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Making an Indoor Home for a Terrestrial Turtle or Small Tortoise

You can house your terrestrial turtle or tortoise in a number of ways: glass aquariums, commercially designed reptile cages, home-built wooden enclosures, and plastic swimming pools. However, before you decide which type of cage to use, you need to figure out how large it should be. In addition, you need to make the cage escape-proof.

Size matters

Terrestrial turtles and small tortoises are active. In the wild, they forage for food and like to explore, climb, burrow, and dig in leaf litter. In captivity, their cages (often called terrariums) must allow them some of these same activities.

Consider these guidelines for choosing the right size for an enclosure:

  • For terrestrial turtles: Allow each turtle 3 square feet of floor space for each 8 inches of turtle length. For example, if you have an adult box turtle that's 12 inches long, it should have a minimum of 4-1/2 square feet of space to roam.
    If your turtle is captive-bred, this much space will probably work just fine. However, if your turtle is wild-caught, you may need to supply even more room before your turtle adapts to captivity.
  • For small tortoises: Tortoises need even more room. Small tortoises need a minimum of 3 square yards of floor space for each 12 inches of length. For example, if you have a leopard tortoise that's 12 inches long from nose to tail, you need to supply an enclosure that's 9 feet long x 9 feet wide — in other words, a small bedroom! A 6-inch pancake tortoise, however, can do quite well in an enclosure that's about 4-1/2 feet square or in one that's 2 feet wide x 9 feet long.

Choosing the proper materials

Most adult tortoises and terrestrial turtles, when housed inside, are kept in either a plastic swimming pool or a homemade enclosure.

  • A plastic children's wading pool works well for many turtles and small tortoises. It's cheap to purchase, easy to replace, and easy to clean. Unfortunately, it does take up floor space — you can't just set it up on the counter!
  • A homemade cage is as good (or bad!) as you are a carpenter. A simple wooden box with four sides and a floor can be a great cage. Be sure to paint or seal a wooden cage with a nontoxic paint or water sealant; otherwise, it will absorb wastes and become dangerous to you and your pet.

Housing terrestrial turtles or tortoises in all-glass aquariums isn't a good idea. Because the tanks are see-through all the way around, the turtles are constantly visible and suffer from the stress of being so visible. (Just imagine yourself living in a glass house!) They often beat themselves against the glass, hurting themselves in an attempt to escape. If you do decide to use an all-glass aquarium, cover three sides with paper or cardboard and provide plenty of hiding places.

Many commercial reptile cages aren't made specifically for turtles or tortoises. Wire cages aren't suitable because tortoises and terrestrial turtles will either hurt themselves on the wire or tear up the cage. In addition, wire doesn't hold in the heat needed for many tortoise species. Plastic reptile cages, on the other hand, can work for smaller species or hatchlings. These cages are solid; have a molded plastic top, bottom, and three sides (with no seams); and usually include Plexiglas or glass sliding front doors. Plastic reptile cages are easy to heat, easy to clean, and easy on the wallet. However, they're not at all suitable for adult animals of larger species.

Preventing a great escape

No matter what kind of cage or enclosure you use, it must be escape-proof. Box turtles are wonderfully inventive escape artists! The males, especially, are quite tenacious. Don't assume that your adorable little pet won't climb; given the opportunity, it might!

Make sure that the sides of the cage are high enough to prevent escape and are as vertical as possible, with no slanting sides. Don't pile cage furnishings (covered in the following section) along the sides or in the corners. And every cage, even a swimming pool, should have a cover of some kind. Hardware cloth (mesh screening) of 1/2-inch squares works very well.

If you're building a wooden enclosure, make the height of the sides twice the length of the turtle. (If your turtle is 6 inches long, for example, the sides should be at least 12 inches high.) Plus, cut a triangular piece of wood for each corner and fasten it at the top of the corner, making a small triangular roof. If the turtle tries to escape by using the corners as a brace, it will be unable to do so.

Feel the heat, baby

After you decide which type of cage or enclosure you're going to use, you need to decide how you will supply heat. Consider providing more than one source of heat, such as an incandescent light (which provides warmth and a place to bask in the artificial "sunshine") and belly heat — heat underneath your turtle or tortoise.

  • An incandescent light is a good source of heat, and you can position it anywhere you want over the cage to make a hot spot. Test the temperature of this spot by putting a thermometer in the light at a position where your turtle may rest: The temperature should be at least 85 degrees for most terrestrial turtles and even 90 degrees for many tortoises.
  • If you have a glass aquarium, you can use an undercage heater for belly heat. These heaters attach to the bottom of a glass cage, sticking to the glass, and can be positioned at one end of the tank, providing a heat gradient. However, never use one of these heaters on a plastic cage (it will melt or crack the plastic) or a wooden cage (it could start a fire).
    If you have a plastic or wooden cage, you may want to use a heat rock for belly heat. Bury the heat rock in the substrate so that it doesn't overheat and burn the turtle's or tortoise's lower shell that covers the belly). (Substrate is the stuff you spread around on the floor, like shredded newspaper, bark, or alfalfa pellets.)
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