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Simple Outdoor Tortoise Houses

- for small, dryish area species -

insulated and heated tortoise house

Insulated and heated tortoise house for a warm climate. Door is closed at night.

Easy tortoise houses

As I've mentioned before, I have no skills or interest in carpentry, so I am always looking for easy to modify products and supplies to use in my tortoise enclosures. This page covers some simple outdoor housing solutions that anyone can do. No special skills needed. :O)

I live in a warm, but not hot, climate. What works for me and my tortoises may not work in other areas. You'll need to adjust your tortoise houses making them cooler or warmer depending on your climate.

Fumes & materials

When new, it's best to let all wooden commercial and DIY tortoise houses air well outside in the sun for several days or weeks until the odor from the paint or varnish coating is gone. I would not lock a tortoise into a house that's full of paint fumes. Always AIR OUT closed houses well before use!

Typically, commercial dog and rabbit houses are built with either cedar or fir wood. AVOID cedar! It is highly aromatic and toxic to tortoises. Fir is a safer choice. If you are building your own, choose lumber that smells the least.

Hiding places are important

Hiding places are very important for tortoises' physical and mental well-being. Most tortoises are timid and need hides that allow them to relax and feel secure. Shady, cool hiding places protect tortoises from overheating and sunstroke on hot, sunny days, and heated houses keep them warm during cold nights and winter.

My tortoises like to hide under small bushes or tufts of grass. All my tortoise enclosures have plants or clumps of taller grass for this purpose.

Burmese Star tortoises hiding under a grass bush

Burmese Stars hiding under a grass bush.

Golden Greek tortoises hiding in damp grass

One of my Golden / Mesopotamian Greeks' favorite outdoor hiding places is a small patio table, with legs cut shorter, stuffed full of grass. In the summer, I water the pile of dry grass every morning. This keeps the soil under the table damp all day.

tortoise hide

You can also stuff an unheated half dog house with soil and / or hay for the same purpose as above. On sunny days, water the soil underneath to keep it damp. Creates a nice warm and humid hiding place.

Warm-up hides

In northern Europe, small garden cold frames and polytunnels are popular as tortoise houses. They are now gaining popularity among US tortoise keepers as well.

Cold frames are miniature greenhouses with sloped, clear roofs and stay at least 5-10 °F warmer than the outside air. They should face south for maximum sun exposure.

If the cold frame has wooden sides, just cut a door opening for the tortoise to get in and out of it. If the side walls are made of glass or plastic, you can elevate the cold frame on stone blocks or bricks. This way, the lowest part of the walls is made of bricks with a small opening left in the front for entry and exit.

Garden polytunnels are semicircular polyethylene covers used to grow plants in cooler temperatures. You can build them yourself or buy ready kits. For example, you can use plastic pipes to form a semicircular frame or lumber to create a rectangular frame.

Most greenhouse films block short wavelength UV light (UVB), but some of the newer generation greenhouse films allow natural UVB and infrared through. They are labeled as "UV transparent" and are ideal for tortoise greenhouses.

warm-up hides

Polytunnels and cold frames can be used as tortoise warm-up houses during cooler, but sunny days.

Remodel dog & rabbit houses

Flat, top opening dog and rabbit houses can be modified for tortoise use. You will have to insulate all the walls, floor and ceiling to make the house airtight and keep the heat in during cold weather. The easiest way is to use insulation foam boards and then cover them with thin wood boards or reflective insulation. Whatever insulation and covering material you choose, it should be safe, non-toxic, and as "tortoise proof" as possible.

Attach a reptile radiant heat panel or a ceramic heater (CHE, see heating) to the ceiling of the compartment. Radiant heat panels are a better choice because they distribute the heat over a much larger area. For safety, any heater should be thermostatically controlled. The floor should be waterproofed for easy cleanup. Expect to see lots of pee and poop on the floor. :O)

In freezing cold climates, these modified dog and rabbit houses may not be warm enough for the winter, but they can be used as "day and season extenders." Even if you bring your tortoises inside for nights, a heated outdoor house allows them to go out earlier in the morning and come in later in the evening. Heated houses also extend they outdoor season by allowing them to go outdoors earlier in the spring and stay out later in the fall.

Modified wooden dog house

For this heated tortoise house I used the smallest size of the Ware Premium+ dog houses (size small 33 1/2” x 22 1/2” x 23” h). It has the right shape, is low enough, and has a flat, top opening lid.

insulated and heated tortoise house

To waterproof the inside, I placed a large plastic tub inside. I cut the tub's sides a bit lower and created an opening for the doorway. This 30 gal Sterilite tub (30 1/2” x 20 1/4” x 15 5/8”) fits perfectly inside the house.

Note: Sterilite boxes are made of polypropylene and polyethylene that are safe for food storage. According to their website, no PVCs, latex, teflon, phthalates chemicals, fungicides, Bishphenol A (BPAs), or antibacterial chemicals are used in the manufacturing process. See the indoor housing page for more info on safety of various plastics. For example, PVC (vinyl) is a known toxic.

ready made dog house insulation

Instead of the usual foam or reflective bubble insulation, I used the matching Ware insulation kit. It's all one piece and just zips and velcros to place. Super easy!

waterproof insulated dog house

I fill the tub with soil, coconut coir, coco chips, or a mix of them. I attach a thermostat controlled reptile radiant heat panel to the inside of the lid.

heated and insulated tortoise night box

Finished house with the reptile radiant heat panel installed.

insulated and heated outdoor tortoise house

We get rains only in the winter, and even then it's not often. I put a tarp or a piece of plastic over the house during the rain months for extra water proofing. The door is closed at night if there's no predator protection cage around the house.

Modified plastic dog house

For this heated house for my Golden / Mesopotamian Greek tortoises, I used the largest size (38" x 29") Doskocil (dba Petmate) Aspen Pet Petbarn dog house. I have a bunch of these heavy duty, USA made houses in various sizes. I use them full sized (top and bottom attached), half sized (only top or bottom), unheated, and heated. They do bleach a bit in the sun over time, but otherwise seem to last forever. :O) For another example of Petbarn house in use, see the 4th photo on top of this page.

Tip: During hot summer, a half house like this can be dug into the ground and covered with a thick layer of soil to create a cool summer cave that won't collapse.

tortoise pen

Heated tortoise house inside a predator proof night cage. For this heated hide I used the bottom of the dog house with a reptile radiant heat panel attached to the ceiling. The waterproof green box contains the electrical connections and the thermostat for the heater. There is no attached floor in this house, just the ground with a thick layer of soil.

My Greeks love this house! They like to dig into the deep soil inside the house. They prefer this setup with the bare ground over wooden tortoise houses. During winter rains, I cover the night cage with a camouflage tarp.

heated outdoor tortoise cave

I attached the reptile radiant heat panel to the ceiling of the hide with nuts, bolts, and washers. The heat panel is hooked up to a thermostat. Triple layer of stripped plastic door flaps keep the heat in but allows tortoises to enter and exit at will within the safety cage at night. During the day, the protection cage door is open to allow tortoises a free run of the entire pen.

Modified rabbit house

This Pawhut rabbit coop (16 x 36" x 16" h) is about the right size for a few small tortoises. It is lower than most dog houses and chicken coops, so there's no unnecessary height and the house is easier to heat. The top lid opens for easy access. This well priced rabbit hutch comes with an attached 1/2" hardware cloth pen (no pic) as well that could be used as a night protection cage.

tortoise house

A 12" long garden tortoise statue next to the house for scale.

heated and insulated tortoise house

I placed reflective bubble insulation on the walls and floor and attached a reptile radiant heat panel to the ceiling. For even better heat retention, you could put styrofoam insulation boards under the reflective insulation. To make the house stronger, you could use thin wood boards over the foam boards instead of the bubble insulation.

The big plastic tub is waterproof, easy to clean, and made of nontoxic plastic (not pvc). It protects the house floor and inner walls from digging tortoises' nails. This tub is a little too short, but once I find a better fitting one, I'll switch it.

Only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the house should be heated if tortoises are locked inside the house at night. This allows them to retreat to a cooler area inside the night box if needed. ALWAYS use a THERMOSTAT with any heating device placed inside a small, closed area to avoid overheating.

Steel & stone fortresses

This one is a night fortress for my Ornate box turtles. Inside the cage area is a half dog house as a hide. During the day, the fortress door is open to allow my boxies full access to their pen.

tortoise overnight fortress

Night fortress. The walls are made with concrete blocks and the roof consists of welded wire panels with 1" openings. The opening in the wall is closed securely at night.

Heating

Outdoor tortoise house heating choices include reptile radiant heat panels (installed on the ceiling or wall), ceramic heat emitters (CHE's, bulbs that provide heat only, no light), hound heaters (dog house furnaces), and farm animal heat mats (pig blankets).zoo med reptitherm habitat heater

Kane and Stanfied pig blankets are popular, but Zoo Med also manufactures a pig blanket type heater, the ReptiTherm Habitat Heater. Unlike other Zoo Med ReptiTherm heaters, the 40W Habitat Heater (pic) is not an undertank heat mat, but a large (18"x18"), rigid plastic mat. It has an automatic, thermostatic shutoff to prevent overheating.

You can place pig blanket type heaters uncovered on the tortoise house floor, but it's safer to attach them to the wall or ceiling. These heaters will not radiate a lot of heat, but they will warm up a small, well insulated space.

I only use overhead reptile radiant heat panels in my tortoise houses because they distribute the heat over a much larger area than small, bulb-like CHE's. Radiant panels keep tortoises warmer and won't cause spot burns on shells if properly installed.

Safety

When installing any heating elements on the inside of a tortoise house, be careful. You don't want your tortoise to burn himself or the heating unit to become a fire hazard. Follow manufacturer's installation instructions and use outdoor approved cords and products.

Check the house temps. Always use a thermostat with all types of heating devices when heating small, closed spaces to prevent overheating. If tortoises are locked inside the house at night, leave a part of the house unheated to create a bit cooler area for the tortoise to retreat into when needed.

The heating system should ideally have some kind of protection against electrical failure, especially in cold climates. Otherwise, your tortoise may be exposed to freezing temperatures and suffer serious injuries or worse.

weatherproof power cord connection boxes

Reptile radiant heat panel and weatherproof electricity connection boxes

I use weatherproof power and extension cord boxes for my temporary, winter time electrical connections to keep them dry from sprinkler water and rain.

The Sockit boxes, aka Dri-boxes, are great. I use the smallest boxes (13.5” x 9.5” x 4.75”) for my thermostats and the medium size boxes (16” x 13” x 6”) work well for a bit larger stuff. The cord openings in the Sockit boxes have gel-like seals to keep water out.

I also protect my outdoor power and extension cord connections with water tight covers. I've tried a couple of different kinds, and I prefer the capsule like extension cord safety seals shown in the photo above.

 

Related page: outdoor pens

 

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