How to Set up a Tortoise Enclosure: The Complete Guide

As when caring for any animal, your first priority should be to set up a suitable habitat for your new pet. This is particularly true for those who keep tortoises, as these animals are often uniquely adapted to living in their natural habitats.

Below, we’ll try to help you provide your new pet with a suitable habitat, which will meet all of his needs. You’ll obviously need to tweak some of these recommendations to suit the needs of the particular species you keep, but – generally speaking – most tortoises will thrive when provided with the same basic enclosure style.

Tortoise Enclosure Basics

We’ll delve into the more detailed aspects of tortoise enclosure design below, but let’s start by reviewing some of the basic things you’ll need to understand and address. Obviously, different tortoise species hail from different habitats and have slightly different needs, so you’ll need to customize these recommendations to suit your specific pet. However, all tortoises have a few common needs.

  • Your tortoise will require a secure habitat that keeps him contained safely inside and prevents unauthorized people, other pets, or wildlife from entering the enclosure and harming your pet. It’s rarely difficult to keep a tortoise contained, but it can be tricky to exclude animals from outdoor enclosures.
  • Your tortoise’s enclosure must be large enough to provide your pet with a suitable thermal gradient and enough room to exercise and carry out natural behaviors. This includes things like foraging, digging, and retreating to concealed hiding spaces.
  • You’ll need to keep your pet’s enclosure within the proper thermal range for the species. In some cases, the surrounding room or outdoor temperatures will already be within the proper range (particularly if you live within the natural range of your pet). In other cases, you’ll need to add heating devices to provide your pet with the ability to reach proper body temperatures.
  • Most tortoises will require either regular access to natural, unfiltered sunlight or an enclosure fitted with specialized light bulbs, which mimic the sun’s rays. Failure to provide one of these options will almost invariably lead to long-term illness.
  • Your tortoise’s enclosure will need a suitable substrate or ground cover, as well as the types of furniture he needs to thrive. This primarily means visual barriers and hiding places.
  • Some desert-dwelling tortoise species may go their entire lives without drinking liquid water – they obtain most of the water they need from their food. However, most individuals will readily drink water to satisfy their hydration needs if offered. Additionally, many tortoises like to occasionally walk through or soak in shallow puddles.
  • After establishing the habitat and introducing your pet, you’ll need to maintain the enclosure to keep it clean and in good working order. This includes some things you’ll need to do on a daily basis and others that are necessary on a weekly, monthly or annual basis.

Your First Consideration: Indoor or Outdoor Maintenance

Unlike many other common pet reptiles, such as snakes or lizards who must often be maintained indoors, tortoises often thrive best in outdoor habitats. So, the first thing you’ll need to determine is whether you want to house your pet inside or outside.

Generally speaking, outdoor maintenance is almost always preferable for tortoise maintenance whenever possible. Obviously, keepers living in northern latitudes may not be able to do this for any species, and even those living in more temperate areas will not be able to keep tropical species outdoors. But, if you do live in a climate that is roughly similar to the home range of your pet, you should at least consider outdoor maintenance.

Some of the benefits of maintaining your tortoise outdoors include:

  • It is generally easier to provide your pet with a lot of space outdoors than it is indoors.
  • Access to natural sunlight alleviates the need for elaborate lighting fixtures and is typically helpful for promoting long-term health.
  • The airflow outdoors will help prevent the kinds of odors that are common with indoor maintenance.
  • It is often possible to grow edible grasses and herbs inside the enclosure, on which your tortoise can graze.

However, there are also some drawback to keeping your pet outdoors. A few of the most notable challenges include:

  • Tortoises kept outdoors are more vulnerable to nefarious people, predators, pets and rodents.
  • Over time, many types of outdoor enclosures will rot or decay, necessitating replacement.
  • It is possible that your pet will escape, and runaway turtles are typically very difficult to find.
  • You may have to make adjustments during inclement weather.

So, be sure to consider the issue carefully before making a decision and talk things over with your vet or any more experienced keepers you know.

Providing Your Tortoise with an Enclosure

If you intend to maintain your tortoise outside, you’ll likely need to construct a habitat from the ground up. On the other hand, keepers who intend to house their pet indoors will typically (though not always) purchase a habitat – at least at the outset.

We’ll cover each option below.

Providing an Outdoor Enclosure for Your Tortoise

If you want to construct an outdoor enclosure for your pet, you’ll want to start by selecting the location. Try to pick a place with both sun exposure and shade that is also relatively flat (gentle slopes are fine – perhaps even helpful in areas with high quantities of rain).

As far as the size of the enclosure goes, you’ll usually want to make it as large as your available space and budget will allow. However, minimally, you’ll want to provide small species with about 16 to 32 square feet of space, and large tortoises with five to 10 times this much.

Then you’ll want to decide what material you make the enclosure walls from. Cinder blocks, sealed wood and plastic “wood,” are all viable options. Whichever material you choose, be sure to extend the walls of the cage below ground level for at least 12 to 18 inches (and this may not be sufficient for very large species). This will help prevent digging species from tunneling to freedom.

You’ll also have to decide whether you want to make a “roof” for the enclosure or leave it open. Generally, it will be wise to include a roof if your pets are small, but very large tortoises will often remain safe in open-air enclosures. Generally hardware cloth or some other type of wire will make a good roof, but there are other options, such as corrugated plastic. You’ll just have to weigh the value of sunlight and security and make the best choice you can.

Providing an Indoor Enclosure for Your Tortoise

Most keepers who set up a tortoise in an indoor enclosure will purchase their pet’s habitat. You can choose from many different types of enclosures, ranging from kiddie swimming pools to large aquaria. However, commercially manufactured tubs or similar enclosures are typically the best option. Glass aquaria in the sizes necessary for tortoise maintenance will be unbelievably large, heavy and expensive, while tortoise tubs will be both lighter and less expensive.

Obviously, you won’t be able to provide as much space for your pet if you’re keeping him indoors, but you should still strive to provide him with as much space as possible. Minimally, you’ll want to provide very small species with 60 to 160 gallons of space; large species will often require 240 gallons of space or more. Clearly, this won’t be enough for some of the very large species, which illustrates the reason many tortoise keepers opt for outdoor enclosures.

You don’t have to worry much about your tortoise’s needs when you decide where to place the habitat inside your home – your primary considerations will revolve around your wants and needs. However, you’ll definitely want to avoid placing it in a place exposed to noxious fumes (such as some garages) or in places with extreme temperatures (such as some basements or sunrooms).

Aside from the acquisition of the habitat and the placement in your home, there’s not much else you’ll have to do to set up your indoor tortoise enclosure.

Maintaining the Thermal Environment

Once you’ve established the enclosure, you should turn your attention to the temperatures within the habitat. And no matter what type of tortoise you keep or whether you keep your pet indoors or outdoors, you’ll want to establish a thermal gradient, or range of temperatures within the habitat. This way, your tortoise can decide what temperature is best for him at a given time, rather than you dictating the temperature he must be. When he needs to warm up, he can move to the warmer portions of the enclosure and vice versa.

To establish a thermal gradient for an outdoor habitat, you’ll need to include areas of direct sunlight (preferably one side of the enclosure) and areas of deep shade (preferably the opposite side of the habitat). But, for indoor maintenance, you’ll instead want to simply place all of the heating devices at one end of the enclosure.

The best heating devices to use for tortoises are typically heat lamps, but radiant heat panels will also work. No matter which you choose, you’ll want to monitor the temperatures they provide with a high-quality thermometer. The temperatures you’ll want to target vary from species to species, but generally, you’ll want the basking spot (the warmest spot in the enclosure, directly beneath the heat lamps) to be between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures should gradually fall as you move away from the basking spot, with the cold side of the enclosure hovering in the low- to mid-70s.

Be sure to turn off your pet’s heating devices at night to instill a proper day-night cycle in temperatures and light levels. An automatic lamp timer will make this much easier and is well worth the small added cost.

Providing Proper Lighting for Your Pet

If you’re keeping your tortoise outdoors and he has regular access to bright sunlight, you likely won’t need to provide any additional lighting. However, almost all tortoises reared indoors will require full-spectrum lights that produce rays in the UVB portion of the spectrum.

These types of light are necessary because tortoises depend on UV rays to properly metabolize the calcium in their diet. UVB exposure allows the animals to produce vitamin D, which in turn is used to utilize calcium. When deprived of such light, tortoises can develop a number of metabolic and skeletal problems that are often irreversible.

Fortunately, UVB-producing lights are common in the marketplace. You’ll simply need to determine whether you’d prefer a mercury-vapor bulb (which produces UVB rays and heat) or fluorescent bulbs (which produce UVB rays but only negligible amounts of heat). This will obviously influence your choice of heating devices. If you use mercury vapor bulbs, you likely won’t require additional heat lamps; if you select fluorescent bulbs, you’ll also need to purchase heat lamps.

Note that all of these lights typically come with distance recommendations from the manufacturer – you’ll need to keep them within X number of inches of your pet to ensure good UVB absorption. Additionally, these lamps produce less UVB over time, so they require regular replacement.

As with the heat lamps you use in your pet’s enclosure, you’ll want to be sure to turn the UVB lights off at night, so that your tortoise has a regular day-night cycle.

Substrate and Enclosure Furniture

With your enclosure set up and the heating and lighting devices installed, you can turn your attention to the substrate and furniture for your pet’s habitat. We’ll discuss each separately below.

Substrate Selection for Tortoise Habitats

There are a variety of different substrates you can use in your pet’s enclosure, and each presents a different combination of pros and cons – no substrate is perfect in all situations. We’ll discuss a few of the most suitable options below:

  • Cypress mulch or orchid bark – Cypress mulch and orchid bark are likely the two best options for most tortoises, especially those hailing from humid habitats. Cypress mulch is far more affordable than orchid bark, but orchid bark generally looks better and has a pleasant aroma. There is a small chance that your tortoise will try to consume these types of substrate (which can lead to choking or impaction), but these types of problems are usually rare.
  • Newspaper – Newspaper is typically an awesome substrate for most types of reptiles, especially for beginning keepers, who’re still learning how to tend to their pet’s needs. Aside from being quite affordable (essentially free), newspaper is very easy to replace, making it relatively simple to keep the enclosure clean. However, it isn’t always a good choice for tortoises, as they’ll often have trouble getting traction on such a smooth surface. Also, tortoises may occasionally try to consume newspaper, which can lead to impactions. This doesn’t mean you can’t use newspaper, but you’ll want to observe your pets and ensure they’re getting around easily enough and also be sure to keep them well-fed, to help reduce the chances that they’ll nibble on the newspaper.
  • Edible substrates (alfalfa, hay, rabbit pellets, etc.) – Because tortoises often taste and consume substrates, some keepers opt to use completely edible substrates, such as alfalfa hay, or rabbit pellets. Theoretically, the consumption of moderate quantities of these substrates won’t cause your pet any harm, and some will actually serve as nutritious forage. But they also exhibit downsides. For starters, they’re typically expensive, and purchasing quantities large enough to fill a tortoise enclosure can be cost prohibitive. Additionally, many of these substances will rot if allowed to become wet, thereby leading to fungal or bacterial growth.
  • Soil – Organic, additive-free topsoil and potting soil are suitable substrates for some tortoises. They’re unlikely to represent a serious choking hazard, and most tortoises will not be inclined to eat them in great quantities. They’ll also look nice and allow your pet to burrow, which is very important for some species. However, soil will generally leave your pet covered in a thin layer of dirt, and it can be tricky to limit the amount of dust and mess that’ll spread around the room in which you place the habitat.
  • Natural ground cover – If you keep your tortoise outdoors, you can usually just keep the soil in place and allow native grasses, clovers and other plants to grow naturally. As long as the plants are non-toxic, they won’t represent a danger for your pet, and they may even serve as a supplemental food source. Plants and grasses may or may not discourage digging activity, depending on the root systems involved.

Cage Furniture Your Tortoise Will Need

In contrast to many other reptiles, tortoises don’t require a lot of elaborate cage furnishings. In fact, it is often important that you don’t overcrowd the enclosure, given the bulky and somewhat “unathletic” nature of chelonians. But that doesn’t mean you want to set up a completely barren enclosure either.

In practice, you’ll want to provide your pet with hiding places and a few visual barriers – particularly if you’re keeping more than one tortoise in the enclosure.

There are several different types of hiding places you can provide to your pet, and your choice will largely be dictated by your aesthetic tastes and your pet’s size. If you want natural-looking hiding places for your pet, it is hard to find something better than corkbark. Corkbark is lightweight, it looks fantastic, and it generally makes for excellent hiding places. However, corkbark isn’t particularly cheap, nor is it available in sizes large enough for giant tortoises.

If you don’t care about the hiding places looking natural, you can improvise any number of hiding places. Inverted cat litter pans, commercially built hiding places, and simple cardboard boxes are but a few of the options available to you. However, very large tortoises may need hiding places built out of coolers or large plastic storage boxes.

In addition to hiding places, you may want to include some visual barriers. These can take the form of just about anything you like, as long as they’re safe for your pet. Large pieces of driftwood, faux rocks, and live plants all work well in such capacities. Just be sure that if you decide to include plants in your tortoise’s enclosure, you select species that are non-toxic.

Water Reservoirs

As mentioned earlier, some tortoises – particularly desert-dwelling species – may never drink liquid water in the wild. However, it is almost always appropriate to provide your pet with a dish of clean, fresh water at all times.

Because of their physical builds, tortoises require relatively wide, shallow water dishes. If possible, the dishes should be large enough to accommodate your pet’s entire body. This way, he can soak in his water dish if he desires. Just note that because most tortoises are poor swimmers, it is wise to avoid including any deep water in their habitats – a few inches of depth are all that’s necessary for large individuals, and a single inch is likely enough depth for small species.

In a perfect world, you’d opt for ceramic or stainless-steel water reservoirs, but these aren’t always available or affordable for large specimens. In these cases, you may want to use something like a plant saucer or a cat litter pan instead. Just realize that these types of water receptacles will not last as long as more durable options, so you’ll need to replace them regularly.

Habitat Maintenance

Once the habitat is established, you’ll need to keep it in good working order. The exact tasks you’ll need to perform will vary based on the way your set up the habitat, whether you’re keeping your pet indoors or outdoors, and the species you’re keeping.

Nevertheless, the basic things you’ll need to do include:

  • Inspect the habitat on a daily basis. Ensure that your pet looks healthy (you don’t necessarily need to pick him up or directly handle him to do so) and that everything appears to be in good working order.
  • Monitor the enclosure temperatures on a regular basis. Ideally, you should check the enclosure temperatures several times a day, but if the temperatures tend to be relatively stable, two to four times a week will likely suffice.
  • Spot-clean the enclosure as necessary on a daily basis. Remove any uneaten food, shed scutes or skin, feces, or urates.
  • Perform a complete substrate change on a regular basis. The exact timing of substrate changes will vary based on a number of factors, but most indoor enclosures will require a complete substrate change about once per month. You may, however, be able to keep the enclosure clean while only replacing the substrate two or three times per year in an outdoor enclosure.
  • Inspect all enclosure doors and moving parts to be sure they’re working properly.
  • Check on the status of any live plants growing in the enclosure. Water, prune or replace them as is required.
  • Empty, clean and refill the water reservoir on a daily basis. Once per week, you should also sterilize the water reservoir – just be sure to rinse it thoroughly and let it dry completely before placing it back in the enclosure.

In addition to maintaining the habitat, you’ll also need to feed your tortoise regularly. Most keepers feed young individuals on a daily or nearly daily basis, but adults will often thrive when fed four or five times per week. This is especially true for individuals who live in cages where edible plants are maintained.

Conclusion

Proper habitat design doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have success with your pet tortoise, but it certainly means you’ll start on the right foot and have a good chance of giving your pet a long, healthy and happy life. Just try to embrace the concepts discussed above and ensure that you’re designing the habitat in accordance with your pet’s natural habitat and species-specific needs. Also, don’t be afraid to seek guidance from more experienced keepers or make any adjustments necessary to keep your tortoise comfortable.