Gimme Shelter

Your sulcata tortoise needs a shelter that will keep it safe, secure from predators, and either warmer or cooler than the surrounding air temperature as necessary. In the wild, sulcata tortoises dig extensive burrows underneath the ground, and they will retreat to these burrows at night or when the weather is too hot, too cool, or too dry. Burrows also protect the tortoises from predators of all kinds, including man.

Most of us don't have the room to allow our pet tortoise(s) to dig a 30-foot burrow, so we need to provide a substitute form of shelter for our pet(s). Depending upon the size of your tortoise, you should provide either an indoor Tortoise Table or an outdoor Tortoise Shed for your tortoise to use at night or when the weather is too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry.

Indoor Enclosures: Tortoise Tables

If your sulcata tortoise is under five years in age and/or weighs less than 15 pounds, we recommend that you build an indoor enclosure called a Tortoise Table to provide your tortoise with nighttime accomodations.

With a Tortoise Table, you will have to take the tortoise outdoors each morning, and bring it back indoors at night. You should also provide various shelter areas in the tortoise's outdoor pen to allow it to thermoregulate properly. A cool, slightly moist, shady area allows the tortoise to cool down, and a warm sunny area allows it to heat up as needed.

Our tortoises have long since outgrown them, but when they were smaller, we built two different Tortoise Tables to house our torts inside. To see photographs and a line drawing of our Tables, please click on the following links:

Outdoor Housing: Tortoise Sheds

Once your tortoise becomes too big or too heavy to safely lift and carry to an indoor enclosure, you must provide a Tortoise Shed, which is a heated, insulated shed or small barn in which the tortoise can stay at night or during inclement weather. The shed should be designed to keep the tortoise warm at night, safe from bad weather either day or night, and sheltered from predators and human thieves (we've heard many sad stories of tortoises being stolen from their owners!).

You have two basic choices when designing a shed for your tortoise:

  1. You can purchase and retrofit a doghouse, greenhouse, or small gardening tool shed to suit your tortoise's needs, OR
  2. You can build a shed using residential construction techniques. While this option can be more expensive and more difficult, you are more likely to get a secure and safe shelter that is customized for the needs of your tortoise.

Retrofitting Dogloos®, greenhouses, or garden sheds

We have heard of people buying and adapting Dogloos® (round, insulated plastic dog houses), Rubbermaid® garden sheds, and even small greenhouses for use as tortoise sheds. There are pros and cons to each of these choices.

Dogloos® tend to be used frequently because they are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and don't take up a lot of room on your property. There are two significant drawbacks to using a Dogloo®: One is that the relatively small volume inside a Dogloo® can make it difficult to avoid overheating. The other drawback is that it is very difficult to put a square or rectangular heating pad (see Heating Tortoise Sheds, below) inside a circular Dogloo®. You have to purchase one of the smaller pads, and thus you risk your tortoise not receiving sufficient heat at night.

Rubbermaid® garden sheds can be found at home improvement centers, farm and ranch supply stores, and some membership warehouses (such as Costco or Sam's Club). They are more expensive than Dogloos®, ranging in price from 200 to 400 U.S. Dollars. However, they also tend to make better tortoise sheds than Dogloos®, for three main reasons:

  • Rubbermaid® sheds are rectangular, so it is easier to use a square or rectangular heating pad (see Heating Tortoise Sheds, below) inside.
  • The shed is taller and has a retractable roof, making it easier to clean up after your tortoise.
  • The Rubbermaid® shed also has a lockable door, making it easier to keep your tortoise in and potential thieves out.

A sulcata owner named Derek Davis was kind enough to email us about the Rubbermaid® shed that he uses for his sulcata tortoise. His photos and descriptions are here.

Heating Tortoise Sheds

Providing sufficient heat for your tortoise throughout the night or during cold, windy, and/or rainy days is crucial to your tortoise's health. Most areas in North America get too cold to allow sulcata to stay outdoors all year around, so a warm, secure house is a must for your sulcata tortoise.

We feel that the safest way to provide heat within a tortoise shed is to use Heat Mats. These are rigid fiberglass pads that have a heating element built into them. Sulcata Station uses and recommends the Stanfield® Heat Pad manufactured by Osborne Industries. These pads can stand up to the wear and tear that a large sulcata tortoise can dish out, and they are available in different sizes so you can find one to fit your tortoise's shed or enclosure.

You will also need to purchase a Heat Pad Controller from Osborne to regulate the pad's temperature safely. There are three different types of controllers available:

  • The F300 Single Pad Control. This is a manual rheostatic control that provides power to a single heat pad. This is a rheostat, not a thermostat, so it requires you to closely monitor the pads to make sure they are at safe operating temperatures.
  • The F911 Power Control. This is a manual rheostatic control that can control two pads simultaneously. Sulcata Station currently uses this controller to provide power to two 3-ft x 3-ft pads. Because this is a rheostat, we closely monitor the pads to make sure they are at safe operating temperatures.
  • The F920A Automatic Regulator -- This is the recommended pad control, although it is expensive. This controller uses a remote probe that will allow you to "set and hold optimum temperatures" on multiple pads. Please note that the F920A is NOT a thermostat. It is actually an automatic rheostat, which means that it will automatically control the amount of electricity going to the pad, not what temperature the pad's surface will reach.

To use these controllers correctly, you must monitor the temperature at the pad surface closely until you are familiar with how it can change relative to surrounding air temperatures. The best tool we've found for measuring surface temperatures is the ProExotics PE-2 Infrared Temp Gun. You can also Google "non-contact infrared heat thermometer" to find these at other retailers. These thermometers are incredibly useful in helping you maintain the surface of the pad at safe yet comfortable levels for your tortoise. We recommed that the pad's surface temperature should go no lower than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and no higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why Use Heat Pads Rather Than Heat Lamps?

Brad Morris answered that question, and provided further information about using Stanfield Heat Pads, in the following post on a Yahoo Group:

Date: Sun, 31 Oct 1999
From: Brad Morris
Subject: Re: sulcata winter shelter in southern AZ

First, I cannot recommend heat lamps for situations like yours. Under the right conditions, a heat lamp will burn the carapace scales enough that they will die and fall off the animal, leaving bare bone exposed. Not a pretty sight.

Far better to use a pig pad sized for your doghouse. This, with the proper controller is much more expensive than a heat lamp but worth it in the long run. Depending on your doghouse's r-factor (it has insulation I hope?) the pad will do just fine for your specimen. You will want to use a controller from the source I cite below that has a probe to sense the inside temperature of your doghouse as it regulates how much electricity to cycle to the pad(s).

As far as temps and your questions, you wrote:

>I would like some expert input on my tortie's winter accomodations.
>I live in southern AZ and my 14" sulcata stays outside year-round.
>He has a doghouse with a raised wooden floor and a carpet flap
>over the door and a heat lamp inside that could be put on a rheostat.
>Please tell me how best to use the heat lamp. When would you turn it
>on? As in, you would turn on the heat source if it is expected to be
>below ?? degrees at night.

When the nights in your area cool down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, turn on the pad controller to the lowest setting, 1 or 2 on the dial. The controller has no on and off switch, so you will need to control the unit with a twenty amp-rated regular light switch in a weather proof box.

>And what is a good temperature for a 14" sulcata, as in, you
>would adjust the rheostat so that the temperature doesn't get
>below ?? degrees.

With the controller dial setting I mentioned this will keep the surface of the pad at about 80 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. This is important: I said the pad's surface, not the air temperature in your doghouse. The air temp inside the doghouse should be cooler. You won't have to concern yourself with heating the air temperature if this is done right.


Housing sulcata torts can be challenging because they need to be kept warm and dry overnight or in bad weather. Small tortoises can use indoor enclosures called Tortoise Tables. Larger tortoises need insulated, heated, secure sheds to keep them warm, dry, and safe from predators.