FAQ: Keeping a Tortoise as a Pet

How many varieties of tortoise are there?
Two species of Mediterranean tortoises are the most popular: Testudo graeca (the Greek tortoise) is sometimes called the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise; and Testudo hermanni is sometimes called the spur-tailed tortoise. As these names suggest, one is identified by a claw-like spur on each hind-limb and the other by a similar projection on the tail.

What is special about the anatomy of the tortoise?
The shell is made of bone, covered with horny plates or shields. Five plates extend over the spinal region, with 8 costal plates arranged around. These are surrounded by 23 smaller, marginal plates around the edge of the shell. The tortoise has the same number of plates throughout its life, with each one growing larger with the size of the shell. Growth rings which are present in the plates give some indication of the age of a tortoise, with each ring approximately representing a year.

Do I need to supply drinking water?
Water should always be provided in a shallow dish. They would have difficulty drinking from a puddle or bowl. Tortoises need to reach forward to their drinking supply as apposed to down. The best solution is a very shallow saucer with a few stones around the rim to stabilize it.

What do tortoises eat?
Tortoises are the least well-equipped of all reptiles to take live animal food. As such, they are predominantly herbivorous, although have been known to eat the odd slug. Tortoises have no teeth, but use their horn-covered jaws to tear food into small enough pieces to swallow. Favorite foods are pulses such as peas and beans; greens such as lettuce, cabbage and grass; and roots such as carrot or turnip. They also enjoy fruits such as banana, plum and strawberry; and flowers like rose and poppy. Each individual has preferences, but most tortoises will enjoy eating from the procession of different plants and flowers in the garden. Most will need a dietary supplement in the form of cereal, which can be provided by brown bread soaked in milk, or bran breakfast cereal. A cuttlefish may also be provided as a calcium supply.

What exercise does a tortoise require?
Ideally, tortoises should be allowed to roam freely in a well-enclosed garden. By this means, they can select their own food, which will be much better suited to their dietary needs. They should be fenced off from areas which could possibly harbor chemicals such as pesticide, or from precious plants or vegetables. Several times per day. it will be necessary to check that they have not fallen helplessly upside down with their ambitious climbing. Tethering a tortoise is never recommended. Sometimes it is safer to keep your tortoise in an enclosure. Make sure that at all times he has a shelter to which he can retreat in extreme heat, cold or rain.

When does a tortoise hibernate?
The spade-like limbs of the tortoise are well-suited to digging, and the claws of some older individuals will show wear-and-tear. In nature, tortoises burrow into the ground to hibernate, but this is not recommended in captivity. Although it varies in every country, tortoises will normally stop feeding in early winter, perhaps October or November, in the UK, Us and Canada. When this happens, it is recommended that you prohibit your tortoise’s movement so as to allow him to maintain body weight.

What do I do when he is ready to hibernate?
Your tortoise needs to be placed in the middle of a large, strong box, packed with insulating material such as straw, shredded paper or dry autumn leaves. The box needs to be fitted with a strong but well-ventilated lid.

Where should I store my tortoise during hibernation?
It is best to keep the box in a cool, but well-ventilated place such as a garden shed. The box containing your tortoise must be protected from frost – this can usually be achieved by being raised slightly from the ground. You must also take precautions against fume-inhalation (i.e. a garage is not suitable); and attack by pests. Rats, mice and cats may pose a serious threat to your tortoise.

When will my tortoise ‘wake up’?
When they rouse from hibernation in the spring, tortoises need to be cared for indoors for several weeks to warm up and reach an active state again. Attempt to bathe open the eyes and mouth, and give a warm bath in a shallow bath of warm water. When the tortoise’s body temperature rises above 15°C, a tortoise will begin to feed again.

What dangers are involved when a tortoises ‘wakes up’?
It is very dangerous to let your tortoise lapse back into its hibernation state. Although it will appear perfectly healthy, your tortoise will quickly die of malnutrition if it does not eat after rousing and then slips back into hibernation. Supply plenty of your tortoises favorite food soon after it awakes in springtime.

Are tortoises prone to any specific ailments?
Tortoises are frequently subject to colds, showing symptoms of labored breathing, watery eyes and a discharging nose. Keep him in a warm environment, and bathe the eyes and nose periodically. If there is no improvement after a week, seek medical advice. When a tick is found on one of the tortoise’s limbs, dab it with a few drops of methylated spirit. This treatment will mean it gradually loses its grip until it can be safely pulled out with a pair of tweezers.