The Complete Guide to Tortoise Tables


Indian Star tortoise on a tortoise table

Although tortoises are best kept outdoors, for the first 2 to 5 years of their lives it’s sensible to keep them indoors. Here you have full control over their temperature, living conditions and what they eat and drink.

Outdoors in the yard or garden it can be a bit of a wild west for hatchling and juvenile tortoises, especially during very cold or wet weather, or when there is a risk of predators gaining access to them.

Keeping a fully grown tortoise in a small enclosed space indoors would clearly be nothing short of cruel, but a tortoise table is the ideal environment for a young tortoise up to about 4” (10cm) in length. 

For a tortoise of this size, even a space about 4’ x 2’ is large enough to roam around in, and if you’ve got it set up with the right lighting, substrate and scenery, it will soon feel like a home away from home (or a close facsimile of the natural habitat at least)

Tortoise Tables

A tortoise table is the most widely adopted means of indoor accommodation among tortoise owners, and there are a number of reasons for this.

Unlike other reptile enclosures, such as vivariums, terrariums, or paludariums; tortoise tables aren’t enclosed spaces. More often than not they are a simple wooden construction with a fully open top, or else a simple mesh covering. Either way, this allows a free flow of fresh air, which is preferred by most breeds, with the possible exception of tropical tortoises, who may be accustomed to the humidity of the tropics.

Other types of enclosure are better suited to replicating the moist, humid conditions of a tropical or rainforest environment, with their glass wall construction being unaffected by high humidity. However, besides the stuffy environment such an enclosure generates, tortoises aren’t particularly keen on glass walls, often trying incessantly to escape through them. 

Therefore it’s far better to avoid any unnecessary distress or over stimulus from the outside world with the solid lower walls of a tortoise table.

It’s worth noting that in the UK the Tortoise Protection Group advises against the use of glass walled enclosures for the reasons mentioned above; but in particular because of their propensity to behave like a greenhouse and cause a tortoise to overheat. 

Which Species of Tortoise Are Suited to a Tortoise Table?

Being an open topped structure that doesn’t retain humidity means that a tortoise table is suitable for tortoises from sub-tropical, arid climates. Such species include: 

  • Mediterranean Spur Thigh Tortoises (Greek Tortoises) 
  • Hermann’s Tortoises
  • Marginated Tortoises
  • Russian Tortoises (Horsfields tortoises) 
  • North American Desert Tortoises
  • African Spur Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises

Then there are the species that come from semi arid or partially jungle environments such as:

  • Leopard Tortoise 
  • Indian Star Tortoise 

These species are somewhat less suited to living in a totally dry environment, but they can still live on a tortoise table provided they are misted with water more frequently than sub tropical species.

The reason why sub tropical species are better suited to life on a table rather than in a vivarium, is not just because the latter enclosure gets too hot as mentioned previously, but because the high humidity they retain can lead to shell rot and other health problems, unless the tortoise is adapted to such an environment.

Therefore tropical species such as:

  • Red Foot Tortoises
  • Yellow Foot Tortoises
  • Burmese Brown Tortoises

can be kept in the tropical environment of a vivarium in much the same way as many snake or lizard species. They are, however, very adaptable to new environments, and can live in good health on a tortoise table as well. 

Advantages of Tortoise Tables

Besides being a far more comfortable environment for your tortoise than other indoor enclosures, a tortoise table also benefits from being a comparatively simple design.

As mentioned above, tortoise tables are usually made from wood. Sometimes they have perspex windows (above the height of the tortoise’s line of sight that is), or can be mounted on legs so that they are accessible to the owner from a standing position, but besides mounting for lighting/cabling that’s about it.

This is great news because it means you can pick up a decent tortoise table for less than $100, or if you’re so inclined, you can even make your own without too much difficulty, possibly for even less money.

Thanks to their open topped, shallow bodied design allowing for easy access to the full width and breadth of the enclosure, tortoise tables are also a cinch to clean.

Disadvantages of Tortoise Tables

Because the market for tortoise tables is fairly niche, there aren’t a great deal of manufacturers out there making them. With such low competition in the market there isn’t much insensitive to go above and beyond to stand out.

Unfortunately this means that a lot of commercially available tortoise tables aren’t constructed to a particularly high standard; often being the product of a one man band in a garage someplace.

I’ve seen a lot of horrible things when evaluating various tortoise tables over the years, from plywood that suffers delamination after just a few months, to protruding screw heads/tips that present an injury risk to the occupant and/or owner.

Having said that of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that it should never be the intention to keep your tortoise on the table for more than a few years, so you could argue that it need not last that long. Personally though, I don’t see that as am excuse for shoddy workmanship.

What to Look Out For When Shopping For a Tortoise Table

  • If possible try to go for a table constructed either from hardwood, or a treated plywood that won’t be damaged by moisture.
  • In terms of size, there are tortoise tables available which aren’t more than about 1’ x 1’ (30cm x 30cm), however I consider this far too small, not providing anything like enough space to keep the tortoise from getting distressed. 
  • Ideally you should go for the biggest table you can accommodate and afford. As a bare minimum though, choose a table that’s around 1’ x 3’ (30cm x 90cm).
  • If you plan to keep your table on the floor, you’ll probably want a model with a mesh lid, especially if you have other pets such as cats wandering around 
  • Some tortoise tables come with a built in ‘hide’ for the tortoise to retreat to. One way or another you’ll need to have something to meet this requirement, so if the table doesn’t come with one, you’ll need to either make one or buy one separately
  • If you’re not convinced that the wood has been treated, it’s well worth painting it with a waterproof varnish in advance of using it. This will make the table last longer and make it easier to clean.

Fitting Out Your Tortoise Table

Once you’ve got your tortoise table you’ll want to fit it out correctly. After all, it won’t be much use to your tortoise unless it’s set up correctly.

The fit out of a tortoise table can be broken down into three broad categories; lighting, substrate (loose flooring), and internal furnishings.

Lighting 

When your tortoise resides indoors there is a risk that they will not receive enough ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, which is essential for proper growth and metabolic function. To a lesser extent achieving the correct temperature is also an issue.

The solution to both of these problems is to install the correct lighting, in the form of heat and UV lamps.

You should provide UV light in both UVA and UVB forms, as both are required for your tortoise to stay healthy. Whichever size or form of bulb you choose, you should ensure you buy a type that emits the correct forms of UV.

Oftentimes people only fit a small UV bulb to their tortoise table, however this is nearly always totally inadequate, not emitting anything like enough UV light to reach the tortoise on all areas of the table.

Instead take advantage of the full length of the table by fitting a UV strip light. This way the tortoise will always be in full view of the light, unless they retreat to their hide. The simplest option when fitting such a bulb is to mount it straight to the wall of the tortoise table. However, be sure to mount some sort of shielding over it to protect your eyes. This should stop light from being emmited in any direction other than directly downward. 

The heat lamp on the other hand can be a small incandescent bulb or ceramic heat emitter mounted at one end of the table. This facilitates a temperature gradient along the length of the table, allowing the tortoise to choose a position they feel most comfortable with. 

Some people suggest mounting the heat bulb on the end of a chain suspended above the table so that the height of the bulb can be adjusted if the temperature is too great. I’m not sold on this strategy, as it seems to me that so long as the maximum temperature at the tortoise’s height is no greater than what would be considered healthy when you first install the light (usually around 30°C or 86°F), then I see no reason to adjust the height of the bulb.

After all, the tortoise will move closer to or further away from the bulb throughout the day as they see fit, which basically achieves the same thing.

Thermometer

I believe monitoring the temperature of your tortoise table closely is only really necessary if you have a hatchling. At this very young age tortoises are less resilient than older, more adaptable specimens, so ensuring that no part of the enclosure is neither too hot nor cold is imperitive.

Both digital and traditional thermometers are available for the very purpose of monitoring the ambient air temperature in a tortoise table. These are simple to fit and only cost a few bucks, but they’re a handy reference for checking that the temperature is within safe bounds.

Liner

Before you add any other material to your tortoise table it is wise to fit some sort of liner to the base to prevent moisture seeping into the table or onto the surface below. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just a cut up heavy duty waste sack or plastic decorators dust sheet will do. 

Substrate

The loose material you use as the bedding/floor material in your tortoise table is critical given that your tortoise will be in contact with it at all times. There are a number of different options available to use as a substrate, from those that are recommended, to those that are downright dangerous for your tortoise. 

In general I would recommend either a sterilised soil or compacted straw pellets, both of which provide a safe surface for the tortoise to walk on and burrow into. 

Whatever substrate you choose, you’ll need to make sure it stays clean and dry, and that you have some sort of ‘poop scoop’ available to clear out any areas of soiling.

You should aim to completely replace the substrate every two to three weeks.  

Internal Furnishings

Besides the all important tortoise hide, it’s important your fit out your tortoise table with a few other amenities to make your shelled companion feel right at home. One or two organic objects such as a piece of driftwood, or a fir cone can add just enough interest whilst not overcrowding the place.

It’s also good to add a backdrop image resembling the natural habitat of the tortoise. Such images are commercially available, and made for this very purpose. 

Installation Requirements

First and foremost you’ll obviously need to position your tortoise table near to a mains socket. No electricity, means no heat and light = an unhealthy tortoise!

Although having artificial light sources is imperative when keeping your tortoise in the home, it helps if natural light from outside is able to reach the tortoise as well.

So if possible position the table near to a window, or at the very least ensure the drapes or blinds in the room are open throughout the day.

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed several owners also use a part of their tortoise table that is inaccessible to the tortoise (on top of the hide for example) for growing plants for the tortoise to eat.

This is a great system to set up if you can do it, and having a readily available source of daylight will make said plants grow more effectively. Ultimately it means you’ll have a readily available source of food on hand right where you need it.

If possible you should also locate your tortoise table in a quiet area of your home, away from the hustle and bustle of pets and children. A spare bedroom for example is ideal. This will prevent your tortoise getting distressed by excessive loud noise and movement.

The Cheapest Tortoise Table? Make Your Own!

The thing with tortoise tables is that, well, they’re pretty simple! More or less just four wooden walls, a base and possibly a cover is all you need, and you’re good to go.

This means with a little creative thought and some practical skill you can make your own tortoise table without too much effort or financial expense.

The simplest solution of all is to repurpose another piece of furniture into a tortoise table. For instance take an old bookcase, laid down on its back with the shelves removed, and voila! Instant tortoise table. Try hunting round in your local classifieds to see what you can find to do the job for just a few bucks, rather than what you’ll pay for a specially made tortoise table.

Of course even with an ‘improvised’ tortoise table you’ll still need to make a few amendments, such as fitting a hide, adding light fixtures, and if necessary; constructing a mesh cover.

Commercially Available Tortoise Tables

Zoo Med Tortoise House

For those living in the US this sturdy tortoise table is a great starting point for the novice tortoise keeper. I say ‘starting point’ because the great thing about this particular model is that it is modular in design. This means it can easily be joined with a second table of the same type to make one of twice the size. And as we know, the more space the better!

At 3’ long by 2’ wide this table is a reasonable size for a juvenile tortoise, but if you’re intending to use if for longer than a few years then that’s where adding a second table will be very useful.

This table comes with an integral hide, which saves having to supply one from somewhere else. However I would argue that it takes up too much of the overall footprint of the table. It’s only necessary to have a small covered area when keeping your tortoise indoors, whereas with this particular model the hide takes up about a third of the overall space.

Now granted, this is as much an outdoor enclosure as an indoor one, and when a tortoise lives outdoors it’s important that they have a decent covered area to keep warm and dry, so it certainly makes sense in that regard.

Overall this is a well built enclosure, however like most tortoise tables the wood is untreated and therefore not waterproof. This isn’t so much of an issue indoors, although a spilled water dish can still do damage to the wood over time, so you’ll want to treat the wood with a waterproof lacquer.

Like all good tortoise tables the walls of this enclosure are solid wood rather than see through plexiglass. Again this is preferable because the tortoise will only get distressed and confused about not being able to walk through a see through wall otherwise.

The biggest gripe here comes down to assembly. Where two parts are designed to screw together, you’ll find one part has holes pre drilled for the screws to fix through, while the mating part does not. 

This makes sense as the screws are self tapping, and leaving the wood undrilled ensures you get a good strong bond between the two parts. However on the down side it does make it nigh on impossible to construct without a drill or electric screwdriver. This could be a slightly rude revelation if you didn’t expect to have to buy one of these as well as the tortoise table!

Vivexotic Viva Tortoise Table

This is an attractive looking tortoise table and comes complete with scenery built in, courtesy of the grass design on the toughened glass panel. This is effective as it allows daylight in and adds visual interest, whilst not confusing the tortoise into thinking the glass isn’t there. 

Incidentally this panel can be slid out and removed to enable better access for cleaning. I know first hand how awkward it can be to try and fish out dirty substrate from the confines of my high walled tortoise table, whilst trying to avoid spilling any of it on the floor, so this is certainly a welcome feature!

At 3’long  x 1.5’ wide this is adequate for a hatchling or juvenile, but by no means luxurious. Luckily the hide takes up a reasonably small amount of space, and better still the lid can be removed from it, so that you can open the table right up from time to time.

This isn’t a tortoise table that’s designed to sit on the floor, well unless you happen to be extremely careful anyway – it doesn’t come with, nor is it designed to be fitted with, a mesh lid, so it’s certainly no good if you have small children or other pets wandering around the house.

You can either position this table on top of a chest of drawers or some other similar item of furniture, or alternatively, the manufacturer also produces a stand that you can mount it on.

If you prefer to use a heat mat rather than, or in addition to, a heat bulb, this table is ideal because it comes with a mounting for just such an item, although for other items such as the ubiquitous UV strip lamp you’ll need to do the fitting yourself, including drilling any mounting holes. 

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