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Caring for Tortoises & Terrapins

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 25 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Caring For Tortoises & Terrapins

Tortoises are probably the most recognisable – and certainly most loved – of all the world’s reptiles and, together with their largely aquatic relatives, the terrapins, do well in captivity, given the right conditions.


Although some of the species offered for sale as exotic pets will enjoy the chance to live in a suitable enclosure outdoors during the best of a British summer, most come from much warmer climates and will require an indoor vivarium to thrive. Although we tend to think of tortoises as living in fairly arid conditions, some of the varieties available are forest dwellers, while others naturally live in surprisingly moist conditions, so it’s obviously important to do your research to make sure you get things right. Whatever habitat and temperature your pet needs, one thing’s for sure – when it comes to its home, it’s definitely a case of the bigger the better! Tortoises are remarkably active creatures and enjoy the opportunity to explore and wander freely, so they need plenty of room.

Housing terrapins calls for striking a balance between providing lots of water for them to swim and somewhere dry for them to sun themselves. Most of the more familiar kinds come from the warmer parts of the USA, such as the well known Red-Eared Slider (Chrysemys scripta elegans). Often sold as babies an inch or two (2-5cm) in length, in no time at all they can grow to a foot (30cm) or more – so you’ll need to be prepared to get a big tank for these guys too!

Heating And Lighting

Heating the air in both tortoise and terrapin enclosures is best achieved with a purpose designed heater, or a well protected heat lamp. Although many reptile tanks use hot rocks or heat pads, for tortoises this can often lead to the animals having nice warm bodies, but breathing relatively cold air, which can lead to health problems.

Terrapins additionally need to have their water heated; an aquarium heater/thermostat unit is ideal, but particularly if the tank’s occupants are large or active, it’s a good idea to provide a cover to stop the reptiles coming into direct contact with it.

Both tortoises and terrapins will benefit greatly from the chance to bask in some ultra-violet light, so add a purpose made UV-tube alongside the spot lamp; that way when the animals bask in the warmth they also pick up a dose of artificial sunlight in a very natural way.

Food And Feeding

The “traditional” pet tortoise was a vegetarian, but many of the species seen today enjoy a more omnivorous diet augmenting fruits and green-stuff with insects and other suitably sized animal prey, at least some of the time. Terrapins are more carnivorous in their tastes, eating insects, worms and even small fish, although they too enjoy the occasional munch on leaves or piece of fruit.

Getting your pet’s diet right is another area where there is no substitute for good research; whatever your chosen species likes to eat, dusting the food with a good mineral/vitamin supplement is always a good idea – and don’t forget to provide access to clean drinking water.


Both tortoises and terrapins can be handled with some degree of success – and some even seem to enjoy the experience. However, remember that both groups can bite – they may have no teeth, but their horny lips can really nip! Also, don’t forget that they can carry certain diseases that can affect humans, so it’s always important to wash your hands after you have been handling or tending to your pets and particularly make sure any children who come into contact with them do too – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In many respects, tortoises were the original exotic pets. However, the wholesale abduction of vast numbers of Spur-thighed and Hermann’s Tortoises (Testudo graeca and T. Hermanni respectively) and their subsequent transportation to the UK in appalling conditions was one of the darkest episodes in pet-keeping. Frequently sold on market stalls for half-a-crown (25p), those animals which survived the overcrowded shipping crates often led sad travesties of their natural lives under Mediterranean skies.

The trade in wild-caught European tortoises is now a thing of the past – but enough of them did survive to leave us all with an enduring love of these endearing and long lived reptiles. Surprisingly active and adventurous, tortoises and terrapins make great pets, enjoy long lives and often breed in captivity. It’s small wonder they remain so popular.

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