A Beginners Introduction To Tortoises As Pets [Read Before You Buy]

Complete introduction guide to tortoises as pets. Read before you buy.

Are you thinking about getting a pet tortoise? They are fantastic creatures, long-living, hard-shelled herbivores that can bring much joy and laughter when cared for well. 

But, tortoises are not for everyone. There are financial, care after your death, safety, and false understandings to think through before deciding to own a tortoise.

This beginner’s guide will give you plenty to think about and help you make the best choice for yourself and those around you in less than five minutes. 

We’ll briefly touch on several topics and provide links to more in-depth resources.

Let’s take a look at the world of owning a pet tortoise with realistic eyes and excitement based on our years of owning a Russian tortoise.

What Am I Getting Into With A Tortoise?

I guess that you love the idea of a pet that is different from the typical. 

A tortoise is undoubtedly different from a dog, cat, hamster, or fish. At dinner or party, you will likely be the only person there with a tortoise. You’ll get lots of looks and questions. It’s fun to share stories and knowledge.

We know first-hand the excitement of tortoises. They are incredible creatures. Over time, you get to see into a world you never knew existed. 

But, owning a tortoise is much more than a novelty. It is a commitment that needs to last most of your life and possibly beyond.

Live Long And Prosper With Your Tortoise

Tortoises are one of the longest living creatures on Earth today. 

Giant tortoises can live well over 200+ years. Wow is right! Other species easily live 30-50 years. 

That long life means that tortoises need to be included in your will to ensure they are cared for if you pass away before them. Now, that’s a commitment.

Are Tortoises Needy?

Questions like this will always solicit a bunch of varying opinions. 

A tortoise requires care beyond what most beginners realize. For example, a tortoise enclosure needs are significantly more than an aquarium or indoor storage tub. 

Tortoises cannot eat just any salad but instead require specific variety and types of food. 

Lighting for tortoises is specialized to provide needed nutrients. See our tortoise lighting article for more details. 

Tortoise beaks and nails may need trimming by your vet if there do not wear naturally. This activity means more time from school or work and additional expense.

On the other hand, you don’t have to let them out multiple times per day to use the bathroom. 

They don’t make much noise and won’t disturb your neighbors with barking while you are away. 

Let’s look at a typical tortoise owner’s day

  • Wake-up!
  • Turn on tortoise UVB/UVA and heat lamps
  • Prepare tortoise meal and place in the enclosure (some species are better to feed in the evening)
  • Clean the water dish
  • Add fresh water to the water dish
  • Got to work/school, etc., and then in the evening…
  • Remove uneaten food
  • Clean the food dish
  • Remove excrement from the substrate
  • Turn off the UVB/UVA and heat lamps
  • Good night!

Don’t forget that complete monthly cleaning of the habitat. This cleaning includes scrubbing down accessories, walls, and dishes. Toss out the old substrate and add fresh, new substrate to the enclosure. 

We have it down to about an hour to do the cleaning, but it took a few hours in the beginning.

These are just a few examples of tortoise needs.

Home, Sweet Tortoise Home

Speaking of a tortoise’s needs, let’s talk about their home, otherwise known as their habitat or enclosure. 

While turtles or fish can survive reasonably well in standard, available home aquarium sizes, tortoise naturally roam. 

This roaming means tortoises need significantly more room to stretch their legs, forage, and change temperature zones. 

A general rule of thumb is that for every 12 inches in tortoise length, it requires 9+ square feet of space. 

You’ll need to pick substrate, the stuff on the bottom of their habitat that they walk on. Some materials can cause health issues, so you will want to choose well. 

The best substrate for smaller tortoise enclosures and tortoise tables is coconut fiber. Mist the coconut fiber occasionally to keep the dust down but not wet enough to mold or mildew. Adjust to meet your tortoise species’ needed humidity levels.

And yes, the substrate will need to be cared for and changed on a schedule.

Be prepared for this as they grow.

What’s On The Menu

Like we said above, tortoises are primarily herbivores, but that doesn’t mean they can eat and plant fruit or vegetable. 

Some plants are poisonous to tortoises. Some will have too much water content and can cause diarrhea and dehydration if they eat too much or too often. 

Most tortoises are okay to eat the following raw foods:

  • Mustard Greens
  • Collard Greens
  • Carrots (chopped or grated)
  • Grasses (various, free from insecticides or fertilizers)

You will also need to supplement fresh foods with specially formulated tortoise food purchases from a reputable manufacturer. 

The tortoise food does not replace the need for fresh raw foods but rather supplements natural foods. This supplemental feeding helps ensure your tortoise receives enough calcium and other nutrients. 

How Expensive Is A Tortoise [Good Care Has A Cost]

Like all pets, tortoises have a variety of expenses that you should consider before getting a tortoise. 

Supplies and care for a pet tortoise will cost about $1,358 in the first year and $848 per year in subsequent years. Galapagos and Aldabra Giant tortoises will cost significantly more due to more enormous appetites, space needs, and vet bills.

Let’s break these numbers down so you can see where the expenses come from.

A single pet tortoise will cost you $848 per year without any significant medical issues. The annual costs break down like this:

Raw Food$312.00
Tortoise Diet$ 40.00
UVA/UVB Bulbs (4 times per year)$143.00
Substrate$288.00
Vet Checkup$ 65.00
Total Annual Cost$848.00

Annual Tortoise Care Costs

The initial startup supplies and care for a pet tortoise are as low as $510 during the first year, plus the regular care costs. These startup costs include:

Lamp Sockets/Reflectors/Clamps$ 32.00
UVA/UVB Bulbs / Heat Lamp$ 49.00
Water/Food Dishes$ 12.00
Enclosure$247.00
Light Timer$ 24.00
Tortoise Hide (concealment)$ 26.00
First Vet Check$120.00
Total Annual Cost$510.00

In total, the first year of care for a pet tortoise will cost approximately $1,358.

So, be mindful of the costs of a healthy tortoise. When your tortoise gets sick, the vet bills can grow quite rapidly beyond these standard costs. 

You will need to have savings available to cover the additional expenses.

Speaking of costs, the numbers above do not include the price of your tortoise. 

A Russian baby tortoise is in the $50-120 range, with adults going for $100 to $250.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Galapagos and Aldabra Giant tortoises which cost $1000 to $2500 for hatchlings, and adults can go for over $20,000.

I recommend looking at tortoise rescues first. Too many tortoises have to be given up and need a good home. Obtaining your tortoise from a rescue also does not promote illegal or unsafe breeding. 

By the way, if you came here looking for what you need to buy to prepare for a new tortoise, take a look at our recommended tortoise products page.

Getting Along With The Rest Of The Family

Getting a pet tortoise is a long-term commitment, one that will last for decades or more. 

Therefore, it is essential that you carefully consider everyone who will be affected by the addition of a tortoise.

Significant Others

Make sure your significant other is on board with the addition of a tortoise to the family. 

Relationships require communication and give and take. Shared dreams, wants, and goals keep you together and working together as a team. 

First, a new pet, including a tortoise, is a further financial obligation. You both must agree that this is how you want to spend a portion of your income.

Second, pets need care and feeding even when you are away on vacation or business. Is your significant other ready and willing to care for the tortoise in these times?

Children and Tortoises

Are tortoises good with children? Yes, tortoises are generally good with children with appropriate adult supervision. Children should not be left alone with tortoises. 

For this reason, do not get a tortoise as a pet for a child. Instead, if you decide a tortoise is suitable for you and your family, then get it as a family pet. 

Children can go well beyond television and YouTube, learning about tortoises and the responsibility of caring for another living being, all under your watchful eye and training.

Again, remember the salmonella issue with children. Also, note that some tortoise may mistake a small finger as food to eat and bite your child. This is not out of anger or aggressiveness but rather a mistaken identity.

The wisdom here is to enjoy a tortoise with a child, but do not leave them to deal with the tortoise alone. You will end up being the primary caretaker of the tortoise.

Tortoise and Other Pets

No matter how lovable your pooch or kitty is, leave no doubt that they are predatory animals. 

For adult tortoises, domestic cats pose little danger to damage and destruction with a tortoise. However, they can cause intense stress on a tortoise that can result in death. 

Dogs, on the other hand, mainly medium to large size dogs, can inflict devastating damage to tortoises. Never leave your dogs with your tortoise unsupervised. 

Our dogs are well acquainted with our female tortoise, Octavia. They no longer think of her as a toy and don’t go after her when she takes off on a sprint across the yard. 

Even so, we do not leave the dogs alone with the tortoise. 

That Warm And Fuzzy Feeling

Unlike a dog or cat, tortoises are not furry, warm, or cuddly. 

A tortoise has a hard shell and is low on emotional expressions. 

At the same time, tortoises can learn to enjoy being pet on their head, neck, and shell. 

With enough time and training, you can teach small activities to a tortoise, and their memory recall is quite good.

You won’t have your tortoise snuggling with you in bed to keep warm, but you can certainly enjoy hours of observing your tortoise. 

Each tortoise has unique designs and behaviors. Enjoy them. 

Tortoises And Your Health

While tortoise health is a widely covered topic, we will talk about your health in this section. 

Tortoises, turtles, and many other reptiles can cause you to get sick if not properly handled. This risk also carries to other members of your family and animals. 

The primary concern is around an intestinal bacteria called salmonella.

Do tortoises carry salmonella? The unfortunate answer to this question is yes. Tortoises do carry salmonella, which can be dangerous to humans and other pets. However, proper handling and hygiene procedures will significantly reduce any risk posed. 

Always wash your hands after handling your tortoise or anything they come in contact with. 

Keep their habitat reasonably clean and tidy and never share anything used in their habitat or for cleaning their habitat or accessories. 

For instance, when using a scrub brush to clean their habitat, water dish, or food bowl, never use it for another purpose. Buy a scrub brush that is only used for your tortoise. The single-purpose tools help you not to transfer the bacteria to other surfaces. 

Related Questions

Do tortoises make good pets? Yes, for the right person, a tortoise can be an ideal pet. Tortoises are hardy, long-living, and relatively easy to care for. They are not cuddly or furry, but they have subtle personalities that are fun to see. Tortoises are not best kept indoors. Tortoises need fresh air, 8-10 hours of daily diect sunshine, and 9+ square feet of room to roam outdoors for every 12 inches of tortoise length. A tortoise will cost about $848 per year for regular care and feeding. Many tortoises will require a lifetime of commitment due to their long life.

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