Indoor housing for Stars, Greeks, etc. p.1
- tables & tubs -
Burmese Star tortoise (Geochelone platynota)
Indoors vs outdoors
These two indoor housing pages mostly covers SHORT-TERM indoor enclosures for tortoises who spend their days outside. If your tortoise has limited access to a big outdoor enclosure, then his indoor pen should be as large and as naturally landscaped as possible.
In the wild, tortoises spend hours walking, exploring, and searching for food. Ideally, captive tortoises should spend all or most of their time outdoors, not inside. Indoor housing should be as brief as possible, for example, overnight only or a short winter stay. Tortoises tend to come alive when moved to their outside pens. They love it! There's so much more to see and do than indoors.
Weather permitting, hatchlings and youngsters can be kept outdoors just like adult tortoises, just be sure they have adequate shade available to avoid overheating. Also keep a shallow water dish in a cool and shady area.
Dedicated tortoise room
I am fortunate to live in a warm, but not hot, climate that allows my tortoises to spend a great deal of time outside on real dirt, among real plants, and under the real sun. :O)
Some of them live outdoors year round, but others I do bring in for nights and the short winter. Most of them live in open topped, tortoise table type of enclosures when indoors.
One of the smartest things I've done for my indoor housing is to dedicate a small bedroom to my tortoise enclosures. This room easily stays warmer and more humid than the rest of the house when the door is kept closed.
Indoor basking bulbs are very drying to tortoises and can promote shell pyramiding, but because the room is so warm, it allows me to reduce the hours I have to burn the basking and/or heating bulbs to generate warmth.
Babies need higher humidity
Baby tortoises need higher humidity than adults. Adequate humidity and hydration is extremely important for their well being and also affects their shell development. Higher humidity can be achieved in multiple ways, including using vivariums, humid hides, humid night boxes, or slightly damp substrate areas.
Baby Star tortoises do well in warm, vivarium type setups with high ambient humidity. For vivarium info, see the indoor housing p.2.
Greeks and other similar dry area species can be raised in open top enclosures, but they need deep, slightly damp substrate areas for burrowing. This allows them to spend as much time as they wish in a humid environment.
Minimum indoor pen size
Build your indoor enclosure as BIG as possible. The more time your tortoise has to spend inside, the larger the indoor pen should be to allow room for exercise. Tiny, brand new hatchlings are the only exception. They can spend a lot of time hiding and thus don't need a huge enclosure at first.
There are numerous recommendations on how to calculate the BARE MINIMUM dimensions for a SHORT-TERM (e.g. nights only) indoor tortoise pen. I have seen the following suggestions in popular tortoise books:
- Pen size should be 10x the tortoise length by 5x the tortoise length
- Length and width of the enclosure should be at least 5x the length of the tortoise
- Multiply the length of the tortoise by 8 for pen length and then adjust the width as needed
- Allow at least 3 sq yds (27 sq ft) of space for each 12” of tortoise
- Use 100 sq in of space per 1" of tortoise shell
All the formulas above provide minimum pen size estimates for one tortoise. It's best to add at least 20-50% of floor space if you keep 2-3 tortoises in the same enclosure.
For example, if you use the 10 x 5 tortoise length recommendation, a 12" tortoise should have a short-term, indoor pen with minimum dimensions of 120" x 60" = 10ft x 5ft = 50 sq ft. For comparison, a typical, small kids' bedroom is about 10ft x 10ft. The tortoise enclosure would fill half of it!
Singles & groups
Outdoors, I keep my tortoises in small, same species groups. Indoors (nights, short winter), they are kept alone or in small groups depending on their personalities. Housing tortoises singly is less stressful for shy ones and allows them total freedom to do what they like whenever they like with no danger of bullying from others.
Another plus of single housing is that it allows you to easily keep track of your tortoises' activity level and health status. Who is eating well and who isn't. Who is regular with good looking poop and who isn't. Who is not basking, etc.
Separating sexes indoors gives females a break from males' constant advances and allows them to eat and rest in peace. Separation also stimulates breeding activity when tortoises are reintroduced outside.
Of course, housing tortoises singly is more labor intensive and more expensive. It requires more tubs, bulbs, lamp stands, heaters, overall space, and electricity!
What ever your housing system is, make it a routine. Changes in environment are stressful for tortoises. They do better when they know what to expect.
Beautiful vs easy care
Beautifully decorated and planted naturalistic tortoise tables and vivariums are lovely to look at and can work well if you only have a few enclosures with small tortoises. With adult tortoises and/or large collections, the upkeep and cleaning of this kind of setups would require a sizeable time investment. Besides, adult tortoises can be quite destructive and very messy. They tend to mow down all decorations and plants. They can also pee and poo huge amounts. :O)
Over the years, I've tried many different types on indoor enclosures. Large reptile tubs, for example, the Waterland and Vision tubs, are my first choice for small to medium sized tortoises. They are not the prettiest of enclosures, but the most practical for sure when you have many indoor pens to clean.
Reptile tubs are waterproof, light weight, easy to move, and simple to clean and disinfect. They are made from non toxic plastics and are odor free. Great for allergic and asthmatic tortoise keepers!
Safety of plastics
Plastic tubs sold specifically for reptiles, human or animal food storage, water storage, or fish housing, are the safest to use. Plastic products sold for other purposes can be made of questionable, even toxic, materials. Use caution. Some plastics are most toxic when heated up.
1.) Safe plastics - OK to use
Plastics labeled as #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP are considered safe with no known health issues. Only plastics with recycling numbers #1, #2, #4 and #5 should be used for food storage. These are the safest plastics to use as tortoise dishes or tubs.
- #1 PET, PETE = polyethylene terephthalate
- #2 HDPE = high density polyethylene
- #4 LDPE = low density polyethylene
- #5 PP = polypropylene
I avoid plastic products made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl), a known toxic. PVC containers are not safe for human food storage, so I don't consider them safe for my tortoises either. PVC contains BPA and phthalates which can be released into food and drinks. The highest risk occurs when PVC containers are heated. PVC products can be identified with the number 3 or letter V, but not all products are marked.
- #3 PVC, V = vinyl, polyvinyl, polyvinyl chloride
- #6 PS = polystyrene foam, Styrofoam
- #7 = other, including BPA
To make a plastic tub more attractive looking, just build a wooden frame around it. Looks just as nice as a wooden one, but has a 100% waterproof bottom! Plus, the tub lifts out for easy cleaning!
Enlarging tubs & creating microclimates
You can also join plastic tubs together to make one large enclosure. Use as many tubs as needed to get the size you want. Attach the tubs width wise, length wise, or create an L-shaped enclosure to fit in a corner. Just cut doorways to the tubs. You can join tubs directly to each other or attach tunnels between them. Using tunnels allows you to create a different microclimate in each tub. Individual tubs can be warmer, cooler, drier, damper, or have different substrates.
Plastics that have a bit of "give" when pressed with a finger nail are easier to cut without shattering than ones that feel very firm. You can use bolts and nuts, or even duct tape, to connect tubs. Removable bolts allow you to easily separate the tubs when needed, e.g. for cleaning and hosing with water outdoors, and they don't contain any smelly glue like sticky tapes.
Tubs for babies
Large plastic storage boxes can make nice indoor enclosures for young Star tortoises. Do provide a warm, humid hide for Star tortoise babies at all times, or use the whole tub as a humid box by covering the top. In that case, check the temps carefully to be sure they within an acceptable range.
As the baby tortoises grow, they will require larger and larger indoor pens. Small tanks or boxes of any kind are not suitable enclosures for older, larger tortoises. Tortoises need room to wander. The more the better.
Caution! Tortoises are creatures of habit and dislike change. They get stressed with unfamiliar or changing conditions. Avoid frequent or extensive changes to their pens. If possible, I only change one or two items at a time. This way the tortoises have something new to explore, but in familiar surroundings.
Simple tub for hatchlings. The tub and humid hide are lined with slightly damp sphagnum moss. It's soft and allows hatchlings to burrow into it. Sphagnum moss is sold in many grades, from cheap to premium (AAA, 5 star) quality. I like to buy the top grade, long fibered sphagnum moss from New Zealand. The dark hidebox allows the hatchlings to escape the bright lights and UVB if so desired. Depending on the room temperature, you may need a CHE or small reptile radiant heat for night heating.
Stacking tables & tubs
Small to medium sized plastic tubs and wooden tables, up to size 6ft x 3ft or so, can also be stacked to save space. Adjustable wire shelving, Gorilla Rack, steel garage shelving rack, rivet shelving, or similar shelving units are ideal for this.
Optional wheels allow the stacked tubs to be moved easily as one unit. This feature has been useful to me many times, for example, when updating the electrical equipment.
Wire shelving units work especially well because they are very flexible when it comes to sizing. Attaching basking and UVB lights is also simple. You can hang the lights from the bottom of the top shelves (drawing) or place the light fixtures on separate shelves above the tubs (photo). Each way has its pluses and minuses.
Most wire shelving units are rated for 200-800 lb per shelf, so you can even place heavier, soil filled wooden tortoise boxes / tables on them. However, if you add wheels to the unit, the weight rating will drop quite a bit. This varies by the model.
Wire shelving is typically sold in chrome or black color, and sometimes in other colors as well. They are available in many sizes, usually up to 36" deep and 72" wide. Shelving can be bought as complete units, or the shelf posts and wire shelves can be bought separately to build customized shelving units to fit almost any available space.
This photo shows Iris Christmas tree storage tubs (52"x20") placed on chrome wire shelves. This unit has six levels of 60"x24" shelves to accommodate three of these tubs if you hang the lights from above. This size shelving is also a perfect fit for small Waterland land and water tubs (55"x24", scroll down for info).
Ps. If you need one, the pictured five shelf Seville unit (60" x 24") with wheels is available for a good price and with free shipping on Amazon here. I bought an extra shelf to make it a six level.
Many stores seem to carry wire shelving units with shelves up to 18" deep, so you may have to look around to find wider, 24"-36" deep units. If you can't find deeper shelves locally, you can buy them online. They are shipped flat and unassembled.
A one or two shelf wire shelving unit makes a great base for any tortoise table or large tub. For example, use a low height 5 ft x 3 ft wire shelving unit alone for a 5 ft long tortoise table (box) or double it for a 10 ft long table. Use wire shelving "S hooks" to attach the units together. This gives you continuous run of shelving.
Caution! Baby tortoises should NOT be housed in rack systems designed for snakes. Living in small, dark boxes would be cruel and unhealthy to tortoises. Snake racks have boxes stacked tightly together with no room for lights. Tortoises need UVB & basking lights, good air circulation, and as much walking room as possible.
Vision reptile tubs
Vision reptile tubs are made of food grade high density polyethylene (HDPE) and are a good alternative to wooden tortoise tables. They are odorless, easy to clean, and suitable for allergic tortoise keepers. They are usually available in white or gray color.
As with most plastic tubs, the walls widen up and out a bit. This reduces the available floor space. I wish the walls were straighter.
The largest Vision tubs are extremely durable because they are made of thick, heady duty material, but this makes them rather heavy. Shipping is expensive due to the large size and weight of these tubs. Best if you can pick them up in a local store or a reptile show.
The medium tub is 68" x 35" (5.7 ft x 2.9 ft) in size and has 14" high sides. It fits in the back of a large station wagon, SUV, or another similar car, with the backseats turned down. The large tub is 76" x 40" (6.3 ft x 3.3 ft) with 22" high walls. It's the largest of the Vision tubs.
Waterland land tubs
Waterland tubs are another plastic indoor enclosure choice. They are constructed of black HDPE that is made from recycled materials. They are available in two styles, water or land, and in several sizes. They have become one of my favorites.
The side walls are almost vertical, so very little floor space is lost. Waterland tubs can also be stacked on wire shelving (pic), or other similar units, to save floor space.
The land tub models have a 3/4 land area and a 1/4 water area. The water area is perfect for damp substrate (humid hide). The low divider ramp helps keep the substrate in place. This section can also be filled with soil for digging or egg laying, or used as a safe feeding area with no substrate.
Ps. The photo shows two small Waterland land tubs (55" x 24" x 9") with rim lids in a 60" x 24" wire shelving unit. This Seville shelving unit with wheels is available for a good price and with free shipping on Amazon here.
The water tub models are deeper than the land models, so they are more suitable for egg laying females. They provide more depth to the soil area. The ramp is rather steep and slippery though. You may have to cover it with something that gives better grip for tortoises' feet.
You can buy an optional "rim lid" (pic) for the small land tub and the small water tub. Very handy to have if your tortoise is an avid climber. If I place these tubs on any shelving, I always use the optional rim lids to prevent any accidental falls. You could also space the wire shelves tightly against the tub tops, so that there won't be any space for the tortoise to climb over the walls.
As of this writing, the land tub model is available in two sizes, small and medium. The small land tub is 55" x 24" x 9" (4.6 ft x 2 ft) in size and the medium land tub is 70" x 32" x 14" (5.8 ft x 2.7 ft). They weigh 12 and 35 lb
The water tub model is available in several sizes up to 100" x 50" x 32" (8.3 ft x 2.7 ft). The largest size weighs over 120 lb!
Laguna pond tubs
The flat bottom Laguna pond tubs / preform basins (PT-788, PT-795, PT-796) are among my favorite plastic tubs (pic). They are very durable and made of odorless heavy duty polyethylene (not PVC). These pond tubs are typically available during the summer gardening season. They are used by fish keepers, so the plastic should be safe for tortoises.
The smallest of these rectangular pond tubs, the PT-788, is 42" x 28" x 12" high and weighs about 12 lb As with most tubs, the sides slopes in a bit, so the actual floor space is about 37" x 24" (888 sq in). Perfect size for babies or a small tortoise as a short term (e.g. overnight only) indoor enclosure. This tub is still small and light enough to easily lift and move around. It doesn't have much more floor space than the Iris Christmas tree storage box (below), but the wider width makes it easier to arrange the cage furniture.
The medium size PT-795 Laguna pond tub is 51" x 34" x 17" high and weighs over 20 lb The largest Laguna tub, the PT-796, is 69" x 46" x 25" high.
Note: These pond tubs are NOT the same item as black mortar pans, aka concrete mixing tubs, available from home improvement stores. Compared to these pond tubs, mortar tubs are much smaller in size, have lower sides, and have much more sloping sides which reduces the available floor space. Mortar tubs are only suitable for the smallest babies.
Holiday tree storage tubs
I also have a stack of Iris holiday tree storage boxes. The box size is listed as 52" x 20", but the actual floor space is only 45" x 16" (720 sq in) because the sides slope slightly. The sides are 12" tall without the lid. Typically, it's only sold during the winter holidays.
This box can be used for baby tortoises or as a short term tub (e.g. overnight) for a small tortoise. I like the light color of these tubs. The sides are also semi see-through. When the basking light is on, I can actually see the tortoise through the tub wall! :O)
DIY wooden tortoise tables
Wooden tortoise tables, which are large open boxes with low walls, are popular because they are cheap, easy to build, and can be made in any size. They must be moisture proofed, and in large sizes they get heavy and difficult to move.
Unfinished wooden tortoise tables can emit a strong wood odor. Particle board, plywood, and fiberboard also give off odors. In addition, they contain formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen, bronchial irritant, and asthma trigger.
Ready made tortoise tables
1.) Zoo Med
Zoo Med manufactures a 36" x 24" x 12" h wooden tortoise table box, the Tortoise House, that you can purchase ready made if you are not a DIY builder. You will need to seal the bottom and sides or use a liner to waterproof it for damp substrate. As with all wooden tables, AIR IT OUT WELL before use, otherwise the raw wood or sealant odor can be a problem.
The Tortoise House is small, but modular; you can remove the end panels and attach two houses together for a larger tortoise table (72" x 24", 6 x 2 ft, 1728 sq in). Double the space! Or better yet, attach several of them together for a full wall length enclosure. :O)
Here's an example of a Russian tortoise enclosure made with two Zoo Med tortoise houses attached together. The inner walls of the built-in hides are left out to increase the floor space. The top can be partially covered to increase the humidity level inside. Photo courtesy of Trixie Skinner.
Trixi's cute Russian tortoises live in this double enclosure.
2.) Penn Plax
The Reptology Tortoise Palace by Penn Plax (pic) is a newer tortoise table that became available in Jan 2012. It's made of black, moisture resistant medium density fiberboard (MDF). To fully waterproof the table, you'll need to seal all inside seams with silicone. You could also place shallow plastic tubs or restaurant trays inside to hold the damp substrate.
Dimensions of this habitat are 48" x 30" x 12" h giving it a floor space of 1440 sq in. It has a built-in hiding area, adjustable light stand, and a clear front panel. Wire top keeps dogs and cats away. A matching stand is available for additional price. Will work with a small baby for a while.
Note: MDF is a manufactured product made from wood fibers glued together with a resin made from urea formaldehyde (usually). Formaldehyde is a known toxic that can irritate eyes, skin and mucus membranes, especially in allergic and asthmatic individuals. In 2011, the US government added formaldehyde to the list of carcinogens (cancer causing agents). According to the EPA, MDF is the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.
However, in a turtleforum.com post (2012) a Penn Plax representative states that the MDF used for this enclosure uses a PMDI binder that is not formaldehyde based and thus emits no formaldehyde.
Farm stock tanks are made of either plastic (poly) or galvanized steel. Poly tanks often have more or less sloped sides which reduces the floor space in the tub.
Galvanized ones typically have straight sides. However, galvanized steel tanks are coated with zinc. Some animal and fish keepers are concerned about possible zinc poisoning and avoid using galvanized tanks.
Shallow, oblong shaped sheep and goat water tanks are especially suitable for small tortoises because they are available in 4ft x 2ft and 6ft x 2ft sizes with low 12" walls.
For example, Behlen Country manufactures a shallow, 63-gallon galvanized round end tank (model ST-63) that's almost 6 feet long. The actual dimensions are listed as 66.2" x 20.8" x 12" high (pic).
Many people like wooden tortoise tables. If you are not very handy with woodworking, you can make a tortoise table out of a bookcase. Buy a second hand cabinet or a cheap, unassembled bookcase. Remove the shelves and put the bookcase down on its back. If the back board is thin and flimsy, you'll need to reinforce it or replace it. Line the resulting box with some waterproof material, for example, a non-toxic pond liner. Voila, you have a tortoise enclosure!
Note: Shower curtains and common pond liners are often made of PVC, a known toxic. Instead, look for pond liners specifically made for fish ponds. They are marked with a "fish safe" label.
When it's time to replace the substrate, just gather the waterproof box liner with all the substrate, take it out, and dump. Of course, this works best with light weight substrates like coco coir. Having two liners allows you to use one while the other one is being washed and left out in the sun to disinfect.
Note: Unfortunately, many cheap bookcases are made of particle board which can emit toxic odors (especially when new) that can cause itching, irritation, and asthma attacks in sensitive individuals. Solid wood bookcases, with all surfaces finished with a non-toxic sealant, are a better choice for allergy sufferers.
Related pages: indoor housing p.2 (vivariums) & housing pages listed below