There is a common misconception that tortoises don’t need a lot of space. While it’s true they don’t need a huge yard to run in, they do need a significant amount of space to explore, bathe, eat, relax, and sleep.
So how much space do pet tortoises need? Smaller tortoises can be kept in 8ft X 4ft (244cm X 122cm) enclosures. Permanent enclosure sides should be at least 12 inches (30 cm) higher than your tortoise while standing on his hind legs. For tortoises that are expected to get large as adults, they need more space and higher walls.
You can always go for the cheap and quick route that provides your pet tortoise enough space, but that won’t make it truly happy. Instead, why not look deeper into the space requirements of tortoises and make your own custom enclosure with your new knowledge. Your tortoise will be so much happier if you do!
How to Select the Right Size Tortoise Enclosure
You’re going to be spending a good chunk of money on housing and supplies for your tortoise. You might as well invest in the best products now to give your tort a great start. But with so many options on the market, selecting the right enclosure can be a nightmare of confusion.
Before we give estimated measurements, let’s look at some of the things you should consider before building your pet’s enclosure. Once you have answers to all these questions, you should be able to design the perfect environment for your tortoise.
How Big Will Your Tortoise Get?
The first question you should be asking is how big your tortoise is going to get. While they do grow pretty slowly on average, giving you time to slowly increase the enclosure size, it’s still important to know just how big that baby tortoise is going to get. Some breeds stay rather small, while some become veritable giants. Knowing what your tort will be like as an adult will help you make smart decisions now.
Certain tortoise breeds stay small enough to be housed inside an average bedroom or living room. For example, the Russian tortoise starts out at a mere 1-inch carapace length. That’s totally adorable, by the way. Who can resist a baby tortoise that can fit in the palm of your hand? But we digress… Full grown, Russian tortoises reach about 10-inches, though many are smaller than this.
Obviously, a 10-inch tortoise isn’t going to need an entire room of your house, but if you can provide that, the tortoise would incredibly happy. If you want one of the huge species, such as the sulcata, you’re going to need massive space, and likely not indoors.
The sulcata tortoise can get up to 150 pounds. Their massive carapace can measure a whopping 36 inches. They’re also a fast-growing tortoise by comparison. They can get around 80 pounds in 5 to 10 years. To put this into perspective, a bull mastiff dog gets up to about 120 pounds and a Great Dane can get to about 140 or so.
Clearly, you can’t expect to put a sulcata tortoise in the same enclosure as you’d use for a Russian tortoise and expect it to be happy.
While our comparison between these tortoise breeds on both ends of the size spectrum might seem extreme, it’s necessary for readers to understand the importance of size. If you don’t know how big a certain breed is going to get, you could wind up with an enclosure that’s far too small. The tortoise may stay alive in a tiny cage, but it’s not going to be healthy. Stress alone can kill these docile, sweet creatures, so do your homework.
How Many Tortoises Will You Keep?
Along with the eventual size of your tortoises, you need to consider the future and if you’ll be adding to your pets. If you plan to—or think you may decide to—add more tortoises, it’s best to start with a much bigger enclosure now. This will actually save you money in the long run.
See, housing a tortoise properly is going to cost a significant amount of money. As we mentioned earlier, you’ll want to get the best of the best, spending a lot of cold hard cash to ensure your pet’s comfort and survival. But if you only buy an enclosure big enough for one tortoise, then decide a year later to add another, you’ll need to start almost from scratch.
So, you’ve basically just doubled your costs, perhaps even more.
If you go for the larger enclosure now, you’ll already have everything you need when it’s time to add another tort to the family. Buying a bigger enclosure is usually cheaper than buying a second complete setup, but check local prices to be sure.
Does Your Tortoise Need to Hibernate?
Not all torts hibernate, but many do. Oddly enough, some individuals from hibernating breeds occasionally skip hibernating all together. While you can’t predict if your specific tortoise will hibernate or not, you can learn about their species and be prepared for their needs.
Why does this have anything to do with space? Simple: tortoises need very specific conditions to facilitate hibernating. If you don’t have enough room for this special location, your tortoise could die.
Does Your Tortoise Burrow?
Most tortoise breeds love to burrow and dig. It’s in their nature to make holes and go underground for a variety of reasons. Some just do it for fun, too. Check to see if your tortoise species likes to dig, and even if they’re not big diggers, consider giving them enough room to do so anyway. You never know what hobbies they’ll develop.
Smaller tortoise breeds will need far less digging distance than the big fellas. This is another aspect of tortoise enclosure selection that has to do with adult size. We really can’t stress that fact enough.
Figuring Out Tortoise Space Requirements
You know the size of your tortoise, what their habits may be, and how many you’ll eventually want to keep. Now that you understand these important aspects of tortoise keeping, you’re ready to start building or buying an enclosure.
Be sure the sides of your enclosure are at least 12 inches higher than your tortoise standing on her hind legs. To prevent your tort from escaping and getting injured, keep all climbable decorations away from the sides of the cage.
- Plastic tubs: Smaller breeds can live in plastic tubs when they are babies, but this is not a suitable environment for extended use. Be sure plastic tubs are very deep and discourage climbing.
- Aquariums: These come in a variety of sizes and may be suitable for small to medium-sized tortoises. Even the largest commercially available aquariums will not be suitable for large tortoise breeds, so save your money.
- Wooden enclosures: These are the easiest to build and to add to. They aren’t quite as easy to clean as glass or plastic, but they tend to be extremely sturdy. The natural wood is friendlier to tortoises than metal, plastic, or glass.
With these basic guidelines, you should be able to figure out what would work best for your tortoises. The smallest enclosure we’d suggest is 3ft by 5ft for a single Russian tortoise or other small species. That’s 15 square feet.
For every couple of inches of estimated adult size, it’s a good idea to add another foot of space. If you can, add another two or more feet per extra inch.
While a pair of Russian tortoises can happily live in an 8ft by 4ft enclosure, they’d be even happier with more space. This holds true for all breeds. More space is better than less space, so be generous!
Can a Tortoise Live Outdoors?
Yes! In fact, many tortoise breeds are happier outdoors than they ever could be inside. The caveat to this statement is that you must live in a temperate environment. It can’t get too hot or too cold outdoors or your tort could become ill. Even worse, you could wake up to a dead tortoise after a particularly cold night.
People have made some incredibly intricate outdoor enclosures for their pet tortoises. We love seeing what everyone comes up with. The best outdoor enclosures take up the entire yard. They include a variety of surfaces to explore, places to dig, and fun things to climb on.
Consider each plant that grows in the enclosure, too. Tortoises will eat just about any vegetation they come across. They don’t, however, like to eat grass unless it’s the only thing available. Be sure nothing toxic is growing in your yard.
As far as keeping your tort in your yard, put your faith in a sturdy fence. Of course, you’ll need to be sure you sink your fence at least 12 inches down. This will prevent a smaller tortoise from digging under. For the big fellas, get that fence a couple of feet below the surface to be safe.
What Happens if the Enclosure is Too Small?
First and foremost, your tortoises will be unhappy in a small enclosure. How would you feel locked in your bedroom for the rest of your life? Sure, it might be fine for a few weeks, but after a while, you’d go stir crazy. Tortoises are the same.
People don’t often envision tortoises as having a sense of adventure. However, in the wild, tortoises are mobile and eager to explore. They love to check out new areas and patrol their stomping grounds, too. When keeping tortoises in captivity, it’s our duty to give them enough space to do all of that, plus more.
Tortoises kept in small spaces get stressed. They may stop eating and begin to waste away. They may sleep too much or not enough.
Small spaces are boring. A bored tortoise might have nothing better to do than eat. This can lead to obesity and a host of medical conditions caused by overeating.
Many tortoise keepers report seeing their torts trying to climb up and out of the enclosure all day long, every single day. At first glance, it might be cute, but this is actually a bad sign. Bored tortoises try to escape. It’s a sign that the enclosure is too small and the tortoise is desperate for something to do.
Small spaces are harder to keep clean, if you can believe it. The reason they’re harder is that they will need to be cleaned much more frequently to prevent a toxic buildup of bacteria. Many tortoise keepers can’t keep up with that kind of demand, so sanitation falls to the wayside and suddenly your tortoise is getting sick.
Don’t Forget the Tortoise Play Yard!
So many people are so focused on the tortoise enclosure that they forget there are other options. If space is a concern for you, having a tortoise might not be out of reach. The enclosure is just your tortoise’s home base. There are lots of other places he can get some exercise and explore, then head back to his home base for a nap.
We love the idea of tortoise playpens. These are sometimes elaborate setups that span the whole house. But more often than not they’re simple fence and gate systems set up around the room to keep a tortoise contained. Some are just a baby gate across a doorway!
Many tortoise breeds won’t bother trying to get through a fence after the first few pushes if they have other things to explore instead. Use sturdy puppy playpens for really small spaces or for out in a non-fenced yard.
For indoors, we suggest wooden baby gates across doors, as those gates are much heavier and harder to push over. Plastic ones work well, too, though they can feel flimsy compared to wood.
To contain messes, lay down blankets, rugs, or washable puppy piddle pads! Many torties don’t relieve themselves in the house, however, so this might not even be necessary. If your tortoise likes to go potty in a particular location in his tank, you’re probably safe to skip this part.
If you allow your tortoise to roam the house, be sure there are no toxic plants within reach. Also, check for small objects they might choke on. Other pets might harass your tort, so keep them in another room during play time. And lastly, avoid letting your tort spend too much time on slippery floors.
It’s true that tortoises require a lot of space compared to their body size, but it’s totally worth it. They’re awesome pets that add a unique kind of experience to any household. When you take the time to learn what your tortoise needs, then spend the money and effort to provide it, you will be rewarded with a lifelong best friend!