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Correct accomodation is vital to keeping a happy and healthy tortoise. Sadly many people who are selling tortoises today know too little (or just want to make a sale) about the correct accomadation needs of a captive tortoise and many tortoises are still sold in fishtank or aquaria and with innapropriate equipment such as heatmats.
This page gives you all of the general principles of correct tortoise housing for Mediterranean species and arid or desert tropical species.
One of the keys to keeping any pet or animal is to provide suitable accomodation, which meets the animals needs for space, shelter, warmth, light, humidity, stimulation and a host of other factors. Reptiles, and in this case tortoises and turtles are an excellent example of animals who fail to thrive in the wrong environment. The key to creating the correct environment for your tortoise is to research your particular species and its natural environment and to imitate this environment as closely as possible.
In the past many tortoises (and especially young tortoises) were kept in aquaria and fish tanks or similar housing and many people who are selling tortoises still offer these as suitable accommodation either through lack of understanding, or desire to make a sale. It is now known that this is not suitable accommodation for tortoises and especially Mediterranean tortoises and arid/desert species (even babies and juveniles), because the lack of air flow due to the enclosed nature of an aquarium means that the relative humidity is much too high for the tortoise and causes respiratory and other health problems.
The best way of housing your tortoise indoors, is to use a tortoise table or some other sort of open enclosure. A tortoise table is so called because it usually consists of an open topped area with raised sides, often on a cupboard or support such as a table to raise the enclosure to a more suitable height for viewing and caring for your tortoises. It is not essential that the enclosure be raised from the ground, and for larger species such as leopard tortoises and sulcatas, it would be very difficult to accommodate these species with enough space on a table! Tortoise tables are often best made from wood or wood and polycarbonate and need to be large enough for the species concerned. An absolute minimum of 4 square feet for one Mediterranean tortoise is a guide size, but obviously the bigger the better and the larger tortoise species mentioned above will need much more space than this. If you are housing more than one tortoise (and especially if you have a male and female(s)) you need to ensure plenty of space and some sight breaks within your set up. It is also necessary to provide a way to suspend heating and lighting equipment in the desired place on your tortoise table/enclosure. On a small to medium sized tortoise table, this is often best achieved by a wooden frame (or frames) which spans the tortoise table from one side to the other at the desired height.
Mediterranean tortoises many tropical tortoises come from arid, warm environments where in the summer the temperatures frequently (or constantly) top thirty degrees centigrade and therefore need additional heat sources when kept indoors in the UK. The background temperature of the room in which the tortoise is kept needs to be at least 20 degrees centigrade (preferably 25 degrees for tropical species) and a basking lamp (or more than one if you have several tortoises living together) must be provided. These can take the form of an ordinary light bulb, a special reptile bulb which also emit UV radiation, or a ceramic heating element. Whichever you choose, the ground temperature under the basking lamp should be around thirty degrees centigrade and the lamp should not be close enough for the tortoises to be able to touch it (they will readily climb onto each other) to avoid burns. Heat mats and hot rocks are unsuitable for Mediterranean tortoises and will cause burns to your tortoises if used. There needs to be enough room for your tortoises to all be able to get underneath the basking lamp to ensure that each tortoise can adequately regulate its body temperature. In order to provide a temperature gradient within the tortoise enclosure, it is advisable to put all heating at one end, preferably the opposite end to the tortoises shelter. Care is necessary when placing other objects in your tortoise's enclosure that the tortoise cannot fall on its back under the lamp in an area where it would not be able to right itself as this could lead to dehydration.
The Mediterranean and the tropics are areas which receive almost constant bright sunshine throughout the spring and summer months and this is what a tortoise is designed for. The sun provides the heat which the tortoise needs as described above, but it also provides ultra violet light in the form of UVa and UVb rays. In captivity this light has to be provided artificially for your tortoise and especially if your tortoise is to be kept indoors for a significant part of the year. Tortoises need UVa light in order to maintain their general behaviour patterns and to remain active and healthy. For instance, tortoises which get plenty of UVa light are reputed to be more likely to breed successfully. The main requirement of your tortoise is UVb light. Tortoises need a large amount of calcium in their diet in order to grow normally and produce healthy bones and shells. In order to metabolise this calcium your tortoise also needs adequate supplies of vitamin D3. In the wild, tortoises produce their own vitamin D3 from the UVb rays in the sunlight. In captivity it is vital therefore, if you do not want your tortoise to become seriously ill, that you provide adequate amounts of UVb light for your tortoise. In summer this is relatively easy if your tortoise is put outside in the sunshine. When your tortoise is indoors, artificial light is required and this is best provided by special fluorescent tubes (note:normal fluorescent tubes will not do) available from specialist pet stores. The normal UVb tubes (often rated 5.0) are sufficient and very high rated tubes may be detrimental to your tortoises' sight in the long term. The larger the tubes and the more you have the better for your tortoise, however it is advisable to have these tubes at one side of the enclosure (away from the hides/shelters and at the same end as the basking lamps is best) to provide a light gradient within the enclosure. Fluorescent tubes need to be situated as close to the tortoise as possible to provide adequate UVb light. If the tubes are more than 18 inches away from the tortoises then much of their effect will be lost. Fluorescent tubes give out a negligible amount of heat and can not be used as a substitute for basking lamps.
Many different theories and opinions exist as to what is the correct substrate for tortoises. Although many people have success using shredded newspaper, old towels or alfalfa pellets and other such artificial substrates, we believe that the most natural thing is a natural substrate and suggest 2 ways of doing this.
For smaller tortoise tables, the use of seed trays with different substrates such as rocks, gravel, sand, compost and plants makes cleaning and changing the substrate easy and allows for preparation of planted trays which can then just be swapped.
Our preferred method is to use a 50/50 mix of clean sand (such as playpit sand) and topsoil to a depth of 3-4 inches as the substrate for the whole enclosure. Some gravel can be added to this mix and at least one area of larger stones/small rocks is essential to help keep tortoises claws in shape and to provide interest. Plants can then be added as well as sterilised logs (if found out doors first soak in very strong salt solution for 48 hours and then water for 48 hours and allow to thoroughly dry before placing in the enclosure to remove bugs and other pathogens) to provide further interest and in the case of plants, food!
The main issue when keeping your tortoise outdoors, is security, especially for juvenile tortoises to prevent predation, theft, or escape. A surprisingly large number of native animals and pets would like to eat your tortoise with dogs, cats, foxes, badgers, herons, crows and magpies all being on the list. This outdoor area needs to be as large as possible with a variety of plants, soil and lawn being the best habitat. Many people provide all or part of a greenhouse for their tortoise to retreat to in cooler or inclement weather, but they also need to be able to access a cooler area than just the greenhouse to enable them to regulate their own body temperature. If a greenhouse is not available a wooden shelter (or dog kennel) with a rainproof lockable lid is essential in case of rain and to provide shelter and a cooler, darker environment should it be hot. The outdoor area also needs to be escape proof as Mediterranean tortoises are excellent at digging (especially Horsfield's). A run on a lawn is not suitable for a Mediterranean tortoise as the grass is too damp and may cause health problems.