Red-Footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)
Welcome to the ReptiFiles Red-Footed Tortoise Care Sheet! This care sheet was written by a professional reptile husbandry specialist, compiled based on reputable sources such as scientific research papers, natural history data, and the experiences of longtime keepers and breeders of this species. You can find a list of these sources at the bottom of this page.
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Red-footed tortoises are medium-sized, omnivorous, tropical tortoises which generally grow between 12-18″ / 30-46cm long, although up to 24″ / 61cm is possible. They have a rectangular body shape with a highly domed shell, enlarged scales on the legs and tail, a rounded head profile, and large dark eyes. As suggested by their name, red-footed tortoises are generally characterized by orange to red scales on their limbs and head, although yellow is also possible. The shell and skin are dark brown, gray, or almost black, with a pale to yellow spot on each scute. The plastron (underside) is typically pale with some kind of dark pattern.
Red-footed tortoises have a broad native range throughout southern Central America and the northern half of South America east of the Andes mountain range. As a result, they can be found in a variety of habitats, including rainforest, temperate forest, dry forest, and savanna.
If you pay attention to providing excellent red-footed tortoise care, this pet may well live 50 years or longer, so plan accordingly!
Red-Footed Tortoise Shopping List
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a seasonal indoor red-footed tortoise enclosure. Because red-footed tortoises are relatively large and best housed primarily outdoors, this shopping list is simply for the equipment you will need to keep them indoors when the weather demands. Adjustments and recommendations for outdoor tortoise pens will be specified in each section of this care sheet.
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- 8’L x 4’W x 2’H enclosure, or larger (taller if no mesh top)
- 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb, x4
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture x2 OR Arcadia Lamp Holder Pro x4
- Vivarium Electronics 200w Rheostat, x2
- Vivarium Electronics 80 Watt Radiant Heat Panel
- Herpstat 1 Proportional Thermostat
- 46″ T5 HO Arcadia 12% OR Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 UVB bulb
- 48″ Arcadia ProT5 OR Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- 34″ Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, x2
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge, x2
- Pressure sprayer, 2 gallon capacity
- Leap Habitats Programmable Fogging system
- 16 ft³ coconut fiber/coir substrate
- Exo Terra Tortoise Cave, x2
- Misc. décor
- cork flats
- edible, tropical live plants
- Exo Terra Feeding Dish, X-Large
- steel baking sheet (for water)
- Repashy Superveggie
- Repashy Superpig
- Exo Terra Sepia Bones
- F10SC Veterinary Disinfectant
- Spray bottle (for disinfectant)
Recommended Enclosure Size for Red-Footed Tortoises
Red-footed tortoises, like other reptiles, require an enclosure that is large enough to give them adequate opportunity to explore, forage, thermoregulate, and generally exercise natural behaviors. And this species is very active! They will use however much space you can give them. They are also terrestrial, which means that they are a ground-dwelling species, so floor space is more important than vertical space.
A good rule of thumb for housing tortoises is to use the following formula from the German Society for Herpetology & Terrariums, based on the animal’s expected adult length:
- Length = 8x adult length
- Width = 4x adult length
- Height = 2x adult length
Considering that red-footed tortoises average 12-18″/30-46cm, the minimum recommended enclosure size for one red-footed tortoise looks like:
- Length > 8-12′ / 2.4-3.7m
- Width > 4-6′ / 1.2-1.8m
- Height > 2-3′ / 0.6-0.9m
That amounts to at least 32-72 sq ft (3-6.7 sq m) of floor space.
The best way to get an idea of how large your tortoise is likely to grow, and therefore what size enclosure you’re going to need, is to buy from a breeder and ask about the size of the parents. If you don’t have access to that information, then it’s best to err on the side of caution and act on the assumption that your pet will grow larger rather than smaller.
Indoors or Outdoors?
The general consensus from experts is that it’s best to house your red-footed tortoise outdoors whenever possible. The pen should be placed in a location which has access to both shade and sunshine at all times of day, and it should have well-draining soil. The wall must be at least 2′ tall and smooth enough to discourage climbing (concrete blocks work well), sunk at least 12″ into the soil to discourage burrowing escapes, and the top of the pen should covered with wide mesh (ex: chicken wire) to keep out potential predators.
If you live in an area where it’s not appropriate to house your red-footed tortoise outdoors year-round, you will need to have an appropriately-sized enclosure at the ready indoors. Given that it’s temporary housing, you can get away with a smaller enclosure for the sake of convenience — 8×4 is a fairly standard size that will still meet your pet’s needs while it waits for the weather to warm up again.
Here are some ready-made enclosures that are appropriate for housing larger red-footed tortoises temporarily or smaller ones permanently:
- Custom Reptile Habitats Essential 8 PVC & Aluminum Enclosure – 96 L x 48 W x 48 H
- Toad Ranch 8’x4’x4′ Reptile Enclosure
- Kages 8’x4’x4′ Premium PVC Reptile Enclosure
Open-top enclosures (“tortoise tables”) are not recommended for use with red-footed tortoises, as this style of enclosure makes maintaining higher humidity levels impossible.
Your choice of enclosure may need to be customized to feature a 4-5″ tall opaque barrier on the front to discourage pacing behavior, which stems from stress.
If you’re handy and would rather build your own indoor tortoise enclosure, I recommend checking out the Facebook group DIY Reptile & Amphibian Enclosures for guidance.
Can multiple red-footed tortoises be housed in the same enclosure?
Red-footed tortoises can do well when housed solo or when housed as part of a group. They don’t necessarily need “friends” to be happy!
Group keeping is not very practical if you need to bring them inside for part of the year, as the size of the enclosure needs to be increased by at least 16 sq ft/1.5 sq meters per additional animal. Furthermore, creating an adequate basking area for multiple individuals requires a prohibitive amount of equipment. However, if you have the space for it, red-footed tortoises can be kept in single-sex groups as long as the tortoises are similar in size and the pen is set up with plenty of hides and other visual barriers so the tortoises can avoid each other as desired.
Lighting & UVB for Red-Footed Tortoises
Red-footed tortoises are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that they need exposure to visible light and UVB during the day to maintain good mental and physical health. Light sources should be left on for 13 hours/day during summer and 11 hours/day during winter to replicate natural seasonal rhythms and encourage associated hormonal cycling.
If you are housing your pet outdoors, artificial lighting of any kind is not necessary.
UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), distance must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB to a red-footed tortoise housed indoors, you will need one of the following:
- Arcadia T5 HO 6% / Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 5.0
- mesh: 11-14″ / 28-35cm
- no mesh: 14-17″ / 35-43cm
- Arcadia T5 HO 12% / Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 10.0
- mesh: 17-22″ /43-55cm
- no mesh: 21-25″ / 53-62cm
Whichever bulb you use, you will need a reflective T5 HO fixture (Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand for best performance). I DO NOT RECOMMEND ANY OTHER BRAND OR STYLE OF UVB LAMP AT THIS TIME.
Your UVB lamp should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and placed on the warm side, close to the heat lamp(s).
(These recommendations are an approximation based on the assumption of a ~25% mesh block. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI between 2.0 – 3.0 in the basking area. For more details on adjusting basking distance based on mesh obstruction, see the Facebook group Reptile Lighting > Guides > Guide 1: Using T5-HO lamps above a Mesh Screen.)
As a forest-dwelling species, red-footed tortoises don’t need extremely bright light in their environment, but a UVB bulb alone isn’t going to quite do the job, either. To get a little closer to this goal, you will need to supplement with a ~6500K T5 HO fluorescent grow lamp, long enough to span 3/4 to the full length of the enclosure. This is particularly important if you are using live plants, but it is also valuable for supporting your tortoise’s general wellbeing.
The Bio Dude Solar Grow T5 HO Light Strip and Durolux T5 HO Grow Light are my preferred choices for this purpose. However, if you are using live plants as part of your setup, you are likely to see better results with a brighter LED grow lamp such as the Arcadia JungleDawn LED Bar or Bio Dude Glo & Grow.
Red-Footed Tortoise Temperatures & Heating
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is regulated automatically. Tortoises, however, are cold-blooded (poikilothermic), which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, red-footed tortoises warm up by basking in a sunny spot.
These are the temperatures you will need to maintain a red-footed tortoise indoors:
- Basking area temperature: 90-95°F / 32-35°C
- Ambient/cool zone temperature: 75-85°F / 24-29°C
- Nighttime temperature: 68-75°F / 20- 23°C
Juveniles should be kept warmer at night than adults.
To create an evenly-heated basking area and help maintain appropriate temperatures in the rest of the enclosure, you will need a cluster of 2-4 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulbs mounted in ceramic sockets such as the Arcadia Lamp Holder Pro or Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture. There should be a distance of at least 12″ between the lens of the heat bulbs and your tortoise’s shell in order to prevent burns from occurring. If you notice that the basking area is too warm, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer or rheostat. If your basking area is too cool, you will need higher-wattage bulbs.
Nighttime heat: For a large enclosure such as an 8×4, you may need a supplementary heat source to help maintain appropriate ambient temperatures. A Pro Heat or Vivarium Electronics radiant heat panel will do the job well, and connecting it to a proportional thermostat set to 75°F will prevent it from getting too hot. Note that radiant heat panels (RHPs) must be mounted inside the enclosure to be effective. If you don’t wish to use a RHP, you can also use a pair of ceramic heat emitters or heat projectors.
Measuring temperature: To measure the temperature of the basking area, you will need a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. There should be another digital probe thermometer on the other side of the enclosure to monitor the cool end of the temperature gradient. Most reptile-branded digital probe thermometers work well for this purpose.
Heating for outdoor red-footed tortoises: If you are housing your pet in an outdoor pen, artificial heating should not be necessary. However, if nighttime temperatures dip below 50°F/10°C, you will need to provide a shelter with lightless heating such as a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel set to 70-75°F/21-24°C. A chicken or dog house can work well for this purpose. Alternatively, you can simply bring your tortoise inside for the night.
You will need to bring your tortoise indoors for part of the year if you live in an area with winter daytime temperatures below 65°F/18°C.
Red-Footed Tortoise Humidity Requirements
As a tropical species, red-footed tortoises do best in an environment with high humidity levels and plenty of moisture. Indoor conditions should remain between 70-90%, although spikes up to 100% are acceptable. You can monitor humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
First, you will need to mist the enclosure regularly. To increase general humidity levels in indoor enclosures, use a large manual or electric pressure sprayer to moisten the substrate and other surfaces 2-3x/daily. For a more hands-off solution, you can install an automatic misting system such as the Mistking Starter to take care of that for you. In outdoor pens, misting/spraying half of the setup with a garden hose and nozzle attachment is good practice. In both cases, avoid spraying the tortoise directly.
Running a reptile humidifier intermittently throughout the night, such as the Leap Habitats Programmable Fogging System, is a good idea if you have an indoor enclosure. However, to make sure that you’re not accidentally filling your pet’s air with bacteria, you’ll need to use distilled water and disinfect the unit’s reservoir 2-4x/month.
Setting up a humid hide(s)
Whether you are housing your tortoise indoors or outdoors, it must always have access to a humid hideout. This should be a cave or hide box placed on the cool end of the enclosure and lined with moistened sphagnum moss or leaf litter. Piles of damp leaf litter, sphagnum, or even hay for the tortoise to burrow into seem to be particularly appreciated in this species!
Setting up a soaking “pond”/puddle
Red-footed tortoises love to soak! This helps them stay hydrated and also helps keep their digestive tract regular. The easiest way to accommodate this is to provide a shallow dish full of water that the tortoise can easily enter and exit from. This dish must be easy to clean, because you will be rinsing it out daily — if not multiple times per day! Small baking sheets or flower pot saucers can be used for smaller tortoises, but cat litter trays can be used for when they grow larger.
Because your tortoise will also be drinking out of this pond/puddle, it’s especially important to disinfect every single time your tortoise poos in it. I recommend a veterinary-grade disinfectant like F10SC or Rescue. For convenience, it’s a good idea to keep at least one spare soaking tray on hand for quick swapping.
Best Substrates for Red-Footed Tortoises
For red-footed tortoises, it’s best to use a naturalistic substrate that is similar to what is found in their native habitat. In other words, you will need some kind of richly organic, moisture-retentive soil. This substrate should be layered at least 4″ deep in indoor enclosures, and 12″ deep in outdoor enclosures to accommodate natural burrowing behavior.
Here are a few options:
- DIY temperate mix: 40% organic topsoil, 40% coconut fiber, 20% play sand (measured by weight)
- Zoo Med Eco Earth
- Zoo Med Reptisoil
- Exo Terra Plantation Soil
You will also need at least 1″/2.5cm of leaf litter on top of the substrate to help recreate that forest floor effect. In outdoor pens, grass lawn can make a great “substrate,” but access to a leaf litter should still be provided.
New red-footed tortoises should pass quarantine before naturalistic substrate is added to their enclosure.
Feces and urates should be removed daily, and contaminated substrate should be scooped out and replaced. Indoor substrate should be completely replaced once every 3-6 months, depending on how diligent you are about daily cleaning.
Decorating Your Red-Footed Tortoise Enclosure
Decorations play a vital role in your red-footed tortoise’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your tortoise’s enclosure is just a big, boring box of dirt.
Aside from at least 2 hideouts/burrows/caves, here are some other items to consider: hollow logs, downed branches, flat stones, dirt mounds, mud holes, and edible plants work well as décor in a red-footed tortoise enclosure. To determine what plants are safe to use in your enclosure, The Tortoise Table is an excellent resource. Don’t be put off by the messy nature of mud holes — red-footed tortoises love them!!
Arrange these items in a way that encourages your pet to explore, and provides a variety of places to sleep or shelter in during the day.
Feeding Your Red-Footed Tortoise
Red-footed tortoises are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal matter. Generally speaking, a red-footed tortoise’s diet should be around 90% plant matter and 10% animal matter. More specifically, this can be broken down into 55% fruits, flowers, and leaves; 35% grasses and vegetables, and 10% proteins and mushrooms. Young and growing red-footed tortoises should be given as much as they can eat every day. Once they near adulthood, this should be reduced to every other day to prevent obesity.
Some appropriate fruits, flowers, and leaves for red-footed tortoises:
- cactus pads and fruit
- collard greens
- dandelion greens and flowers
- grape leaves
- hibiscus leaves and flowers
- romaine lettuce
- spring mix
- turnip greens
Some appropriate grasses and vegetables for red-footed tortoises:
- Mazuri Tortoise Diet
- Repashy Grassland Grazer
- Arcadia Optimized52
- bell peppers
- sweet potato
Some appropriate proteins for red-footed tortoises:
- chicks (pre-killed)
- darkling beetles
- discoid roaches
- dubia roaches
- eggs (hard-boiled)
- mice (pre-killed)
- mushrooms (edible)
- snails (captive-bred only)
- wet cat food
- Reptilinks (omnivore blends)
- Arcadia OmniGold
The key to providing your pet with balanced nutrition is VARIETY! This is especially important with red-footed tortoises, as they are known to enjoy an extremely variable diet in the wild. So provide as many different kinds of foods to your pet as possible!
Food should always be offered on a plate or tray to prevent excessive ingestion of substrate.
To make sure your tortoise is getting the right nutrients in its diet, it’s a good idea to sprinkle its food with Repashy Superveggie supplement powder. You will also need to provide a cuttlebone in the enclosure. Aside from being a good source of calcium, it also helps keep your tortoise’s beak trimmed!
You may also wish to provide a carotenoid supplement to help maintain and potentially enhance your red-footed tortoise’s coloration. Repashy Superpig works well for this purpose when used as directed by the label.
Handling Tips for Red-Footed Tortoises
Generally speaking, tortoises dislike handling and prefer to be left alone. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with your pet! Many red-footed tortoises learn to appreciate a gentle shell rub, and they can also learn to take food from your fingers or a pair of feeding tweezers.
When handling is necessary, scoop them up from below with your palm rather than grabbing them from above. This will help them not to panic. Then grasp the shell with two hands, supporting both the body and the legs. Keep a firm but gentle grip — falling can do serious damage to a tortoise, and can even be fatal!
Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your pet. When soap and water is not available, use a good hand sanitizer.
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The ReptiFiles Red-Footed Tortoise Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care guide. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.