Malti Explains Redfooted Tortoises: Environment

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Malti’s outdoor tort fort is on the left and Bruce’s is on the right.

One (of many) things I didn’t know when I brought Malti home was that different shelled beings need different types of care.

For example, some tortoises thrive in desert environments. They like dry air with low humidity and high heat.

Other tortoises, (for instance, red footed tortoises), hail from tropical climates. Wild redfooted tortoises live in South America, where it is pretty much warm to hot and humid all year round.

Still other turtles or tortoises live in climates that require seasonal hibernation (which is called “brumation” for shelled beings) for several months out of the year. Bruce, my rescued 3 toed box turtle, is an example of a turtle species that hibernates annually.

Matching up the right type of captive environment with the turtle or tortoise you have is critical to help your shelled sidekick have the longest, healthiest, happiest possible life.

In my last post here I talked about the vital importance of finding expert exotic veterinary care. The reason I keep talking about this is because it can kill your pet if you don’t know what you are doing and your vet doesn’t know what they are doing. I almost killed Malti because the so-called “exotic specialist” vet we had early in her life kept telling me she needed a more arid, desert environment.

So I kept trying to dry her habitat out. She, in turn, kept getting sicker. Before too long she developed pneumonia. She had 48 antibiotics and vitamin shots over a two-month period, and she still kept getting worse.

She lost weight and her lungs under X-ray were clearly filled up with fluid. I was terrified, so I kept going back to the vet for help. They kept giving me bad advice.

By the time I sought a second opinion, she was in critical condition. But within 12 hours of simply receiving the right type of husbandry (care, environment), she had rebounded. Suddenly, her entire prognosis shifted.

She needed a tropical environment, NOT an arid desert environment. This is why it is so critical to read everything you can get your hands on about your specific turtle or tortoise and what their native wild environment is like.

There is SO MUCH good (as well as not-so-good) information on the internet today, and so many free social media groups (I belong to several on Facebook) with experienced turtle and tortoise keepers and breeders who are happy to share their wisdom and guidance and won’t charge you a penny for it.

So you will never lack for guidance and wisdom if you need it. But you also have to be smart and pick and choose what you read and who you ask for help.

Bruce’s and Malti’s tort forts packed with greenery and predator-proofed with mesh wire.

If you have now (or are thinking about bringing home) a red footed tortoise in particular, this is the environment/habitat my Malti needs to thrive and stay healthy:

  • Consistent humidity in the range of 80 to 90 percent. We live in Houston, TX, where it is humid nearly year-round, and she stays outdoors so long as the temperature permits it. When the temperature falls below 65 degrees Fahrenheit consistently or below 60 degrees at night, she comes inside. Then I use a humidifier to ensure she has sufficient and consistent high humidity.
  • Ultraviolet spectrum light (UVA/UVB). Turtles and tortoises cannot make their own Vitamin D without continual access to sunlight. Lack of sufficient UV-spectrum light (UVB in particular) can lead to shell disfiguration and metabolic bone disease. Malti’s shell is somewhat disfigured from lack of UVB when she was a baby – I did have a UV lamp for her, but it wasn’t sufficiently strong and I didn’t know it. Different turtles and tortoises may need different light strengths, so you will need to research where to place the light, how far away from your tortoise it should be and how long to turn it on for daily. For Malti when she is indoors during the day, I use a 100 watt mercury vapor bulb UVA/UVB lamp placed approximately 12 inches away from her and I leave it on for 10-12 hours daily, just like the sun would be “on” outside if she was outdoors. I also change the bulb every six months, because while it might still look just as bright to your eyes, with consistent use the strength of the UV emitted begins to greatly decrease after the six month mark.
  • Appropriate substrate and foliage. The red footed tortoise lives in the jungles and forest lands, and occasionally the grassy plains regions, of South America. They do not come out to bask openly on rocks the way many aquatic turtles do. The trees and bushes block a lot of the direct sunlight, so what they get is filtered in from wherever they are hiding. So they really need consistent access to shade. Also, because red footed tortoises are considered a delicacy for both animals and people, they have a strong instinct to hide that must be met in captivity as well. Providing lots of dirt, leaf litter, sphagnum moss, low foliage (hibiscus, ferns, edible greens) is an essential habitat need.
  • Water for bathing, eliminating and drinking. In the wild, a red footed tortoise won’t discriminate between the water for using the bathroom, bathing and drinking. In captivity, you will want to offer a shallow bowl of water (that only reaches the bottom edge of your tort’s shell or lower) that your redfoot can easily climb into and out of without the risk of flipping on his or her back or drowning. You will want to change the water at least daily and more frequently if you see any evidence of bathroom activity in the water. In captivity, it can be a good idea to tilt the enclosure slightly so any excess water runs downhill and there is always a dry area for your tortoise to hide and rest.
  • A level, stable habitat surface. If Malti is any example, red footed tortoises can flip over on their backs easier than you might think. But they can’t usually right themselves without help (although my box turtle, Bruce, can do this for himself easily!). The more level and stable the habitat is, the less risk there will be of your tort laying on his or her back for hours before being discovered and righted.
  • Proper temperature range. Because redfoots hail from a naturally tropical climate year-round, they don’t tolerate cold temperatures very well. This is even more true when they are young (aged five years or younger). The best temperature range is between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with one area of the habitat reaching 90 degrees and another area of the habitat staying in the cooler 75 to 80 degree range on a consistent basis. This way, your tort will always be able to move from warmer to cooler and back again as needed to maintain the optimal body temperature (remember, reptiles are “ectothermic,” which means they cannot regulate their own body temperature internally).
  • Enclosed hiding areas. Redfooted tortoises love to burrow and hide. They also need to do this to satisfy their self-protective instincts as a prey animal. Side-turned empty flower pots, hollowed out tree logs, three-sided boxes and similar structures will work well. Here again, just be sure there is as little risk as possible that your tort will try to climb the sides and flip over. Malti has always loved to climb and has really gotten herself into some predicaments this way!
  • Protection from predation. Finally, whether you house your tortoise indoors or out (or a combination of both seasonally), you will need to ensure the enclosure is impossible for predators to breach (this also includes other family pets and children!). Here, you need to consider airborne, ground-dwelling and climbing/jumping predators. In most cases, this takes the form of wire mesh with very small spacing surrounding the habitat combined with security cloth under the soil surface (if the habitat is placed directly on the ground), stilts to lift the habitat off the ground or even a greenhouse structure to enclose the habitat more securely while maintaining high humidity and a tropical ambient temperature.

Trust me, I didn’t know ANY of this when I first brought Malti home. In fact, I still didn’t know most of this to the level where I could type it out from memory until after she was rushed to the animal ER and stabilized.

Today, I monitor her environment so very closely, even on an hourly basis if I feel it is getting very hot or very cold (with climate change afoot, our weather here in Houston, TX, is more unpredictable than ever).

Malti, hiding by burrowing under her dirt, leaf litter and sphagnum moss (a favorite since she was a baby).

I’ve heard other tortoise and turtle keepers say that turtles and tortoises will take over your life but they are worth it. I wholeheartedly agree.

They are shelled miracles – marvelous and amazing beings – and as far as I’m concerned, it is a true privilege to care for two of them, especially knowing that wild populations on all fronts are dwindling far too fast today.

But prepare to WORK for that privilege. And remember….




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Published by Shannon Cutts

Animal sensitive and intuitive with Animal Love Languages. Parrot, tortoise and box turtle mama. Dachshund auntie.

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