What’s best for your tortoise enclosure? Learn about enclosures, heating, temperature gradients, UV, substrate and more.
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For your tortoise you will need:
- A suitable enclosure
- An appropriate heat source and thermostat
- An ultraviolet (UV) emitting light
- A safe substrate
- Hides for the enclosure
- Special food and water bowls
Check out our video above on tortoise table setup produced with reptile expert David Alderton.
Tortoise table vs. vivarium – which is best?
In recent years, tortoise tables have become recommended for hatchling and young tortoises.
They tend to be larger and easier to create a thermal gradient across, compared with an enclosed vivarium. It is also easier to hand-feed and tame your tortoise in these surroundings.
Various designs of tortoise table are available; it pays to purchase a relatively large one, as this will save replacing it in the future.
One vital design aspect is the height of the sides, as you do not want your tortoise tumbling over these to the ground. The sides need to be around 25cm (10in) or so in height.
It is also important not to put items such as a hide adjacent to the corner of the table. This could provide a platform that enables your tortoise to climb up and over the side of the enclosure.
Horsfield’s tortoises in particular – possibly because they come from fairly rocky areas – are very effective climbers, and this is a particular risk with them.
A tortoise table will be suitable for all the European-type tortoises: the Mediterranean spur-thighed (Testudo gracea); Hermann’s tortoise (T. hermanni); the Marginated Tortoise (T. marginate) and the Horsfield’s (a.k.a. the Afghan) Tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii).
Maintaining humidity can be easier in vivarium surroundings, which is why they are still more commonly used for young tropical tortoises that originate from humid environments.
For example the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius) which originates from parts of South America.
Again, if you opt for a vivarium, choose as large a design as possible.
Tortoise heat lamp and UV light for Mediterranean tortoises
A combination (or ‘combi’) lamp that emits both heat and UV light is probably the best option for a tortoise table. It will need to be positioned at the correct height on a suitable stand.
Alternatively, heating and lighting can be supplied separately, by means of an IR heat source, of which there are a few to choose from. And a UV tube, suspended above the tortoise’s housing.
The heat source wattage required depends in part on the background temperature in the room where the tortoise is being housed.
Your tortoise breeder or local reptile store will be able to advise you on the best options for your particular set-up.
If you purchase a reptile intended product, then instructions will also be given on the packaging.
UV lighting for tortoises
As a guide, when you are providing separate UV, a T5 12% tube, located 40-60 cm (15-24 in) from the top of the tortoise’s shell when it is out basking is a popular option.
A T8 12% tube can be used closer, at a height of 30-40 cm (12-15 in).
Always read the instructions carefully with UV lighting, to ensure that it is being used safely.
As we cannot see the UV wavelengths, it is impossible to determine visually when the UV output of a bulb or tube is waning.
Manufacturers generally recommend replacing them every 10-12 months to ensure optimal performance and ensure your tortoise is not deprived of these critical wavelengths that normally emanate from the sun.
If you signed up on purchase, some manufacturers will send you a free text alert notifying you when the bulb is due to be replaced.
Heating for tortoises
Ceramic infra-red (IR) dull emitters: Aside from a combi lamp, it is possible to select from other types of heat source, including Ceramic IR dull (heat) emitters. These only emit IR wavelengths and so a separate UV source will be essential.
Ceramic IR dull emitters will get very hot and need to be housed in a corresponding ceramic socket and run with a pulse proportional thermostat.
They are very dependable units with a life expectancy of 10 years or more and are especially valuable in large enclosures.
Ceramic IR dull emitters are a different design to a typical rounded lamp, being flat in appearance at the end furthest from the socket.
IR lamps: There are also IR lamps which provide another means of critical warmth for your tortoise. These can used safely on a 24 hour basis (also under thermostatic control), again with suitable fitments.
They do, however, have a much shorter life expectancy than those of the ceramic type, being similar to that of a typical light bulb.
Some IR lamps on the market today offer both heat and a source of UVA – but critically, not UVB, so they do not offer a comprehensive lighting system for tortoises.
Halogen bulbs: Some bulbs of this type are produced for vivarium use and sold through reptile outlets, but these are only suitable for daytime use. Only certain types of halogen bulb produce UVA, so again, do read the packaging carefully.
Night-time bulbs: There are also special night-time bulbs on the market, which provide heat but not light and can be used at night.
Finally, when buying lamps, bear in mind that the majority are designed with a screw fitment, but a few are of the bayonet type and will need to be matched with a corresponding holder.
What is the difference between IR, UVA and UVB?
These are all part of the heat and lighting requirements for Mediterranean tortoises.
Infra-red (IR) wavelengths give warmth, UVA serves as an appetite stimulant, and helps vision, and UVB is vital for the manufacture of vitamin D3 in the tortoise’s skin.
Vitamin D3 enables the uptake and metabolism of calcium in the body, where it is used in the bones and the formation of eggshells for example.
These various wavelengths within the lighting spectrum can be supplied separately in a lighting system in a number of ways.
These include using a bulb that emits UVA and IR, with a separate UVB source. Or alternatively, you can opt for a separate combined UV source and an IR bulb, or indeed, go for the all-in-one combi option.
It is well-worth researching the choice of options that will be suitable for the size of your tortoise’s enclosure.
Tortoise table temperature
As a guide, the temperature under the heat source should be 32-35°C (90-95°F), with the opposite end of the enclosure being no lower than 20°C (68°F).
You need to set up a thermal gradient across the tortoise’s enclosure, so that it can move closer to the heat source if it starts to feel cold, and move further away once it has warmed up.
This mimics the type of basking behaviour that tortoises adopt in the wild. Tortoises are dependent on the environmental temperature to sustain their level of activity.
Does a tortoise need a heat lamp at night?
In most cases, overnight heating will not be required for your tortoise, unless the room temperature gets too cold.
If this is the case, it may be better to use heating so that a temperature of around 15-18°C (60-65°F) can be maintained overnight.
There are special night-time heat lamps available, or you can continue to use an independent IR heat source if you are using this during the day.
A heat mat under thermostatic control as always may represent another possibility. This should be mounted on the wall of your enclosure. More information on this is below.
No visible lighting or UV is required at night.
You can position thermometers at the warm and cooler ends of the tortoise table, to measure the temperature gradient.
A digital IR laser thermometer temperature gun can also be used for instant results.
How long should the heat lamp and UV light be on?
In general, provide your tortoise with warmth and light for 8-10 hours every day, corresponding to the usual day length.
Provided that the UV source is working effectively, this will meet your tortoise’s UV requirement.
Do tortoises need a heat mat?
Thin heat pads are also sometimes used with tortoises, but these should not be placed on the floor of the enclosure, but attached to a side, acting like a radiator.
They can be useful for supplying gentle background heat overnight.
Again, they should be operating under thermostatic control, and as with all electrical equipment, only buy branded products from well-known manufacturers to ensure they should be safe.
Tortoise basking lamp holders
It is usual to incorporate the lamp into a special holder with a surround, called a reflector.
This serves to direct the light down into the tortoise’s enclosure, concentrating it.
It is also recommended to fit a screen over the reflector, to minimise the risk of you burning yourself accidentally on the bulb, although the reflector itself is also likely to become hot.
One reason why it is not recommended to use newspaper as a substrate is that there have been cases where it has become rucked up and come in contact with the heat source above the tortoise table, catching fire.
Tortoise table thermostats
A thermostat is a vital piece of equipment, regulating the heat output so the tortoise’s enclosure does not become too hot or cold.
There are three basic types of thermostat:
- On/off thermostat: the most basic type, which simply switches the heat source on and off.
- Dimming thermostat: this type of thermostat is more sophisticated, with the light level (and therefore the heat output) adjusting according to the temperature probe.
- Pulse proportional thermostat: the most accurate, adjusting rapidly to temperature fluctuations, but also the most expensive option.
Tortoise light timer
This piece of equipment is not essential, but it means that if you are late home for example, the light about your tortoise table will switch off at the pre-set time.
Best substrates for tortoises
There are now specially prepared substrates available from reptile outlets, including some recommended for Mediterranean tortoises. Top soil was traditionally recommended as a floor covering for a tortoise table.
Never use sand, because of the risk that particles could be swallowed with the tortoise’s food and end up causing an intestinal obstruction.
Substrates marketed for tortoises in contrast should be safe.
How often should you change the substrate?
This does not need to be done very frequently, typically only every few months, although spot-cleaning will be essential.
A tool as sold for cleaning a cat litter tray can be recommended for this purpose, but keep it exclusively for use with your tortoise.
How deep should the substrate be?
The substrate should cover the floor area to a depth of about 5 cm (2 in), particularly since tortoises like to burrow down into it.
Waterproof liners for tortoise tables – do I need one?
No, these are definitely not essential, especially as the substrate should not be soaked at any stage.
They can help though, when you need to change the substrate, allowing you to lift it out more easily.
It is also important to provide a retreat for your tortoise in both the warm and cooler parts of the vivarium.
This will help your tortoise to feel secure. Young tortoises by nature are shy and will hide away under grass in the wild to escape predators.
Do tortoises need a water bowl?
Your tortoise must always have a shallow yet stable water bowl.
Be prepared to change the water and clean the container daily. The bowl may get dirty if you tortoise soaks itself here, dragging some of the substrate in with it.
Where should I position the food bowl?
Keep this away from the hottest part of the enclosure.
It’s a good idea to stand it on a tile or a piece of slate. Then if your tortoise pulls a piece of food out of the bowl, it will not get dragged into the substrate.
What plants can I put on my tortoise table?
There are various plants that you can use, but they must be both non-toxic, and also not treated with any toxic chemicals either directly or indirectly.
Indirect contamination could be where they’ve been grown in compost that contains systemic insecticides that are taken up by the plants or have been sprayed. Garden centres can often do this with plants.
Ask at your local reptile store for safe options grown organically, such as turtle vine (Callisia repens) that many tortoises enjoy nibbling. Make sure the pot cannot topple down on your pet though.
You can also place small trays of weeds grown using tortoise seed mixes on top of the substrate, allowing your pet to nibble on this food too.
How to increase humidity on a tortoise table
Especially in winter, with central heating on, the atmosphere in homes can become rather dry.
Regular spraying with tepid water can help to raise the humidity, but take care to avoid the electrics. Turn them off briefly while you do so for the sake of safety.
You can also add some moss to a hide, and spray this too. If the atmosphere is too dry, young tortoises may develop pyramiding, which is a growth distortion of the shell.