Hi Tom. We need to change Myakoda's substrate, I couldn't find the other Orchid bark you recommended we used last time, so I ordered this one. Is this one a good one, safe etc..? I searched all over for the other she has now, but I can't find it. Thank you.I chose the title of this care sheet very carefully. Are there other ways to raise babies and care for adults? Yes. Yes there are, but those ways are not as good. What follows is the BEST way, according to 30 years of research and experimentation with hundreds of babies of many species.
What is a "temperate" species? These are the species that come from areas of the world that have distinct seasons. Most of these species hibernate in winter in the wild, in contrast to "tropical" species which come from areas of the world between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where the weather is warm all year round. Temperate species would include: Russians (Horsfield tortoises for UK readers), Greeks, Hermanni, Marginated, Egyptians, Chersina, Chacos, and Desert tortoises in the Gopherus genus. Care for all of these species is very similar with minor differences in temperatures, humidity, and diet. The one notable difference is that Russians will dig in to the substrate or ground, and Gopherus species will dig actual burrows to live in. The other species live their lives mostly above ground.
I have come to believe that the BEST strategy for keeping these species is to have both an indoor AND an outdoor enclosure for them. This varies tremendously with climate, but outdoors in fair weather, and indoors during inclement weather gives the tortoise the best of both worlds. In some cases, outdoors full time is a better option, and for that option, I like to have temperature controlled shelters for them. These temperature controlled shelters allow me to keep them outside for extended periods into fall, and get them up and running again in spring without have to worry about the cruel and fickle whims of Mother Nature. If you live in a cold, rainy, snowy, climate, the outdoor enclosure can still be of great benefit in the warmer summers days.
Some General Notes:
- Set up your enclosure, run it, check it and make adjustments BEFORE you bring home a new tortoise. Babies are easy if the set up is correct. Babies aren't delicate or difficult. When babies are not started correctly is when people have problems with them. Babies have a smaller margin of error due to their smaller body mass, so if you've made mistakes, or if the enclosure and equipment isn't already set up and at the right temperatures, a baby will have problems sooner than a larger adult.
- You won't find most of what you need to set up a tortoise at a pet store. What you will find is expensive stuff that is bad for your tortoise and lots of bad advice. This is true even at most reptile specialty places. Where to get tortoise supplies then? The hardware store or large department stores. There are a few exceptions like reptile thermostats, some reptile heating elements, and UV tubes. I get these from on-line sellers.
- If you are going the the grocery store to buy tortoise food, you are feeding the wrong stuff. If you have no other choice but to use grocery store food due to your climate and weather for part of the year, it will need to be amended to make it more suitable as tortoise food. More on this later.
- It is my hope that this care sheet finds you BEFORE you buy a tortoise. Most breeders start their babies too dry, and make all sorts of mistakes that can harm the baby. The end result is stunting, pyramiding and sometimes death weeks or months later. Don't get a baby from someone who starts them dry, on dry substrate, outdoors all day, and doesn't soak daily.
- Some common mistakes to avoid, with more explanation later: Buying from the wrong ( overly dry) source, getting advice and products from a pet store, free roaming indoors or out, feeding a diet of mostly grocery store foods without amendments, not soaking hatchlings daily, cool temps, wrong UV bulbs, wrong basking bulbs, letting dogs around your tortoise, small enclosures, overly dry enclosures, sand or soil substrates, bad vet care or advice, too much outside time for little babies, keeping a pair of tortoises in the same enclosure...
On to the specific care and housing recommendations:
Heating And Lighting:
I use a 45-65 watt incandescent flood bulb on a 12 hour timer and adjust the height of the fixture to get a basking area of around 95-100 directly under the bulb. In some closed chambers I go with lower wattage bulbs. This depends on many factors and no one can tell you exactly what wattage you will need in your enclosure. Let your thermometer be your guide. I use a ceramic heating element or a radiant heat panel set on a reptile thermostat to maintain my ambient temperature in the enclosure if the room temperature is too low at any time of the year. The basking lamp should raise the day time ambient temperature into the high 70's or 80s during the day. The thermostat will keep your CHE or RHP off during these times, but ready to click on after the basking lamp clicks off and the ambient temperature starts to drop too low at night. For babies, I like the night temp to drop to the high 60s or low 70s. They can certainly tolerate it colder than that at night as long as they can warm up each day, but 70ish works well for most situations. Adults can handle high 50s and low 60s if daytime temps are warm enough. If your room temp stays between 65-75 at night in your temperature controlled home, then you can skip the night and ambient heat altogether. I use LED bulbs when I want to brighten up the whole enclosure and I run these on the same timer as the basking bulb. There are other ways to do some of this, but trial and error have shown time and time again, that the above is what works the best. Don't use "spot" bulbs, reptile specialty bulbs, halogen bulbs, any cfl, or mercury vapor bulbs. You want a plain old, regular incandescent flood bulb from the hardware store. I buy them in six or twelve packs, so I always have extras on hand. They always go out at the most inopportune times. For some enclosures in the right conditions, all you need is this one basking bulb set on a timer.
Tortoises need regular exposure to the right kind of UV rays in order to make vitamin D3 to be able to utilize dietary calcium. Real sunshine is best, but be careful. Shade should always be available as babies can overheat and die surprisingly quickly. "Sunning" your tortoise doesn't mean putting it in the sun. It means allowing it access to the sun, while also providing plenty of shade and cover. If your tortoise can get some regular sunning time in a safe outdoor enclosure, even just a couple of times a week for most of the year, you don't need any artificial UV. Its okay if you have to skip two or three weeks of sunning time during inclement weather. If you live somewhere with long frozen winters and you are not going to hibernate your tortoise, then some artificial UV might be in order for that time of year. I no longer recommend mercury vapor bulbs for several reasons, but florescent HO (High Output) UV tubes work very well according to my UV meter. CFL type UV bulbs are ineffective as UV sources and sometime burn reptile eyes. No type of compact florescent bulb should be used over a tortoise. Also get yourself a Solarmeter 6.5. Without a UV meter, you are guessing about the UV levels in your enclosure, no different than guessing the temperature without a thermometer. At least without a thermometer you can still feel the temperature with your hand. You can't feel UV levels. These meters pay for themselves in short order since you won't be replacing perfectly good working bulbs every six months, as the sellers recommend, and they help you assure that your UV levels are correct.
Too much outside time is bad for babies. It slows their growth tremendously and causes pyramiding. I've done many side-by-side experiments with clutch mates over the years to determine this fact. My general rule is an hour of access to sunshine per inch of tortoise. Once they reach around 4 inches, outside all day is fine, weather permitting, but soak frequently and continue to let them sleep in their indoor enclosures every night until they are close to maturity. This varies with species.
The Indoor Enclosure:
There is much debate about this one. Indoors, I prefer a closed chamber, aka vivarium. Its easy to maintain whatever temperature and humidity parameters you want with a closed chamber. For temperate species, tortoise tables can also work, but it does depend on the conditions in the room where your tortoise table sits. There is nothing wrong with starting babies in glass tanks or clear plastic tubs. These enclosures are better than low sided tables and sweater boxes for all the reason "they" say they are bad. Reduced air flow helps to maintain the correct warm and moderately humid conditions. If the room air is cold and dry, then more ventilation is not good for your tortoise. Glass does NOT stress tortoises out, and they understand what it is perfectly fine. 40 years of using them says so. If you stick a wild caught adult Russian in the typical 40 gallon tank sold by pet stores, it will definitely stress out and constantly scratch at the side. This has to do with the tortoise's mental state and the size of the enclosure, not the glass.
You need to know, and periodically adjust your temperatures. You need to regularly check warm side, cool side, basking spot and night temps, and adjust as needed. Every enclosure is different and they even change with the seasons in most households. It is not enough to screw a bulb in and walk away. Check those temps, and make adjustments, preferably BEFORE the baby even comes home. I like to use an infrared temp gun AND digital thermometers for this purpose. Check your temps early and often. I like the overnight low to be around 68-72 for babies. Adults can handle 55-60 just fine as long as they can warm up during the day. Basking area directly beneath the bulb should be around 95-100 at tortoise shell height. Cool side can be 65-80, and I let this vary with the seasons and the weather. Warm side should be somewhere around 80. These are general guidelines. My temperatures vary from these seasonally, but these are good numbers to shoot for.
Simply put: The bigger the better. I start babies in a 30x48 inch closed chamber. As a minimum, I would suggest no smaller than 36"x18" for a tiny hatchling, but you'll need to upgrade quickly. They need room to roam around. Once you put in the food and water bowls, the humid hide, and any decorations or potted plants, there is hardly any room left over to walk. Tortoises do not tend to do as well as some other types of reptiles when stuffed into small enclosures. They need room to roam inside their safe heated enclosures, and the floor is not a safe option. Don't think that you'll use a smaller enclosure, and just let Sheldon out to roam the floor for some exercise. This almost always ends in disaster. Its bad for your tortoise and impaction, sickness, injury, or death is the usual result. "But, but, but... I make it safe and supervise closely..." says every person until the day that disaster eventually strikes and they realize they were wrong. Its a terrible sickening feeling to hold a dead tortoise in your hand. Don't put yourself through this. Make a large enclosure. Don't have room for a large enclosure? Get a different pet that can live in a smaller enclosure that you have room for. Tortoises aren't good pets for everyone. They need huge enclosure compared to other similarly sized reptiles. I recommend a minimum of 36x18 inches for tiny hatchlings, and 4x8 feet for adult Testudo and similarly sized tortoises. More for a large marginated or desert tortoise.
Humid Hide Boxes:
This offers the tortoise a more humid place to retreat to and sleep and can simulate some of the more damp micro-climates they might utilize in the wild. It is as simple as getting a $2 black dishwashing tub from Walmart, flipping it upside down and cutting out a small door hole. I keep the substrate under the tub more damp than the surrounding substrate and it works great. You can also use plastic shoe boxes. Sphagnum moss is unnecessary and potentially dangerous since they eat it, and it can cause an impaction. The humid hide is a very important detail that should not be overlooked. Half logs and flower pots on their sides do not work. They are not closed in enough. Humid hide boxes are good for ALL species. Even the "desert" ones.
There are only three viable options. Coco coir, orchid bark, and cypress mulch. All of these can be purchased in bulk at most hardware or garden center stores at a tremendous savings. I don't like coco coir for these species because its too messy. I don't like cypress mulch because the pieces aren't uniform, some pieces are too big or too sharp, and because it smells like the swamp that is came from. If these two are all you can find, then go ahead and use them. They are safe and suitable. Fine grade orchid bark works the best. Its cheap, easy, holds moisture well, doesn't stink, easy to clean, easy for babies to walk on, not an ingestion hazard, etc... I recommend against any store bought soil, "Pets At Home" reptile bedding with the little white limestone bits in it, wood shavings or chips, ground walnut shell, corn cob bedding, rabbit pellets, compressed grass pellet bedding, newspaper pellets, hay, cedar, or any amount of sand. None of those are safe or suitable for an indoor tortoise enclosure.
Plain old terra cotta plant saucers work best. They come in a variety of sizes to suit any size tortoise, they offer good traction to little wet tortoise feet, they have low sides, they are cheap so you can buy extras, and they are shallow so your tortoise won't drown if it happens to flip over and land upside down in the water bowl. Sink the bowl into the substrate for best results. I prefer to give babies two water bowls. Do NOT use the typical ramped pet store bowls. These are great for snakes and lizards, but they can literally be death traps for tortoises. Clean your terra cotta saucer as often as needed. The more they track food and substrate into it, and the more they poop in it, the better. This means they are comfortable using their bowl, and that is great news. Just rinse and refill as many times a day as you need to. A water bowl that stays clean and untouched all day is a water bowl that is not being used for one reason or another. This is a bad sign, and it means your tortoise is one step closer to dehydration.
I recommend ALL hatchlings of ALL species be soaked in 85-90 degree water for at least 20-30 minutes every day. I use a tall sided opaque tub and keep the water depth about a third to half way up the body. If you have a moderately humid enclosure with damp substrate, a humid hide and a water bowl, it is totally fine to skip a day here and there. Soaking only once a week and using a dry enclosure is not enough in my opinion, and I would not buy a hatchling that had been started that way. Once the tortoise gets to about 100 grams, I start skipping a day now and then. I gradually taper it down as they gain size. How often I soak older tortoises depends on a lot of factors, the current weather and season being two big ones. I soak more often when its hot and dry. If you live in a warm, humid, rainy climate, and your tortoise is exposed to these conditions, soaking less often is probably fine, but it still wont hurt anything to do it. You cannot soak too much or for too long. Soaking does not do any harm whatsoever. It doesn't make them poop too much and not digest their food, it doesn't upset their "water balance", whatever that is, it doesn't give them shell rot or respiratory infections, and it is NOT unnatural in any way. "But, but, but... Who soaks them every day in nature???" Your enclosure isn't "nature", and most babies will die in the wild. Keep the soak water warm for the entire soak. If you are in a hurry, 10 minutes is enough. If you are forgetful or get distracted, an hour will do no harm.
So much contradictory info on this subject. Its simple. What do they eat in the wild. Grass, weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents. Feed them a huge variety of these things, and you'll have a healthy tortoise. All of these species are very adaptable when it comes to diet and there is a very large margin of error, and many ways to do it right. What if you don't have this sort of "natural" tortoise food available for part of each year because you are in the snow? You will have no choice but to buy grocery store food. What's wrong with grocery store food? It tends to lack fiber, some items are low in calcium or have a poor calcium to phosphorous ratio, and some items have deleterious compounds in them. All of these short comings can be improved with some simple supplementation and amendments. A pinch of calcium two times per week will help fix that problem. You can also leave cuttle bone in the enclosure, so your tortoise can self-regulate its own calcium intake. What about fiber? Soaked horse hay pellets, soaked ZooMed Grassland pellets, Mazuri tortoise chow, "Salad style", "Herbal Hay" both from @TylerStewart and his lovely wife Sarah at Tortoisesupply.com, or many of the dried plants and leaves available from Will @Kapidolo Farms. If you must use grocery store foods, favor endive and escarole as your main staples. Add in arugula, cilantro, kale, collard, mustard and turnip greens, squash leaves, spring mix, romaine, green or red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, water cress, carrot tops, celery tops, bok choy, and whatever other greens you can find. If you mix in some of the aforementioned amendments, these grocery store foods will offer plants of variety and fiber and be able to meet your tortoises nutritional needs just fine. I find it preferable to grab a few grapevine or mulberry leaves, or a handful of mallow and clover, or some broadleaf plantain leaves and some grass, but with the right additions, grocery store stuff is fine too. Grow your own stuff, or find it around you when possible. Tyler and Sarah also sell a fantastic Testudo seed mix that is great for ALL tortoise species and also super easy to grow in pots, trays, raised garden beds, or in outdoor tortoise enclosures. When that isn't possible, add a wide variety of good stuff to your grocery store greens to make them better.
I recommend you keep cuttle bone available all the time. Some never use it and some munch on it regularly. Some of mine will go months without touching it, and then suddenly eat the whole thing in a day or two. A great diet is paramount, but it is still a good idea to give them some extra calcium regularly. I use a tiny pinch of RepCal or ZooMed plain old calcium carbonate twice a week. Much discussion has been given to whether or not they need D3 in their calcium supplement. Personally, I don't think it matters. Every tortoise should be getting adequate UV exposure one way or another, so they should be able to make their own D3. I also like to use a mineral supplement. "MinerAll" is my current brand of choice. It seems to help those tortoises that like to swallow pebbles and rocks. It is speculated that some tortoise eat rocks or substrate due to a mineral deficiency or imbalance. Whatever the reason, "MinerAll" seems to stop it or prevent it. Finally, I like to use a reptile vitamin supplement once a week, to round out any hidden deficiencies that may be in my diet over the course of a year.
Temporary Outdoor Enclosures For Babies, Or For Sunning Adults:
This is a MUST in my opinion. Tortoises are solar powered, need lots of walking room, and benefit greatly from some time in the great outdoors. With hatchlings I start with short excursions of only an hour a day, followed by a soak on the way in. As they gain size, I like to leave them out longer and longer each day, weather permitting, until they eventually live outside full time with a heated night box of some sort, where climate allows. Outside time must be done with great care as there are many dangers. They can overheat, be eaten or mauled, or escape. Here is a picture of one simple idea. A large kiddie pool or horse watering trough could also work. If you don't have a suitable grassy area, you can put a plywood bottom on this with wheels and legs, and move it around. Do NOT let your baby roam free outside. You will lose it eventually, and you'll be unable to explain how it happened so fast when you were watching so carefully. Its a sickening feeling. Don't put yourself through this. Use an enclosure and make it large. Also, if you have a dog, or people who come to visit and bring a dog, your tortoise is in grave danger. Be careful. EVERY dog will chew up a tortoise. It doesn't matter how nice and loving a dog it is. Tortoises are seen as chew toys by dogs. Don't let this happen to your tortoise. Physically prevent it with fencing and/or correct housing. Don't leave it to chance. It is a horrible sickening feeling holding a mauled tortoise in your hands. Don't put yourself through this.
Outdoor Housing for Adults:
This is another controversial one. I've grappled with this one for years, and finally reached a solution that I think works for anyone anywhere, for at least part of each year, if not all year. The problem with outdoor housing is that the weather is unpredictable and seasons change. Its also difficult to lay out blanket advice that works for Southern California, Phoenix Arizona, Miami Florida, Seattle Washington, Upstate New York, and the UK. If it doesn't snow where you live, then this idea works year round. If you live in a cold, rainy climate, or the frozen North, then this idea works for part of the year, and can you can hibernate or bring your tortoise inside during the frozen months. Pictures first, then a description:
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This is a double box made for my Chersina angulata. Male on one side, female on the other. I've used similar strategies for Russians and other temperate species. Why use a heated box for species that live in climates similar to mine? Because the weather seldom cooperates. Example: I put my animals down for hibernation in late November. All went well, and then temps really warmed up in February. Days in the 80s for weeks in a row, so I woke them, got them slowly warmed up and eating again and all was well... Until March showed up and got cold and rainy again. We had daytime highs in the 50s for weeks with rain and overcast skies. What does a person do when they don't have a temperature controlled shelter? They wait out the bad weather and hope for the best. Sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes the tortoise dies. I see this with Desert tortoises here all the time. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she can be so cruel sometimes. Again, in the right climate, most tortoises can survive these unusual weather shifts and extremes, but I'm not interested in mere survival. I want what is "best". Optimal. Preferred. Premium.
In my climate we typically have warm sunny days and cold nights year round. Temperature swings of 30-40 degrees are normal from day to night all year. In spring and fall we have sunny days in the 70s or 80s, but nights in the 30s or 40s. If I'm preparing them to go into hibernation in fall, or I'm trying to bring them out of hibernation in spring. Night temps in the 30s are too cold. I set the mini radiant oil heater in my insulated box to give them their necessary night time temperate drop down to anywhere from 55-65, but not all the way down into the 30s. I don't keep them warm like a tropical species. I just keep the night temps cool, but not too cold. What about those cold rainy days after the tortoise is up from hibernation and already been eating during early spring warm spells? That is where the heat lamps come in. The radiant heater keeps the ambient from dropping too low, but a constant 55-60 degrees, day and night, for weeks on end during a spring cold spell after they've already got a gut full of food, is no good. They NEED to be able to warm up daily and digest their food. If the weather is warm and sunny, the heat lamps stay off and the tortoises can come out and bask in the sunshine when they want to warm up. If we get a cold spell in spring, or if I'm not ready to hibernate them just yet in fall because they still have food in their gut, the heat lamps allow them to warm up when the sun is hiding behind those thick cold clouds. These basking lamps are set on timers and they warm the ambient box temp a bit during the day while allowing the tortoise to bask and get its core temp up for digestion on an otherwise cold rainy day. I adjust the timers depending on the time of year. I gradually shorten the days in late fall in preparation for hibernation. I gradually up the times in spring after they wake up. In winter this box is unplugged because the tortoises are hibernating. In summer this box is unplugged because we have hot days and the nights are in the 60s. The extra heat is only used when needed, not all year in my climate. This combination of letting natural temps and seasons do their thing, but using some electric heat when needed to even out the weird weather extremes, works wonderfully. The best of both worlds. These boxes let my tortoise experience all four seasons, but help prevent sickness and hardships when the weather takes those unexpected turns in spring and fall. In the UK or Ireland, it might be best to leave the light timers and ambient heat set most of the year. In Phoenix, you might hardly ever need the heat or lights, but its nice to have it, just in case.
I use the water tubs to add some moderate humidity to the night boxes because my climate is extremely dry. In Florida or the UK, I probably wouldn't do that. Let your hygrometer be your guide.
An added advantage of these boxes, especially for the smaller species, is that I can lock them up at night to keep them safe from nocturnal predators. Every night I check to make sure each and every tortoise is in its box, and I latch the door closed. Then I open each door in the morning. This gives me tremendous peace of mind. I sleep much better at night knowing that the local predators can't get to my tortoises. It also puts my eyes on each and every tortoise every single day, which allows me to catch any minor problems before they become major problems. I've also caught a lot of nesting tortoises in the act when I've gone searching for them in the dark since they were not in their box.
This is not an "all or nothing" proposition. You can use a box like this for fair weather, and bring the tortoise inside during inclement weather. If you choose not to hibernate, you can try leaving the heat on in fall and winter, and see how your tortoise responds. You can use this style of box during the day and bring the tortoise inside at night. The possibilities are endless, but the main point is that this ability to use heat gives you options. I have a great climate for temperate species, so I use the heat sparingly and minimally to buy myself some extra time in early spring and late fall. If my climate were colder more of the time, I could use the heat more often to provide my tortoises with the correct conditions and prevent problems. Okay. Moving on...
This is the subject of many threads in itself. I will simply state here what I know to be true based on my experience, my experiments, conversations with people who live other countries and study tortoises, people who have kept them for decades here in the U.S., and personal observations of thousands of tortoises in all manners of keeping styles.
There are many things listed as causes of pyramiding. I can refute each one with multiple examples. Lack of UV, lack of calcium, too much protein, too much food, the wrong foods, fast growth, wrong temperatures, small enclosures, not enough exercise, indoor housing, etc. None of these factors CAUSES pyramiding. They can all be somehow related to it, but they don't cause it. Simply put: Pyramiding is caused by growth in conditions that are too dry. This is true for any species of tortoise, even the ones that don't typically pyramid. To prevent pyramiding in temperate species, I use a closed chamber and keep the ambient humidity at 50-80%. I offer a humid hide that holds 95-100% humidity, I soak daily to ensure good hydration, and I spray the carapace with plain water several times a day. I keep them on one of the previously mentioned three substrates that can be kept damp. Babies in the wild stay hidden in leaf litter, root balls, and in other humid protected areas. It makes no sense to keep them in a dry box, with dry substrate, and a hot desiccating bulb overhead in captivity. Allowing them to find or make their own humid microclimates has grown me dozens of smooth healthy temperate tortoises. There are literally thousands of examples of other people succeeding using the same basic philosophy here on this forum. So please, don't keep your tortoise in dry, desert style enclosures. It is not healthy for them. They are not the least bit prone to shell rot, and they DO NOT get respiratory infections from moderate humidity as long as temps are correct, day and night. I don't say these things and come up with these assertions lightly. Its not that I raised one tortoise this way, and everything went okay. I have literally raised dozens of temperate tortoise species this way and had nothing but success. My methods and success rate have been repeated by thousands of tortoise keepers all over the globe. We have more than 10 years of living healthy examples to back up these assertions.
There are many ways to keep these tortoises. There are minor variations on all of this info for all the different species, sizes, individual tortoises, and everyone's climate. The above info should give anyone a good starting point, and help explain the main concepts. This care sheet can not answer every question and explain every possibility. This being the case, and this being a tortoise forum, questions and discussion about any of this is welcome.