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Tortoises can make an interesting pet, although they can present a challenge, due to their size and dietary habits. Their diets vary based on species, but all need quite a variety of foods, with careful attention paid to the amount of roughage as well as calcium/phosphorus balance.

Many species are fairly large and need a decent sized enclosure, preferably outdoors, so are suited to areas with nicer climates. Depending on the temperatures where the tortoise originates and the area where you live, it may be necessary to bring tortoises indoors overnight or during cooler weather (and with the larger tortoises providing indoor housing can be a big challenge!).

Some species need to hibernate, which can be very stressful on the tortoise and requires special conditions. Tortoises can also live a very long time (anywhere from 50 to over 100 years), which means you must be prepared to provide a lifetime of care and consider that your pet might even outlive you.

It is best, as with any reptile, to get a captive bred specimen if at all possible. This isn't easy for some species, but the capture and shipping conditions can be appalling, and result in stressed animals which are then more prone to disease. It is also possible in some areas to locate tortoises from rescues. Any new addition should be checked for parasites and quarantined for a while to ensure that it is healthy (if other tortoises are present).

Some species are quite aggressive with other tortoises, and if a couple of males are kept in too small of an enclosure, fighting may result producing potentially serious injuries around the eyes and on the legs.

It is vital to choose a tortoise species well - based on housing and environmental needs, and diet requirements. Different species have markedly different adult sizes, temperature and light needs, diets, and some need to hibernate and some do not. Rather than try to get into the details of care here we'll just compare of a few species, and refer readers to the excellent care sheets that are available on the internet.

When constructing an outdoor pen, make sure it is strong and bury your fences if you have a burrowing tortoise. Tortoises are quite strong, especially the larger ones, and flimsy enclosures won't hold them long. Some tortoises also climb surprisingly well so some may require a roofed pen. It is also very important to make sure the enclosure keeps predators (including dogs) out. Make sure there are no dangers in the pen - no poisonous plants, shallow water only, and no sharp objects or small inedible objects which may be accidentally ingested. Also for some tortoises, trying to climb steps or other obstacles can result in them tipping onto their backs, which may result in their untimely deaths.

Play sand/loam mix is by far the best substrate. The amount of moisture can be easily regulated. Also it easy to create a higher moisture/humidity area as well as a dry area in the same pen. This way the tortoise has a choice of micro-climates. Loam is the best choice and is readily available in northern states and the UK. Coconut coir can be used instead.

Tortoises require a range of temperatures to be provided for proper thermoregulation. An area at about 75 degrees on the cool side with a bright basking area in the low 90s is about as close to ideal as you can probably get. Be sure to verify the temperatures with thermometers on both sides of the enclosure at the tortoises'  level.  As in nature, tortoises require an overnight drop in temperature to maintain a healthy immune system. 65 degrees is the absolute minimum temperature to keep a tortoise overnight. Sick or newly acquired animals may be best kept in the 80s overnight to aid in their immune response and combat the stress of adjusting to a new home. Heating pads and hot rocks can be dangerous and shouldn't be relied on as a heat source. Never use a heating pad near heat lamp or other heat sources. In nature overhead heat is absorbed more effectively. Overheating is a danger esecially in smaller quarters when they need the ability to move about to manage their body heat.

In the wild, these herbivores species primarily on grasses, shrubs and succulent plants.  In captivity the ideal situation for these animals to sustain themselves, is to just allow them to graze in a well planted chemically untreated area of your yard.  Large pens can be heavily planted with Grazing Tortoise Seed Mix.

Nutritious chemical free healthy foods are often freely available in your yard or vacant lots. These include:

  • Grasses
  • Clovers
  • Grape, Mulberry & Fig leaves
  • Dandelion
  • Plantain (the weed)
  • Hibiscus (leaves and flowers)
  • Opuntia
  • Thistles
  • Chickweed

This link will help you to be able to identify edible plants:

Easily obtainable grocery greens:
Aim for a high calcium to phosphorus ratio and low protein diet. When fed in excess, foods high in oxalates have been implicated in binding minerals including calcium. Moderation and variety is the key.

Long term ingestion of the chemicals commonly sprayed on produce is a health concern. Choose organic greens when possible or be sure to wash in mild soapy water and rinse well. Remove plastic and metal wrappers so your torts don't accidentally ingest these.

Regularly Feed:
Dark Leafy Greens such as: Endive, Watercress,Collard Greens, Kale, Dandelion, Chicory, Escarole, Radicchio, Turnip Greens, Opuntia (smooth or despined)

Occasionally Feed
Cabbage, Carrots, Carrot Tops, Red Leaf Lettuce, Romaine, Mustard Greens, Alfalfa Hay, Parsley

Rarely Feed:
Swiss Chard, Spinach, Broccoli, Bok choy, Iceberg lettuce, Sweet Potatoes, Sprouts of any kind, Corn, Cucumbers, Beet Greens, Fruit in general.

Never Feed:  Rhubarb, Beans of any kind, dog food, pasta

Sometimes when you obtain your tortoise you will find that it has not been fed an appropriate diet. In these cases a transition to a better diet will have to be made.

Getting them to eat healthier foods:

Mixing larger portions of things your tortoise likes in chopped "salads" and slowly cutting back on "treat" foods in the mix, is one way to get them adjusted to a better diet. If you tortoise is healthy and has water available at all times, it wont hurt them to go a couple days without food, especially if it helps them to be hungry enough to appreciate a healthier diet. You might also try putting a bit of squash (or some other foods that they especially like) in the blender and pouring this over the new foods that you're introducing. This is a good chance to sneak in extra calcium in if needed.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is a condition (or conditions) resulting in abnormal bone growth and/or repair. It encompasses the following conditions and syndromes; osteoporosis, osteomalacia, osteopenia, rickets, fibrous osteodystrophy, hypocalcemia and nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism.

MBD is generally the long term result of deficient dietary calcium and/or vitamin D3. This results in a negative calcium:phosphorous ratio and is caused by the following:

- Too little calcium or too much phosphorus in the diet.
- The presence of substances in the diet that impair the absorption of calcium (e.g. oxalates, phytates etc)
- A deficiency of vitamin D3 from the lack of exposure to proper amounts of UVB either from unfiltered sunlight or high quality UVB lighting.
- Inadequate protein or excessive protein.
- Kidney or liver disease (which impair conversion of vitamin D to it's active from), small intestinal disease and/or parasites (disrupts absorption), and disease of the thyroid or parathyroid glands (produce hormones which affect calcium metabolism).

These are minor contributors - most cases are nutritionally based.
- Improper (too cool) basking temperatures impair digestion and therefore calcium absorption . It also inhibits the production of D3 by UVB light.  

The diagnosis is usually made from a dietary and environmental history as well as clinical signs.

Dietary and Environmental History

A proper diet is critical to the health of the tortoise. In general you want a diet that's high in calcium, high in fiber, low in phosphorous and adequate in protein. The tortoise also needs a proper environment. Without this, even a perfect diet can result in MBD. Some critical factors are UVB and moisture levels. Be aware that too much is just as harmful as too little. To strike a proper balance, gradients are needed. The tortoise needs a warm basking area with UVB, but it also requires a cooler section without UVB. This allows it to not only regulate its body temperature, but to also control its UVB exposure. The same is true for moisture. It needs a warm moist area as well as a cool dry spot.

Clinical Signs

  • Weak limbs resulting in an unsteady gait and the inability to raise the plastron off the ground when walking
  • A depressed posterior carapace giving rise to the appearance of being humped back
  • The whole carapace may be flattened rather than domed
  • Pyramiding of the shell
  • The shell appearing too small for its body
  • Soft shell
  • Abnormal beak, often appearing like a parrot's beak or a duck's bill
  • Bowed or deformed legs
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation

Treatment and Prevention
MBD is far easier to prevent than to treat. Some of the important issues are:

Dietary calcium. The best source of calcium is a varied diet. Grocery store greens are often lower in calcium than the weeds and grasses available in the wild. To make up for this it is often recommended that all food be dusted with phosphorous free calcium. However, too much calcium can be as bad as too little. Another problem that's often overlooked is that bone is made of a variety of minerals including magnesium and boron. Calcium powders don't provide these. Instead of just using calcium powder, keep cuttlebone available to the tortoises at all times. Cuttlebone is high in calcium and the necessary trace minerals.

Low dietary phosphorous.
If you follow the diet guidelines on this site, this will not be an issue.

Adequate Protein.
Protein is essential for muscle growth. Young and active animals require more than older inactive tortoises.

High Fiber.
This is important for intestinal health.

Correct Lighting. A quality UVB bulb or daily access to unfiltered sun is essential.

Proper Temperature The above is not only important for prevention, but is also a critical part of treatment.

The Leopard Tortoise is a large grazing species that favors semi-arid (not dry), thorny to grassland habitats. However, it is also seen in some regions featuring a higher level of precipitation. They have a very attractive shell pattern. The shell pattern acts like camouflage in its natural home range. It is found throughout savannahs of Africa from Sudan to the southern Cape. In the United States it is one of the more popular tortoises and is frequently bred.

Scientific Name: Geochelone pardalis

Size: On average, leopard tortoises reach about 16-18 inches and 40-50 pounds (although some reach up to 24 inches and 70 lbs). This is one of the few species where the male can be larger than the female.

Life Span:You can expect a leopard tortoise to live 50 years or more.

Feeding: Leopard tortoise are herbivorous grazers so their ideal diet is high fiber grasses and greens (at least 70%). Pesticide-free grass is good for grazing, and the diet should primarily consist of grasses such at timothay or orchard grass or hay. Small amounts of vegetables can be offered too. Don't feed foods high in oxalates (beet greens, chard, spinach) or fruit (can cause digestive upsets). Also, never feed dog or cat food or other animal protein.

Supplements: Calcium/vitamin D3 supplementation is recommended daily for leopard tortoises (D3 is especially important when housed indoors). Pieces of cuttlebone can also be provided for gnawing and extra calcium.

Housing - Outdoors: Outdoor housing is preferable for leopard tortoises where the climate allows. Daytime temperatures should be 80-90 F (27-32 C), with a drop at night to 65-75 F (19-24 C). They cannot tolerate cool or damp conditions. A large sturdy enclosure with protection from predators is necessary, along with shade, hiding spots, and access to a shallow pan of water (deep enough to soak in but shallow enough that drowning isn't a possibility). A dry grassy area that allows grazing is ideal.

Housing - Indoors: You may need to bring your leopard torotoises indoors for part or all of the year. Provide a large (4 feet by 8 feet minimum) enclosure. Grass hay makes an ideal substrate. A UVA/UVB lamp is vital. A basking spot at 95 F (35 C) should be provided, while the rest of the enclosure can be heated to 80-90 F (27-32 C) during the day and 65-75 F (19-24 C) at night. A shallow pan of water (deep enough for soaking but shallow enough to prevent drowning) should be provided.

Notes: Do not hibernate, although they may slow down in the cooler months.

The Sulcata Tortoise is a large species from the Sub-Saharan area of Africa. Although this is a very arid region, sulcatas requires constant access to water. In the wild they avoid dehydration by digging long tunnels. They are very well adapted to an arid environment.

When small they can be kept in large indoor pens. However, after a few years they will out grow most indoor accommodations. These powerful animals have been reported to bulldoze through sheet rock and patio doors.

Scientific Name: Geochelone sulcata

Common Names: Sulcata tortoise, African spurred tortoise

Life Span: Sulcata tortoises can live 80-100 years, perhaps longer.

Size: Sulcata tortoise are very large, reaching an adult length of 24-30 inches and weighing in at 80-110 pounds.

Feeding: Sulcata tortoises are herbivorous, grazing tortoises and need a high fiber/low protein diet, provided with a variety of grasses and hays (at least 75% of diet) along with some edible weeds and flowers (dandelions, clover, endive, edible flowers, weeds, cactus pads). Small amounts of other leafy green vegetables are probably okay, but avoid foods high in oxalates (spinach, mustard and beet greens, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower). Do not feed fruits, animal protein, or tortoise foods.

Supplements: Supplementation with calcium/Vitamin D3 is recommended.

Housing - Outdoors: These large turtles need a sturdy fence and since they burrow the fence should be extended underground. Shelter in the form of a doghouse or small shed will provide protection from the elements. Building a heated shed will provide a suitable shelter for colder weather. Daytime temperatures can be up to 100 F , but they should have a heated shelter if the night time temperature drops below 70 F. A shallow pan of water should be provided, and a muddy wallow may be used as well.

Housing - Indoors: With the size of these turtles, housing adults indoors gets a bit impractical. An outdoor heateed shed or greenhouse where they can live when it is cooler is sometimes a better option. Temperatures should be maintained at 80-90 F during the day, dropping as low as 72 F at night. In addition, a basking spot should be provided at 95 F. A UVA/UVB light is also necessary when housed indoors. A pan of water should be provided.

Notes: Do not hibernate. Also, make sure there is nothing that the tortoise can climb on (steep surfaces, steps, etc.) and tip over onto its back. If they end up on their back when you are not around to rescue them, it is possible they will die.

The Red footed tortoise is a tortoise native to South America. It has also been introduced to many islands in the Caribbean. It draws its name from the red or orange scales visible on its limbs, as well as its head and tail. It is popular as a pet, though it is protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that this species may not be exported from its home country without a permit. The red foot has a larger cousin, the yellow footed tortoise, also known as the Brazillian Giant Tortoise.

Scientific Name: Geochelone carbonaria

Common Names: Sometimes also called red foot (or redfoot), redleg, or Savanna tortoises. There is a slightly smaller variety called the Cherry-head as well.

Life Span: Red footed tortoises live up to 50 years, possibly longer.

Size: Red footed tortoises often reach a length of 10-14 inches, although they can be larger (16 inches or more). A slightly smaller "dwarf" variety is also being sold, commonly called the cherry-head that only attains a length of 10 - 12 inches as an adult. They can reach weights up to 30 pounds.

Feeding: In the wild, red footed tortoises are omnivores and eat a wider range of foods than many other tortoises. It is important to not overfeed animal protein, though; one very small serving of moistened low fat cat food or lean meat (e.g. 1 ounce for a full grown red foot) every 1-2 weeks is enough. A variety of fresh leafy greens (dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, escarole; not lettuce, spinach or kale), vegetables, and fruits should also be fed (they also tolerate fruit better than many other species). A calcium and vitamin D3 supplement should be used.

Housing - Outdoors: This species is tropical and prefers a humid climate. A sturdy escape-proof enclosure can be provided, and a sprinkler or mister can be used to increase the humidity if needed. A muddy wallow will be used by this tortoise, as will a pan of water. An area densely planted with vegetation provides a cool retreat. A doghouse-type shelter can be used, and should be heated if night time temperatures drop below 65-70 F. Daytime temperatures can be up to 90-95 F.

Housing - Indoors: A large enclosure is needed - 4 feet by 6 feet or larger. Cypress bark as a substrate helps retain humidity, although paper will work and is easy to clean. A UVA/UVB is necessary indoors, and the enclosure should be heated, with a basking spot of 95 F and a gradient from about 80-90 F. Night time temperatures can drop to about 75 F. A pan of water should be provided and the enclosure should be kept humid. A hide should be placed at the cool end of the enclosure.

Notes: This species does not hibernate.

Scientific Name: Testudo hermanni

Other Names: Hermann's tortoise is considered part of a group of tortoises sometimes called Mediterranean tortoises, comprised of multiple Testudo species - including Hermann's tortoise, and the spur thighed tortoise.

Life Span: Up to 75 years or more.

Size: 6-8 inches.

Diet should consist largely of leafy greens and grasses, supplemented with a variety of other vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, carrots, etc.) and fruits (apples, apricots, grapes, melons, peaches, strawberries etc.) in smaller quantities. In the wild they will take some insects, slugs, and carrion, but feeding of these is not necessary and too much animal protein is harmful (never feed dog or cat food).

Supplements: Use a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement on the food.

Housing - Outdoors: House outdoors if possible. Day time temperatures should be 80-86 F, and can fall to 65-70 F at night. These small tortoises are pretty active and can climb and burrow well, so the pen should be escape-proof. Shelter from extremes of weather is necessary, as it protection from predators. A shallow pan of water can be sunk into the ground for easy access.

Housing - Indoors: A fairly large enclosure is necessary (2 feet by 4 feet). A soil/sand mix or cypress bark can be used as a substrate. A basking light should provided with a basking spot at about 95 F, and the ambient temperatures in the range mentioned above. A shallow pan of water should be provided.

Note: Needs to hibernate - but only if otherwise healthy.

Please call the Merrick Veterinary Group at 516-379-6200 to schedule your tortoise for an examination with Dr. Marder or Dr. May today.

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