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what kind of bedding does a tortoise need?

What Can You Use for Tortoise Bedding? (Safe + Unsafe)

Last Updated on October 8, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoise bedding must have certain qualities to be fit for purpose. It must be good for burrowing, moisture retention, insulation, and drainage. It must also be safe to use and easy to clean.

Small tortoises need 2 inches of bedding, and large tortoises need 4-6 inches of bedding. Topsoil is the best bedding for tortoises, and coconut husk, sphagnum moss, and straw pellets are also recommended.

When choosing bedding, ensure the risk of impaction is minimized because tortoises ingest these materials when eating food. Avoid wood shavings, sand, walnut shells, and newspaper pellets.

Why Do Tortoises Need Bedding?

Tortoise bedding is the layer of material that lines the bottom of the enclosure. Tortoises need a thick layer of substrate for the following reasons:

  • Digging: Tortoises burrow to retain heat, escape predators, and avoid extreme weather.
  • Comfort: Provides a comfortable surface to walk and rest on.
  • Soft landing: Bedding provides safety if a tortoise falls when climbing or flips over.
  • Easy to clean: Tortoises will go to the toilet in their bedding unless litter-trained.

The best bedding for your tortoise is one that it can easily digest if it’s inadvertently consumed during mealtimes. It’s common for tortoises to ingest small parts of their bedding.

A tortoise can become impacted if it can’t digest non-food items. The bedding forms a hard mass in the digestive tract, preventing feces from exiting the body.

Some bedding can be unsafe for tortoises, so avoid ones that cause irritation or allergies.

What Kind of Bedding Does A Tortoise Need?

Many tortoise substrate options are available, but they have pros and cons.

Here’s a table of the different types of bedding for tortoises:

Bedding TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
Topsoil:– Cheap
– Natural
– Excellent at retaining moisture
– Good structural integrity.
– Needs sterilizing
– Dusty when it’s dry
– Musty smell
– Can contain unwanted materials
Shredded Paper:– Cheap
– Easy to mix with other bedding materials
– Simple to replace.
– Rots in hot, humid conditions
– Fire risk under lighting
– Poo for burrowing
– Visually unattractive.
Straw:– Safe and affordable
– Good for burrowing.
– High maintenance
– Prone to rot in humid conditions.
Compost:– Visually appealing
– Absorbent
– Maintains tunnels
– Inexpensive.
– Preservatives and additives
– Cold and heavy
– Difficult to maintain
– Mold can grow.
Hay:– Good for digging
– Layer of warmth
– Cheap
– Edible
– Dust-free
– Prone to rotting
– Collapses after burrowing
– Non-absorbent
Mulch:– Produces humidity
– Absorbs odors
– Cleanable and reusable
– Affordable
– Carries mold spores
– Contains sharp pieces
– Impaction risk
– Difficult to burrow into.
Sphagnum Moss:– Highly absorbent
– Excellent moisture absorption humidity
– Easy to rewash
– Safe for tortoises to eat.
– Expensive
– Becomes flaky when dry.
Hemp:– Dust-free and natural
– Highly absorbent
– Can be mixed with other bedding materials.
– Expensive
– Can splinter and cause injuries.
Coconut Husk:– Retains moisture
– Absorbs odors
– Lightweight
– Good for digging
– Safe for consumption
– Can absorb moisture when dry
– Dusty when it’s dry
– Spongey when wet
– Doesn’t maintain its structure.

Soil is the best bedding for holding a tortoise’s burrows and tunnels, but you can mix some of the lighter bedding materials to create heavier and sturdier bedding.

Here’s an in-depth look at each bedding material:

Can You Use Topsoil for Tortoise Bedding?

Soil is a natural material that makes good bedding for tortoises. It closely resembles their natural habitat and allows tortoises to dig and burrow, which is essential for their survival in the wild.

According to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, burrows protect tortoises from predators and extreme environmental conditions. While captive tortoises don’t need the same protection, soil replicates natural conditions, making tortoises feel more comfortable in their surroundings.

Not only is topsoil found in a tortoise’s natural habitat, but it’s cheap and can be mixed with other materials. It’s good at retaining moisture and can be tunneled through easily.

Topsoil can be dusty when dry, has a musty smell, and contains critters.

Can You Use Shredded Paper for Tortoise Bedding?

Shredded paper is a popular bedding material for many animals but is unsuitable for tortoises.

In the hot, humid conditions tortoises need, shredded paper rots or can be a fire hazard under UV lights. Shredded paper isn’t thick, so getting a layer of bedding for a tortoise to burrow through isn’t easy.

Some owners use shredded paper when their tortoises are ill because it’s easy to replace. Tortoises with sickness or diarrhea soil their bedding, which can be a good substitute for their recovery.

Can You Use Straw for Tortoise Bedding?

While tortoises can scratch themselves on straw, they’re hardy creatures that can cope.

Compacted pellets are a safer straw bedding for tortoises, preventing impaction. Tortoises also love to dig through them, and they’re safe, remaining stable while tortoises burrow.

Whether in its standard or pellet form, straw is prone to rotting. It’s hardier than shredded paper, but you’ll need to replace it more often than topsoil and compost.

Although straw is a quality bedding, it takes more maintenance. You’ll need to keep the tortoise’s straw bedding dry to prevent it from rotting or going moldy.

If this happens, it can make them sick and attract bugs into the enclosure.

bedding for tortoise enclosure

Can You Use Compost for Tortoises?

Compost is a combination of natural materials that decompose, becoming organic matter. You can use compost for a tortoise if it hasn’t been treated beforehand.

It looks visually appealing, and it’s absorbent and holds tunnels well.

However, there are several drawbacks, including:

  • Messy. Compost will make the tortoise and its accessories dirty.
  • Cold and heavy. Compost is higher maintenance than other bedding materials to clean and replace.
  • Kept moist. Compost must be kept moist so that tunnels don’t dry and collapse. Mold may form.

Avoid potting compost, as it contains harmful pesticides. Also, many composts found at garden centers contain chemicals and additives.

Can You Use Hay for Tortoise Bedding?

Hay is similar to straw, but wet straw quickly becomes moldy.

Tortoises usually eat hay as part of their diet. They also use hay as a burrowing material, but they struggle to tunnel in hay alone as it’s a lightweight material that can collapse.

However, hay pellets are easier for tortoises to dig and burrow through.

Hay isn’t absorbent, but it keeps your tortoise’s enclosure smelling fresh because it has a pleasant scent. It’s also warm, so it can provide extra heat to keep tortoises comfortable.

Most owners mix hay with other bedding materials to bulk it out, making it better for burrowing.

Can You Use Mulch for Tortoise Bedding?

Mulch has several uses and benefits, including:

  • Providing moisture that benefits tortoises.
  • Absorbing odors, keeping the enclosure fresh-smelling.
  • You can reuse mulch by boiling and drying it.

However, mulch isn’t the best bedding for younger tortoises, as they have trouble walking over it.

It’s also an impaction risk. So, if a tortoise accidentally consumes mulch, the body can’t digest it. Also, sharp pieces can pierce the intestinal walls.

Some tortoises find mulch difficult to burrow in because it doesn’t keep its shape.

Can You Use Sphagnum Moss for Tortoise Bedding?

Sphagnum moss is one of the best bedding materials for hatchlings and juvenile tortoises. It’s suitable for moisture absorption, humidity, foul odors, and keeping the enclosure fresh.

Tortoises enjoy eating sphagnum moss. So, put a large handful of sphagnum moss under any hides, as younger tortoises prefer to spend their time there.

However, high-grade sphagnum moss is expensive outside of New Zealand.

Peat moss is a cheaper alternative because it’s harvested from a different part of sphagnum moss. However, it contains acidic tannins, which can eat into the tortoise’s shell over time.

You can reuse sphagnum moss by submerging it in boiling water.

Can You Use Hemp for Tortoises?

Hemp can absorb four times its weight in liquid and is odorless, controlling odors well.

Hemp bedding has other benefits as it’s:

  • Dust-free.
  • Completely natural.
  • Soft and fibrous.
  • Biodegradable.

Unfortunately, tortoises have died after eating hemp.

Some varieties contain sharp splinters, causing internal injuries to the cloaca, tail, and eyes. Some pieces become embedded in the nare, throat, and mouth tissues.

Can You Use Coconut Husk for Tortoise Bedding?

Coconut husk has similar moisture retention properties as soil and remains moist for a long time.

You can get two different varieties: coconut peat and coconut fiber. Coconut peat is more finely ground, while coconut fiber is coarser with intact fibers.

Coconut husk can absorb moisture as well as odor. You can buy it in bulk, as it comes in compressed bricks that expand to 3-4 times its original volume in warm water.

Coconut husk is lightweight and easy to burrow into but doesn’t hold its structure well.

It can stain a tortoise’s skin orange or dark red. It’s harmless but can look worrying.

Coconut husk bedding becomes spongey when wet, making it difficult for tortoises to walk on.

It’s an excellent alternative to topsoil, as tortoises can consume it safely without the risk of impaction.

What Bedding Is Best for Different Tortoise Breeds?

Depending on the species, tortoises have different bedding requirements because they hail from different regions. Some come from deserts, while others are native to cooler or humid environments.

The best bedding materials for pet tortoises include:

Tortoise BreedMost Suitable Bedding
Hermann:Reptile (orchid) bark, shredded aspen, pulverized coconut.
Russian:Coconut fiber, aspen shavings, moss, organic topsoil.
Leopard:Hay, hemp, topsoil, and sand mix.
Mediterranean Spur-Thighed:Reptile (orchid) bark, topsoil.
Egyptian:Shredded aspen, topsoil, and sand mix.

What Bedding Is Unsafe for Tortoises?

There are types of tortoise bedding that should be avoided, including:

Cedar Bedding

Cedar bedding contains oils that are toxic to many reptiles, including tortoises. The scent of cedar’s volatile oils is toxic once heated, producing fumes.

Bedding containing cedar shavings or bark can kill tortoises.

Walnut Shells

Ground walnut shells are an impaction risk. Because the pieces are so sharp, they can cut a tortoise’s insides, causing internal damage. Ground corn cobs are dangerous for the same reasons.

Newspaper

In the hot and humid conditions they need, newspaper rots, meaning you must change it frequently to prevent health problems for a tortoise.

how much bedding does a tortoise need?

Alfalfa Pellets

Alfalfa pellets contain high levels of protein, which tortoises shouldn’t eat in high quantities.

They also get moldy when wet, breaking down quickly when exposed to moisture. Alfalfa pellets have been linked to fungal eye and respiratory infections.

Sand

Even though sand is naturally found in a tortoise’s environment, it can cause impaction. Tortoises frequently ingest sand, but the body can’t digest it.

How Much Bedding Does a Tortoise Need?

A tortoise must be able to burrow into the bedding. In the wild, they protect themselves by digging burrows to escape whenever a threat or predator is nearby.

If captive tortoises can’t burrow and have no way to hide from what they perceive as a threat, they’ll inevitably become stressed and agitated.

The bedding should be at least 2 inches deep for small tortoises and 4-6 inches for bigger tortoises.

When setting up a tortoise’s enclosure, put rocks on the bedding. According to Behavioral Ecology, juvenile tortoises place themselves near rocks to camouflage themselves.

How Often Should You Change Tortoise Bedding?

How often you change a tortoise’s bedding depends on the material.

A deep clean every 2-3 weeks is recommended. A deep clean is where you remove and replace the bedding and sanitize the tortoise’s enclosure, bowls, rocks, and hides.

Some owners put a plastic cover at the bottom of the enclosure to make cleaning and bedding removal easier. If the plastic is damaged, you can bin and replace it.

While you only have to clean the enclosure every few weeks, you can perform regular spot cleans. This involves removing poop to prevent harmful bacteria and keep out bugs.

Avoid bedding materials that cause impaction, and find one that allows the tortoise to burrow. Topsoil is good, but you might want to mix it with other materials to provide the optimal environment.