Outdoor Housing for Star Tortoises
- and other dry area species -
Outdoor tortoise pens. I am fortunate to live in a warm climate, so my tortoises get to spend a lot of time outside. :O)
Tortoises love being outside! Outdoors, they can "live a tortoise life" exploring, grazing, and basking. If you have any outdoor space, please do provide an outside pen for your Stars. Nothing beats real sunshine!
I keep my Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises outdoors when the temperature is around 70 °F (21 °C) and above. Also, when the sun is warm and it's not windy, a temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and above is often sufficient.
Ideally, never keep Star tortoises outside overnight if the temperature falls below 60-65 °F (15-18 °C), unless they have a warm house they can retreat to. They may tolerate lower temperatures, but why take the risk? Be especially cautious in wet and cold conditions.
I do not leave my Star tortoises outside overnight for temperature and security reasons. Evenings, when they come back in, they often get a quick bath for wash-up and rehydration.
Note: Use caution if your tortoise's outdoor enclosure is placed on a terrace or a balcony. Pens on terraces can overheat quickly, and enclosures on high level balconies can be exposed to strong winds. Do provide windbreaks and shady hiding areas as needed. Keep eye on the temperature gradient inside the pen.
Landscaping & decorating pens
It's a good idea to supply the tortoises with plenty of plants to eat and hide under, variations in the ground level, several shady hiding places, and a choice of substrates. Obstacles, like rocks or logs, and small mounds of dirt create many different paths for the tortoises to follow.
Typically, Indian / Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises like to hide under bushes. Beneath the scrubs, they may scrape the surface of the soil a bit, but that's it. All my Stars love to hide under grassy bushes when outdoors. :O)
For babies and small juvenile tortoises, the enclosure should have a predator proof cover.
Bird and deer netting allow plants to grow through them for a more natural looking landscape. Netting is ok for supervised day time use, but it's not strong enough as a permanent predator barrier.
Climbing & digging
Most adult Indian / Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises are not superior climbers and won't be able to scale stone or wood pen walls, unless the wall has some kind of footholds. Babies, on the other hand, can be quite agile climbers. Avoid keeping any climbable objects or plants next to the enclosure walls. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a couple of cautionary photos!
Note: You have to be careful with good climbers and diggers like Box turtles, Greeks, and Russian tortoises. Climbers need pens with high, escape-proof walls and/or cover, and diggers need some kind of dig proofing around the perimeter.
The garden statues, small patio tables, and step stools not only provide additional shade but also support the netting. In hot weather, you can place water bowls in the shade under the tables to keep the water cooler.
Avoiding cross contamination
I don't keep huge tortoise species, so I often build my outdoor tortoise runs long and fairly narrow. Especially for babies and youngsters. This way I can reach all parts of the pen without having to step into it. This helps avoid cross contamination between pens of different species.
However, outdoor enclosures that are large, wide, roundish, and have irregularly shaped walls (not straight) will look and feel more natural to tortoises. Installing solid frame lids for these pens is difficult though because the walls are asymmetrical. For supervised daytime use, bird or pond netting can be utilized for light-duty protection if you build a support frame or a center pole to hold it up.
With very large tortoise pens, it's useful to have a pair of washable garden clogs next to each pen. Having a designated pair of shoes for each enclosure helps prevent transferring microorganisms and parasites between pens (e.g. poop stuck to shoe bottoms). Remember to wash your hands thoroughly in between, too. Also, do not share water and food dishes between different pens and especially not between different species.
When building isolation pens or pens for different species, it's useful to leave several feet of buffer zone (empty area) between the pens to help avoid cross contamination. The wider, the better. For example, if pens share a wall, soiled water can seep from one pen to another.
I give each tortoise species its own reserved area of the backyard. I do not mix species or overlap their outdoor living quarters.
These pens have buffer zones, aka spaces, around them. Using buffer zones helps prevent cross contamination, but it requires a larger total area and more blocks to construct the pens.
By mid to late summer, most of the good stuff has been eaten away. The pens start looking more bare. The double pen in the front is for a breeding pair. There's a connecting doorway behind the yellow flower plants. This way the pen can be divided to separate the sexes if needed. The partial separating wall also breaks the line of sight and gives more privacy to each side of the pen.
Birds and neighborhood cats are the only predators I (may) have to worry about, so I cover my little tortoises' pens with bird netting, deer fence netting, or plastic hardware cloth. Bird netting is affordable, almost invisible from far away, available in many widths, can be cut with scissors, and it prevents cats from using my tortoise pens as their toilets. Typical grid size is around 1/2" x 1/2".
Bird netting (pic lt) works for supervised daytime use, but it is NOT sturdy enough to keep serious predators away, especially if you leave your tortoises outside overnight. I don't. I bring my Star tortoises in at night.
Pay attention to the strength and quality of the mesh, not all bird netting are the same. Some bird nets are made of weaker material that may tear. Plastic nets can also degrade in the hot sun over time.
Deer fence netting (pic rt) is made of thicker, stronger plastic than bird netting and has larger mesh openings (1" x 1"). It's stiffer and easier to work with than flimsier bird netting which gets caught on every little snag and spur. Deer netting may be too narrow to cover wide pens, but smaller pieces can be joined together with zipties to cover larger areas.
The enclosure cover netting should be securely attached. Otherwise, dogs and other pets can rip it off or sneak into the pens under the netting. I weigh the netting down by putting several stone blocks around the pen. Garden stakes can also be used to secure the nets.
Bird netting and deer netting are NOT strong enough to hold bigger dogs and other predators off tortoises. Be very, very careful if you have dogs, and protect your tortoises at all times. Dogs love to chew tortoises!
A safer outdoor enclosure cover would be tightly woven steel hardware cloth, or something similar, in a strong frame securely attached to the pen. Steel hardware cloth is resistant to gnawing by rodents and other sharp-teethed animals. Hardware cloth with 1/4" x 1/4" openings (pic) is recommended for best security. The openings should be 1/2" or smaller to keep rats out, and 1/4" or smaller to keep mice out.
Leaving dog, cat and tortoise food outside overnight attracts rodents and predators. I empty all food and water dishes every evening and refill them the next morning.
As disheartening as it is, tortoise thefts do occur! For this reason, many tortoise breeders like to keep their exact location unknown and may meet buyers only in public places. Tortoises kept outdoors overnight are the most likely targets for thieves.
I use a video monitoring system (pic) that allows me to observe my Star tortoise outdoor pens from inside my house. Just in case. For news stories about tortoise thefts, see the Outdoor Housing section of the Links page.
I create several hiding places in each enclosure. For small tortoises, I use hollow wooden logs and wooden step stools as outdoor hides. I also utilize plastic garden side tables, often with legs shortened, to create shady areas. Tables let the wind through, won't trap heat, shade water dishes, and support the cover netting.
My Burmese and Sri Lankan Star tortoises use their manmade outdoor hides every now and then, but they especially like to hide under small bushes or tufts of grass. All my Star tortoise enclosures have clumps of taller grass for this purpose.
Hollow, artificial landscape rocks made of plastic can be used as outdoor tortoise hides (pic of medium size Fieldstone Rock). All you need to do is to cut a door opening. These faux rocks look realistic and blend in well in outdoor enclosures. In warm climates, it's better to place them in a more shady area. Otherwise, they may become way too hot inside in the blasting sun. They can also be called replicated rocks, mock rocks, faux stones, fake landscape rocks, septic cap covers, or utility box covers.
Solar heated hides
If you live in a cool climate, you want to use outdoor hiding places that provide warmth. Small garden cold frames, aka miniature greenhouses (pic), are popular in northern Europe as tortoise houses. Cold frames protect plants, or tortoises, from cool weather and wind. They have sloped, clear roofs and stay 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, semicircular polyethylene covers (pic) used to grow plants in temperate climates, are another choice for outdoor warm-up houses. They are available in small, low sizes just right for tortoises. They are also easy to build yourself. For example, you can use PVC pipes to form a semicircular frame or wood pieces to create a rectangular frame.
During cold weather, you'll need a heated tortoise house to keep Star tortoises outside. Scroll down to "Heated tortoise houses" for some examples.
It's a good idea to provide sight barriers in tortoise pens. They make the enclosure more interesting and help tortoises escape from each other to enjoy some peace. Here, extra blocks and clumps of grass are used for this purpose. Always check corners so that they won't provide any footholds for climbing, or cap them to prevent escapes.
Stone block pens
I have used wooden enclosures, chain link pens, welded wire mesh kennels, dog play pens, and stone block walls as tortoise pens outdoors. Decorative stone blocks are my favorite material to use. They look great but are fairly expensive to buy in large quantities. Plus, they are very heavy to haul from the store to home. Auch!
I like enclosures build with natural looking stone blocks better than ones made with plain concrete construction bricks, aka cement or cinder blocks. I just casually place the stones on top of each other. This makes my backyard look like it's full of ancient Greek or Roman ruins. Maybe an archeological dig site. :O)
Stone block pens have many advantages. They can be build in any shape, and later moved or enlarged as needed. Stone blocks are very durable and can't be eaten by insects. They can be painted to match your outdoor decor. Stone blocks also retain heat from the sun for a while and can provide warmer areas during the evening.
No special skills or tools are required to build stone pens. Just lift and stack. :O) Smaller tortoises cannot push or move these blocks because they weigh about 20 lb each.
To help prevent escapes by wall climbing, you can build the top layer with larger or flatter stone blocks to create a small overhang. A wooden "lip frame" is another choice. A wooden top frame also allows for easy fastening of wire top lids.
For diggers, you can lay an extra line of big stone blocks on the outside of the walls. This way your tortoise would have to dig through two block widths to get out. With daily inspections, you would probably notice any escape attempts before he got that far.
One negative aspect of stone blocks is their hard, rough surface. If your tortoise is a fence walker and likes to patrol the pen perimeter, he will scrape his shell against the surface of the walls. This will cause some scute wear and tear in contact areas, but it's usually only cosmetic. Lining the insides of the pen walls with some smooth material, like thin wood or plastic boards, will fix it.
Stone pen with edible plants. Mostly, I just sprinkle seeds into the tortoise pens, water them, and watch the plants grow! :O) Sometimes I throw in some organic soil with the seeds as well. On warm days, I water my tortoise pens early in the morning. On really hot summer days, I water the pens during the day as well to help keep them cooler and less dry.
Wooden outdoor pens are popular because they are fairly inexpensive. They are not difficult to build and can be made in any size and height.
The main problem with wood pens is that they have to be bottom or perimeter proofed for digging tortoises. If the bottoms of the walls are not well secured, strong tortoises can easily push themselves under them and slip away. Or, they can quickly dig under the thin walls and escape.
Covered corners (pic) provide shady hiding places and help prevent any climbing attempts. Enclosure corners are favorite climbing spots for tortoises who like to scale walls.
Wooden enclosures work well for adult Star tortoises because they are not big diggers or wall climbers. Babies are more agile and need a pen top for security.
Below is an example of a simple wooden tortoise enclosure. If you use good quality wood to build the pen, it will last many years. This pen looks very weathered because it's almost 20 years old!
Wooden pen for tortoises
Concrete block pens
Large, concrete construction blocks (16" x 8" x 8") with hollow cores are a popular, easy to use building material for outdoor tortoise pens. They are also called concrete masonry units, foundation blocks, cement blocks, cinder blocks, or breeze blocks. Concrete blocks can be be gray or brown in color. All you need to do is to stack them. You can finish the top of the wall with thinner 2" block caps to hide the holes on the top of the walls.
These blocks are very heavy, 20-30 lb each, and require no mortar to install, unless your tortoises are jumbo size or super excavators. For example, big sulcatas can push the walls down and burrowing tortoises may dig under the block walls to cause them to collapse.
Plain concrete blocks cost less than $1 a piece, but they are not very attractive looking. A more visually appealing alternative to plain concrete blocks are concrete slumpstone blocks. They are available in various sizes, shapes, and colors. They can look like chiseled stone or old adobe bricks with a textured surface.
Chain link & welded wire panels
In the past, I have used chain link dog kennel runs (pic) as outdoor tortoise enclosures, but they are not the prettiest of enclosures to use in common yard areas. A less intrusive alternative is to use low height chain link fence mesh. Vinyl coated mesh is available in several heights and colors. Black or green mesh seems to blend in the surroundings better than galvanized.
On the other hand, if you'd like to build a walk-in tortoise pen with a top, tall kennel or tennis court chain link panels are perfect for that. Large, outdoor walk-in bird aviaries would work as well, but they tend to be quite expensive.
Nowadays, many dog kennels / runs are made with welded wire mesh panels instead of chain link. These modular panels are nice looking, strong, and they are available in several sizes and heights. They can be attached in various ways to create pens in almost any size to fit your available space. The wire mesh is usually black and the mesh openings vary from 1" to 4" and more.
I use 1" x 1" grid welded wire mesh panelsto build predator secure night time pens / cages for my chelonians that stay outdoors overnight. I have not found any welded wire kennel panels (pic) with smaller openings than this. Based on rat keepers experiences, the 1" wire mesh openings are still big enough to let small rodents like baby rats through. This can be remedied by covering the panels with steel hardware cloth. Wire cloth with 1/4" openings is the safest to use.
For avid diggers, attach a wire mesh floor to the pen, or secure the pen perimeter by placing big stone blocks along the outside wall, or extend the walls below the ground level.
To prevent your tortoise from seeing through the wire panel walls and trying to get out through them, cover the bottom of the run about a foot high with wooden boards, plants, or chain link fence slats. You can also plant grasses or vines along the sides as a vision barrier. A top netting or wire panel can be added to make the pen fully predator proof.
Portable hog wire panels, or other small livestock fencing, can also be used to build tortoise outdoor pens for larger tortoises. Just secure the perimeter as above.
Wood or plastic timber kits
A fast and easy way to construct an outdoor enclosure for a baby or a small tortoise is to use ready-made sandbox or raised garden bed kits made from wood or composite plastic timbers. These kits are easy to put together. Plastic timber pens require no maintenance and they last practically forever because they do not rot. They tolerate rain, heat, and frost.
Some raised bed garden kits even have a wire net bottom and a top frame. Others come with a canopy frame. All you need to do is to attach some wire mesh or netting to the top.
If you use wire netting with large gaps, like chicken wire, on the bottom of the outdoor pen and your tortoise is an energetic digger (Stars are not), be sure to put a thick layer of dirt on top of it. Otherwise your tortoise may dig down to the wire mesh and get caught in the netting.
Rabbit pens etc.
For small tortoises who are not diggers or climbers, a large outdoor rabbit cage can be used as temporary tortoise pen. Some rabbit runs even have an attached wooden hutch that looks like a dog house.
In hot climates, the hutch part of the pen should be positioned in a shady spot to prevent overheating in the sun. Check the temperature inside the hut to be sure. For added stability and safety, you can stake the pen to the ground with dog exercise pen stakes or garden pins.
For babies, the Ware Premium+ Backyard Hutch (pic) small animal pen could be used as a secure, temporary outdoor enclosure. It can be placed on a grassy area to provide natural grazing. For safety, stake it down if your tortoise is an avid digger. The pen size is 53.5" x 24.5" x 21" providing a 1,311 sq in ground/floor area.
Zoo Med also makes a wooden, triangular shaped Tortoise Play Pen (pic). This covered pen is even smaller at 39.5" x 19" x 16" (751 sq in) and only suitable as a temporary pen for little ones. It's available on amazon and ebay (direct links to pen).
Dog crates & pens
For babies and small tortoises, dog play pens and large dog crates can be used as temporary, short-term outdoor enclosures. Steel dog crates provide all around protection against predators like dogs, cats, and big birds. They also prevent the digging of escape tunnels at the bottom. Just remove the metal or plastic crate pan and cover the floor grid with dirt so that it won't get hot in the sun and burn your baby. Always provide shade. Largest dog crates are about 60" (152 cm) long.
Caution! The grid openings in large dog crates can be big enough to allow baby tortoises to escape. You'll need to attach some kind of a wall cover to prevent escapes.
A baby/dog playpen can be used as a temporary isolation pen. This North States Superyard pen folds up when not in use, can be build in any shape, and can be enlarged to any size by purchasing extra wall panels. It works with Stars, but it's NOT suitable for tortoises who like to dig and climb, unless you secure the walls and the perimeter well. Six panels provide a 18.5 sq ft area and eight panels is 34.4 sq ft.
Caution! If you use any type of lightweight, movable enclosure, check that the ground is level along the side walls. No gaps. It's best to stake the sides to the ground. This way, the tortoise can't push himself under the walls. You can also place stone blocks along the outside walls of the pen to provide more security and a sight barrier to discourage escape attempts. Netting can be attached to the top.
Heated outdoor tortoise houses
If you leave your tortoises out in colder weather, they will need a heated house. If you live in a warm and mild climate, one choice is to use plastic deck boxes, aka patio storage boxes, and modify them for tortoise houses (e.g. pic Rubbermaid 5E39). Just cut the doorway, add a safe heating element, and seal any cracks between the panels. Add insulation as needed.
Dog houses are another ready-made choice for outside tortoise dens (e.g. pic Ware Premium+) in mild climate areas. Ideally, choose a dog house that is insulated all around, including floor, walls, and roof. Obviously, the better insulated the house is, the less less energy is needed to heat it. Add extra insulation as necessary for your climate.
Once you have the dog house insulated, all you need to do is to add a heating system for warmth and possibly a ramp for tortoises to get in and out. If the house has no door, you can install both a solid door for night time and a clear plastic strip door for day time.
Plastic houses are easier to clean and disinfect, but they can get very hot in the sun. Untreated wooden houses are likely to absorb tortoise pee and poop, and thus more difficult to clean. Its best to waterproof the floor.
During the hot summer months, keep the dog house in a shaded area and install a top flap for air exchange if needed. Use a thermometer to check that inside temperatures stay at acceptable levels both during summer and winter.
You can even buy a complete dog house climate control system! They are great for heating small outdoor buildings like dog houses and tortoise sheds. These portable heat/AC units are installed on the outside of the building, not inside. Much safer!
Other outdoor tortoise house heating choices include ceramic heat emitters (bulbs that provide heat only, no light), radiant heat panels (great for background heating, installed on ceiling or wall), farm animal floor heat mats (pig blankets), and hound heaters (dog house furnaces). Use a thermostat with all types of heating devices to prevent overheating. Leave part of the house unheated to create a bit cooler area for the tortoise to retreat into when needed.
If you are installing ceramic heat emitters or other heating elements on the inside of the tortoise house, be careful. You don't want your tortoise to burn himself or the heating unit to become a fire hazard. If you are using a dog house with high pitched, removable roof, you can put a sheet of metal mesh in as a lower, inner ceiling, and then install the heat lamp(s) above it.
Zoo Med recently put a new heat mat on the market, the ReptiTherm Habitat Heater. Unlike other Zoo Med ReptiTherm heaters, the Habitat Heater (pic) is not an undertank heat mat, but a large (18"x18"), rigid plastic mat. It's a 40W pig blanket type heat pad with an automatic, thermostatic shutoff to prevent overheating. This heater is suited for larger tortoises' outdoor houses, but not for little ones. You can place it uncovered on the floor or attach it to the wall or ceiling of the house.
All heated outdoor housing should be escape and predator proofed, especially at night when you can't see what's going on. The heating system should have protection against electrical failure, especially in cold climates. Otherwise, your tortoises may be exposed to freezing temperatures and suffer serious injuries, or even death.
If you cannot keep tortoises inside your house during the winter, super well insulated outdoor sheds with backup heaters or warm, insulated garages with heated tortoise tables / houses may be the safest way to go in cold climates. The better you insulate, the more you save in heating costs!
Adult Star tortoises are not very good climbers, but even they may scale enclosure walls if cage furniture or plants are positioned too close to the walls. Babies, on the other hand, can be quite agile! Remember to place all pen items away from the walls and cap the corners if needed.
This nimble little fellow is using the flower pot for support to climb up the wall. See more photos of him. Photo courtesy of Devin Louis.
These little Burmese Stars liked to hide under this grass bush. So, I let it grow even though it was close the wall. One day I found one of the babies on top of the stone wall. He had used the grass bush like a set of stairs to climb up. He did it twice on one day. Smart little guy. If I didn't have the netting on top, he would have escaped. Needless to say, I cut that patch of grass down.
Moving tortoises between pens
Natural tortoise rearing proponents are strongly against moving tortoises between indoor and outdoor pens on a daily basis. Some tortoises do find this kind of environmental change distressing while others are fine with it.
Interestingly, I found an article on husbandry and breeding of Golden Greek tortoises that addresses this issue. It was written in 2007 by David S. Lee and Mike Lowe of the Tortoise Reserve [offsite].
Excerpt: "Group wintering indoors: Despite being moved in and out, and from pen to pen on a regular basis these turtles show no sign of stress and seem content with the routine, often feeding and mating within minutes of being moved. This is contrary to what some authors have suggested as they insist that the captive tortoises should be handled and moved as little as possible in order to assure consistency and to achieve maximum reproductive success."
I move my Star tortoises in and out daily. They seem to have adapted to it without problems. Switching between indoor and outdoor pens is a familiar routine for them.
The keyword here is "routine." Whatever you do with your tortoises, it's best to develop a schedule for it. Tortoises like familiarity and routine. New, unknown places and unexpected changes in their daily life are stressful for them.
More photosFor more tortoise enclosures, see the menu on the right and the housing examples page for other keepers' tortoise pens.