Trending Tortoises

As tortoises grow in popularity with today’s pet owners, retailers need to stock up on–and get familiar with–the supplies that tortoises need to be healthy and happy.


Keeping tortoises as pets is not a new trend. Many species, both popular and rare, have been maintained in private and zoological collections for decades. However, not since the heyday of dime-shop turtles has the interest in these shelled wonders been as prevalent as it is today.

While most experts would probably agree that tortoises are not great “beginner” reptiles, as with any animal, proper research and preparation can be an ideal recipe for success. Certain species are much better suited for inexperienced herpers than others, but there are many types of tortoises available to the casual keeper and connoisseur alike–and each species comes with its own set of needs.

Regardless of species, size or origin, there are certain criteria that pet owners need to meet to successfully keep tortoises. While certain golden rules always apply, the specific needs of any given type of tortoise can vary greatly. It is the responsibility of both the seller and the buyer to be properly informed and familiar with the husbandry requirements of all prospective species.

Home Sweet Home
Tortoises can be housed in a variety of enclosures, depending on the age, size and type of tortoise. Baby tortoises do well in small (10-20 gallon) glass terraria with screen lids. These enclosures offer pet owners easy access to the inhabitants. They are easy to clean, and the mesh tops provide a suitable area for the placement of heat and UV-light fixtures.

Larger tortoises benefit from exposure to natural sunlight and can often be kept in outdoor enclosures. These “tortoise runs” can be fixtures in the tortoise keeper’s yard or in a planter box.

Retailers, however, may want to offer an assortment of the tortoise houses and play pens that are currently on the market. These are mobile options suitable for smaller species.

Since housing is such a basic need, retailers should have a variety of options for customers. When possible, they should also house display animals in the same set-ups they are selling.

Access to a proper thermal gradient is vital to tortoise husbandry, as it is for all captive herps. A thermal gradient–a range of temperatures created within the habitat–allows for some form of thermoregulatory behavior by the tortoise.

Typically, this is simply achieved by positioning heat sources on the “warm” end of the enclosure and using a gentler, or in some cases, no heat source at all, on the “cool” side. It is important to note that the cool area of the habitat should never be cold, but it should be at least 10-15 degrees cooler than the warmest parts of the cage.

Pet owners can provide heat for tortoises housed indoors in a number of ways. In some habitats, the combination of multiple heat sources may be necessary to achieve acceptable thermal gradients. Standard reptile basking bulbs, infrared heat lights, ceramic heat emitters and heat pads are reliable and efficient ways to provide warmth.

Retailers should stock various sizes and wattages of bulbs and other heaters. By providing a large selection of heating devices, retailers can ensure that they have the right product for every customer’s specific needs. Retailers should also offer the appropriate housings and/or fixtures for the bulbs and heat emitters they sell.

The right lighting is as important as heating for tortoises. Retailers need to provide adequate lighting for tortoises on display for sale, as it will affect their long-term health. Ultraviolet light, specifically light in the ultraviolet-B (UVB) portion of the spectrum is crucial for the proper growth and development of young tortoises. It also plays a large role in the psychological well-being of tortoises. Animals without access to adequate heat and UVB rays will exhibit signs of the deficiency, including lethargy, soft shells and anorexia, within a matter of weeks. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent products designed specifically to prevent this. These range from special UVB-emitting bulbs (fluorescent, compact fluorescent and self-ballasted mercury vapor) to pens for housing tortoises outdoors.

It’s prudent to offer a variety of UVB-emitting lamps and fixtures. It is equally important that retailers be familiar with the products, and confident when passing this information on to customers.

Tortoises, as a general rule, are vegetarians. While some tropical species can and do enjoy some animal protein as an occasional treat, most will thrive on a diet of properly supplemented dark, leafy greens.

Typically, diets that are high in fiber and calcium, but low in protein, reap the best results for proper growth and long-term health. Pelleted diets designed specifically for tortoises, as well as commercially available grasses and hays, are a great way to vary the tortoise diet. These pre-packaged diets are also easier to stock and sell on a regular basis than fresh produce.

Providing tortoises with high-quality calcium and vitamin supplements is also crucial to make up for the animals’ limited diet in captivity. The addition of these supplements ensure that no essential nutrients are lacking in the diet. Formulas and directions will vary from product to product, and some are formulated especially for animals living outdoors. Retailers should stock powdered calcium supplements both with and without vitamin D3, as well as a multivitamin product. These three types of products will cover the needs of not only most tortoise species, but nearly all pets reptile and amphibians.

Perhaps it is their vegetarian lifestyle or their endearing personalities that have made tortoises and turtles of all shapes and sizes so widely popular. Their needs are specific but easily met, and they can live long and happy lives in pet owners’ homes. They are smart, curious and friendly, and while they may not be the smallest-ticket item on the sales floor, I recommend finding a spot for them there.

Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist whose interest in all things reptilian began at an early age. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. and, when not fulfilling that position, spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

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