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. Some species have voracious appetites, too. 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.
A couple of important notes: 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. Most will need some sort of shelter outdoors as well, such as a doghouse (perhaps heated as well).
It is also 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 net.
North American box turtles are mainly terrestrial turtles, although they do spend some time in shallow water (Asian box turtles tend to be a bit more aquatic). Compared to aquatic turtles such as red eared sliders, they are more challenging and complex pets, and are not the best choice for beginning turtle owners. With a potential life span of up to 100 years, these turtles obviously require a long term commitment (however, the average life span of captive box turtles is probably closer to only 40-50 years).
Picking a Healthy Turtle
Try to find a captive bred turtle, as wild caught turtles tend to be stressed, dehydrated, and prone to disease as a result of their stress and environment during capture/transport. In addition, support of the wild catch/pet trade in box turtles may further threaten their numbers in the wild (and taking in native turtles is illegal in many states). An alternate source is shelters or rescue groups.
Find a turtle in the late spring or summer months; it is best to avoide purchasing a box turtle during the fall or winter when it should be hibernating. Make sure the turtle feels “solid” (i.e. not like an empty shell), and has clear eyes and nostrils and a firm, solid shell, and no swellings. It is wise to get a stool sample checked by a veterinarian and deal with any parasites, and take the turtle to a vet immediately if it is not eating shortly after arriving home (it may need rehydration). Also keep in mind that box turtles, like other reptiles, can carry Salmonella so careful hygiene is required during handling of turtles and cleaning their enclosures.
A well designed outdoor pen, providing appropriate substrate, humidity, access to water, and protection form predators will work well in appropriate climates (generally speaking, this is probably limited to areas where box turtles are indigenous). Given an appropriately sized enclosure with provisions for heat, humidity, and lighting they can be kept successfully indoors. An indoor set up will require considerable planning to provide a land and water area, a heat source (under tank), a basking light and a full spectrum lamp (important for Vitamin D metabolism).
A varied diet must also be provided. Box turtles are omnivores, but different species and different aged turtles tend to have preferences for either more animal protein or more vetation in their diet. For example, in some species of box turtle are more carnivorous than adults. They must be feed a variety of foods from both groups including plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, insects, low fat meats, pinky mice, and other foods.
North American box turtles hibernate and this complicates their husbandry somewhat. Appropriate conditions must be provided sheets for hibernation with a warning that turtles that are not in good condition/health should not be allowed to hibernate as they will not have the reserves and strength to survive. Do everything possible to ensure good health prior to the time of year that hibernation should begin. For unhealthy animals a period of hibernation, when all bodily functions slow considerably, hibernation will only make health problems worse, if not kill the turtle.
Red eared sliders are semi aquatic turtles that are very commonly kept as pets. Unfortunately, lack of understanding what they require means that many red eared sliders have died from improper care. While they are not overly demanding as pets, many unsuspecting owners have been told that it was fine to keep them in small plastic bowls. Needless to say this housing is completely inadequate and impractical – turtle owners need to invest a fair amount in the proper equipment to house red eared sliders. Once housed properly they are quite easy to care for, and with the proper care these turtles can live 75 years or more, so turtle ownership is not a commitment to be taken lightly. A full grown red eared slider can reach 12 inches in length (measured as the carapace, or top shell, length). Males tend to be smaller than females, but have large claws on the front legs and longer tails than females.
In the US, sale of red eared sliders under 4 inches in length have been banned since the 1970s. The ban was a result of the prevalence of Salmonella infections linked to pet turtles. Baby turtles were very popular as pets for small children, mostly because a lot of people did not realize the cute tiny turtles sold in pet stores could carry Salmonella or that they could grow so large.
Red eared sliders are omnivores, meaning they eat a mixture of animal and plant material. Younger turtles eat more animal protein than adults, though. Juveniles should be fed daily, but adults can be fed every 2-3 days. Turtles can be fed a mixture of prepared commercial food and fresh food. Special food formulated for turtles can be used, but this should not make up any more than 25% of the total diet. Another 25% of the diet should be made up of animal protein, and can include live feeder fish, earthworms, crickets, waxworms, cooked chicken or lean beef, and aquatic snails. Young turtles can be feed smaller feeder items such as blood worms, shrimp, dapnia and krill. The remainder of the diet (up to about 60% of the adult diet) should be made up of fresh greens, vegetable, and fruits. Good choices for greens include collard, mustard and dandelion greens, butter lettuce and other leaf lettuces (but never iceberg lettuce). Carrots (tops are fine too), squash and green beans can be shredded and offered. Fresh fruits can be given too, shredding hard fruit like apples and chopping softer fruits such as bananas and berries. Cantaloupe can be given with the rind on as turtles seem to enjoy gnawing on the rinds.
Vitamins & Minerals
A good quality complete reptile vitamin and mineral supplement should be added to the food once or twice a week. In addition, extra calcium can be provided by giving turtles a cuttlebone (break into pieces and float in the water) or calcium block to nibble on.
Red eared slider turtles are semi-aquatic and spend a significant amount of time basking, so need a tank that provides both water for swimming and area where they can get out for basking. A 20 gallon tank is considered a minimum, though larger turtles will need a larger tank to provide ample swimming room so even if you have a smaller turtle you might want to invest in a larger tank to allow room to grow. You do not need to use an aquarium though – large plastic containers or storage tubs are fine as long as you don’t mind not being able to view the turtles from the side. As long as the tank is tall enough and the basking area is positioned so that the turtles can’t climb out you won’t need a lid.
The basking area can be provided by stacking smooth rocks, sloping smooth large gravel to one side to make a land area, or using wood (fixed or floating). However you design the tank though, keep in mind that turtles are messy and you will need to clean the tank frequently. No gravel is required in the tank but if you choose to use it make sure it is large enough that it won’t be accidentally eaten.
Water & Filters
Red eared sliders need an adequate amount of water to move about and swim a bit. You can judge if there is enough water by looking at the length of your turtle. The water should be at least 1.5 to 2 times as deep as your turtle is long (so a 4 inch turtle should have a minimum depth of 6 inches). The length of the water area should be 4-5 times the length of the turtle, and the width should be at least 2-3 times the length of the turtle.
Between feeding and defecating, turtles are pretty messy creatures. A turtle tank should include a good filtration system such as a power filter or canister filter, or an undergravel filter system. Filtration will reduce the frequency of water changes, but your turtles will still require 25% water changes weekly and a thorough cleaning once a month or more. It is best to feed your turtle in a separate container to minimize the mess in the tank and reduce the load on the filtration system.
A submersible heater should be used to keep the water at 75-86 degrees F. Get a good aquarium thermometer and monitor the water temperature. Turtles will want to investigate the heater so it is best if you can turtle proof it by placing it behind something so the turtles can’t bump or move it.
A heated basking spot should also be provided in the area provided for the turtle to get out of the water. An incandescent bulb or spotlight can serve this purpose, but make sure there is no way the turtle can touch the light or that the light can fall into the water. The temperature at the basking spot should be 85-88 F. Watch the water temperature when the basking light is on as it may heat the water.
The ambient air temperature around the tank should ideally be about 75 F. If the turtle’s room is cooler than this you should provide extra heat in the tank area. A ceramic heat element used near the tank works well for this purpose since it can be left on day and night.
In addition to the basking light, a full spectrum reptile UVA/UVB light should be provided. Exposure to UVA/UVB is necessary for proper calcium metabolism, and also appears to have other benefits to overall health such as improving appetite. It is also nice to take your turtle out into natural sunlight in warmer weather.