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The Best Pet Tortoise – Greek Tortoise and Golden Greek Tortoise Care

I do not believe that any tortoise species can be classified as “easy-to-keep”, but several are better-suited as pets than others.  I’ve covered on of these, the Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldi), in an earlier article (read article here).  The Greek Tortoise (T. graeca), while interesting enough for the most seasoned hobbyist, may also be the best pet tortoise, and an ideal choice for first-time keepers.  Topping out at 8 inches in length, captive-bred individuals are readily available.  They are as personable as any of their relatives, and decades of popularity among European keepers has left us with a good understanding of their needs. I’ll summarize these in the following article, and will also draw from my own experiences with this and related species during my long career at the Bronx Zoo.

Greek Tortoise (Tunisia)

Uploaded to wikipedia commons by Richard Mayer

A Note on Classification

Also known as the Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoise (not to be confused with Africa’s Spurred Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata), the Greek Tortoise is one of the smaller of the world’s 53 tortoise species.

Its taxonomy is somewhat complicated, with up to 13 subspecies being recognized.  Traditionally, T. g. ibera comprised the bulk of those in the pet trade, and it remains the most widely-bred subspecies.  The parent stock seems to have originated mainly from Turkey.

In recent years, other subspecies, marketed as “Golden Greek” or “Dwarf Golden Greek” Tortoises, have become popular. Usually but not always lighter in color than “regular” Greek Tortoises, these individuals generally prove to be Israel’s T. g. floweri or T. g. terrestris, which is native to southeastern Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.  Adapted to arid habitats, their care parallels but slightly differs from that of European Greek Tortoises.

Identification is complicated by a high variability in color among all populations, and the fact that captive hybridization has occurred with Herman’s, Russian and Marginated Tortoises.


The various subspecies range from southern Spain, the Balkan Peninsula and Morocco south and east through Greece and Eastern Europe to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

Mediterranean wooded grassland

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Georges Jansoone


Greek Tortoises inhabit wooded grasslands, thorn scrub and dry forests (please see photo).  African and Middle Eastern populations may also be found in arid savannas and coastal dunes.

The Terrarium

Do not be misled by the Greek Tortoise’s small size – they need a great deal of room.  Adults generally do best in enclosures that have been constructed with their needs in mind.  Homemade “tortoise tables” are excellent options (please post below for further information).  Ideally, a single adult should be provided with an enclosure measuring at least 4 feet by 3 feet.

In glass aquariums, respiratory problems often arise due to insufficient ventilation, and space will be a concern for all but hatchlings (please see the article linked below).  Also, most are too small to allow for the establishment of a thermal gradient (see Heat, below).

Outdoor maintenance is possible if you live where the climate is suitable.  Please post below for details.

Plastic-based rabbit cages can be used for small individuals, but will be outgrown in time.  Plastic bins and cattle troughs can also be modified as tortoise homes.

Greek Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Richard Mayer


A mix of sand and topsoil, or commercial cypress mulch, is suitable.  Damp substrate should be removed quickly.

Although impactions due to swallowed substrate are rare, it is best to provide food in large bowls so that ingestion is limited.  Rubber mats can be placed below bowls as an extra precaution.

Ideally, the substrate should be deep enough to allow your tortoise to dig a shallow “sleeping depression” at night.  Dry grass clumps or suction-cup equipped plastic plants can also be provided as shelter.


All tortoises need daily exposure to UVB light.  Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly.

Use a bulb designed for desert-dwelling reptiles (i.e. the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb), and position the basking site within 6-12 inches of it.  Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well.  UVA, which may assist in promoting various natural behaviors, is also supplied by a variety of other bulbs.


Spotlight bulbs should be employed to establish a basking site of 95 F, and a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) of 75-88 F.  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow tortoises to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.


Greek Tortoises must be kept in dry enclosures, with humidity levels of approximately 35-45%; Golden Greeks do best at 30-40%.  Tortoises kept in damp conditions become prone to respiratory tract infections.  A small hygrometer is useful for measuring humidity levels.

There are some other points to consider when rearing hatchlings…please post below for details.


Females and youngsters may co-exist, but must be watched as dominant individuals may prevent others from feeding.  Males will fight, and they often harass females with near-constant mating attempts.


Greek Tortoises have evolved to consume a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein, fruit and fat; grasses and herbaceous plants comprise the bulk of their food intake in the wild.  Beans, dog food and other protein sources have been linked to kidney failure and excretory system stones.  Protein-rich diets are also associated with growth abnormalities.  Fruit should be limited to an occasional treat.

Native grasses, weeds and flowers, such as honeysuckle, dandelion and clover, can make up the bulk of the diet if available. Please see the article linked below for information.

The balance of their food may consist of greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard and romaine; avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce.  Zoo Med’s Grassland Tortoise Diet can be added to salads.

Calcium requirements appear to be quite high.  All food should be powdered with Zoo Med ReptiCalcium or a similar product.  A vitamin/mineral supplement such as Reptivite with D3 should be used 2-3 times weekly.  Tortoises cannot utilize calcium without Vitamin D3, which is manufactured in the presence of UVB radiation (please see Light, above).

Water should be available for drinking and soaking, but damp conditions present a health hazard.  Use tip-proof bowls and fill to a point where they will not overflow when the tortoise enters.



Further Reading

Native Plants as Tortoise Food

Glass Aquariums as Tortoise Habitats


  1. avatar

    Question on 8 month old Syrian Greek Tortoise, he, “Freddie Applesauce”, is in containment in our home, will he show some form of hibernation? We water him weekly, feed him romaine lettuce with vitamin D3 powder provided by pet store owner daily, take him outside, weather permitting, to cruise around in the grass, and have provided him enough sand to burrow down with a shelter over him. He is now excreting white feces as well as a normal brown feces, is this normal?

    • avatar

      Much depends on heat and UVB exposure, but the animal should not hibernate. Please send some info as to heat and light.

      Please note that romaine alone is not an adequate diet. Please see the recommendations in this article and here and let me know if you need further info, best, Frank

  2. avatar

    I recently got a Greek tortoise (about 8 months old). The day we brought him home, he was very active, crawling around when in and out of his habitat. These following 4 days, he seems to sleep alot and spends most of his time burrowed in his hiding spots. It’s also hard to tell how much he is eating. We are using crushed grass pellets. Should I be concerned?

    • avatar


      Please send some info re ambient heat, basking light temperature, size of enclosure and the type of UVB bulb you are using. Please also see the info re diet in the article…pellets alone are rarely taken, but can be useful when mixed into their food. Please also send some info on the pellets…name, etc., best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thanks for your reply! We made a table box set up, about 3 x 4. He has a basking area, with the temp about 85 degrees, based on other sites that stated it should be between 75-85 degrees. He’s just a tiny guy, so worried about him getting burned, but am wondering now if this is warm enough for him? His food is across the table near the UVB light (tube type, like a flourescent light) in a shallow dish. Have to check on the brand, but the exotic pet store where we got him was only feeding him dehydrated grass pellets, so we thought continuing with what they were using would be best. We did give him a couple small kale leaves 2 days ago and he ate those up! We moved the water dish to the warm area, since it didn’t seem like he was going in it and the pet store staff had said he liked to hang out in it. We place him in there once a day for about 10 minutes, then he seems to drink.

    • avatar

      Hi Ben ,

      Thx for the feedback; 75-85 is fine for the ambient, but the basking site should be 90-95; he’ll move away as needed. You may need to experiment with bulbs or the time the basking light is n, as you don’t want to heat entire enclosure to 90-95. Most florescent UVB bulbs should be within 6-12 inches of animal…may need to move it to a shallow container for sev hrs if that is not [possible. newer models have a 20″ radius. Mercury vapors provide heat and UVB over a greater range also. Plain alfalfa pellets are fine to mix in, but not appropriate as a sole diet. variety, high fiber impt as described in article. Pellets specifically formulated for tortoises can be used as mentioned in article, but are not suitable as sole or major part of the diet. Some tortoises slow down in winter even if kept warm, but the only way to distinguish this from an illness is via vet exam;…try raising the temps and adjusting UVB if needed first, that often does the trick. Please keep me posted, best, Frank

  4. avatar

    Thanks for your suggestions. I increased the heat to 90-95 degrees in Weslee’s basking area. Also, I have been supplementing his crushed pellets with leafy greens and a little carrot shreds. He loves to be hand fed. He has been much more active and awake looking. He also crawls around now when he’s out of his habitant, exploring. He seems happy now!

  5. avatar

    I have 2 lybian greek tortoises that are baby’s . I have read that humidy is very important for the first year for them to borrow in. Would you suggest this? I am very confused as I am told they should be dry with less humidity but I am hearing very humid the first year.


    • avatar

      Hello Denise,

      Glad you posted..there’s a great deal of confusion concerning proper care of this and related species. Several different subspecies, each with varying care needs, are often sold as “Libyan” “golden” etc…they are difficult to ID by sight; unless one is sure of the source, the actual subspecies may be hard to determine. best to take a safe approach re humidity levels, since the needs vary with the subspecies. Good and bad results have been had with high and low humidity situations….this is again due to mis-identification, etc. Best option is to keep hatchlings on a dry substrate composed of 1/2 typical sand “playpen sand” etc; 1/2 topsoil. Use enough so that they can dig in a bit. If a shallow water bowl is always available, they will soak as needed. Low open-topped plastic storage bins are preferable to typical aquariums, as ventilation is increased in these set-ups. Diet, temperature, UVB exposure is critical..please let me know if you need more info on this. Enjoy, best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hello. Our son has wanted a turtle/tortoise for three years. He’s almost twelve and responsible so we believe he’s at an age now to take good care of a reptile pet. (And as his parents, we’re ready for the commitment as well.) I’ve done a fair amount of research and know that a tortoise is better for us. We’d like to stay toward a smaller size so I believe Greek would be best but I do have a few questions if you can help. I’d prefer captive bred but am not sure where to go to find a reputable breeder. Our dogs are lovable mutts from the Humane Society so would check here first though I haven’t found a Greek tortoise yet. Any recommendations? Also our son is asthmatic. Is there anything about keeping a tortoise for years that would cause health or breathing problems for humans? Last question, is a male or female better? Is one more easily handled, more active, more social than the other? Thanks so much.

    • avatar


      You can find breeders at this site;most are happy to speak with you if you’re unsure whether or not the animal is captive bred. Shelters rarely have smaller tortoises, generally only the larger Spurred Tortoises; a local turtle/tortoise society may be able to help with an adoption, however.

      You might also consider American Box Turtles..hardier than tortoises, but w/o the need for an aquatic set-up.

      Russian tortoises are a good choice as well.

      No breathing concerns that I am aware of other than what may occur from being in close proximity to dusty substrate….pine bark, sand etc. Salmonella is a concern with all reptiles, please let me know if you need more info.

      No differences between the sexes re behavior, but females may develop eggs even if un-mated, and may retain eggs if a suitable nest site is not available. However, you will not be able to determine the sex of sub-adult animals.

      Please let me know if you need further info. Best regards, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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