The red-footed tortoise is a long-lived South American tortoise that can be a great species for first-time tortoise keepers. These mild-mannered reptiles are pretty easy to care for as long as you have the space they require. Though they may be easier to care for than the much larger pet tortoises, you should still understand that red-footed tortoise care is a serious and long commitment.
Caring for a Red-footed tortoise requires a good understanding of their diet, housing needs, common illnesses, handling, and much more. Thankfully, as long as you are up for the long commitment caring for the red-footed tortoise can be a very rewarding experience.
Red-footed tortoises aren’t as difficult to care for as some of the larger tortoises, but they do have specific needs regarding nutrition, lighting, heating, and the size of their enclosure. Read on to learn more about the specific requirements you’ll need to meet to successfully keep a red-footed tortoise.
General Care For Red-Footed Tortoises
Red-footed tortoises are small terrestrial tortoise from South America that can reach up to 13.5 inches in length and up to twenty pounds. Even though these tortoises aren’t that large compared to some tortoise species, they still require a large amount of room to roam around.
Red-footed tortoises are named for the red spots on their forelegs, but they also have a striking pattern of yellow patches on their shell that makes them an attractive pet.
Even though they can get up to over a foot long, red-footed tortoises are only around an inch-and-a-half to two inches in size when they’re born. It takes these tortoises several years to reach sexual maturity. They don’t tend to mate until they reach around six to eight inches in length at around 7-8 years of age.
Red-Footed Tortoises Lifespan
The long lifespan of red-footed tortoises is an important consideration when deciding whether or not to keep one as a pet. In the wild, these tortoises can live from around twenty to forty years. In captivity, that number is much higher.
Red-footed tortoises are known to live well over 50 years in captivity in many instances. That means that there’s a good chance that a red-footed tortoise may outlive you if it’s well cared for. It’s important to make arrangements for your tortoise should this outcome occur.
Red-Footed Tortoises Temperament
The temperament of red-footed tortoises makes them an ideal pet, though maybe not the best pet for someone who wants a lot of hands-on experience with their animal. Red-footed tortoises are shy but docile, and easy-going if they aren’t disturbed often. The tendency of these tortoises to hide and burrow means that choosing an appropriate substrate is a must.
Handling the Red-Footed Tortoises
Red-footed tortoises don’t really like to be handled and can become stressed by regular handling, which may cause them to engage in more hiding or burrowing behaviors. Despite this, they are calm when handled and aren’t known for being aggressive.
Even though red-footed tortoises are docile, this doesn’t mean they can’t bite. While these reptiles don’t have teeth, they do have a sharp, hard beak they can use to defend themselves if necessary. It is important to always wash your hands before and after handling your Red-footed tortoise.
In fact, it is often recommended that the red-footed tortoise is not the ideal pet for young children. This is because of the risk of salmonella from handling. That said, people of all ages should make sure to wash their hands before and after handling your reptiles, especially turtles and tortoises.
Red-Footed Tortoise Diet
Red-footed tortoises are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal matter and need both in their diet to be healthy. While leafy greens can make up the bulk of a red-footed tortoise’s diet, tortoises with no exposure to protein through meat sources can develop metabolic diseases like hind leg paralysis. It goes without saying that a proper diet is an essential aspect of proper red-footed tortoise care.
The majority of a red-footed tortoise’s diet should be made up of freshly chopped vegetables, fruits, and leafy greens. The ratio of a red-footed tortoise’s diet should be broken down roughly as follows
- 55-65% leafy greens and grasses
- 10-15% chopped vegetables
- 10-15% chopped fruit
- 10% animal protein
Below you’ll find a table of some commonly used foods in a red-footed tortoise’s diet.
|Mustard greens, romaine lettuce, endive, dandelion greens, clover, kale, collard greens, mixed salad greens
|Yellow squash, winter squash, zucchini, pumpkin, carrots, green beans, bell peppers
|Mango, apples, strawberries, blackberries, nopales (cactus fruit)
|Earthworms, boiled egg, pre-killed baby mice, organ meats, slugs, chopped shrimp
Watering a Red-Footed Tortoise
Along with a proper diet, it’s important for red-footed tortoises to be properly hydrated. Without access to water for both drinking and bathing, tortoises can become ill and even develop problems such as pyramiding, a condition where the tortoise’s shell becomes bumpy and stacked rather than smooth as it would be in the wild.
Red-footed tortoises need a shallow dish of water that is large enough for them to bathe in, but shallow enough for them to climb in and out of. Tortoises will lay in this water in a behavior called soaking, but they’ll also drink from it. Misting chopped greens and vegetables with water before feeding can also help increase your tortoise’s hydration.
Vitamins and Supplements for Red-Footed Tortoises
If red-footed tortoises are fed a suitable and varied diet of fresh vegetables, fruit, leafy greens, and protein, the need to supplement their diet with vitamins should be minimal. Of course, I would always recommend talking to your veterinarian first before starting a supplement regime for your red-footed tortoise.
That said, red-footed tortoises can be offered supplemental calcium specifically designed for tortoises and other reptiles. Another way to increase their calcium uptake is to offer plenty of dandelion greens and clover, which are naturally high in calcium. Without enough calcium, tortoises may develop a thin and brittle shell prone to damage or other structural issues.
Another vitamin that can be offered to red-footed tortoises is a general reptile multivitamin. This can help you ensure that the tortoise receives all of the vitamin A and other trace minerals it needs regardless of what else it eats in its diet. This is an especially good idea for tortoises that are picky eaters.
Treats for Red-Footed Tortoises
Since chopped fruits, vegetables, and protein are all supposed to be offered in moderation, all of these regular diet items can serve as occasional treats to keep the tortoise’s diet varied. However, some food items may be more expensive or harder to find. Here are a few additional ideas for foods that can act as special treats for your tortoise:
- Tropical fruits: Tropical fruits shouldn’t be offered in large amounts due to their high amounts of sugar, but occasional servings of berries, mango, or other fruits will make a tortoise very happy.
- Flowers: Tortoises love to munch on edible flowers. Floral flowers like roses and hibiscus are popular, but make sure that they are pesticide and herbicide-free before offering. Zucchini flowers from the vegetable patch are another edible flower that tortoises enjoy.
Enclosure Requirements for Red-Footed Tortoises
A proper enclosure is essential when caring for the red-footed tortoise. Along with their long lifespans, the relatively large enclosure requirements of the red-footed tortoise can restrict who can responsibly keep these reptiles.
Unlike lizards or other commonly-kept reptiles, which can sometimes be kept in enclosures as small as a 10-30gallon tank, red-footed tortoises require a minimum of thirty-six square feet of space for exercise. This means that most people need a full outdoor enclosure or garden to keep a tortoise happy. Of course, many people simply do not live in the right climate to house a red-footed tortoise outdoors.
Thankfully, with the proper lighting and equipment, you can house a red-footed tortoise indoors. However, when they reach adulthood they will require an indoor enclosure that is at least 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. You will likely need to custom-build this enclosure yourself or hire someone else to do it for you.
If necessary, a red-footed hatchling can be kept in a fifty-gallon tank when it’s very small. However, it will only take a few years for the hatchling to quickly outgrow an indoor enclosure unless an entire room is dedicated to the tortoise. Since they also need full-spectrum light to develop properly, natural sunlight in an outdoor enclosure is your best bet for keeping one if you live in the right environment.
Substrate and Decor for Red-Footed Tortoises
Red-footed tortoises need to burrow, which means they need at least several inches of thick, easily diggable substrate that won’t impact their gut if they accidentally ingest some of it. Here are some of the most popular substrates for red-footed tortoises:
- Soil: Garden-grade soil is suitable for most tortoise enclosures, but you should be sure not to use potting soil that has fertilizers mixed in. Chemical fertilizers could cause your tortoise to be poisoned if ingested.
- Coco coir: is the hairy fiber harvested from the outer shell of a coconut, and this material makes a light airy substrate easy for tortoises to dig and burrow in. Coco coir also dries quickly, which means it creates less of a mess in wet conditions than soil or other substrates can when used outdoors.
- Peat moss: is dead moss that has been extracted from a peat bog, and this material is firm for digging. Peat moss is a very fine material and should be mixed with other denser substrates to prevent tortoises from developing respiratory problems when digging in it.
There are also a few substrates that should be avoided with red-footed tortoises to prevent related health problems or general discomfort. Here are the substrate types you should avoid when setting up an enclosure for a red-footed tortoise:
- Sand: Sand is not a substrate that red-footed tortoises would naturally encounter in the wild since they’re from South American forests, and they won’t be able to dig in it easily. Tortoises can also suffer bowel impactions if they accidentally ingest sand, especially when they’re small and still learning what is safe to eat.
- Wood chips: Aromatic woods like cedar that are commonly used as wood chips for animal bedding can cause respiratory problems in tortoises and other small animals. These chips can also cause bowel impactions if ingested.
- Commercial pet bedding: Commercial pet bedding such as CareFresh is not suitable for tortoises since it doesn’t hold its form well for digging. It also poses the same risks as sand and wood chips for bowel impaction if ingested.
Red-footed tortoises don’t need any decorations in their enclosure, but they do appreciate having places to hide such as drifts of dead leaves and commercial reptile hides. Offering red-footed tortoises plenty of places to hide can increase its sense of security and can actually encourage the tortoise to spend more time out of its hiding place.
When keeping tortoises in an outdoor enclosure, remember that they’re able to dig, This means that to avoid dealing with a runaway tortoise, you should bury landscaping wire twelve inches down around the outskirts of the fenced enclosure so that the tortoise isn’t able to burrow under the fence and escape its enclosure.
Temperature and Lighting for Red-Footed Tortoises
The temperature and lighting for red-footed tortoises are important aspects of their health and development. Red-footed tortoises have the following temperature requirements:
- Basking spot: Red-footed tortoises need a basking spot that is warmer than the rest of their enclosure. This spot should be around 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. The best way to achieve this is to include a basking rock that absorbs daytime heat for basking. Tortoises do not need a basking spot at night.
- Ambient temperatures: The ambient temperature for a red-footed tortoise should be kept between 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest temperature the red-footed tortoise should be exposed to is 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wintering a Red-Footed Tortoise
If you live in a temperate part of the world, this means that your red-footed tortoise will need to come indoors at least during part of the year, when night-time temperatures begin to drop below 70 degrees in the fall. Unlike some species of tortoise and turtle, red-footed tortoises do not practice any kind of hibernation in the winter.
Since tortoises require such a large space, many tortoise keepers will set up a winter enclosure for their tortoise in a garage, workshop, or some other auxiliary household space. In some parts of the world, the temperature remains warm enough year-round that the tortoise can be kept outside permanently.
Lighting for Red-Footed Tortoises
Proper lighting is a very important aspect of red-footed tortoise care. Outdoor sunlight is the best form of lighting for red-footed tortoises since it has the perfect spectrum of natural light to keep them healthy. Along with access to direct sunlight, tortoises also require some shady areas so that they can self-regulate their temperature by cooling off in the shade when they need it.
Without ultraviolet light, tortoises can develop crippling metabolic diseases such as metabolic bone disease. This medical condition causes the tortoise’s bones and shell to become brittle and easily broken. It can also make movement painful.
For tortoises kept inside, a 5% UVB light is necessary for them to get the full-spectrum lighting they need. This light needs to be turned off at night to preserve the tortoise’s natural day-night cycle.
Red-Footed Tortoise Care Tips
The above guide covers the basic information you need to care for a red-footed tortoise successfully, but there are a few additional things to know if you want to do right by your tortoise. Here are a few red-footed tortoise care tips for keeping your red-footed tortoise healthy and happy:
- Red-footed tortoises can’t swim. Most terrestrial tortoises are not designed for swimming and don’t have the lung capacity or buoyancy to pull it off. Make sure that tortoises have access to water, but don’t keep them in an enclosure where they could potentially fall in a pond or swimming pool.
- Boulders, small trees, and clumps of grass make good enrichment for tortoises. While they don’t require puzzles or toys like a dog or a cat would, tortoises do enjoy changes in their environment. They are especially attracted to bright colors such as the color red or yellow.
- Tortoises can feel through their shell. Even though it may appear to be an insensitive material like a person’s fingernail, tortoise shells are very sensitive and full of nerve endings. This means that they can feel it when you pet, stroke, or gently scratch them, and they usually enjoy it too!
- Tortoises are solitary creatures. Red-footed tortoises only get together for mating purposes and can spend their whole lives alone in the wild. This means that they won’t become lonely without an additional tortoise friend, they’re fine just to hang out with you. If kept in groups, they can sometimes become quite aggressive with each other.
- Always wash your hands after handling a tortoise. Like other tortoises, red-footed tortoises can carry salmonella, a strain of bacteria that can give a person severe gastrointestinal distress if they get infected with it. Use an antibacterial soap after handling the tortoise to prevent illness.
- Be wary of predators. A playful dog can seriously maim or kill a tortoise accidentally while trying to play with it, especially if they mistake it for a toy. Other predators that may prey on a tortoise include birds such as crows, blue jays, and magpies. Foxes and raccoons are also a threat. Make sure all outdoor enclosures are secure.
Tortoises aren’t difficult to take care of if you can meet their basic requirements, but a few extra touches regarding care and enrichment can help you end up with a flourishing and happy pet.
Red-Footed Tortoise Care Is Fun and Rewarding
Keeping a tortoise is simple once you have the proper setup for them, but they aren’t a pet that should be undertaken lightly. They’re a good choice for gardeners and others who like to spend a lot of time outdoors. Since they live such a long time, buying a baby tortoise is a massive commitment, more than you would make to almost any other type of pet.
However, if you’re willing to take on the responsibility of keeping a red-footed tortoise, you could end up with a friend for life! Red-footed tortoise care is fun and rewarding for the right owner. Hopefully, this care guide help you to understand if the red-footed tortoise is right for you!