Tortoises as Pets

Indigenous tortoises may not be kept in captivity or removed from the wild without the required permit from Nature Conservation authorities.

Southern Africa has the greatest diversity of terrestrial tortoises in the world.

Tortoises in the wild roam in areas that provide appropriate vegetation and protection from the harsh elements. If not free-roaming, captive tortoises require large enclosures that provide shelter, sun, shade and soil and must be planted with appropriate vegetation. Water needs to be provided in a shallow container to prevent drowning but should also be deep enough to accommodate bathing in hot weather. It should be noted that many tortoises will not drink from water bowls, so all tortoises should be soaked once or twice weekly (up to the plastron – lower shell/plate) in lukewarm water for 15 to 20 minutes. Soaking tortoises will result in water absorption via the cloaca and will also encourage drinking. Tortoises also require suitable shelter and bedding in the colder months and these shelters should be of an appropriate size so that the tortoise fits the shelter. It should not be too large or the tortoise will feel insecure and will not use it. Soiled or wet bedding must be replaced. Shelter openings should not face rainfall direction and it will be suitable for the shelter is situated in a place where late afternoon sun can be maximized.

The keeping of tortoises as pets and in captivity is not advised or encouraged.
Please leave tortoises in the veld where they belong.


Tortoises kept as pets require a safe environment where they will not be exposed to attacks from dogs or other pets. Injuries often occur as a result of lawnmowers, wire and glass, burning of compost heaps, moving vehicles and the rough handling by children. If they are unable to get out, tortoises may drown if they fall into a swimming pool or large water feature.

Individual tortoises have different dietary requirements. Some tortoises, such one of the Cape species, are specialised feeders and do not do well in captive situations. Tortoises should not be fed cooked food or dog foods. These creatures can easily become addicted to the wrong foods. By providing only soft foods like tomatoes, lettuce and fruit a tortoise will develop an overgrown beak. Tortoises should be encouraged to graze on natural grass and plants as this will also stimulate the use of their neck and leg muscles. Tortoises are often unable to eat from bowls or raised feeders. For juveniles, foods should be finely chopped to increase consumption.

The lack of calcium and Vitamin D3 can cause bone deformities and “soft shell”, while the lack of Vitamin A results in eye and respiratory disorders. Vitamin A deficiencies result from only feeding iceberg lettuce and cucumber which contain low levels for Vitamin A. Foods rich in beta-carotene (the precursor of Vitamin A) are dark leafy greens such as spinach (in moderation), dandelions and broccoli, and yellow or orange coloured fruit and vegetables such as squash and carrots. Produce should be supplemented with calcium, vitamins and trace elements every 7 – 10 days for adults and twice weekly for hatchlings. Damp habitats can result in rhinitis or pneumonia and signs of this would be runny noses, or bubbling from the nostrils. Endo- and ecto-parasites will result in the loss of appetite and lethargy, while fungus on shells or limbs is possibly the result of damp environments which have resulted in an infection.

Because many tortoises are kept as pets in town gardens, it is important to note that a number of plants are toxic to these creatures and care should be taken to ensure that the garden is free of these plants. Toxic plants include : hydrangea, elephant ear, rhubarb, jasmine, wisteria, oleander, privet, canary creeper, penny royal, periwinkle, tomato plant, azalea and mondo grass. Favourite plants or weeds would include : hibiscus, mulberry leaves and fruit, gazanias, petunias, busy lizzies, viola, arum leaves, quick weed, chickweed.

It is important to remember that tortoise distribution is not a hit and miss affair. It has taken place over hundreds of thousands of years. Different species have evolved and adapted to different areas, and these areas supply them with the essentials for survival such as food, shelter and the chance of finding a mate. Tortoise distribution is very often linked to instinctive food preferences such as succulents and particular wild flowers. A tortoise may starve to death if released in an area in which the known food plants do not occur. Certain species of tortoises have adapted to survive in particular climatic regions. By releasing them into an area with harsh winter or summer conditions, with which it is not familiar, is as good as signing its death warrant.


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