Choosing the right bedding or substrate is one of the most critical factors in raising a healthy tortoise. They’ll be spending most of their time in and around it, after all. Some species even burrow into it to escape the heat or just so they can get privacy. Despite it being such an important aspect, or maybe because of it, a lot of people can’t seem to agree on which is the best bedding tortoise keepers should use.
So Whats the best bedding for a tortoise. Any bedding used for a tortoise must have the following attributes. It must be easy to dig up, be non toxic and be stable enough for your tortoise to walk on. We recommend purchasing a specific reptile bedding from a reputable company in order to keep your tortoise happy and on good health. We will discusses the pros and cons of the different types below.
Now, the question over what variety of bedding is the best will lead to one very long debate. Instead, we’ll be looking into the attributes that make any substrate the best bedding tortoise keepers should pick and give out our own recommendations later on. In fact, we’re also going to give you a list of bedding that is not good for tortoises based on the attributes we’re about to list, so strap yourselves in.
Here is everything you need to know about tortoise bedding, and the best bedding tortoise keepers should get.
Why Is the Bedding So Important?
Choosing the right bedding for tortoises encourages a lot of things, not just with their bodily functions, but also from their behavior. In the wild, tortoises, and reptiles in general, spend a lot of time on the ground, especially inside burrows or under leaf litter. This means that they perceive the environment far differently than larger animals do.
Tortoises are continuously exposed to what we call microclimates, where the environment, especially the humidity and the temperature, is vastly different a few inches off the ground. For example, when the sun is up, but it recently rained, you may feel warm. But to a tortoise, the ground would be wet, making their immediate environment moist, humid and warm.
Another example is in the desert, where many tortoise species also thrive. In our perspective, it may be warm and dry, but inside burrows, where desert tortoises frequent, it’s going to be cool and a bit moist. Good substrate for tortoises should be able to replicate the sort of microclimates they experience in their native habitats.
What Attributes Should Good Bedding Have?
As we’ve mentioned before, it’s pretty much impossible to determine what the best bedding tortoise keepers should get. What we can tell you which attributes you should look for when you’re looking for suitable bedding. Here are just a few of them:
Tortoises need plenty of hydration to grow healthy. They get water by drinking but can also absorb moisture in the ambient air and the bedding through their skin. That’s why it’s important to have bedding that can retain moisture for long periods of time. Improved moisture retention also helps with the humidity, which tortoises, especially hatchlings, require a lot of in order to grow healthy prevent pyramiding.
Conversely, it’s also a problem if the bedding stays wet for too long. Certain species that live in the forests, such as Red Footed Tortoises and Elongated Tortoises, have a lot of tolerance for wetness, but dry-loving species, like the African Spurred Tortoise or the Russian Tortoise, might have issues with too much moisture.
Too much moisture in the substrate can turn it into a breeding ground for bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. They can lead to problems like shell rot, respiratory infection, and other nasty diseases. Bedding that doesn’t drain properly will also develop mold, which is a problem for the owner. Good bedding should be able to retain a lot of moisture, but only enough that it dries up after a few hours. The bedding should also be able to drain properly, so puddles of water don’t form.
Can Be Dug Up
Many tortoises love digging into their bedding. Some species are even known to dig burrows into the substrate if it’s deep enough, though most of the time, all you’ll be seeing are palettes dug into the bedding. As such, good substrate should be able to yield easily enough when tortoises dig into them, but still have enough structural integrity that it doesn’t collapse immediately after the tortoise has dug into it.
Doesn’t Cause Impaction
One danger many tortoise keepers will have to face when choosing the right bedding is the possibility of their tortoises getting impaction. Impaction happens when a certain substance finds its way into a tortoise’s digestive system and doesn’t get broken down or doesn’t get passed through. This object will create a blockage and will later cause the gastrointestinal tract to rupture.
The best bedding tortoise keepers should get are ones that a tortoise could safely pass through their gut. Certain fibrous materials that is not soil can also work, since they can simply be digested by the tortoise safely.
Another thing you’ll need to think about when choosing the right substrate is the stability, whether the bedding material is great to walk on. Coarse materials with large chunks can be unstable, making them difficult to walk on for your tortoise, especially for smaller species or hatchlings. Finer materials can be packed tighter, but if it’s too fine, their legs would just sink through, making it unable to walk on in a totally different way.
Fine materials could also be small enough for tortoises to eat and swallow, making it a risk for causing impaction.
You should choose bedding that is not toxic to your tortoises. This might seem like it would be obvious, but what could be toxic to tortoises might not always be apparent to us. For example, you can use mulch or wood chippings as bedding material, since they’re excellent at retaining moisture. Some types of wood, however, produce resin that can be toxic to certain tortoise species, despite them being practically harmless to us.
Another example is soil, an excellent candidate for water retention. If you’re planning on using soil as a bedding material, it may also contain fertilizers and other chemicals that can cause harm to your tortoise. The best way around this is to simply wash the soil properly and sterilize it after.
Best Bedding for Tortoises
- Very Natural
- Great Moisture Retention
- Can Be Planted On
- Good Structural Integrity
- Can Be Mixed with Other Bedding Materials
- Will Need to be Sterilized
- Very Dusty when Dry
- Might Contain Unwanted Critters or Materials
- Strong Musty Smell
If you’re looking for natural bedding material, you can’t go wrong with soil. Tortoises pretty much walk on it and dig through it already in the wild, so they’re as natural as you can get. The best part is that it’s dirt-cheap (pun intended). Tortoises can also tunnel through this material fairly easily without it collapsing too quickly. If you’re also planning on putting plants in your enclosure, soil is the best material to support them.
The problems with using soil, however, is that it can be very messy. If it gets too wet, it becomes muddy and can be flicked around if your tortoise digs through it. On the other hand, if it gets too dry, it becomes dusty, and could be problematic if you or anyone in your family has respiratory problems. Not to mention that soil has a musty smell that can be difficult to get over.
Soil could also carry unwanted critters such as bugs, worms, parasites or their eggs. If you’re planning on building a naturalistic environment where these critters could be allowed to live, that’s fine, but some of these little animals can cause harm to your tortoise, especially the parasites. Organic soil may also contain feces or fertilizer that have components that can harm your tortoises.
If you plan on using soil as bedding, make sure that you sterilize it properly first. You can do so through steam, putting it through an oven, or even using a microwave. The trick is to subject the soil to as much heat as possible for a long enough time. Of course, to save yourself the trouble, you can always just buy soil or soil mixtures online, like Zoo Med’s Reptisoil, Exo Terra’s Plantation Soil, or even some organic gardening soil. Just make sure that the soil you’re getting doesn’t contain fertilizers or vermiculite.
- Great Moisture Retention
- Good at Odor Absorption
- Easy to Dig Into
- Compressed Blocks Are Easy to Store
- Can Be Planted On
- When Dry, Might Suck the Moisture From Your Tortoise
- Very Dusty When Dry
- May Stain Your Tortoise’s Skin Red or Orange
- Spongey When Wet, Making it Difficult to Walk On
- Not Structurally Sound
A good substitute for soil is coconut husk substrates. It more or less has the same moisture retention as soil does and can remain moist for long periods of time. It usually comes in two forms: coco coir, otherwise known as coco peat, and coco fiber. Certain companies interchange these two terms all the time, but the main difference between them is that coconut coir is ground more finely, whilst coconut fiber is usually a lot more course, with its longer fibers kept intact, hence the name.
One of the biggest advantages of coconut husk is that it’s able to absorb odor just as well as it does moisture, making it less of a problem if the smell is an issue for you. They’re easy to store as well. Coconut husk is usually sold in compressed bricks that you soak in warm water. The water will help the brick expand three or four times its volume. This makes it easy to buy these in bulk and simply store them for later. Just make sure that they don’t get wet.
One of the biggest disadvantages of using coco husk as bedding is that it’s very lightweight. Although this makes them easy for your tortoise to burrow through, they’re generally loose, which means it wouldn’t make for a structurally-sound burrow. If your tortoise is fond of burrowing through it, it also has the tendency to stain your tortoise an orange color or dark red. It’s pretty much harmless though when it does.
When wet, it becomes soft and spongey even when you try to pack it tight, making it difficult for your tortoise to walk on. If it becomes dry, its moisture retention can be problematic to your tortoise, as it will try to absorb the moisture away from your tortoise’s skin. If it’s fine enough, it’s a lot “dusty” than soil as well.
Still, coconut husk is a great substitute for soil. Because it’s made from coconuts, you tortoise can eat this, and it will simply get digested like normal. This pretty much eliminates the dangers of impaction. If you want something with better structural integrity, you can always mix this with soil. Exo Terra’s Coco Husk and Zoo Med’s Eco Earth are good examples of coco husk bedding, but you can also get coco coir from your local gardening center, since they’re also used as a planting medium.
Wood Chips or Mulch
- Excellent for Humidity
- Absorbs Odors
- Can be Cleaned and Reused
- Very Easy to Find
- Can be Rewashed
- Can Carry Mold Spores
- Sharp Pieces can Pierce the Intestinal Walls
- Large Pieces can Cause Impaction
- Can’t be Burrowed Into
One popular bedding material for many tortoise keepers is wood chips or wood mulch. It’s usually made from fir bark or cypress, but try to avoid using pine or cedar, since they do produce toxic oils and resin. Wood chips and mulch are great at improving the humidity of an enclosure, since they’re relatively good at absorbing water, but doesn’t drain well.
When it comes to cleanliness, however, it’s unparalleled. It’s good at absorbing odors, and you can reuse the chips simply by putting them into boiling water and drying them thoroughly.
Generally, however, this sort of bedding is best used for juvenile tortoises or older, as the younger ones might have trouble walking on top of this due to the size. It’s also a good idea to put the feeding area away from the wood chips. If the pieces get eaten by accident, they are prone to causing impactions, and if the piece is particularly sharp, could even rupture the intestinal walls outright.
Choosing a good product is paramount, as it lessens the chances of this bedding harming your tortoises than if you got your item from a less than reputable source. Zoo Med’s Forest Floor Bedding and Reptile Bark are good two of the best and most reasonable priced.
- Highly Absorbent
- Excellent Bedding Under Hides
- Great for Hatchlings
- Can be Rewashed
- Can Be Eaten Safely
- Can be Expensive
- The Cheaper Alternative, Peat Moss, is Slightly Acidic
- Becomes Flakey When Dry
If you have hatchlings or younger tortoises, one of the best substrates you can use is sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is the best bedding for moisture absorption and humidity, both of which your tortoise is going to need in order to grow healthy. It’s best placed under hides, since hatchlings will prefer to spend their days inside shelter.
Thanks to their high absorption abilities, it’s also good at absorbing odor. The best part is that you can reuse this material simply by submerging it in boiling water and drying it thoroughly afterwards.
Sphagnum moss is not without its downside though. High-grade moss is usually imported from New Zealand, making it very expensive. Peat moss, which is harvested from a different part of the sphagnum moss’s body, can be a cheaper alternative, but they usually contain tannins, and is hence very acidic. This acidity can eat into your tortoise’s shell.
No bedding is better when it comes to water absorption, however. That’s why it’s very popular among many keepers. A good item to look into is Zoo Med’s New Zealand Sphagnum Moss and Galapagos Terrarium Moss.
Bedding You Should NOT be Using
As you’ve already learned, the best bedding tortoise keepers should get can be very flexible. It could be any of the above materials, a combination of two or more, or it could even be a combination of all of them if you feel adventurous. Not everything makes for good substrate, though, and here is a short list of them:
Although very cheap, paper isn’t a good bedding to use. It absorbs water just fine, but it just doesn’t retain it as well. It dries up quickly, and mold can grow on it pretty well. It also falls apart quite easily.
Walnut Shells and Corn Husk/Cracked Corn
These aren’t the best at retaining or absorbing moisture, and it’s not stable enough for tortoises to walk on. It’s also relatively dangerous if swallowed, because they can cause impaction, and the sharper bits can puncture the intestinal walls.
If mixed with other more suitable bedding materials, sand can be a good one to use. The problem with sand is that it doesn’t pass freely if it was ever swallowed and can cause impactions. It’s also very loose, making it difficult for tortoises to walk on.
Another common bedding material used by people who don’t know any better. Rabbit pellets don’t retain moisture very well, and if it breaks down, it becomes very dusty. It also molds pretty easily, so it’s definitely a bedding material you have to steer clear of.
Although reptile carpets are good to use for other reptiles, it’s not so good for tortoises. Generally, reptile carpets have rough surfaces that can catch your tortoise’s claws. This can be very uncomfortable for them. What’s more, they have practically no ability to retain moisture.
With so many options available to us, the best bedding tortoise keepers can get is not as clear-cut as you may think. Whatever material you choose, so long as they meet the requirements, should be good enough on its own, but you can also mix and match two or more of them to fit your preferences. The best advice we can give you is to do your research and experiment. Eventually, you may end up with the best bedding on your own, at least for you and your tortoise.