Red-foot Tortoise Care

​Erica Mede, CVT

​Enclosure Style
Terrestrial
Natural Habitat
Tropical/Amazon Basin
Diet Style
Modified Omnivore
Life Span
>80 years
Size
12-18 inches(Carapace)
Temperature Range
 74-80 F (Basking 82-90 F)
Humidity
50-70%
UVB Required
Yes
Permits required in Illinois
None
Red Foot Tortoise
(Chelonoidis carbonaria)
Erica Mede, CVT
Red Foot tortoises, often referred to as Red Foots, the Red Footed tortoise, or the Savannah tortoise, is a moderate sized tortoise with most individuals reaching a carapace (top shell length) of 12-18 inches.  These South American chelonians are used to a moderate climate in the savannah to forest edges around the Amazon basin with a higher humidity than most of the larger tortoises seen in captivity.  Ventilation and air flow are very important however to prevent respiratory distress with the increased humidity.  Red Foots are an extremely popular tortoise in the pet trade primarily due to their moderate size and curious personalities.  They are very well represented in captivity especially in the southern United States.  The popularity of these long lived individuals causes problems in wild caught populations due to importation from Suriname and Guyana.  In the United States, there are many breeders who provide captive born tortoises.  Generally speaking, tortoises born domestically are smaller than their wild counterparts and exhibit pronounced scutes on their carapace, not to be confused with pyramiding.  Wild caught Red Foots tend to be larger individuals and exhibit smoother carapaces.
In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.   Domestically bred box turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.
Enclosure
The larger the enclosure the better!  Building custom enclosures is a viable option and has become quite popular. These tortoises grow extremely fast in their first ten years of life!  Enclosures ideally 4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 12 inch high are used to house a tortoise comfortably but larger is always better especially with larger individuals!
Rubbermaid containers and under the bed storage boxes are extremely popular options for housing tortoises of varying ages and sizes.  An adolescent Red Foot can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container or concrete mixing container.  The large open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.  These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy and can be modified to suit the tortoise’s needs.  Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over the holes.  If this method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially coming into contact with the tortoise.  Outdoor accommodations should have a small pond of water for swimming and wading as well as an enclosed shelter.  Outdoor enclosures must be predator and dig proof although this species is not overly prone to digging out of enclosures.

Enclosure Accessories
There should be two hide boxes available for Red Foot tortoises.  One should ideally be placed on the cooler side of the enclosure as well as one on the warmer side.  Tortoises appreciate hiding places especially during their daily naps.  Hide boxes can be created from all sorts of household items, half terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.  You can make these as naturalistic or basic as you desire.  It is necessary that the turtle be able to turn itself around in the hide area.
Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also offers enrichment and stimulation to the tortoise.  A word of caution though, plants must be non-toxic or if faux, be out of reach of the tortoise and their mouths! Cage accessories should be changed every week during cleaning to allow the tortoise to explore a new surrounding which not only stimulates their minds and feed a natural behavior but also gives them a reason to exercise.  Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and destruction of the plants.  During the spring and summer months, Red Foots relish the opportunity to wallow in mud.  Although messy, this is a phenomenal form of enrichment!
Water dishes should be offered not only for drinking but also for soaking.  Red Foots love soaking themselves and relieving themselves in their water bowls necessitating frequent changes.  The dish should be deep enough for the tortoise to cover up to their “elbows” when standing and large enough for them to maneuver in.  Soaking for 10 minutes in luke warm water 2-3 times a week will also work if a large enough water dish cannot be found although every effort should be made to offer a large dish or tray.Temperature
Red Foot tortoises thrive when their enclosures are kept between 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with a basking site of 82-90 degrees.  Day time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.  Basking lights are essential to normal thermoregulation behaviors.  All under tank heaters, heat tape, and heat cables should be regulated with a thermostat to prevent injuries such as burns.  It is strongly recommended all heating implements be attached to the outside of an enclosure.  During the night, the temperature can drop as low as 70 degrees.  The night time temperature should be maintained with a ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.  Large pig warming blankets are ideal for larger enclosures but again, must be maintained on a thermostat.
Please note, this is NOT a species that hibernates!

Humidity
These turtles do well in 50-70% humidity.  A dig box of moist dirt can be offered and used to maintain a higher humidity area around 80% which allows the tortoise to regulate its own humidity requirements.   This species loves to sit in mud wallows and this helps simulate that behavior.  Great care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.  These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the box turtle while maintaining humidity in the cage.  The substrate should always be moist enough to clump together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when pressed together in an owner’s hands.  Misting, daily spraying, and showers also helps increase humidity as well.

Lighting
Red Foot tortoises, like all reptilian herbivores, require daily exposure to ultraviolet B radiation (UVB lighting).  A Tropical 25 bulb (T25) from Zilla or a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb from ZooMed helps prevent and correct calcium deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.  UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light cycle which should be roughly 12 hours a day.  All UVB bulbs must be no more than 24 inches away from the tortoise, directly overhead and no closer than 12 inches.  The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it is still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is being produced.
No lighting is needed at night and is actually contraindicated.  Tortoises are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.  The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some tortoises and should be avoided.  If supplemental heat during evening hours is needed, an under tank heater, large pig warming blanket, or a ceramic heat emitter can be utilized.

Substrate
Substrate is one of the most highly debated topics, other than UVB lighting, in reptile husbandry.  Bedding, such as Jungle Mix is completely appropriate but requires frequent maintenance to prevent excess of feces, urine, and urates being collected as it is easy to over look it in naturalistic bedding.  As long as substrate is spot cleaned daily and replaced at least monthly, a Red Foot tortoise can be maintained on naturalistic bedding.
For those that may not be able to maintain a full naturalistic set up for substrate, an absorbent layer such as indoor/outdoor carpet, paper towel, newspaper, or butcher paper can be laid on the bottom of the enclosure and covered with timothy hay.  The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little extra toe exercise as a tortoise maneuvers over the textured terrain.  The carpet underneath is an excellent barrier between the tortoise and the enclosure floor, especially when under tank heaters are utilized.  Items such as alfalfa pellets can be utilized as well.
Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as needed.

Diet
Red Foot tortoises are primarily herbivores but do require a higher protein level than most herbivores due to their natural habitat.  With this being said, a small amount of protein such as 1-2 earthworms should be offered once every two weeks. Unlike their cousins in the African savannahs, Red Foot tortoises are attracted primarily to broad leafy plants and are opportunistic grazers of grasses and weeds.
A stable diet of 60% dark leafy greens and grasses, 15% vegetables, 15% fruit, and 10% appropriate pelleted diets (Mazuri tortoise diet or ZooMed Forest Tortoise diet).  Greens and vegetables should primarily focus on calcium rich dark leafy greens (red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, etc) and beta-carotene rich foods (carrots, parsnip, sweet potato, etc).
Avoid feeding broccoli, spinach, and kale in large quantities as these foods cause significant gastrointestinal and urinary issues including stones.  Avoid feeding dog or cat food as the excessively high protein levels can cause severe kidney problems.  It helps to remember that Red Foot tortoises are naturally attracted to flowers, red foods, and green leaves.
Juveniles should ideally be fed every day while adults should be fed every other.  A calcium supplement should be used 2-3 times a week and a multi-vitamin once a week to help balance the diet.  Tortoises should be fed during the day and misted prior to eating to stimulate a feeding response.  For finicky eaters, finely chopped salads and even pureed salads will help to train these turtles to eat properly.

This guide is to help you start with good husbandry techniques.  Personal preference and desire will shape how you keep your reptiles and that is completely fine.  Everyone keeps their pets differently and this guide is not exhaustive in the details of how to keep your pet.  Instead, we offer a jumping off point for owners.  Enjoy the journey of husbandry!  It is an exceptional bonding exercise for you and your pet!
– The Chicago Exotics Staff

​​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

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