Often overshadowed by their turtle compatriots, tortoises are a rising star of the reptile world. Sociable, friendly and easy to care for, tortoises could be one of your staples as the variety of reptiles widens within your store.
The biggest difference between turtles and tortoises lies in their chosen habitat. While turtles prefer aquatic environments, tortoises are entirely land-based. Physically, this manifests in differences in their shells (tortoise shells are larger and dome-shaped), legs (tortoises have more defined feet) and weight (tortoises are often significantly heavier than turtles). Furthermore, while most turtles are omnivores, tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores.
The vast majority of tortoises are wild-caught rather than captive-bred. This is due primarily to “four-inch laws,” which regulate the size of turtles and tortoises being sold. Rather than breed tortoises and wait for them to grow to a salable size, tortoises are instead wild-caught and shipped to wholesalers. This ensures that the tortoises are not only salable, but also healthy. Of course, check your own state’s regulations regarding tortoise sizes before making any purchases!
The most common tortoise in the reptile trade is the Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii), also known as the Central Asian tortoise or the Horsfield’s tortoise. Many retailers also sell Herman’s tortoises, leopard tortoises or Greek tortoises, the latter of which can make for an ideal pet for a more sophisticated reptile owner.
We encourage pet retailers to avoid selling the sulcata tortoise, which can grow to weigh over 100 pounds, making most households into untenable environments for them. Tortoise rescues often have an overabundance of sulcata tortoises whose owners simply did not have the space to accommodate such a massive reptile.
Tortoises, particularly Russian tortoises, can make for ideal pets primarily due to their personality. Tortoises tend to be inquisitive, friendly and quick-learning. Interaction with humans is high, and tortoises can easily become beloved members of the family. Further, Russian tortoises are not only well-priced—generally around $100 retail—but also tend to be stocked year-round, making availability an easy thing to accomplish.
Russian tortoises only grow to approximately 10 inches; not much larger than a common box turtle. Russian tortoises are herbivores, preferring broad leaf plants, such as those you might find at a local supermarket. Key, however, is to provide a variety for your Russian tortoise. Avoid beet or rhubarb greens, which can lead to a buildup of oxalic acid, leading to kidney issues.
Tortoises do require calcium supplementation, however, so include this with any greens you choose to feed your reptiles. A light dusting of calcium, coupled with lighting that provides UVB light, will ensure that your tortoises stay healthy and strong.
While many of the foods most associated with Russian tortoises are available from local supermarkets, there are foods that your store can offer as a potential subsidiary sale for your customers. Timberline, for instance, offers “Reptile Cactus” as an ideal tortoise food, as cactus is particularly high in calcium. Offering this sort of item for your customers can set you apart from the “big box” stores.
Aquariums, no matter the size, often prove to be poor enclosures for tortoises, as they do not allow for enough free-flowing air or space. Rather, wooden enclosures or tortoise tables prove to be a more reasonable option for tortoise owners, walking that balance between open space, free air and security. Tortoises love to dig, so any enclosure should include a section with sand or loam in which your tortoises can dig away.
While the tortoise may never quite replace the bearded dragon or ball python within the annals of reptile sales, their unique personalities and ease of care can make them into ideal pets for the right homes.