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Understanding Indoor Housing and Vivarium Design for Tortoises

Andy C. Highfield

One of the most frequent issues that we are asked about is the best type of indoor accommodation for terrestrial tortoises. This question also crops up regularly on the Tortoise Trust Discussion List. I have prepared this article in order to explain why the answer is not quite as straightforward as many people seem to assume. In order to provide genuinely safe, healthy and practical housing a number of fairly complex (and often conflicting) factors need to be considered, and where necessary, acceptable compromises arrived at.

The first thing to point out is that as a general rule, tortoises of all kinds are not well-suited to indoor, vivarium-style maintenance. If you want an animal that will be happy, and do well, in a vivarium environment – don’t get a tortoise. Get a gecko or other small lizard.

Tortoises are best suited to well-designed outdoor accommodation, in secure, predator-proof pens located within the correct bio-climatic zone. In other words, if you want to keep African Spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), you would be best advised to live in a warm, dry climate, and be prepared to devote a lot of space to the animal. If you live in a small apartment in Northern Europe or anywhere else with a similar climate, you should avoid species like this. Conversely, if your interest is in keeping tropical, high humidity species such as Redfoot tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria), you need to understand that no matter what efforts you make, you will never achieve truly optimum housing unless you live in a semi-tropical environment and can devote space out of doors to creating a secure pen. Everything else will be just a compromise. This point does need to be stressed, because some sellers will certainly try to convince you otherwise.  Don’t fall for it.

We hear it so often: “they definitely assured us that the tortoise would be fine in a 30 Gallon tank”. Take it from us. It won’t.

There are very, very few terrestrial tortoises that are suited to indoor accommodation for most of the time. All of these are relatively small species. Testudo kleinmanni (the Egyptian tortoise, for example). Even these need a more space than most people imagine, and to provide an optimum environment, some secure outdoor accommodation is certainly advisable in addition for use in fine weather. The larger species, Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis), African Spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), Redfoot and Yellowfoot tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria and G. denticulata), will all require a lot more indoor (and outdoor) space than most people are prepared, or able, to provide. So, the first rule is to do adequate research before obtaining a tortoise, and satisfy yourself that not only will you be able to provide adequate space now (for that 2-inch hatchling) but that you will be able to provide adequate space and facilities in 10 years time when it is over 2 feet long and weighs 70 pounds.

The factors that need to be considered are:

Adult size of the animal

If you are going to keep the larger species even partially indoors, you should be aware that heating costs are likely to be very high, and that larger tortoises also make large amounts of mess. This can result in a less-than-pleasant aroma permeating your house. Ideally, for the larger tortoises, consider a separate, heated building. This is discussed in another article on this website (click to follow underlined links).

The smaller species, members of the genus Testudo (including Mediterranean and Russian tortoises), and the smaller tropical species such as Hingeback tortoises (Kinixys), can be housed satisfactorily indoors in bad weather. We would never advise, however, 100% indoor housing for any tortoise.

Vivarium ‘tanks’

These are often what most people think of first when considering an indoor habitat. Their disadvantages include the fact that:

All but the very largest will have an inadequate floor area even for a small tortoise

In addition:

  • Poor ventilation. There is a high incidence of tortoises developing ‘Runny Nose Syndrome’,  other respiratory diseases, and shell infections if kept in small fully enclosed type glass or wooden vivarium-style housing. Specifically, the lack of ventilation can result in mould, fungus and similar problems arising. There are ways to improve this situation, including forced-air ventilation, but this does add to complexity and cost.
  • Lack of temperature gradients. A small enclosed vivarium is likely to be unsuitable for any species that requires a temperature gradient, or differential, to enable self-selection of body temperature. Failure to provide this will have very serious long-term consequences for health. Again, this can be overcome if very large units are employed.
  • Lack of microclimates. All but the very largest ‘tank’ systems will have inadequate space and temperature gradients (see above) to permit the tortoise to self-select a suitable microclimate. Again, this has important consequences for long-term health and in addition such deprivation will result in unavoidable stress
  • Lack of “interest” and boredom. Tortoises that are kept in small enclosed "tanks" tend to exhibit lethargy (inactivity) and other unnatural behaviour patterns. By contrast, tortoises in suitable outdoor enclosures, or suitably large and well-designed indoor enclosures, will be much more alert and active.
  • Hygiene. Enclosed vivarium-style enclosures tend to be difficult to maintain, and pathogens can build up rapidly. This is one of the reasons we see so many sick animals that have a history of being kept in such accommodation.
  • Cost. Vivarium and glass “fish tank” enclosures are extremely costly per square inch of usable space for a tortoise. Tortoises only need sides that are high enough to prevent escape. Fish tanks in particular are designed to provide maximum cubic capacity, not maximum floor area (which is what really matters to a tortoise). Spend the available budget creating as much FLOOR AREA as possible. Don't waste it on other things.

In our experience, most beginners fail to realise the importance of the issues described above, or simply believe the “expert” who promises that a 20/30/40 (take your pick) gallon aquarium, plus a heat pad, heat rock and basking lamp is “all you’ll ever need”. This is simply wrong, and as a result, many newly acquired tortoises rapidly become ill and require costly veterinary treatment or die. ”

For hatchling tortoises, there are much better (and much lower cost) options available. HERE IS ONE BASIC, BUT EFFECTIVE HATCHLING HOUSING system.

For larger juveniles and adults, they keyword once again is “space”. The more space you can provide, the better. No tortoise is going to be happy and healthy in a cramped environment.

For smaller animals, we highly recommend the TABLE TOP TERRARIUM method. This is most suitable for arid and semi-arid habitat species, but can be used with high humidity tropical species provided you adequately humidify the room containing the unit. For ideas on how to provide humidity for rainforest and tropical tortoises, we recommend you take a look at THIS ARTICLE.

For larger animals, you may have to consider converting part (or all) of a room of your house into a suitable habitat. We warned that this could begin to get extremely costly, so before taking on any of the larger species, investigate the implications carefully!

All indoor housing systems will require (click links):



All enclosures will also require:


By now, hopefully it should be clear that you certainly will need much more than “a tank and a heat pad” to provide a safe and healthy indoor habitat for any tortoise, and that when designing your accommodation, you must take into account the specific needs of that particular animal. It is no use providing housing suitable for a high humidity tropical species to a semi-arid habitat species such as a Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii). Mixing of species is also not advisable. Different tortoises not only have very different (often incompatible) environmental and dietary needs, but can also carry disease organisms that they themselves have developed some tolerance to, but which can prove rapidly fatal in other species.


  • Do not just accept what you are told without independent unbiased verification. Unfortunately, many people who sell tortoises are not experienced enough to give accurate husbandry advice.  There are good pet stores with enthusiastic and knowledgable staff, but do make absolutely certain that anyone you take advice from really does understand the animal's needs.
  • Fish-tanks are fine for fish. Not tortoises.
  • Investigate the care requirements of all animals well in advance of purchase.
  • Juvenile tortoises will eventually reach adult proportions. Be sure to familiarise yourself with what keeping a large tortoise really means. Do you really have the space to give it a high quality of life? Can you afford the lighting and heating or humidification/de-humidification costs?

(c) 2004-2009 Tortoise Trust