What set up do I need for my Tortoise?

Why should you use a Tortoise Table instead of a vivarium? What's the best kind of heating and lighting? Suzi Newsome breeds tortoises, and shares her knowledge with us...

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Suzi Newsome is listed on the Tortoise Protection Group website as a Trusted Breeder. She's bred tortoises for many years, and provides a care sheet to all new 'tortoise parents'. Suzi has kindly shared her care sheet with us.

You can find Suzi Newsome on the Tortoise Trust website. You can also find her on Facebook. Just look for @Homebredhermannstortoises

Table of contents: The Tortoise Table | Sterilised top soil | Heat - Basking lamps | Dimming thermostat | UVB lamps for your tortoise | Ceramic heat emitter and pulse thermosat | Additional light for your tortoise | Calcium and vitamin D3 powder | Hot humid hide | Tortoise water dish | What temperature is best for my tortoise? | Thermometers for your tortoise table | Water spray for your tortoise table | Tortoise table decoration | A feeding slate or tile

The Tortoise Table

To house your tortoise an open topped 'tortoise table' is the most suitable home to provide for a Mediterranean species.

A tortoise table can either be purpose built or can be made by converting a book case into one. The ideal proportions for the table are 4ft x 2ft with sides that are at least 10 to 12 inches deep.

A good depth of soil should be used, leaving a decent gap between the top of the soil and the top of the Tortoise Table. You don't want your tortoise to climb out!

An enclosed glass tank or vivarium are completely inappropriate and can cause serious stress and health issues. This is due to the lack of sufficient air flow and transparent sides that your tortoise may keep trying to walk through.

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Sterilised top soil

This is by far the best and safest substrate to use in your tortoise table. Being sterilised, it contains no fertilisers, pesticides or organic matter than can grow and be harmful to your tortoise. It can be used straight from the bag and be purchased from any garden centre and some hardware stores.

Sterilised top soil is a wonderful medium to assist in maintaining the humidity and burrowing needs of your tortoise. Importantly it should not cause any eye irritations or impaction.

There are many products available in reptile stores, marketed specifically for use as substrate for tortoises. However nothing is as good as top soil. You should avoid the soil and calcium like substrates as these are extremely dangerous - and can cause fatal impaction of the intestines in small tortoises.

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Heat - Basking lamps

Tortoises are cold blooded reptiles and therefore will rely on us to provide them with a heat source. Your tortoise must be provided with a basking lamp and its temperature controlled by a thermostat.

My preference for this is a 120 watt/150 watt Halogen floodlight without the passive infra red (PIR) sensor. They are very reasonably priced and give a basking area the tortoise will love. The light is best suspended over one end of the table on an arm on a chain.

This kind of light is stocked in DIY shops and the replacement tubes are very reasonably priced and available even in supermarkets. They do require you to wire in a power supply but it is as easy as wiring up a plug.

Remember that while a tortoise loves the heat, blasting it with strong light and heat for at least 12 hours a day is not a healthy thing to do. Use a dimming thermostat and ensure there are lots of hiding places and plants for your tortoise to shelter under.

Dimming thermostat

This is a vital piece of equipment. It enables you to accurately control the basking temperature and maintain the optimum level of heat in the basking area. The power supply of the basking lamp plugs into the socket of the thermostat and stabilises the set temperature preventing the tortoise from over heating. It also enables you to set a minimum temperature to prevent the tortoise from becoming too cold which will lead to health problems.

The dimming thermostat offers a more natural and smooth temperature control rather than the harsh ON/OFF type thermostat.

You may like this: Tortoise food and diet advice

UVB lamps for your tortoise

UVB light is essential to the health of your tortoise. Without UVB light your tortoise cannot process calcium and maintain a healthy shell and skeleton. You can buy UVB lamps that will provide this essential UV light.

Arcadia manufacture the very best UVB lamps in different strengths. The type needed for Mediterranean tortoises are the 12% UVB with D3. The best output is provided by the T5 slimline tubes. The tube must also have a reflector to optimise the amount of UVB light that is directed towards your tortoise. This can all be bought in a kit which will make a saving.

The tube needs to be placed as close to the basking spot as is possible as the metabolism of D3 and calcium will be at its most efficient in this position.

Ceramic heat emitter and pulse thermostat

A ceramic heat emitter is excellent for maintaining an ambient temperature particularly at night as there is no light given off by this lamp. If your house is a cold environment once the heating is off, this item is essential.

The surface of these get VERY hot and must be used with a pulse thermostat. The lamp will work best when not in a shade or dome, so a separate ceramic light fitting will be needed, and also a cage to prevent burning from contact. This can be placed at the cool end and be on 24/7 to control ambient temperatures.

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Additional light for your tortoise

If a tortoise does not obtain a high enough light level, it will become inactive. Therefore an additional light source is needed. A reflective dome and a regular low energy light bulb with a high lumen (brightness) rating is all that's needed.

Calcium and vitamin D3 powder

Calcium and vitamin D3 power are essential to the health and long life of your tortoise. Nekton MSA is a vitamin D3 powder as is Nutrabol. These are essential for the absorption of calcium provided by the limestone flour and also cuttle bone or lump chalk.

It is highly advised to provide all three types of calcium, as these are not only a great source of extra calcium, but also help to keep the beak trim.

Without vitamin D3, any calcium the tortoise eats will not be absorbed and not benefit the shell or skeleton at all. These supplements help prevent the tortoise from developing Metabolic Bone Disease and softening of the shell.

Calcium deficiency can also cause lameness. I sprinkle a 50/50 mix of Nekton MSA and limestone flour onto the tortoises food everyday until the tortoise reaches one year of age. I then reduce the frequency to several times a week.

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Hot humid hide

A lot of research has gone into how pyramiding of the shell occurs. In my opinion it is caused by a lack of humidity while the tortoise is young in particular.

In the wild, during the first two years of the tortoises life, they spend much of their time in hiding, often burying themselves by the root systems of plants. The humidity in the Mediterranean is also much higher than in our homes.

The hot humid hide is essential in the prevention of bumpy shells. It can be made from a plain plastic box and lid, with a door way cut out at one end. It has a damp Sphagnum moss in it and is placed near the basking light. This is so that it can sweat nicely at no lower than 25 Celsius.

Alternatively the same humid environment can be created with just soil and a plastic cave available from reptile suppliers. Simply keep the soil moist underneath the cave, and keep the cave positioned by the basking area as to create the humidity. Baby tortoises in particular love this.

Remember, heat and moisture create humidity. Cool temperatures and moisture will create damp and eventually a sick tortoise.

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Tortoise water dish

A shallow dish is best for the tortoise. Big enough for the tortoise to sit in, but not deep enough that they could drown in it. They don't lap like cats and dogs, and quite often drink by submersing their whole face under the water, drawing it in through their nose and mouth at the same time. They also absorb water through their clocea which is why regular bathing is so important.

What temperature is best for my tortoise?

  • Your tortoise's basking temperature should be 32 to 35 Celsius
  • The cooler end should be no less than 20 Celsius

It is important to know what temperatures you have at both ends of your table. You should have an ambient hot end and a cool end. The tortoise needs to bask at 32 to 35 Celsius and be able to thermoregulate itself by moving to the cooler end, which should be no less than 20 Celsius.

Thermometers for your tortoise table

The types of thermometer I use are the dial and probe type which are useful for placing directly beside the sensor of your dimming thermostat, to check the basking temperature.

I also love the infra red gun thermometers and consider them essential as they can provide a quick and precise reading.

Water spray for your tortoise table

I prefer the pump spray bottles. Use your bottle to spray down the soil in your table and also to re-dampen the moss in the humid hide or under the cave.

Tortoise table decoration

Baby tortoises like to have plants to explore and to take shelter under. Plants also make the table attractive. You can use real or silk plants. Real plants must be safe to eat and will be destroyed by the tortoise over time.

A feeding slate or tile

A tile or slate is advised to place food on. I use a broken piece of concrete slab. It is said that feeding off this type of surface is helpful in keeping the tortoises beak trim.

Cover your tortoise for up to £2,500 worth of vet fees.

Get a quote

Alternatively you can call us on 0345 982 5505

Thank you to Suzi Newsome for sharing her Tortoise care tips with us!

Don't forget you can find Suzi Newsome on the Tortoise Trust website.

You can also find her on Facebook. Just look for @Homebredhermannstortoises