Greek Tortoise: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Portrait of a Greek tortoise (testudo graeca)
Joan Vicent Cantó Roig/E+/Getty Images

Native to Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and Southwest Asia, Greek tortoises are commonly kept as pets, and their affable personalities make them enjoyable companions. However, because these pet tortoises have a lifespan in captivity often of 50 years or longer, prospective owners should think long and hard about whether they want to commit to caring for an animal that could easily outlive them. Greek tortoises sport a shell that’s tan to yellow with dark brown to black. They’re generally easygoing pets, as long as owners meet their specific care needs.

Species Overview

Common Name: Greek tortoise, spur-thighed tortoise

Scientific Name: Testudo graeca

Adult Size: Up to 10 inches long

Life Expectancy: 50 years or more

Greek Tortoise Behavior and Temperament

Like many pet reptiles, Greek tortoises prefer not to be handled by humans. Handling is very stressful for tortoises, and it can have a negative impact on their health. Some tortoises might even bite if picked up. When you do have to handle your tortoise, such as when you move it out of its enclosure for cleaning, do so slowly and gently. 

For the most part, Greek tortoises are amiable and mellow creatures if their needs are met and their aversion to handling is respected. Once they get to know their owners, many become quite social. They’ll often walk right up to people, especially if they see someone with food.

Housing the Greek Tortoise

Greek tortoises stay fairly small but still need ample space to exercise. Many tortoise owners prefer using large plastic storage tubs or building wooden enclosures instead of using fish tanks for housing. Tortoises don't need the height tanks offer, only the floor space. An enclosure that’s at least 3 feet by 6 feet with walls around 18 inches tall is adequate, though bigger is always better. Make sure you remove uneaten food and other visible waste from the enclosure daily, and scrub all surfaces of the enclosure with a reptile-safe cleaner weekly.

If the temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, allow your tortoise some outdoor time. However, it is crucial you never leave your tortoise when it is outside. Tortoises can run away faster than one might think, and they’re very good at hiding. Plus, predators, such as raccoons and hawks, can scoop them up.

It’s ideal to build a tortoise-safe outdoor pen that has a secure screened top. Also, bury the pen walls around 6 inches deep to prevent your tortoise from digging under them and escaping. Make sure the pen has sunny and shady sections. And never put your tortoise outside in a glass tank, as the glass and sunlight can create oven-like conditions.

Heat

Greek tortoises prefer an environment that’s between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. One section of your tortoise’s enclosure should be for basking with a heat lamp that maintains a temperature between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime. At night, the enclosure temperature can be between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If kept outside, these tortoises can handle night temperatures that drop to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. In the wild, they usually hibernate through cooler winter temperatures. 

Light

In addition to a heat lamp for the basking area, the tortoise also needs UVB-emitting lighting for around 12 hours per day. This light promotes vitamin D production in the tortoise, which helps to metabolize calcium and strengthen bones. Without a UVB lamp or sufficient natural sunlight, your tortoise might develop bone abnormalities.

Humidity

Greek tortoises need a humidity level between 40% and 60%. Use a hygrometer (humidity gauge) to monitor the enclosure’s moisture level. Maintain humidity by misting the tortoise every other day or as often as needed. Plus, keeping your tortoise's water dish filled at all times will add humidity.

Substrate

Reptile-safe mulch, aspen wood shavings, and dirt mixtures are good substrate (or bedding) options for Greek tortoises. Just make sure the food they eat is offered on a plate or other surface, so they don't accidentally ingest their bedding.

Food and Water

Greek tortoises are herbivores and do best with a diet that’s high in fiber and low in protein. A variety of dark, leafy greens and other vegetables—including collard greens, endive, fresh parsley, dandelion greens, zucchini, broccoli, and shredded carrots—should be the majority of your tortoise's diet. Feed your tortoise a few different choices of veggies each day. Timothy hay that is chopped up should be added to keep your tortoise's beak trimmed and for the additional fiber.

They can eat small amounts of fruits, such as chopped raspberries, strawberries, or apples. But this should not make up more than 10 percent of the diet. 

You can supplement your tortoise’s diet with a quality commercial pellet fed daily. Also, regular dusting of the produce with a calcium powder is often recommended to make sure your tortoise is getting enough calcium. Follow your veterinarian’s advice on supplementation and feeding to maintain a healthy weight. 

A water dish should be large enough and accessible for your tortoise to walk into and drink or defecate when needed. Change the water daily or as needed to maintain cleanliness.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Like many other tortoises and turtles, shell rot is commonly found in Greek tortoises. Usually due to a fungal infection, shell rot can cause painful shell deformities that are life-threatening to the animal if left untreated. 

Also like other reptiles, Greek tortoises are susceptible to metabolic bone disease. This ailment results from an imbalance in a tortoise’s calcium-to-phosphorous ratio and leads to overall weakening of its bones. It's another painful condition that can be fatal if not properly treated. 

Moreover, respiratory infections affect Greek tortoises like they do many other reptiles. Symptoms include wheezing and lethargy. Incorrect habitat humidity is often the culprit of these infections.

In terms of their behavior, as long as you respect your tortoise’s desire not to be handled, you should coexist peacefully. But be warned a tortoise might bite or scratch if it feels threatened.

Choosing Your Greek Tortoise

Your best bet for getting a Greek tortoise is from a reputable breeder who knows its medical history. You're potentially committing to this pet for a very long time, so it’s ideal to start with a healthy animal. The average cost for a Greek tortoise is around $200. 

A healthy tortoise generally should have clear eyes, no signs of excess mucus, and a smooth shell without any deformity or decay. If possible, ask the tortoise's breeder or rescue group if you can watch it eat. The only tortoise that refuses food is one that is ill. 

Similar Species to Greek Tortoises

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Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.