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Arid Tortoise Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

This care sheet covers a variety of arid tortoise species, including:

  • Greek tortoise - Testudo terrestris and Testudo floweri
  • Russian tortoise – Testudo horsefieldi

 

Overview 

With their long-life span, arid tortoises can make quiet, friendly companions. Although they live on land, pet tortoises enjoy soaking in their water dish to help prevent dehydration, clean themselves and defecate. Greek tortoises (also called Golden Greek tortoises) are not actually from Greece but have origins Northern Iraq to Turkey and Syria, as well as in Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. Russian tortoises are found in Central Asia, Iran and China. These small tortoises enjoy roaming about their habitat and burrowing into their substrate. As these tortoises frequently carry salmonella bacteria and are easily injured if dropped, they are not ideal pets for very young children. Children handling tortoises should always be supervised, as these animals get stressed when handled too often or aggressively restrained.

Typical arid tortoise appearance & behavior

  • Active, friendly and outgoing
  • Are small tortoises with big personalities
  • Will likely become tame with gentle handling and time; move slowly around tortoises to avoid startling them
  • Adept at digging to escape; hide in objects and burrow into substrate
  • Can be housed outside in warm, dry climates as long as precautions are taken to prevent escape
  • Male tortoises have a curved plastron (bottom shell) and a longer tail than females.  Their vent is located toward the end of their tail, while the female’s vent is closer to their shell. 
  • Female tortoises are larger than males

Characteristics

Care Difficulty Beginner
Average Life Span Up to 50+ years with proper care, depending on species
Diet Herbivore
Minimum Habitat Size 36 "x18" (40 gallon breeder tank)

Habitat

Habitat size

An indoor enclosure for a single tortoise should be at least 36"x18". An outdoor enclosure for a single tortoise should be at least 48"x48". Indoor habitats should have a secure screened cover to help prevent escape, while outdoor habitats can be enclosed over the top with mesh to help keep out predators but allow in sunshine. 

Outdoor habitats should have walls at least 24 inches high so that the tortoise can't climb out, and walls should be buried at least 12 inches into the ground so that the tortoise can’t dig out. Outdoor habitats should be elevated to prevent rain from flooding them. 

 

Building your habitat

Keep outdoor habitats arid and dry and provide shaded areas where your tortoise can escape direct sunlight. Glass tanks can trap air and increase humidity, predisposing arid tortoises to respiratory tract infections. If you use a glass tank as an indoor habitat, be sure there is adequate ventilation to prevent humidity from becoming too high. To maintain proper humidity levels, indoor habitats in humid climates may need a dehumidifier, while outdoor habitats in dry, hot climates may need daily misting. Habitats in cool climates typically require supplemental heating. Tortoises will dig into substrate and create a burrow in which to hibernate if they are too cold or too hot.

  • Substrate - Tortoises are known for eating substrate. Use something that is digestible such as alfalfa pellets or commercially available paper-based bedding in indoor habitats. The substrate should be deep enough for tortoises to burrow. In outdoor habitats, pesticide-free, untreated soil or cypress mulch planted with grasses such as Bermuda grass, rye or fescue, or plants such as hibiscus and mulberry, which are safe for grazing on, make good substrates. Don't use coarse substrates such as sand or gravel that are indigestible if eaten and can potentially lead to life-threatening gastrointestinal (GI) tract obstruction 
  • Décor 
    • Hiding area – In indoor habitats, provide a hiding area such as a cave or hide box on the cool end of the habitat. In outdoor habitats, shade trees (such as desert sage, willow or prickly pear) that are safe for tortoises to eat provide hiding areas. Hiding areas help tortoises feel more secure, especially if more than one is housed in a habitat 
    • Rocks – Tortoises enjoy climbing, so flat rocks should be provided in the habitat
    • Outdoor burrows - Tortoises who are housed outside all year round should be provided with two burrows, a summer burrow (with an eastern exposure) to provide a cool retreat when it gets too hot, and a winter burrow (with a southern exposure) to provide a warm place to hide when it is extremely cold. Burrows can be constructed from bales of hay, buried garbage cans laying on their sides, or cinderblocks arranged in a square with a plywood roof and dirt for insulation
  • Water dish - A shallow bowl of water that is large enough for your tortoise to fit in and allows for easy entry and exit should be available in indoor and outdoor habitats for soaking two to three times per week. This can help ensure tortoises stay hydrated. Since tortoises defecate in their water bowl, it must be changed frequently to prevent the spread of GI tract parasites
  • Temperature - For indoor enclosures, a temperature gradient (85-95°F for the warm/basking end and 70-75°F for the cool end) should be established; for indoor habitats an incandescent light or ceramic heater can be used as a primary heat source. A thermometer on the cool end and another on the warm end can be used to monitor habitat temperatures. A thermostat can be attached to heaters to maintain habitat temperatures within a certain range
  • Lighting
    • Heat - Incandescent bulbs can be used to provide heat to indoor habitats during daytime hours. Red heat bulbs or ceramic heat emitters can be used to provide heat with little light at night  
    • UV light - UVB lighting for 8 to 12 hours a day should be used to help ensure tortoises produce vitamin D in their skin to absorb the dietary calcium they need for strong bones. Mercury vapor bulbs provide heat as well as UVB rays. UV bulbs should be placed no farther away than 12 inches from the basking spot and should be changed every six months, as their potency wanes
  • Humidity - Maintain less than 60% humidity. Add humidity by misting the habitat and decrease humidity with a dehumidifier

Cleaning your habitat

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect water and food bowls daily. 
  • All habitats should be spot-cleaned daily to remove droppings and discarded food. 
  • Thoroughly clean outdoor habitats at least once a month
    • Before cleaning, remove tortoise and place them in a secure habitat
    • Remove all substrate, hide boxes and other furnishings 
    • Disinfect furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution; replace them if they are worn or impossible to disinfect
    • Check habitat walls and netting to ensure the habitat is secure
    • Hose out enclosure with hot, soapy water, and ensure no trace soap residue remains
    • Hose out enclosure with hot, soapy water, and ensure no trace soap residue remains
    • Replace fresh substrate and clean hide boxes, and replant any destroyed/eaten plants. Ensure adequate drainage
    • Place tortoise back into habitat
  • Thoroughly clean indoor habitats at least once a week:
    • Before cleaning, remove tortoise and place them in a secure habitat
    • Scrub the tank and furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
    • Rinse the tank and all furnishings thoroughly with water, removing all traces of cleaner or bleach smell
    • Dry the tank and furnishings completely and add clean substrate
    • When the tank and furnishings are completely dry, put the tortoise back into the habitat

Feeding

What to feed 

A well-balanced arid tortoise diet should be high in fiber and consist of:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as romaine or red/green lettuce, escarole, endive, collard/dandelion/mustard/turnip greens and kale, plus hay (alfalfa or Timothy), squash and prickly pear. These are the mainstays of the diet
  • Other vegetables, including carrots, broccoli, alfalfa sprouts, beans, bell peppers, cabbage, celery, cilantro, cucumbers, pumpkin, cauliflower, corn, peas parsley, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, radishes, tomatoes and Swiss chard, can be fed occasionally
  • Fruit such as apples, apricots, cantaloupe, berries, banana, grapes, oranges, peaches, pears and watermelon, should be given sparingly as treats only
  • Young tortoises also benefit from a commercially available arid tortoise pelleted diet offered every two to three days to provide extra protein and carbohydrates for growth
  • Tortoises housed outdoors with access to grasses and other vegetation may need less supplementation with greens and other vegetables

Things to remember when feeding your arid tortoise:

  • Fresh, clean water should be available at all times 
  • Tortoises often urinate and defecate in their water bowls while soaking, so these bowls should be cleaned and disinfected daily
  • Feed tortoises fresh greens and hay daily; finely chop vegetables
  • Overfeeding produce, especially if it is high in sugar, like with fruit, can lead to diarrhea
  • Sprinkle food with a dusting of powdered calcium supplement without vitamin D daily and a dusting of multivitamin supplement once a week
  • Discard vegetables and fruits not eaten within 10 hours so they don’t spoil
  • Do not feed meat, cereals, onions, garlic, iceberg lettuce, insects, bread, pasta or yogurt

 

Care

As reptiles, tortoises are cold-blooded ectotherms (their environmental temperatures control their body temperature). Tortoises housed outside during summer months may need to be brought inside during the winter if there are extreme temperature drops, otherwise they will go into a state of hibernation in which they dig themselves into a burrow, stop eating and slow their metabolism. Tortoises who are housed inside in an environment that is kept too cold also may hibernate. During hibernation, reptiles are more susceptible to infection. Consequently, tortoises housed indoors should be kept at a constant temperature range year-round to try to prevent hibernation.

Where to buy

Tortoises are available for purchase at your local Petco location. Please call ahead to check availability.

Supplies

Habitat mates

Same-species tortoises can be kept together, as long as the habitat or enclosure is large enough to accommodate them. Do not house different tortoise species together. In general, males should not be housed together, as they tend to fight. Males also may be aggressive to females when they want to breed. Females can usually live in the same habitat but occasionally will fight, so they must be closely monitored. If more than one tortoise is housed in the same habitat, more space is required, as are additional hiding spaces (such as plants, rocks or logs) to provide visual barriers.

Health 

Signs of a healthy tortoise

  • Active and alert
  • Eats and passes stool regularly
  • Smooth, hard shell with no lesions, pitting or soft spots
  • Clear, bright eyes with no swelling or discharge
  • Supple skin with no sores, lesions, swellings or discoloration
  • Clear nose and vent

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.)

  • Discoloration, bumps, soft spots or pitting on shell 
  • Lesions, swellings or discoloration of skin
  • Lethargy
  • Abnormal feces
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swollen eyes
  • Discharge or bubbles from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Overgrown beak
  • Swelling on the sides of the face, in the area of the ears

Common Health Issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Metabolic bone/vitamin deficiency Inability to absorb calcium due to insufficient UVB light or inappropriate diet or supplementation. If untreated, can lead to skeletal deformities, soft or fractured bones, swollen limbs, lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss, seizures and death. Consult your veterinarian and provide ample UVB lighting and proper diet with calcium and multivitamin supplementation.
Respiratory infection Labored breathing, discharge or bubbles from eyes, nose or mouth, decreased appetite or lethargy. Can be caused by inappropriate temperature, humidity or lighting in habitat predisposing to infection. Consult your veterinarian, and ensure habitat has the proper temperature, humidity and lighting.
Ticks and mites Parasites on the skin and skin inflammation; can transmit disease. Consult with your veterinarian.
Gastrointestinal disease Runny stools, caked or smeared stool around the vent, weight loss and loss of appetite; may be caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infection or nutritional imbalance. Consult with your veterinarian.

FAQs

  • How long do tortoises live? Tortoises can live up to 50+ years with proper care and nutrition.
  • What do tortoises eat? They are herbivores, so as pets, they eat deep leafy greens, chopped vegetables and hay, plus fresh water and supplemental calcium and vitamins.
  • Can tortoises swim? Tortoises live on land and don’t swim. They soak in shallow water to stay hydrated, clean themselves and defecate. 
  • How big do Russian tortoises get? Typically, 5 to 8 inches long.
  • Is a tortoise a reptile? Yes, a tortoise is a reptile.

Additional care sheets

Notes & sources

Ask a Pet Care Center employee about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider having a pet other than a reptile.

Go to cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about reptiles and disease.

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.