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What Is a Tortoise?

Tortoises are reptiles from the Testudinidae family of the order Testudines. Unlike other reptiles, tortoises develop a shell on the outside of their bodies to protect them from predators, which is actually a part of their skeleton. The shells are hard and difficult to penetrate, and like turtles, tortoises can withdraw their head, arms, and legs inside the shell to completely protect their soft bodies. Their pelvic and pectoral girdles are inside their rib cages instead of outside and are usually diurnal.


Tortoises display a wide variety of hues within the green, brown, and yellow color families. They have rough scales, beak-like faces and small, flat nostrils high up on their snouts. Their necks appear short at first when tucked into their shell, but can be extended quite a bit. Their feet have thick claws that help them dig into compacted dirt to burrow and in search of food. The markings on their shells vary but are generally in some type of geometrical pattern.


Tortoises vary greatly in size and can range from just a few centimeters long to as large as two meters.


Tortoises have earned the title of the longest living animal in the world. Most tortoise species live between 80-150 years, while exotic species such as the Galapagos tortoise and Aldabra giant tortoise have been recorded as living as long as 150 and 255 years, respectively. It’s difficult to know how long a pet tortoise will live, however, be prepared for the possibility it will live longer than you do!


Tortoises are some of the most docile reptiles and typically don’t show aggression, except for two males who are enclosed together. They tend to be shy and will retreat into their shells when picked up or moved, however, they may interact while being handled if you have a treat to offer.


The diet of a tortoise varies depending on species, but generally, tortoises as a whole are vegetarian. They do need a wide variety of foods to meet their nutritional needs, and tortoise owners should pay careful attention to the ratio of phosphorous and calcium in their diet as well as the amount of roughage provided. How much a tortoise eats also varies — some are quite voracious while others eat less. Provide your tortoise with as much fresh food as they’ll eat; tortoises typically will not overeat.

The Differences Between Tortoises and Turtles

Tortoises and turtles are commonly mistaken for one another, but there are a few key differences between the two:

Land vs. Water Creatures

Tortoises are exclusively land reptiles that live in both dry, arid conditions and wet tropical climates. They will drink water and sometimes bathe in it, but they typically don’t enjoy swimming. Turtles, on the other hand, enjoy primarily living in and around the water, coming up to bask on a rock for a short while before diving back in. If you see a tortoise swimming around in a fish tank at the pet store, it’s actually a turtle.

Anatomical Features

Although tortoises and turtles look very similar, they have some strikingly different anatomical features if you look close enough. Tortoises have a unique hind limb structure with elephantine (columnar) hind limbs and feet. Because they do not swim, tortoises don’t have flippers on the front of their bodies, nor are their feet webbed like a turtle’s to make swimming easier. Tortoises also have fewer than two phalanges, or “fingers,” on each digit in their feet.

Differences in Diet

Finally, one of the most significant differences between tortoises and turtles is their diets. Turtles are omnivorous, meaning they eat both meat and plants. Tortoises, on the other hand, are usually vegetarians and will refuse meat. If you can’t tell the difference between a tortoise and a turtle, try to feed it meat. If the reptile eats the meat, it’s most likely a turtle.

Keeping a Pet Tortoise

Like most reptiles, it’s important that you do your best to replicate the tortoise’s natural habitat in the wild. This can sometimes be challenging and with so many options available, it’s often hard to determine the best setup for your home. Keep the following in mind when preparing a space for your tortoise:


Tortoises can be quite large and will need a habitat that allows them to move about freely. Ideally, very large tortoises are housed in outdoor enclosures in areas with mild climates, but smaller tortoises can be kept at home in large enclosures. An enclosure that can be moved inside or out depending on weather is a great option. The enclosure should be strong enough to prevent predators getting in and a burrowing tortoise from getting out. A locked top is essential, as is adequate ventilation. Do not put small inedible objects, sharp objects, poisonous plants, or deep tubs of water in a tortoise’s enclosure.

Heat, Lighting, and Humidity

Like many other reptiles, tortoises need both UVA and UVB light to avoid developing metabolic bone disease and prevent lethargy, lack of appetite, and vitamin D deficiency. Purchase a florescent strip light that extends the length of the enclosure, but ensure it’s a reptile bulb or specifically notes on the packaging that it emits UVB light. Most traditional fluorescent bulbs for home and commercial use do not emit UVB light. Change bulbs every six months or so when they are no longer capable of emitting UVB.

Tortoises also need to be able to bask in 80-90 degree heat, so a heat bulb is ideal. Tortoises are diurnal, meaning they sleep at night, so switch to a purple, blue, or red heat lamp after dark. They also prefer very high humidity, in the 95% or greater range. You’ll need to balance the ventilation, substrate, enclosure size, location, and other factors to achieve optimal humidity levels. Humidity should rarely, if ever, be below 70%.

Feeding and Handling

Tortoises can be handled often, but it’s important to help new tortoises get used to being handled gradually. Start by picking your tortoise up a couple of times a day for just a few minutes. Offer a treat to help the tortoise associate handling with something positive. Over time, you can increase the amount of time you handle your tortoise. Be judicious and never handle your tortoise when it’s ill or if it becomes aggressive.

How to Keep a Pet Tortoise Healthy

It’s important to keep your pet tortoise healthy for the duration of its life in captivity. Make sure you’re covering these basics:


Spot clean your tortoise’s enclosure daily, ideally while the tortoise is taking its daily bath (older turtles may not bathe every day). Clean food and water bowls daily, and remove all substrate and sanitize the inside of the enclosure and all surfaces with a reptile-safe cleaning solution at least monthly if not every couple of weeks.

Tortoise Health Problems

Tortoises can easily develop respiratory infections, especially when their enclosures are not kept clean or at the proper temperature and humidity levels. They’re also susceptible to calcium and other vitamin deficiencies if not fed an appropriate, well-varied diet.

Veterinary Care

While tortoises are a relatively common pet reptile, not all veterinarians are skilled in providing medical care to them. Some vets don’t treat reptiles at all, so it’s important to find a veterinarian close by before you purchase your tortoise. If the only veterinarian that will treat reptiles is an hour away from you, it may be difficult to get there in time in the event of an emergency. Contact veterinarians in your area and ask if they treat reptiles and if so, which types. Make sure the vet you choose has experience treating tortoises specifically, and not simply turtles in general. 

Indications of a Healthy Tortoise

Healthy tortoises will have clear, alert eyes, clean skin and a well-developed shell, and will be free of parasites and secretions from the eyes, nose, and mouth. The tortoise should not wheeze and should have an appetite and desire to bathe and move about its enclosure. 

Where to Find a Tortoise for Sale

Make sure your new pet tortoise is acquired from a reputable breeder or reptile show. If you purchase a tortoise from an unscrupulous breeder or attempt to keep a tortoise you found outside as a pet, your chances of success are much lower. These tortoises may be ill or inbred, and buying your tortoise from a sketchy source encourages and provides financial support for poor reptile breeding practices. Here’s where you can find healthy, well-bred pet tortoises:

Online Breeders

Many online breeders are reputable and take excellent care of their reptiles before shipping them to customers. Research potential breeders and look for websites that post a physical address and a phone number where you can get in contact with someone if needed. Make sure the breeder is legitimate and has a good reputation within the reptile enthusiast community.

Commercial Pet Stores

Some commercial pet stores have reptiles for sale, including tortoises. However, many pet stores purchase tortoises from mass breeders and fail to properly care for them in-store. It’s recommended that you seek a reputable breeder or reptile enthusiast to purchase or adopt your tortoise from.

Reptile Shows

Reptile shows are one of the best places to purchase exotic reptiles. Where many pet stores and online breeders often only have one or two species of tortoises to choose from (or perhaps just one or two tortoises altogether!), reptile shows offer the widest variety of animals in a single place. Breeders that attend reptile shows have a true passion for their animals and can help both novice and advanced reptile owners improve their knowledge of caring for tortoises.

Reptile Super Show is the world’s largest reptile show and sale. Come visit us in California and browse the largest collection of tortoises, snakes, exotic lizards, and other reptiles for sale under one roof!


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