How to keep a tortoise outdoors - TortoiseOwner.com

How To Keep A Tortoise Outdoors: Full Guide

If you have a tortoise or are thinking about buying one, you will probably be wondering if they can live outside or whether you should keep them indoors? Fortunately, at least for some part of the year your tortoise should be very happy to live outside as long as you pay attention to the important details for them.

In this article, we’ll look at exactly what you need to provide for a pet tortoise to be healthy and happy outside! Amongst other things, you’ll need to know the right time of the year for a tortoise to be outside, how to keep them safe, and how to set up the best habitat.


Can A Tortoise Live Outside?

Yes, of course a tortoise can live outside – well, to be specific, wild tortoises live outside and are able to survive in a wide range of terrains and climates. That doesn’t mean that a tortoise can live outside everywhere but, in the majority of cases a tortoise is able to live outside for at least some of the year.

Going outside means that a tortoise has a chance to bask in the sun, which is an essential practice for any reptile and particularly valuable for tortoises. The sun’s rays enable the tortoise to manufacture Vitamin D3 in their bodies.

This vitamin is used to allow the tortoise’s system to make use of calcium which makes up the shell, the skeleton and has a very important role in the nervous system too. Without an adequate supply of Vitamin D3, the tortoise may begin to suffer from metabolic bone disease which is a serious condition that may result in its death.

Being outside also means that your tortoise can enjoy the freedom to wander around and while you may think of your tortoise as very slow – in reality they like to walk and they can walk great distances in a single day.

What Time Of Year Is Best For A Tortoise To Be Outside?

It depends on the tortoise and where you live in the world. A tortoise in Florida can spend most of the year outside thanks to the state’s pleasant warm tropical climate. A tortoise in the UK, however, shouldn’t spend as much time outdoors as his compatriot in Florida – the UK’s temperate climate is just not suited to all year outdoor living for tortoises.

A tortoise in Alaska probably won’t spend very much time outside at all because a cold blooded animal isn’t really designed for the low temperatures of that state.

You can get a rough idea by looking up the preferred temperatures for your tortoise’s breed (a desert tortoise will like it hotter than a Mediterranean forest tortoise) and then at the average temperatures at that time of year in your neighborhood.

It’s important to remember though that you can get vast differences between “the average” and the actual temperature, so, when your tortoises are outside, you need to keep an eye on the temperature.


Can A Tortoise Get Too Hot Outside?

Yes, while it’s rarer for a tortoise to get too warm than too cold – it’s a genuine problem and in  the wild, a hot tortoise is going to be able to seek shade but you will need to ensure that they have somewhere to shelter when they’re outside your home.

Fortunately, this just means having some tall plants that cast a shadow across some part of the area in which your tortoises live. If the tortoises can reach the plants, they need to be non-toxic because you don’t want them to harm your tortoise.

Some tortoise breeds have a preference for sheltering under particular plants but if they’re not available – they will shelter anywhere rather than boil.

Your tortoise may also decide to burrow into the ground to take refuge from the heat. This is very natural behavior – tortoises love to burrow in the wild. However, you want to make sure that there’s an area of the garden or yard that they can easily burrow into. Just lightly dig over the topsoil to break it up – the tortoise will do the rest.

You can also provide a simple “hide” for them to shelter under, a piece of white plastic or painted white wooden board (white to reflect away the heat) is ideal for this.

During the summer months, you want to ensure you increase the number of soaks your tortoise takes to ensure that she stays hydrated. If you don’t know how to bathe a tortoise – check this article out:

Related article: How to clean, bate, and wash a tortoise SAFELY

It’s very important that your tortoise always has access to clean, fresh drinking water while they’re outside. Your tortoise may not drink very much, but if they can’t have a drink when they need one, they become ill.

Related article: How to get a tortoise to drink [Essential tips]

Please make sure that you don’t allow your tortoise to stay in a greenhouse unless a.) the door is open, and it can get out and b.) you are around to keep an eye on it. The temperature inside a greenhouse can skyrocket in a very short period of time and if the tortoise can’t get out, it may boil to death.


Can A Tortoise Get Too Cold Outside?

Yes, not only can a tortoise get too cold – it can even freeze to death. Because of this large risk to your tortoise, most people will choose not to let their tortoise spend the winter in the garden.

If they brumate (hibernate) then you can bring them in and let them hibernate in the refrigerator which reduces the risks of freezing to death and if not (and many species of tortoise don’t need to brumate), then it’s a good time to pop them in an indoor enclosure and enjoy their company until the world warms up a bit.


Pick The Right Species Of Tortoise For Outdoor Living

Given that all species of tortoise can live outdoors you might think that choosing the right species for outdoor living is going to be easy but you need to pay some real attention to finding a tortoise breed that lives in a place with a similar climate to where you live.

If you live in London, for example, that you’re going to find that nearly impossible because tortoises don’t generally live in places that have very cold winters but a Mediterranean tortoise is likely to be more comfortable for much of the year than a desert tortoise will be.

To work this out, just look up the breed of your potential pet using Google. If you live somewhere tropical or sub-tropical you should be able to find a perfect match. In temperate climates, choose a breed that comes from a sub-tropical environment.

If you don’t intend to keep the tortoise outdoors, on the other hand, you should opt for a species that’s as small as possible.

Related article: How much space do pet tortoises need?


How To Ensure You Can Identify Your Tortoise

One thing that you should be aware of is that if you keep your tortoise or tortoises outside then you may need to be able to identity them at some point in the future. Tortoises are notorious escape artists – they tend to burrow out of their enclosures even if you’ve been careful to prevent them.

Sadly, in some parts of the world, tortoises are also very much targets for thieves and they may be “stolen to order”.

You should:

  • Take plenty of photographs of your tortoise and, in particular, take some from the front, some from the side, and some from above.
  • Make sure to note and photograph any unusual markings or damage that your tortoise may have.
  • Get some detailed shots of the plastron (that’s the upper part of the shell) this can help to demonstrate markings and any pigment or stretch patterns on the surface
  • You should keep these photos stored in a secure place and ideally in a hard copy format which has been signed and dated – proving the ownership of your tortoise is very easy when you do this and next to impossible if you don’t

You should never:

  • Mark your tortoise. Firstly, most things like UV pens will quickly wear off the tortoise and lead you to believe that the tortoise is marked when it isn’t. That means if somebody steals them or finds them – the markings are worthless. Secondly, anything that will permanently mark a tortoise is essentially cruel, you can’t tattoo your tortoise or scrape designs into the shell.
  • Forget that your tortoise is unique. Human beings have fingerprints. The photos you take of the tortoise’s plastron are essentially the equivalent of fingerprinting your tortoise – the markings are 100% unique to them and they cannot be faked by anyone else.

Related article: How to look for a missing tortoise

The primary purpose of this is to ensure that you can get your tortoise back if it goes missing or is stolen, it’s not to leave the tortoise scarred or stressed. Your tortoise will not be bothered by being photographed and given how ubiquitous camera phones are now, it’s very easy for you to arrange such photos too.


How To Keep Tortoise Hatchlings Secure Outside

Ideally, you should keep hatchlings indoors. They’re safer there and it’s much easier to meet their basic needs. If you do have to keep them outside, you need to keep them is a very small boxed off area and there should be absolutely no means of escape (which means you need to drive fencing deep down in the earth to prevent burrowing).

You should keep this area covered with a form of mesh wire that ensures that predators can’t stop by and help themselves to a tiny tortoise snack.

You also need to make certain that they have some form of shade available to them so that they can hide away from the sun if it gets too hot or if it rains too hard.


What Makes For A Good Outdoor Tortoise Enclosure?

For adult tortoises, you’re going to need to build a larger secure enclosure that allows them to live in peace without being able to climb out of the area or burrow under it.

You need to ensure that this area offers a sufficient amount of space for your tortoises to engage in their natural behavior. This isn’t an exact science given that tortoises can vary dramatically in size, a small Russian tortoise doesn’t need as much room as a Giant Tortoise.

Micro-habitats Matter

Ideally, the area given should form a series of “micro-habitats” – that is they should offer shady areas, rocky areas, places to bask and there should be vegetation all around.

It’s vital for you to inspect any vegetation where your tortoise will live and ensure it’s not poisonous.

Unfortunately, tortoises are not born with discerning palates and they will happily snack on pretty much anything.

Don’t Keep Them On The Flat

You should also try to make the area with some form of contouring, a tortoise kept on a perfectly flat surface is likely to become a bored tortoise in no time at all. Some areas should have rounded edges and others should offer gentle slopes. This can also aid with the tortoise’s ability to burrow.

When tortoises fight, they can end up overturned and the ability to push themselves against an earth contour can give them the ability to right themselves. You shouldn’t wait though if you see an overturned tortoise indoors or outdoors, pick it up and put it down the right way up.

The other danger of flat surfaces is that they tend to see all the shade disappear at about the same time of day and your tortoise might get too warm and get dehydrated or even die.

Material Choice Is Easy

You can make a tortoise enclosure out of almost any material. As long as it’s solid enough for the tortoise not to chew through – wood, brick, stone, concrete are all ideal. If you want to put features in your enclosure you can make them out of the same material.

Do Tortoises Need A “Run”?

Yes, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, but a tortoise should have somewhere to run about and play. This is very much essential if you are keeping a family of tortoises together as without regular socialization, they are very likely to start to stop enjoying each other’s company. Tortoises are very much solitary creatures by nature.


How Do I Keep My Yard/Garden Safe For My Tortoises?

You need to keep your tortoise in its enclosure or if it’s a larger tortoise that you’re giving from roam in your yard/garden then you need to keep the whole area safe.

Firstly, you should bury wire mesh under the area that the tortoise will have access to – this will stop it from burrowing out and under the fences, etc.

You should ideally also use fencing that goes deep with wire mesh between each fence post too. The number one cause of lost tortoises is always going to be the tortoise accidentally burrowing its way out of home and then wandering off to investigate somewhere else.

About Tortoises And Dogs

Your next step is to protect your tortoises from predators, often the only real predators that a tortoise has to deal with are other domesticated animals – the dog and the cat.

Dogs are the biggest cause of tortoise death in much of the world. While a cat may frighten a tortoise and maybe give it a nasty scratch – the tortoise’s shell is going to keep it safe from most cat attacks.

A dog’s teeth on the other hand are perfectly capable of crunching through the bony layer of the shell to the soft tortoise beneath. That means you need to secure the area using mesh or other types of protection against dogs and cats.

Related article: Can a tortoise survive a dog bite?

About Tortoises And Tortoise Thieves

There is also a substantive risk of thievery in some parts of the world. In many countries trading in tortoises is either illegal or only legal if the tortoise is bought from an authorized dealer. This has driven the price of these creatures up to the point where they are worth stealing.

If you live in one of these areas, you should consider using Passive Infrared Detectors and motion detectors to set up security over your tortoises (who move too slowly to set off the motion detectors and their cold blood won’t trigger the infrared either).

You might even consider installing some form of CCTV to watch over their enclosure for you. You really can’t be too cautious if thieves operate in your area.


Will I Need To Set Up Heat And UV Lighting Sources?

There is quite a lot of disagreement on this topic in tortoise owning circles. One group says that you absolutely don’t need to do anything – wild tortoises deal with living outside, so your tortoises will deal with it too.

The truth is that very few tortoise owners have the luxury of keeping their tortoises in exactly the same conditions that they face in the wild – thus, there’s a chance that at some point – your tortoise may need some heat and light.

So, what should you do? You have two choices:

  1. Set up a small tortoise house – inside make sure you’ve installed a UVB lighting system to keep your tortoises warm and toasty. A lot of tortoise owners do this but this isn’t the greenest solution and it might leave you with a fairly large electricity bill
  2. Set up a tortoise conservatory – this looks something like a miniature cloche and can be made out of a fairly tough transparent poly carbonate roof with a not-so-transparent poly carbonate base. This plastic will last pretty much forever, so you won’t need to buy another one any time in the future and it will act as a tiny and, thus, gentle greenhouse. The heat inside won’t last forever but it should keep your tortoise warm until you can return and move the tortoise somewhere warmer if the temperature suddenly dips. This costs nothing to light and heat.

Related article: Can tortoises live in a greenhouse?


Do Tortoises Enjoy Being Rained On?

Your tortoises are not so fragile that they can’t handle a little rain, but they shouldn’t spend long periods of time absolutely soaking wet. That’s because they are prone to a condition known as “shell rot”.

This is a fungal infection or sometimes a bacterial infection, which can lead to severe damage to the carapace. So, while it’s OK to let them out in the rain, you ought to dry them down afterwards and if the rain is part of extra cold weather conditions then you should, perhaps, move them indoors.

Related article: Do tortoises like the rain?

However, if you have already given your tortoise some outdoor shelter and/or they have burrows, they will probably move quickly out of the rain and they will dry off fairly quickly.


Can My Tortoise Live In An Outdoor Shed?

It’s very common in temperate countries or places with a high risk of tortoise thieves to keep a tortoise in a secure garden/back yard shed for the night.

This can be used to offer warmer, drier conditions than they might face outside. Given that tortoises don’t need food overnight, you can just put the tortoise(s) in an open box (one per tortoise please) with some bedding and a little plate of water.

In some cases, an owner with a few more resources to spare will link up the shed to the outdoor area and then the tortoises can use the shed to shelter from the rain or wind, whenever it wants to.


What Sort Of Security Measures Should I Use For My Tortoise’s Shed?

If you want to introduce additional security measures for the shed to prevent theft, here are 5 suggestions:

  • Strong padlocks on doors and windows
  • Tamper proof bolts wherever possible
  • Door alarms and window alarms
  • Passive infrared sensors – these are always the best first line of defense to tell what or whom is in your garden
  • Consider linking the infrared sensors to a unit which dials for a security team or even the police, however, be sure you understand the costs of these services before you employ them – they can work out very expensive if they have to come out too often

Conclusion

Now you understand exactly what you need to do to keep happy, healthy tortoises in your outdoor environment. Fortunately, wild tortoises live outdoors – so, it’s not too challenging to ensure you provide your pets with a similar environment in which they can thrive for many, many years!

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