Outdoor Enclosures

Why Outdoors?

First, a reminder: All turtles and tortoises need access to natural unfiltered sunlight to maintain good health. The UVB rays of sunlight stimulate vitamin D production in the skin of turtles. Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium in the diet from the digestive tract and turtles need calcium to build their shells as well as other bones. Even the best artificial UVB lights are not an adequate substitute for unfiltered sunlight. Sunlight must not be filtered through plasitc or glass or any kind of glazing such as window panes or greenhouse panels. These things filter out most of the beneficial UVB rays of the sun.

Habitats for Land Turtles and Tortoises

Now that you have decided you want to adopt a land turtle or tortoise, you need to make an outdoor enclosure for it. Ideally, escape proofing the fence around your backyard with wire would be great but not everyone can or desires to give their complete backyard over to their turtles or tortoises. Although, if you are considering adopting a large tortoise species such as a Sulcata, you should seriously consider giving it a good portion of your yard if not all. Sulcatas can grow to be well over 150 pounds and need lots of room and enclosures that are heavily fortified.

After researching some basic requirements for the specific species you will be adopting, you may need some ideas before starting to build an outdoor enclosure.

If you decide on a wire enclosure the wire must be buried under the ground surface to prevent turtles and tortoises from digging out. Again, some species may need sides buried as much as 1 or 3 feet to keep them in. Wire may not work for the larger tortoises.

Note that using only wire may not be optimum. If your turtle or toroise can see through the boundary of the enclosure they may continually try to go through it. Consider lining at least the bottom, up to above the eye level of the turtle, with something solid (allowing for drainage).

If you choose to leave the top open, you must bend the top of the wire over 3-4 inches to keep the climbers in. Many turtles are great climbers. A lip will help keep them in.

If you have predators in your area such as raccoons, oppossums, rats and herons, etc. you might consider putting a wire top over the enclosure. Small turtles and tortoises are most at risk but it has been known for adults to be attacked also. Pet dogs must not be able to jump into enclosures or be allowed to see and bark at turtles or disturb them in any way. Dogs love to use turtles as chew bones. Turtles can be seriously injured and killed by seemingly small dogs.

If you decide on a wood enclosure, use of pressure treated wood is recommended if you want it to last. Use wood that has not been treated with arsenic. Ask your local lumber supply about this. A good alternative is pressure treated landscape timbers. These are inexpensive and readily available. Be sure to get those that are treated with ACQ (Ammoniacal Copper Quat) and not CCA (Chromated Copper Arsenate). The treatment should be documented on a tag stapled to the end of each timber.

All enclosures must have the sides buried and a top lip also to keep the diggers and climbers in. Nailing 1"x4" or 1"x6" boards to the tops of landscape timbers with the overhang towards the inside of the habitat will limit escapes. At a minimum, put a lip over the corners.

Make sure wood and solidly flashed enclosures have drainage holes of somekind to prevent flooding during heavy rains.

Plant your enclosure with appropriate non-toxic plants. Melissa Kaplan's Plants for Herps Enclosures with areas that are heavily planted allow turtles/tortoises different areas to hide in and regulate their body temperatures as needed. Well planted enclosures not only look better, they provide a variety of plants for your turtle's/tortoise's dining pleasure. This helps to make a happy healthy animal.

Water for Land Turtles and Tortoises

Land turtles, and to a lesser extent tortoises, need a supply of fresh, clean water in the habitat. Small containers for drinking and soaking are not recommended for land turtles as these types of containers are difficult to keep clean due to turtles defecating in them. Turtles may drink the contaminated water before you have a chance to clean it out. This allows the spread of diseases between turtles. Small containers will also over heat in the sun and be dangerous for your turtle.

Obtaining a small piece of pond liner and digging a small shallow pond several inches deep (depth depends on the size of your turtle/tortoise) with gently sloping sides is best. This provides a larger volume of water which remains cleaner longer and is not as likely to over heat in the sun. Since some box turtles and most tortoises are not good swimmers, gently sloping sides allow for safe and easy access in and out of the pond.

Using a natural (dirt or clay) pond may not be the best idea unless you have a really large pond that is not overcrowded. Smaller natural ponds that support a number of turtles or tortoises will accumulate waste and cannot be properly cleaned. For this reason use a concrete lined pond or one made with pond liner. For land turtles, you want a shallow pond no deeper than a foot in the middle with 80 to 100% shade.

For land turtles, the bottom should slope gently to the edges so that they can walk or swim to the edges to get out easily.

A small pump to circulate the water is nice and can be used to make a small fountain if desired, although there is no need to circulate the water. You do need to flush it with clean water on a regular basis - this is why we recommend the concrete or pond liner bottom.

Please click here, Habitats, for examples that will hopefully help you come up with an enclosure that is right for your turtle or tortoise. Please contact GCTTS if you have any questions.


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Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
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Houston, TX 77073
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