Husbandry of Land Tortoises

Husbandry of Land Tortoises

Posted on Tuesday 21st February 2017

Categories: Articles

Providing the right habitat for your tortoise - The habitat your tortoise lives in should imitate its environment in the wild. Most of the land tortoises available in Hong Kong are from very dry and hot climates – they live in dry grasslands, even bordering desert conditions.


  • Tortoises, like other reptiles and UNLIKE mammals, cannot regulate their own body temperature (“ectothermic”).  Therefore, an external heat source is needed to allow them to function normally – without a heat source they cannot digest their food, their hearts will not beat properly and their immune systems will not work. Therefore, being kept in an environment that is too cold or too hot will lead to disease and death in your tortoise.
  • This heat source should be provided by special heat lamps or ceramic heaters available from reptile pet shops. You can control the temperature by varying the position of the heat lamp/heater or the number of heat lamps/heaters used.
  • Do NOT use a hot rock or hot plate because this will burn your pet
  • In general, the temperature should be maintained between 26-33ºC (79-92 ºF).
  • There needs to be a temperature “gradient” provided for the tortoise to regulate its own body temperature.  This means that there is a “hot” or “basking” area and a “cool” area in the tank.
  • To ensure that you provide the proper temperature gradient, you need to get at least 2 thermometers, one measuring the “hot” area (or “basking spot”) and one measuring the “cool” area.  These thermometers need to be placed at the level of the tortoise (near the bottom of the cage).
  • If you are unable to set up a tank with a “hot” and “cool” side then the tank is too small and you need to get a larger enclosure.


  • The best light available is from the sun because it provides UVB which is very important in vitamin D and calcium balance in your tortoise.  If your tortoise does not have access to UVB light it cannot absorb calcium and will not grow appropriately or at all.
  • However, as most of the tortoises are kept indoors in Hong Kong, your tortoise can’t get the sunlight it needs and you will have to provide a UVB lamp for your tortoise.
  • UVB light is filtered by windows (that is why we do not get sunburned when we sit in front of a window).  Therefore, if your tortoise is getting sun through a window it DOES NOT have UVB light and a UVB lamp will need to be provided.
  • This UVB lamp is available in most pet shops. Depending on the type of UVB light you purchase, it may need to be changed every 6 months and needs to be placed within 45 cm of your tortoise.  The best way to ensure that your UVB light is still working is to test it with a UVB meter.  When you bring your tortoise to visit us, you can also bring your UVB light for us to test.
  • Because you are using lights to mimic the sun in a desert environment, you need to make sure the lights are on for 12 hours each day and that the lights turn on and off at the same time each day.  Placing your lights on a timer will make this easier for you.


  • Remember that most tortoises seen in Hong Kong are from a desert environment, so humidity is important to control for your tortoise.  Inappropriate humidity leads to respiratory and shell diseases.
  • In general, the humidity should be kept between 40-50% for desert tortoises.  If you do not own a desert tortoise, the humidity requirements will be different – know your species and where it lives in the wild!!
  • Humidity may not be easy to control but can be increased by placing a humidity box in the enclosure, frequently spraying water in the enclosure or increasing the number of water dishes.  Humidity can be decreased by providing a dehumidifier or ensuring a larger open top of the enclosure.
  • You will need a “hygrometer” to measure the humidity.


  • “Substrate” is the layer you provide at the bottom of the enclosure for the purpose of absorbing the faeces and urine of your tortoise.
  • This should be convenient to change, non-toxic, and if ingested by your tortoise, must be harmless. The best substrates are – newspaper, shredded kitchen paper towels or hay.
  • Do NOT use sand, pebbles (as these are commonly ingested and lead to gut impactions) or wood shavings (can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract).
  • Enclosure
  • Most tortoises are kept in wooden crates or glass/plastic tanks.  As your tortoise gets bigger, they will require a specially made enclosure or an entire room for themselves.
  • Ensure there is good ventilation with the top left open or a wire-mesh cover.
  • Whatever enclosure you use, ensure that it is escape proof, easy to clean and is constructed out of non toxic material.
  • Do NOT leave your tortoise unattended in the garden or in the house where there are dogs or cats.
  • Dogs and cats will treat your tortoise as a prey animal and can cause severe or even fatal shell damage with their teeth.

Diet and Water

  • What you feed your tortoise should follow as closely as possible what it eats in the wild
  • Land tortoises are herbivorous (do NOT eat meat), and in the wild, they feed on low calorie, high fiber, coarse vegetation (grass), with the occasional succulent cacti and feces of carnivorous animals.
  • Therefore, you should feed your tortoises mainly timothy hay and green leafy vegetables of various kinds (see attached – Herbivorous Tortoise Diet).
  • Foods high in sugars and protein, such as fruits and tortoise pellets, should not be given routinely and should make up less than 5% of the diet.
  • Healthy land tortoises eat continuously — you may wonder if you are over-feeding them! It is possible to overfeed them – leading to obesity and accelerated rate of growth – this is not good. This can be avoided by ensuring that they are eating high fiber foods (such as hay) which will fill up their guts.
  • Letting them grow slowly and steadily is important to avoid shell and health problems.
  • Even if they are desert tortoises, water should be provided at ALL times in a shallow dish.  It is important to make sure that they cannot tip over and drown in the dish.
  • They should be soaked every day in lukewarm water for 15-30 minutes. This will help maintain hydration and encourage passage of wastes.


  • Obesity with weak limb muscles is frequently seen in tortoises that do not get adequate exercise.
  • A normal, healthy tortoise should be “quick” and “active” and be able to lift its whole shell off the ground when walking.  It should NOT drag its shell on the ground. It should “walk” and not “crawl”!
  • The ideal exercise situation is to have an outdoor garden and fenced in area for your tortoise to roam about, grazing on the grass and plants in your garden, and enjoying the important sunshine.
  • Otherwise, you should routinely let your tortoise move about outside its enclosure to ensure adequate exercise and normal wearing of the nails

Veterinary Care

  • Tortoises do not require routine vaccinations like dogs, but just like your dog and cat, they should be brought to the veterinarian at least once yearly for a body check.
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