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Buying a Tortoise | What to Know Before you Buy | Legal and Practical Checklist

Buying a Tortoise | What to Know Before you Buy | Legal and Practical Checklist

Getting any new pet is an exciting time. But there is also lots to think about. Reptiles in particular have many special care requirements that you need to consider before deciding to welcome one into your family. And buying a tortoise can be even more complex since many are protected species with legal requirements surrounding their trade.

To ensure that you are buying from a reputable breeder and that your tortoise is a healthy one, here are some top tips on buying a tortoise in the UK. 

Is it Legal to Buy a Tortoise in the UK?

Yes, it is completely legal to buy a tortoise in the UK as long as you do it properly. If you are not careful, you could easily buy a tortoise illegally which means without the correct certification. This could mean that you are unknowingly supporting the illegal pet trade which involves taking these fascinating creatures from their natural habitat. 

What Are the Legal Requirements?

All tortoise species are listed on CITES as either an Annex A or an Annex B species. Depending on what species of tortoise you want to buy, different documentation will be required. Here are some common species of tortoises that are kept in the UK and whether they need certification or not

NameScientific NameAnnexCertificate Required?
Leopard tortoiseStigmochelys pardalisBNo
Sulcata tortoiseCentrochelys sulcataBNo
Hermann’s tortoiseTestudo hermanniAYes
Red footed tortoiseChelonoidis carbonariusBNo
Indian star tortoiseGeochelone elegansAYes
Marginated tortoiseTestudo marginataAYes
Egyptian tortoiseTestudo kleinmanniAYes
Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoiseTestudo graecaAYes
Horsefield tortoiseAgrionemys horsfieldiiBNo

Annex A

These tortoises require a specific license to be able to buy and sell. It is called an Article 10 Certificate and there are two types depending on the situation:

  • Transaction Specific Certificate (TSC): This certificate is used when the tortoises being sold are too small to be microchipped and can only be done by the person listed on the certificate. The certificate will stay with the person named and photocopies can be given to those buying a tortoise. If you acquire a tortoise with a TSC, it should be your responsibility to get them microchipped when they are large enough. 
  • Specimen Specific Certificate (SSC): This is for tortoises that have been microchipped and the certificate will remain with the tortoise for the entirety of its life.

Annex B 

Any tortoises under Annex B do not require any certification to be sold or bred. With this in mind, it can be a lot harder to be sure that the breeder is ethical and that the tortoises have come from where they say they have. With much less regulation on their trade, it is difficult to know whether or not the tortoise you are purchasing is actually part of the illegal pet trade or not. 

If you are looking to purchase a tortoise that is listed as Annex B, we recommend only considering UK breeders and asking lots of questions to determine the tortoise’s origin and their experience of breeding tortoises. 

What is the Article 10 Certificate?

The Article 10 Certificate is the legal requirement of anyone selling a tortoise in the UK. If you have this document but then you lose or misplace it, you will no longer be able to legally sell your tortoise, if your circumstances were to change. 

The Article 10 Certificate includes the species name, the country of origin, the method of origin and the issuing authority; it does not include the health history of the tortoise or any distinguishing marks or features of the individual. 

How to Find a Reputable Breeder?

There are many reputable breeders out there but there are just as many people trading tortoises illegally. It is important to do your research and find someone who has sourced the tortoises ethically and does not support or profit from the illegal pet trade. 

The Tortoise Protection Group has a list of breeders that will have the required certification and their tortoises will be ethically bred. 

You should also try and find out where the tortoise came from, to ensure that it was captive-bred, but also that the breeding was ethical. This is especially important if you are buying a tortoise listed as Annex B, that does not require specific certification. 

when buying a tortoise always choose a reputable breeder

Why Should You Use a Reputable Breeder?

The illegal pet trade is one of the main reasons for the decline of several tortoise species. This practise often involves taking tortoises out of their natural habitat and shipping them thousands of miles to different places around the world. Not only do many wild caught tortoises die on these journeys, but it also doesn’t allow the wild populations to grow, breed, and survive. 

Always buy from a reputable breeder. The illegal pet trade is one of the main reasons for the decline of several tortoise species. Click To Tweet

Although captive-bred individuals are a much better option, there are still many unethical breeders that exploit their tortoises, breed them in poor conditions, and sell unhealthy baby tortoises that are unlikely to live into adulthood. This is why it is so important to do your research to find someone that truly cares about the preservation and care of these incredible creatures.

A private seller will breed responsibly, only sell healthy specimens, and will always have the correct certification. They will provide you with the correct information on how to care for your tortoise and will sometimes even keep in touch if you have any questions as your tortoise grows and develops.

Where Not to Buy a Tortoise

Although a pet store seems like the obvious option when buying a new pet tortoise, these are not always the best places to go. Here are a few places that you should avoid when looking to purchase a tortoise:

  • Pet stores 
  • Garden centres
  • Tortoise shop/centre
  • Reptile or exotics specialists
  • Anyone who offers to send a tortoise by post/courier

Despite pet stores being on the top of our list of places not to buy a tortoise, we have to admit that they are pretty hit and miss. Some of the above mentioned places may offer healthy, captive bred specimens for you to buy but you should still make sure they have the proper certification, no matter where you shop for your tortoise. 

What to Look Out For When Buying a Tortoise

Asides for checking the relevant documentation and asking where the tortoise came from, you should also be sure to look at the tortoise itself and check it’s general health. There are several indicators that you should look out for that will tell you whether or not the tortoise in question is healthy. 

Shell

One of the main things you should be looking at is their shell. Young tortoises under a month old may have a softer shell but any tortoises over a month should have a firm shell. The plastron (underside of the shell) may be a little springy in tortoises up to a year old but overall it should be firm without any soft spots. 

The shell should not have any damage; there should be no cracks, the scutes should be complete, and check for any white spots that could indicate shell rot. 

If you are buying an adult tortoise, the shell should have minimal pyramiding and it should be rounded in shape. Of course, this may vary slightly depending on the species of tortoise so be sure to do your research in appropriate shell shape before going to view your new pet. 

Head

Around the head area not only should it be clear or wounds or lumps, there are several things that you should be looking out for. 

  • Eyes: The eyes should be bright and clear or any discharge. They should be dark in colour, open, and responsive. If the tortoise’s eyes cannot open properly or they are milky in colour then they could be seriously sick. 
  • Mouth: The beak should open and close comfortably, with the upper beak just covering the lower section. If you can see the tongue (best to do when they are eating) it should be pink in colour and there should be no signs of bubbling.
  • Nose: Check for signs of bubbling around the nose as this could be a sign of respiratory infections. It should be clean and dry and there should be no sounds of wheezing when they breathe.

Legs and Tail

There should be no lumps or cuts on the legs of the tortoise and they should be strong, thick, and stable. The legs should be strong enough to hold the shell clear off the ground when they are walking, and the tail and area around the tail should be clean of any faeces.

Movement

Tortoises should not drag their shells along the ground; they should be able to lift their shells clear off the ground with their strong and sturdy legs. Watch your tortoise walk around for a little bit – they should walk forward with purpose and not around in circles. The back legs should not drag along behind them. They should be active in the heat, eating, and exploring! 

Excrement

If you see the tortoise pass faeces before you take it home, it should be solid with a healthy urate and it should be free from any worms. Any loose excrement could be a sign of many different health issues. 

How Much Does a Tortoise Cost?

The average price of a tortoise can vary depending on the species you want and the age at which you buy it. A baby tortoise can cost from £30-50 however older tortoises can cost thousands. While the average cost of a Hermann’s tortoise is a couple of hundred pounds, sometimes an adult Indian star tortoise costs over £1000!

What’s more, larger species of tortoise naturally eat more than smaller tortoises therefore you should expect to spend more on tortoise food if you own a sulcata tortoise versus an Egyptian tortoise. 

Setup 

Not only is there the cost of actually buying the tortoise, you have to consider how much it costs to build their environment and give them everything that they need. A tortoise table can cost a few hundred pounds, and then when you add in a basking lamp, a UVB lamp,and the best substrate, you will be adding on several hundred more. 

If you go for a larger species for tortoise then you will likely have to upgrade the space you have for them and invest even more into creating a suitable enclosure for them. Not only that, the larger the enclosure, the more you will have to spend on substrate and sufficient lighting. 

Reptiles need very specific conditions including the correct temperature and humidity, and you need the necessary equipment to monitor this, too. 

Don’t overlook these costs as they soon add up! 

What to Consider Before you Buy a Tortoise

Although you need to consider where you buy your tortoise from, the costs involved, and their initial health, there are some other things you should keep in mind before you buy a tortoise. 

Species

One of the main things you need to think about before committing to a pet tortoise is the species of tortoise you would like to get. Tortoises such as the red footed tortoise that come from a tropical climate need high temperatures and higher humidity whereas marginated tortoises are considered to be much more hardy therefore can live in the UK quite comfortably for most of the year. 

Lifespan

The Indian star tortoise is expected to live up to 50 years of age however the leopard tortoise can sometimes exceed over 100 years! Consider how long each species of tortoise will live and how long you can commit to caring for one.

Even if you buy an adult tortoise, they are still likely to live longer than a dog so be prepared to have a tortoise in your life for a considerable length of time. Many tortoise owners will not realise that a tortoise can live upwards of 70 years old which is why there are so many adult tortoises available for adoption. 

Before making the commitment, consider who will look after your tortoise if you go on holiday, whether you will make sure you have enough space if you ever move home, and how they will fit into your life for many years to come. Although many people think that tortoises do not get attached to their owners, and there is not much evidence to show that they do, they can still get highly stressed if relocated. 

Space Requirements

Based on the size of the tortoise, different species will need a different amount of space to be able to thrive. Tortoise tables should be more than sufficient for the entire life of a small tortoise such as an Egyptian tortoise, as long as you buy the right size, however a fully grown sulcata tortoise could require a whole room or even your whole garden!

Of course, as a baby, most tortoises will thrive in a tortoise table, however as they grow, you will soon need to upgrade them to something larger. A tortoise run makes a great outdoor enclosure for those that can withstand a minimum temperature on the lower side, however even those that are considered hardy will still need additional heat and light sources.

Some tortoise owners will even opt to fit out a greenhouse or garden shed as an additional housing area for their tortoises. You’ll also need to make sure the enclosure is escape proof with tall walls and a base that is dug into the ground. 

What’s more, if you plan on keeping multiple tortoises, even more space will be needed to avoid an unhappy group of tortoises.

Consider how much space you have and see how that will fit with each species of tortoise – if you have the space for just a tortoise table then consider a smaller species such as the Egyptian tortoise, however if you would like to dedicate much more space to your tortoise’s habitat then you could consider getting a larger species such as the African spur thighed tortoise. 

Tortoise Care

As well as the correct square footage, there is a lot more that is required to ensure a healthy tortoise. Tortoises are delicate creatures that need very specific conditions to thrive.

They are susceptible to different illnesses such as metabolic bone disease, shell rot, and respiratory infections if they are not treated quickly. With this in mind, all of these health complications can be prevented with a suitable UVB light, a quality basking lamp, and the correct substrate. All of these will contribute to the optimum temperature and humidity to mimic the conditions of their natural habitat. 

All of these things can be easy enough to control, however owning a tortoise also involves some trickier processes such as hibernation. Several species of tortoises hibernate which can be a delicate time in their lives if not done correctly. Consider if you are able to provide the correct conditions to help them through this time, and always consult a vet if this is something you think you can do. 

Finally, specialist vets can sometimes be more expensive and treatments are often more involved than those for a dog or a cat so bear this in mind when considering long term expenses. 

Getting More Than One

Most tortoises are solitary animals and you will rarely see two tortoises together in the wild unless they are mating, however, many people that house more than one tortoise together without issue.  Despite this, some pairings work better than others… With restricted space, if you put two males together they are more likely to become territorial and cause each other injury, especially if you have a species such as sulcatas or red footed tortoises.

If you have a male and a female together then you should think about separating them during breeding season so you do not need to worry about gravid females and the health complications that can come with this. Two females should live quite happily together and is considered to be the safest option, if you definitely want more than one. 

Adopting a Tortoise

Before you decide to purchase a tortoise, you should look into how to adopt a tortoise instead. Pet tortoises often mean a lifelong commitment as they can live for nearly 100 years! Many people’s circumstances change, or some tortoise owners will die long before their pet has reached old age. That’s why there are so many tortoises available for adoption. 

Whether you want a Russian tortoise or a sulcata, adopted tortoises make great pets as they are often already used to humans and have positive associations with them. 

Just like adopting a cat or a dog, adopting a tortoise is an ethical choice as it does not support the act of taking tortoises from the wild or illegally breeding and exploiting tortoises. 

Buying a Tortoise in the UK – Final Thoughts

Owning an exotic pet comes with great responsibility and there are many things that you should take into consideration before making the commitment. Not only do these wonderful pets need the appropriate enclosure and conditions that can take time and money to set up, but you also have to remember that they can live a lot longer than a dog or a cat. 

Make sure you are prepared for the financial and time commitment that comes with being a tortoise owner, and be sure you buy your tortoise from a reputable breeder that does not support the illegal pet trade in any way.
We hope this guide has helped you prepare for the journey of becoming an exotic pet owner.
Let us know how you get on! 

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Rosie Castle

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