Can I Allow My Tortoise To Roam the Floor of the House?

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Well-Known Member
5 Year Member
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Feb 20, 2016
Location (City and/or State)
Lewisville, Texas
Letting a tortoise roam the floor of a house has long been a very common practice. Many believe that it is a good way to get exercise, or even just a way for a tortoise to have fun or explore. Some keepers even let their tortoises permanently roam their house instead of an enclosure, believing that it is the perfect alternative to an outdoor enclosure for large tortoises like sulcatas, or even enclosures at all.

This however, is not the case.

Whether it is to try and remedy having too small of an enclosure, let them “explore”, or even not have an enclosure at all, free roaming is absolutely not okay for tortoises to do.

The dangers of roaming for short periods
Anything and everything goes wrong.
Tortoises are very curious creatures, and if they see something that looks tasty, they WILL try to eat it. On the floor, this is a huge issue. I have seen tortoises eat the feet of a couch, dust bunnies, hair, random food scraps, jewelry, rat poison, fingernail polish, rocks, carpet, pieces of plastic, plushies, tennis balls, dog food, wires, plastic tubing, and people’s feet, all just from roaming the floor. All of these are huge impaction risks, especially dust bunnies with how often they try to eat them, and even with a clean floor, a tortoise will almost always find a way to eat something.

In addition to eating things, I have seen tortoises get stepped on, kicked, Have their heads squashed in doors and be killed, get chewed by the dog, fall down stairs, fall off a table and get their shell cracked, get caught in wires, and get lost under the couch(more common than you’d think).

The stress.
It is very stressful for most small tortoises. Tortoises are prey animals, and when they are out in the open in unfamiliar territories, it can be a bit scary. Most people see the fast movement of free roaming tortoises as “excitement” or “happiness”, but in reality, it’s usually the tortoise trying to find somewhere to hide and find cover.

It is too cold.
Tortoises are cold blooded animals that rely on external heat sources for warmth. By taking your tortoise from their enclosure and allowing them to roam, you are taking away their ability to bask. Even if the room they are roaming in is 80 degrees or warmer, it will always be cooler on the floor, especially if the tortoise is roaming on tile.

Now, there’s another world out there.
Many people start taking their tortoise out to roam because they are annoyed by their tortoise’s constant scratching against the enclosure walls. Most of the time, the owner thinks the tortoise wants to come out.

However, it is almost always because the enclosure is too small, too hot or cold, doesn’t have enough hides, or just inadequate in general.

Taking them out lets them know that there’s a world out there, and they will stop at nothing to get back. This makes them scratch even more.

To make the tortoise stop banging against the wall in the first place, fix their enclosure. Don’t bring them out.

Housing a tortoise on the floor permanently
This is generally done with larger tortoises like leopards and sulcatas, but it is not uncommon to see smaller tortoises like Russians doing it, too. People believe that it’s the perfect way to get past not housing your tortoise outdoors during the winter or year round, or to excuse themselves from making a proper enclosure. It can be done, of course, if you take an extra room and install heating along with filling the floor with substrate, but even that won’t be big enough for something as big and destructive as a Sulcata.

Not only does this have every danger that letting them roam for short periods does, but it has a few more, and some are worse.

It’s just too cold.
When it comes to large tortoises like sulcatas, heat lamps will slow burn their shells when they get big enough, and should not be used. Some of the few indoor heating devices that can safely be used are oil heaters, radiant heat panels, and heat mats, but indoors where it’s a big open space, oil heaters and radiant heat panels won’t do as much as they would in a heated night box or shed. Heat mats are all fine and dandy, but this is a basking tortoise, and without being outside, it won’t be able to bask. This brings up the issue of

Windows and screens completely block out uvb from sunlight, so basking in front of a window just isn’t enough. Even a uvb light won’t do much when you’re dealing with a large tortoise, especially when most have to be 10-12 inches above the tortoise to work, and tortoises absorb uvb from their skin and not their shell. Their shell can be about a foot tall, so there’s almost always no way to get the light low enough.

Lack of a proper water bowl.
Tortoises should always have a water bowl large enough for them to soak in, and large tortoises are no exception to this rule. They should always have a pond or kiddy pool available, which usually just isn’t possible in a house. People usually supply their tortoises with small dog bowls, or just don’t give water at all because they believe that their food gives them enough, which leads to the next issue-

Lack of proper nutrition.
Tortoises are grazing animals that should always have a yard full of grass and weeds or a bale of hay to graze on. However, you probably won’t find a field of clover in someone’s kitchen, and most people are not willing to have a large bale of hay in their house. Most owners end up feeding small amounts of lettuce or other grocery store foods, which, not only is not enough food for a tortoise that can eat a bale of hay in a few days, but has nowhere close to enough fiber. Even worse, if the tortoise is fed brassicas like mustard greens, kale, and broccoli, the tortoise will often develops a kidney stone in part of lack of hydration, which is a huge killer in tortoises, especially because the procedure to remove them is so dangerous.

It’s terrible for their legs and joints.
Large tortoises on tile generally cannot wakl well, and have to sprawl their legs out to walk on the smooth surface. A lot of times their legs become permanently like this, and they have a lot of trouble walking on any surface besides the smooth one. They usually have very weak muscles from lack of proper exercise because they walk so oddly and don’t have hills to climb over.

This is also a problem with carpeted floors because, like tile, they are completely flat and devoid of hills. Additionally, carpet always has something for them to eat, whether it be the carpet itself or something in it, and they easily get their claws stuck in it.

Since tortoises use locomotion to digest food similar to horses, the lack of things to walk over and the change of gait often lead to

Large tortoises roaming the floors almost always have trouble pooping from the lack of the ability to bask, lack of a proper substrate, lack of the ability to graze, lack of hydration, and usually lack of proper food. This can be fatal for large tortoises, if not brought to the vet. But even if the vet somehow makes them unconstipated, if nothing at home changes, the cycle just repeats.

Your furniture WILL be rearranged.
Along with having poop all over your house, when it comes to large tortoises like sulcatas that go through things instead of around, your couch will never be in the same place. They don’t care what’s in their way. They’re just bulldozers looking to get from point “A” to point “B”.

In conclusion,
There are so many reasons not to free roam your tortoise. It’s not healthy or hygienic for any party involved, and the tortoise suffers from it. Here are some common reasons to why people do it, and what they can do to fix it.

My enclosure isn’t big enough!
If your enclosure isn’t big enough, this is no way to remedy that. For a small species like a Russian, it’s not hard at all to build an 8x4 foot table, and even a 6x3 foot one wouldn’t be bad if that’s all you have room for. You can also make double deckered enclosures that give the same amount of space, like 3x3 or 4x4 two stories, or a 4x4 with a 2x4 upper level with a ramp.

If there’s is absolutely no way for you to make a bigger enclosure even close to the minimum size (8x4 for a small species or 6x3 as an absolute bare minimum if that’s all you have room for) and have no way to house them outside during the summer and hibernate them or build a heated night box for the winter, it might be best to rehome your tortoise to someone who can.

It’s too cold during the winter!
If this is the case, then you need to build an insulated, heated night box or shed depending on how cold your winters are. As long as the tortoise has a large room to itself where it can warm up, it can still have access to outside. It will just come back in when it needs to warm up.

If you don’t have room for a proper, outdoor enclosure, and you aren’t willing to build a shed or night box, it might be best that you rehome your tortoise.

Here are some sources and examples of why tortoises shouldn’t be free roamed-
Accidentally kicked baby sulcata

Unstoppable tortoise running around our house

Sticky substance on tortoise shell...?

Do tortoises get bored?(scratching corners of the enclosure)

I am having a problem with my tortoises

Trouble Swallowing(respiratory infection from roaming house)

INJURED TORTOISE(broken shell)

Help! (How to stop tortoise from biting furniture)!--(How-to-stop-tortoise-from-biting-furniture).167883/

These are only some of the THOUSANDS of posts here on tortoise forum. If you want to see more, search “roaming the floor”, and search by post.

Happy torting!
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