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March 2001- Ask the Vet  

Turtle and Tortoise Substrates -  Chris Tabaka, DVM

Copyright 2003 World Chelonian Trust. All rights reserved

Question: What substrate should I utilize for my tortoise to prevent any medical problems when I have to house them indoors due to the weather?

While there is no simple answer to this question, I would like to share some general thoughts from my experiences with a wide variety of species not only as a veterinarian but as a keeper/breeder of chelonians.


First and foremost, whenever the weather is suitable, I would highly recommend having an outdoor pen for your animal. This allows them to  not only obtain natural UV but also to nibble on native plants, thus obtaining important minerals and micronutrients we might not normally feed in their prepared diets.

However, when they must come indoors, I would be highly wary of the following substrates:


1. Coconut husk (Bed-A-Beast). This is the material that expands to 7-8 times the packaged size when unpacked. Unfortunately,  this same material if eaten by your animal will also expand in their stomachs thus causing an impaction and possible death. I know of  several deaths in tortoises from this material and do not recommend it.


2. Small stones/gravel. Tortoises like bright, shiny objects that fit into their mouths. Most species will eat almost anything  placed in front of them. Because of this, small stones and gravel should not be used as substrates. While in some cases these foreign  bodies are able to pass through the animals, there is always the possibility of the intestines twisting on themselves when they try to pass the stones. This twisting can lead to sudden death due to shock  and a rapidly developing toxemia


3. Sand (including CalciSand). While some species actually live on sand in the wild, their foraging behavior is such that the food they eat grows above the sand rather than lying in it.  Unfortunately, when the animals are fed on sand in captivity, the sand sticks to their food and a large amount of the substrate ends up being ingested. This in turn can build up to dangerous levels in their GI tracts leading to sand impactions and a twisting of the guts called colic (a common problem in horses). Feeding species that normally exist on sand in a completely separate enclosure without substrate is one way around this.


4. Aromatic/soft wood shavings such as cedar and pine. These types of shavings give off aromatic hydrocarbons which have been found to elevate liver enzyme levels in rodents which are housed on them. While tortoises are not rodents, I'm not one to take chances and would recommend not using these substances as substrates.


Substrates that I have mixed feelings about using:

1. Rabbit pellets. There is some concern that the consumption of mammalian pellets (rabbit/guinea pig) may lead to bladder stones in  some species. Pellets also do not provide good footing for neonates and juveniles of some species. They also must be changed out if they become moist due to rapid mold development when they become wet. Keeping all of this in mind, they are an option.


2. Indoor-outdoor carpeting. While the expensive, high grade indoor-outdoor carpeting may work, the cheaper stuff is an accident waiting to happen. I have heard numerous stories of animals eating the frayed ends of this material as well as others actually getting limbs caught in the pulled out loops of carpet material. Again, it is
a substrate you could use but exercise caution if you do so.


Substrates I would and do use with associated precautions:


1. Newspaper. The primary shortfall of newspaper is that it is not very absorbent. I also do not like to use it with my neonate or juvenile animals that are growing rapidly and rapidly developing their muscles and bones. Newspaper is simply too slippery for young animals and doesn't allow for proper muscular and skeletal development. For adults though, it is cheap and readily available and  I use it a lot in conjunction with number 2 below.


2. Vinyl. This provides excellent footing as long as it is kept  dry. Vinyl is also easy to completely sterilize. It needs to be monitored constantly though for waste materials as it has no absorbent properties. I utilize this substrate in combination with newspaper (fully cover the enclosure with vinyl and then cover half  of it with newspaper)-the newspaper for it's absorbency and the vinyl  for good footing.


3. Cypress mulch. If available in your area, this is a pretty good substrate. It retains humidity nicely for high humidity species. It is also easy to clean up and replace.


4. Grass hay. Grass hay is inexpensive and doesn't cause any problems if it is eaten. It is not very absorbent however and should be changed out frequently.


5. Leaf litter and soil. Utilizing what mother nature provides is always a good option. The only concern I have with this substrate it that it must be kept clean as it easy for the substrate to "go bad" quickly, especially if it gets moist.

While there is no perfect solution to indoor substrates, when you  have to bring your animals indoors, the above are my experiences and recommendations.

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