Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.
Are You Ready for a Tortoise?
There are several things to consider before acquiring a pet tortoise. This article focuses on the leopard tortoise, but truly, this advice applies to any tort, turtle or tyrannosaur you're considering adopting. Run your finger down the checklist below, and if any items make you uncomfortable, reconsider or make the necessary adjustments.
Tortoise Adoption Considerations
- This is a large species. It will take years to blossom into adulthood. However, one day it could weigh up to 40 kilograms. Can you provide a sufficiently big pen to make sure it gets exercise?
- The Leopard might outlive you. They live between 50–100 years. Lucky fish. If bought as a baby, then chances are that the tortoise might live longer than its owner. Are you comfortable with making alternate arrangements, to find somebody you know will care (for life) for your pet after you're gone? If you cannot find a responsible tortoise keeper, there are sanctuaries with no-kill policies. Even if you are in the prime of life, this is an important point to consider.
- Is this an impulse buy? If so, stop. Research the realities of keeping a tortoise. As an exotic species, it's not the same as a dog or goldfish. It has different needs and attention-receiving tolerance, illnesses that can be expensive and so forth. Never buy a tortoise at the spur of the moment.
- Pesky paperwork. Make sure the legalities are in order. In some places, regulations are very lax. Tortoises can pass hands like a complimentary biscuit with coffee and no cop will jump you. In other locations, laws are strict. For example, in South Africa, it's difficult to obtain legal permission to privately own any tortoise species. Punishment includes high fines and jail time. Don't trust only the seller's advice that the paperwork is fine (or not necessary). Be safe, and also approach your local reptile society or government department.
Preparing the Enclosure
This should happen before your pet arrives. Assuming you are buying a baby, it cannot be placed outside where predators such as cats and crows might take a fancy to it. The best, for the moment, is to prepare an escape-proof home inside where it cannot be reached by other pets or children.
The size of the box depends on the size of the reptile. Give it enough room to explore without going into the fence-patrol mode. Many Leopards that are in enclosures too small will go up and down one border. Constantly. The whole day. This kind of OCD causes stress, preventing proper food and water intake. However, it is normal for a tort to investigate a new pen's limits but this should lessen in a week or so.
Shape and Material
Pick an escape-proof container (never an aquarium) and make sure the surface is smooth.
For the time being, don't line the box with substrate. You need to see if the tortie is passing healthy scats and since it will wander through the water bowl, substrate will stick to its face and body. If your substrate differs from the breeder's, it might also irritate the animal's nasal passages.
Leopard tortoises are climbers. They can scale some pretty amazing and awkward objects. Tiny it may be, but a baby Leopard can and will climb stuff. Never underestimate their mountaineering skills.
Rocks and Other Additions
Avoid high rock formations or anything your pet might fall from. Any height can injure or flip them on their backs. For this reason, check on your new arrival often. Even a slightly raised rock can tip it over. If the formation is near the enclosure's edge, the animal might even manage to escape.
Leopards love to nest. As you get to know your pet, or if you have owned this species before, you'll understand that they choose certain spots to sleep in. They appreciate parking off in corners and in artificial homes. Outdoor tortoises often make a shallow hollow in the ground and return there every night. Make sure your baby has an accessible shelter, with a wide opening and deep interior.
As a cold-blooded creature, it needs warmth to get going. Kept away from drafts and cold places, room temperature is fine. But Junior's health depends on sunlight. Add a shade shelter to provide the tortoise with the option to remove itself from the heat. However, when this young, the owner should supervise sunbathing or lamp time. Too much heat on such a small body can be detrimental. Some keepers choose to use heat lamps instead but before you do, research the correct temperature and exposure time. Overall, sunlight is preferable.
Choose the Seller Carefully
When a person puts a tortoise up for sale, they fall into two categories: breeders, or owners who no longer want their pet. Choose a reputable keeper with links to the reptile community and who shows some expertise. Be wary of classifieds, even if the person sends plenty of pretty pictures showing their available youngsters. Many, if not most, are scams. In the pet industry, online scam artists aim to fleece anyone interested in a purebred puppy, kitten or in this case, a baby tortoise.
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Often, the safest buys happen through the local reptile club. As stated before, sometimes they are easily obtainable from pet shops or the kid next door. However you acquire your new pet, make a hundred percent sure it was not taken from the wild, is healthy and the paperwork is sorted.
How to Transport a Tortoise
Fantastic. You found a person who won't run off with your wallet. He or she is a genuine keeper and has agreed to sell you a tiny shell. When paying, always choose a method that protects the buyer. There are plenty available.
The main concern at this stage is to give your new pet a smooth traveling experience. Tortoises get sick from too much stress. Alone, a bumpy ride won't trigger health issues but the transition will be a lot for the tortoise to assimilate. It's used to another environment, feeding schedule and stimuli. Provide the most stress-free ride home, even if it means driving slower than usual. Make sure the car is not too hot and that young passengers don't handle it. Question the previous owner about diet, likes and dislikes, and try to replicate it. For example, if the tortoise had a favorite bathing rock, it will help to provide your pet with a new one.
Say Ahhh . . . and Visit a Doctor
To stay on the safe side, let a vet examine your baby tortoise. However, let the critter settle into its new home before booking the appointment. The exception is illness, and then a vet visit is critical. Unfortunately, by the time a tortoise shows symptoms, it is already quite sick. An ill reptile can die very quickly without expert treatment. Always choose a vet that is qualified in treating reptiles. Not all of them are specialists.
The Settling Stage
The settling-in phase can last days. Your tortoise will explore the new surroundings—likely attempt to escape them—and give you the weary eyeball. Also, it might not eat when you are around. Place food in such a manner that you can tell if some disappeared. Since Leopard babies are tiny, provide a shallow water dish. It must be level enough for it to reach the water and not so deep that it can get into trouble. Some keepers soak their baby tortoises while others let them drink naturally. You can test which one works best but in the beginning, keep handling to a minimum. It is likely to mess up the water, so replace it as often as needed.
Normal Settling Behaviors
- A degree of hiding
- Exploring its boundaries
- Passing scats that are solid and rice-shaped
- Going to sleep in the early to mid-afternoon
- Some individuals might show aggression towards the owner. The best is to retreat, for now. Leopards make very tame and personable pets—once they trust you.
- Bedding down in certain spots. This is a good sign that the youngster is starting to adjust.
Abnormal Settling Behaviors: Contact a Vet
- Signs of diarrhea
- Snotty nose or eyes
- Open mouth
- Inability to retract its head and limbs
- Not eating or drinking
- Not passing scats (should happen daily)
Use your gut feeling when it comes to what is normal or not. If something feels off, book a vet visit. Many die because owners hope symptoms will clear up on their own. Leopards are prone to pneumonia, a lethal condition that won't vanish without dire consequences.
How Much Water to Give
Your baby tortoise will probably treat the water bowl like a pool (Leopards love water). This is fine, except for the inevitable wet mess, as a dry environment is best for a tortoise. Consistent moisture can cause shell and even respiratory problems. Normally, a tort will dry all by itself but it helps to also dry the enclosure's surface after a water spill.
Hydration can also be assured by performing a soak every week or two. Use room temperature water no higher than its chin and leave the animal for 10–15 minutes. Sometimes it will drink or do its business in the water, either way, always clean and replace the water afterward. If the tortoise drinks on its own, then there is no need for soaking.
Feeding a Baby Tortoise
- Leopards appreciate a wide array of grasses and flowers. Some tortoise foods may already grow in your (pesticide-free) garden—rose petals, grass, dandelion, clover and geranium.
- Never give kitchen produce like lettuce and peels. Your pet might eat these with gusto but it's an unhealthy diet and should be avoided, along with dog and cat kibble.
- To stay in top shape, any exotic pet needs to stay close to its natural diet. Before buying a baby Leopard, research what it can and should not eat. But whatever you serve your little gem, the food must be chopped into suitable bite-sized pieces.
Your Tortoise Says . . .
To care for me, your baby Leopard tortoise, remember the basics: I like a stress-free environment, correct temperature, hydration and proper feeding. Overall, I'm easy to care for once I realize you are my keeper and I'm settled into my routine!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Jana Louise Smit