Housing Tortoises Indoors and Building Custom Enclosures

Boy holding pet tortoise

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While keeping a tortoise indoors is not the preferred option, you can select the right type of enclosure to make it more acceptable. Learn what tortoises need and how you can best provide it.

For all captive animals, it is ideal to provide a home as similar to the animal's natural environment as possible. This is especially true for tortoises—including living outdoors. Tortoises are generally best kept in outdoor pens in climates similar to their natural environment. Aim to keep tortoises from arid climates in arid areas and tropical tortoises in tropical areas. If this is not possible, setting up an outdoor pen for at least part of the year is the next best choice.

Except for certain circumstances (hatchlings, ill tortoises, tortoises not healthy enough to hibernate), keeping tortoises indoors is the least desirable option. One of the biggest problems with indoor housing is providing adequate floor space. Remember that most tortoises get quite large, so a correspondingly large enclosure is needed. In addition, you'll want something that is relatively easy to clean and that gives you the ability to set up different temperature zones for the tortoise.

Avoid Aquariums

A glass tank is not the best option for indoor housing. For the majority of turtles, even the largest glass tanks are just too small and have poor ventilation. Big tanks are also hard to maneuver and clean. Tortoises need lots of floor space for roaming around, but the sides just need to be tall enough that the tortoise can't climb over (whereas aquariums tend to have tall sides). Unless the tank is very large, providing a proper temperature gradient for a tortoise is too difficult in a glass tank. In addition, tortoises seem to prefer non-transparent enclosures—they probably feel very exposed and vulnerable with glass-sided tanks, and often spend a lot of time trying to push through the transparent glass as well.

Turtle Tables

A homemade wooden enclosure is usually the preferred method for indoor housing. You will see these called turtle tables or tortoise tables. Essentially, these are a large wooden box with lots of floor space and fairly short sides. Typically, UVA/UVB lighting and heat lamps can be suspended over the wooden enclosure to provide light and heat needs. Some sort of shallow water supply is also necessary.

You can build a tortoise table yourself or you can buy them ready-made. Here are some ideas for building or modifying your own turtle table if you must have your tortoise indoors:

  • Tortoise Trust: This simple but ingenious design uses plant trays to line the enclosure with varied substrates.
  • Pettortoise.co.uk: This very basic small enclosure is meant for hatchlings, but this gives you a good general idea about constructing a wood home.

Other Options

For smaller tortoises, some owners use plastic storage containers. These have the advantage of being quite lightweight (so they are easy to clean) and they come in pretty large sizes. However, they do have tall sides, so ventilation may become an issue. Cutting down the sides or drilling holes for ventilation are options to modify them.