Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
  Issue 9 August 2007
Basic Tortoise Care Revisited - Part 2
In this Issue

by William Ness

Part II - Housing:
The first thing to look at is the turtle pen. The size of the pen is somewhat subjective and is dependent on the size and age of the tortoise and the space you have available. Also, if the pen is for multiple tortoises, the sex ratio may also be a factor, as males during the breeding season can be aggressive towards other males. Generally, I like to see the biggest enclosure practical, but I have seen a number of tortoises maintained and even reproducing in relatively small enclosures where most of their basic needs were obviously being met.

Pen size and construction material can have an effect on the tortoise's behavior. I had an adult pair of Redfoot Tortoises in an all glass 80 gallon aquarium with newspaper as a substrate and a heat lamp over one end. The pen was approximately 18 by 60 by 18 inches high. The tortoises spent a lot of time banging around the aquarium and actually scratched up the glass. I then moved them to a pen that was made of plywood on three sides with a glass front with a floor space of four foot by eight foot. The pen had several heat sources and a large hide box. The tortoises spent a lot of time exploring this cage but spent very little time banging against the glass. I think it is important to remember that glass is not part of their natural environment and most tortoises try to walk right through glass as if it wasn't there. I feel that a large pen with reduced glass may be a factor in reducing stress in the animals in some cases.

Ventilation is another factor that is related to the animal's native habitat. Does the animal live in the steamy rain forest or in the arid desert? Make certain that the ventilation allows you to maintain the proper humidity. Inadequate ventilation and a large water bowl may lead to humidity related health problems for arid species, just as an open topped cage with several spot lights may dry the air out too much for some species from more humid environments.

Substrate is a topic that has been much discussed and very little consensus has been reached. Newspapers are the old standby and will work. They are cheap and readily available. There are several drawbacks to using newspaper, though. First of all it takes a little bit of time on your part to remove the old newspapers and carefully replace them in a large pen. However, it only takes a couple of tortoises about five minutes to completely trash the cage that you have so carefully set up for them. They will shred the paper, push it into the corner or water bowl, and them eat the wet newspaper and defecate on the exposed (now newspaperless) bottom of the cage.

Wood shavings have been used by some people, but it too has a few drawbacks. While maintenance is a little easier because you can just scoop out the soiled shavings, pine shavings and especially cedar shavings can be quite resinous and give off fumes that may be detrimental to tortoises. Wood shavings will also adhere to spilled food which then may then be ingested. Aspen shavings are supposed to be better than pine, but I would still be concerned about possible accidental ingestion.

Rabbit pellets have been used quite successfully and, as usual, they have advantages and disadvantages. They are quite absorbent and have the advantage over the other mediums in being edible and actually good food for tortoises. Many recipes for tortoise diets include rabbit pellets. The disadvantage is that if you do not promptly remove soiled pellets they may be ingested or become moldy. They also seem to have a dehumidifying effect in a warm cage which can be a plus or a minus depending on species. One substrate that is becoming popular is a mineral based substrate (marketed as "CAL- STRATE") which is very absorbent, is edible, and acts as a calcium supplement. I have been experimenting with this substrate in my large tortoise and Bearded Dragon pens and have not really found any drawbacks yet.

Originally published in the Minnesota Herpetological Society Newsletter, Vol.16, No.1, January 1996.


  1. Basic Tortoise Care Revisited - Part 2
  2. Converted Snake Cage from Cupboard Questions
  3. UV Light Research
  4. In the News
  5. Tell Us What You Think
  6. Feedback and Updating

Other Issues

Other Articles & Resources


Converted Snake Cage from Cupboard Questions

I thought I would publish this as it reflects some of the questions I often get and also the sort of issues that people making cages often have.

Hi Mark,

First off I'd like to say the plans are great and very detailed. Even though I haven't built my cage from scratch (I've converted an old cupboard instead-see attached photos) I have found them to be invaluable. I do, however, have some questions which I hope to hell you can answer for me.

Firstly, I'll give you the background info and I'll go from there. I acquired a diamond python (my first snake) about 2 years ago (goes by the name of Roger btw) who was already 1.5 years old at the time. I've had him in a 4' glass tank (see photo) which has proved very adequate but now that he's getting bigger (about 6.5' long) he needs a bigger home - hence the plans. I purchased a heat pad which has been positioned under the glass (on the right hand side of tank in photo). Above that I positioned a normal everyday reading lamp with a 60w bulb (see photo). This provided a heat gradient no problem. I've used a baby bathwater heat temperature cardboard thingy to judge the heat. (Not very accurtae I know). Now, here's my quandary. After reading all your attached material with the plans and other material on the net, I am thoroughly confused as to what I should do in regards to heating/lighting the new cage.

The dimensions of the new cage are 880mm W x 1790mm H x 550 D made of 3 ply. (On your advice from the plans I am installing 2 sliding 6mm thick glass doors, top and bottom on metal sliding tracks. As you can see in the photos I have put in two shelfs with 2 vents, top and bottom. The top shelf is 500mm from the roof. Now, what I WAS going to do was this:

I was going to put a slit in the back wall (using the jigsaw) just above the top shelf and slide the heat pad in on top of a styrfoam pad and put his warm hide box over the top. I am going to purchase a thermostat and place it on top of the heat pad. I also intend to get a thermometer. I was then going to cut a hole(radius of the lamp) in the roof above the tree fork you see in the photo (which is 300mm below the roof) cover the hole with wire and attach the lamp outside the enclosure to the edge of the cage (as I've done with he current enclosure see photo of black lamp). His water bowel would go at the bottom of cage with a cool hide (fake rock) on the second shelf and an additional hide at the bottom. (Even though the cage is a light green at the moment, a friend of mine is going to paint a jungle scene on the back and side walls - should look good when its done).That was the plan. OK. Questions.

Q1 - What do you think of that arrangement? Is this cage too big for a diamond python?

A1 - No, great cage. Well done. He's a big snake now so a large cage holds no fear. :)

Q2 - Is that the correct place to put the heat pad/light? ie will it provide the cage with a sufficient heat gradient or is the heat source too high in the cage?

A2 - You have a lamp up high as well, so I think that might be sufficient. You can put the mat anywhere - even at the bottom but they obviously need a place to hibernate

Q3 - Should it be lower? ie on the 2nd shelf?

A3 - Maybe - you could probably experiment. Diamonds can tolerate low temps as they live as far down as the top of Victoria so you could have the high temps at the top under the lights and middle temps under the second shelf and then have the base quite cool
so he can make some choices.

Q4 - Do I need to put in a UVB/UVA flouresecent light on the roof positioned at the front? ( I take him out at least every 2nd day and place in him in sun for approx 20-30 mins every
week. My apartment in Bondi, Sydney gets a lot of sun. In winter time the sun hits the present enclosure late in the arvo for about an hour but never directly in summertime). I can build whatever you suggest and install it no worries.

A4 - Most snake don't really need UV like lizards so what you do is fine. Reptisun 5.0 is a good choice if you want one.

Q5 - Can you PLEASE recommend a thermostat and thermometer that would suit my needs and, if I need one, a UVB/UVA light? And suggest where I could get them? I've had a look at a few websites (especially Ultimate Reptile Supplies) and there is so many choices out there I've got no idea. I'm trying to keep the cost down as much as possible obviously.

A5 - It depends on what you want. For an arboreal cage a thermostat that sits in the middle of the cage is probably sufficient and you probably don't need to get a probe one.

Try - he ships anywhere and is good to deal with. You could try the I.M.I.T TA.3 Wall Thermostat on the thermostats page. Good value at $32 and you put it into the centre of the back wall. Brian can also be called and will answer questions. They also have thermometers at $6 each and you could put two in the cage - near the top and bottom to get an idea of the gradient. You might want to have one connected to
the mat and one to the lights or connect a central one to both but that is expensive as the probe thermostats run to $70 and are probably better suited to terrestrial cages. Either way, it's about providing a range of temperatures.

If you are using a heat mat, then a proble thermostat is definitely better and provides an accurate measurement of the mat and prevents overheating. It can be on a separate circuit.

Q6 - When I measure for the glass, you say in the plans to"measure the distance from the wood at the top to the top of the bottom slider.

You will need to subtract about an extra 1/6" of an inch to account for the thickness of the base of the top slider". Is this still the case when I have ball bearings in place on
the bottom slider? How wide should each glass door be? I've purchased the locks you recommend. And how much is 1/6" btw? Sorry for being obtuse on this last question but I really dont want to stuff up the measurements on this glass for obvious
reasons. So, for the dummies out there ie me, can you make this really clear?

A6 - Should be 1/16" or about 2mm - I'll have to make sure that is correct in the plans.

Measure the distance from where the glass should start to the top and add about 2-3mm. Basically you push the glass up into the top of the slide and let it drop into the bottom slider and it needs to be still sit in the top slide so it doesn't fall out. I usually make the cage and then measure the glass so I get it right. As you have done this you should be OK. It's not too tricky but you need to be sure so try it with a bit of thin ply or something, so that you know it will work before you go and order it.

Clearly with ball bearing sliders the distance is different so I would try is with something like the ply to make sure. Essentially you measure the distance from the top the bottom
slider to the top of the top slider and subtract 2mm (say) for the thickness of the base of the top slider. It's a bit hard to explain so that's why I think that trialing it with some ply is
a good idea. You can call me about this.

Well thats about it. I know its a bit of a big ask but I dont know where else to turn too. I really want this enclosure to last him the rest of his life and, if everything goes well, its
gunna be the ClubMed of snake enclosures. I've got stained timbers trims for the sides and top, middle and bottom pieces to hide the metal tracks.(I'm a bit of a perfectionist so I want to build this thing really well in the first place and not have to make adjustments to it later on) So, Mark, if you can help out a fellow snake enthusiast, I would be very much appreciative. Any and all info would be greatly received.

The photos below are of the current diamond python enclosure and the new one at various stages. It is nearly completed.

snake cage diamond python cocurrent snake enclosure

Current enclosure

snake cage diamond python converted cupboard snake cage diamond python converted cupboard
snake cage diamond python converted cupboard
snake cage diamond python converted cupboard snake cage diamond python converted cupboard


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In the News

I almost cried but I'm becoming immune. I'm sick of the tragedy and I'm sick of the pathetic politcal excuses for not wanting to halt climate change, logging of old growth and rain forests and our appalling level of disengagement with the natural world.

I want my children's children to see animals in their natural habitat and understand the beauty of nature. I am greiving for the Baiji and a little part of me died.

Where goeth the little baiji?

Anyway, this guy has got other things to worry about - maybe the gator saw his crack...

Gator's are survivors....

So are crocs....

So are rattlers - well sort of...


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