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Our Reptile product and care advice blog
It is a debate that has been ongoing for many years – whether to keep a tortoise in a table-top style enclosure or a wooden vivarium? The fact of the matter is that both enclosures can be made to be suitable for housing most species of tortoise and if set up correctly, neither option is right or wrong. However, we far prefer the use of enclosed wooden vivaria for housing tortoises and we thought we would take the time to briefly explain why.
To start with, we’ll go over the different ways of setting up both a tortoise table and a wooden vivarium and briefly explain how each method works.
Tortoise tables, being open topped, mean that it is impossible to set a precise ambient air temperature as this is dictated by the surrounding room temperature. Therefore, tortoise tables work best in a warm room where the temperature doesn’t drop below 72-75OF day or night. Night time temperatures in most homes drop 10 or 20 degrees at night due to the turning off of your central heating.
There are two main ways of setting up an open top style tortoise table. The first is to use a Mercury Vapour (M.V) UV bulb and a secondary heat source via an Infra-red ceramic bulb or Dark Night spot bulb. The MV bulb provides your tortoise with the essential UVB radiation that it needs to absorb and utilise the calcium in its diet to avoid MBD. This bulb should be left switched on during the daytime for approximately 12-14 hours a day. MV bulbs also pump out a great deal of heat and double up as a daytime spot lamp too. Therefore, at night after your MV bulb is switched off, it is usually necessary to switch on a night-time heat source such as an Infra-Red ceramic or Dark night spot bulb, so that your tortoise can access warmth throughout the night. Without this night-time heat lamp, most UK households get too cold for tortoises to function properly, and this can have a negative impact on the digestion of food, among several other problems.
The downside to using MV UV lighting and Infra-red lighting is primarily the cost. MV bulbs are relatively expensive (£50-60 for a good one, for example Arcadia), and will need replacing at least once if not twice a year, as the UVB producing capability of the bulb is diminished after 6-12 months in most MV bulbs, with the exception of Arcadia (12 months). MV bulbs can also not be thermostatically controlled and there is also the additional hassle of having to switch heat sources each night, or having the added expense of a second fitting.
The second method of setting up a tortoise table is to use a separate UVB and heat source by way of a UVB tube and an Infra-red ceramic heat bulb or Dark night spot bulb. The UVB tube – like the MV bulbs should be switched on for approximately 12-14 hours during the daytime and switched off at night. As with the MV bulbs, UVB tubes also stop producing UV after a time, but some tubes (Arcadia D3+) last a full 12 months and are approximately £30-40. These UV tubes are low wattage and produce very little heat, so an Infra-red bulb should be set up to provide the heating. This infra-red bulb should be left switched on 24/7 to provide a constant hot spot day and night where your tortoise can warm itself up whenever it feels the need.
The main downside to using Tortoise tables is that you can’t create an ambient air temperature. This means that you can only realistically aim to produce a hot basking spot and a cool end. This does work to some extent, but unless your room temperature stays around 72-75F, this forces the tortoise to choose between being hot – by basking, or being cool (room temp).
In addition, because the air temperature is the same as the rest of the room, it will fluctuate as and when central heating goes on/off, when windows are open or closed and it will be affected by the seasons. Temperature fluctuations can often cause stress/confusion in reptiles and may have a negative effect on the wellbeing of your tortoise.
Many of you reading this will probably be thinking ‘where the tortoise comes from gets colder at night’ or ‘these animals contend with fluctuating temperatures in the wild’. This is true, but. Firstly no sensible, healthy Tortoise will sit out at night. It just wouldn’t be safe. Secondly we have all probably seen news articles describing how bad weather, or odd seasonal temperatures have caused a bumper year for one species while another species has suffered. It is important to remember that reptiles depend on the weather to maintain a healthy life and bad weather/odd seasons are just some of the ways natural selection works to remove some of the less fit animals from the gene pool.
Thirdly and finally the sun bakes the ground throughout the day and stores a lot of residual infra-red energy in rocks and the earth. Once the sun has set, this residual energy is released as heat. A wild tortoise will usually find somewhere warm to go at night, such as a burrow under rocks where it will be considerably warmer than the air temperature outside. This is virtually impossible to simulate in captivity as you would need an extremely powerful heat source and a very large rock to store the heat in for it to maintain its warmth for more than an hour or two.
Seasonal changes in this country can have a large impact on your animal. A European/Russian tortoise doesn’t hibernate at the same time every year based on a body clock. African, South American, Indian and any other tropical tortoise will not hibernate at all and will be very bad for its health.
The wild hibernation process is triggered by shortening daytime (photo) periods and lower night-time temperatures. When the tortoise picks up on these it will begin to eat less to empty its stomach ready for a period of inactivity and/or eventual hibernation. (For more information on how to hibernate correctly or why we advise against it, please contact us at our Bournemouth branch). Hibernation/cooling period for a Spur thigh tortoise in the wild will start a couple months later than in the UK and will finish much earlier. In the event of a warm winter for them they may only cut back on feeding for a couple months and not hibernate fully at all. The Problem is, in the UK, this process will likely start Sept/Oct and last through a possible 6 months in our country. During this time your tortoise will not be eating and your animal will probably become inactive and naturally try to cool itself. This will leave its immune system vulnerable due to the requirement of heat to maintain it. The problem is further compounded by your animal not being able to fully hibernate due to the temperature failing to drop any further because of the central heating going on and off. Often the outcome is a tortoise with respiratory issues as well as being malnourished. In a table set-up your animal will be very aware of the shortening of our UK daytime. It will also be very aware that the room temperature is dropping. If you do decide to keep your tortoise in a Table type enclosure it is worth thinking of a way you could tent up your table to reduce the air flow and contain some of the heat your equipment produces. Remember a thermostat might be a good idea if you decide to do this.
Tortoise tables have become very popular primarily due to the American market, where the climate is generally a lot warmer than in the UK. Therefore the typical room temperature will be closer to the ideal 72-75F that most tortoises prefer. This makes it a lot easier to make a table-top enclosure a suitable home for a tortoise. It is also a popular choice in Europe and the UK with the experts, Breeders and those with a lot of animals. These people often recommend tortoise table set ups but fail to explain that the room the table is in is unusually warm due to the large number of animals being kept in the same room with lots of heat sources.
In short, the table enclosure can be relatively simple but you just need to remember that there are many factors that affect the outcome. They can be difficult to manage and become more expensive than a vivarium.
Wooden vivaria are in our opinion a great way of housing a tortoise. They offer all the benefits of a tortoise table and more. One of the key reasons that wooden vivaria are sometimes advised against for housing tortoises is to do with an apparent lack of ventilation. Whilst it is true that enclosed vivaria are not going to offer the same level of ventilation that an open top style tortoise table will, the ventilation they do provide (particularly with our ND vivaria) is more than adequate. Our 4ft x 2ft wooden vivarium (recommended size for an adult Hermann’s or Horsfield’s) has 3 air vents situated at the top of the enclosure and convection of air ensures that there is a good supply of fresh clean air in the tank. As the enclosure is heated, warm air rises and exits via the vent at the hot end of the tank. As this air leaves, it drags in cool fresh air through the vent at the cool end of the tank. This airflow ensures that stagnant air doesn’t form and this helps to reduce the risk of bacteria build up in the tank and the risk of respiratory infections. In addition the large volume of air inside helps and if you still feel your animal requires more ventilation you can always ask to have more vents put in. That said, the doors will be opened at least once a day and we are sure your animal will be out and about your house and garden regularly.
Setting up a wooden vivarium for a tortoise is relatively straight forward, but will depend to some extent on the size of enclosure and the type of tortoise you plan to house in it. For a more in depth description of how to set up a wooden vivarium for your particular tortoise, take a look at the relevant care sheet on our website.
A typical set up for a wooden vivarium goes as follows… Heating should be provided by a spot bulb (pref dark or ceramic), in a similar way to the tortoise table. It should be suspended from the roof of the tank at one end, to provide a hot spot and a cooler end. The easiest way to ensure a stable ambient air temperature is through the use of a thermostat. For more info on thermostats click here. For the majority of tortoises, an ambient air temperature in the middle of the tank of 82F is ideal (call us for more precise temps). The hot end will then be invariably hotter – usually around 90-100F, and the cooler end is usually around 75F – though matching these end temperatures is not essential provided the middle is set and the vivarium is the correct size, the two end temperatures will sort themselves out. Never use heat mats with tortoises as they can scratch off the protective plastic coating and risk electrocution. Heating should be left on 24hrs a day unless your room temperature stays at 75F all night or you are using a programmable Habistat digital stat (Controlled night time drop to no less than 75F for most species).
The UVB lighting should be provided by a UV tube positioned 1-2ft off of the floor of the enclosure and should run approximately 2/3 the length of the enclosure (depending on the brand). As with the MV bulbs mentioned in the table top set up, the UV tube should be switched on for 12-14 hours a day, though these timings don’t need to be exact.
Using an enclosed vivarium like this and heating it, means that you can produce an optimum ambient air temperature, so that your tortoise can properly thermoregulate to make itself comfortable. The wooden vivarium also helps insulate from external factors that may influence the temperature such as central heating and windows – and if you’re using a thermostat, the temperature won’t change at all! This all makes for a very stable enclosure which produces a reliable and predictable environment in which a tortoise will be completely comfortable and safe.
Additional benefits also include lower energy costs in comparison to tables.
Some of you reading this may not be keeping your tortoise the way we have described. That is fine, we are aware that there are many ways of keeping a tortoise, so long as the fundamental needs are met (UVB lighting and adequate heating). We know that new discoveries are made all the time.
However, it is worth pointing out that just because a tortoise appears to be healthy, it doesn’t mean that it is being kept in an ideal environment. It may just mean that the Tortoise/reptile has adapted to cope with its environment somehow. Take a look at the handful of tortoises that found a way to survive in our friends’ and neighbours’ gardens even now. Despite this ability to adapt, it’s important to realise that of the thousands of tortoises imported around 40 years ago and kept in this way, many did not reach anywhere near their 80-100 year life expectancy and those that are still alive today are unlikely to reach their life expectancy.
To conclude, both ways of housing tortoises can be made to work, but in our experience housing a tortoise in an enclosed wooden vivarium is easier to get right, and is more effective in more circumstances. Wooden vivaria offer the same benefits as a tortoise table but also provide a better ambient air temperature and more security, which is why we prefer and recommend the use of wooden vivaria over tortoise tables.