Pet parenting 101: A reptile that will really grow on you

By Dr Michael Bradley

Long-living tortoises are slow, but surprisingly active animals. They need plenty of exercise and a safe place - preferably outdoors - where they can enjoy lots of sunshine and water if they are to reach old age

By Dr Michael Bradley |

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Tortoises might start small...

Living with a shell

Reptiles that have shells - turtles, terrapins or tortoises - are known as chelonians. These fascinating creatures can make very interesting pets.

If you keep one, you might be inspired to learn more about their conservation and welfare. Many species of tortoise and turtle are facing extinction - especially in Asia. Millions of these animals are killed each year for food, or for use in making traditional medicines. They are also sold into the international pet trade.

People sometimes mix up tortoise, terrapin and turtle. Put simply, tortoises live on land, while turtles and terrapins spend all, or most of their lives, in the water.

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To care for a tortoise properly, you must first understand a little about the species and where it comes from.

Two of the most common species are Sulcata and Leopard tortoises. Both of these animals come from African deserts and are strict vegetarians. They need very high-fibre, plant-based diets, and will do well on the hays and dried grasses sold for rabbits. Calcium and vitamin supplements are also really important.

One of the most common health problems I see, especially in young tortoises, is a lack of water. For this reason it’s very important that small tortoises are soaked in water every day. If you place a tortoise in a shallow dish of water that just comes up to the base of its shell, it will absorb lots of fluid. You might be surprised to learn that tortoises can also absorb water through their bottoms!

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Not so easy to keep

Tortoises have been kept as pets in many parts of the world for centuries. Yet they have become really popular in Hong Kong only over the past few years.

Lots of people think of them as being very tough (almost as strong as a pet brick!). But none of them is very easy to keep when taken away from their natural environments.

Many tortoises are bought as pets by inexperienced owners. This causes the reptiles to suffer from severe - but preventable - health problems and they die early. The two problems seen most often are poor housing and diet.

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Be sure to wash your hands

As with all reptiles, almost all tortoises carry salmonella bacteria. This can cause tummy upsets and quite severe illness in young children and the elderly. So it is important to be very strict about basic hygiene, such as hand washing, to stay safe and healthy.

Tortoises are not good pets if you have very young children around who might not understand how important good hygiene is.

But given time, they'll grow to a pretty large size.
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Long-living pet needs commitment

Lots of small tortoises offered for sale in Hong Kong pet shops very quickly grow into giants if cared for properly.

I adopted my tortoise, Stanley, when his previous owners couldn’t care for him any more. He is a Sulcata Tortoise and was bought 12 years ago when he was the size of a teacup. He now weighs 20 kilograms and is 45 centimetres long. He soon outgrew his first home and is now almost like a pony with a shell!

Although stories of tortoises living up to 300 years or more are often not true, these pets are a long-term commitment. I can probably look forward to at least 40 more years of Stanley eating my plants and knocking over my furniture. So don’t take these reptiles on unless you have really thought about it. They live so long that you may have to mention them in your will!

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Life outdoors is best

Tortoises need an airy home, and can easily suffer from breathing difficulties if kept in glass tanks designed for snakes or lizards. They also need lots of ultraviolet light from sunshine. So for these two reasons, tortoises are usually much happier and healthier if they are kept outdoors.

They will need protection from predators such as kites, dogs and cats, shade in the summer and a heated shelter during the winter.

When your tortoise is very small, or if you have no outdoor space, then they can be kept indoors. The best housing is what’s known as a “tortoise table”. These solid-sided, but open-topped pens allow lots of air, and UV lights can be placed above to provide artificial sunlight.

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Great need for good homes

Tortoises are now bred in captivity in huge numbers and offered for sale in many pet shops in Hong Kong - often for amazingly large amounts of money.

Given their long lives and the difficulties in caring for them, you will often hear of tortoises like mine that need new homes.

A good place to start is the SPCA, or you can ask at your local veterinary clinic.


Tortoises are often shown in children’s stories and cartoons as slow and lazy animals. But they are surprisingly active and need lots of exercise.

If you keep your tortoise indoors, remember that they will need some time out of their pen every day to exercise. It is even better if this can be outdoors.

Michael Bradley is a vet with Stanley Veterinary Centre, and also works with local Hong Kong wildlife, as a consultant for groups including Ocean Park Conservation Foundation. He has kept almost every sort of pet over the years.