Red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonaria) are popular pets in the U.S. They originate from South America and have simple care requirements. Their low cost, inquisitive personality and beautiful colors draw them to first-time tortoise keepers. A red-footed tortoise is easier to care for in warm, humid climates because it can live year-round outdoors.
Wild-caught tortoises have smoother shells while captive-bred tortoises have pyramid-shaped shells.
Availability, Size and Lifespan
Captive-bred red-foot tortoises can be bought from breeders, local pet stores and reptile expos. Wild-caught tortoises are also available at reptile expos and local pet stores.
Hatchlings measure under two inches long, and adults grow to between 11 and 14 inches. The growth rate is affected by the quality and amount of food and what temperature the red-footed tortoise is kept. The tortoises grow most rapidly during the first five to 10 years of their life.
Red-footed tortoises may have life spans upwards of 50 years or more; tortoises kept in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats generally live longer than tortoises kept in clearly artificially settings.
Red-Footed Tortoise Caging
If you live in a temperate climate, take advantage of this and create a habitat for your tortoise outside. Outdoor enclosures for a red-footed tortoise need sturdy walls at least 16 inches tall buried a few inches to discourage digging or escape attempts. Fortunately, red-footed tortoises have less of a burrowing habit than other tortoises. Avoid fences or see-through walls, as they can inspire tortoises to try and escape. Add a screen on top to protect your tortoise from predators.
If you are raising your red-footed tortoise or live in an area with extreme temperatures, create an indoor housing unit made from a wooden vivarium, a glass terrarium or a tortoise table. The wooden vivarium is an excellent insulator of heat, so it must have good ventilation. However, tortoise tables quickly lose heat.
Hatchlings can be kept in a 10 to 20-gallon aquarium. The adult enclosure should be at least 6×4 feet or a tortoise table of at least 35 inches. If you want multiple tortoises, you will need to increase the enclosure space. However, the container itself is less important than its furnishings.
Inside the Cage
Include a few large rocks for your red-footed tortoise to file its nails. Flat rocks can also double as a feeding surface. Pieces of wood or other decorations can also create more areas for your tortoise to burrow under. Young tortoises especially want a cave-like structure so they can hide inside it. Trailing plants can disguise electrical wires from heat and lighting apparatuses.
Baby red-footed tortoises need moderate humidity levels and a humid hiding area where they can curl up and get hydrated. Adults kept indoors do well in 70 to 80% humidity. Regularly mist the enclosure to create humidity. A hygrometer is necessary to measure the exact humidity levels. Tortoises that are raised in conditions that are too dry can develop bumpy shells.
Naturalistic substates are ideal for tortoises. They help boost humidity, provide digging opportunities and create a comfortable environment for the tortoise’s mental health. Cypress mulch is absorbent and a safe substrate for both indoor and outdoor enclosures, and it has the benefit of being low-cost. Orchid bark and peat moss have similar properties, and coconut mulch is another viable option.
Change the substrate regularly to prevent fungi and bacteria growth, or consider using a bioactive substrate. Outdoor enclosures need natural soil that is free from fertilizers and chemicals. Scoop out waste and spot clean the cage as needed.
Lighting and Temperature
A red-footed tortoise that lives outside is tolerant of a wide temperature range. Provide shaded areas so your tortoise can avoid excessively high temperatures. If nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, give your tortoise a heated hide box that is in the high 60s or low 70s. If your tortoise doesn’t go inside the hide box, bring it inside. You can also build a heated enclosure for cold nights.
Tortoises living indoors will be comfortable at above room temperatures (between 68 and 80 degrees). There should be a basking area heated by a ceramic heat emitter or overhead light that reaches about 90 degrees. The end opposite of the basking area should be slightly cooler so your tortoise can thermoregulate.
Set up an overhead UVB light indoors to help your red-footed tortoise properly metabolize calcium. An indoor tortoise needs 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Lamp timers are helpful for regulating the day and night cycles.
Red-Footed Tortoise Food
Red-footed tortoises are usually eager herbivores. Feed adults a mix of vegetables, fruits, leaves and flowers. Suitable leaves and flowers include mulberry, hibiscus and grape. Spring mixes and dark, colorful lettuces also work well in a diet rotation. Fruits can include apples, bananas, melons, plums and tomatoes. Cactus pads are also a useful part of a varied diet. Mazuri tortoise diet is popular among many tortoises and makes a good backup or supplement if you are running low on fresh greens.
Before introducing new plants to your tortoise’s diet, research the plant, as there are some ornamental plants that are toxic. The combination of vegetables and fruits should make up about 80% of the tortoise’s diet. Feed your tortoise a protein source once a week. Grubs such as earthworms and mealworms can be offered on occasion. However, Mazuri tortoise diet already has an elevated protein level, so don’t combine it with insects. If you use insects, let them gut-feed on assorted vegetables for 24 hours before mealtime.
A light-colored feeding dish stays cooler in the sun or below UV lights, which prevents food from drying out. If you have any outdoor enclosure, your tortoise will eat whatever plant material is growing in the enclosure, so fill it with safe, edible plants. Sprinkle the food with a calcium and vitamin D supplement powder two to three times a week for adults and daily for babies less than a year old. Price a reptile-friendly multivitamin once every seven to 14 days. Keep an eye on the vitamin D levels, as red-footed tortoises can suffer from levels that are too low or too high.
Always keep clean water available. It will help counter any high temperatures, increase humidity and provide a place for your tortoise to soak. If you have an outdoor enclosure, install a small pond. We recommend shallow, low-sided dishes so your tortoise can crawl in and out with ease. Keep in mind that tortoises tend to defecate in their water source, so cleaning is a must.
Mudholes or puddle areas offer additional soaking options during hot months. Baby and young tortoises dehydrate quicker than adults. Soak your tortoise in warm water for 15 minutes outside its enclosure once or twice a week. This helps keep your tortoise hydrated and clean. Hydration is critical if your tortoise is exposed to high temperatures. Keep your red-footed tortoise dry on cold nights.
Handling and Temperament
Red-footed tortoises do not like being handled regularly. They stress easily when handled too often, so only handle them when needed. Avoid restraining your tortoise when you do handle it. While biting is rare, their beaks are sharp, so keep fingers away from their mouths.
Your red-footed tortoise will generally be active during the day, though it can spend up to a week resting after a large meal. Much of its activity is burrowing so it can hide. In nature, red-footed tortoises are social and not territorial. The only exception is when two males are competing for a female.
Red-Footed Tortoise Health
Stress from being overhandled can have negative impacts on the tortoise’s health. The most common reptile health concerns will also affect a red-footed tortoise. Imported tortoises tend to have parasites and respiratory infections. Poor enclosure hygiene can also result in parasites while cold or damp conditions can cause respiratory infections.
Respiratory infections are identifiable by raspy breathing, gurgling sounds or discharge from the nose. If changing the humidity or temperature doesn’t change the symptoms or bubbling at the mouth begins, take your tortoise to a veterinary.
Insufficient vitamin D, calcium or UV lighting can result in metabolic bone disease, or MBD. This disease weakens the reptile’s bones and impairs systemic health. MBD is characterized by lethargy, appetite loss, softshell and tremors. MBD can be fatal without care, so if you suspect it, take your tortoise to the vet.
Wash your hands before and after handling your red-footed tortoise. Clean the enclosure to prevent spreading salmonella or other bacteria.