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Tortoises 101

A tortoise has a long life span -- sometimes up to 100 years!

Martha Stewart Living Television

Perhaps best known for a long-fabled race with a hare, tortoises aren't most people's first choice when it comes to pets. But with the proper equipment and care, a tortoise can be a fascinating and educational addition to your home, says pet expert Marc Morrone.

In the United States, a tortoise refers to a chelonian (the genus that includes turtles and tortoises) that lives on land, while turtles are chelonians that live in water. For the most part, tortoises are vegetarians (although some types, such as the hingeback, vary their diet with slugs, worms, and small insects), and they have no webbing between their toes.

If you are thinking about buying a tortoise, purchase one that was bred in captivity since wild tortoises invariably carry internal parasites and bacteria. Captive tortoises are easy to find, and the best way to determine whether a pet store is selling captive or wild tortoises is the price. If the tortoise costs less than $200, there's a good chance that it is wild.

Since tortoises come in many sizes, it helps to know how big yours will grow. Some types, such as the star tortoise, grow to 6 to 10 inches, while the leopard tortoise can grow to 28 inches. To house it, you will need a large glass aquarium with a thick layer of aspen bedding on the bottom. If aspen bedding is unavailable, you can try alfalfa pellets, or even newspaper. Don't use wood chips, gravel, or Astroturf because your tortoise may try to eat them. Keep the tank clean; it should be washed out about once a week.

Check with your pet store to see if your species of turtle requires anything special, but a good diet for tortoises generally includes large portions of high-fiber vegetables, such as kale, Swiss chard, and chicory. Because tortoises require high levels of calcium and vitamin D3 for their shells, you should dust the greens with a calcium-and-vitamin mixture before serving. For special occasions, you can give your tortoise fruit, but it shouldn't be a major part of the diet. In the wild, tortoises like to crawl into puddles to drink their water. You can simulate this by putting the tortoise into a shallow basin of warm water three times a week.

Tortoises require a daytime temperature of about 85 degrees, with cooler temperatures at night. You can provide this with a heat lamp that produces full spectrum lighting. If your house is cool at night, you should invest in an undertank heater that keeps the bedding warm.

A tortoise has a long life span -- sometimes up to 100 years -- and if it is well cared for, it will rarely get sick. Perhaps for these reasons tortoises are often kept as pets in Asia, where they are considered symbols of good luck and longevity.

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