Food & Water Dishes for Tortoises
- stars & other small, dry area species -
Indian Star tortoise, Sri Lankan type, in her drinking water dish.
For safety, it's best to keep the food and water dishes at the cool end of the enclosure, not under the hot heat lamps. Sometimes tortoises flip over or sideways in their water dishes, especially babies. Many tortoises can flip themselves back up, but in case yours can't, you don't want him to get trapped under the hot basking bulb until help arrives. Overheating can be fatal.
Of plastic products, food grade plastics are the safest choice for tortoise food and water dishes. Dishes, containers, and lids intended for human and animal use or for food storage must be nontoxic. Plastic items manufactured for non-food purposes can be made with unknown materials of questionable quality and toxicity.
This Burmese Star tortoise baby's food dish is shallow, but extra large. The large size of the tray helps avoid accidental ingestion of substrate with food. The water dish is very shallow for easy entry and exit, and it's "double plated" with the larger dish.
Height of dishes
If you use a water dish with a fresh hatchling, check that the baby tortoise can get in and out of it easily. You don't want him to get trapped in it or to flip over in the water when he's trying to scale the (too tall) sides. That could cause him to drown. The younger the tortoise, the shallower the water dish should be.
Water dish progression: For a just born tortoise hatchling (10-15 g) I give a small water jug plastic cap as a water dish. After a week or two, I switch to a very shallow, plastic food jar lid. Once the hatchling can handle a bit higher wall, I use grooved Tupperware lids. Finally, I switch to Repti Rock "food" dishes ("water" dishes are taller) until the youngster is big enough to handle taller dishes.
Here you can see how the height of the above water dishes gradually increases.
The Zoo Med ReptiRock "food" dishes are much lower sided than even the smallest ceramic flower pot saucers. All sizes of Repti Rock "food" dishes have the same height. Scroll down for info.
a.) Substrate choices
Tortoises are messy animals and drag substrates with their feet all over the enclosure and dishes. Accidental ingestion of substrate during feeding is one of the most difficult to solve problems when keeping tortoises indoors on any kind of a loose substrate. Some tortoises even eat their flooring on purpose!
NO loose bedding is 100% safe to eat, unless it's an actual food item like dried grass. ANY non-food substrate can cause fatal impactions if it is consumed in large enough quantities.
Plain garden soil, sphagnum moss, and finely ground coconut coir (no long fibers) are thought to be some of the safest non-food indoor substrates to use. Chip type beddings have larger chunks that are more likely to get "stuck" inside the tortoise and block the intestines (impaction). Thick, plain paper would be safe to use eating wise, but it's not a natural type of ground material for tortoises. For substrate info, see the substrates (basics) and substrates p.2 (more details) pages.
b.) Trays, clips, tubs
There are many ways to help lessen the amount of substrate taken in with food. For example, you can use large feeding trays, tiles, or large, flat rocks as food plates. Double plating, in other words, placing a smaller dish inside a larger dish or tray, can be very helpful, too. Sometimes I even triple plate!
All kinds of shallow trays can be used for feeding or double plating, including food service trays (school lunch, restaurant), plant trays (seed, seedling, growing), storage trays, utility trays, drip trays, boot trays, and drawer organizers. Food service trays are made of safer materials than general use utility trays.
In addition, you can hang fresh weeds from clips attached to the side of the indoor pen. You could also use a safer substrate, like plain paper, in the feeding area and create some kind of a barrier around it to keep the loose substrate away.
If all else fails, you can feed your tortoise in a separate feeding tub with no substrate. However, this won't allow the tortoise to eat at will.
c.) Keep the bowels moving
Keep your tortoise well hydrated to prevent constipation. In tortoises, dehydration is the most common cause for constipation. Constipation will make it more difficult, or even impossible, to pass any digested substrate particles. Do provide fresh drinking water at all times and give warm baths as needed.
Feeding fiber rich foods helps "push" bedding particles through the intestines as well. Do not feed grocery store greens exclusively. They lack in fiber and tend to cause loose bowel movements.
Hard eating surfaces
Feeding tortoises on a hard surface may, or may not, help prevent beak and nail overgrowth. Instead, feeding some "tough" foods that require biting, pulling, and shredding by the tortoise is probably more beneficial for keeping beaks in top condition. Outdoor grazing of growing grasses and weeds is very helpful too because each mouthful has to be torn off the plant.
Small jar lids and disposable paper / plastic plates are popular as food dishes, but they can be rather flimsy. They are very lightweight and tend to tip, or even turn over, when tortoises step on the edges.
Lids from large plastic boxes or shallow food trays work better because they don't flip over. They are big enough to accommodate the whole tortoise, not just his front legs. Although, when the water dish is this large, tortoises are more likely to pee and poo in it. Just change the water when soiled, or at least daily.
For new hatchlings I like to use very shallow plastic lids from small coffee canisters (small black lid in pic above) or other food containers. My favorite ones are these ribbed Tupperware lids. Small babies can easily drink water between the grooves (pic). Even tiny hatchlings can climb in and out of them with ease. These lids are available in multiple colors and sizes.
Tile bowlsTo create heavy based dishes from light weight lids, I glue them onto ceramic tiles. I use aquarium sealant for this; what is safe for fish, should be safe for tortoises. This makes the dishes heavier and much more stable. The bigger the tile, the more anchored to the ground the dish will be. Especially on a soft and fluffy substrate.
Plastic pan pools
For subadult and adult Star tortoises, or other similar sized tortoises, plastic kitchen dishpans or other similar boxes make great indoor "wading pools." Just cut an appropriately sized entry door. Not pretty or natural looking, but very practical. They have a large water area, but are still easy to clean. :O) I like to prop the front of the pan on a couple tiles so that the water deepens towards the back of the pool.
Most plastic kitchen dishpans are about 13-16" long and 12-13" wide. Open top cat litter pans vary in size and range from small (~ 14"x10") to extra large (~ 22"x16").
Since dish pans are sold for washing human plates and silverware that go into your mouth, they are probably made of safer material than litter boxes.
Caution! This type of water dishes are NOT suitable for little ones who like to climb walls. Climbing babies can tip over and drown if they cannot righten themselves in the water. You could also push the dish against a corner and cut the other two sides low to prevent wall climbing.
Feeding station w. compartments
If you keep multiple babies in the same indoor enclosure, a feeding station with separate compartments can be helpful in ensuring each baby gets its share of the food. Tortoises can't see through the walls and can't bug each other during mealtime.
A baby feeding station with compartments. This one I made from Hershey's cocoa boxes. I cut the top openings and then just taped the boxes together. Plastic boxes manufactured for human food use are made of safe materials.
The white round thing in the top right is a homemade block of calcium carbonate. I Just mix the limestone powder with water, put it in a paper cup, and let dry. See the supplements page.
Shallow commercial reptile dishesa.) Granite Rock food dish
I like Exo Terra's Granite Rock FOOD dishes (pic) for indoor water dishes because they are low, heavy, stable, and don't tip over when my tortoises trample through them.
Granite Rock feeding dishes are available in three sizes. The smallest size is model PT-2811, medium size is PT-2812, and the largest size is PT-2813. The text description for the size varies by the dealer. For example, some sellers call the PT-2813 a large dish, and some call it an extra-large dish.
The smallest size with the lowest sides is best for a baby. Little ones can climb in and out of it fairly easily, but it's still large enough for one baby tortoise to soak himself.
On a soft substrate, it's best to place water and food dishes on large tiles. This makes the dishes more stable and helps keep substrate out of them. Here's an example photo.
These food dishes are made of hard, food-grade resin. They used to made in a yellow brown color, but the newer ones are chocolate brown. I've had one or two that developed some "micro pitting" (tiny holes) on the dish surface over time.
Note: The Exo Terra "feeding dishes" and "water dishes" have different designs! The matching water dishes are less suitable for babies because they have higher sides.b.) Repti Rock food dish
Another low-sided reptile dish that I use a lot as an indoor food and/or water dish is the Repti Rock FOOD dish by Zoo Med (pic). It's made of slightly softer material than the Granite Rock dish above.
The Repti Rock food dish is available in various colors and in four sizes from small to extra large. All sizes have very low sides. I use them so much that I buy them by the stack full in all sizes. :O)
The largest size food dishes (XL, pic) can be used as feeding trays to help prevent ingestion of substrate with food. They also work well as shallow, soaking-size water dishes for young tortoises.
Note: The Zoo Med Repti Rock "food dishes" and "water dishes" have different designs! The matching water dishes are quite a bit higher. Not suitable for little ones.
Reptile ramp bowls are manufactured by several companies and they are available in several designs and sizes. These ramp bowls can work well with a small adult tortoise who is a skillful climber (e.g. Russian or Greek). My agile Ornate Box turtles particularly love these bowls! They like to soak themselves in them or just climb all over them for fun. Like a jungle gym. :O)
Caution! Ramp bowls are NOT a good choice as water dishes for small baby tortoises. Little ones can clip over while attempting to climb up the high sides, end up upside down in the water, and drown. I've noticed that my babies mostly turn over if they are in a group. They like to climb over each other and then get accidentally pushed or turned over.
Reptile waterers (in pic, right) work best for small to medium size tortoises. For little babies, these reptile bowls are be too high and slippery, unless you glue some "roughage" to the bowl outside walls to make them less slippy. Larger, active tortoises can push the waterers over and flood the enclosure, so you may have to secure them somehow.
I have bought reptile waterers in the past, but I ended up not using them much. I prefer large, flat bowls that tortoises can fit in.
This kind of waterers could work as a weekend getaway dish. When the dish is so small, the tortoise cannot really poop into it and the water stays cleaner while the owner is out of town for a few days.
Some tortoise keepers use non-automated chicken waterers (in pic, left), aka poultry fountains, as indoor water dishes. These waterers have a large water reservoir (plastic bottle) attached to a round bowl base. The bowl is just big enough for drinking. It does not allow the tortoise to soak himself so the water stays poop-free. If your tortoise is a self-soaker, this type of water dish is not appropriate for him.
If do you use a very small water dish or a fountain / waterer type of unit as your tortoise's main water bowl, it's best to provide him regular soaking opportunities in a separate pan. Soak (bathe) baby Star tortoises daily in lukewarm water, and adult Stars 1-2 times a week.
Since these units are made as chicken food and water dishes, the material should be safe for tortoises. For example, the popular Miller waterer jar and base are made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic which is considered safe. See housing page for plastic grades.
Dog & cat waterers
For larger tortoises, dog waterers can work well. Static ones, which look like large reptile waterers with a base and a bottle, are easy to clean. On the other hand, automated fountains offer the benefit of moving water. The sound and movement of running water can encourage tortoises to drink, or to drink more. This helps prevent dehydration.
Water fountains can also raise the ambient humidity in indoor enclosures. However, they require regular cleaning and water changes because tortoises like to poop in their water dishes. They should be kept away from loose substrates to prevent clogging. You may also hear the sound of the running motor.
Reptile waterfalls and fountains are designed for small lizards, frogs, chameleons and so on, but they could also be used in tortoise indoor enclosures to help increase the humidity level. Many can use foggers or misters as attachments. Waterfalls, misters, and foggers tend to lower the ambient temperature, so do check the temperature gradient in the enclosure and up the heat if needed.
Tip: Mineral deposits from tap water can clog misters, foggers, and vaporizes quickly. Use distilled water or reverse osmosis filtered water with these units to help keep them clog free.
Angulate tortoise having a big drink outdoors. She's very careful of not stepping into the water. She does not want a bath, just a drink of water. :O)
Outdoor water dishes
Always provide a drinking water dish for your tortoises. Even if you think your tortoises are not using it, they may drink when you are not watching. Be extra cautious with newborn hatchlings because they can drown if their water dish is too deep.
Flower pot saucers, both ceramic and plastic, are popular as outdoor tortoise water dishes. A layer of small rocks (pic) in the dish gives little tortoises a higher and less slippery surface to walk on. Baby tortoises can stand on the rocks and drink the water between the pebbles.
Further, you can dig a shallow hole to put the plate in. When the plate is even with the ground, it's easier for small tortoises to get in and out of the dish.
During warm weather, drinking water can get quite hot in a sunny spot. Replace the water as needed to keep it cool, or put the water dish in a shady area. I like to use bushes (pic) and/or small plastic patio tables with legs cut shorter as sun shades for water bowls. Cover over the water dishes helps tortoises feel safer and less exposed as well.
Empty and clean the water dish daily. Better yet, use two plates per enclosure. Fill one with water and let the other one dry and disinfect in the hot sun. Switch daily.
Caution! Flower pot saucers are really not intended as storage dishes for water used for human or animal consumption. Both glazed and unglazed terra-cotta flower pot saucers can contain lead, and material impurity can be a concern with plastic saucers as well. For example, PVC is toxic. People and pets should not drink from containers made of PVC.
Garden fountains with shallow bottom bowls can be used as tortoise drinking fountains. Running water can entice tortoises to drink more. Solar powered water fountains (pictured) are great outdoors because no power cords are necessary. As with all motorized fountains, debris, soil, and tortoise feces in the bowl can cause clogging problems.
Safety of the glaze can be an issue with garden fountains; they are not intended for drinking water. Bird baths are probably a safer choice. They should be made with non-toxic materials and finishes.
Always provide a water dish, indoors and outdoors.
Garden hoses can leach toxins
Always check the labels on garden hoses. Regular garden hoses really should carry a "Do not drink" warning label. Humans and pets should not drink water from standard garden hoses because they can leach lead and other toxic chemicals into the water.
Ideally, buy lead-free garden hoses. These are usually labeled as "lead free" or "drinking water safe." Lead-free hoses are made of materials other than polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is a known toxic. You can find lead-free hoses in marine shops, RV stores, or online.
Frequent soaks (baths) in lukewarm water are beneficial for tortoises, especially if your tortoise is not a self-soaker. Almost any safe and large enough dish or pan can be used for this purpose.
Each group of tortoises should have their own soaking dish to avoid transferring germs and parasites between different groups and species.
Soaking tortoises individually helps keep track of their pooping frequency, poop texture, and consistency. Is the poop solid, loose, dark, light, or bloody? Does it have visible worms? See the fecal exams page for info on fecal gross exams.
It's beneficial to let the water dishes and soaking tubs dry outside in the sunshine as solar radiation is strongly germicidal (destroys harmful microorganisms). Although, leaving regular, non UV protected plastic tubs in the sun too long will cause them to become brittle and break apart.
Indian Star tortoise, Sri Lankan type, being "soaked" in warm water.