Keeping your tortoises in the right environment is important for their growth. Forget one aspect of it, and everything simply cascades into major physical deformities or just an overall unhealthy animal. Since we’re all trying to be responsible tortoise keepers, it’s important that we are able to maintain the right habitat quality for our tortoises to live in. One such aspect we need to be aware of constantly is tortoise enclosure humidity.
Maintaining the proper tortoise enclosure humidity of at least 50 – 60% with both a humid and a dry area is pretty much essential for a healthy tortoise, especially younger ones. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at tortoise enclosure humidity, its importance, how you can properly maintain it, and what could happen if you are unable to.
Why is Tortoise Enclosure Humidity Important?
Humidity basically is the concentration of water vapor that’s present in the surrounding air. Since the water is in its gaseous form, it’s pretty much invisible to the human eye. In order to check the humidity of your tortoise enclosure, you’ll need a hygrometer. The accuracy of hygrometers may depend on the quality of its build or the brand, so it’s best to have multiple hygrometers in one enclosure in order to have a more accurate reading. Either analog or digital will do the job nicely.
Now, the humidity level in an environment is important to all reptiles, not just with tortoises. Many reptiles, including tortoises, absorb water through their skin. That’s because in some places where these tortoises live, it can be rare to find water for them to drink. So instead of absorbing water orally, they adapt by absorbing the water from the atmosphere. The lack of humidity pretty much has the same effect on tortoises as the lack of hydration will to humans or other mammals.
Humidity also has a significant effect on improving the ambient temperature of the habitat, which is particularly important.
Lower humidity can lead to dehydration and a weakened immune system, but too much humidity can also lead to respiratory problems, or even shell rot, so making sure that your pet is at the right tortoise enclosure humidity is essential. Generally, it’s a lot more difficult to lower humidity than it is to increase it.
What is the Proper Tortoise Enclosure Humidity Level?
In order to have a healthy tortoise, you’d want to have a humidity level of at least 50 – 60%. You should also make sure that your enclosure has a humid area and a dry area as well. These areas of varying humidity levels will simulate the microclimates that tortoises are used to in the wild, and depending on their overall needs at the time, they can move freely between areas of high humidity, which are as high as 70 – 80%, and low humidity, which can be as low as 30 – 40%.
Now, different species have different tortoise enclosure humidity requirements. Species that are used to living in arid areas, like the Russian Tortoise, Leopard Tortoise, or the African Spurred Tortoise, prefer lower humidity levels, at around 40% – 60%. This humidity level requirement is relatively high, despite their natural habitats being dry savannahs or deserts, where liquid drinkable water is rare.
Tortoise species in arid climates find these humid environments inside burrows, which is the case with the African Spurred Tortoise, or around the bases of shrubs, even in sparsely vegetated areas.
Tortoises that live in dense rainforests or jungles, such as the Red Foot Tortoise, the Elongata Tortoise, or the Asian Forest Tortoise, will require higher humidity levels. These tortoises live in sub-tropical and tropical climates, so you should maintain around 65% – 75% humidity, with their humid areas going as high as 80%.
The proper tortoise enclosure humidity levels also depend mostly on the age of your tortoise, regardless of the species. Maintaining humidity is a lot more important for growing tortoises than it is for older tortoises, and as such, adults have a much higher margin for error when it comes to humidity.
For younger tortoises, especially hatchlings, the humidity levels should be maintained at 80% – 90%, with their hide areas being more humid, since they will be spending more time there than they would out in the open.
Effects of Improper Humidity
As we’ve mentioned before, keeping your tortoise in an environment with too low or too high humidity can have severe adverse effects, especially so if you’re dealing with a younger tortoise. Here are some of the effects of improper tortoise enclosure humidity. Of course if your feel that your tortoise has a health problem or is poorly then you should seek advice from a qualified vet as soon as possible.
Tortoises, like other reptiles, have evolved specifically to hydrate themselves through their skin. This is an excellent adaptation that allows them to take water directly from the atmosphere in areas where there’s not a lot of drinkable water. This also allows them to absorb water from their bedding or substrate.
Being forced to live in an arid or dry environment can cause your tortoises to suffer from dehydration, and in worse cases, even heat stroke. Symptoms of dehydration include being unable to open their eyes, puffy eyes, watery eyes, or bubbly discharge from their noses. Some of these symptoms can be confused with the symptoms for respiratory infection.
Having tortoise enclosure humidity levels that are lower than what is required is bad, but so is having too much of it. High humidity can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory infections. This is very common in colder places, so if you’re unable to find a way to lower the humidity, at least make sure that the temperature doesn’t go lower than 25 C (77F).
You should also make sure that the enclosure is clean, since a very humid enclosure creates an environment that harbors microorganisms. These microbes can cause respiratory infection as well as shell rot. If you think your tortoise has a repository infection then we have a helpful article on Tortoise Respiratory Infection Home Treatment
Pyramiding is a very common issue amongst captive tortoises. It’s generally considered a growth problem, specifically the improper growth of a tortoise’s shell. As such, the ones vulnerable to it are hatchlings and younger tortoises that have a lot of growing left to do. Incorrect tortoise enclosure humidity during a tortoise’s formative years is one of the known contributors to pyramiding.
In the wild, tortoises usually have minimal growth during dry seasons, mostly because food is not as abundant during such times. It’s during the wet seasons, when the air is at its most humid, that tortoises do a lot of growth, because food is more abundant.
In captivity, it’s possible to have an abundance of food, but have an environment where the humidity isn’t maintained properly. Based on a study made in Venezuela on Red Foot Tortoises, it’s this odd combination, which rarely happens in the wild, contributes to unhealthy growth among tortoise hatchlings that lead to pyramiding. We have full in depth article on Pyramiding here.
Another issue you’ll be getting when the humidity is too high is that your tortoise enclosure would start smelling bad. Too much humidity will lead to the growth of mold and mildew, as well as bacteria and other microbes that produce a bad smell. Typically, the more tortoises you have in one enclosure, the faster your enclosure gets stinky.
Spot cleaning your enclosure daily for poop or changing the bedding every month or two can help with lessening the bad smell. Making sure that there’s ample air flow in and out of your tortoise enclosure should also help with the bad smells. You should also make sure that you throw out any food items that your tortoises don’t finish up.
As we’ve mentioned before, places of high humidity can encourage the growth of harmful microorganisms. Some of these microbes can contribute to the development of shell rot. This is especially problematic for tortoises that are used to living in high humidity, like the forest tortoises we’ve mentioned earlier. Again, maintaining a clean enclosure helps with preventing shell rot.
How to Improve the Tortoise Enclosure Humidity
Maintaining the proper humidity is pretty much straightforward. Since it’s very difficult to decrease humidity, it’s best to simply focus on increasing it instead. After all, most of the problems brought about by high humidity can be mitigated by simply keeping your tortoise enclosure clean and maintaining the proper temperature. That said, here are a few ways you can improve tortoise enclosure humidity.
Use the Appropriate Bedding or Substrate
A good way to maintain humidity in any enclosure is to use the right type of bedding or substrate. You’d want to use bedding that not only absorbs water well, but also retains moisture for hours at a time. There are two advantages for using bedding that is good at retaining water. First, if the bedding remains moist, but not too wet, for long periods of time, it can keep the surrounding air humid, especially so when paired with proper temperatures.
Secondly, tortoises love to burrow into the substrate, and if it’s moist enough, they can absorb the moisture through their skin, which helps keep them hydrated. If your wondering what the best bedding is for your tortoise then check out our article on the best bedding for your tortoise.
Misting Your Habitat
It wouldn’t make sense to have bedding that’s good at retaining water if you don’t actually keep it moist periodically. Therefore, it’s important to mist your tortoise enclosure daily. Simply use a spray bottle filled with clean water and spray your tortoise enclosure daily. You can also just pour the water directly into the bedding, but this usually results in uneven moisture distribution.
If you can’t do this daily, or are prone to forgetting, you can also use an automatic fogger or sprayer so you wouldn’t have to worry about misting or spraying your habitat at all. The Zoo Med Reptifogger is one such product.
Placing an Open Source of Clean Water
If you’re keeping your tortoises outdoors, it can be difficult to maintain humidity. You can always spread moisture-retaining substrate on your outdoor enclosures, but since most outdoor enclosures are large, this can take a lot of effort and money. A good alternative is to simply put an open source of clean water within the enclosure. A deep enough pan of water, or a small tub should be enough to keep the surrounding area humid. Of course, make sure that you clean this water source periodically.
Adding Plants to your Enclosure
Another good way to maintain humidity for outdoor enclosures is to add plants into your tortoise habitat. Plants not only help improve the humidity, but they are also a ready source of food and shade, both of which your tortoises will use constantly. If you have indoor grow lights and the right bedding, it’s also possible to add plants in your indoor enclosure.
If you’re unable to add living plants, then you can use artificial plants instead. Artificial plants are not as effective at maintaining humidity, but they still get the job done anyway. Tortoises are smart enough not to eat these artificial plants after, so there’s no need to worry about them.
Trap the Humidity Better
Tortoise enclosure humidity is mostly dictated by how humid the rest of the surrounding area is. If you have an open enclosure, most of the humidity inside it will simply escape, so even if you do all you can to get humidity, your enclosure might remain dry. A good way to maintain humidity is to simply “trap” them.
A good way to do this is to partially cover your tortoise enclosure, perhaps a third of the way. You can also create humid areas by simply putting hides over moist patches on your enclosure’s substrate. So even if the rest of the enclosure is dry, there are places your tortoise can get to where humidity is relatively high.
Maintain the Proper Temperature
As you may know from science class, water vapor takes the form it does once water evaporates. It’s not impossible to have a moist substrate, but have a low humidity level, simply because the water in the substrate hasn’t had the chance to evaporate. You can encourage the evaporation of the water from the substrate into the air by simply maintaining a higher temperature in your enclosure. You can also aim your heat lamp over your tortoise’s water dish to have the same effect.
As we’ve mentioned many times before, tortoises are hardy creatures, but in order for them to take advantage of this, they’ll need a good head start. Tortoise enclosure humidity are one of those aspects of husbandry that have a significant effect on a tortoise’s growth. If done correctly, your tortoise will enjoy a comfortable life free of any deformities and issues for the rest of its hopefully long life.