Keeping a Tortoise as a pet

Jackie Morris
Jackie Morris

If you want to buy a tortoise you must be aware this is a lifetime commitment, tortoises have been known to live for 150 years.

In some cultures, such as China, they symbolize longevity. You need to consider both the tortoise’s immediate and long-term needs, please always contact a reputable UK breeder, they can give you good advice and healthy animals.

What do they eat?
It is important to make sure they get plenty of food during the hot summer months, especially as they sleep for half the year, so you can’t just rely on them eating garden plants and weeds.

They can be fussy eaters but most tortoises will eat all types of salad leaves (they especially like rocket), cabbages, cauliflowers, spring greens, carrots (best grated for ease of eating) and courgettes, plus tomatoes and cucumbers in small quantities.

Avocados and aubergines are poisonous for them. An occasional treat can be small amounts of fruit like strawberries, peaches and plums. Tortoises will seek out weeds like chickweed, dandelions and clover, which are especially nutritious, so a less than immaculate lawn can be advantageous. Tortoises need a calcium and vitamin supplement added to their food once a week – this is available from pet shops and vets.

If your pet goes outside in the warmer months, make sure that your garden is tortoise-proof – they are renowned escapologists! Also, they should be in a run with a mesh over the top to stop dogs, foxes and magpies from stealing them and possibly causing harm.

They need a shallow tray with water, if you have a pond you will need to net it as tortoises can tumble in and they are not good swimmers.

Sometimes tortoises, trying to climb steps or other obstacles can result in them tipping onto their backs which is something that should be avoided. During the summer, they need to gain plenty of weight and be completely healthy to be safe during hibernation.

Hibernation is the most demanding part of having a tortoise. In autumn tortoises go through a ‘winding down’ process lasting four or five weeks, when they stop eating and hang about looking miserable.

You can buy hibernation boxes, or make your own, making sure it’s at least 30cm (12in) deep by 40cm (16in) wide, ventilated with air holes and well lined with polystyrene chips or tightly packed shredded paper.

Then place the box in an unheated shed, garage or greenhouse and use a digital thermometer to make sure the temperature stays between 3°C and 7°C. If it drops below this, move the box to a garage or cellar but not into the main house, which will be too warm. You’ll need to check your tortoise weekly to make sure it hasn’t woken up. If it has, it cannot rehibernate, so you’ll need to bring it indoors and warm it up under a heat lamp.

The ideal temperature under the lamp is 30°C, you’ll need to provide some bedding – a layer of newspaper and then straw bought from a pet shop – and plenty of food and water.

They’ll also need a carefully positioned UV lamp (not shining into their eyes) to provide daylight conditions until they can go outside. The week after your pet comes out of hibernation is the time of highest anxiety, as they are in a weakened state and need to start eating again quickly.

In Britain, hot days in March or early April are often followed by freezing cold spells so be aware that they do not get chilled.

The advantage of having a tortoise is you don’t have to walk it, they don’t shed fur, they can be amusing creatures to have, are fairly easy to keep and children love them.