never let them loose together as your dog or tortoise may suffer injury as a result.


Keeping a Tortoise is for life, not just for Christmas

As I have mentioned previously, tortoises are not for those shy of commitment. They are incredible creatures that will bring you joy just from watching them potter around.

A tortoise will be with you for life and so in a wonderful way whilst they are munching away on their greens, listening to you talk about your day.

They will be living your life with you, every step of the way. This is no easy job but it is worth the rewards, after all who doesn’t want a pet that’s related to dinosaurs?! If you like tortoises, maybe you’ll like other herpetofauna? Find out more.

What will you call your tortoise? Try our fun tortoise name generator



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