If the indoor housing fails to provide adequate space, or if temperature ranges and ventilation are inadequate, tortoises will become highly stressed and far more likely to succumb to respiratory and other serious infections. It is therefore extremely important that the accommodation employed meets all the animal’s critical physiological and environmental needs. Indoor housing that consist of enclosed glass ‘fish-tank’ or reptile style vivarium used for snakes or lizards is for many reasons not the best option for a tortoise.
For juveniles and small tortoises, a ‘tortoise table’ design is more suitable. This type of enclosure offers many important advantages over traditional ‘tank style’ habitats:
- The amount of floor space provided is substantially more than can be offered in even the largest traditional vivarium. This is critical, as exercise is as important to tortoises as it is to humans. By allowing for adequate exercise the risk of respiratory and bone development problems is reduced.
- Ventilation in such units is excellent.
- It is very easy to provide flexible lighting and heating arrangements, and to allow for adequate gradients to permit normal thermoregulation.
- There is no danger of broken glass and the units are easy to disassemble and relocate. Several such enclosures can be stacked on top of one another to provide multiple habitats on the same floor space.
- This type of enclosure provides excellent access and is very easy to clean and maintain.
- The lack of ‘invisible barriers’ reduces stress and promotes normal behavior.
- The cost of providing large amounts of floor space is very low when compared to expensive glass enclosures.
- Because of their strength, it is possible to use adequate depths of substrate that allow for burying and burrowing. This has important considerations for health, as this is one way that tortoises conserve fluid and prevent dehydration. If tortoises do become dehydrated this can result in irreparable harm to the renal system and increases the danger of potentially fatal bladder ‘stones’ forming.
- Enclosures of this type can be obtained ready made from several specialist suppliers, or can be made at home with a basic set of tools and minimal ‘DIY’ skills.
- Alternatively, some keepers have adapted existing furniture such as wardrobes laid on their backs to this purpose, and others have taken large indoor rabbit and guinea pig cages (of the type consisting of a large tray and wire top cover) and used these with considerable success. These options can provide a substantial amount of floor space and excellent ventilation at very reasonable cost.
LIGHT AND HEAT
All tortoises require adequate light and heat to function normally and to maintain good health. Overheating is just as dangerous as under-heating. Great care should be taken when selecting all heat and light systems, and when installing and using them. Also, tortoises are dependent upon UV-B to make their own vitamin D3. They are also highly sensitive to what is known as the ‘color temperature’ visible spectrum light. They rely upon this when feeding, and the quality of lighting has an impact on various aspects of their behavior. It is therefore very important that tortoises housed indoors receive the correct type, intensity and duration of artificial lighting.
A separate fittings for basking heat and a secondary UV-B lighting source can be used. It is extremely important to carefully examine the detailed specifications of any lamp used. In particular, be very careful of lamps simply advertised as ‘reptile basking lamps’. Most of these emit no essential UV-B whatever normally, such lamps are installed between 30 cm (12”) to 45 cm (18”) above the basking position. This should result in temperatures of 32 to 35 Celsius being achieved directly beneath the lamp, with a decreasing gradient to background temperatures of approximately 24 Celsius at the periphery of the enclosure during the day. It is vital, especially with small juveniles, that they are never able to fall upon their backs directly under a hot basking lamp. Fatal overheating can occur in those circumstances very quickly. This can be prevented by raising the lamp to reduce ground temperatures or by turning it off completely if you are leaving it unattended. To maintain full activity, provide approximately 14 hours of light and heat daily. At night, unless the room where the tortoises are kept is unusually cold, little or no overnight heating should be required with tortoises (tropical tortoises require different conditions). Ambient overnight temperatures for tortoises (even hatchlings) can safely be allowed to fall to 15 Celsius or even somewhat less. Actual harm would not result unless temperatures approached freezing point. Even in the wild, it is quite normal for temperatures to fall markedly at night. This will not result in illness or present a danger (please check the specific temperature requirements of your species). If extra warmth overnight is required, in winter, for example, we recommend using an overhead infra-red ceramic dull emitter heater in a heat-proof holder. These provide radiant heat, but no light. Tortoises require an overhead, radiant source of heat and light if normal thermoregulation is to be achieved.