Tortoises are a popular pet. They are typically hardy, friendly, full of character and personality, and long lived, but you do need to make sure you’ve researched them thoroughly before purchasing. Most tortoises are sold as hatchlings, usually under two years old, and these will require indoor enclosures and to be heated all winter, whilst you might have been hoping for a tortoise that can live in your garden. Most adults can live outside in the British climate, whilst hibernating in the winter, but it can take five to six years for tortoises to attain the size and weight needed so you need to consider your indoor options in the meantime.
Introducing Mediterranean Tortoises
This caresheet will cover the basics for keeping Mediterranean species which include:
Horsfield’s Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) – originates in Russia, Afghan and Central Asia, but still has the same care as Mediterranean species. This is one of the smaller species of tortoise, making it ideal for being kept in captivity. Males reach approximately 6-7” whilst females reach up to 8”. The lifespan is estimated to be around 60 years of age, slightly less than some other tortoise species, but it’s not really well known whether this is due to their natural lifespan being shorter, or that care has historically not been optimal. We may see this extended in the future.
Hermann’s Tortoise (Testudo hermanni) – originates in Italy, France and Mediterranean Islands. Sllightly larger than Horsfield’s tortoises, still averaging from 6.5” – 9” in size with males being smaller. They have a lifespan of around 75 years.
Spur-Thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca and Testudo ibera) – originates in Europe, Central Asia or North Africa with two different subspecies. North African species (ibera) often don’t hibernate so it’s important to know which subspecies you’re getting and ask the breeder about the care of the adults. Slightly larger than Horsfield’s and Hermann’s Tortoises, at 7-10” shell length. Reported lifespans exceeding 100 years are beginning to pop up.
Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata) – originates from the southern parts of Greece and Italy and the largest of the Med tortoises at 12-15”.
Horsfield’s Tortoises do not need CITES paperwork but the other species on this list require a species specific CITES Annex A certificate and a microchip. The microchip must scan to the correct number on the paperwork. You should always ask for this to be verified before purchase to avoid mishaps. Be very wary about buying tortoises without this paperwork unless you are sure that the species is a Horsfield’s. It is illegal to sell or breed a CITES species without the paperwork and this is not easily replaced if lost.
Housing your Tortoise Indoors
You have two main options for housing a tortoise indoors, open topped or enclosed. The size that you go for depends on the size of the tortoise, but in general the more space you can give a tortoise for exercise, the better! Your indoor enclosure will need the correct heating and lighting.
Tortoise Starter Setup – Wooden Tortoise Table
Our wooden tortoise table setup is most suitable for Mediterranean species, for example Horsfield Tortoises, Hermann’s Tortoises or Spur-Thighed Tortoises and is suitable for a single tortoise for up to three or four years. Check out what species of Tortoise we currently have in stock, and don’t hesitate to drop us…
Tortoise Starter Setup – Plastic Cage
Our plastic tortoise setup is a popular starter kit for a wide variety of species. It is most suitable for Mediterranean species, for example Horsfield Tortoises, Hermann’s Tortoises or Spur-Thighed Tortoises and is suitable for a single tortoise for up to three or four years. Check out what species of Tortoise we curr…
Tortoise Tables or open topped cage – Tortoise Tables are open topped tables, usually wooden, but can be the form of a plastic rabbit cage. The advantage of this is that they have a high amount of ventilation, which is extremely beneficial for tortoises. The detriment is that they don’t hold their heat if you’re in a very cold location or don’t use heating in the room they’re going in, so aren’t suitable for outbuildings or garages without a great deal of heating added. They are also fairly limited in size commercially, unless you can get one made bespoke or make it yourself. This makes them suitable for small tortoises, but will be grown out of, at which point you could consider outdoor housing.
Vivariums – It is possible to use a vivarium. They are available in a large range of sizes, meaning you can get much larger areas of floor space, and hold their heat well. Unfortunately vivariums are not well suited to high levels of ventilation. They will need to be modified with extra ventilation panels or by removing the glass doors and replacing with secure mesh or wire.
We would never recommend a glass tank, glass terraria or fish tank style enclosure for a tortoise. These are not available in sizes suitable and are not able to be modified easily for adequate ventilation flow. Our preferred indoor tortoise enclosure is an open topped tortoise table or cage.
Outdoor housing for tortoises
Hatchling tortoises can go outside for a few hours on sunny days, whilst the older and larger your tortoise gets, the higher a range of temperatures they can withstand. A healthy adult tortoise should be able to spend most of their time outside through spring and summer but you may still want to bring them inside on cooler nights. If you have a greenhouse or shed you could have a secure area in here which stays warmer at night. Tortoises generally shouldn’t be left to free roam a large area – they can easily dig and get under fences, and may simply burrow down and you might be unable to find them to bring them in when it’s cold. Foxes and rats that get into the garden can also kill tortoises, so you must have somewhere secure for them at night away from predators. For young tortoises we recommend fencing off an area of your garden with a foundation so they can’t dig under it and a mesh top, similar to the way chickens or rabbits are housed outdoors. Adult tortoises can free roam in your garden but you have to be absolutely sure your perimeters are secure and that there are no chemicals or pesticides they could accidentally consume.
You should build what is known as a tortoise conservatory in your garden for the tortoise, big enough for your tortoise to comfortably walk into and turn around in. This is very easily achieved by using pieces of wood for walls and then placing a polycarbonate transparent roof on top – the type you would find in conservatories or greenhouses. This should have one side open so the tortoise can come and go as they please. The roof will amplify the heat from the sun – providing a natural hot zone / basking spot – allowing the tortoise to thermoregulate. This will also provide cover on wet or windy days.
Lighting and Heating for enclosures
Tortoises need the correct heating range in order to adequately digest and function. You will need a high wattage bulb (depending on the size of your enclosure and how far the bulb is from the floor) to provide a hot spot. The temperature directly below your basking spot will be 32 to 35C (89 – 95F) with the temperature dropping down to 24C (75F) on the cool side of the vivarium.
You should provide 14 hours of light and heat and can then turn everything off for the night. Mediterranean tortoises rarely need night time heating. Night time temperatures should be around 15C (60F) which most houses do not fall below even in the winter, assuming you have central heating. If you’re housing a tortoise inside somewhere that does not have heating, such as a garage or an outbuilding such as a shed or greenhouse, then these temperatures can be maintained overnight with the use of a ceramic bulb.
- Arcadia Ceramic Clamp Lamp£21.99 – £27.99
- Reptile Systems Ceramic Heat Bulb 25w 50w 100w 150w£14.99
- Arcadia Ceramic Heater Bulb 50w 100w 150w£14.99
- HabiStat Temperature Thermostat 600w£34.99
Heat sources should always be controlled by a thermostat and you should measure your temperatures on both the hot and cold side of the enclosure with a thermometer.
Your tortoise should get approximately 14 hours a day light from a UVB lamp. This is critical for their health. UVB can be provided in an all in one along with the light bulb, or a separate strip lamp. The exact UVB light you use will be dependent on the size of the enclosure, and very importantly, how far away the light is from the floor. At 12-15” we recommend a T5 6% bulb or a T8 12% bulb. At 15-24” height we would recommend a T5 12% bulb.
Decor and Substrate
Substrate should be provided that is deep enough for their natural digging behaviour – at least 2” deep for hatchlings and 3-4” deep for larger tortoises. The ideal substrate is one of the commercially available tortoise mixes, or you can mix your own substrate with 50/50 play sand and top soil. We don’t recommend other types of substrate such as aspen or wood chipping as they can cause impaction as well as shell damage.
A covered shelter big enough for the tortoise to sleep in should be provided, we find log rolls are ideal for this. Tortoises will not climb branches and are generally not very agile so make sure there’s nothing they can fall off or injure themselves on.
Provide either a large piece of clean slate or feed bowl for feeding on, as well as a shallow water dish.
Feeding your Tortoise
There are a wide range of commercial tortoise foods available on the market in the form of pellets, dried flowers and weeds, but some tortoises are not to keen on these. We always recommend wherever possible you feed fresh salad, fruit and vegetables, with plenty if different options for a diverse and nutritional diet. We would recommend only offering pellet based diets once or twice a week and focusing on fresh food the majority of the time.
- Tortoise Feed Growing Kit£10.99
Some of the weeds and flowers that are safe to include in a regular diet are listed below, for a full list see https://www.thetortoisetable.org.uk/
|Dandelion Leaves and Flowers||Clover||Chickweed||Rose Petals|
Good choices of salad, vegetable and leafy greens to feed tortoises include
|Collard/Mustard Greens||Pak Choi||Endive/Escarole Lettuce||Squash|
|Arugula, Rocket, Lamb’s Lettuce||Red and Curly Lettuce||Parsley||Bell Peppers|
Salad and Vegetables that you can feed occasionally (think once or twice a week in small quantities) include
|Spinach||Iceberg Lettuce||Peas and Beans||Cucumber||Kale|
Fruit that you can give your tortoise in moderation (two to four times a week) can include
Fruit you can offer occasionally (once or twice a week in small quantities) include
Protein can be offered in limited quantities from
|Boiled Egg||Low Fat Cat/Dog Food||Cooked Chicken||Tuna, Sardine, Herring||Shrimp and Shellfish|
|Defrosted Pinky Mice||Slugs and Snails||Mealworms|
You should avoid the following foods and never give to your tortoise
|Chilli Peppers||Citrus Fruits||Sugary Foods||Avocados||Potato|
|Dairy Foods||Baked goods||Olives||Beetroot||Fruit Seeds|
|Corn on the Cob|
There are also quite a few toxic plants and flowers. If you do not see it listed on the safe list, you should always do appropriate research before feeding. If it’s toxic to cats, dogs, humans or horses, the advice is usually to avoid just in case.
It is essential that tortoises be given a good quality calcium and vitamin supplement with their meals. This can be reduced to two or three times a week for adults.
Tortoises aren’t exactly cuddly, so handling them really involves letting them roam freely around you. Tortoises are confident and inquisitive, active and fun to watch, so they’re definitely interactive and you can spend plenty of time with them. Generally active handling is mostly just moving them around when necessary. Always wash your hands after handling your tortoise.
Sexing your Tortoise
Tortoises reach sexual maturity between 6 and 8 years of age. They are usually sexable earlier than this, but not as hatchlings. Sexing may vary slightly based on species, but there are some generalisations. Males will often have breeding spurs on the thighs which are absent in females. Males will have a large, long tail, whereas females will have a short and stubby tail. Adult males will have a shell that is curved like a gentle bowl, to fit on top of the female’s shell when mating, without sliding off. Females on the other hand will have much flatter shells. Using all three traits together can give a good idea of whether a tortoise is male or female.
Can I keep tortoises together?
Two males living together may fight and stress each other out, whilst a male with a single female is likely to constantly chase her and attempt to mate. A male is not recommended unless he has multiple females to give his attentions too. A group of females usually live together fine. Tortoises do not need company, they do not get lonely so you are absolutely fine to keep one on their own and we recommend keeping them alone unless you have a large amount of space.
We would never recommend mixing different species, even those within the Mediterranean range. They can recognize what is their species and what is not and tortoises very rarely come into contact with other species in the wild. This could stress them out unduly and there are also risks of disease transmission, where one species might be harbouring something that does not bother it at all, that is passed on and becomes a danger to a different species.
In zoos you may see tortoises inhabiting enclosures with lizards. This is possible in a zoo in very large enclosures, such as housing certain species of large iguanids in with giant tortoises, or housing herbivorous chuckwalla or uromastyx in with North African tortoises. We personally don’t recommend trying to emulate this in captivity unless you have an extreme amount of space and are willing to do adequate research on what lizards the tortoise would naturally share a habitat with in the wild.
Hibernating your Tortoise
Some people choose not to hibernate their tortoises in captivity, but we recommend that you do once they’re big enough. We know that in the wild, Mediterranean tortoises (with the exception of some North African Testudo ibera) hibernate, and this is part of their natural growth cycle. Feeding tortoises all year around could potentially have adverse effects on them later down the line and shorten their lifespan, so we would recommend hibernating your tortoise once you’re comfortable with their age, weight, size and health. It is this part of owning a tortoise that can become complex and needs adequate research and careful planning before you decide on a purchase.
We recommend having a health check with a veterinarian in late August to ensure that the tortoise is healthy and ready for hibernation, at least for the first few years you hibernate so you can discuss what to look out for with a qualified professional. If your tortoise is at all unwell then you shouldn’t consider hibernation this year.
Prior to hibernation your tortoise will need to be “fasted” – offered no food – for 21 to 28 days in order for their digestive system to fully empty. During this time they should be bathed regularly and offered fresh water at all times to keep them well hydrated. The temperature during the fasting period should be around 12C.
You will need to have a container that you feel confident reaches between 2 to 5C. You should test this fully in advance and keep a close eye on temperatures for the duration of the hibernation. A lot of people use a domestic mini fridge for this, with temperature set to 5C. You will need to add ventilation or ensure you open the door every day without raising the temperature. Some people will find a box in the garage or greenhouse will also work, but it’s very important to ensure temperatures never go below freezing.
Hibernation duration will depend on the age and size of the tortoise, another reason it’s a good idea to have a health check with growing tortoises. Adults will hibernate for approximately 22 weeks, but juveniles may only hibernate from 3-16 weeks depending on size. The first time your tortoise hibernates, a short hibernation of 3-4 weeks is a good start. The following year, you can increase this.
Immediately after waking up the tortoise should be allowed to acclimate at room temperature for several hours, and then the basking and UVB lamps should be turned on, followed by a lukewarm bath. Slowly increase the temperatures and bathe daily for a week and offer food on day 2 or 3. If the tortoise doesn’t start acting normally within a day or two, or doesn’t start eating within 5-7 days, we’d recommend consulting a veterinarian.
Breeding Mediterranean Tortoises
Breeding Horsfield’s tortoises or breeding Hermann’s tortoises can be a complex affair with many factors to consider, but could be very rewarding for those who have two healthy adults. Make sure you’ve got the CITES Annex A paperwork handy if you are breeding a CITES species (not Horsfield’s) because without this paperwork you will unable to register or sell the offspring.
Tortoises mate in a dominating and aggressive fashion. You may see fighting, headbutting, biting, and grunting before a successful courtship. Females are bullied into submission, and this is something that is natural, but can be quite difficult to see and also can result in stress and injury, so you need to think carefully about whether you wish to continue.
Egg Laying and Incubation
Tortoise gestation is very variable and can be hard to predict. Female tortoises have held fertile eggs for as long as four years afer mating! The female will need optimal conditions and a large area to dig and lay her eggs in, made of soft substrate such as a top soil and playsand mix. Cluthes are between two to twelve eggs usually, and the female can lay multiple clutches across multiple years from a single successful mating – so you need to be sure you’ve provided an egg laying spot in the following years even if courtship is not repeated.
There can be complications due to egg retention as well as egg laying. Knowing a suitable exotics veterinarian in advance and having the funds to address any health issues that arise from mating or egg laying is an essential part of being a responsible breeder.
The eggs should be incubated at 30C (86F).
You will need to be prepared to keep the hatchlings in an indoor enclosure with correct heating and lighting for a minimum of six months to one year until they are ready for sale, a much longer process than many reptiles. You will also need to apply – and pay for – CITES certification and microchips for your hatchlings if a CITES Annexe A species. As you can see breeding tortoises can be a significant time and financial cost – but can be very rewarding, and adds to the pool of British bred tortoises for new families.
Here’s a picture of a clutch of Spur Thighed Tortoises, bred by a staff member and hatched out at Reptile Cymru.
Generally speaking we would advice a lot of research and preparation before breeding tortoises, as well as ensuring you have very healthy individuals and the resources to care for both adults and future offspring should veterinary treatment be needed.
Hopefully this care guide for Horsfield’s Tortoise, Hermann’s Tortoise, Spur-Thighed Tortoise and Marginated Tortoises has given you a good idea of what you need to keep them for a very healthy and happy long life!
If you’d like to see what tortoises we have available to purchase from our store in Cardiff, South Wales (UK wide delivery available via licensed Reptile Courier) then click here, message us on Facebook or give us a call on 02920 190291.