Is a Tortoise the Right Pet?

Well, of course I will say YES!, but in all honesty, a tortoise is not good for everyone.
Can you leave it alone? Tortoises and other reptiles are not cute, fuzzy pets that will enjoy being held, played with, petted, etc. In fact, most reptile pets are badly stressed by being handled.

Are you OK with a low-activity pet?

Most reptiles, especially tortoises, sleep a lot. Reptiles have really slow metabolisms. Part of this means that they don’t need much food, but it also means they are not very active most of the day. They also like to hide while they are resting so most of the time the pen or tank looks empty.

Are you ready to provide the basic needs all the time?

You need to manage almost all aspects of the habitat — heating, air flow, lighting, humidity, etc. all the time, 24/7/365. While much of this can be automated, it can also be expensive or labor intensive. (Of course, part of this depends on where you live. Some people are lucky enough that their local climate is very tortoise friendly!)

Do you have a dog?

Dogs and tortoises are always a bad mix. To a dog, a tortoise is an animated chew toy and even the best behaved dogs have attacked pet tortoises, often fatally.

Do you have space?

Housing a tortoise indoors takes a lot of floor space. Even a smallish adult tortoise should have about 6′x3′ space- significantly more than most other caged pets.

How easy are tortoises as pets?

This is a hotly debated topic amongst tortoise keepers. Naturally, if you really enjoy the animal, it will feel a lot easier to care for and when you get the hang of it, it feels like a piece of cake. It is also easier if you live somewhere you can just drop it in a fenced garden and let it go all year!

But, considering things like establishing a good habitat with the right environment, getting the temps and lighting right, fiddling with the diet, and so on, tortoises for most people are like salt water fish tanks: sort of a costly pain to get started, but once it is going well and you get into a routine, not bad at all!

How much will this cost?

What it takes to set things up will vary depending on where you are and what you really need so is difficult to estimate. However, you can look at the Housing Basics section and price things out locally. One good rule of thumb in most hobbies is that if the main item (the tortoise in our case) costs X, then you’ll spend about X again in the first year for supplies, then about 1/2X the next year, etc. You can, if needed, start off with a pretty basic setup, then add as you can, though this is trickier in colder climates where you really need good indoor housing ASAP.

On the other hand, once you have everything up and running, tortoises can be very cheap to feed, etc. on an ongoing basis. In very cold climates, there may be a significant bump to your heating bill.

Finding a healthy tortoise

You generally have a few basic ways to get a pet tortoise.
– Pet store
– On-line source, either a retailer or breeder
– Local breeder
– Pet rescue, adoption
– Local “for sale” ads, like Craig’s List
– Reptile or pet expo or show

Each source has its pros and cons, but try to use a source that lets you at least see current photos of the animal you are considering and can answer questions about it, such as when it was hatched, what and how often it’s eating, etc. Also look for a source that offers some sort of guarantee, especially if the animal has to be shipped.

If you can, check for:
– Egg yolk scar is completely healed over
– What it eats and how often it eats, as well as if it has defecated lately
– Length and weight. If you see it, does it feel “heavy”
– Clear eyes and nostrils- no puffiness, discoloration, runniness, etc.
– Overall condition
– Pulls in tight when picked up, and/or claws like crazy to get away
– If possible, get a vet check-up before purchase with special attention to parasites

Baby or older tortoise?

Most people want to start with very young or baby animals for most pets, but babies generally require the most care, and many of them pass away for a variety of reasons. There is also the issue that babies need smaller habitats, but as they get older, they need bigger ones quickly. Lots of people get babies thinking they have plenty of time to build the bigger cage, only to get caught by surprise when the once little guy has outgrown the starter home.

If you can, consider a year or two old tortoise. It will be past most of the hazards, be able to be placed outside from the onset, and still offer you a long life.

Thinking about breeding?

One last bit. Sometimes people get a group of tortoises with the idea that they can breed them and make some bucks at it, or at least break even. The thing is that tortoises take years to get to breeding age, then a few more years to really get going, and often do not really have that many young. In reptile breeding circles, the saying is “breed snakes for profit, breed turtles for fun”.

Bottom line

If a tortoise is the right pet for you, and you can afford it and can get a healthy one to start with, then you should enjoy your new pet for years to come!