Why Do You Need a Redfoot Tortoise Care Guide

The South American redfoot tortoise is widely considered to be an “easy” tortoise to care for – suitable for even first-time beginning pet owners.

Hah.

Does this tiny dinosaur (pre-dinosaur, actually) look easy to care for? I promise you she is not. And I have six years of stories to back that up.

Which is why you are going to want to lock this next sentence into your brain.

Redfooted tortoise are not easy to care for.

The truth is, taking on the responsibility to care for another being – particularly a being of a different species from your own – is an awesome challenge.

It will never be “easy.” It also won’t be cheap or convenient in any way.

But it will be amazing.

Do it right and with full respect for the new life under your care and your reward will be a healthy, glowing, precious redfoot who trusts you with their life. What could be more worthwhile than that?!

I had no idea what I had just committed to when I took this picture of my Malti at five weeks old on her first full day home with me! (May 2014)

Redfoot tortoises in captivity have very exacting care requirements and can easily become irreparably ill if even one element of their environment is not right for any period of time.

I say this from deep personal experience.

My redfoot tortoise Malti, who is now into her sixth year of life, nearly died because her keeper (me) got really bad advice from a veterinarian who was not qualified to treat exotic species (you can read more here and here about that intensely traumatic journey). She suffered SO much. And I really tried to find the right information to care for her.

But the research – in terms of the sheer number of posts and articles on the topic of redfoot tortoise care – was so overwhelming. And the more I read, the more I realized how so many of the resources directly contradicted each other.  To make matters even more challenging, most resources only scratched the surface of how to meet a redfoot tortoise’s most critical needs, which are for light, heat, humidity and proper diet.

The truth is, all those one-page care sheets, however well-intended, couldn’t even come close to addressing the complexities of what this species needs just to make it through their first year of life, let alone for the years and (hopefully) decades to follow. Most of the posts and articles I read made it sound so easy that I then felt just that much worse for screwing up so bad with Malti.

So this course is my way of paying it forward for the second chance I got with my precious girl, who is now healthy, happy and – truly – thriving. Lucky, lucky me.

My Malti at six years old. She has some lumps and bumps that shouldn’t be there, and we will get into that here shortly in this course. But overall she is a happy, healthy girl and she enriches my life so much.

And now lucky, lucky, you, because you will be learning from the best (aka not me).

You will be learning from Danielle Inman, the exotic species expert (herpetologist) who keeps redfoot tortoises and who saved my Malti’s life. Your redfoot tortoise keeper education couldn’t be in better hands.

This is Danielle, patting the soft neck skin of a giant Galapagos tortoise. She knows her stuff.

Redfoot Tortoise Species Overview with Danielle Inman

So let’s dive in, shall we? I thought we could kick things off with a brief overview of the South American redfoot tortoise species, courtesy of a Q&A session I did with Danielle as part of the brainstorming process to create this course.

If you haven’t made the commitment to care for a redfoot tortoise yet, this will help you decide if this is the right time and the right species for you.

If you have already made that commitment and are working through this course to get up and running with the care basics ASAP, this will help you get your feet under you moving forward.

What are South American redfoot tortoise hatchlings like?

South American redfoot tortoise hatchlings are very small and cute and usually very shy. They will typically hide for days at a time and often have to be manually removed from their burrows to be soaked, fed and examined for overall health.

This constant hiding behavior can really freak a brand-new tortoise keeper out!

Or at least it really freaked me out – so much so that I actually emailed Malti’s breeder because I thought Malti hated me and that’s why she wouldn’t come out. He told me she was hiding because that is just what redfoot hatchlings do to increase the odds of survival. She didn’t know her odds were better because she was in a captive setting. She just hid.

Do you see that little brown dotted lump? That is about what you can expect to see for about the first year of your redfoot hatchling’s life.

There is so much about caring for a pet hatchling reptile that is unlike caring for a pet warm-blooded animal like a dog or a cat or even a bird. This is one of those unlike things and while it can feel frustrating to just let your hatchling hide and hide and hide, this is what your redfoot baby needs to feel safe until they grow a little bigger and feel more confident coming out more frequently (which usually happens after one year of age).

Which is exactly why this redfoot tortoise care course is designed to serve as a “Quick Start” care guide. We hope you will find this course to be an immediate help so your redfoot has what they need right from Day 1 and you don’t spend all your free time stressing and emailing your breeder to ask if your tortoise hates you.

Then, once you have a good basic working knowledge of what your tortoise needs most from you, you can use your newfound knowledge to start to look for clues in your redfoot’s behavior that can tell you if and when you need to make husbandry (care) adjustments.

Here is just one all-too-common example from my own experiences:

Wild redfoot tortoises do not hibernate. Captive (pet) redfoot tortoises should not hibernate either. However, they may go into what is called a torpor – a metabolic slowdown – if the temperatures drop below 60-65°F (15-18°C) consistently.

If you see your redfoot tortoise’s regular level of activity slowing down or your redfoot starts sleeping a lot, this is a clear hint to pay close attention to the temperature in your redfoot tortoise’s habitat. Temperature may or may not be the reason why your redfoot’s behavior has turned sluggish. But it is definitely the right place to start troubleshooting.

What are redfoot tortoises like in captivity?

Redfoot tortoises grow quickly through their first decade of life and can easily measure 12 inches or longer in adulthood.

As a “roaming” species that has evolved to wander over miles of terrain to forage for food, these tortoises need and appreciate a lot of space to roam as they grow up. As well, as a highly opportunistic and food-motivated species, they can be destructive when too closely confined in a “same-ol, same-ol” captive habitat and will readily try to escape to go forage for food.

Many new redfoot tortoise keepers think that because tortoises tend to be solitary animals in the wild that they are docile in captivity and will readily stay wherever you put them – a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” companion animal.

This is a huge misconception!

Redfoot tortoises are really intelligent and eager to explore their environment and seek out enrichment. The one exception is hatchling redfoots. Hatchlings have evolved a protective behavior to stay hidden as much as possible when they are not foraging for food.

The redfoot’s well-documented gustatory enthusiasm will stand you in good stead when caring for a hatchling. Redfoot tortoises do love their food!

But once your redfoot hits that one-year mark, look out.

You are now in charge of caring for and supervising a puppy with a shell.

Redfoots easily learn how to open doors (including pet doors) and gates. They are not good climbers or good swimmers but often don’t seem aware of these limitations and can get into a lot of trouble or danger if their habitat is not tortoise-proofed for safety.

Yes, that is my one-year-old Malti stuck on the fence waiting for me to rescue her. This was so unexpected it took me more than half an hour of searching one small patch of lawn before I found her and helped her down!
Do redfoot tortoises mix well with dogs, cats, other pets, wild animals and kids?

In a word – NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Redfoot tortoises should never ever EVER be left alone with dogs, cats or kids – ever.

Ever, ever, ever.

Ever.

Why? There is danger both ways and it is just isn’t a good idea. Although quite contrary to popular opinion, salmonella isn’t  the primary danger.

Of course, there is always a risk of contracting salmonella from any reptile, including the redfoot tortoise (especially if you insist on trying to fit the entire baby tortoise into your mouth like many curious kids tend to do), but the risk is far greater of getting salmonella from handling uncooked meat or even produce in your kitchen.

So the primary safety risk you bear when allowing unsupervised time between your redfoot tortoise and other household companion animals, wild animals or kids is injury or death to your redfoot from improper handling or bites.

And while anything with a mouth can bite (and bite back), redfoot tortoises are typically gentle unless they feel threatened. Usually they will make a low hiss sound before they try anything more forceful. As a redfoot tortoise gets older, they develop two “fang” type growths along their upper beak that makes their bite both stronger and a lot more painful.

Are redfoot tortoises sociable and friendly?

Redfoot tortoises are friendly and sociable but they do not typically like being handled a lot or picked up, especially in the hatchling and juvenile life stages. If you do need to pick your redfoot tortoise up for any reason, always support their legs with your hands or fingers so they don’t panic and flail about.

As a redfoot tortoise gets older, they may enjoy shell scratches and some even like head and neck rubs. Redfoots also tend to become more tolerant of handling and being picked up and moved around, such as from a secure overnight enclosure to a supervised or secure yard or area for daytime enrichment.

Malti loves my parents. She quickly learned she could beg for food from them (works every time) and often happily sits in my mom’s lap for shell pats.

Redfoots do not need a “buddy” to be happy in captivity. But if there is more than one redfoot present they can also enjoy some company and are generally quite peaceful in groups. There are even some documented incidents where redfoots raised together will actively seek one another out for companionship and even sleep nose to nose (so cute!).

Do redfoot tortoises make noise?

Redfoot tortoises are generally very quiet, which is another aspect that many first-time keepers find very strange and sometimes even worrisome. After all, if your tortoise needs help or is in danger, they have no audible way to let you know. Super scary!

Redfoots sometimes do make a wheezing sound when they breathe. And adult male redfoots will often make a clucking sound when they are mating (here, think “barnyard chicken” and you’ll get the right idea).

How can you tell the gender of your redfoot tortoise?

If you want to breed your redfoot tortoises, you will want to select older tortoises since sexing usually isn’t particularly reliable until your tortoise is at least three years old and sometimes older.

Males have a longer, thicker tail with the cloacal opening lower down and further away from the shell rim.

Females have a shorter, thinner tail with the cloacal opening close to the shell rim.

Speaking of which, what about the redfoot tortoise's, um, poop?

Redfoot tortoises pee and poop out of the same opening – the cloacal opening on the tail. This is also the same opening used for breeding and laying eggs. Redfoot tortoises do not pee and poop all in one like birds do. They will pee and they will poop separately.

Redfoots like to use their water dish as a bathroom, soaking tub and drinking fountain – so frequent water changes are ultra-important!

Malti’s first bath was an upturned plastic lid – that’s how small she was!

Finally,  be warned – redfoot tortoise poop can be messy and stinky. And you can’t ignore it.

This is because, as with pet dogs and other animals, your redfoot tortoise’s poop is another important indicator of your tortoise’s health and whether they are eating the right diet. Healthy poop should be firm and well-formed with a greenish/brown color.

So there you have it. A brief overview of what you just got yourself into (or are thinking about getting yourself into).

Still want to move forward?

There’s plenty more to learn with these seven course modules and amazing bonus materials – and it is all FREE!

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