Indoor Setup for Hatchling and Growing Tortoises

This article aims to advise new tortoise keepers on how to provide suitable indoor housing for their young tortoise.  The setup we recommend is appropriate for the most commonly kept species of tortoise that originate from arid climates: for example the Mediterranean species like Hermann's, Marginated and Spur-thigh, as well as Horsfield and some African species such as Sulcata and Leopard tortoises.  

An open-topped tortoise table

A tortoise table is the best form of accommodation you can provide for your tortoise indoors, as it has an open top which allows for good airflow and plenty of ground area for exercise.  If there is concern about other pets getting into the table, then a top made of something like chicken wire in a frame can be fitted. Purpose-built tortoise tables can be purchased, but they can also easily be homemade.  Large indoor rabbit/guinea pig cages work well too, as can old bookcases turned on their back with the shelves removed, wardrobes and large drawers, all of which can make a perfect home for your tortoise.  Vivariums (enclosed boxes made of glass or glass and wood) are not suitable for the species listed above.

Where is the best place to site my tortoise table?

Choose a bright area, not in direct sunlight, free from drafts and with a power supply nearby.  A quiet position in the house would be good, away from the attentions of over-eager children and household pets, thus avoiding unnecessary stress levels for your tortoise.

What size setup do I need?

Although this article describes how to set up a home for hatchling and juvenile tortoises, the basic principles also apply to older/larger tortoises; however, the  enclosure will need to be increased in size and additional heat and light may be required.

Your tortoise will spend a lot of time in here:  hence the larger the area the more social enrichment you can provide.  An open-top, rectangular shaped table of approximately 91 cm x 61 cm (3 ft x 2 ft) is the minimum size for a hatchling, and it should be larger for a juvenile tortoise.  It should have solid sides of at least 20 cm (8 in) in height above the level of the substrate. Building a table with larger dimensions will last your tortoise longer and provide more areas of interest.





This table is 4' x 2' 6" (122 cm x 76 cm)

Do tortoises need extra lighting and heat?

This is a very important area of care and YES, tortoises need both light and heat to maintain good health. We aim to replicate the high levels of good quality UVA and UVB light and warmth from the sun which is found in their natural environment in the wild.  Tortoises are ectotherms (cold-blooded) and need to be able to thermoregulate.  This means that they must be able to adjust their body temperature throughout the day, by moving into and out of areas of higher or lower temperatures as required, and this is something which is not easy to achieve in enclosed vivarium setups.  Providing a range of temperatures in the table will contribute towards creating an environment in which your tortoise can thrive.

UVB light

UVB light is normally acquired from the ultraviolet rays of natural sunlight.  The tortoise requires UVB to produce vitamin D3, which in turn enables it to absorb and convert the calcium in its diet into healthy shell and bones.  

Although sunshine is still by far the best form of supplying UVB, it is not always achievable naturally, but it can be supplied via artificial lights, and these should be available for 12 hours per day.

Heat

Heat is essential too, in order for the tortoise to 'bask' and warm its body up to the required temperature. There should be sufficient room within the setup for the tortoise to walk under the heat source and warm up slowly, and this heat bulb should be sited towards one end of the table.  Lights placed too close to the tortoise’s shell can cause dehydration and burns, so a good quality digital thermometer is an essential part of the equipment to ensure this doesn’t happen.

ALWAYS check the basking temperature at a height equal to the top of tortoise's shell -- not from ground level -- and take your reading beneath the bulb, as this is the hottest area.  Readings taken a short distance away (for example from a thermometer mounted on the wall of the table) are not accurate.



Digital thermometers and laser temp guns are ideal for taking accurate temperature readings.

Good heating and lighting can be achieved by using either a combination (mercury vapour) bulb, which supplies both UVB and heat, or by a full spectrum fluorescent UVB tube plus a separate bulb for additional heat and light.

1. Combination (mercury vapour) bulb:  one bulb that provides both UVB, light and heat

    
 

A ceramic bulb holder or a specialised high-temperature plastic bulb holder such as the TA214 will be required for these bulbs to operate safely (under no circumstances should an ordinary plastic holder be used). You also need an ‘arm’ from which you will suspend your bulb.  A homemade upturned “L” shape made from wood will work well, as do hanging basket brackets.  You can also buy commercial lamp stands.  Bulbs that are screwed to the arm or wall of the table at a fixed height are, in our opinion, not suitable, as they cannot be raised or lowered to increase or decrease the temperature in the table as required.

A reflector cover for the bulb is an essential piece of equipment to protect your eyes from the harmful UVB rays, and it will also direct more of the beneficial rays down towards the tortoise. 


The combination bulb needs to be hung vertically from above.  The eyelids of your tortoise protect its eyes from the strong UVB rays. It's probably wise not to angle the lamp from the side, as it will be like a car headlamp shining into your tortoise's eyes.  The bulb should be suspended at a minimum of 12 in (30 cm) from the top of the tortoise's shell, and at a height specified by the manufacturer's instructions.

Raising and lowering the bulb can help achieve the required basking temperature, which should be 30°C (86°F) for these species.  Remember to take the temperature underneath the basking bulb at the height of where the top of the tortoise's shell would be, hold it there for a few minutes, and this should provide you with a true temperature reading.  Do not drop the height of the bulb to lower than the manufacturer's guidelines.

Siting the bulb at one end of the table means the other end will be cooler, and the cool end should be approximately 20°C (68°F) at tortoise shell height.  If the temperature at the cooler end of the table is too low, then an additional reflector bulb can added.

UVB rays given out by combination bulbs diminish over time, and the bulb will need replacing even though it will still be giving out light.  Always check the manufacturer's instructions on how often the bulb should be replaced. No light is required overnight, and we advise that lamps emitting red light (which are sometimes recommended) are not appropriate, as the tortoise needs a period of complete darkness in which to sleep.

2. Full spectrum UVB fluorescent tube plus basking bulb

A 10% or 12% UVB fluorescent tube is another option for Mediterranean and African species. UVB tubes provide no heat and a relatively low level of light. Additional light and heat should be provided by using a reflector bulb alongside the tube (the wattage will depend on the size of the table).  For smaller tables, a 60W reflector may achieve the correct temperatures, but you might need a 100W reflector bulb for larger enclosures.

Try to provide a tube that is approximately the same length as the enclosure. The UVB tube requires a reflector cover to ensure that all the UVB rays are being directed downwards towards the tortoise and to protect your eyes when looking down into the table from above.  It should be hung directly above the table (not mounted on a side wall) to protect the tortoise eyes from the powerful rays.  It will also require an external ballast (or starter unit).  Like the combined bulb, the UVB tube will need to be replaced regularly according to the manufacturer's instructions.
 
In order to achieve the correct basking temperature of approximately 30°C (86°F), the wattage of the bulb that provides your main source of heat and light will depend on the size of the area to be heated.  The higher the wattage of the bulb, the higher it can be hung and the larger an area that can be heated.  Avoid hanging the heat bulb too close to the tortoise as this could result in dehydration or burning the shell (it would be better to use a slightly higher wattage bulb and suspend it a bit further away).

Dimming thermostat

You might wish to consider purchasing a dimming thermostat to control the temperature of the heat bulb, avoiding overheating and keeping the enclosure at a constant correct temperature.  Please note that dimming thermostats cannot be used with the combination bulbs.

Timers

Some keepers set their lamps on timers so that the lamps turn on and off automatically at the relevant times of the 12 hour on/off cycle.

Do I need to line the floor of the tortoise table?

In order to allow your tortoise to act naturally by digging and climbing, you need to provide a substrate of approximately 50% play sand and 50% topsoil, mixed together well. It is best to line the table with a waterproof liner before adding the substrate. Cover the base of the table and several inches of the side walls with the liner which should be fixed at a higher level than the depth of the substrate.  Aim to achieve a depth of substrate so that the tortoise can completely bury itself if it wants to, and deeper is even better, so keep this in mind when the tortoise is growing.  A water spray can be used once the lights have been turned off and cooled down to mist the substrate to prevent it from becoming too dry and dusty.

Please note that bags of topsoil and play sand are often stored outdoors for long periods of time; so after purchase open up the bags to dry the contents out if necessary, as the sand and soil should not be wet through when you add your tortoise to the table.

What else do I need?

A cat pooper scooper or something similar can also be used to spot clean the enclosure of any faeces or urine-soaked substrate on a daily basis and also to mix up the soil after misting with water.

To finish the setup you will need to add a shallow water bowl and a flat piece of slate, stepping stone or dish for the tortoise to feed on.  Place flat stones around the edges of both the water bowl and feeding areas to help prevent the substrate from getting into the water and onto the food.  Position these at the cooler end of the tortoise table.  Feeding from and walking on the slate or stone will also help to keep the tortoise’s beak and nails trim.

Adding large stones, tortoise-safe plants in pots sunk into the substrate, and caves can all help to keep your tortoise active and its environment interesting.  Aim to break up the tortoise's view of the table, by making him walk around, under or over objects to see what is around the other side of the décor.  Being able to view the complete setup with no obstructions can make the tortoise lose interest very quickly.   Avoid placing any obstacles under the basking light, just in case they cause the tortoise to tip over onto its back.

Preparation prior to the tortoise's arrival

Creating the perfect environment for your new tortoise may seem quite daunting to begin with, and no doubt you will be eager to get the job done, but do take your time and make sure you have everything set up and working perfectly before you introduce your tortoise to its new home.  You will need a few days to test out the temperatures in the table during the day and night to get the correct temperature range for your tortoise.  

Don’t be tempted to rush, but take the time to observe your tortoise to get an understanding of its natural behaviour. Most of all, enjoy and take pleasure in watching your tortoise grow healthily and happily in the good environment that you have created.