If you are wondering where your pet tortoise could live, there are several options you can consider. Unfortunately, a typical aquarium should not be one.
Can a tortoise live in an aquarium? Absolutely not! Tortoises should not live in an aquarium or glass tanks. Aquariums lack proper ventilation and they don’t have enough space for a tortoise to pace and explore. Tortoises find aquariums, or any glass enclosures, very stressful because they can see through and will feel trapped.
The good news is that alternative housing is cheaper, easy to come by, and not difficult to set up. Let’s see how.
Tortoises Vs Turtles: A Very Important Distinction
Some people seem to get confused between turtles and tortoises and it’s important to clarify the difference between the two. Turtles are mainly aquatic creatures which spend some time on land, there are some variants of turtle which spend more time on land than in the water, but they all need to be able to access water to swim in.
Tortoises, on the other hand, are descended from turtles but they are no longer aquatic, they are completely terrestrial, and they can’t swim. This means that there is no need for a tortoise to access a large body of water because it would most likely drown in it rather than benefit from it.
Related article: Turtles swim but tortoises don’t. Here’s why.
This eliminates one of the key factors that might lead a tortoise owner to mistakenly opt for an aquarium as an indoor habitat.
Can A Tortoise Live In An Aquarium?
No. We’ve already established that tortoises are land creatures and must never be put in water (they are not sea turtles). But even an empty aquarium is not conducive to a tortoise’s health. There are three main reasons for this:
- A lack of ventilation
- Glass enclosures cause distress to tortoises
- Not enough space
Let’s tackle each of those things in turn.
A Lack Of Ventilation
Fish need ventilation too, but they get it from the oxygen pumps that are installed in the water when an aquarium is used for its proper purpose as a home for things that swim.
When you place a tortoise inside an aquarium it would need to be dry or the tortoise would drown which means that there is no oxygen pump allowing the air to circulate.
If you leave the lid on an aquarium containing a tortoise, it would eventually run out of oxygen and suffocate to death.
Moreover, the glass sides of an aquarium mean that there is no airflow within the glass box. Your tortoise won’t die of oxygen deprivation because some will be replaced by mingling with the room but once you heat up the environment (and you will need to heat it) and add a little moisture (tortoises need humidity too) then without a flow of air – you have created the ideal breeding ground for fungus, bacteria and parasites.
Related article: Do tortoises attract bugs?
It should be fairly easy to see that this is not the way to create a healthy home for your tortoise and, in fact, it can be very hazardous to their health.
Glass Enclosures And Tortoises
A tortoise’s primary sense is its eyesight. Tortoises can see well for the small creatures they are (roughly as well as we can) and they see in full color and in ultraviolet (a color that we cannot see) too. That means when you place a tortoise in a glass enclosure it can see much farther than its own little patch of land.
Related article: Do tortoises see in the dark?
Many people assume that because tortoises are pretty slow, they won’t travel far – in fact, this is not true. Tortoises love to roam about the world as free as a well… tortoise.
Related article: How far can a tortoise travel in one day?
This leads to them becoming very distressed in a glass enclosure, they can see that there is more to the world and they want to go and investigate it, yet, whenever they try to get there – they bump into this invisible wall that stops them from doing so.
Tortoises cannot understand what glass is because there is nothing like it in the wild. Even so, they are known as persistent creatures so your tortoises will stress herself out trying to get to that new place and bumping into the invisible glass wall over and over again.
Related article: Can tortoises die of stress? [6 causes and fixes]
Now, it’s fair to say that you can eliminate this problem by covering over the glass so that your tortoise cannot see out (and if you are keeping a tortoise in a glass enclosure, you really must cover the glass – as this can be really distressing for your tortoise and it’s not good for their wellbeing at all) but it’s best to avoid the problem altogether, if you can.
How Much Space Does A Tortoise Need?
Then we come to our final problem – as we’ve just said, your average tortoise likes to wander about a lot (though the giant tortoise is something of an exception to this – you definitely wouldn’t keep a giant tortoise in an aquarium either) and that means it needs a lot of floor space to simulate the kind of pacing behavior it would exhibit in the wild.
As we’ve written in How much space do pet tortoises need?, a small tortoise needs at least 8ft X 4ft (244cm X 122cm).
That’s a lot of room for a little animal, and for the bigger tortoises you will need even more. And if you have more than one tortoise you need to multiply that space requirement by more than the number of tortoises you have or you might end up with tortoises fighting.
Related article: Can tortoises fight and kill each other?
That means that most aquariums are not going to big enough for your pet to remain comfortably housed within their walls and that if they are big enough – you’d be better off selling that very valuable aquarium and buying something cheaper and better suited for your tortoise to live in.
What Would Make A Good House For A Tortoise?
So, now that we know that an aquarium is a bad idea for a tortoise’s house, where should our tortoise live?
The Dangers Of Wire Cages For Reptiles
Please don’t run out and buy the first reptile cage that you come across. Most reptiles are kept in a wire cages, mainly because many of them like to climb and the wire gives them a surface to do that on but tortoises? They’re rather more firmly attached to the ground than most reptiles are and that means they don’t need a climbing wall.
More importantly, wire isn’t kind for tortoise’s feet – you may not know this but tortoises are rather more delicate than they look and if they get injured, it can take a long time for them to heal (this is true of nearly all reptiles – it’s because they are cold blooded) and the risk of infection is high. Wire can tear the soles of their feet, badly.
Finally, there’s another problem – you tortoise needs to be kept at a fairly warm temperature and wire cages aren’t the best for retaining heat, which is good news because if they were – they might lead to fires breaking out.
But it’s bad for your tortoise and for your electricity bill, because it means they’re going to keep radiating heat out that you’d rather stayed inside and warmed up your pet. So, try to avoid buying a wire reptile cage.
A Plastic Reptile Cage
A plastic reptile cage is a much better solution. It’s a lot cheaper than a wire cage and hugely cheaper than an aquarium. These offer your pet a fully molded floor that won’t injure his or her delicate feet.
Your tortoise won’t be able to see out of it because the lower borders will be covered in plastic and they’re very easy to heat and they are designed to retain heat efficiently as well.
One great thing about plastic cages is how easy they are to clean. You can turn them out then quickly scrub them down with soap and water and be certain that you’re not harboring anything nasty inside.
The only drawback to plastic cages is that they can be hard to find in very large sizes, so, if your tortoise is huge – you may need to consider something else.
A Wading Pool
One popular choice for a tortoise home is an old plastic children’s wading pool. It’s absolutely the cheapest option for housing a tortoise and you can buy a second hand one for next to nothing on Craigslist if money is tight.
However, the average kid’s wading pool may be a lot bigger than a reptile cage or a wooden cage and that means you’re going to have to think carefully before you go this route – where, exactly, will you put it? If you’ve got plenty of floor space at home, it shouldn’t be a problem but if your home is quite small, this may be an impractical solution.
A Homemade Wooden Cage
Your final option is a homemade wooden cage; you need to ensure that you make it with four low-ish sides (the right height is roughly twice the length of the body of your tortoise) so that the ventilation never becomes a problem.
Then you must make sure that you seal the cage with a waterproof sealant which is 100% non-toxic (because you don’t want the tortoise to eat it and die).
If you’re going to paint the outside you need to use non-toxic paint and make sure it is 100% dry before you pop the tortoise in it. This is because wet paint gives off fumes which might upset your tortoise’s respiratory system.
Escaping Proofing Is Vital
Wherever you decide on where to house your tortoise it’s very important to fully escape-proof their home. Not all tortoises are great escape artists but many of them are and as we’ve already discussed, they can go a long, long way in a very short period of time.
Related article: How to find a missing tortoise
That means the sides on the housing should be completely vertical so that they offer no ramps to allow your tortoise to shuffle up. You also want to make sure that you keep any furniture items that you put in the enclosure away from the walls.
Finally, you should cover the enclosure with a light plastic mesh or with a very light breathable cloth covering – this is the final line of defense against escape. It’s often enough to dim their curiosity and send them back to ground.
The Amenities A Tortoise Must Have Indoors
When a tortoise has to live inside, you must also make sure their enclosure offers them the essential environment for their health and you’re going to need to add some things to make them feel comfortable and at home.
One of the most important elements of keeping a tortoise safely indoors is that they will need access to UVB light – your tortoise needs heat to feel comfortable.
They also need to be able to bask in UVB light which stimulates the production of vitamin D in their bodies (which is essential for them to be able to use calcium for their shell, skeleton and nervous system among other things).
Your tortoise might not be able to swim but it does need to drink. We’ve put together a complete guide on keeping a tortoise hydrated here.
Related article: How to get a tortoise to drink [Essential tips]
The most important takeaway from that guide is that tortoises don’t drink a lot of water, but they do drink water – you need to ensure they always have a source of clean, fresh water. Change it daily or risk them drying out and becoming sick.
Your tortoise will eat on a regular basis and it’s important that you have somewhere that they can feed in their habitat. You should, however, remove the food at night before you go to bed because otherwise, it can rot and attract pests to the enclosure and make life unpleasant for you and your tortoises.
Related article: How to feed a tortoise: The tortoise diet guide
Tortoises like to burrow in the wild because it gives them a place that’s safe from both predators and the weather. An indoor tortoise doesn’t lose the urge to burrow even if it doesn’t need to.
That means you should always put down some bedding which is suitable for burrowing in.
As you can see an aquarium is bad for a tortoise’s health: It does not have the rigth ventilation, does not provide enough space, and can be very distressing. It’s also bad for your wallet as there are much better and cheaper ways to house a pet tortoise.