If you are looking for a unique, interesting and gentle pet then a tortoise may be perfect for you.
A pet tortoise can provide decades of companionship and fascination for caring owners. These slow, docile and adorable reptiles make fantastic companions.
With nearly 20 types of tortoises available as pets, it can be a challenge to choose the best one. They also come in an enormous size diversity from less than 5 inches long to over 4 feet.
In this article we cover the top 7 best pet tortoises breeds.
We will help you decide which is the right fit for you…
Are Tortoises Good Pets?
Caring for a tortoise is a big commitment that should not be taken lightly.
Tortoises can live for over 70 years which means they may outlive you as their owner! Furthermore, giant tortoise breeds need large, well-maintained outdoor enclosures to be happy and healthy.
These animals need keepers who are comfortable with potentially spending their entire lives caring for them. A better option for someone who does not want such a long-term commitment is a bearded dragon.
We do not recommend tortoises for beginners because of their exceptionally long lifespan. The lifespan and giant size of many breeds can be too much for some keepers.
The most difficult part of keeping one is setting up their enclosure, from landscaping and escape-proofing the enclosure to creating a proper temperature gradient. The mortality rate is highest during their first year as pets because of improper care and habitat setup.
Once their basic needs are met a pet tortoise will generally be undemanding and friendly. Their husbandry changes very little throughout their lives.
Keeping a tortoise is a moderately easy task and is comparable to keeping a pet rabbit. They need fresh vegetables and greens every week and a large space to roam and burrow.
For those with the dedication and experience to take on a tortoise, these slow, docile and adorable reptiles make great companions. Some breeds, such as the sulcata tortoise, even enjoy and seek out human interaction.
Provided they are given proper care the tortoise breeds below are all hardy and can live happily as pets.
Best Pet Tortoise
7. Sulcata Tortoise
Sulcata tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) are the largest species in Africa and the third largest species in the world. Though they hatch at a mere 3 inches in length, these giant pet tortoises can grow to over 30 inches long and weigh more than 100 pounds when fully grown.
The gigantic size of Sulcatas has made them popular among reptile owners who want an impressive, one-of-a-kind pet. They are also readily bred in captivity so a hatchling only costs between $50 and $200.
These pets enjoy human interaction and may even seek out attention from their owner. This makes them one of the most affectionate types of tortoise on our list.
Anyone who wishes to own a Sulcata should buy an adult or rescue a senior. Their average lifespan as pets is 70 years, but they have been known to live past a century! Because of this a hatchling will likely outlive their owner.
Sulcata tortoises are also known as the African spur-thigh or grooved tortoise. They are easily recognized because they are often kept in zoos.
Of course, this tortoise species is not suited for everyone.
Sulcatas need at least 80 square feet of outdoor space with hard-packed dirt for digging. This species needs ambient daytime temperatures between 85-95°F and basking temperatures over 100°F. If outdoor temperatures do not remain in this range, they need access to a heated indoor enclosure.
These tortoises evolved to survive in the desert Sahel region of Africa and are sensitive to cold and humidity. In their natural habitat they dig burrows to shelter from the heat and dry conditions. As a result they have powerful, clawed front legs for digging.
6. Hermann’s Tortoise
Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) is found living on the edges of the Mediterranean Sea in Italy, eastern Spain, Sardinia, Turkey, Romania and Greece. This breed is split into three subpopulations; western, eastern and central.
Young tortoises have a black and yellow shell that fades to gray or beige with age.
They typically only grow to 8 inches as adults, making them a small pet tortoise for beginners.
Along with their small size Hermann’s tortoises are known for their sweet personality, hardiness and high activity levels. Compared to other tortoise breeds they are inquisitive and energetic.
They are common pets because they are relaxed, docile and easy to care for.
In the wild Hermann’s lives among rocky hills with small trees and shrubs.
A downside of Hermann’s tortoises is that they must be kept outdoors for most or all of the year. They should be housed alone and outdoors in a warm environment with plenty of vegetative cover. One tortoise should be housed in at least a 16-square-foot enclosure with rocks, trees and shrubs.
They are excellent burrowers so any enclosure must have walls sunk at least 2 feet into the soil to prevent escapes.
This species should also be allowed to hibernate, which mimics their natural lifestyle and climate. Hibernating a tortoise takes good knowledge of husbandry so this species is best suited for someone who is willing to study and learn.
5. Marginated Tortoise
The marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) is the largest species from Europe. They can grow up to 14 inches long and weigh 11 pounds. This tortoise breed is perfect for owners who do not have room for a large species, but don’t want a small tortoise.
Two subspecies of marginated tortoise have been identified so far:
- Greek marginated (Testudo marginata marginata)
- Sardinian marginated (Testudo marginata sarda)
Both species have long, bell-shaped shells that flare out at the back. Their shells are black with yellow markings, though they fade to a uniform gray as they age.
These tortoises are popular for their hardiness, size and active personalities.
They are also popular because they are a house pet tortoise. They can be housed inside, outside, or a combination of the two. This is not always possible with other breeds in this list.
Marginateds can be kept outdoors in most climates, or indoors with high-intensity UVB lighting. This species is one of the more cold-tolerant and can withstand temperatures down to 40°F. In the U.S. they can live outdoors year-round in the southwestern and lower Atlantic states, including Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, Louisiana and parts of Texas.
Although these tortoises will hibernate if kept outdoors in cooler states, they are highly active during the rest of the year. They are mobile pets that need plenty of space and substrate for digging and climbing.
Their enclosure must be escape-proof and large enough for them to move and dig. A single adult needs at least 32 square feet.
Marginated tortoises are one of the most self-sufficient tortoise breeds which means their enclosure takes minimal upkeep for them to stay happy and healthy. They are easy to find from breeders, but one hatchling can cost $300-400.
4. Indian Star Tortoise
The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is one of the most beautiful and eye-catching types of pet tortoise. They have a rounded, dome-shaped shell that is covered in tall scutes. Each scute is black with an orange center and star-like yellow markings.
This tortoise is a good house species thanks to their small size. Most adults average 12 inches in length. Though they can live indoors, we still recommend housing them outside during the summer.
Indian stars have a relaxed, friendly temperament and relatively low activity levels.
Their friendly temperament makes them suited to living in groups. A mix of males and females can live together without the territorial or aggressive behaviors seen in other breeds. In some species males will ram into each other repeatedly to compete for females and establish dominance.
Indian stars rarely climb or dig and are not skilled escape artists so their enclosure does not need to be as sturdy. Up to five can be kept in an 8’ x 8’ outdoor pen with enough hide boxes for each tortoise.
Because Indian star tortoises are such a popular pet, collection from the wild has led to steep losses in their population. This species is now protected and listed as vulnerable, but the illegal exportation continues to this day.
It is extremely important to only buy Indian star hatchlings from responsible breeders to avoid contributing to their decline. Finding a captive-bred individual for sale in the United States is generally not difficult.
3. Red-Footed Tortoise
Red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonarius) are medium-sized, brightly colored and make excellent pets for beginner tortoise keepers. The red-footed is named after the striking yellow and red markings that cover their bodies.
Owners love the flashy colors of this tortoise breed.
While most other species are fairly plain, this one stands out with fiery orange, red and yellow markings that contrast brilliantly with their black skin and shells.
Red-footed tortoises are known for their calm, relaxed personalities and mostly sedentary lifestyles.
Multiple tortoises can be housed together without issue as they lack any type of aggression. In fact, this species often lives communally in the wild.
Most individuals grow to 14 inches long and usually weigh no more than 20 pounds.
Their relatively small size means they can be kept indoors, but they do best if kept outside in a 32-square-foot enclosure for most of the year. This can be challenging for people living in cooler, drier climates that are not suitable for this breed.
We recommend this breed for owners who live in warm, humid regions such as the Southeastern United States or the Mediterranean in Europe.
Red-footed tortoises are unique because they are mostly herbivorous, but will also occasionally eat invertebrates. As pets they should be fed a small amount of protein in the form of insects or lean meat once each week. They also need 50-70% humidity and temperatures above 70°F.
2. Russian Tortoise
The Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) is native to the dry, grasslands of southwestern Russia, Afghanistan and south-central Asia. These small reptiles are one of the best tortoises for beginners reaching average lengths between 5-10 inches.
Beginner tortoise owners should consider the Russian species.
This pet stays small, especially the males, and is easy to keep.
Russian species are fun, personable, and generally outgoing. They are not timid, though they prefer not to be handled and their small size makes them a great candidate for indoor housing.
This tortoise species can be housed easily both inside and outside, provided they have access to 32 square feet of floor space. Indoor setups require heating and lighting to maintain a temperature gradient of 70-90°F. The enclosure must also have a 10% strength UVB bulb set on a 12-hour daylight cycle above the basking spot.
Any outdoor enclosure must have secure walls at least 12 inches tall and sunk 6 inches into the ground. Russian tortoises are excellent diggers and skilled climbers.
Russian tortoises are very popular pets, but there are a few downsides.
They are more prone than other species to diseases like cryptosporidiosis. Routine and correct husbandry is key to keeping this species healthy and happy.
Also overcollection from the wild is harming native populations. Buying a tortoise from a rescue group is an excellent way to find this breed without contributing to illegal harvesting.
1. Greek Tortoise
The Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca) is one of the most popular pet tortoise breeds. This species has a smooth shell with a base color of yellow, gold, olive or brown. The leading edge of each scute is lined with black, giving the shell a beautiful pattern.
These tortoises grow to a maximum length of 10 inches, though their average size is 5-8 inches.
Despite its small size, the Greek tortoise has an extremely long lifespan. These small tortoises can live for over 120 years in captivity when cared for properly. There are even anecdotal reports of some living to 200!
Greek tortoises are very popular pets because of their small size, friendly temperament and ability to tolerate a wide range of temperatures and humidity.
For the most part Greek species are friendly, but they do not enjoy being handled. It can take them several weeks to adjust to a new owner and enclosure. After two weeks many individuals end up being quite outgoing and unafraid of interaction.
A single adult needs at least 18 square feet of living space, ideally outdoors. This species will dig, but is not able to climb well. While they can be kept together as hatchlings, juveniles and adults should be housed alone.
In the wild they hibernate through the winter if temperatures remain below 65°F. As pets they can be brought indoors during the winter to prevent hibernation.
Is It Easy To Keep A Tortoise?
As far as pet reptiles go, tortoises are on the low-maintenance end of the scale.
One of the most important considerations for keeping pet tortoises is their exceptional lifespan.
While many owners can see themselves keeping a pet for several years, they may not realize the responsibility of caring for the same animal for possibly 60 or 70 years. Tortoises are often surrendered to shelters because their owners can no longer care for them.
It is crucial that you are fully prepared and informed to care for one.
Owning a tortoise takes a great deal of planning and work beforehand to establish a proper enclosure.
Before buying a tortoise, here are three more important considerations:
- Outdoor Space
Most breeds should be kept outside during the warmest months of the year, or even year-round in mild climates. Owning one means you should have a yard or garden space where they can safely roam. Species like Sulcatas need at least 80 square feet of outdoor space. Their enclosures must be walled off to prevent escapes and be protected against predators like coyotes and hawks.
- UVB Lighting
Indoor house tortoises need access to a 10% UVB light for 12 hours each day to synthesize vitamin D. Ideally, they should get most of this radiation from direct sunlight, which is one of the main reasons why many do best if kept outdoors.
- Fresh Food
To stay healthy tortoises must be fed clean, fresh food to graze on. Most species are herbivorous and eat grasses, leaves, flowers and vegetables. Fruits can be offered as treats but are not a staple part of their diet. One benefit of keeping tortoises outdoors is that edible plants can be grown in the enclosure to provide a constant, renewable source of food.
A tortoise can make a slow, docile and adorable pet.
Many breeds make excellent pets and are popular with beginners.
For first-time owners we recommend the Greek tortoise.
Greek tortoises are friendly, docile and do not take up as much room as larger tortoise breeds.
They only grow to 10 inches, can live in a small enclosure of 18 square feet and have a friendly temperament. They are also one of the hardiest species and can adapt to a range of temperatures and humidity.
A pet tortoise offers unique companionship without needing the same high level of care as other pet reptiles. However, owning one can be a lifetime commitment! With good care and husbandry a tortoise can survive for well over a century.
What tortoise on our list has caught your eye? Let us know in the comments.