Being without a home is one of the worst things that could happen to anyone, whether you’re a human, something with fur, scales or feathers. There’s no sense of security or belongingness, and if you live somewhere that isn’t optimal for your kind, be it too hot or too cold, being without shelter can be bad for your overall health.
The same is true with tortoises. Many tortoise species have very specific needs, and if any of those needs aren’t met, then you can end up with an unhealthy animal. Housing a tortoise isn’t at all that difficult, however, despite the myriad of things that need to be met for your pet to be comfortable.
There are two ways you can house your tortoise pet: indoors and outdoors. Indoor tortoise enclosures, as the name implies, are kept partially or completely inside your home. Outdoor enclosures are habitats that are kept outside and is usually built into the property itself. They also tend to be on a larger scale than indoor ones. Both types of enclosures have their own uses, as well as their own pros and cons.
Although it is recommended to permit your tortoise as much time as possible outdoors, that might not always be possible. Sometimes, the weather or general climate in your area is too cold for tortoises to live in, or your tortoise may not be at the size (or will ever grow into the size) that can keep themselves safe from predators.
This is where indoor enclosures come in handy. The goal of an indoor enclosure is to have a space that can mimic the surroundings tortoises are used to in the wild. There are a lot of considerations to look into when you’re building the best tortoise enclosure for your pet.
This includes the type of enclosure, the size, the substrate, the lighting, water sources, hide areas and sources of enrichment. We’ll look into each of these elements one by one so you can start giving your tortoise a good home.
Types of Enclosures
Tortoise tables a very popular way and in our view the best way to house your tortoise. Tortoise tables are basically wooden enclosures with their own legs, or stands, elevating them off the floor somewhat. Some of these can even have wheels attached to the bottom, so they can easily be moved around the house if the need arises.
Although tortoise tables can be made on your own cheaply, there are some that are commercially available, if you do not have the time or skill set to build your own. Here are two of the most popular:
- Rockever Tortoise House
Rockever is a known retailer of reptile paraphernalia, and they have a good selection of items for tortoises as well, including tortoise tables. These tables are made of fir wood and are generally 3 feet by 2 feet in length and width, and 1 foot deep. It comes with a covered area that can offer privacy to your pet. There is also a screen door that can allow light and UV to pass through, but the gaps are still small enough to protect your tortoise from predators if you plan on putting the table outdoors.
The main selling point of this model is that it’s modular. You can basically take one of the side panels off to attach two or more tortoise tables together, making a much bigger table for a growing tortoise.
If your looking to invest in a Rockever tortoise table then we highly recommend either of these two tortoise table’s as a great place to start.
- Vivexotic Viva Tortoise Table
For tortoise keepers living in the UK, Vivexotic Viva’s tortoise table is a good alternative if you can’t find a Rockever supplier. These tortoise tables are made from oak, with models ranging in size from 3 ft by 1.5 ft to 3.75 ft by 2 ft. These tables do have a covered area like Rockever’s tortoise table, but only the bigger models have a screen cover, meaning the other models can’t protect your tortoise from predators if kept outdoors.
Vivexotic Viva’s tortoise table has one or more side panels made of glass, with a printed grass pattern to act as a visual barrier.
Enclosures made from glass are generally popular with a lot of people, mostly because they’re able to see the animal through the material. If not done correctly, however, glass enclosures can actually stress tortoises out.
Tortoises don’t understand the concept of glass, and since they’re able to see a wide area beyond the glass panels, their instinct is to try and walk into it. But since the glass is blocking their way, tortoises will try to push through it, or if the rim is low enough, try to climb over it, which eventually might cause them injury.
To prevent this, apply colored tape along the bottom of the enclosure. Make sure that the taped area is 4 to 6 inches taller than the substrate. The tape will act as a visual barrier for your tortoise, preventing them from trying to walk into the glass walls. You can also paint the back and the side panels of the glass tank, just make sure that the paint has sufficiently dried or is non-toxic before you house your tortoise.
Glass enclosures are the best when it comes to holding humidity, since glass doesn’t absorb water. So, if you live in a particularly dry place or plan on keeping your enclosure in an air-conditioned room, glass is a good way to go, so long as you provide enough visual barriers.
A good alternative to glass enclosures are plastic tubs, cement mixing tubs, Rubbermaid tubs or sweater boxes. Much like glass enclosures, they’re excellent at keeping the humidity in, and most of them are opaque, meaning you wouldn’t need to worry about stressing the tortoise out due to the lack of visual barriers. They’re also relatively lightweight and much easier to clean than other enclosure types.
The problem with plastic tubs is that they tend to come in set sizes, meaning if you want to customize your enclosure, or want to have something that’s bigger than what’s available, you’ll be out of luck. Still, they’re a cheap way to house smaller tortoises, and if you’re planning on housing your tortoises temporarily, whether you want to quarantine a sick tortoise, or if the main enclosure isn’t finished yet, then plastic tubs are a quick and good alternative.
If you’re especially handy with hammer and nails, then you can build your own enclosure out of wood. Wooden enclosures are especially popular amongst tortoise keepers, since you can easily build and customize them to fit whatever space you want them to occupy. They’re also very sturdy, provided that you find ways to protect the wood from warping.
Wood can be susceptible to warping when exposed to moisture, the same moisture that many tortoise species need in order to thrive. They’re also prone to mold. Before putting your tortoise in one of these enclosures, make sure to treat the wood in order to seal it properly. Allow enough time for the fumes to dissipate completely before you house your tortoise in it.
When it comes to choosing the best housing for your tortoise, always make a point of choosing the largest enclosure for the space available. For hatchlings or small tortoise species that don’t exceed 8 inches in length, such as the Mediterranean Spur-Thighed, the Horsfield, the Marginated and the Hermann’s tortoises, an enclosure that’s 2.5 feet long and 1 foot wide should be enough for one or two adult animals.
As for medium-sized tortoise species, such as Red Foots, Yellow Foots, Elongateds and Radiated tortoises, enclosures that are 4 feet long and 2 feet wide is good enough for one animal. There are commercially available tubs that are about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, if you want to keep more than one.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit difficult to house large tortoise species indoors. You should be fine if they’re younger but would be in trouble once they reach adulthood. Tortoises that grow over 4 feet long when they’re adults, such as the African Spurred Tortoise and the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, will need to be kept outdoors in order to live a healthy life. If you can’t commit to keeping tortoises outdoors, it’s best to stick with smaller species.
Arguably one of the most vital factors in creating the best environment for your tortoise to live in. Substrate has multiple roles to play in your tortoise enclosure. It’s meant to provide a medium that simulates the ground tortoises walk on in the wild, they’re meant to retain humidity, and it can provide enrichment for certain species that like to dig.
Out of all of these, the most important factor you need to look out for when choosing a substrate material is its ability to retain moisture. Tortoises can absorb moisture through their skin, and a well-hydrated tortoise will have skin that looks healthier than a tortoise’s that hasn’t been hydrated properly. You would also want substrate that isn’t prone to molding, something that can cause impaction if swallowed by accident, and one that absorbs bad smells.
Here is a list of items that will make good substrate material. For best results, try mixing two or more of these materials together.
- Long-fibered Sphagnum Moss – Sphagnum moss has the best moisture retention and are a great material as bedding inside your tortoise’s hide.
- Cocopeat – Substrate material made from fibrous coconut husk. It’s also a great growing medium if you plan on putting plants inside your tortoise enclosure.
- Organic Topsoil – If you want to go natural, or would eventually want to plant inside your enclosure, then soil is a great substrate material, just make sure that it’s free of chemical pesticides and is sterilized.
- Mulch – This one is also great at water retention, especially when mixed with either cocopeat or topsoil. It’s mostly recommended for subadults and adults though, as big enough pieces of wood can injure hatchlings.
Here are some substrate materials that you should avoid using on tortoises, as they can cause severe health issues and even death through impaction:
- Cracked Corn or Walnut Shells – These can injure your tortoise if accidentally swallowed, and they’re not that good at retaining moisture anyway.
- Sand – One of the major causes of impaction amongst smaller tortoises if ingested. Sand is to be avoided at all costs.
- Reptile Carpets – Although it provides a realistic texture, it doesn’t hold humidity at all. It can also scratch your tortoise’s plastron and can catch their nails whenever they walk over it.
- Pine and Cedar Mulch – These produce resin that are toxic to tortoises.
- Rabbit Pellets or Hamster Bedding – Many inexperienced keepers make the mistake of using this as a substrate but should be avoided. It’s prone to mold when kept wet, but it’s not even capable of holding moisture that well.
Lighting and Heat
In the wild, tortoises use the sun’s rays to grow healthy. It’s a source of heat for them, since they aren’t able to produce their own body heat. The sun also provides much-needed UVA and UVB, allowing tortoises to synthesize Vitamin D in order for them to metabolize calcium for healthier bones and to prevent Metabolic Bone Disease. If you plan on keeping tortoises indoors, the best way to emulate the sun is by using heat lamps and UV light.
It’s best to keep your tortoise enclosure inside a room that already has a good ambient temperature. But that is not always possible, since some homes need air conditioning in order to be comfortable. If it’s not possible to keep an enclosure inside a room that’s at least 75 F to 85 F, then you’ll need to use heat lamps that can provide heat up to 78 F in the coolest part of the enclosure and 95 F in the basking area. The basking area should be at the opposite end of the cool area.
UVB light should be provided evenly throughout the habitat for maximum exposure. They should also not be obstructed by glass, plastic, or even mesh, as they can lessen the amount of UVB your tortoise will get.
A good enclosure should have a source of clean water for your tortoises to use. Any water bowl that’s big enough to support your tortoise when they decide to soak in it, but shallow enough for them to easily get in and out of will be good enough. If you’re housing hatchlings, the water shouldn’t be too deep. Just enough water to reach their chin if they decide to soak is good enough. Remember to replace the water daily.
Although enclosures can be considered a captive tortoise’s “home”, tortoises will still need a place where they can have privacy and shelter. This is where hide areas come in. Hides are an essential part of any tortoise enclosure because of the role they play for maintaining a tortoise’s emotional well-being. Most tortoise species are solitary animals and would love to take breaks from being around others, even from their keepers.
Any item can be turned into a hide house, such as hollowed-out logs, pots turned on their sides, and even plastic containers with a hole cut on the side. The idea here is to provide your tortoise a quiet and dark area that holds humidity well that they can easily access to take a rest. So, any item will do so long as the structure meets these criteria.
Hides should be placed in the coolest area of the enclosure. You can also add damp sphagnum moss here as bedding to increase the humidity even further.
Decorating your enclosure not only adds beauty to it, they also provide additional areas where your tortoise can hide. They can even interact with these objects whenever the mood strikes them. Rocks and plants are great at making your enclosure look as natural as possible and provide stimulation. Having an environment that closely resembles the tortoise’s natural habitat can draw out a lot of your tortoise’s natural behavior compared to a habitat that is bare bones.
Plants are particularly great decorations, especially ones that can provide additional shade to your enclosure. You can put potted plants in your enclosure, or if your substrate is deep enough, you can plant things directly into them. Just make sure that your chosen plants are non-toxic, in case your tortoise decides to take a nibble.
If you do plan on putting decorations such as rocks or other objects, make sure that they’re as far away from the basking lamp as possible. In the event that your tortoise flips over any of your decorations, you wouldn’t want them being flipped under the basking lamp, where they could die of overheating.
Outdoor enclosures more or less have the same considerations as indoor ones, just on a larger scale. Certain environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity are a lot more difficult to maintain in an outdoor enclosure, and of course, during the colder seasons, it’s pretty much a bad idea to keep a tortoise outside. You’ll also need to do a bit of the construction work yourself or hire someone who can do it for you.
Still, outdoor enclosures have the potential to give your tortoise the most naturalistic environment available, on a scale that indoor enclosures couldn’t compete with. And if you’re planning on breeding your tortoises, outdoors is pretty much the only place they can lay their eggs in a healthy manner. Of course, only consider letting your tortoise out if it’s warm enough.
Outdoor pens can be constructed from any number of materials. They should not only be strong enough to withstand the outside elements, they should also be strong enough to withstand the tortoises themselves. Some tortoise species are known to just bulldoze through certain items without a care in the world if the mood strikes them.
Concrete blocks, landscaping timber, chain link fencing, sheet metal and PVC siding are all good materials for pens. Just make sure that your tortoise is unable to see through them. Otherwise, they will try to push through the material, and some really dedicated individuals can break through.
Safety from Predators
As a tortoise keeper, it’s your job to ensure your tortoise’s safety, especially from predators. For smaller pens, you can put up a roof and fencing to deter most animals, just make sure the material itself can still let sunlight through. If it’s a larger enclosure, you may need to resort to electrifying your fence’s perimeter. Just make sure the tortoises themselves don’t get electrocuted.
Predators for tortoises include dogs, foxes, coyotes and opossums. For hatchlings, birds, cats and rats are the primary dangers. Humans are also a potential danger. Children might decide to take your hatchlings to play with them, and some adults might try and steal your tortoises if they are aware of the animal’s value.
Another big danger, especially in some areas of the US, are fire ants. Fire ants have the potential to kill smaller species of tortoises, so if you see a mound forming, make sure to take care of it right away. Just be sure to do so without using any pesticides or other chemicals that can harm your tortoise.
Because it tends to be difficult maintaining a certain humidity or temperature level for outdoor enclosures, the best way you can create a good environment for your tortoise outside is by doing it inside their hide houses. Hide houses have more or less the same concept as indoor hides, just on a larger scale.
You can build hide houses from scratch, or you can use commercially available plastic doghouses instead. Just make sure that the entrance is blocked by a material any tortoise will have no trouble passing through but can prevent heat from escaping. Rubber strips or makeshift dog flaps suspended over the entrance works well for this.
Putting heating pads along the floor or the walls can keep the inside of the hide house warm and cozy. You can also put up heat lamps instead. But make sure you attach any heating elements to an automated thermostat in order to save money on the electric bills, and make sure everything is protected from catching on fire.
In order to keep and house a healthy tortoise, good husbandry is paramount. Most of the health issues you’d associate with tortoises all come down to bad husbandry, and bad husbandry is usually associated with how your tortoise is being housed.
The best enclosure for any tortoise does not need to be expensive or require a lot of effort to put up. All that a tortoise needs from its keeper is for them to provide an environment that can replicate their native habitat as closely as possible. There’s no need for bells and whistles, no need for special items, and no need to spend more than what is necessary. All a tortoise needs is a place where their basic needs are met, and all the love and care their keepers can give.