Red-footed tortoises are native to the dry and wet forests and grasslands of Central and South America. A popular pet with striking shell coloring and markings, red-footed tortoises are long-lived and relatively easy to care for. If you're thinking of getting one, expect to make a significant investment in equipment, food, and your living space for what could be a 50-year commitment.
Common Names: Red-footed tortoise, redfoot tortoise, redleg tortoise, Savannah tortoise
Scientific Name: Geochelone carbonaria
Adult Size: 10 to 16 inches, up to 30 pounds
Life Expectancy: Up to 50 years in captivity
Red-Footed Tortoise Behavior and Temperament
These animals are not high-maintenance, as long as you set up their enclosure correctly the first time with proper lights, heat source, humidity, and put everything on timers. The main daily chores involve feeding, water bowl changes, and cleaning up pet wastes.
In captivity, these cute tortoises act shy, hide often, or burrow; this is usually a stress response when around predators. In general, they prefer not to be handled but are docile and easy-going. Despite not having teeth, their beaks are strong, and they can bite. While bites are rare and usually unintentional, they can hurt.
As a rule, you should prevent small children from handling turtles and tortoises, mostly due to the possibility of spreading salmonella. This bacteria lives in the intestinal tract of most reptiles, and it can cause illness in humans. Good hand-washing hygiene can prevent bacterial infection.
Unlike some other breeds of tortoise, the red-footed are relatively active during the day. In the wild, they spend most of their time digging and foraging. If they've eaten a large meal, however, they can spend as long as a week resting.
Wild red-footed tortoises are prolific burrowers. They burrow to seek shelter, cool down from the heat, and hide from predators. They feel most secure in a hiding spot where they fit tightly, such as a tree trunk, sometimes wedging several tortoises in at once.
Also, in the wild, red-footed tortoises often display social behavior, such as sharing food and gathering in small groups. They're not overly territorial of nesting or feeding sites unless two males are competing over a female.
Housing the Red-Footed Tortoise
An ideal enclosure for the red-footed tortoise is a sturdy, escape-proof enclosure outside. This species is native to tropical areas and prefers a humid climate. Set up a sprinkler or mister to increase the humidity if needed. This tortoise loves a muddy wallow or puddle for cooling off. You can sink a shallow water pan into the ground but make sure the tortoise can safely climb out of it.
If possible, provide a shady area densely planted with vegetation for a cool retreat. A doghouse-type shelter can also work as a shady spot. The walls of the enclosure should be about 16 inches high and even go a few inches below the ground to prevent your red-footed tortoise from digging and escaping.
You can house this tortoise indoors, but you will need a large enclosure (roughly 4 feet by 8 feet though larger is even better).
For cleaning, spot clean or scoop out pet wastes. Clean and disinfect the water container daily.
As cold-blooded creatures, all reptiles need to regulate their body temperature. They need a thermal gradient or spectrum of temperatures so that they can keep their body temperature at an optimal level. The average daytime temperature—whether outside or indoors—should be 85 F to 90 F. The tortoise will also need a basking spot that reaches up 95 F.
If the temperature drops lower than 80 F, you will need to add a heat source. If nighttime temperatures drop to 70 F or lower, heat the outdoor shelter to 70 F or bring in your tortoise to an environmentally controlled indoor enclosure. Temperatures lower than 70 F put the animal at risk for developing a respiratory infection or hypothermia.
Red-footed tortoises do not hibernate, but they may start to slow down during the colder months, even if housed indoors.
Full-spectrum ultraviolet light is necessary for an indoor enclosure since your tortoise will not get unfiltered sunlight. Tortoises require UVB rays to synthesize vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 helps the tortoise absorb calcium, which is crucial for bone structure and growth. All indoor enclosures should include a 10 percent fluorescent UVB tube light with a reflector to spread the UVB rays downward to the tortoise.
These tortoises do well in 50 percent to 70 percent humidity. A pan of water should be provided at all times for your red-footed tortoise to walk into as well as a dig box of moist organic dirt or sphagnum moss at least 6 inches deep. Use a hygrometer or humidity gauge inside the cage to monitor moisture levels accurately.
Most pet owners use a substrate or bedding to line the bottom of the cage. In the case of tortoises, they need it for digging. Use cypress bark, orchid bark, or sphagnum moss as a substrate, which also helps retain humidity. Paper will also work and is easy to clean. Change the substrate every one to two weeks to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.
Food and Water
In the wild, red-footed tortoises are omnivores. They eat a more extensive range of foods than many other tortoises. Leafy greens, fruits, and other vegetables make up their main diet.
The ratio for a well-balanced red-footed tortoise diet is 60 percent dark leafy greens and grasses, 15 percent vegetables, 15 percent fruit, and 10 percent tortoise pellets or animal protein. Feed the amount of food they will eat within 15 to 30 minutes, or you can estimate the amount of food to offer as being equal to the size of the shell. Feed them daily, in the morning, usually around the same time every day.
The best dark, leafy greens for red-footed tortoises include dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, and escarole. Avoid feeding large amounts of kale, spinach, and broccoli, these can be offered, but only in tiny amounts.
Red-footed tortoises tolerate fruit better than many other tortoise species. Different vegetables and fruits that are good to feed regularly include carrots, parsnip, sweet potato, papaya, figs, and hard melons. They can eat about 1 ounce of animal protein once every two weeks in the form of moistened low-fat cat food or lean meat. Add calcium and vitamin D3 supplements to their food three times a week. You can also offer tortoise pellets that are enriched with vitamins and minerals.
Replenish its water pan daily with fresh, filtered water.
Common Health Problems
Red-footed tortoises are prone to several medical conditions that are treatable by an exotics veterinarian who specializes in reptiles.
- Shell rot: Infectious disease caused by bacteria or fungus, appears as flaky patches on the animal's shell; usually requires antibiotics
- Vitamin A deficiency: Can appear as swollen eyes or ear infections; antibiotics required for ear infection treatment
- Parasitic infections: External parasites are visible and can include ticks or mites; internal parasites like roundworms potentially visible in feces; both treatable with antiparasitic medications
Choosing Your Red-Footed Tortoise
Due to habitat loss and capture for the pet trade, this tortoise's wild population has declined significantly. If you want a red-footed tortoise as a pet, get a captive-bred one from a reputable breeder. Your best connection to a reputable breeder may be through personal referrals from other reptile owners, a reptile specialist vet, or a local reptile show or expo where you can meet the breeders.
You can expect to pay $150 to $500 for a red-footed tortoise. The price goes up for older tortoises, factoring in the cost to raise them to adulthood and that they are thriving.
Signs of a healthy tortoise include clear, discharge-free eyes, nose, and mouth. Also, check that its fecal vent is clean. Avoid purchasing a lethargic or non-responsive tortoise or any tortoise that has flaking or crustiness on the shell (shell rot).
Different Species of Tortoise
If you’re interested in tortoises, check out:
Otherwise, check out these other tortoise profiles.
Salmonella Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Important Husbandry Requirements for Select Reptiles: Red-Footed Tortoise. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Pet Reptiles Need Vitamin D and Calcium for Bone Health. University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Citation: Khan S, Satheesh A, Panikkassery S, et al. Therapeutic management of conjunctivitis and shell rot in a red-eared slider (trachemys scripta elegans). J Dairy Vet Anim Res. 2019;8(1):22‒24. doi:10.15406/jdvar.2019.08.00237
Captive Desert Tortoise Health and Illnesses. Arizona Game and Fish Department, State of Arizona.
Parasitic Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.