In this article, we’re gonna have a look at tortoise housing and give you a few simple ways to build indoor and outdoor habitats for your tortoise. If you’ve got the right information, it is really quite easy to turn an apartment, garden or balcony into a chelonian Garden of Delights, and this article will show you a simple system we’ve worked out over the years that will allow you to do just that.
Unfortunately, there is a truckload of bad advice out there about tortoise housing. I have often heard that tortoises should be housed indoors in a vivarium with a reptile heat mat. A quick look on Amazon shows us that a vivarium, about one square meter in size, goes for nearly $500. (Isn’t it strange how often the bad advice seems to involve purchasing expensive equipment? Must be a coincidence.) Now one square meter is too small for even a small tortoise. It will just about do a hatchling. Why pay $500 for a cramped habitat? You can build indoor tortoise housing ten times that size for next to nothing.
If torts could talk they’d be protesting their inadequate living conditions. But they can’t so I guess it’s up to me to soapbox for them. Let’s bury this idea that a vivarium is appropriate housing for a tortoise. Maybe it’s good for snakes or lizards, but tortoises are a different animal. Some people seem to think that what works for one reptile will work for another. Reptile supply store owners are often main offenders. I propose that anyone who makes this argument be forced to live in a dog’s kennel for a year. After all, dogs are mammals too, right?
Vivaria (I think that’s the correct plural?) are inadequate in several other ways besides size. The glass walls are confusing to a tortoise’s little brain. They never evolved to deal with transparent, but solid barriers in the wild, and their perceptual equipment doesn’t easily understand what glass is. A few tortoise owners have had broken glass from males ramming what they thought was another male on their patch, but was only their reflection. That brings us on to another problem with glass. It breaks. I don’t know about you, but I see a problem with building a habitat from something that turns into hundreds of tiny knives when pressure is applied.
Furthermore, a vivarium is a small box of still, dead air. It has no natural flow of air, no ventilation, and this leads to a monotone temperature and climate. Tortoises, like all animals including humans, like to have option to choose between warmer and cooler areas depending on how they feel. A vivarium cannot provide this.
Ok, so if a vivarium isn’t good tortoise housing, what is?
The best (and cheapest) solution for indoor tortoise housing is known as a tortoise table. This is a wooden enclosure with sides that the tortoise can’t climb. The best way to make one is to lay an old bookcase or wardrobe on its back. You can often get these for free – check Craig’s List, local classifieds or ask your friends. Remove the legs or doors or any other part that is not needed, use a chisel to sink in a space for the water and food trays, fill it with substrate and set up the lamps.
You need to put down a layer of substrate to cover the floor of the habitat. This is of vital importance; when choosing a substrate, you are choosing what your animal will be pressed up against all day and night. Most tortoises like to burrow (either burying themselves completely or just making a little hollow to lie in), and they need something of the right texture to burrow into. So what substrate is best? Well, that varies depending on species. Different substrates hold different amount of moisture so if you have an arid-climate tortoise (like a Horsfield’s tortoise), it will need something that holds less moisture than a tropical species (like a red-footed tortoise).
As well as considering water-retention, you must choose something that offers some insulation to maintain the temperature, and something that does not easily harbor molds and other infections.
Wood chips, which are sold in garden centers, can be a good choice. They can also be a disastrous one. The majority of commercially produced chips are treated with chemicals to preserve them. This is great when they’re used for whatever it is they’re normally used for, but having your reptile in constant contact with toxic chemicals is not exactly good tortoise-keeping. Using resinous woods like pine or cedar is also dangerous.
One excellent choice for substrate is a mixture of loamy compost and play sand. (Play sand is softer than builders’ sand. You will find it in garden centers, sometimes under the name ‘soft sand’.) The really nice thing about this substrate is that you can tailor the water-retention level to your species by altering the compost:sand ratio.
A lot of people like to use Sphagnum Moss as a substrate. This is a particular kind of moss sold for people to grow orchids in. It is a good substrate that can be used on its own for some species, but more commonly should be added to the compost and play sand mixture described.
One more consideration: make sure the substrate is deep enough. It is better to give too much than too little. About four inches is normally right, but if your tortoise burrows a lot it may need more. Obviously, if you observe it burrowing right down to the wood or plastic at the bottom, that’s a sign that you need a deeper layer of substrate.
If you would like more info on picking the right substrate, Practical Tortoise Care has a whole chapter about substrates.
Your tortoise needs light for two reasons: basking and heat. Like us humans, they need to bask in sunlight or ultraviolet light to produce vitamin D. (Besides which they seem to take great pleasure in it.) As for heat, most tortoise species are adapted to sunny climates, which your tortoise housing will need to simulate, but the exact right temperature is a very species-specific issue.
There are two ways to cover these two needs. Either use a desk lamp (100W is usually around right) for heating and a separate UV light for basking, or else use a single mercury-vapor lamp to serve both heat and lighting needs.The temperature under the basking lamp should normally be about 30-35°C, but this varies a bit from species to species.
There is an art to positioning the light in such a way as to create microclimates within the enclosure. Practical Tortoise Care shows some little-known tricks about how to position the lamp for optimal tortoise comfort.
Take a shallow tray (the plastic saucers for standing potted plants in are perfect) and use a chisel or something similar to hollow out a place in the tortoise table to sink the tray into so it is flush with the surface. Sinking it into the floor like this ensures that the tortoise won’t flip the bowl over. The water should be shallow enough that your tortoise can stand in it without its breathing bits being submerged.