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A swell shell: Hardbacked reptiles make low-maintenance alternatives to cats, dogs

Posted: June 16, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 16, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Tortoises can be easily maintained in backyards of local warmer climates.

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Dogs and cats may make up the bulk of American pets, but they're not ideal for everyone. Families seeking a lower-maintenance pet may want to consider a turtle or tortoise.

These slow-moving creatures can quickly capture your heart, according to Marlene Anschultz, a veterinarian at Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia.

"Actually, turtles and tortoises are pretty comical and have great personalities," she said. "Tortoises are very popular in the Santa Clarita Valley. They're super easy to care for. You can put them out in the backyard for most of the year."

Outdoor tortoise habitats should be set up for safety, sectioning off the reptiles from potential predators and kept free from any toxic plants and pesticides. The perimeter of the enclosure should be escape proof and include housing of some sort.

Anschultz, who owns two large tortoises, provides her reptiles with a large igloo-style doghouse equipped with heat lamps for cold months.

"They have their own private yard so they don't fall into the pool," she said. "They're very peaceful. We just like to sit in the backyard and watch them do their thing."

Turtles, such as the ever-popular red-ear slider, generally require a more elaborate indoor habitat. As a water turtle, the red-ear slider needs a tank with a heater to keep the water temperature consistent, a UVA/UVB lamp to simulate sunlight and a drying deck (an object that is large enough for the turtles to get out of the water for a period of time).

Box turtles, which are also well-liked as family pets, should have a water environment similar to a beach scene, which they can walk in and out of. Tanks for either variety should provide plenty of room to roam and also allow for eventual growth of the turtle.

As for diet, turtles and tortoises enjoy a wide variety of foods. "Water turtles eat goldfish or pellets, while land turtles should have a combination of veggies and protein. This can be dog food, mincemeat or pellets," Anschultz said. "Almost all of them, as they get older and mature, will only require fruits and veggies."

While it may be tempting to purchase a young turtle at a pet store, Anschultz pointed out it can be a perilous process.

"When super young, these hatchlings are very fragile. They need exact proper care, and it takes a long time for them to mature. The first two years is crucial, and if their care is not adequate, it can set them up to have deformities or ailments that owners will have to treat," she said.

Instead, Anschultz suggested searching Craigslist for juvenile or mature turtles and tortoises that are in need of a new home.

"There are so many. They get big, or children grow up and the parents don't want them anymore. You're looking at a lifetime pet, one that can live at least 30 years," Anschultz said. "I rescued my tortoises."

A properly cared for turtle or tortoise should only require a veterinary check up every 12 to 24 months to make sure they are not carrying any viruses and to ensure shell quality is intact, according to Anschultz, who specializes in small pets and reptiles.

"Turtles and tortoises are just great pets, one of the first ones I go to when people talk about getting their child a reptile," she said. "They're definitely a lot of fun. When my nieces and nephews come over, it's to see the tortoises. They don't care about the dog or cat or bird, they just want to watch the tortoises run."



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