1.) No deep dishes
Use a very shallow water dish with a fresh hatchling and check that he can get in and out of it easily. Othervise he may get trapped in it or 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.
2.) Dish placement
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 tiny babies. You don't want him to get trapped under the hot basking bulb while he's struggling to flip over or until help arrives. Overheating can be fatal.
3.) Food grade materials
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 should always be nontoxic. Plastic items manufactured for non-food purposes can be made with unknown materials of questionable quality and toxicity.
4.) No ramp bowls for babies
Most ramp type reptile bowls are not a good choice as water dishes for small baby tortoises. Little ones can flip over while attempting to climb up the high sides, end up upside down in the water, and drown. However, agile adult tortoises, like box turtles and Greeks, are usually fine with them. In any case, observe your tortoise to see if the bowl you are using is safe for him.
5.) Saucers may have toxins
Flower pot saucers are popular as tortoise water dishes, but they are not really intended as storage dishes for water used for human or animal consumption. Both glazed and unglazed terracotta 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.
1.) Hard eating surfaces
A common recommendation is to feed tortoises on a hard surface, like a large tile, to help prevent beak and nail overgrowth. The thinking is that rubbing against a hard surface while eating would natural grind down the beak and nails. This may or may not work.
2.) Tough foods & natural grazing
Feeding some "tough" foods that require biting, pulling, and shredding by the tortoise is probably the most beneficial way to keep 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.
Water dish progression. Start babies with very shallow water dishes. See how the height of the above water dishes gradually increases. For a tiny, just born tortoise hatchling (6-10 g), I give a small food grade plastic lid as a water dish. After a little while, I switch to a bit bigger, but still very shallow, plastic food jar or coffee can lid. Finally, I switch to Repti Rock "FOOD" dishes ("water" dishes are taller) until the youngster is big enough to handle taller dishes.
As seen above, the Zoo Med Repti Rock "FOOD" dishes (not the taller "water" versions) are much lower sided than even the smallest terracotta flower pot saucers. Scroll down for info.
1.) 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 a tough problem to solve when keeping tortoises indoors on any kind of a loose substrate. Some tortoises even eat their bedding on purpose.
Caution: NO loose bedding is 100% safe to eat, unless it's an actual food item like dried grass or edible leaf litter. ANY non-food substrate can cause fatal intestinal obstructions if it is consumed in large enough quantities.
According to some tortoise keepers, plain garden soil with no additives, moss, and finely ground coconut coir with no long fibers are some of the safest non-food indoor substrates to use.
Other keepers promote tree or bark chips, like fir and cypress, as the safest substrates for tortoises. However, if these chip chunks are swallowed in a mass they can block the intestines as well and possibly cause an obstruction.
There is no general agreement on the very best indoor substrate for tortoises. Whatever you choose, some will love it while others will hate it. See the substrates page.
2.) Food trays, clips, and tubs
Whatever substrate you use, do your best to keep tortoise food away from it to avoid accidental ingestion of bedding. 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 or top of the indoor pen. You could also try using thick, 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.
3.) Keep the bowels moving
Keep your tortoise well hydrated to prevent constipation. In tortoises, dehydration is probably 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 may help "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.
I buy these shallow depth New Star fast food trays by the dozen from Amazon for less than $2 a piece. I like the 12" x 16" and the 10" x 14" trays. They are available in several colors, so double check that you select the color you want.
These trays are made of polypropylene (PP) and are food service approved so they are safe for tortoises. They are not super slippery under tortoises' feet because they have a bit of textured surface.
I use them all the time and for a lot of purposes. For example, as tortoise food trays, water trays for little ones, substrate trays for coco coir and sphagnum moss in baby tubs, and as shelf liners on wire shelving units. I also use them to double plate food and water dishes in indoor tubs to help keep substrate out of them.
I have piles of these restaurant trays. I use them all the time, for example, as food platters, for doubleplating food dishes to keep substrate away from food, and as shelf liners on wire shelf units. Really, for everything.
My favorite shallow height tortoise dishes. Exo Terra's Granite Rock "food" dishes (top left, top right) and Zoo Med's Repti Rock "food" dishes (bottom left size XL, bottom right size M). I do not use the higher "water" models.
1.) Repti Rock food dish
Zoo Med’s Repti Rock FOOD dish (pic above) is my favorite tortoise water dish for babies and small tortoises. This dish is available in various colors and in four sizes from small to extra large. All sizes have very low sides.
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 and not suitable for tortoises.
2.) Granite Rock food dish
I like Exo Terra's Granite Rock FOOD dishes (pic above) for indoor water dish use because they are low, heavy, stable, and don't tip over when my tortoises trample through them.
Granite Rock "FEEDING" dishes (not the higher "water" models) are available in three sizes. The smallest size with the lowest sides is best for a baby who has graduated from a flat plastic lid dish to something a little higher. Babies can climb in and out of it fairly easily, and it's large enough for a small baby tortoise to soak himself.
On a soft, cushy substrate, it's best to place water dishes on trays or large tiles. This makes the dishes more stable and helps keep substrate out of them.
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.
Note: The Exo Terra "FEEDING dishes" and "water dishes" have different designs. The matching water dishes are not recommend for tortoises because they have higher sides. Tortoises need flat dishes because their shells don't bend over high edges.
1.) Reptile waterers
Reptile waterers 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 temporary water dishes if you leave your tortoises alone overnight. When the water area is so narrow, tortoises cannot really poop into it allowing the water stay cleaner while the owner is out of town for a day or two.
2.) Poultry waterers
Some tortoise keepers use chicken waterers, aka poultry fountains, as indoor water dishes. These waterers have a large water reservoir 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.
3.) Dog & cat waterers
For larger tortoises, dog waterers may work. 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.
4.) Reptile waterfalls & misters
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 of these units have foggers or misters as attachments.
ALWAYS provide a drinking water bowl 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 baby tortoises because they can drown if the water dish is too deep. A layer of small rocks 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. You can also 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 and/or small plastic patio tables with legs cut shorter as sun shades for water bowls. Cover over the water dishes helps tortoises feel safe 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.
Always check the labels on garden hoses. Regular garden hoses 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.
For over eager eaters you can create a feeding station by taping plastic food containers together and then cutting the top openings (top left). For sturdier dishes, you can glue food plastic lids to tiles (top right). Placing outdoor water dishes in the shade keeps the water cool (bottom left). For drinking water hoses, choose garden hoses that are labeled "lead free" or "drinking water safe" (bottom right).