While tortoises are really sweet and peaceful animals, not all families will necessarily be a good match. There’s a lot to consider so we’re here to help! Let’s start with the most important question.
Are tortoises safe pets? Tortoises are safe pets but tortoise keepers must be trained to handle and care for them safely. Tortoises (and turtles) can carry salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Other pets might also pose a safety risk to pet tortoises.
Overall, tortoises seem like good pets for a wide variety of families, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Below, we’ll cover some specific guidelines for families with young children, other pets, pregnant or nursing women, and more. See where you and your family fall on this list and decide if a tortoise is the right pet for you!
Are Tortoises Safe Pets for Pregnant Women?
This is probably the most important of all questions on this list, so we’re handling it first. Pregnant women and unborn babies are at a higher risk of infections, illnesses, and other problems that can have a lifelong effect on both mother and child. Some can even lead to death.
Many of the illnesses, bacteria, and parasites that can harm a developing human fetus are passed to the child through the mother’s contact with animals or their droppings. This makes it imperative that families with expecting mothers understand the risks and take precautions if they choose to introduce a pet into the household. This includes all pets, of course, but we’re going to look at tortoises and turtles in this article.
Salmonella may be on everyone’s mind…
The main concern for pregnant women when it comes to tortoises is the presence of salmonella. While all reptiles can be carriers of this dangerous bacteria, not all of them are carriers. There is no way to tell just by looking at a tortoise if it has salmonella on its shell, skin, scales, or in its feces. For this reason, it’s best to assume all reptiles are infected and take precautions, just in case.
We wrote an in-depth article on this subject, so check it out here for more details. Briefly though, not every tortoise has or will end up with salmonella. But every tortoise is at risk for it. The bacteria don’t harm most reptiles, even if they get inside the animal. But reptiles are carriers, so it’s wise to be aware.
Salmonella can live on hard surfaces for many days. This means that a non-infected tortoise brought to a friend’s house and allowed to roam in an infected yard can become infected even if they have no contact with another tortoise or reptile. It also means that an infected tortoise can spread the bacteria everywhere it goes, leaving a trail of infection on every surface it comes in contact with. That includes the enclosure, substrate, feeding bowls, and plants or other decorations.
Salmonella in pregnancy
We don’t want to scare anyone, so we’ll be quick. We just want to be sure everyone understands the risks so they can take measures to avoid them.
Salmonella in pregnancy often simply runs its course and goes away. However, it can make some women incredibly ill, including dehydration and gastric upset. Since the fetus depends on the mother for nourishment, this can quickly lead to malnourishment for the fetus. It can also spiral out of control and end up in the bloodstream, causing sepsis. This can result in preterm delivery or even miscarriage.
How pregnant women can avoid salmonella from tortoises
Now that you’re aware of the risks, we’ve got some good news! Pregnant and nursing women can still enjoy their pet tortoises. They just need to be extra careful.
Like the wisdom of never letting a pregnant woman clean a cat’s litter box, pregnant women should never clean a tortoise’s enclosure.
Since tortoises can leave salmonella on everything they touch, it’s best to avoid letting a tortoise loose in an area that pregnant women will be spending time. Keep your tort in his enclosure throughout the pregnancy. Don’t worry; he won’t mind!
If you’re pregnant, never handle a tortoise, turtle, or other reptiles. You never know which ones are infected, so it’s best not to take a chance.
If your partner, roommate, or friend is pregnant and you own a tortoise, be sure to wash your hands before coming in contact with them. This is incredibly important so please don’t skip this. Your friend, relative, or roommate can do everything in her power to stay away from your tortoise, but if you touch your tort then touch the pregnant person, all her efforts are for nothing. Be kind, be thoughtful, and be careful.
Are Tortoises Safe Pets for Babies?
Absolutely not! Tortoises are not safe pets for babies or toddlers. Babies and toddlers do not understand that tortoises and turtles are living, breathing, feeling creatures. Babies and toddlers explore the world through their mouths, which means gumming a pet tortoise is pretty likely. If you read the section above, you already know that’s the best way to get your baby or toddler sick with salmonella poisoning.
Not only are tortoises and turtles dangerous for babies and toddlers, but these little humans are dangerous to the animals, too. Babies and toddlers will want to pick up, fondle, bang on, or even throw a tortoise or turtle around. This is dangerous and possibly deadly for the animal.
If you already have pet tortoises before babies or toddlers enter your home, it’s not a lost cause. You can allow babies and toddlers to view tortoise activities from the safety of your arms or through a window. Do not let babies or toddlers touch or handle tortoises or turtles for any length of time.
Are Tortoises Safe Pets for Young Children?
This is a subject that we may not have agreement on in the tortoise community. We believe that tortoises are not suitable pets for young children. Kids under five years are especially at risk. Mind you, this is not only a risk to the kids but also to the tortoises.
Young children do not have the capacity, patience, or compassion required to understand that reptiles are not like mammals. Tortoises are not people; they are not puppies or kittens. Reptiles do not think or react as mammals do, and that simply isn’t something very young kids can understand. That means the tortoises are at great risk for injury, malnutrition, and poor sanitation if left in the care of young handlers.
This also exposes young kids to a much higher risk of salmonella. Kids under five are notorious for poor hygiene. They put everything in their mouths. They’re also more likely to try and kiss a turtle or tortoise.
And if they have passed the age of mouthing everything, they likely aren’t old enough to wash their hands as much as necessary anyway. This lack of hygiene exposes them to salmonella every time they touch a pet tortoise, the enclosure, the tortoise’s food and water dishes, or anywhere the tortie has been.
Young kids often handle tortoises too roughly. This can hurt the tortoise or even kill him. It also sets up a scenario where a scared or injured tortoise might bite or scratch a child in an attempt to get away, though this is very rare. Tortoises are sweet-natured, but they can stress out easily. Young kids simply don’t have the maturity required to care for a pet tortoise.
Are Tortoises Safe Pets for Older Kids?
Thankfully, kids don’t have to wait too long before they are ready to handle a pet tortoise properly. When a child is mature enough to understand basic hygiene, pet sanitation, and that reptiles are not like mammals, they may be ready to have a tortoise as a pet.
Once again, the main risk is salmonella. When a child is mature enough to understand what bacterial infections are and that hand-washing and good sanitation can prevent them, they may be ready for a pet tortoise. Be sure to go over proper sanitation with your child. It’s also a good idea to print out and hang up a sanitation procedure near the tortoise enclosure to help your kids remember the rules.
As long as your child can learn to respect animals and handle them with care and compassion, they may be ready for a tortoise. Be sure to go over the dangers of mishandling, both for the child and the tort. Broken shells can kill a tortoise and can expose the child to bacteria and parasites other than salmonella.
That brings us to the subject of mites. Yes, reptiles can get mites. They are itchy and annoying, but they can also cause a lot of health issues if left untreated. In the hands of an untrained child, a mite infestation can cover an entire household. Yuck! Be sure you and your kids know what to look for and how to treat mites before they get out of control.
And, of course, there is the worry or scratches or bites. Tortoises don’t generally bite. They are sweet little friends who just like to chill out and watch you go about your day. But a scared, stressed, or injured tortoise may bite out of instinct. Make sure your older and mature kids understand the body language of tortoises to avoid this problem.
Scratches happen, and usually not on purpose. Tortoises have long, strong nails made for digging. They’re not exactly agile, acrobatic creatures. This means they may slip, trip, or stumble across your kids’ laps. This can cause minor scratches. To avoid this, instruct your kids to never pick up a tortoise. They don’t like to be handled this way anyway.
Are Tortoises Safe Pets for the Elderly?
Tortoises are a calm, sweet-natured, and simple pet for elderly handlers. In fact, many seniors who have tortoises have owned their tiny tanks their entire lives. But tortoises do pose some small risks to elderly people.
Like pregnant women, seniors can be susceptible to salmonella infections. Following the same care, cleaning, and sanitation guidelines as you would for a pregnant woman will reduce the chances of your elderly loved one becoming sick.
Another hazard for older people is the heavy lifting that may be involved with some larger tortoise species. While large tortoises should never be picked up, their tank decorations and their supplies can get quite heavy. Older people may not be able to keep up with the cleaning and sanitation needs, which then leads to an increased risk of salmonella infections. Offer to help older tortoise owners with maintenance so they can keep their old tortoise pals around!
Are Tortoises Safe With Other Pets?
It’s unlikely that your tortoise would ever hurt your other pets. However, those pets may injure your tortoise. Cats, dogs, and birds are all natural predators to tortoises. This makes these “friendships” in your household very precarious.
Never leave a tortoise alone with another pet. Not even a very docile, friendly pet. They are still animals and they will always follow their instincts. Remember that the diseases of one animal can often be passed to another, too.
However, it’s worth noting that many people keep happy, healthy tortoises in their homes that include other pets. All it takes is good supervision and reliable ways to keep the pets apart.
We wrote an in-depth article about tortoises’ safety with other pets over here.
Can you be allergic to tortoises?
Allergies are a weird thing. Just as every human is different, so too are the things that they can be allergic to. While it is incredibly rare, clinically speaking, to see humans allergic to tortoises, it can happen. Anyone can become allergic to just about anything, and science isn’t quite sure why.
The best way to avoid developing a tortoise allergy is to practice safe and sanitary handling procedures. These include washing your hands after handling a tortoise, cleaning the enclosure, or touching anything a tortoise has touched. You can reduce your exposure by wearing gloves, too.
Can You Get Sick from Tortoises?
Yes, you can get sick from tortoises. As mentioned above, tortoises, turtles, and other reptiles can be carriers for salmonella. Improper handling and poor sanitation can expose people to these dangerous bacteria. It can result in serious gastric distress, dehydration, and violent vomiting, just to name a few. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant and nursing women, young children, and the elderly are at particularly high risk of getting a salmonella infection.
There are some other ways tortoises can make people sick. These include passing parasites on to their human handlers. There are a handful of microscopic things that can grow and thrive in a tortoise’s enclosure, the substrate, their food and water dishes, and their bedding. You should also be aware of mites.
Sometimes it’s not the tortoise that starts the illness. In fact, flies are a huge problem for tortoise-keepers who aren’t following good sanitation practices. Flies carry diseases and parasites. The flies land in a dirty tortoise enclosure to eat the feces and urates, leaving behind the diseases and parasites they picked up from elsewhere. Then the tortoise gets exposed and passes it on to the humans.
As you can see, sanitation is the front-line defense against getting sick from your tortoise, so don’t skip those cleaning sessions!
What illnesses can I get from my tortoise?
Not all tortoises will get people sick, but it’s good to be armed with knowledge. When you know the possible illnesses, you could catch from your tortoise, you can take steps to prevent them. That’s a win for everyone.
We’ve already covered this one at length, but it’s important to keep mentioning it. The bacteria is dangerous enough that it’s worth repeating!
This one surprises a lot of people. Botulism isn’t just a bacterium found in old canned food. Reptiles can carry botulism on their bodies and in their intestines. This comes out in their feces. It can also be found naturally in soil, mud, and other damp substrates. Since this is where tortoises like to hide and play, it makes sense that botulism would be a danger.
Botulism can cause paralysis and death in humans, so this is no joking matter. Adults and older kids can often fight off the spores easily. However, young children and babies are at high risk. Those with a weakened immune system and the elderly are also at risk.
That is a mouthful, but trust us when we say you do not want to be exposed to lepto. It can cause flu-like symptoms. It’s also responsible for persistent, severe, sometimes debilitating headaches. This bacterium can be found in wild animals and domestic ones, and it is easily passed with brief contact. It can be passed in the feces of an infected animal and enter your body through a cut or through hand to mouth contact.
There’s another hard one to say, but it’s a very common infection in humans. This one is passed via contaminated food and water or by accidental exposure from hands to mouth. It can cause severe abdominal pain, dehydration, and gastric upset. It can also spike a fever.
How to Avoid Getting Sick from a Tortoise
We can’t stress this enough. All of these illnesses, and many more we didn’t list, can be avoided completely by following proper sanitation practices. Keep your tort’s enclosure clean and sparkling, wash your hands, wear gloves, and be aware of everything that goes in and out of your tort’s area. It really is that simple. And don’t forget to protect visitors to your home, too. Share your tortoise rules and be sure to enforce them.
Can you get injured by a tortoise?
It is possible to be injured by a tortoise, though it’s more likely that a human would injure the tortoise instead. Here are some ways that a tortoise could hurt a person.
Large tortoises can stomp you
Very large tortoises, such as the sulcata, are big, heavy, and slow. They can easily stomp on your foot or even your hand if you happen to be sitting on the ground. They may trample you, too. Yet, any stomping or trampling done by a large tortoise is most likely an accident. More often than not, they are simply trying to get close to you for a nice neck rub!
Tortoises may bite when scared
Tortoises are just chill little dudes with laid-back personalities. But even the calmest, coolest tortoise can get scared. Since tortoises are essentially wild animals, they can be unpredictable. When frightened, most tortoises will retreat into their shells. But sometimes, they can feel cornered and will fight back. Those beaks can be sharp and they are certainly strong enough to hurt. Handle your tortoise with care and you’ll never have to worry about this.
Tortoises can scratch you
Another accidental injury to humans comes in the form of scratches. These are often on the hands, arms, and legs due to how people tend to hold or cradle tortoises. Torts don’t usually like to be picked up. This causes them to flail or “walk on air” to try to escape. When this happens, people can end up scratched.
Tortoises can be awesome pets for the right people. But they can be dangerous in the wrong hands. As you can see, there are some considerations to keep in mind when deciding if a tortoise is a good pet for your family. If you’ve read this whole article and still think a “hard dog” is a good pet for you, we can recommend some great species to get you started. Check out this article for our top 6 best tortoise species.