With their unusual nature and cute faces, it’s easy to see why tortoises are a popular choice for exotic pets. And while they’re not super cuddly like a dog, they’re interesting animals to live alongside and certainly a cool option if you’re looking for something a little bit different.
But since they’re not as domesticated as cats and dogs, it’s not always easy knowing which tortoise is right for a first-time owner. Don’t worry, the team at Petz is on hand to make things clearer so you can decide which species of one of these wonderful reptiles is the right one for you.
The difference between a turtle and a tortoise
Before we get into the different kinds of tortoises, it’s a good idea to clarify the difference between a tortoise and a turtle. The obvious difference between a turtle and a tortoise is that turtles are aquatic while tortoises are not. Turtles are much smaller than tortoises and even though they may look similar, turtles have a smoother, flatter, lightweight shell as opposed to a tortoise’s round heavy one. Turtles also have webbed flipper-like feet, unlike the wide elephant-like feet of tortoises and tortoises live significantly longer as well.
Deciding whether a turtle would make a better pet over a tortoise is of course down to personal preference, and there are pros and cons on both sides. For example, a tortoise is more comfortable being handled than a turtle, so you can engage and bond with your tortoise more as a pet. And since turtles need water in their environment, that’s one extra thing to consider. Day-to-day cleaning can be more time consuming to ensure that water stays clean since turtles have a habit of defecating in the water.
There’s also the diet to consider as well, tortoises are herbivores but turtles need protein as part of their diet and they enjoy live food, so if you find the idea of live food cruel, then perhaps a tortoise is a better option for you. The main positive of choosing a turtle over a tortoise is of course the size. Turtles are much smaller and therefore will need a small enclosure.
If you still think a tortoise is for you, then let’s kick off the list of the best tortoises to have as a first-time pet.
5 best tortoises for beginners
1. Spur Thighed Greek Tortoises
These tortoises are usually recommended to first-time owners because they are significantly smaller reaching about 25 cm fully grown and are relatively easy to look after. They are also active in the day making them a better pet to engage with.
They’re herbivores, so feeding them is pretty simple. Their diet consists largely of leafy greens like collard greens, endive, fresh parsley, dandelion greens, zucchini, broccoli, and a small amount of fruit such as chopped raspberries, strawberries, or apples. It’s also important to supplement their diet with calcium which you can do with commercial pellets or powder dusting the produce you give them.
Greek tortoises need a UV light in their enclosure, and for an adult, they need to be kept in a vivarium of about 46 inches in length or a table that’s at least 35 inches. Since tortoises like to roam, you should aim to provide as much room as possible; however, if this is not possible, then a greek tortoise is ideal since they don’t need outdoor space, unlike other tortoises, and can be quite content in a large vivarium or tortoise table.
2. Hermans Tortoise
The Hermans tortoise is another reptile recommended to beginners because they are slightly smaller than the Greek tortoise, they also have a more colourful shell which makes them more appealing as well.
Herman tortoises are vegetarian, making them an ideal pet for reptile lovers that don’t like the idea of meat-eating or live food. They live off a diet of leafy greens and grasses as well as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, and carrots. Like other tortoises, a very small amount of fruit is a good addition to their diet, including apples, apricots, grapes, melons, peaches, and strawberries. And like all indoor tortoises, they need a calcium supplement as well.
Housing a Herman tortoise will consist of a vivarium or a tortoise table that allows maximum space to roam and airflow. Like all tortoises, they need a UVB light for a hot spot to ensure they produce vitamin D and maintain a healthy shell and calcium level as well. It’s also recommended that you allow a Herman tortoise space outside during the summer months when it is warm enough.
3. Horsefield Tortoise
These tortoises are popular because, once again, they’re small in size, making them more manageable. Horsefield tortoises are native to Central Asia, with males tending to grow between 5-8 inches and females growing around 6-10 inches. They hibernate during the winter months and are most active in the summer months, providing it’s not too hot. The Horsfield tortoise is a good reptile to have because they can be very sociable and quite loving in their own way.
Horsefield tortoises also require a tortoise table for their enclosure to allow space to roam and correct airflow. Like all tortoises, they need a UVB light to produce a hot spot that they can bask in, so they produce vitamin D and maintain a healthy shell and calcium level.
They’re also herbivores and require leafy greens, small amounts of fruit, and an added calcium supplement that you can achieve through powdering produce or buying commercial pellets.
4. Cherry Head Red Footed Tortoise
From South America, these are the cousins of the regular red foot tortoise, but since they’re smaller, they’re a better choice for a first-time owner. As you’ve probably guessed from their name, they have bright red/orange patches on their head and feet making them distinctive and an even more unusual choice for a pet.
Cherry head tortoises are intelligent creatures, but they are shy, so it may take time until one of these little guys is calm around their owner. With consistent, calm, gentle handling, however, the tortoise will learn to relax around you.
Since these tortoises are native to more tropical areas, they will need more humidity in their environment. This is great if you live in a wetter area, but if you’re planning on housing them indoors, then it’s something you need to consider in their enclosure. In order to do this, you can add water to the enclosure or a mist, and you can measure the levels of humidity using a hygrometer – you should aim to maintain a humidity level of around 70% to 80%.
Unlike many other tortoises, cherry heads are omnivores with their diet consisting largely of leafy greens, some vegetables and fruit, and a small amount of protein. But unlike turtles, this protein doesn’t have to be live, so you can feed your cherry head cooked meats and this only needs to be a small serving every other week.
5. Leopard Tortoises
Leopard tortoises are a popular choice all-round because of their distinct leopard markings and they make a great first-time pet because they enjoy interacting with their owners; since they don’t have a hibernation period, you can interact with them all year round.
The downside to these tortoises is that they aren’t keen on being handled too much, so they’re not ideal if you want to pick your tortoise up; plus, they also grow pretty big, ranging between 10 to 18 inches long, so it’s important to consider if you have the space to accommodate one. Leopard tortoises have no tolerance for the cold and need hot temperatures all year round. They need a lot of space to graze and warm sunlight, so this species of tortoise is ideal for people who live in warm climates all year round and have large gardens.
Their diet largely consists of high-fibre grass with a few additional vegetables like dandelion greens, collard greens and carrots, but try not to give them leafy greens that are high in oxalates, such as spinach, as this can bind calcium in food and make it difficult for them to absorb the essential mineral.
Regardless of which tortoise you choose, they will all need a lot of space as they grow into adolescence, and if it’s possible, it’s a good idea to keep them in an outdoor enclosure throughout the summer months; just make sure there’s enough protection for them and that the walls are high. It’s more than likely that you will also need to provide some water or humidity in their enclosure but this depends on the type of tortoise and can be explored further once you make a decision on the species you’d prefer. Tortoises also like to forage, so whatever you’re feeding them, try hiding their food sometimes in order to give them a challenge. And when considering your tortoise’s food needs, calcium is key, so supplements should be included as part of their diet as well.
If you’re a little unsure, you can always find out specific information from the breeder or find communities online that all have the same breed of the tortoise as you do. YouTube is a great resource for pet advice and information as well. If you’d like more information on tortoises, check out our articles on the bed tortoise bedding and the best reptile humidifiers.