Tropical Tortoise Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Jul. 21, 2023
Red-footed tortoise

In This Article


Native to the grasslands of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, tropical tortoises are inquisitive, charismatic animals that are best suited for pet parents with some experience owning reptiles. This care sheet outlines basic care needs for a variety of tropical tortoise species, including: 

Cherry-head Red-footed Tortoises 

Cherry-head red-footed tortoises are small- to medium-sized tortoises that have bumpy, patterned shells and bright patches of reddish-orange scales on their legs and heads. 

Once properly socialized and acclimated to their habitat, cherry-head red-footed tortoises are friendly reptiles that are usually tolerant of gentle handling.  

While small groups of cherry-head red-footed tortoises can live together harmoniously, pet parents need to take precautions before deciding to house more than one of these tortoises together. Multiple tortoises should never be placed in the same habitat before they’ve been properly introduced—slowly and in neutral territory. 

Baby tortoise

Bell's Hinge-back Tortoises 

Named for the large hinge on their upper shell, hinge-back tortoises are large, hardy reptiles that can grow up to 11.5 inches long. 

Although hinge-back tortoises are often diurnal (more active during the day), they will sometimes prefer to sit in the shade on cool days rather than bask in the sun. 

Hinge-back tortoises are highly territorial and should not be housed in the same enclosure, as they will fight.

Bell's Hinge-back Tortoise Munoz

Considerations for Pet Parents

With proper care, tropical tortoises can live for 50 years or more. These long-lived reptiles are often lifetime companions for their human family members.  

Unlike their arid counterparts, tropical tortoises do not hibernate.  

All reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases including Salmonella bacteria, which is zoonotic (transmittable to people). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their tortoise or its habitat’s contents.   

Tropical Tortoise Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 


Average Lifespan 

Up to 50+ years with proper care, depending on the species 

Average Adult Size 

9-14 inches long, depending on the species 



Minimum Habitat Size 

36” L x 18” W x 16” H for juveniles; 36” L x 72” W x 16” H for adults 

Tropical Tortoise Supply Checklist

To keep a tropical tortoise happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

  • Appropriately sized habitat 

  • Commercial tortoise food 

  • Substrate 

  • Sphagnum moss 

  • Food dish and water ramp bowl 

  • Hideaway place 

  • Climbing décor 

  • Plants 

  • Heat bulb 

  • Heat fixture 

  • Under-tank heater 

  • Thermostat 

  • UVB lighting and fixture 

  • Multivitamin supplement 

  • Calcium supplement 

  • Thermometers 

  • Humidity gauge 

  • Mister 

  • Hay 

Tropical Tortoise Habitat

Indoor Tropical Tortoise Enclosures

Tropical tortoises can be kept indoors in a large, well-ventilated glass, wood, or plastic habitat. A single juvenile tropical tortoise requires a habitat that’s at least 36 inches L x 18 inches W x 16 inches H. The habitat should be secured with a screened lid to prevent the tortoise from escaping. Pet parents must increase their tortoise’s habitat size to accommodate their growth as they mature and should always provide the largest habitat possible. 

With proper care and nutrition, most tropical tortoise species grow rapidly during the first 5-10 years of their life. Adult tropical tortoises need plenty of space to roam freely, so indoor enclosures should be at least 36 inches L x 72 inches W x 16 inches H once the tortoise matures. If using a glass tank or aquarium as an indoor habitat, ensure the enclosure is well-ventilated and measure its humidity level each day using a humidity gauge. 

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Outdoor Tropical Tortoise Enclosures 

In warm, humid climates, it’s best to keep tropical tortoises outdoors in an escape-proof, predator-proof enclosure whenever weather permits. An outdoor enclosure for a single tortoise should be at least 48 inches L x 72 inches W, with a wall height of 24 inches or more so the tortoise can’t climb out. Outdoor habitats should be enclosed with a sturdy mesh lid to keep predators out while still allowing in sunlight. The enclosure should also have sturdy, opaque walls to lessen the temptation to explore and escape.  

Outdoor habitats should be buried at least 12 inches into the ground to prevent the tortoise from digging under the enclosure’s walls and escaping. Keep outdoor habitats slightly raised to prevent rain from flooding the enclosure, and always make sure the habitat has a shaded area away from direct sunlight. 

Setting Up Your Habitat 

Do not house more than one Bell’s hinge-back tortoise in the same habitat, as these tortoises are territorial and will fight. 

Cherry-head red-footed tortoises can usually be housed together, but males may become aggressive toward each other during breeding season. When introducing tortoises to each other, they should be monitored to ensure they are compatible. If the two tortoises fight, separate them. 

If more than one Cherry-head red-footed tortoise is kept in the same enclosure, increase the habitat’s size accordingly. Remember: each adult tortoise needs at least 18 square feet of floor space in their enclosure. Each tortoise should have separate hiding spaces in the habitat. Never house different species of reptiles in the same enclosure.  


Tropical tortoises need a thermal gradient in their habitat so they can warm up and cool down as needed. The recommended temperature for the warm end of an indoor tropical tortoise habitat is 85–95 degrees F, while the cooler end should be kept around 75–80 degrees F. The enclosure’s temperature should fall no lower than 70 degrees at nighttime.  

Pet parents must check the temperatures of their tropical tortoise’s indoor habitat daily. Two thermometers—one in the warm area and one in the cool area—should be placed in the enclosure so that both zones can be checked at once. A digital point-and-shoot thermometer can be used to read habitat temperatures instantly.  

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Lighting & Heat Sources  

Like all other reptiles, tropical tortoises are ectothermic, meaning they rely on external heat sources to regulate their body temperature. During the day, an incandescent light or ceramic heat bulb should be used to create a basking area in the tortoise’s habitat. At night, switch to a nocturnal or infrared light, like the Exo Terra Infrared Basking Reptile Spot Lamp or Zoo Med Nocturnal Infrared Reptile Terrarium Heat, to ensure the tortoise can rest.  

The wattage needed for the habitat’s heat bulbs will vary depending on the size of the enclosure, the distance of the bulb from the tortoise, and the ambient temperature of the room where the enclosure is kept. Adjust the wattage of the bulb to keep the recommended temperature gradient in the tank.

Note: Some light bulbs provide not only light to the tank but also heat and/or ultraviolet (UV) light. Pet parents should check the light sources they are considering to be clear of their function in the tank. 

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  • Light Fixtures & Hoods:

  • Heat Emitters:

An under-tank heating mat can also be used to supply heat to a tortoise’s enclosure. Heat mats must be controlled with a thermostat to keep the habitat’s temperature within a safe range and prevent the tortoise from getting burned.  

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  • Under-tank Heating Mats:

  • Thermostats:

In addition to heat, tropical tortoises need daily exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light to produce vitamin D in their skin so they can absorb dietary calcium. Without adequate UV exposure, tortoises are at a greater risk of developing metabolic bone disease and other serious illnesses.  

Tortoises can absorb natural UV exposure by spending time outside in an escape-proof, predator-proof outdoor enclosure whenever weather permits. To supplement UV exposure in indoor enclosures, pet parents can shine a full-spectrum UV light on their tortoise’s habitat for 10–12 hours each day.  

Replace bulbs every six months (even if they still emit light) as their potency wanes over time. A day/night timer can make it easier to maintain a consistent day and night cycle. Do not block the UV light source with glass or plastic, as this will block and filter out UV rays. 

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Tropical tortoises need humidity in their environment to stay hydrated and maintain their respiratory tract health. The ideal humidity range for a tropical tortoise's habitat is 70–90%. Pet parents can keep moisture in their tortoise’s habitat by misting it daily. A plant mister can be used to mist smaller habitats, while pet parents with larger enclosures may want to install a fogger or misting system like the Zoo Med Reptile Fogger Terrarium Humidifier

Use a hygrometer (humidity gauge) to measure the enclosure’s humidity every day. 

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Tropical tortoises need a substrate that holds moisture to maintain proper humidity levels in their enclosure. Since tropical tortoises love to dig and burrow, the substrate should cover the entire floor area and be at least four inches deep.  

Paper-based bedding, cypress mulch, coconut husk, and untreated peat moss are all suitable substrate choices for indoor enclosures. In outdoor habitats, untreated soil can be used. Pet parents should make sure that there aren’t any pesticides or other harmful chemicals applied to their lawn or any plants in their tortoise’s enclosure, as these can be fatally toxic. 

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  • Substrate for Indoor Habitats:

  • Substrate for Outdoor Habitats:

Coarse substrates (like sand or gravel) are not recommended, as they are indigestible and can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction if ingested. Dusty substrates should also be avoided, as they can irritate a tortoise’s eyes and respiratory tract.  

If the tortoise is kept on any indigestible substrate, such as soil, mulch, or coconut fiber, then it should be fed off the ground in a separate enclosure. Otherwise, the tortoise may, accidentally consume small pieces of substrate while they eat, which can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction. 

Décor & Accessories 

Water dish: Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, their water dishes should be large and shallow enough to allow them to soak.

Tortoises will urinate and defecate in their water bowls while soaking, so food and water dishes should be disinfected daily to prevent parasites from spreading. 

Ramp bowls are specially designed to allow easy “in and out” access for reptiles. 

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Hideout box: Tropical tortoises should have at least one hiding area, such as a cave or hideout box, placed on the cool end of their indoor enclosure. In outdoor habitats, trees (like desert sage, willow, or prickly pear cacti) and small bushes can also be used to provide tortoises with a shaded place to hide. 

Pet parents should watch their tortoise to ensure they are not spending all their time hiding and missing out on the benefits of UV light. 

Tortoises are strong, hardy reptiles, so hideout boxes should be sturdy enough to not tip over if the tortoise accidentally bumps into it.  

If more than one tortoise is kept in the same enclosure, each should have their own dedicated hiding area.  

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Rocks: Add several flat rocks to your tortoise’s enclosure. Climbing and walking on rocks will gradually file down a tortoise’s nails and help keep them at a manageable length. 

Hot rocks should not be used because they can get too warm and cause injury. 

Tropical tortoises need free open space to roam and climb. Be sure that their enclosure isn’t too cluttered for them to explore comfortably. 

Cleaning & Maintenance for Tropical Tortoises

A tortoise’s indoor enclosure needs to be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week, while outdoor habitats should be cleaned monthly. Enclosures of any kind should be spot-cleaned daily, removing any droppings, soiled material, and uneaten food. Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their tortoise or habitat contents. 

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Indoor habitats should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. To clean a tortoise’s indoor habitat, take these steps: 

  1. Move the tortoise to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, décor, and accessories from the habitat. 

  1. Scrub the empty tank and any furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are disinfected properly. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or bleach solution.  

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new substrate and clean accessories into the habitat. 

  1. Return the tortoise to the clean habitat. 

Outdoor habitats should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a month. To clean a tortoise’s outdoor habitat:

  1. Move the tortoise to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, décor, and accessories from the habitat. 

  1. Check the condition of the habitat’s walls and mesh netting to ensure the enclosure is still secure. 

  1. Check the condition of any décor and accessories kept in the tortoise’s habitat. Discard accessories that are worn or impossible to disinfect. 

  1. Disinfect décor and accessories using a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on furnishings for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are disinfected properly. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Hose out the enclosure using hot, soapy water. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove soap residue. 

  1. Place fresh substrate into the habitat and replant any destroyed/eaten plants. Make sure the habitat still has adequate drainage.  

  1. Return the tortoise to the clean habitat. 

Tropical Tortoise Diet & Nutrition

Tropical tortoises thrive on a diet that’s high in calcium and fiber, but low in fat. As an omnivorous reptile, tropical tortoises eat a diet of dark leafy green vegetables and hay, as well as limited amounts of other vegetables, fruits, and animal protein.  

A tortoise’s ideal feeding schedule will depend on its age, size, and activity level. Juvenile tortoises should be fed every day, as they're still growing. Adult tortoises can be fed every other day. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for tropical tortoises consists of the following: 

Dark green leafy vegetables and high-fiber grass hay (alfalfa or Timothy) should make up around 70% of a tropical tortoise’s diet. Staple foods in a tortoise’s diet include:

  • Romaine or red/green lettuce

  • Escarole

  • Endive

  • Collard/dandelion/mustard/turnip greens

  • Prickly pear cactus pads

  • Kale

Try to include a variety of different vegetables and grasses in the tortoise’s diet, rather than feeding the same foods each day. 

Tortoises can also be fed fresh, non-toxic grass clippings, including Bermuda, fescue, and rye grasses. Make sure that the grass has not been treated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals. 

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Animal protein, offered in limited quantities, should make up no more than 20% of a tortoise’s daily diet.  

Excess animal protein in a tropical tortoise’s diet can cause its shell to deform, so tortoises should be offered only a small amount of animal protein once a week. 

Earthworms, hard-boiled eggs, and even a small amount of low-fat/high-fiber dog food can all be used to add animal protein to a tropical tortoise’s diet. 

Frozen/thawed pinkie mice can be offered as an occasional treat. 

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Fruits should be offered in limited quantities (no more than 10% of a tortoise’s daily diet). Fruits should be fed sparingly, as a treat. Berries, melons, mangoes, and grapes are all tortoise-safe fruits that make excellent treats. Fruits should be finely chopped into bite-size pieces. Since fruits are naturally high in carbohydrates, excess fruit in a tortoise’s diet can cause unhealthy weight gain and gastrointestinal upset.  

Vitamin supplements are also important for tortoises. Before feeding, pet parents should sprinkle a small amount of a powdered calcium supplement without vitamin D on their tortoise’s food. A multivitamin supplement designed for reptiles should only be given once a week.  

Young tropical tortoises should be given a calcium supplement without vitamin D daily, while adult tortoises should have the supplement added to their food every other day. 

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Fresh, clean water should always be available and replaced daily. Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, their water dishes should be large and shallow enough to allow them to soak.

Pet parents can also supplement a young tropical tortoise’s diet with a nutritionally-complete pelleted food designed for omnivorous tortoises, like Mazuri Original 5M21 Tortoise Food, for added protein and fiber. 

Any uneaten fruits and vegetables should be discarded after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten.

Tropical Tortoise Grooming & Care

Some tortoises are shy and may retreat into their shell when being watched, especially during feeding times. Pet parents should watch their tortoises from a distance until the reptile feels comfortable eating in front of them. 

New foods should be introduced once at a time and served with familiar staples to encourage the tortoise to try them. 

Shedding: Tortoises will naturally shed their skin and scutes (the shield-like keratin plates on a tortoise’s shell) throughout their lifetime. To encourage healthy shedding, add moistened sphagnum moss to the inside of one of the hideouts on the cool side of a tortoise’s enclosure to create a “humid hide.”

Humid hides can be made with commercially available hideout boxes, or pet parents can make their own hide by cutting a hole in a plastic container. If choosing to make a DIY hideout, ensure the hole has no rough edges that could injure the tortoise. 

Moss should be replaced often to prevent mold from forming. 

Soaking: Pet tortoises soak in water to stay hydrated, clean themselves, and defecate. If they aren’t soaking on their own, pet parents should soak their tortoise for 10–15 minutes, 2–3 times a week.  

Tortoises do not swim and can drown easily. Keep the dish’s water level low and ensure that the water dish is shallow enough for the tortoise to exit and enter easily. Since tortoises urinate and defecate while soaking, water and food bowls should be cleaned and disinfected daily to prevent the spread of gastrointestinal tract parasites. 

Beak care: Instead of teeth, tortoises have rigid “beaks” at the front of their mouths, which they use to break down food. Most tortoises will not need their beak trimmed, as they should wear down gradually with daily use. A healthy tortoise’s beak should be short with a slightly curved point at the end.

Consult a veterinarian if your tortoise’s beak looks overgrown (hanging past its jawline) or misshapen, or if the tortoise is unable to open and close their mouth easily. 

Tropical Tortoise Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Tropical tortoises should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported using a cat carrier or a travel cage if small enough, or a house call veterinarian can come to you. It is recommended to take pictures of your tortoise’s enclosure so your veterinarian can assess their care as part of the exam.

Signs of a Healthy Tropical Tortoise

  • Clear, clean eyes

  • Clean ears

  • Clean, dry nares

  • Clean pink tongue and gums

  • Trim beak which is slightly longer at the front tip

  • Intact skin with no abrasions, ulcerations, growths, or parasites seen

  • Clean vent

  • Smooth, firm shell with no defects

  • Active personality

  • Good appetite

  • No swellings or bumps

When To Call a Vet

  • Eyes are swollen, sunken, stuck shut, or have discharge

  • Pink ulcerations or other lesions are seen on the skin

  • Refusing food (do keep in mind seasonal variances in appetite)

  • Failing to bask

  • Lethargy

  • Discharge around vent

  • Lumps or bumps

  • Cannot ambulate or posture appropriately

  • New trauma is seen to the shell

Common Illnesses in Tropical Tortoises

  • Mycoplasmosis

  • Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (NSHP)

  • Trauma from housemates such as dogs

  • Phallus prolapse or lacerations

  • Hepatic lipidosis

  • Bladder stones and other cystoliths (stones throughout the urinary tract)

  • Fecal impaction and GI obstructions

  • Herpes virus

  • Coccidia

  • Bacterial or fungal infections under scutes

  • Renal disease

  • Parasites

Tropical Tortoise FAQs

Are there tropical tortoises?

Yes. The arguably most famous tortoises, Galapagos tortoises, are tropical tortoises, but there are many other species as well in a range of sizes and colorations.

How big do tropical tortoises get?

Tropical tortoise species vary widely in size. The smallest species can stay as little as four inches big, while the largest Galapagos tortoises can grow to over 500 pounds.

How do you take care of a tropical tortoise?

Tropical tortoises need humid enclosures and substrate, warm temperatures, proper diet and lighting protocols, and a habitat sized appropriately to the species.

What kind of tortoise likes to be held?

Many tortoise species that are an easy size to hold will acclimate to being held, but red-footed tortoises, a tropical species, are known for especially loving being held.

What is the easiest tortoise to care for?

This depends on the individual household. Tortoises that stay small and have friendly personalities are usually the easiest to care for.

Are tortoises happy as pets?

Tortoises usually do well as pets with the right care. They have more outgoing personalities than you might think, have nerve endings through their shell that allows them to enjoy being pet, bond and think with their stomachs, and are generally happy as pets.

Featured Image: Frenzel

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

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