Do Tortoises Make Good Pets?

by Rachel Shadle

May 23rd is marked in my calendar for a not-so-typical reason. It’s World Turtle Day!

Truth be told, my passion is for the tortoise. [Brief side note: turtles and tortoises are not the same. Turtles spend much of their time in the water. Tortoises are land-dwelling animals.]

But, for the sake of World Turtle Day, I’ll overlook any technicalities.

My Pet Tortoises

I have 4 pet tortoises from 3 different species. The smallest is a Russian tortoise, Gallop, who is about one pound. Then I have two red footed tortoises, Norman and Sheldon, who are 5 and 7 pounds. Finally, there is Elliott. He is a 60 pound African spurred tortoise, commonly referred to as a sulcata tortoise.

I am lucky as all of these guys get along, but that is not typical. Normally you can’t house different species of tortoises together, especially a male sulcata with anything other than a female sulcata. But, a while back Elliott wasn’t quite right. I talked with Dr. Cherney and she thought he might be lonely. So, under careful supervision, I introduced the tortoises. Everyone has been happy and gets along, but this is definitely not typical.

Outdoor Pet Tortoise Caretortoise eating dandelions

Most tortoises are easy to care for. They all are carried outside when it is 70 degrees or over during the day and can stay outside if the temperature stays above 50 at night. They will get enough natural sunlight (important for the Vitamin D) and they can eat grass and other plants.

About 80 percent of their diet can come from being outside in the yard during the warmer months. The tricky part in going outside? Elliott. It is an incredible amount of work (and quite the work out!) to keep a large pet tortoise.

The Large Tortoise and My Yard

sulcata tortoise in the yardElliott and the look of my backyard is something I’ve just had to accept. The patio furniture is often rearranged or just completely tipped over from Elliott bulldozing through. My yard is fenced, but Elliott is constantly checking for weak spots. The entire fence perimeter has a dirt track from him walking the fence line checking for insecure spots.

Surprisingly, these guys are good escape artists and can climb better than you would think. In Elliott’s case, he can also just barge through anything in his way, so heavy reinforcements are necessary.

He also is a burrower, so he will dig up very large patches of grass. And then decide that is a terrible place for a burrow and start building another one elsewhere. He especially seems to seek out areas with freshly grown grass for a new burrow.

My yard won’t be featured in a home and garden magazine any time soon.

Indoor Pet Tortoise Care

Having a pet tortoise inside requires  extra heat, a decent amount of space, and special lighting. They do have unique needs and I have quite an extensive set up, but it is well worth it for me.

During the winter, they have their own room equipped with several heat lamps and UVB lamps. They UVB lampsgreens and veggies for tortoises mimic sunlight so they can get crucial vitamin D. They also have a large, custom-built wood house (thanks, Dad!) to escape into should they want to hide.

During the winter months, the food bill goes up since the free edible plants such as dandelions, plantains, flowers, and clover are no longer available. Last winter I spent about $40/week in grocery bills for the tortoises alone.

They eat leafy greens, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, and a little fruit. Nothing difficult, it just adds up for 4 tortoises, one of whom is 60 pounds. They do need extra calcium, so I have a special powder I sprinkle on their veggies twice a week.

The Russian and red footed tortoises have water available for them to soak in. Usually they do this on their own, but I have to soak Elliott in the tub or spray him with a hose. He hates being soaked in the tub, but does love to be sprayed.

The soaking and spraying is to help keep them hydrated as they don’t always drink water from a dish like your dog or cat might.

Why Have a Pet Tortoise?

red footed tortoiseUnlike many reptiles, the pet tortoise can be quite social with their people and are full of personality. My crew knows me by sight and by my voice. There are many species of tortoises available for pets and some are more social than others. The sulcata and red foots will actively seek me out for attention, while the Russian tortoise is more shy.

Elliott will even come to me when called and loves to climb into my lap to sit. They also are a very gentle and intelligent animal that will bond with their whole family. African spurred tortoises, specifically, are often referred to as “heirloom pets” because their long 100+ year lifespan means they have to be willed to family members.

The smaller species have a shorter lifespan of around 50 or so years and can be much easier to care for than one of the giant species. The red foots especially have a great disposition and can be quite personable. Their main diet consists of leafy greens and various produce, as well as tortoise pellets. Their enclosure can be something as simple as a large Rubbermaid tote, though they also benefit from an outside enclosure during the warm months.


Since it is World Turtle Day, I thought I’d give a brief mention to them. Common turtle species include red-eared sliders, African sideneck turtles, and painted turtles. Turtles need a very large aquarium with plenty of swimming space available.

Although they enjoy time in the water, they also need a platform where they can get out and bask. A heat lamp and UVB light is also required. Most turtles must be in water in order to eat and this can make their tank very messy.

A good filtration system is needed to help keep up on all of the waste buildup. Although they typically do not like to be handled, they can be trained to take food from your hand.

Rachel and her dog Alice

Rachel Shadle has been with Den Herder Veterinary Hospital since 2013 after attending the University of Northern Iowa. She is a woman of many talents doing anything from reception to assisting to wildlife rehabilitation. There is rarely a creature that comes through our door that she hasn’t worked with in some capacity. She and her boyfriend Cody are parents to a bevy of dogs, 4 tortoises, 1 bunny, and 1 bird.