Enrichment: Providing Mental Well-Being for Your Tortoise

What is enrichment?  The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Behavior Scientific Advisory Group (BAG) defines enrichment as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history.”  But what the heck does that actually mean, right?  Most zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, especially those that are AZA accredited here in the United States, are focusing more and more on enrichment.  Basically they want to be able to stimulate captive animals to exhibit the same behaviors as they would out in the wild.  Stimuli can be anything from types of foods offered, to various scents in the habitats, to noises, to exposure to other species, to puzzles and toys, and so on.

There are an infinite number of ways to provide enrichment for animals.  Those of you who have cats and dogs probably provide enrichment all the time without even realizing it.  Do you ever give your cat a toy mouse to play with?  How about giving your dog a treat or a rope toy?  Toys can hone your pet’s hunting or foraging skills.  The various smells and taste of treats or catnip stimulate your pet’s senses too.

301Exotic animals in captivity require these types of stimuli as well, regardless of whether they reside in a zoo or in your home.  Even if you bought your tortoise or other reptile in a pet store, it is not domesticated and still has wild instincts.  Your exotic pet can develop behavioral problems and possibly even have a shorter life span if not provided with enrichment.

So the really big question here is what kind of enrichment can you provide for a tortoise?  If you walk into a pet store it’s easy to find toys for cats, dogs, birds, and even small animals like hamsters and guinea pigs.  But what about reptiles?  They don’t exactly chase catnip filled toy mice or play fetch.

But there are plenty of ways to enrich reptiles and stimulate natural behaviors.  Whether you have a baby tortoise in a glass aquarium or table top enclosure or you have a larger tortoise in an outdoor enclosure, one of the easiest ways to provide enrichment is to change the habitat intermittently.  If the enclosure has plants or a hide box, occasionally move them to different areas of the enclosure.  It gives the animal an opportunity to explore a changed environment.  I also like to make the substrate different depths or form slight mounds of substrate for them to climb over.  You don’t want to make the mounds too steep or high though.  We don’t want to cause the tortoise to accidentally flip over.  Providing various types of substrates in the enclosure is also great enrichment.  However, do use caution with the types of substrates you provide.  Some substrates can cause impaction or choking hazards.

You can also stimulate your tortoise’s senses by providing a variety of greens, grasses, weeds, and herbs in his or her diet.  I like to add fragrant herbs like cilantro, parsley or dill to the regular diet.  Cilantro is particularly popular in my house, not just with the tortoises, but also with the bearded dragons and birds.  Edible flowers are also a great form of enrichment.

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

They stimulate senses of taste and smell like the herbs, and are also bright and colorful which are very attractive to tortoises.  I frequently feed hibiscus and marigold.  I also have some nasturtium growing in the raised garden bed that will be ready to feed out in a few weeks.  If you have your tortoise in an outdoor habitat, try planting some greens, grasses, or edible flowers right in the enclosure for your tortoise to graze on leisurely.  Food enrichment can also be provided by changing the size or shape of the pieces of food given to the tortoise.  You can change things up by sometimes breaking or cutting food into smaller pieces and then other times leaving the food in larger pieces or chunks.

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

While most people wouldn’t blink at the idea of giving a cat or dog a toy to play with, I often get side-ways glances and raised eyebrows when I tell people I buy toys for my tortoises.I make sure to buy sturdy dog and cat toys so that they can’t eat or break them.  KONG dog and cat toys seem to work well for them.  I like to put some small treats like corn kernels in the KONG and let them figure out how to get the treats out.  One of the cat toys has a rattle inside of it that they like to push around and play with too.  I even put the toys in the bath tub with them sometimes so they have something to keep them occupied while soaking (my little ones seem to get bored after about 7-8 minutes of being in the bath).

Bath time with the toys

Bath time with the toys

You should always supervise your pet’s time with toys just in case the toy breaks or your pet is actually able to bite or chew the toy apart.  If you have a larger tortoise like a sulcata or aldabra, you can also try giving them a Boomer Ball.  They are a little pricey, but very sturdy for larger, stronger animals.

Behavioral conditioning helps stimulate cognitive brain function or basically keeps the animal’s brain active.  I have begun target training with my tortoises.  I did this for a couple reasons.  The first is that I know it’s a great form of enrichment for my tortoises.  The second is that, let’s face it, when my tortoises are full grown, I won’t be able to just pick them up and move them if I need to.  I have to have a way to get them from point A to point B that won’t break my back.  Because they’re small right now, I simply use a solid black pen with different colored pencil erasers as my target stick.  I use a pink eraser for Tambara and a yellow eraser for Kada.  I hold the target stick in place and say “(the tortoise’s name), target”.  When the tortoise goes to the target stick and touches her beak to the tip of the target stick she gets a kernel of corn as a reward.  I only use positive reinforcement training with all of my animals.  If she does the wanted behavior, she gets rewarded.  If she doesn’t do the behavior, she doesn’t get a reward, period.  I never shout, make scary noises, or hit my animals.  Negative reactions only cause your animals to be fearful of you and can damage or destroy any type of bond you have or may have in the future.  I will provide more detailed training information in a future post, but know that if you do want to train your tortoise or other reptile, it takes PATIENCE.  Reptile brains don’t work like mammal and bird brains.  They don’t react as quickly and you need to understand that to be successful.

And lastly, if you can socialize your tortoise, that is also a wonderful way to enrich him or her.  Though they are safely separated by a mesh enclosure, my tortoises spend almost all of their outside time with my bearded dragon, Matilda.  It’s great for all three of them to experience being around another species.

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

They also get to encounter a variety of wildlife when they hang out on the patio.  I have a squirrel, three cardinals, two doves, and what seems like hundreds of anoles that come to visit daily.  I also get the occasional snake or frog that stops by to get a drink after I water the garden.  The sights, sounds, and smells of other animals stimulates their senses and their minds in ways that no toy or food ever could.

Most zoos construct enrichment plans that detail what the goal of providing the enrichment is.  It’s not necessary to be that detail-oriented with your tortoise at home, but it’s still a good idea to make sure you provide a variety of stimuli.  It’s very easy to get into a habit of just giving different types of food and thinking that’s enough enrichment, but it’s not.  You want to stimulate the whole mind and body so that your tortoise stays happy and healthy.  If you have other enrichment ideas, please share with us.  I always like to hear about tortoises having fun.


Kada visiting her neighbor, Odin, the bearded dragon

For more information on enrichment and enrichment items please visit:

AZA Enrichment Page

Boomer Balls

KONG Animal Toys

Garden Expansion: Part 2

Completed Garden Bed

Materials Used:

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 8′ common boards (long sides)

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 25 ¼” common boards (short sides)

4 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 2′ posts (legs)

2 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 15 ¾” posts (inner support posts)

4 ea – 3″ heavy duty wheels

100 ea – #8 x 2″ wood screws

16 ea – #12 x 2″ wood screws (for wheels)

1 can of boiled linseed oil

1 old sock (any cotton rag can be used to apply oil)


electric drill

Phillips head screwdriver

tape measure

When I purchased the lumber, I had the stores cut some of the wood for me.  Usually they will do this for free.  I had them cut the plywood in half lengthwise giving me two 2’ x 8’ pieces.  I had them cut the 4” x 4” posts into the two different sizes needed.  And I had the common board cut in half from 16’ to 8’ in length.  To make the smaller pieces of common board, I used my jigsaw at home and cut some of the 8’ boards into the size needed for the short sides.  Garden Box 005I also used the jigsaw to cut the corners of the plywood.  The corners need to be cut out so that the 4” x 4” legs can come through the bottom.

Putting the garden bed together only took me a few hours in total, but I had to build it over the course of three days.  The South Florida heat was a bit much and I had to wait until about 6:30 pm and work until dark so that I wouldn’t suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I plan on expanding even more, however, it will have to wait until the temperature is a little cooler.

Once all of the wood was cut into the appropriate sizes, I started by treating all of the lumber with a coat of boiled linseed oil.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to rub the oil onto the wood.  You should apply the linseed oil going with the grain of the wood, just as you would if you were applying a stain or polyurethane.  Again, please follow all directions on the can of linseed oil for proper handling and disposal.  It is highly combustible and we want to avoid any serious injuries from occurring.  I allowed the wood to dry for about an hour.

Garden Box 006For the construction, I started by nailing the long common boards to the 2’ post pieces (legs) to construct the long sides of the bed.  Next, I attached the bottom of the bed to the long sides.  Then I attached the short sides of the bed.  Before turning the bed right side up, I attached the wheels to the legs of the bed.  Lastly, once the bed was turned over, I attached the 15 ¾” pieces of the 4” x 4” post on the long sides of the bed on the inside to give some extra support.  Garden Box 002If you are making a smaller bed, the extra support probably isn’t necessary, but I would recommend adding support for any size bed 8’ or longer in length.

Once the garden bed was constructed, I filled it with a mixture of organic raised garden bed soil and organic potting soil.  I chose to do a mixture because I’ve had really good luck with the potting soil in the past, but never used the raised garden bed mixture.  It was a bit of an experiment, but I wanted to see how the mix would work.  Garden Box 004Finally, I transplanted some mesclun mix greens, cucumbers, and green beans that I had growing already and also planted some new seeds.  I hope these instructions and tips help you either get a new garden started or expand the garden you already have.  Good luck!

Garden Expansion: Part 1

I’m not a carpenter by any means.  In truth, unless it comes in a box from IKEA, the odds of something being constructed correctly by me are pretty slim.  But, the tortoises are growing and so are their appetites.  My little red pots simply aren’t enough anymore.  So living the apartment life with no yard, I decided to construct some raised garden beds for my patio.  I am very fortunate to have a large patio, so I have space to make bigger beds.  To prepare for my project, I did a little online research to see how other folks built their raised garden beds.  There were so many great garden beds out there so I borrowed ideas from a few different sources (see below for links) and drew up a diagram of my own basic design.

Choosing the type of wood to use was probably the biggest decision I had to make with this project.  Cedar would have been my first choice.  It is strong, looks beautiful, and is least likely to succumb to mold, rotting, and pests.  However, I’m on a budget and cedar is at least 2 – 3 times more expensive than my other options.  I looked into other woods such as pine, oak, and poplar as well.  In the end though, I decided to go cheap since this was my first DIY garden bed.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and then find I didn’t like the design or make a mistake during construction (odds were high for the latter scenario).  So for the sides, I purchased common boards made of spruce.  To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what type of wood the post & plywood are made of, but they were fairly cheap too.

I also did some price comparisons.  Be sure to shop around for the best prices.  Because I spent a little extra time doing this, I ended up saving a significant amount of money.  For example, at Store A I was given a quote of $43.92 for the 4”x4”x8’ post I used to make the legs of the bed.  I was told that 4”x4”x8’ posts that are untreated are uncommon and that it would have to be special ordered.  However, when I went to Store B, I found an untreated 4”x4”x8’ post for $8.77.  Yes, it was that big of a price difference and apparently they’re not as uncommon as I was told.  There was a big price difference in the common board also.  At Store B (where the post was cheaper), common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 8’ were $15.12 each.  At Store A common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 16’ were only $10.99, giving me twice as much wood for about $4.00 less per board.  There was even a $10.00 price difference in the plywood from the two stores.  It’s definitely worth your time to do some price checking.

As I’ve said in previous posts, one of my main reasons for starting this garden was to eliminate, or at least drastically decrease, the possibility of chemicals in my food.  For this reason, I chose to use untreated wood for the garden box.  After a little research, I found that treating the wood with boiled linseed oil is suggested as a natural alternative to using treated wood or stains as a protective coating.  Linseed oil won’t protect the wood as well, but it will help and it does bring out some of the natural color of the wood.  If you do use boiled linseed oil, please follow all directions carefully.  Linseed oil is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE and can cause combustion if not handled and stored properly.  So while I have the advantage of having a natural protective coating on the wood, I have the disadvantage of higher risk of rotting wood.  This was another reason why I didn’t want to spend too much on the materials.  It’s likely that in a few years, I will have to replace the rotted wood.

In addition to the wood, I also purchased 100 wood screws (#8 x 2”), 1 can of boiled linseed oil, 4 heavy duty 3” wheels, and a new jigsaw (my new toy!).  I also had a couple items that I used from home.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to apply the linseed oil, 16 #12 x 2” woods screws for the wheels, an electric drill, and my trusty Phillips head screwdriver that my dad passed down to me.  Once I had all of my materials I was ready to build!  Check out how I constructed the garden box and see pictures in part 2!

Thank you to these folks for giving me some ideas and tips for my garden beds:

Garden Plans Free



Happy, Healthy Eating

Kada really digs in to her pellets

Kada really digs in to her pellets

There are many different options for feeding your tortoise.  There are commercial pelleted diets and there are more natural diets.  I’m not completely against feeding the pelleted food.  There are a lot of vitamins and minerals packed into those pellets.  Many animals, even cats and dogs, do not receive proper nutrition.  So, if pellets help you provide a balanced diet for your tortoise then go for it.  However, along with the vitamins and minerals, there is a lot of other unnecessary stuff packed into those pellets as well.  Some of them are too high in fat and protein to be fed regularly.  Because of this, I do not recommend that commercial foods be a main staple of your tortoise’s diet.  I feed my tortoises Mazuri tortoise diet about 2-3 times per month.  I feed it for two reasons.  First, simply because they love it.  My tortoises like to eat (even things that aren’t food!), but they inhale the pellets. It’s like watching a kid enjoy a giant ice cream cone.  And second, it provides an additional type of food enrichment for them.  Commercial diets should not be the only source of food for your tortoise.  Again, mine only get some a couple times a month even though I feed them 3-4 times per week.

The more natural approach (and more healthy approach in my opinion) is to feed a natural diet.  Greens, grasses, hays, weeds, flowers, and herbs are types of foods that a tortoise would eat in the wild.  Currently I am growing a variety of greens in my garden.  I have a mesclun mix, arugula, red winter kale, endive, and romaine lettuce growing.  Dark, leafy greens are more nutritious.  However, greens such as spinach are high in iron and should be fed sparingly to avoid causing any health problems.  Dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are all good options that are relatively easy to find in a grocery store.  I also have hibiscus, marigolds, cilantro, dill, and parsley growing to add to the greens for enrichment.  There are several edible flowers that are relatively easy to grow at home, even on a patio or in a window box.  See my “Links” page for a list of safe plants and another list of toxic plants to stay away from.

Tambara digging into a fresh hibiscus flower

Tambara munching on a hibiscus flower

The tortoises also have access to hay every day, but I rarely observe them eating it.  I do still have to buy hay.  I definitely don’t have the means to grow any such crop on my patio, though I wish I did.  I most often feed them orchard hay, but will occasionally change it up with timothy, Bermuda, or brome hay.  You can buy bags of mixed hay at your local pet store.   If you happen to live near a feed store (supplies for larger animals like horses), check them out as you may be able to find more varieties of hay.

My little ones also get the occasional bits of vegetables as treats.  I have green beans currently sprouting.  Sulcatas and most other tortoises should not get treats like that too often though, especially anything too high in sugar.  These sweeter treats can actually damage or destroy the good gut flora in their digestive tracts.  Without this gut flora they will not be able to properly digest food which can lead to severe health problems.  The diet should be high in fiber and low in sugar.  So it’s best to avoid fruits and choose veggies carefully if you do want to give a special treat.

As far as supplements, this is a rather debatable topic among tortoise enthusiasts.  Some feel that if the tortoise is fed a proper diet, supplements are completely unnecessary.  Others believe that supplements should be added to food regularly.  I, personally, am in the middle.  The amount of supplements you add to your tortoise’s food will depend on the rest of the diet being fed.  Juveniles and females carrying eggs will need a little more calcium than adult males or females not carrying eggs.  How they get the vitamins is up to you.  I add a light dusting of Superveggie supplement powder by Repashy to their greens about 2-3 times per month.  Though I still give a supplement, it’s not too often.  Mine don’t seem to mind the powder on their food either.  I have heard from other tortoise keepers that their torts won’t eat if there is a powdered supplement on the food.  You might have to experiment a bit if you find you have a picky eater.

Garden 026

No need for a big yard…just soil, water, sunshine, seeds, and love

The main reason why I started my garden was so that I can know exactly what is going on the food while it’s growing.  One suggestion to keep in mind if you do buy greens from the grocery store is to try to buy organic.  I know it may be a bit more expensive, but it will also be much better for your tortoises’ overall health.  While the amount of pesticides and fertilizers in produce may not be toxic to a 150 lb human, the amount of those pesticides and fertilizers could be toxic to a 150 gram baby tortoise, especially if that produce is 50%-90% of its diet.  And yes, I do realize that there are organic pesticides that can be used on organic crops.  However, many of them are still safer than pesticides that are not organic.  If you have the space to start your own garden, I strongly urge you to.  You don’t even need a big yard.  You can grow lettuce in pots on your patio or even grow some microgreens in small pots inside your house or apartment.  It will be so much healthier for your tortoise and it’s fun!

Some of the most important things to remember when it comes to nutrition for your tortoise are to provide variety, focus on the healthy stuff, stay away from sweets like fruit, try to buy organic, and make sure you are providing a good balance of vitamins and minerals in their diets.  Of course, if you have any questions or concerns, you should always contact a veterinarian, preferably one that specializes in exotic pets.  Happy, healthy eating to you and your tortoise!