How to care for a red-footed tortoise

No one knows for sure where the name

The Red-footed tortoise, geochelone carbonaria, is one of the most popular pet tortoises. They live 40-50 years and grow to about 14 inches (35cm) long. Many of them have vivid red markings on the feet, and often on the face as well, which makes them looks pretty cool and a bit more exotic than most tortoises. Sometimes the red marks are missing, though. Probably the most distinctive identifying mark is that the males have a hollow in the middle, giving them a ‘peanut’ shape, while females have more rounded shells.

Notice how the male has a 'waist'

The natural habitat of the red-footed tortoise covers large parts of South America. They have been introduced onto many Caribbean islands too. Bear this in mind when thinking about arranging your tortoise’s housing and food: it evolved to live in the hot, humid forests and the savannahs of South America. Humidity is obviously going to be important to them.

HABITAT

See our article on tortoise housing for more information.
Forget what you have seen in the pet store – red-footed tortoises need at least 10 square feet (2.7m2) of living space. The best way to provide this space indoors is to build a ‘tortoise table’. This is an old bookcase or wardrobe laid on its back and adapted slightly for use as a tortoise habitat. The walls should be at least 3 feet high, so you’ll probably have to nail on extra bits of wood to your bookcase.

You need to provide light for the tortoise to bask in. This is both for warmth and for pleasure. A 100W desk lamp is perfect. The temperature under the lamp should be around 35°C (95°F). (See how we’re replicating their natural environmental conditions?) In addition to the basking lamp, you need a full-spectrum fluorescent light so that they can synthesize vitamin D from the UV rays. These can be obtained on Amazon or similar sites.

Unlike Mediterranean tortoises, red-footed tortoises are omnivores. They eat a little meat – which is a dietary source of vitamin D. As a result, they don’t need to bask quite as much as their herbivorous Mediterranean cousins, who are dependent on UV light for all their vitamin D needs.

The tortoise’s habitat should be kept warm all the time. You must heat it enough to keep it at 24°C at night, which is a few degrees above normal room temperature. If you go a little below this occasionally, it is not very serious; your tortoise will be uncomfortably cold, but it is when temperature drops below 16°C that the real danger begins. (Anyone who is considering keeping a red-footed tortoise outdoors should make note of this point; unless you are in a climate that never goes below 16°C at night, you need to provide an indoor habitat too.)

Being tropical tortoises, they like high levels of humidity. Unless you’re living in a tropical climate yourself, I recommend you get a simple USB humidifer. These are very cheap nowadays. Aim for a relative humidity of 80% in the tortoise’s habitat.

The floor of the tortoise’s habitat need to be covered in a suitable substrate. Bark mulch from cypress trees or other hardwoods is ideal, so long as you can be sure that it has not been treated with preservatives. Every now and then, sweep up the substrate and wash it under some warm water. Experience will tell you how often this needs to be done; if the water doesn’t turn brown when you’re washing it, it didn’t need washing. Practical Tortoise Care walks you through your options for substrate one by one.

Tortoises like having a sheltered place to hide out in, like a hollow log or something. In general, it is a good idea to provide plenty of variety and stimulation in the habitat, so throw in some toys and things for your tortoise to explore.

Another thing you need to design into your habitat is a constantly-available source of fresh water, both for bathing and for drinking. (If you heard that tortoises don’t drink, you heard wrong.) The best option is to sink a water tray into the tortoise table. Use a chisel or something similar to scoop away some wood from the floor of the tortoise table, and place a saucer or tub of some kind in the hollow.

If you really want to get in your tortoise’s good books, you can provide a mud-bath for them to wallow in. I leave the construction of this up to your own ingenuity.

When designing outdoor enclosures, the same principles of variety, warmth, light and shelter apply. Tropical tortoises should not be left exposed to high winds, so you should make sure there are plenty of trees to act as windbreaks, or make the enclosure next to a wall. A wooden box, like an old tea chest or even a dog kennel, provides a good shelter outdoors. The main thing is to make sure that the are is not too shady – give your tortoise plenty of places to bask in the sunlight like they were made to do. And although they like high humidity, they do not like to be on damp ground for too long. Leaving them on the wet grass with no way off is a ticket to respiratory tract infections. Provide a spot that is sheltered from the rain.

DIET

See our article on tortoise diet for more information.
The best diet for a red-footed tortoise one that is high in fiber and calcium, and low in protein and phosphorous. In practise, a diet consisting 40% of flowers, 30% of greens, 20% of fruit and 10% of meat is about right.

Things that you can feed your tortoise include (take a deep breath, it’s a long list!) white clover, dandelions, endives, Radicchio, romaine lettuce, other kinds of lettuce with the exception of iceberg, turnip greens, the flowers and fruit and pads of prickly pear, mulberry leaves, roses, chrysanthemum flowers, poppy flowers, henbit, purslane leaves, raspberry leaves, oregano, marshmallow (the herb, not the things you roast on campfires!), grape leaves, stinging nettle, nasturtium, sage, timothy hay, hollyhock, velvet grass, hibiscus, dahlia, bermuda grass, comfrey, chichory, English marigold, celeriac and yarrow. Vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, squash, zucchini and other members of the squash family can be given about twice a week. You should know what plants are safe, and more importantly, what plants are unsafe for your tortoise to eat; Practical Tortoise Care contains big lists of edible and toxic plants.

Fruit is a controversial topic; too much is bad, but the best diet for tropical tortoises like the red-footed tortoise should include a moderate amount of fruit. Tropical fruits like mangoes, papayas and pineapples are best, but most fruits are alright.

Some keepers report that brassicas (like broccoli and cabbage), when given in large quantities, can bind iodine and cause goitre in tortoises. Eliminate or severely limit these plants from your tortoise’s diet. Bok choy is especially high in the offending compounds and should never be given to tortoises.

Beans of any kind (including peas) are a no-no, as the digestive tract of the tortoise has no way of handling the phytic acid they contain.

Be moderate with the grasses like timothy hay, as these contain large amounts of silica and red-footed tortoises cannot easily digest this. It seems that red-footed tortoises do occasionally eat grass in the wild, but they are not really born grazers like some other tortoise species are.

Like all tropical tortoises, red-footed tortoises are omnivorous and can eat both animal and plant matter. Having said that, there are some keepers who successfully raise healthy red-footed tortoises without giving them any animal products. Meat is not an essential part of their diet, and if it is given, should be given in extreme moderation. An ounce of meat once a week is about right. Chicken liver, salmon, shrimp, and mice (sold in reptile stores) are good choices. If allowed to roam around in a garden, they usually find some earthworms for themselves, which should meet their modest protein needs. Too much meat will lead to deformities such as ‘pyramiding’ of the shell. The high levels of phosphorous in meat will block the absorption of calcium (which causes pyramiding) and excessive protein stresses the liver and kidneys.

As well as knowing what to feed your tortoise, you need to know how much to feed it. Adults do not need to be fed every day; four days a week is optimal. Give them as much food as they can eat in 20-30 minutes; you will find out by experiment how much this is.

Remember we said that the ideal diet is one that is high in calcium? While dark green vegetables provide quite a lot of calcium, it is now generally accepted that tortoises do better when given additional calcium supplements. One way to do this is to sprinkle calcium carbonate powder on their food. Another is to leave a cuttlebone in the enclosure for the tortoise to nibble on.

One last word of warning: some vets report tortoises being brought in to them with problems caused by sand in their digestive tract. Presumably these unfortunate tortoises were being fed in a sandy place and it got on to their food somehow. The lesson is to feed your tortoise in a clean place free of sand, dust and dirt.

HIBERNATION

This will be a short section. Unlike some other tortoises, red-footed tortoises do not hibernate.

BREEDING

The information above should allow you keep a tortoise in good health for years. But maybe you’re not content with just one tortoise, maybe you want to breed yourself a whole family. If so, read on…

Red-footed tortoises are big enough to start breeding when they reach about 6 inches in length. They can be bred at any time of the year, but most people report an increase in mating activity in August and September.

Their mating rituals are one of the most interesting things about them. The males fight quite aggressively for mating rights. This starts with a curious swaying of the head, then comes a wrestling match where each tortoise attempts to flip the other onto its back. Some people say these fights are necessary to get the tortoises in the mood for mating, and that at least two males are needed for successful breeding. There is certainly some truth in this, but I know of keepers who have succeeded in breeding red-footed tortoises with only one male in the group. It is just harder.

When victorious in combat, the male will turn his attention to pursuing the female with equal gusto. (Or, occasionally, the females will pursue the males.) He mounts her and the mating is accompanied by a bizarre squeal that I am at a loss to describe.

After mating, you must prepare somewhere for the female to lay her eggs. The pregnant female’s instinct is to seek out somewhere she can dig a little burrow to lay her clutch of eggs. You must provide a nesting chamber for this purpose. One way to do this is to get a wooden crate about four foot by four foot and two foot high, with a ramp so she can get in and out. Fill the box with moist mulch about 20 inches thick so she can burrow in to it. Intermittently use a water sprayer to keep it moist.

There can be anything from one to fifteen eggs per clutch and a female can lay several clutches in a single year.

The box is there to encourage the female to lay, but once the eggs are laid, you need to have an incubator ready for the eggs to mature in. Once they are laid, gently transfer them to an incubator. (There is an unresolved debate about whether it is dangerous to invert the eggs while moving them. Some keepers insist that great care must be taken not to invert them, saying that this will cause deformities. Other keepers insist that it does not matter. Personally, I don’t want to find out by having deformed tortoises; I suggest you play it safe and avoid inverting the eggs.)

You can build an incubator easily enough by taking some sort of container, like an aquarium or an old fridge, and rigging it up with a thermostat and a humidistat. A good incubator is any space with the humidity constant at around 80% and the temperature steady. Reptile shops sell humidistats that are really a necessity for incubating tortoise eggs. One of the fascinating things about breeding tortoises is that you can actually control the sex of the young ‘uns by fine-tuning the temperature. At 29°C, the offspring will be mixed in gender, above 31°C they will be females, while temperatures below 28°C tend to create males. Isn’t that amazing? My preferred way of making an incubator is to get an inexpensive aquarium heater from a pet store, as you can easily set these to maintain any temperature. These heaters only work in water, so you can place it in a bucket of water, or even a 2-liter bottle, next to the eggs (obviously making sure it won’t spill).

When you transfer the eggs to the incubator, bury them halfway in moist vermiculite and cover with a paper towel. (In case you don’t know, vermiculite is something between sand and gravel. Garden supply places sell it.) After 120-190 days you’ll be greeting your new arrivals!

JUVENILES

Your new arrivals will start eating when they are about one week old. They eat the same things that adults do. Feed them very small amounts of greens and allow them to nibble on cuttlebone, or sprinkle their food with a calcium supplement as discussed above. To grow that shell, they need very high levels of calcium.

Juveniles don’t require as much room as adults, and can be kept in a large plastic tub. The tub should not be more than a foot deep, to allow good air flow. Give them a substrate of moss (sphagnum moss, sold for orchid growing, is ideal), coconut coir (available from reptile stores), or topsoil mixed with play sand. Juveniles can get badly dehydrated very easily, so you need to be extra-careful to keep humidity high in their enclosure. A good piece of advice is to have the container slightly inclined so that the water pools underneath the basking lamp. This way, the lamp evaporates the water and increases humidity, while simultaneously draining the substrate and keeping it from getting waterlogged. Pretty clever, huh?

DISEASES

Perhaps the most common disease seen in domestic red-footed tortoises is pyramiding.
This is a buildup of keratin that causes the scutes (i.e. the patches that make up the shell) to stand out like pyramids. Instead of a smooth, domed shell, you get a series of pyramids. There are several possible causes, all related. The most likely is that your tortoise is not getting enough calcium. Alternatively, it may be that the creature is taking in enough calcium, but can’t metabolize this calcium due to an excess of phosphorous. This often happens when tortoises are given too much meat. A third possibility is that it is deficient in vitamin D3, and this deficiency stops calcium absorption. Make sure the tortoise has access to a full-spectrum UV basking lamp, and consider vitamin D supplements. It is thought that an excess of protein can also cause pyramiding, though some keepers dispute this. Sometimes this is caused by feeding them too much meat, and sometimes it’s just caused by feeding them too much! Tortoises don’t need to eat as much as you probably think. Some people give their tortoises excessive quantities of low-protein foods, and the total quantity of protein ends up being too high. A lack of exercise can also lower the amout of protein being properly metabolized and lead to pyramiding. This is why you see pyramiding so often in tortoises kept in fishtanks and other small enclosures.

Sadly, it is quite common for tortoises to get poisoned by plants and become seriously ill or die. If you are considering keeping a tortoise outdoors, you need to tortoise-proof your garden first by removing toxic plants. These include: wolfsbane, azalea, anemone, buttercup, calla lily (and lilies in general), castor bean, daffodil, deadly nightshade, foxglove, henbane, honeysuckle, horse chestnut, hyacinth, ivy, jimsonweed, leopard’s bane, mistletoe, morning glory, potato, nightshade, tobacco and other solanaceous plants, oleander, periwinkle, hemlock, rhodedendron and sweetpea. There is confusion about whether marigolds are poisonous or nourishing. This has arisen from a failure to recognize that the word ‘marigold’ actually covers two distinct genuses. The English marigolds (calendula spp) are edible and are quite a good food for red-footed tortoises, but African/French Marigolds (tagetes spp) are toxic.

Another common condition is shell rot. This results from damp conditions and a bad choice of substrate is the most common culprit. Remember that whatever your choice of substrate determines what your tortoise is gonna be pressed up against 24 hours a day. Think about that from the tortoise’s perspective and you’ll see why it is so important. If the substrate is too damp, they are sure to develop either shell rot or upper respiratory tract infections. Inadequate ventilation can also contribute to shell rot. If you see signs of shell rot, fix the substrate and/or ventilation and wipe the abcesses twice a day with chlorhexidine solution or other antispetic. This usually takes care of the problem, but serious cases may require vetinary treatment.