Keeping a Tortoise in a Small Apartment: What You Need to Know


Do tortoises have a head for heights?

Tortoises are great pets so long as you’re prepared to look after them correctly. There is however one area that continues to be an issue for many a prospective tortoise keeper: ensuring you have adequate space for a tortoise to roam and thrive. If you live in an apartment and don’t have a back yard, achieving this can be difficult.

The bottom line is this: tortoises stand a far better chance of leading a happy healthy life if they live outdoors in a large enclosure. It is still possible to keep smaller species such as Hermann’s and Russian tortoises indoors, provided you are extra stringent with your care routine.

These days more and more of us live in inner city areas, often simply out of necessity be it for work, school or to be close to friends and family. For those wanting to keep a pet it can sometimes feel as though the two don’t go hand in hand. This is especially true in the case of a tortoise that is confined to an enclosure, unlike a cat that can come and go as it pleases, or a dog that can be taken for walks outside of the apartment.

None the less, if you’re committed to doing the best by your pet, there is no reason why keeping an indoor tortoise won’t work out well for you both.

So Which is the Best Species of Tortoise to Keep in My Apartment?

The species mentioned above: Hermann’s tortoises and other Greek tortoises, as well as other small sub tropical species such as the Russian or Afghan tortoise can, in theory, be kept in a smaller indoor space as they generally will not reach a size greater than about 10″ (30cm) in length. Therefore these are the species to opt for if you do live in an apartment.

Certainly for the first 4 or 5 years of their lives, these species will quite happily live in a standard off the shelf tortoise table or vivarium without issue. When they start to reach their fully grown size it becomes a bit more of an issue, at which time you’ll either want to expand your indoor enclosure as much as you possibly can, or ideally, plan to house them outdoors.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a spare room in your apartment, you might for example be able to dedicate all or some of the space within it for your tortoise, provided you’re still able to meet their other accomodation criteria (see below)

Doing the Best You Can With What You Have

Tortoises are generally considered fairly low maintenance pets, and to a large extent this is true. The key is to make sure that you have the correct set up in place. Get this right from the get go, and it simply becomes a case of following the correct care and maintenance routine thereafter.

So, what constitutes the ‘correct set up’ exactly?

As a minimum tortoises require the following environmental requirements:

  • Access to the largest accommodation space possible (at least 4′ x 2′ for the smallest species
  • Access to radiant heat and ultraviolet light from above (the shell acts like a ‘solar’ panel, absorbing heat and UV light)
  • A thermal gradient (a heat source at one end of their enclosure that dissipates the further toward the other end of the enclosure the tortoise is
  • A well ventilated enclosure or accommodation space
  • Peace and quiet, away from the noise of other pets and other background noise

Some of which can be challenging to provide if you live in the confines of a small apartment!

Clearly space is going to be the biggest issue for some people, and your ultimate goal should always be to find a way to house your tortoise outdoors, but as mentioned previously there are ways around this, especially if you’re prepared to sacrifice some of your own living space for the benefit of your tortoise!

You’ll need to make sure the other requirements are ticked off too, especially as far as ultraviolet light goes. If you can keep your tortoise close to a window, that’s certainly preferable, however glass does filter out certain important frequencies of UV, so having an additional source of UV in the form of a UV bulb is an absolute must.

Ventilation isn’t too much of an issue provided your apartment isn’t completely airtight, and you have an open topped enclosure for your tortoise. Things can get problematic if the enclosure itself has a lid on it, and it gets too stuffy inside.

Keeping noise to a minimum is an often overlooked part of keeping a tortoise, but it is actually very important. Tortoises can’t tell you if they are feeling distressed, but they are certainly capable of feeling it, and if they do it can manifest in the form of physical ailments such as respiratory infection.

If you think about it tortoises are pretty defenceless animals, so hearing loud noise to them in their mind signals the presence of a potential threat or predator.

Living in a confined space in a busy urban environment presents quite a challenge in this respect, but again there are things you can do. If you live in a particularly noisy location, keeping the windows closed will be a help, as will keeping the door of the room your tortoise lives in closed when you are not in there tending to the tortoise.

What About The Small Issue of Your Landlord…

There’s also a good chance that, if you live in an apartment, you’re a renter. If this is the case it would be worth checking there are no clauses in your contract with your landlord that conflict with your decision to keep a pet tortoise. ‘No pet’ policies are found pretty commonly on tenancy agreements, so you’ll want to be sure that you’re not contravening anything that could see you evicted if you were to break the rules.

Whilst it might seem unreasonable for a landlord to decline permission to allow a contained pet such as a tortoise on their property, keep in mind that when you keep an animal that potentially requires a fair bit of humidity there is a risk of mould and condensation developing, and with a heat lamp on throughout the day, even when you are out, posing a potential fire risk, you soon start to see why landlords might be a little twitchy about housing tortoises and other reptiles.

That being said, it’s always worth having the conversation with your landlord as oftentimes they’ll be accommodating, especially if you’ve otherwise been a good tenant and you’re sensible enough to do things safely. What you shouldn’t do however, is try to keep your pet/pets ‘under the radar’ as this will only likely result in you being reprimanded, or worse evicted, should you be found out.

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