Part of the excitement of getting a young tortoise is the preparation in getting everything ready for its impending arrival. Most species of tortoise have very specific physiological and physical requirements regarding housing, lighting and diet.
In cooler climates such as the UK, a tortoise needs both secure indoor and outdoor accommodation in order to thrive. If you are unable to provide an outdoor area for your tortoise during the warmer months of the year then you should seriously think of getting an alternative pet to a tortoise.
There is a lot of good information on caring for tortoises on the TPG website under the section 'The Tortoise'. Click on Care Sheets, and then look at the particular species requirements. Most reputable tortoise breeders also provide assistance in helping you get set up ready for your new pet. However what follows is a general guide for preparing for the arrival of most Mediterranean species of hatchling tortoises.
Tropical species like Redfooted tortoises and Hingebacks etc., have different requirements in relation to lighting, heating, humidity and diet, and information for these species will be added, to complement this article, at a later date.
Tortoises do make wonderful pets, providing the right kind of captive environment is provided, but this is not always as easy as at first might be thought. In their natural habitat in the wild, tortoises can and do live very long lives, which may be in excess of 100 years for most species. To ensure that a captive tortoise is afforded a similar long lifetime, the captive environment in which it is kept should mimic the environment in the wild as far as possible. This means that keeping a tortoise can be expensive for the keeper in terms of providing the right kind of accommodation, the correct heating and lighting and a diet enriched with minerals and vitamins.
Your tortoise will need a light and airy tortoise table. This basically needs to be as big as you can make it, deep enough so the tortoises can't climb out, with solid sides and an open top. There are many places that sell really nice tortoise tables but they are quite expensive to buy and a cheaper option might be to make one yourself out of wood; or alternatively use the largest size of guinea pig cage or plastic under bed storage box. Some people use an old bookcase turned on its back with the shelves taken out. A small lip attached to the top sides of the finished table will prevent any potential escapes.
Please note that if you use an under bed storage box that has transparent sides the tortoise might constantly try to get through this as, like the transparency of glass, it doesn't understand the concept of opaque plastic. As it may cause undue stress to the tortoise, it is better to cover the outer sides with material which isn't see through. Some keepers keep it simple and use parcel tape to line the sides.
As a general guide to size, a minimum table size of approximately 1m x 600mm (3' x 2') is suitable for hatchlings, but if made to a size of 2m x 600mm (6' x 2') this will also accommodate juvenile tortoises as they continue to grow and develop. If the table is made from wood; either line the base and a few inches up the sides with a waterproof liner such as pond liner, or seal the table with a waterproof, animal safe, sealant.
Wooden or glass vivariums -- the type often sold by pet shops and sometimes as part of tortoise starter kits -- are not a good idea for several reasons:
A mixture of approx 50/50 mix of play sand and fertiliser free top soil is best for most species from arid environments which include the Mediterranean tortoises such as the Testudo Ibera and Graeca, Hermanni, Marginated and Horsfield tortoises. Some keepers use a 60/40 mix of soil and sand to good effect, but remember the sandier the environment the tortoise inhabits in the wild should reflect the ratio you will need to provide in captivity.
You will need enough to give a substrate depth within the table top of at least 25mm - 50mm (1"- 2¨). Probably a little more depth should be allowed for the Horsfield tortoise which loves to dig and tunnel.
An interesting habitat can be provided for the young tortoise by adding flattish pebbles, large stones to give different textures, allow for climbing, and they are also useful for helping to keep the claws in trim.
Tortoises will also need a good source of heat, ordinary light and a source of UVB light. This does two things; it provides a basking source for the tortoise and a source of UVB. Remember, tortoises are cold blooded and cannot regulate their physiological body temperature as we can. In the wild, tortoises would find a sunny spot and warm up to become active and hungry. UVB light is normally obtained directly from the sun outside and is needed for tortoises to convert calcium in the diet into healthy shell and bone. Indoors this must be provided by artificial means.
There are two options for heating and lighting and it is for the keeper to decide which type best suits their own requirements:
1. A combined single light, such as a 100w Mega Ray floodlight providing both warmth and UVB. These are very good, but you will need to be careful with them as they run very hot. The outlay is fairly expensive initially, and the bulbs will need replacing after about 1 year's use as the UVB given out declines over time. You will also need a special ceramic holder (do not use plastic) and a reflector shade. The Mega Ray bulb needs to be suspended directly overhead at a distance of about 300mm (12¨) from the tortoise, but to achieve the correct basking temperature it will need to be raised or lowered accordingly. A frame on which to suspend the bulb will be required. This can either be homemade or be a purpose-built lamp stand which can be purchased from pet or reptile shops.
The TPG do not recommend the lamp being clamped to the side of the table as the direction of light will mean it will shine directly into the tortoise's eyes and potentially damage its vision. Also, it is important that the keeper doesn't look directly into the UVB lamp, as UVB can harm human eyesight.
2. Two separate lights:
Because tortoises need to thermoregulate you will need to be able to provide a temperature in a hot spot at one end of the enclosure of about 30°C(90°F) and a cooler end (where you can place a little hide for him to sleep) of about 20°C (70°F), and because your tortoise table is inside your house there will be no need for any lighting or heating at night.
Please note that heat mats, heat pads, heat rocks and other means for heating the tortoise from underneath are not normally recommended for tortoises and can lead to thermal burns.
Simple reptile thermometers or digital in/out thermometers can be purchased to measure the temperature under the basking lamp and at the cool end of the tortoise table.
You need to weigh the tortoise on a regular basis and keep records of the weight gain. A tortoise that grows too quickly will not be healthy, so it is important to make sure you are not overfeeding him. The scales need to be digital and weigh in 1gr. increments. Ordinary household digital scales are satisfactory, but should be purchased separately and used for tortoise weighing only. You should not be using scales that you use to weigh cooking ingredients for human use.
As most tortoises are herbivores a range of natural growing fresh weeds will form the main part of their diet.
Dried tortoise pellets are not recommended as the digestive system of a tortoise is not well suited to this kind of food so please don't buy them.
Supermarket lettuces and cucumbers are tolerated but it is preferable to grow or collect weeds which are freely available for most of the year.
To ensure that the tortoise is provided with adequate mineral and vitamin supplementation the following supplements need to be provided:
You will need to provide a non-see through small container which is suitable for bathing the tortoise. It should have deep enough sides to prevent the tortoise climbing out (a washing-up bowl or deep cat litter tray is often used).
An all purpose reptile disinfectant, or Virkon-S, or a veterinary product such as F10 will be needed for regular cleaning of all tortoise equipment and housing.
If it is warm enough baby tortoises can go outside. A general guide is that if it is warm enough for us to go outside wearing a sleeveless top then it is warm enough for the tortoise.
Please remember that hatchling tortoises do lose their body heat very quickly, and unless safe outdoor basking heat can be provided, they should only be outside in our English climate under supervision.
The tortoise will need a secure outdoor enclosure for the warmer weather. This needs to be secure from escape and have a substantial mesh frame over the top to keep out birds, foxes, rats and other predators. It should be well drained in the case of sudden downpours and have shade and shelter. It needs to be located in an area that receives both sun and shade.
Some ideas are:
Whatever enclosure is chosen there should be good drainage and in the case of Horsfield tortoises, in open runs, fine mesh underneath the sand/soil substrate to prevent the tortoise digging out.
The provision of a small cold frame or a small cloche, in which an entrance can be made for the tortoise to freely enter and leave, within the run will provide a few degrees extra warmth for your tortoise.
The TPG does not recommend mesh rabbit runs, unless the lower perimeter can be boarded out to prevent the tortoise seeing out and climbing up.
We do not recommend that the hatchling tortoise run is placed solely on grass.
Do have a look at the TPG photo gallery and members' gallery to get some ideas for the type of housing you may wish to provide for your tortoise.
Tortoise equipment can be purchased from most reptile or pet shops or from many online outlets, but the TPG highly recommends Kimbos Reptile World where most of your tortoises needs can be catered for. The owner is an excellent experienced tortoise keeper and is only too happy to discuss all of your tortoise's requirements with you.
Not an essential, but you can grow your own tortoise food - the TLadys Mix from Herbiseed available to purchase online is especially formulated for tortoises.
Hopefully the above guide will go some way in helping you to prepare for your new arrival and the Tortoise Protection Group wish you every success for a very long and happy tortoise keeping life.