Info For New People. Please Read This First.

Tom

The Dog Trainer
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Hello and welcome to tortoiseforum.org! We are all glad you are here!

There is no other forum like this anywhere. We have tens of thousands of members from all over the world ranging from kids with their first tortoise to people who have been breeding and keeping high end tortoises since the 1960s, and everything in between. There is more knowledge and experience here on this forum than I have seen anywhere else on the planet. If you have a tortoise, if you like tortoises, if you want a tortoise, or if you have been breeding and keeping tortoises for decades, then this forum will help you do it all better.

Now for the bad news: Most of the care info offered for tortoises out in the world is awful. Much of it is just plain wrong. Some of these things are based on decades old incorrect assumptions about how they live in the wild. Some of these things seem so reasonable and logical when explained by 5 different YouTubers, vets, or breeders, but they are just plain wrong. How do we know they are wrong? Many members here, myself included, have been doing side-by-side experiments for well over a decade now to determine what is true and what is false. We've determined what works best and why. We've cut through the conflicting info, wrong info, and old myths. There is much more to learn and many unanswered questions, but we've come a long way and solved a lot of mysteries. We can back up our assertions with cold hard facts and data, and we are happy to do so. Many of the people who argue with some of this info have NEVER done it the way we are suggesting. We have done it their way, often for decades, but they have never done it our way, so they have no idea what the result would be. They just keep parroting the same wrong info that they were taught, and the wrong info passes from generation to generation. Vets, breeders, pet stores, reptile experts, books, FB, YT, and so many other sources keep learning from, and repeating, this wrong info and its everywhere. People do lots of "research" only to come here and find out that much of what they learned is wrong and much of it is harmful. I'll list all of this in a bit so that you can understand specifically what I'm talking about with these broad general statements, but just know that most of what people find when they do "research" turns out to be wrong, and then the pet store sells them all the wrong products, and the handsome, articulate, guy or gal on YouTube said to do it this way or that way. It seems so credible, but it isn't. Its wrong. Its been wrong for decades, and it will always be wrong. Talk about frustrating...

Here is a list of general TFO knowledge that I type up over and over again. This list should answer most questions, and also show you what you are doing right or wrong. These points should catch incoming new TFO members up to speed on all the knowledge that has been compiled over all the years here. I type up these same things over and over and I hope typing them up here, along with the usual explanation that goes with each of these points, will save me from having to type the same paragraph up over and over again, every day. This list should address most of the misinformation that is out in the world, and found universally by everyone who does "research" into proper tortoise care. Questions and conversation are always welcome here. Feel free to question these points. We are all here to talk tortoises. I've been told several times over the years that I should write a book. Well here it is:

1. The number one mistake that most people make is buying a tortoise from the wrong source. The vast majority of breeders do not start tortoises correctly, and many of these dry started babies die weeks or months later. The breeder has no idea what is happening and they usually proclaim that its the new owners fault because the tortoise was fine when it was with them. The breeder does not realize that the things they did, or didn't do, in the days and weeks after that baby hatched can condemn it to death months down the road. These same breeders often tell people the wrong way to house and care for the baby, which makes things worse. Then the pet stores tell people more wrong info and sell them products that are expensive, ineffective and sometimes harmful or dangerous. People go on YouTube and watch charismatic people explaining how it should be done, and have no idea that its all wrong. Ask us where to get a tortoise. We will tell you.
2. No tortoise needs desert-like conditions as a baby. Even California desert tortoises, which truly come from a desert, will die of chronic dehydration if housed in the dry desiccating conditions that people mistakenly think they need. Wild hatched babies hide in little humid micro-climates. They hide under bushes and leaf litter. They dig down into moist earth. They do not walk around out in the open exposed to hot dry desiccating conditions. Some tortoises can survive dry conditions just fine as adults. No tortoise needs dry conditions as a baby.
3. Soaking: All babies of all species should be soaked daily. Every day. Seven days a week. This can taper off as they gain size, but there is no such thing as too much soaking. It does NOT make them move their food through the GI tract too quickly. It does NOT upset their "water balance", whatever that is. It does not make them sick or stress them out, even if some act like you have dropped them in a vat of acid (I'm looking at YOU wild caught pet store Russian tortoises...), it does not give them shell rot, soften their shells, or give them respiratory infections. It doesn't do any of that non-sense that you have read about. What is does is keep your baby well hydrated and healthy. Soak your baby in a tall sided opaque container for 30-40 minutes daily. Keep the water warm the entire time. If you want to soak every day for your tortoises's entire life, it will do no harm and they will always be hydrated. Soaking has innumerable benefits for all species. All living things need water. Keep your tortoise well hydrated.
4. Sand. Sand is a serious impaction risk and its a terrible skin and eye irritant. Some will say they've used it for years with no problems. I doubt that is the case, and watching, hearing, and smelling a single sand impaction surgery should be enough to convince anyone. Do some tortoises live in areas where they might encounter sand in the wild? Of course they do. So what? Lots of tortoises also die in the wild, so I don't think mimicking the wild should be our goal. Further, your enclosure is NOT the wild. Sand should not be used as tortoise substrate. Most of the substrate mixes marketed for reptiles in pet stores have sand in them. Don't use it. Don't learn the hard way.
5. Soil: Soil is made from composted yard waste. Could be oleander trimmings. Could be azaleas. Could be lawn grass recently treated with insecticide, weed killer or fungicide. There is no way to know what is in that bag. There are all sorts of other weird ingredients added in and it can change as much and as often as the makers want. The contents of that bag are intended to grow plants in a pot or a garden. The makers and sellers do not intend for small animals to be living in it or on it in small enclosures. The contents of that bag might be toxic or dangerous, and the "Organic" moniker means very little. Oleander and rattle snake venom are both 100% organic and natural. Don't allow a tortoise access to bought-in-a-bag soil. If you make your own soil and know 100% of the ingredients and are sure all those ingredients are safe, then you can use it, but its still messy and not a good way to go. If you bought it at a store, there could be anything in that bag. Don't gamble with your tortoise's life. It is fine to use toxin free soils to grow plants to feed our tortoises, and in potted plants inside tortoise enclosures, but the tortoise should not have access to the soil, and certainly should not be living on it, or burying themselves in it. P.S. Perlite is a tortoise killer, and perlite is in many, if not most, potting soil mixes. Be careful.
6. If we can't use soil or sand, what CAN we use? All things considered, there are three that have proven to be safe and effective. Fine grade orchid bark is best. If you can't find it in bulk near you, it is marketed as "Repti-bark" in any of the normal pet channels. Cypress mulch is the next one. Not my favorite, but it works. Coco coir is the final one. This one is also called "coco peat" which is confusing, because any form of actual "peat" or "peat moss" or "sphagnum moss" or "sphagnum peat moss" should not be used. You also don't want coco chips or coco fiber for tortoises. Here is a list of what NOT to use: Soil, sand, mixes of any kind with soil and/or sand like "Pets At Home" in the UK (What a terrible idea that stuff is...), sphagnum peat moss, sphagnum moss, peat moss, long fibered peat moss, hay, grass pellets, rabbit pellets, gravel, sod, carpet, towels, paper towels, coco fiber, coco chips, and rubber mats.
7. Glass tanks: There is nothing wrong with glass tanks for starting babies. Well... actually there is, but its not what they say it is. Glass doesn't stress them out, and the "invisible barrier" that they don't understand is not torture for them. The problem with glass tanks is the open top that lets all the heat and humidity out, and they are too small for anything but a baby. I believe the glass tank myth started because people would buy a wild caught import (Russians again...) and stick it in a tiny 40 gallon tank on the recommendation of the pet store. The thing would go nuts climbing the walls and trying to find a way out. This is not because it is glass. This is because it is WAY too small and far too barren and this wild caught animal who is used to roaming for miles in heavy brush, and it is not comfortable with this sort of tiny confinement. The tortoise would do the same thing in a solid wooden enclosure of the same dimensions.
8. Enclosure size: Tortoises need HUGE enclosures. There are many pet reptile species that do just fine in smaller enclosures. Not tortoises. Much like horses, tortoises rely on locomotion to help keep things moving through the GI tract. We can see problems from this lack of motion in weather that is too hot or too cold, even with a large enclosure. A tortoise might sit still all day in the shade to avoid the scorching summer sun, or they might stay in their heated shelter all day on a cold cloudy day. This lack of walking can cause them to become constipated. Small enclosures can cause skeletal, muscular, and digestive problems for tortoises. Once you put down a food bowl, a water dish or two, a couple of hides, a potted plant or two, and some decorations, there is hardly any room left to walk in an enclosure that is too small. If you don't have room for a giant enclosure, then you don't have room for a tortoise. Its that simple. One of the worse thing people can say to me after hearing they need a bigger enclosure is: "Well I don't have space for that", or "Well I can't afford that...". I am no stranger to lack of space and lack of money. I've experienced both of those issues many times throughout my years. If you don't have space or money to house your animal correctly, then don't get that animal. If you already have the animal, then you need to do the right thing. Find the space and money, or give the animal to someone that has the space and resources to house it correctly. Does that sound too harsh? It isn't too harsh. What is too harsh is some poor tortoise suffering in a small enclosure, and suffering is what it is doing. Not cool. I want people to have a happy positive tortoise keeping experience, but tortoises are not for everyone. If you are low on funds or low on space, wait to get a tortoise until your situation is more suitable for a tortoise. If you long for a reptile pet with cheaper, smaller housing requirements, there are many good options for you. Don't get a tortoise and house it poorly. Please.
9. Pairs: Tortoises should never be housed in pairs. Groups of juveniles can sometimes work, but not pairs. Group dynamics are different than pair dynamics. Whenever there are just two, one will be dominant and the other submissive. The dominant is clearly telling the submissive to "GET OUT!" of my territory, but the submissive can't. This can be seen in animals as primitive as flatworms. Most people do not see the signs in tortoises. Our tortoises don't have the ability to growl. They don't have lips to snarl, or hackles to raise, yet they show their hostility just the same, but in their own way. Following each other, cuddling in a shelter, sleeping face to face, sitting on the food pile... All of these are blatant tortoise aggression. People are looking for biting, ramming and other overt signs. Those overt behaviors do happen in some cases, but more often the two tortoises are just forced to live in each other's space in a state of constant chronic stress, while the owner thinks everything is just fine because they aren't actively attacking and biting each other. It is NOT fine. Keep tortoises alone, which is totally fine, or in groups of three or more, which can sometimes lead to other problems down the road as they all begin to mature. Tortoises do not want or need company. Some species tolerate company better than others, but none should be kept in pairs. For some breeding projects, it is advantageous to raise them up in groups, but never pairs. If you only want two tortoises, that is great. Get two separate enclosures. And two outdoor enclosures for fair weather too.
10. Grocery store produce: In short, avoid grocery store produce when possible. Grocery store greens are not the best tortoise foods. They tend to lack fiber, calcium, and some of them have deleterious compounds in them. If you must use foods from the grocery store, favor endive and escarole as the main staples. Add in cilantro, arugula, collards, turnip and mustard greens, lettuces and many others for variety. You will also need to add some sort of amendment to improve the quality as tortoise food. Calcium is good to add a couple of times per week and soaked horse hay pellets are a good way to add fiber for any species. Soaked ZooMed tortoise pellets of any type are good to add, as is Purina Organic Lay Crumbles for chickens, oddly enough. When possible skip the expensive grocery store greens and use a wide variety of weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents, that are all free.
11. Hay: If you have an adult of a grass eating species, then grass hay is an indispensable tool for keeping your tortoise fed well. If you have a species that is not a grass eater, or a baby of a grass eating species, hay is not an appropriate food item. It is too dry and coarse for babies and they can choke on it. Hay is also not suitable as a substrate for small indoor tortoises, as it is much too dry and will mold when it gets wet or soiled.
12. Ramped bowls: Ramped water bowls that the pet stores always seem to sell to people are literally a tortoise death trap. Some tortoises avoid them, and simply don't drink. Other tortoises flip upside down in them and drown. These bowls are great for lizards and snakes, but should not be used for tortoises. Use terra cotta saucers large enough for your tortoise to climb into, and sink them down into the substrate.
13. Loose on the floor or outside, or public parks: This is not safe and cannot be made safe. Floors are too cold, too slick, and there are millions of ways for your tortoise to kill or injure itself. It is not safe and cannot be made safe. No amount of supervision will prevent these problems. We have seen tortoise heads caught in door jambs, all sorts of ingested items from dust bunnies to sewing pins to earrings, tortoises get accidentally kicked or stepped on, escapes through doors left open, lost limbs from carpet fibers or human hair wrapping around a leg unseen... the list is endless. Tortoises that are allowed to wander outside are almost always reported as "very closely supervised". They eventually end up lost. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, sooner or later, there will be one second of distraction and that tortoise will simply disappear. Happens all the time, and it will literally make you feel nauseated when it eventually happens. Keep your tortoise contained in a large safe enclosure. Don't let this happen to you. Parks and common areas in apartment and condo complexes are full of uncountable hazards. Pesticides, lawn chemicals, cigarette butts, dog or cat feces, coins, toxic weeds, trash items... Again, the list of potential killers is endless. Don't do it. Its not worth it.
14. Heat lamps: No spot bulbs. They concentrate too much heat and desiccating IR A into too small of an area. Use flood bulbs or round bulbs in a hood. Don't use spot bulbs, halogen bulbs, infrared bulbs, colored bulbs, mercury vapor bulbs, or any others that I'm forgetting. Use a "flood" bulb for basking.
15. UV: The old style T8 tube bulbs produce very little UV. 5.0 bulbs produce almost none. Compact fluorescent type bulbs are ineffective UV sources and sometimes burn reptile eyes. They should not be used. So what works? T5 HO tubes are best. Arcadia makes the Pro T5 kits in several lengths. ZooMed has a 10.0 HO tube that is safe, effective and reliable. There are some new LED UVB bulbs hitting the market now too. The cheaper ones don't do much, but some of the pricier ones work great. I'm running several of the ZooMed LED UV bulbs and they are fantastic. I expect them to last a long time for me and UV output is great according to my Solarmeter 6.5. Speaking of the meters, there is no way to know what is happening in your enclosure without a meter. Your tortoise may be getting too much UV, or none at all. This needs to be measured, not guessed at. Buying the meter will save money in the long run as you won't be wasting perfectly good working bulbs at 6 month intervals. You will wait to buy a new bulb until a new bulb is needed.
16. UV duration: There is no need to run UV bulbs for 12 hours a day. This makes no sense. It is totally unnecessary and completely unnatural. High UV from daybreak to lights out does not happen in the wild. Outdoor UV levels outside build slowly in the morning, peak mid day, and drop off in the afternoon. Outdoor UV levels are much stronger in summer time. Our tortoises only need 15 minutes of UV once in a while to make the needed D3, which is then stored in their bodies for later use. Dietary D3 also gets the job done, further reducing the need for UVB. A few hours mid day is more than enough UVB exposure, and this more closely simulates what is happening outside.
17. Deep heat projectors: The wavelengths of energy these create are very desiccating. They cause pyramiding. Better to use a CHE or RHP for ambient heat. Control these devices with a thermostat.
18. Water dishes: Terra cotta plant saucers sunk into the substrate work the best. Nothing bought at a pet store works well.
19. MVBs: Mercury vapor bulbs. Heat light and UV all in one bulb. Sounds great, but it doesn't work. As mentioned in #16, we don't want high levels of UV all day every day, but the tortoise does need a basking lamp all day (except forrest species) for heat and light. These two different things need to come from different sources and be on their own timers. MVBs sometimes make way too much UV. Other MVBs stop producing any UV at all after a few months. These bulb are also fragile, temperamental, finicky about what fixture you can use them in, expensive, and unreliable. They are also high wattage and hot, which will over heat a closed chamber. You ARE using a closed chamber with the heating and lighting inside, aren't you??? On top of all those reasons not to use them, they are extremely desiccating to the carapace and cause pyramiding, even when used in an otherwise humid environment.
20. CFLs: Some of these burn reptile eyes. Not all of them, but some of them do. Some people mistakenly believe this was only a problem for the early models, and it is now fixed. It isn't. My reptile vet friends see several cases a year of photokeratitis in reptiles housed under these bulbs. They are also a poor source of UV. These bulbs should not be sold or used.
21. Hibernation? Its actually correctly referred to as brumation in reptiles. Here is a thread on that topic:
22. Dogs: Don't do it. I'm a career professional dog trainer. Dogs and tortoises should never have access to each other. It doesn't work, and it won't work. No amount of introducing, or socializing, or training will stop your dog from mauling or killing your tortoise. Keep them separate. teach the dog to "leave it" and stay away from the tortoises at all times, and ensure that the tortoise is always protected by fencing or barriers that cannot be breached. Don't learn this lesson the hard way. It is awful. Next to dehydration, the loving family dog is a top killer of tortoises. Your dog is not "different". Many dogs will ignore the tortoise for years, right top until the day it doesn't. Please please please protect your tortoise from this awful fate. Please.
23. Going on vacation? Leave the tortoise home. Work it out one way or another. Your tortoise will not enjoy being carted about and removed form its home. Timers, thermostats, web cams, etc... Friends, family, neighbors, paid pet sitters, etc... Find a solution that suits you and your situation.
24. Never mix tortoise species. This is another potential death sentence.
25. Want to have a successful and enjoyable tortoise keeping experience? Don't buy a tortoise species that is not suited to your climate. Don't get a red foot or an Aldabra in CA, and don't get a leopard in Tennessee. Don't get a sulcata anywhere that isn't warm and sunny most of the year. Don't get a large species if you live in a small apartment in the frozen north. Sulcatas are the wrong species for almost everyone. Can you house cattle on your premises? Cattle that need to be kept warm all year every year? If not, then a sulcata probably isn't for you.
26. If you are going to be a tortoises keeper, it is very advantageous to also learn to be a farmer. Or at least a gardener and pasture grower. And if you don't want to grow your own, then learn to be a scrounger. The best foods you can feed to your tortoise are free. You just have to spend time learning your local plants and weeds, and then spend time collecting your free tortoise food. I'd rather spend time on a nature walk collecting tortoise food than driving to the store, fighting traffic and waiting on red lights, and waiting in line to pay for expensive greens, wondering the whole time what chemicals, insecticides and other industrial farming stuff is on those items.
27. Enclosure types: Open topped enclosures only work if the room conditions are what the tortoise needs. Adult Testudo, for example, are fine at normal room temperatures and humidity, as long as they have adequate lighting, a warmer basking area, a humid hide, and appropriate UV. Baby sulcatas, for example, are NOT fine at 70 degrees and 30% humidity. There is no way to maintain the correct living conditions for a baby sulcata with an open topped enclosure. That is like trying to heat your house in winter with no roof. Your house heater can run all night long and your house will never warm up. It doesn't work. Everyone is sorry that you got bad advice and bought the wrong type of enclosure. Let it go. Now you know better. Move on and get the right type of enclosure for your baby. You need a closed chamber. We all wish you had found this info BEFORE you bought the wrong type of enclosure.
28. "My tortoise is not eating...": Tortoises are grazing animals. They should be eating every day. I can only think of two exceptions unless something is terribly wrong. New tortoises will sometimes take a few days to settle in, and its normal for any temperate species to not be eating in the fall while preparing for brumation. Outside of those two scenarios, your tortoise should be eating. Please don't wait a week, or several, before asking for help.
29. "Tortoises do better outside." No they don't! Well... yes they do in some cases, but not in all cases. Wait... what? Okay... I'll explain: In a favorable climate and in favorable weather, ADULT and large juvenile tortoises do much better in large, secure, well designed, well planted, tortoise enclosures outside. Night box type shelters are also essential for this to work well, with rare exception. So what am I talking about here? Babies. Babies do NOT do better outside. I have been doing side-by-side experiments with this for over a decade. Babies do MUCH better when kept mostly indoors in controlled, stable conditions that are correct for the species. Babies in the wild do not walk around exposed to hot sunshine, dry conditions, and every predator with a pair of eyes. Babies hide. That is why almost nothing is known about baby tortoises in the wild. "The lost years". No one knows where they go or what they are doing from hatching until the time when we start seeing them again as large juveniles and subadults. We SPECULATE that they stay well hidden in deep undergrowth and leaf litter. They exist almost 100% hidden from view in damp, moist conditions. Regardless of whether or not this speculation is correct, we have proven thousands of times over that in captivity, babies do better in warm humid conditions, with humid hides, plants, cover, damp substrate, closed chambers, and daily soaks. This is not debatable anymore, and it applies to all species that I know of. If you could make beef jerky in your enclosure, it isn't right for any baby tortoise of any species. My general rule of thumb is no more than an hour of access to sunshine per day per inch of tortoise. Babies do not "need" to go outside at all. If you really want to do it anyway, make sure the enclosure is secure, has deep shade, is protected from dogs and other predators, cannot flood, and keep the time to a minimum for tiny babies.
30. We have a member here named Will. Will is a biologist by trade and well studied on tortoise nutrition. He started a business that is revolutionizing the way we feed our tortoises. Will doesn't pay me, and I don't get anything for this shameless plug. I'm typing this because I personally use his products daily, and it has changed how I feed my tortoises. At certain times of year, many of us have no alternative but to feed grocery store produce. By itself, this isn't a great way to feed a tortoise. Will's company, https://www.kapidolofarms.com, offers all sorts of organic dried leaves, cactus chips, cactus flour, and more that you simply sprinkle on top of the day's greens, or mix it all in with them, which is what I do. This makes it SOOOOOOO easy to improve the quality of grocery store greens and add fiber and variety to your tortoises diet. At any given time, I have at least a half dozen options. Dried mulberry leaves, moringa, echinacea, ginkgo, marsh mallow, nettle, plantain weeds, dandelion, clover, rose petals and hips, raspberry leaf, and many more. All you do is prepare your tortoise's food for the day as you usually do, and then sprinkle some of these dried items on top, or mix the dried items all in with the greens. This is a fantastic way to make your tortoise's food better every day. I've been using his products since he started selling them a few years ago, and I have nothing but good to say about all of it.

Here is a breakdown of the four heating and lighting essentials:
  1. Basking bulb. I use 65 watt incandescent floods from the hardware store. Some people will need bigger, or smaller wattage bulbs. Let your thermometer be your guide. I run them on a timer for about 12 hours and adjust the height to get the correct basking temp under them. I also like to use a flat rock of some sort directly under the bulb. You need to check the temp with a thermometer directly under the bulb and get it to around 95-100F (36-37C).
  2. Ambient heat maintenance. I use ceramic heating elements or radiant heat panels set on thermostats to maintain ambient above 80 degrees day and night for tropical species. In most cases you'd only need day heat for a temperate species like Testudo or DT, as long as your house stays above 60F (15-16C) at night. Some people in colder climates or with larger enclosures will need multiple CHEs or RHPs to spread out enough heat.
  3. Ambient light. I use LEDs for this purpose. Something in the 5000-6500K color range will look the best. Most bulbs at the store are in the 2500K range and they look yellowish. Strip or screw-in LED bulb types are both fine.
  4. UV. If you can get your tortoise outside for an hour 2 or 3 times a week, you won't need indoor UV. In colder climates, get one of the newer HO type fluorescent tubes. Which type will depend on mounting height. 5.0 bulbs make almost no UV. I like the 12% HO bulbs from Arcadia. You need a meter to check this: https://www.solarmeter.com/model65.html A good UV bulb only needs to run for 2-3 hours mid day. You need the basking bulb and the ambient lighting to be on at least 12 hours a day.
Here is the care sheet for tropical species like sulcatas, stars, leopards, and pancakes:

Here is the care sheet for temperate species like greeks, hermanni, Russians, desert tortoises, and Chersina:

Along with the temperate species care info, here is the brumation info:

Here is the explanation of what is going on with babies that are started too dry:

Here are all the night box building threads:

I hope this information will help keep many tortoises healthy and thriving, and help keep many tortoise keepers happy and fulfilled with their decision to keep a tortoise. Please feel free to share any or all of this information.
 

Chubbs the tegu

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2019
Messages
9,397
Location (City and/or State)
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Hello and welcome to tortoiseforum.org! We are all glad you are here!

There is no other forum like this anywhere. We have tens of thousands of members from all over the world ranging from kids with their first tortoise to people who have been breeding and keeping high end tortoises since the 1960s, and everything in between. There is more knowledge and experience here on this forum than I have seen anywhere else on the planet. If you have a tortoise, if you like tortoises, if you want a tortoise, or if you have been breeding and keeping tortoises for decades, then this forum will help you do it all better.

Now for the bad news: Most of the care info offered for tortoises out in the world is awful. Much of it is just plain wrong. Some of these things are based on decades old incorrect assumptions about how they live in the wild. Some of these things seem so reasonable and logical when explained by 5 different YouTubers, vets, or breeders, but they are just plain wrong. How do we know they are wrong? Many members here, myself included, have been doing side-by-side experiments for well over a decade now to determine what is true and what is false. We've determined what works best and why. We've cut through the conflicting info, wrong info, and old myths. There is much more to learn and many unanswered questions, but we've come a long way and solved a lot of mysteries. We can back up our assertions with cold hard facts and data, and we are happy to do so. Many of the people who argue with some of this info have NEVER done it the way we are suggesting. We have done it their way, often for decades, but they have never done it our way, so they have no idea what the result would be. They just keep parroting the same wrong info that they were taught, and the wrong info passes from generation to generation. Vets, breeders, pet stores, reptile experts, books, FB, YT, and so many other sources keep learning from, and repeating, this wrong info and its everywhere. People do lots of "research" only to come here and find out that much of what they learned is wrong and much of it is harmful. I'll list all of this in a bit so that you can understand specifically what I'm talking about with these broad general statements, but just know that most of what people find when they do "research" turns out to be wrong, and then the pet store sells them all the wrong products, and the handsome, articulate, guy or gal on YouTube said to do it this way or that way. It seems so credible, but it isn't. Its wrong. Its been wrong for decades, and it will always be wrong. Talk about frustrating...

Here is a list of general TFO knowledge that I type up over and over again. This list should answer most questions, and also show you what you are doing right or wrong. These points should catch incoming new TFO members up to speed on all the knowledge that has been compiled over all the years here. I type up these same things over and over and I hope typing them up here, along with the usual explanation that goes with each of these points, will save me from having to type the same paragraph up over and over again, every day. This list should address most of the misinformation that is out in the world, and found universally by everyone who does "research" into proper tortoise care. Questions and conversation are always welcome here. Feel free to question these points. We are all here to talk tortoises. I've been told several times over the years that I should write a book. Well here it is:

1. The number one mistake that most people make is buying a tortoise from the wrong source. The vast majority of breeders do not start tortoises correctly, and many of these dry started babies die weeks or months later. The breeder has no idea what is happening and they usually proclaim that its the new owners fault because the tortoise was fine when it was with them. The breeder does not realize that the things they did, or didn't do, in the days and weeks after that baby hatched can condemn it to death months down the road. These same breeders often tell people the wrong way to house and care for the baby, which makes things worse. Then the pet stores tell people more wrong info and sell them products that are expensive, ineffective and sometimes harmful or dangerous. People go on YouTube and watch charismatic people explaining how it should be done, and have no idea that its all wrong. Ask us where to get a tortoise. We will tell you.
2. No tortoise needs desert-like conditions as a baby. Even California desert tortoises, which truly come from a desert, will die of chronic dehydration if housed in the dry desiccating conditions that people mistakenly think they need. Wild hatched babies hide in little humid micro-climates. They hide under bushes and leaf litter. They dig down into moist earth. They do not walk around out in the open exposed to hot dry desiccating conditions. Some tortoises can survive dry conditions just fine as adults. No tortoise needs dry conditions as a baby.
3. Soaking: All babies of all species should be soaked daily. Every day. Seven days a week. This can taper off as they gain size, but there is no such thing as too much soaking. It does NOT make them move their food through the GI tract too quickly. It does NOT upset their "water balance", whatever that is. It does not make them sick or stress them out, even if some act like you have dropped them in a vat of acid (I'm looking at YOU wild caught pet store Russian tortoises...), it does not give them shell rot, soften their shells, or give them respiratory infections. It doesn't do any of that non-sense that you have read about. What is does is keep your baby well hydrated and healthy. Soak your baby in a tall sided opaque container for 30-40 minutes daily. Keep the water warm the entire time. If you want to soak every day for your tortoises's entire life, it will do no harm and they will always be hydrated. Soaking has innumerable benefits for all species. All living things need water. Keep your tortoise well hydrated.
4. Sand. Sand is a serious impaction risk and its a terrible skin and eye irritant. Some will say they've used it for years with no problems. I doubt that is the case, and watching, hearing, and smelling a single sand impaction surgery should be enough to convince anyone. Do some tortoises live in areas where they might encounter sand in the wild? Of course they do. So what? Lots of tortoises also die in the wild, so I don't think mimicking the wild should be our goal. Further, your enclosure is NOT the wild. Sand should not be used as tortoise substrate. Most of the substrate mixes marketed for reptiles in pet stores have sand in them. Don't use it. Don't learn the hard way.
5. Soil: Soil is made from composted yard waste. Could be oleander trimmings. Could be azaleas. Could be lawn grass recently treated with insecticide, weed killer or fungicide. There is no way to know what is in that bag. There are all sorts of other weird ingredients added in and it can change as much and as often as the makers want. The contents of that bag are intended to grow plants in a pot or a garden. The makers and sellers do not intend for small animals to be living in it or on it in small enclosures. The contents of that bag might be toxic or dangerous, and the "Organic" moniker means very little. Oleander and rattle snake venom are both 100% organic and natural. Don't allow a tortoise access to bought-in-a-bag soil. If you make your own soil and know 100% of the ingredients and are sure all those ingredients are safe, then you can use it, but its still messy and not a good way to go. If you bought it at a store, there could be anything in that bag. Don't gamble with your tortoise's life. It is fine to use toxin free soils to grow plants to feed our tortoises, and in potted plants inside tortoise enclosures, but the tortoise should not have access to the soil, and certainly should not be living on it, or burying themselves in it. P.S. Perlite is a tortoise killer, and perlite is in many, if not most, potting soil mixes. Be careful.
6. If we can't use soil or sand, what CAN we use? All things considered, there are three that have proven to be safe and effective. Fine grade orchid bark is best. If you can't find it in bulk near you, it is marketed as "Repti-bark" in any of the normal pet channels. Cypress mulch is the next one. Not my favorite, but it works. Coco coir is the final one. This one is also called "coco peat" which is confusing, because any form of actual "peat" or "peat moss" or "sphagnum moss" or "sphagnum peat moss" should not be used. You also don't want coco chips or coco fiber for tortoises. Here is a list of what NOT to use: Soil, sand, mixes of any kind with soil and/or sand like "Pets At Home" in the UK (What a terrible idea that stuff is...), sphagnum peat moss, sphagnum moss, peat moss, long fibered peat moss, hay, grass pellets, rabbit pellets, gravel, sod, carpet, towels, paper towels, coco fiber, coco chips, and rubber mats.
7. Glass tanks: There is nothing wrong with glass tanks for starting babies. Well... actually there is, but its not what they say it is. Glass doesn't stress them out, and the "invisible barrier" that they don't understand is not torture for them. The problem with glass tanks is the open top that lets all the heat and humidity out, and they are too small for anything but a baby. I believe the glass tank myth started because people would buy a wild caught import (Russians again...) and stick it in a tiny 40 gallon tank on the recommendation of the pet store. The thing would go nuts climbing the walls and trying to find a way out. This is not because it is glass. This is because it is WAY too small and far too barren and this wild caught animal who is used to roaming for miles in heavy brush, and it is not comfortable with this sort of tiny confinement. The tortoise would do the same thing in a solid wooden enclosure of the same dimensions.
8. Enclosure size: Tortoises need HUGE enclosures. There are many pet reptile species that do just fine in smaller enclosures. Not tortoises. Much like horses, tortoises rely on locomotion to help keep things moving through the GI tract. We can see problems from this lack of motion in weather that is too hot or too cold, even with a large enclosure. A tortoise might sit still all day in the shade to avoid the scorching summer sun, or they might stay in their heated shelter all day on a cold cloudy day. This lack of walking can cause them to become constipated. Small enclosures can cause skeletal, muscular, and digestive problems for tortoises. Once you put down a food bowl, a water dish or two, a couple of hides, a potted plant or two, and some decorations, there is hardly any room left to walk in an enclosure that is too small. If you don't have room for a giant enclosure, then you don't have room for a tortoise. Its that simple. One of the worse thing people can say to me after hearing they need a bigger enclosure is: "Well I don't have space for that", or "Well I can't afford that...". I am no stranger to lack of space and lack of money. I've experienced both of those issues many times throughout my years. If you don't have space or money to house your animal correctly, then don't get that animal. If you already have the animal, then you need to do the right thing. Find the space and money, or give the animal to someone that has the space and resources to house it correctly. Does that sound too harsh? It isn't too harsh. What is too harsh is some poor tortoise suffering in a small enclosure, and suffering is what it is doing. Not cool. I want people to have a happy positive tortoise keeping experience, but tortoises are not for everyone. If you are low on funds or low on space, wait to get a tortoise until your situation is more suitable for a tortoise. If you long for a reptile pet with cheaper, smaller housing requirements, there are many good options for you. Don't get a tortoise and house it poorly. Please.
9. Pairs: Tortoises should never be housed in pairs. Groups of juveniles can sometimes work, but not pairs. Group dynamics are different than pair dynamics. Whenever there are just two, one will be dominant and the other submissive. The dominant is clearly telling the submissive to "GET OUT!" of my territory, but the submissive can't. This can be seen in animals as primitive as flatworms. Most people do not see the signs in tortoises. Our tortoises don't have the ability to growl. They don't have lips to snarl, or hackles to raise, yet they show their hostility just the same, but in their own way. Following each other, cuddling in a shelter, sleeping face to face, sitting on the food pile... All of these are blatant tortoise aggression. People are looking for biting, ramming and other overt signs. Those overt behaviors do happen in some cases, but more often the two tortoises are just forced to live in each other's space in a state of constant chronic stress, while the owner thinks everything is just fine because they aren't actively attacking and biting each other. It is NOT fine. Keep tortoises alone, which is totally fine, or in groups of three or more, which can sometimes lead to other problems down the road as they all begin to mature. Tortoises do not want or need company. Some species tolerate company better than others, but none should be kept in pairs. For some breeding projects, it is advantageous to raise them up in groups, but never pairs. If you only want two tortoises, that is great. Get two separate enclosures. And two outdoor enclosures for fair weather too.
10. Grocery store produce: In short, avoid grocery store produce when possible. Grocery store greens are not the best tortoise foods. They tend to lack fiber, calcium, and some of them have deleterious compounds in them. If you must use foods from the grocery store, favor endive and escarole as the main staples. Add in cilantro, arugula, collards, turnip and mustard greens, lettuces and many others for variety. You will also need to add some sort of amendment to improve the quality as tortoise food. Calcium is good to add a couple of times per week and soaked horse hay pellets are a good way to add fiber for any species. Soaked ZooMed tortoise pellets of any type are good to add, as is Purina Organic Lay Crumbles for chickens, oddly enough. When possible skip the expensive grocery store greens and use a wide variety of weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents, that are all free.
11. Hay: If you have an adult of a grass eating species, then grass hay is an indispensable tool for keeping your tortoise fed well. If you have a species that is not a grass eater, or a baby of a grass eating species, hay is not an appropriate food item. It is too dry and coarse for babies and they can choke on it. Hay is also not suitable as a substrate for small indoor tortoises, as it is much too dry and will mold when it gets wet or soiled.
12. Ramped bowls: Ramped water bowls that the pet stores always seem to sell to people are literally a tortoise death trap. Some tortoises avoid them, and simply don't drink. Other tortoises flip upside down in them and drown. These bowls are great for lizards and snakes, but should not be used for tortoises. Use terra cotta saucers large enough for your tortoise to climb into, and sink them down into the substrate.
13. Loose on the floor or outside, or public parks: This is not safe and cannot be made safe. Floors are too cold, too slick, and there are millions of ways for your tortoise to kill or injure itself. It is not safe and cannot be made safe. No amount of supervision will prevent these problems. We have seen tortoise heads caught in door jambs, all sorts of ingested items from dust bunnies to sewing pins to earrings, tortoises get accidentally kicked or stepped on, escapes through doors left open, lost limbs from carpet fibers or human hair wrapping around a leg unseen... the list is endless. Tortoises that are allowed to wander outside are almost always reported as "very closely supervised". They eventually end up lost. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, sooner or later, there will be one second of distraction and that tortoise will simply disappear. Happens all the time, and it will literally make you feel nauseated when it eventually happens. Keep your tortoise contained in a large safe enclosure. Don't let this happen to you. Parks and common areas in apartment and condo complexes are full of uncountable hazards. Pesticides, lawn chemicals, cigarette butts, dog or cat feces, coins, toxic weeds, trash items... Again, the list of potential killers is endless. Don't do it. Its not worth it.
14. Heat lamps: No spot bulbs. They concentrate too much heat and desiccating IR A into too small of an area. Use flood bulbs or round bulbs in a hood. Don't use spot bulbs, halogen bulbs, infrared bulbs, colored bulbs, mercury vapor bulbs, or any others that I'm forgetting. Use a "flood" bulb for basking.
15. UV: The old style T8 tube bulbs produce very little UV. 5.0 bulbs produce almost none. Compact fluorescent type bulbs are ineffective UV sources and sometimes burn reptile eyes. They should not be used. So what works? T5 HO tubes are best. Arcadia makes the Pro T5 kits in several lengths. ZooMed has a 10.0 HO tube that is safe, effective and reliable. There are some new LED UVB bulbs hitting the market now too. The cheaper ones don't do much, but some of the pricier ones work great. I'm running several of the ZooMed LED UV bulbs and they are fantastic. I expect them to last a long time for me and UV output is great according to my Solarmeter 6.5. Speaking of the meters, there is no way to know what is happening in your enclosure without a meter. Your tortoise may be getting too much UV, or none at all. This needs to be measured, not guessed at. Buying the meter will save money in the long run as you won't be wasting perfectly good working bulbs at 6 month intervals. You will wait to buy a new bulb until a new bulb is needed.
16. UV duration: There is no need to run UV bulbs for 12 hours a day. This makes no sense. It is totally unnecessary and completely unnatural. High UV from daybreak to lights out does not happen in the wild. Outdoor UV levels outside build slowly in the morning, peak mid day, and drop off in the afternoon. Outdoor UV levels are much stronger in summer time. Our tortoises only need 15 minutes of UV once in a while to make the needed D3, which is then stored in their bodies for later use. Dietary D3 also gets the job done, further reducing the need for UVB. A few hours mid day is more than enough UVB exposure, and this more closely simulates what is happening outside.
17. Deep heat projectors: The wavelengths of energy these create are very desiccating. They cause pyramiding. Better to use a CHE or RHP for ambient heat. Control these devices with a thermostat.
18. Water dishes: Terra cotta plant saucers sunk into the substrate work the best. Nothing bought at a pet store works well.
19. MVBs: Mercury vapor bulbs. Heat light and UV all in one bulb. Sounds great, but it doesn't work. As mentioned in #16, we don't want high levels of UV all day every day, but the tortoise does need a basking lamp all day (except forrest species) for heat and light. These two different things need to come from different sources and be on their own timers. MVBs sometimes make way too much UV. Other MVBs stop producing any UV at all after a few months. These bulb are also fragile, temperamental, finicky about what fixture you can use them in, expensive, and unreliable. They are also high wattage and hot, which will over heat a closed chamber. You ARE using a closed chamber with the heating and lighting inside, aren't you??? On top of all those reasons not to use them, they are extremely desiccating to the carapace and cause pyramiding, even when used in an otherwise humid environment.
20. CFLs: Some of these burn reptile eyes. Not all of them, but some of them do. Some people mistakenly believe this was only a problem for the early models, and it is now fixed. It isn't. My reptile vet friends see several cases a year of photokeratitis in reptiles housed under these bulbs. They are also a poor source of UV. These bulbs should not be sold or used.
21. Hibernation? Its actually correctly referred to as brumation in reptiles. Here is a thread on that topic:
22. Dogs: Don't do it. I'm a career professional dog trainer. Dogs and tortoises should never have access to each other. It doesn't work, and it won't work. No amount of introducing, or socializing, or training will stop your dog from mauling or killing your tortoise. Keep them separate. teach the dog to "leave it" and stay away from the tortoises at all times, and ensure that the tortoise is always protected by fencing or barriers that cannot be breached. Don't learn this lesson the hard way. It is awful. Next to dehydration, the loving family dog is a top killer of tortoises. Your dog is not "different". Many dogs will ignore the tortoise for years, right top until the day it doesn't. Please please please protect your tortoise from this awful fate. Please.
23. Going on vacation? Leave the tortoise home. Work it out one way or another. Your tortoise will not enjoy being carted about and removed form its home. Timers, thermostats, web cams, etc... Friends, family, neighbors, paid pet sitters, etc... Find a solution that suits you and your situation.
24. Never mix tortoise species. This is another potential death sentence.
25. Want to have a successful and enjoyable tortoise keeping experience? Don't buy a tortoise species that is not suited to your climate. Don't get a red foot or an Aldabra in CA, and don't get a leopard in Tennessee. Don't get a sulcata anywhere that isn't warm and sunny most of the year. Don't get a large species if you live in a small apartment in the frozen north. Sulcatas are the wrong species for almost everyone. Can you house cattle on your premises? Cattle that need to be kept warm all year every year? If not, then a sulcata probably isn't for you.
26. If you are going to be a tortoises keeper, it is very advantageous to also learn to be a farmer. Or at least a gardener and pasture grower. And if you don't want to grow your own, then learn to be a scrounger. The best foods you can feed to your tortoise are free. You just have to spend time learning your local plants and weeds, and then spend time collecting your free tortoise food. I'd rather spend time on a nature walk collecting tortoise food than driving to the store, fighting traffic and waiting on red lights, and waiting in line to pay for expensive greens, wondering the whole time what chemicals, insecticides and other industrial farming stuff is on those items.
27. Enclosure types: Open topped enclosures only work if the room conditions are what the tortoise needs. Adult Testudo, for example, are fine at normal room temperatures and humidity, as long as they have adequate lighting, a warmer basking area, a humid hide, and appropriate UV. Baby sulcatas, for example, are NOT fine at 70 degrees and 30% humidity. There is no way to maintain the correct living conditions for a baby sulcata with an open topped enclosure. That is like trying to heat your house in winter with no roof. Your house heater can run all night long and your house will never warm up. It doesn't work. Everyone is sorry that you got bad advice and bought the wrong type of enclosure. Let it go. Now you know better. Move on and get the right type of enclosure for your baby. You need a closed chamber. We all wish you had found this info BEFORE you bought the wrong type of enclosure.
28. "My tortoise is not eating...": Tortoises are grazing animals. They should be eating every day. I can only think of two exceptions unless something is terribly wrong. New tortoises will sometimes take a few days to settle in, and its normal for any temperate species to not be eating in the fall while preparing for brumation. Outside of those two scenarios, your tortoise should be eating. Please don't wait a week, or several, before asking for help.
29. "Tortoises do better outside." No they don't! Well... yes they do in some cases, but not in all cases. Wait... what? Okay... I'll explain: In a favorable climate and in favorable weather, ADULT and large juvenile tortoises do much better in large, secure, well designed, well planted, tortoise enclosures outside. Night box type shelters are also essential for this to work well, with rare exception. So what am I talking about here? Babies. Babies do NOT do better outside. I have been doing side-by-side experiments with this for over a decade. Babies do MUCH better when kept mostly indoors in controlled, stable conditions that are correct for the species. Babies in the wild do not walk around exposed to hot sunshine, dry conditions, and every predator with a pair of eyes. Babies hide. That is why almost nothing is known about baby tortoises in the wild. "The lost years". No one knows where they go or what they are doing from hatching until the time when we start seeing them again as large juveniles and subadults. We SPECULATE that they stay well hidden in deep undergrowth and leaf litter. They exist almost 100% hidden from view in damp, moist conditions. Regardless of whether or not this speculation is correct, we have proven thousands of times over that in captivity, babies do better in warm humid conditions, with humid hides, plants, cover, damp substrate, closed chambers, and daily soaks. This is not debatable anymore, and it applies to all species that I know of. If you could make beef jerky in your enclosure, it isn't right for any baby tortoise of any species. My general rule of thumb is no more than an hour of access to sunshine per day per inch of tortoise. Babies do not "need" to go outside at all. If you really want to do it anyway, make sure the enclosure is secure, has deep shade, is protected from dogs and other predators, cannot flood, and keep the time to a minimum for tiny babies.
30. We have a member here named Will. Will is a biologist by trade and well studied on tortoise nutrition. He started a business that is revolutionizing the way we feed our tortoises. Will doesn't pay me, and I don't get anything for this shameless plug. I'm typing this because I personally use his products daily, and it has changed how I feed my tortoises. At certain times of year, many of us have no alternative but to feed grocery store produce. By itself, this isn't a great way to feed a tortoise. Will's company, https://www.kapidolofarms.com, offers all sorts of organic dried leaves, cactus chips, cactus flour, and more that you simply sprinkle on top of the day's greens, or mix it all in with them, which is what I do. This makes it SOOOOOOO easy to improve the quality of grocery store greens and add fiber and variety to your tortoises diet. At any given time, I have at least a half dozen options. Dried mulberry leaves, moringa, echinacea, ginkgo, marsh mallow, nettle, plantain weeds, dandelion, clover, rose petals and hips, raspberry leaf, and many more. All you do is prepare your tortoise's food for the day as you usually do, and then sprinkle some of these dried items on top, or mix the dried items all in with the greens. This is a fantastic way to make your tortoise's food better every day. I've been using his products since he started selling them a few years ago, and I have nothing but good to say about all of it.

Here is a breakdown of the four heating and lighting essentials:
  1. Basking bulb. I use 65 watt incandescent floods from the hardware store. Some people will need bigger, or smaller wattage bulbs. Let your thermometer be your guide. I run them on a timer for about 12 hours and adjust the height to get the correct basking temp under them. I also like to use a flat rock of some sort directly under the bulb. You need to check the temp with a thermometer directly under the bulb and get it to around 95-100F (36-37C).
  2. Ambient heat maintenance. I use ceramic heating elements or radiant heat panels set on thermostats to maintain ambient above 80 degrees day and night for tropical species. In most cases you'd only need day heat for a temperate species like Testudo or DT, as long as your house stays above 60F (15-16C) at night. Some people in colder climates or with larger enclosures will need multiple CHEs or RHPs to spread out enough heat.
  3. Ambient light. I use LEDs for this purpose. Something in the 5000-6500K color range will look the best. Most bulbs at the store are in the 2500K range and they look yellowish. Strip or screw-in LED bulb types are both fine.
  4. UV. If you can get your tortoise outside for an hour 2 or 3 times a week, you won't need indoor UV. In colder climates, get one of the newer HO type fluorescent tubes. Which type will depend on mounting height. 5.0 bulbs make almost no UV. I like the 12% HO bulbs from Arcadia. You need a meter to check this: https://www.solarmeter.com/model65.html A good UV bulb only needs to run for 2-3 hours mid day. You need the basking bulb and the ambient lighting to be on at least 12 hours a day.
Here is the care sheet for tropical species like sulcatas, stars, leopards, and pancakes:

Here is the care sheet for temperate species like greeks, hermanni, Russians, desert tortoises, and Chersina:

Along with the temperate species care info, here is the brumation info:

Here is the explanation of what is going on with babies that are started too dry:

Here are all the night box building threads:

I hope this information will help keep many tortoises healthy and thriving, and help keep many tortoise keepers happy and fulfilled with their decision to keep a tortoise. Please feel free to share any or all of this information.
Tom, great post! I envy ur knowledge… kinda haha
 

SinLA

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This. Is. Amazing!! this will really help a lot of people out.

Only suggestion I have is I would probably put size enclosure as number 1 or 2 since only a percentage of people coming here come in order to buy one vs being here bc they already “ended up with one“ and if people thinking of getting one read even just one thing, it should be that they probably don’t have enough space or need to dedicate more space (IMHO).
 

TammyJ

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This should be a "sticky" thread, I think.
 

Maddoggy

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Thank you Tom the dog trainer.I think you hit the sulcata ownership commitment perfect.Everybody loves giant tortoises but having one takes a special setup in the correct climate and its a lifetime commitment,
 

Mrs.Jennifer

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Hello and welcome to tortoiseforum.org! We are all glad you are here!

There is no other forum like this anywhere. We have tens of thousands of members from all over the world ranging from kids with their first tortoise to people who have been breeding and keeping high end tortoises since the 1960s, and everything in between. There is more knowledge and experience here on this forum than I have seen anywhere else on the planet. If you have a tortoise, if you like tortoises, if you want a tortoise, or if you have been breeding and keeping tortoises for decades, then this forum will help you do it all better.

Now for the bad news: Most of the care info offered for tortoises out in the world is awful. Much of it is just plain wrong. Some of these things are based on decades old incorrect assumptions about how they live in the wild. Some of these things seem so reasonable and logical when explained by 5 different YouTubers, vets, or breeders, but they are just plain wrong. How do we know they are wrong? Many members here, myself included, have been doing side-by-side experiments for well over a decade now to determine what is true and what is false. We've determined what works best and why. We've cut through the conflicting info, wrong info, and old myths. There is much more to learn and many unanswered questions, but we've come a long way and solved a lot of mysteries. We can back up our assertions with cold hard facts and data, and we are happy to do so. Many of the people who argue with some of this info have NEVER done it the way we are suggesting. We have done it their way, often for decades, but they have never done it our way, so they have no idea what the result would be. They just keep parroting the same wrong info that they were taught, and the wrong info passes from generation to generation. Vets, breeders, pet stores, reptile experts, books, FB, YT, and so many other sources keep learning from, and repeating, this wrong info and its everywhere. People do lots of "research" only to come here and find out that much of what they learned is wrong and much of it is harmful. I'll list all of this in a bit so that you can understand specifically what I'm talking about with these broad general statements, but just know that most of what people find when they do "research" turns out to be wrong, and then the pet store sells them all the wrong products, and the handsome, articulate, guy or gal on YouTube said to do it this way or that way. It seems so credible, but it isn't. Its wrong. Its been wrong for decades, and it will always be wrong. Talk about frustrating...

Here is a list of general TFO knowledge that I type up over and over again. This list should answer most questions, and also show you what you are doing right or wrong. These points should catch incoming new TFO members up to speed on all the knowledge that has been compiled over all the years here. I type up these same things over and over and I hope typing them up here, along with the usual explanation that goes with each of these points, will save me from having to type the same paragraph up over and over again, every day. This list should address most of the misinformation that is out in the world, and found universally by everyone who does "research" into proper tortoise care. Questions and conversation are always welcome here. Feel free to question these points. We are all here to talk tortoises. I've been told several times over the years that I should write a book. Well here it is:

1. The number one mistake that most people make is buying a tortoise from the wrong source. The vast majority of breeders do not start tortoises correctly, and many of these dry started babies die weeks or months later. The breeder has no idea what is happening and they usually proclaim that its the new owners fault because the tortoise was fine when it was with them. The breeder does not realize that the things they did, or didn't do, in the days and weeks after that baby hatched can condemn it to death months down the road. These same breeders often tell people the wrong way to house and care for the baby, which makes things worse. Then the pet stores tell people more wrong info and sell them products that are expensive, ineffective and sometimes harmful or dangerous. People go on YouTube and watch charismatic people explaining how it should be done, and have no idea that its all wrong. Ask us where to get a tortoise. We will tell you.
2. No tortoise needs desert-like conditions as a baby. Even California desert tortoises, which truly come from a desert, will die of chronic dehydration if housed in the dry desiccating conditions that people mistakenly think they need. Wild hatched babies hide in little humid micro-climates. They hide under bushes and leaf litter. They dig down into moist earth. They do not walk around out in the open exposed to hot dry desiccating conditions. Some tortoises can survive dry conditions just fine as adults. No tortoise needs dry conditions as a baby.
3. Soaking: All babies of all species should be soaked daily. Every day. Seven days a week. This can taper off as they gain size, but there is no such thing as too much soaking. It does NOT make them move their food through the GI tract too quickly. It does NOT upset their "water balance", whatever that is. It does not make them sick or stress them out, even if some act like you have dropped them in a vat of acid (I'm looking at YOU wild caught pet store Russian tortoises...), it does not give them shell rot, soften their shells, or give them respiratory infections. It doesn't do any of that non-sense that you have read about. What is does is keep your baby well hydrated and healthy. Soak your baby in a tall sided opaque container for 30-40 minutes daily. Keep the water warm the entire time. If you want to soak every day for your tortoises's entire life, it will do no harm and they will always be hydrated. Soaking has innumerable benefits for all species. All living things need water. Keep your tortoise well hydrated.
4. Sand. Sand is a serious impaction risk and its a terrible skin and eye irritant. Some will say they've used it for years with no problems. I doubt that is the case, and watching, hearing, and smelling a single sand impaction surgery should be enough to convince anyone. Do some tortoises live in areas where they might encounter sand in the wild? Of course they do. So what? Lots of tortoises also die in the wild, so I don't think mimicking the wild should be our goal. Further, your enclosure is NOT the wild. Sand should not be used as tortoise substrate. Most of the substrate mixes marketed for reptiles in pet stores have sand in them. Don't use it. Don't learn the hard way.
5. Soil: Soil is made from composted yard waste. Could be oleander trimmings. Could be azaleas. Could be lawn grass recently treated with insecticide, weed killer or fungicide. There is no way to know what is in that bag. There are all sorts of other weird ingredients added in and it can change as much and as often as the makers want. The contents of that bag are intended to grow plants in a pot or a garden. The makers and sellers do not intend for small animals to be living in it or on it in small enclosures. The contents of that bag might be toxic or dangerous, and the "Organic" moniker means very little. Oleander and rattle snake venom are both 100% organic and natural. Don't allow a tortoise access to bought-in-a-bag soil. If you make your own soil and know 100% of the ingredients and are sure all those ingredients are safe, then you can use it, but its still messy and not a good way to go. If you bought it at a store, there could be anything in that bag. Don't gamble with your tortoise's life. It is fine to use toxin free soils to grow plants to feed our tortoises, and in potted plants inside tortoise enclosures, but the tortoise should not have access to the soil, and certainly should not be living on it, or burying themselves in it. P.S. Perlite is a tortoise killer, and perlite is in many, if not most, potting soil mixes. Be careful.
6. If we can't use soil or sand, what CAN we use? All things considered, there are three that have proven to be safe and effective. Fine grade orchid bark is best. If you can't find it in bulk near you, it is marketed as "Repti-bark" in any of the normal pet channels. Cypress mulch is the next one. Not my favorite, but it works. Coco coir is the final one. This one is also called "coco peat" which is confusing, because any form of actual "peat" or "peat moss" or "sphagnum moss" or "sphagnum peat moss" should not be used. You also don't want coco chips or coco fiber for tortoises. Here is a list of what NOT to use: Soil, sand, mixes of any kind with soil and/or sand like "Pets At Home" in the UK (What a terrible idea that stuff is...), sphagnum peat moss, sphagnum moss, peat moss, long fibered peat moss, hay, grass pellets, rabbit pellets, gravel, sod, carpet, towels, paper towels, coco fiber, coco chips, and rubber mats.
7. Glass tanks: There is nothing wrong with glass tanks for starting babies. Well... actually there is, but its not what they say it is. Glass doesn't stress them out, and the "invisible barrier" that they don't understand is not torture for them. The problem with glass tanks is the open top that lets all the heat and humidity out, and they are too small for anything but a baby. I believe the glass tank myth started because people would buy a wild caught import (Russians again...) and stick it in a tiny 40 gallon tank on the recommendation of the pet store. The thing would go nuts climbing the walls and trying to find a way out. This is not because it is glass. This is because it is WAY too small and far too barren and this wild caught animal who is used to roaming for miles in heavy brush, and it is not comfortable with this sort of tiny confinement. The tortoise would do the same thing in a solid wooden enclosure of the same dimensions.
8. Enclosure size: Tortoises need HUGE enclosures. There are many pet reptile species that do just fine in smaller enclosures. Not tortoises. Much like horses, tortoises rely on locomotion to help keep things moving through the GI tract. We can see problems from this lack of motion in weather that is too hot or too cold, even with a large enclosure. A tortoise might sit still all day in the shade to avoid the scorching summer sun, or they might stay in their heated shelter all day on a cold cloudy day. This lack of walking can cause them to become constipated. Small enclosures can cause skeletal, muscular, and digestive problems for tortoises. Once you put down a food bowl, a water dish or two, a couple of hides, a potted plant or two, and some decorations, there is hardly any room left to walk in an enclosure that is too small. If you don't have room for a giant enclosure, then you don't have room for a tortoise. Its that simple. One of the worse thing people can say to me after hearing they need a bigger enclosure is: "Well I don't have space for that", or "Well I can't afford that...". I am no stranger to lack of space and lack of money. I've experienced both of those issues many times throughout my years. If you don't have space or money to house your animal correctly, then don't get that animal. If you already have the animal, then you need to do the right thing. Find the space and money, or give the animal to someone that has the space and resources to house it correctly. Does that sound too harsh? It isn't too harsh. What is too harsh is some poor tortoise suffering in a small enclosure, and suffering is what it is doing. Not cool. I want people to have a happy positive tortoise keeping experience, but tortoises are not for everyone. If you are low on funds or low on space, wait to get a tortoise until your situation is more suitable for a tortoise. If you long for a reptile pet with cheaper, smaller housing requirements, there are many good options for you. Don't get a tortoise and house it poorly. Please.
9. Pairs: Tortoises should never be housed in pairs. Groups of juveniles can sometimes work, but not pairs. Group dynamics are different than pair dynamics. Whenever there are just two, one will be dominant and the other submissive. The dominant is clearly telling the submissive to "GET OUT!" of my territory, but the submissive can't. This can be seen in animals as primitive as flatworms. Most people do not see the signs in tortoises. Our tortoises don't have the ability to growl. They don't have lips to snarl, or hackles to raise, yet they show their hostility just the same, but in their own way. Following each other, cuddling in a shelter, sleeping face to face, sitting on the food pile... All of these are blatant tortoise aggression. People are looking for biting, ramming and other overt signs. Those overt behaviors do happen in some cases, but more often the two tortoises are just forced to live in each other's space in a state of constant chronic stress, while the owner thinks everything is just fine because they aren't actively attacking and biting each other. It is NOT fine. Keep tortoises alone, which is totally fine, or in groups of three or more, which can sometimes lead to other problems down the road as they all begin to mature. Tortoises do not want or need company. Some species tolerate company better than others, but none should be kept in pairs. For some breeding projects, it is advantageous to raise them up in groups, but never pairs. If you only want two tortoises, that is great. Get two separate enclosures. And two outdoor enclosures for fair weather too.
10. Grocery store produce: In short, avoid grocery store produce when possible. Grocery store greens are not the best tortoise foods. They tend to lack fiber, calcium, and some of them have deleterious compounds in them. If you must use foods from the grocery store, favor endive and escarole as the main staples. Add in cilantro, arugula, collards, turnip and mustard greens, lettuces and many others for variety. You will also need to add some sort of amendment to improve the quality as tortoise food. Calcium is good to add a couple of times per week and soaked horse hay pellets are a good way to add fiber for any species. Soaked ZooMed tortoise pellets of any type are good to add, as is Purina Organic Lay Crumbles for chickens, oddly enough. When possible skip the expensive grocery store greens and use a wide variety of weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents, that are all free.
11. Hay: If you have an adult of a grass eating species, then grass hay is an indispensable tool for keeping your tortoise fed well. If you have a species that is not a grass eater, or a baby of a grass eating species, hay is not an appropriate food item. It is too dry and coarse for babies and they can choke on it. Hay is also not suitable as a substrate for small indoor tortoises, as it is much too dry and will mold when it gets wet or soiled.
12. Ramped bowls: Ramped water bowls that the pet stores always seem to sell to people are literally a tortoise death trap. Some tortoises avoid them, and simply don't drink. Other tortoises flip upside down in them and drown. These bowls are great for lizards and snakes, but should not be used for tortoises. Use terra cotta saucers large enough for your tortoise to climb into, and sink them down into the substrate.
13. Loose on the floor or outside, or public parks: This is not safe and cannot be made safe. Floors are too cold, too slick, and there are millions of ways for your tortoise to kill or injure itself. It is not safe and cannot be made safe. No amount of supervision will prevent these problems. We have seen tortoise heads caught in door jambs, all sorts of ingested items from dust bunnies to sewing pins to earrings, tortoises get accidentally kicked or stepped on, escapes through doors left open, lost limbs from carpet fibers or human hair wrapping around a leg unseen... the list is endless. Tortoises that are allowed to wander outside are almost always reported as "very closely supervised". They eventually end up lost. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, sooner or later, there will be one second of distraction and that tortoise will simply disappear. Happens all the time, and it will literally make you feel nauseated when it eventually happens. Keep your tortoise contained in a large safe enclosure. Don't let this happen to you. Parks and common areas in apartment and condo complexes are full of uncountable hazards. Pesticides, lawn chemicals, cigarette butts, dog or cat feces, coins, toxic weeds, trash items... Again, the list of potential killers is endless. Don't do it. Its not worth it.
14. Heat lamps: No spot bulbs. They concentrate too much heat and desiccating IR A into too small of an area. Use flood bulbs or round bulbs in a hood. Don't use spot bulbs, halogen bulbs, infrared bulbs, colored bulbs, mercury vapor bulbs, or any others that I'm forgetting. Use a "flood" bulb for basking.
15. UV: The old style T8 tube bulbs produce very little UV. 5.0 bulbs produce almost none. Compact fluorescent type bulbs are ineffective UV sources and sometimes burn reptile eyes. They should not be used. So what works? T5 HO tubes are best. Arcadia makes the Pro T5 kits in several lengths. ZooMed has a 10.0 HO tube that is safe, effective and reliable. There are some new LED UVB bulbs hitting the market now too. The cheaper ones don't do much, but some of the pricier ones work great. I'm running several of the ZooMed LED UV bulbs and they are fantastic. I expect them to last a long time for me and UV output is great according to my Solarmeter 6.5. Speaking of the meters, there is no way to know what is happening in your enclosure without a meter. Your tortoise may be getting too much UV, or none at all. This needs to be measured, not guessed at. Buying the meter will save money in the long run as you won't be wasting perfectly good working bulbs at 6 month intervals. You will wait to buy a new bulb until a new bulb is needed.
16. UV duration: There is no need to run UV bulbs for 12 hours a day. This makes no sense. It is totally unnecessary and completely unnatural. High UV from daybreak to lights out does not happen in the wild. Outdoor UV levels outside build slowly in the morning, peak mid day, and drop off in the afternoon. Outdoor UV levels are much stronger in summer time. Our tortoises only need 15 minutes of UV once in a while to make the needed D3, which is then stored in their bodies for later use. Dietary D3 also gets the job done, further reducing the need for UVB. A few hours mid day is more than enough UVB exposure, and this more closely simulates what is happening outside.
17. Deep heat projectors: The wavelengths of energy these create are very desiccating. They cause pyramiding. Better to use a CHE or RHP for ambient heat. Control these devices with a thermostat.
18. Water dishes: Terra cotta plant saucers sunk into the substrate work the best. Nothing bought at a pet store works well.
19. MVBs: Mercury vapor bulbs. Heat light and UV all in one bulb. Sounds great, but it doesn't work. As mentioned in #16, we don't want high levels of UV all day every day, but the tortoise does need a basking lamp all day (except forrest species) for heat and light. These two different things need to come from different sources and be on their own timers. MVBs sometimes make way too much UV. Other MVBs stop producing any UV at all after a few months. These bulb are also fragile, temperamental, finicky about what fixture you can use them in, expensive, and unreliable. They are also high wattage and hot, which will over heat a closed chamber. You ARE using a closed chamber with the heating and lighting inside, aren't you??? On top of all those reasons not to use them, they are extremely desiccating to the carapace and cause pyramiding, even when used in an otherwise humid environment.
20. CFLs: Some of these burn reptile eyes. Not all of them, but some of them do. Some people mistakenly believe this was only a problem for the early models, and it is now fixed. It isn't. My reptile vet friends see several cases a year of photokeratitis in reptiles housed under these bulbs. They are also a poor source of UV. These bulbs should not be sold or used.
21. Hibernation? Its actually correctly referred to as brumation in reptiles. Here is a thread on that topic:
22. Dogs: Don't do it. I'm a career professional dog trainer. Dogs and tortoises should never have access to each other. It doesn't work, and it won't work. No amount of introducing, or socializing, or training will stop your dog from mauling or killing your tortoise. Keep them separate. teach the dog to "leave it" and stay away from the tortoises at all times, and ensure that the tortoise is always protected by fencing or barriers that cannot be breached. Don't learn this lesson the hard way. It is awful. Next to dehydration, the loving family dog is a top killer of tortoises. Your dog is not "different". Many dogs will ignore the tortoise for years, right top until the day it doesn't. Please please please protect your tortoise from this awful fate. Please.
23. Going on vacation? Leave the tortoise home. Work it out one way or another. Your tortoise will not enjoy being carted about and removed form its home. Timers, thermostats, web cams, etc... Friends, family, neighbors, paid pet sitters, etc... Find a solution that suits you and your situation.
24. Never mix tortoise species. This is another potential death sentence.
25. Want to have a successful and enjoyable tortoise keeping experience? Don't buy a tortoise species that is not suited to your climate. Don't get a red foot or an Aldabra in CA, and don't get a leopard in Tennessee. Don't get a sulcata anywhere that isn't warm and sunny most of the year. Don't get a large species if you live in a small apartment in the frozen north. Sulcatas are the wrong species for almost everyone. Can you house cattle on your premises? Cattle that need to be kept warm all year every year? If not, then a sulcata probably isn't for you.
26. If you are going to be a tortoises keeper, it is very advantageous to also learn to be a farmer. Or at least a gardener and pasture grower. And if you don't want to grow your own, then learn to be a scrounger. The best foods you can feed to your tortoise are free. You just have to spend time learning your local plants and weeds, and then spend time collecting your free tortoise food. I'd rather spend time on a nature walk collecting tortoise food than driving to the store, fighting traffic and waiting on red lights, and waiting in line to pay for expensive greens, wondering the whole time what chemicals, insecticides and other industrial farming stuff is on those items.
27. Enclosure types: Open topped enclosures only work if the room conditions are what the tortoise needs. Adult Testudo, for example, are fine at normal room temperatures and humidity, as long as they have adequate lighting, a warmer basking area, a humid hide, and appropriate UV. Baby sulcatas, for example, are NOT fine at 70 degrees and 30% humidity. There is no way to maintain the correct living conditions for a baby sulcata with an open topped enclosure. That is like trying to heat your house in winter with no roof. Your house heater can run all night long and your house will never warm up. It doesn't work. Everyone is sorry that you got bad advice and bought the wrong type of enclosure. Let it go. Now you know better. Move on and get the right type of enclosure for your baby. You need a closed chamber. We all wish you had found this info BEFORE you bought the wrong type of enclosure.
28. "My tortoise is not eating...": Tortoises are grazing animals. They should be eating every day. I can only think of two exceptions unless something is terribly wrong. New tortoises will sometimes take a few days to settle in, and its normal for any temperate species to not be eating in the fall while preparing for brumation. Outside of those two scenarios, your tortoise should be eating. Please don't wait a week, or several, before asking for help.
29. "Tortoises do better outside." No they don't! Well... yes they do in some cases, but not in all cases. Wait... what? Okay... I'll explain: In a favorable climate and in favorable weather, ADULT and large juvenile tortoises do much better in large, secure, well designed, well planted, tortoise enclosures outside. Night box type shelters are also essential for this to work well, with rare exception. So what am I talking about here? Babies. Babies do NOT do better outside. I have been doing side-by-side experiments with this for over a decade. Babies do MUCH better when kept mostly indoors in controlled, stable conditions that are correct for the species. Babies in the wild do not walk around exposed to hot sunshine, dry conditions, and every predator with a pair of eyes. Babies hide. That is why almost nothing is known about baby tortoises in the wild. "The lost years". No one knows where they go or what they are doing from hatching until the time when we start seeing them again as large juveniles and subadults. We SPECULATE that they stay well hidden in deep undergrowth and leaf litter. They exist almost 100% hidden from view in damp, moist conditions. Regardless of whether or not this speculation is correct, we have proven thousands of times over that in captivity, babies do better in warm humid conditions, with humid hides, plants, cover, damp substrate, closed chambers, and daily soaks. This is not debatable anymore, and it applies to all species that I know of. If you could make beef jerky in your enclosure, it isn't right for any baby tortoise of any species. My general rule of thumb is no more than an hour of access to sunshine per day per inch of tortoise. Babies do not "need" to go outside at all. If you really want to do it anyway, make sure the enclosure is secure, has deep shade, is protected from dogs and other predators, cannot flood, and keep the time to a minimum for tiny babies.
30. We have a member here named Will. Will is a biologist by trade and well studied on tortoise nutrition. He started a business that is revolutionizing the way we feed our tortoises. Will doesn't pay me, and I don't get anything for this shameless plug. I'm typing this because I personally use his products daily, and it has changed how I feed my tortoises. At certain times of year, many of us have no alternative but to feed grocery store produce. By itself, this isn't a great way to feed a tortoise. Will's company, https://www.kapidolofarms.com, offers all sorts of organic dried leaves, cactus chips, cactus flour, and more that you simply sprinkle on top of the day's greens, or mix it all in with them, which is what I do. This makes it SOOOOOOO easy to improve the quality of grocery store greens and add fiber and variety to your tortoises diet. At any given time, I have at least a half dozen options. Dried mulberry leaves, moringa, echinacea, ginkgo, marsh mallow, nettle, plantain weeds, dandelion, clover, rose petals and hips, raspberry leaf, and many more. All you do is prepare your tortoise's food for the day as you usually do, and then sprinkle some of these dried items on top, or mix the dried items all in with the greens. This is a fantastic way to make your tortoise's food better every day. I've been using his products since he started selling them a few years ago, and I have nothing but good to say about all of it.

Here is a breakdown of the four heating and lighting essentials:
  1. Basking bulb. I use 65 watt incandescent floods from the hardware store. Some people will need bigger, or smaller wattage bulbs. Let your thermometer be your guide. I run them on a timer for about 12 hours and adjust the height to get the correct basking temp under them. I also like to use a flat rock of some sort directly under the bulb. You need to check the temp with a thermometer directly under the bulb and get it to around 95-100F (36-37C).
  2. Ambient heat maintenance. I use ceramic heating elements or radiant heat panels set on thermostats to maintain ambient above 80 degrees day and night for tropical species. In most cases you'd only need day heat for a temperate species like Testudo or DT, as long as your house stays above 60F (15-16C) at night. Some people in colder climates or with larger enclosures will need multiple CHEs or RHPs to spread out enough heat.
  3. Ambient light. I use LEDs for this purpose. Something in the 5000-6500K color range will look the best. Most bulbs at the store are in the 2500K range and they look yellowish. Strip or screw-in LED bulb types are both fine.
  4. UV. If you can get your tortoise outside for an hour 2 or 3 times a week, you won't need indoor UV. In colder climates, get one of the newer HO type fluorescent tubes. Which type will depend on mounting height. 5.0 bulbs make almost no UV. I like the 12% HO bulbs from Arcadia. You need a meter to check this: https://www.solarmeter.com/model65.html A good UV bulb only needs to run for 2-3 hours mid day. You need the basking bulb and the ambient lighting to be on at least 12 hours a day.
Here is the care sheet for tropical species like sulcatas, stars, leopards, and pancakes:

Here is the care sheet for temperate species like greeks, hermanni, Russians, desert tortoises, and Chersina:

Along with the temperate species care info, here is the brumation info:

Here is the explanation of what is going on with babies that are started too dry:

Here are all the night box building threads:

I hope this information will help keep many tortoises healthy and thriving, and help keep many tortoise keepers happy and fulfilled with their decision to keep a tortoise. Please feel free to share any or all of this information.
Thanks for doing this post, Tom. I only wish I had all this info when I got my Russian 14+ years ago. Fortunately he did “okay,” but he is living his BEST life now because of all the knowledge gleaned here—especially from you.

However, you are unrealistic to think the community wouldn’t read a new care sheet written by you.🙄
 

Toddrickfl1

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This guy seems to know what he's talking about.......
 

lanilove

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Tom,

Thank you so much for this information!! It is very helpful having the information in one place. Unfortunately, when I first got my redfoot I followed the advice from YouTube, online articles, and the workers at the pet store. I am so thankful to have found this forum, I quickly made all of the necessary changes.

I currently feed my redfoot grocery store produce, Mazuri, and calcium powder a few times a week. I saw you mentioned avoiding grocery store produce as much as possible. I live in an apartment and I was wondering what are the best and safest options for getting the proper food for my redfoot. Are there plants you recommend growing indoors? Also, do you have any recommendations for the best places to forage for food and what to look for? I've been afraid of getting plants that are contaminated with pesticides so I haven't tried foraging yet.

Thank you again for the post!
 

ZEROPILOT

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Tom,

Thank you so much for this information!! It is very helpful having the information in one place. Unfortunately, when I first got my redfoot I followed the advice from YouTube, online articles, and the workers at the pet store. I am so thankful to have found this forum, I quickly made all of the necessary changes.

I currently feed my redfoot grocery store produce, Mazuri, and calcium powder a few times a week. I saw you mentioned avoiding grocery store produce as much as possible. I live in an apartment and I was wondering what are the best and safest options for getting the proper food for my redfoot. Are there plants you recommend growing indoors? Also, do you have any recommendations for the best places to forage for food and what to look for? I've been afraid of getting plants that are contaminated with pesticides so I haven't tried foraging yet.

Thank you again for the post!
Pm sent
Off topic
 

CynthiaRose711

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Thank you so much for this info! I’m new to tortoise keeping and I found this very helpful since I’m starting to prepare a set up and doing research on tortoise species. I look forward to learning more from other tortoise keepers ☺️
 
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Tom

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Thank you so much for this info! I’m new to tortoise keeping and I found this very helpful since I’m starting to prepare a set up and doing research on tortoise species. I look forward to learning more from other tortoise keepers ☺️
Hello and welcome. Beware what you read or hear outside of this forum. It is perilous out there in the world.
 

Firstimeleopard

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Hello and welcome to tortoiseforum.org! We are all glad you are here!

There is no other forum like this anywhere. We have tens of thousands of members from all over the world ranging from kids with their first tortoise to people who have been breeding and keeping high end tortoises since the 1960s, and everything in between. There is more knowledge and experience here on this forum than I have seen anywhere else on the planet. If you have a tortoise, if you like tortoises, if you want a tortoise, or if you have been breeding and keeping tortoises for decades, then this forum will help you do it all better.

Now for the bad news: Most of the care info offered for tortoises out in the world is awful. Much of it is just plain wrong. Some of these things are based on decades old incorrect assumptions about how they live in the wild. Some of these things seem so reasonable and logical when explained by 5 different YouTubers, vets, or breeders, but they are just plain wrong. How do we know they are wrong? Many members here, myself included, have been doing side-by-side experiments for well over a decade now to determine what is true and what is false. We've determined what works best and why. We've cut through the conflicting info, wrong info, and old myths. There is much more to learn and many unanswered questions, but we've come a long way and solved a lot of mysteries. We can back up our assertions with cold hard facts and data, and we are happy to do so. Many of the people who argue with some of this info have NEVER done it the way we are suggesting. We have done it their way, often for decades, but they have never done it our way, so they have no idea what the result would be. They just keep parroting the same wrong info that they were taught, and the wrong info passes from generation to generation. Vets, breeders, pet stores, reptile experts, books, FB, YT, and so many other sources keep learning from, and repeating, this wrong info and its everywhere. People do lots of "research" only to come here and find out that much of what they learned is wrong and much of it is harmful. I'll list all of this in a bit so that you can understand specifically what I'm talking about with these broad general statements, but just know that most of what people find when they do "research" turns out to be wrong, and then the pet store sells them all the wrong products, and the handsome, articulate, guy or gal on YouTube said to do it this way or that way. It seems so credible, but it isn't. Its wrong. Its been wrong for decades, and it will always be wrong. Talk about frustrating...

Here is a list of general TFO knowledge that I type up over and over again. This list should answer most questions, and also show you what you are doing right or wrong. These points should catch incoming new TFO members up to speed on all the knowledge that has been compiled over all the years here. I type up these same things over and over and I hope typing them up here, along with the usual explanation that goes with each of these points, will save me from having to type the same paragraph up over and over again, every day. This list should address most of the misinformation that is out in the world, and found universally by everyone who does "research" into proper tortoise care. Questions and conversation are always welcome here. Feel free to question these points. We are all here to talk tortoises. I've been told several times over the years that I should write a book. Well here it is:

1. The number one mistake that most people make is buying a tortoise from the wrong source. The vast majority of breeders do not start tortoises correctly, and many of these dry started babies die weeks or months later. The breeder has no idea what is happening and they usually proclaim that its the new owners fault because the tortoise was fine when it was with them. The breeder does not realize that the things they did, or didn't do, in the days and weeks after that baby hatched can condemn it to death months down the road. These same breeders often tell people the wrong way to house and care for the baby, which makes things worse. Then the pet stores tell people more wrong info and sell them products that are expensive, ineffective and sometimes harmful or dangerous. People go on YouTube and watch charismatic people explaining how it should be done, and have no idea that its all wrong. Ask us where to get a tortoise. We will tell you.
2. No tortoise needs desert-like conditions as a baby. Even California desert tortoises, which truly come from a desert, will die of chronic dehydration if housed in the dry desiccating conditions that people mistakenly think they need. Wild hatched babies hide in little humid micro-climates. They hide under bushes and leaf litter. They dig down into moist earth. They do not walk around out in the open exposed to hot dry desiccating conditions. Some tortoises can survive dry conditions just fine as adults. No tortoise needs dry conditions as a baby.
3. Soaking: All babies of all species should be soaked daily. Every day. Seven days a week. This can taper off as they gain size, but there is no such thing as too much soaking. It does NOT make them move their food through the GI tract too quickly. It does NOT upset their "water balance", whatever that is. It does not make them sick or stress them out, even if some act like you have dropped them in a vat of acid (I'm looking at YOU wild caught pet store Russian tortoises...), it does not give them shell rot, soften their shells, or give them respiratory infections. It doesn't do any of that non-sense that you have read about. What is does is keep your baby well hydrated and healthy. Soak your baby in a tall sided opaque container for 30-40 minutes daily. Keep the water warm the entire time. If you want to soak every day for your tortoises's entire life, it will do no harm and they will always be hydrated. Soaking has innumerable benefits for all species. All living things need water. Keep your tortoise well hydrated.
4. Sand. Sand is a serious impaction risk and its a terrible skin and eye irritant. Some will say they've used it for years with no problems. I doubt that is the case, and watching, hearing, and smelling a single sand impaction surgery should be enough to convince anyone. Do some tortoises live in areas where they might encounter sand in the wild? Of course they do. So what? Lots of tortoises also die in the wild, so I don't think mimicking the wild should be our goal. Further, your enclosure is NOT the wild. Sand should not be used as tortoise substrate. Most of the substrate mixes marketed for reptiles in pet stores have sand in them. Don't use it. Don't learn the hard way.
5. Soil: Soil is made from composted yard waste. Could be oleander trimmings. Could be azaleas. Could be lawn grass recently treated with insecticide, weed killer or fungicide. There is no way to know what is in that bag. There are all sorts of other weird ingredients added in and it can change as much and as often as the makers want. The contents of that bag are intended to grow plants in a pot or a garden. The makers and sellers do not intend for small animals to be living in it or on it in small enclosures. The contents of that bag might be toxic or dangerous, and the "Organic" moniker means very little. Oleander and rattle snake venom are both 100% organic and natural. Don't allow a tortoise access to bought-in-a-bag soil. If you make your own soil and know 100% of the ingredients and are sure all those ingredients are safe, then you can use it, but its still messy and not a good way to go. If you bought it at a store, there could be anything in that bag. Don't gamble with your tortoise's life. It is fine to use toxin free soils to grow plants to feed our tortoises, and in potted plants inside tortoise enclosures, but the tortoise should not have access to the soil, and certainly should not be living on it, or burying themselves in it. P.S. Perlite is a tortoise killer, and perlite is in many, if not most, potting soil mixes. Be careful.
6. If we can't use soil or sand, what CAN we use? All things considered, there are three that have proven to be safe and effective. Fine grade orchid bark is best. If you can't find it in bulk near you, it is marketed as "Repti-bark" in any of the normal pet channels. Cypress mulch is the next one. Not my favorite, but it works. Coco coir is the final one. This one is also called "coco peat" which is confusing, because any form of actual "peat" or "peat moss" or "sphagnum moss" or "sphagnum peat moss" should not be used. You also don't want coco chips or coco fiber for tortoises. Here is a list of what NOT to use: Soil, sand, mixes of any kind with soil and/or sand like "Pets At Home" in the UK (What a terrible idea that stuff is...), sphagnum peat moss, sphagnum moss, peat moss, long fibered peat moss, hay, grass pellets, rabbit pellets, gravel, sod, carpet, towels, paper towels, coco fiber, coco chips, and rubber mats.
7. Glass tanks: There is nothing wrong with glass tanks for starting babies. Well... actually there is, but its not what they say it is. Glass doesn't stress them out, and the "invisible barrier" that they don't understand is not torture for them. The problem with glass tanks is the open top that lets all the heat and humidity out, and they are too small for anything but a baby. I believe the glass tank myth started because people would buy a wild caught import (Russians again...) and stick it in a tiny 40 gallon tank on the recommendation of the pet store. The thing would go nuts climbing the walls and trying to find a way out. This is not because it is glass. This is because it is WAY too small and far too barren and this wild caught animal who is used to roaming for miles in heavy brush, and it is not comfortable with this sort of tiny confinement. The tortoise would do the same thing in a solid wooden enclosure of the same dimensions.
8. Enclosure size: Tortoises need HUGE enclosures. There are many pet reptile species that do just fine in smaller enclosures. Not tortoises. Much like horses, tortoises rely on locomotion to help keep things moving through the GI tract. We can see problems from this lack of motion in weather that is too hot or too cold, even with a large enclosure. A tortoise might sit still all day in the shade to avoid the scorching summer sun, or they might stay in their heated shelter all day on a cold cloudy day. This lack of walking can cause them to become constipated. Small enclosures can cause skeletal, muscular, and digestive problems for tortoises. Once you put down a food bowl, a water dish or two, a couple of hides, a potted plant or two, and some decorations, there is hardly any room left to walk in an enclosure that is too small. If you don't have room for a giant enclosure, then you don't have room for a tortoise. Its that simple. One of the worse thing people can say to me after hearing they need a bigger enclosure is: "Well I don't have space for that", or "Well I can't afford that...". I am no stranger to lack of space and lack of money. I've experienced both of those issues many times throughout my years. If you don't have space or money to house your animal correctly, then don't get that animal. If you already have the animal, then you need to do the right thing. Find the space and money, or give the animal to someone that has the space and resources to house it correctly. Does that sound too harsh? It isn't too harsh. What is too harsh is some poor tortoise suffering in a small enclosure, and suffering is what it is doing. Not cool. I want people to have a happy positive tortoise keeping experience, but tortoises are not for everyone. If you are low on funds or low on space, wait to get a tortoise until your situation is more suitable for a tortoise. If you long for a reptile pet with cheaper, smaller housing requirements, there are many good options for you. Don't get a tortoise and house it poorly. Please.
9. Pairs: Tortoises should never be housed in pairs. Groups of juveniles can sometimes work, but not pairs. Group dynamics are different than pair dynamics. Whenever there are just two, one will be dominant and the other submissive. The dominant is clearly telling the submissive to "GET OUT!" of my territory, but the submissive can't. This can be seen in animals as primitive as flatworms. Most people do not see the signs in tortoises. Our tortoises don't have the ability to growl. They don't have lips to snarl, or hackles to raise, yet they show their hostility just the same, but in their own way. Following each other, cuddling in a shelter, sleeping face to face, sitting on the food pile... All of these are blatant tortoise aggression. People are looking for biting, ramming and other overt signs. Those overt behaviors do happen in some cases, but more often the two tortoises are just forced to live in each other's space in a state of constant chronic stress, while the owner thinks everything is just fine because they aren't actively attacking and biting each other. It is NOT fine. Keep tortoises alone, which is totally fine, or in groups of three or more, which can sometimes lead to other problems down the road as they all begin to mature. Tortoises do not want or need company. Some species tolerate company better than others, but none should be kept in pairs. For some breeding projects, it is advantageous to raise them up in groups, but never pairs. If you only want two tortoises, that is great. Get two separate enclosures. And two outdoor enclosures for fair weather too.
10. Grocery store produce: In short, avoid grocery store produce when possible. Grocery store greens are not the best tortoise foods. They tend to lack fiber, calcium, and some of them have deleterious compounds in them. If you must use foods from the grocery store, favor endive and escarole as the main staples. Add in cilantro, arugula, collards, turnip and mustard greens, lettuces and many others for variety. You will also need to add some sort of amendment to improve the quality as tortoise food. Calcium is good to add a couple of times per week and soaked horse hay pellets are a good way to add fiber for any species. Soaked ZooMed tortoise pellets of any type are good to add, as is Purina Organic Lay Crumbles for chickens, oddly enough. When possible skip the expensive grocery store greens and use a wide variety of weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents, that are all free.
11. Hay: If you have an adult of a grass eating species, then grass hay is an indispensable tool for keeping your tortoise fed well. If you have a species that is not a grass eater, or a baby of a grass eating species, hay is not an appropriate food item. It is too dry and coarse for babies and they can choke on it. Hay is also not suitable as a substrate for small indoor tortoises, as it is much too dry and will mold when it gets wet or soiled.
12. Ramped bowls: Ramped water bowls that the pet stores always seem to sell to people are literally a tortoise death trap. Some tortoises avoid them, and simply don't drink. Other tortoises flip upside down in them and drown. These bowls are great for lizards and snakes, but should not be used for tortoises. Use terra cotta saucers large enough for your tortoise to climb into, and sink them down into the substrate.
13. Loose on the floor or outside, or public parks: This is not safe and cannot be made safe. Floors are too cold, too slick, and there are millions of ways for your tortoise to kill or injure itself. It is not safe and cannot be made safe. No amount of supervision will prevent these problems. We have seen tortoise heads caught in door jambs, all sorts of ingested items from dust bunnies to sewing pins to earrings, tortoises get accidentally kicked or stepped on, escapes through doors left open, lost limbs from carpet fibers or human hair wrapping around a leg unseen... the list is endless. Tortoises that are allowed to wander outside are almost always reported as "very closely supervised". They eventually end up lost. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, sooner or later, there will be one second of distraction and that tortoise will simply disappear. Happens all the time, and it will literally make you feel nauseated when it eventually happens. Keep your tortoise contained in a large safe enclosure. Don't let this happen to you. Parks and common areas in apartment and condo complexes are full of uncountable hazards. Pesticides, lawn chemicals, cigarette butts, dog or cat feces, coins, toxic weeds, trash items... Again, the list of potential killers is endless. Don't do it. Its not worth it.
14. Heat lamps: No spot bulbs. They concentrate too much heat and desiccating IR A into too small of an area. Use flood bulbs or round bulbs in a hood. Don't use spot bulbs, halogen bulbs, infrared bulbs, colored bulbs, mercury vapor bulbs, or any others that I'm forgetting. Use a "flood" bulb for basking.
15. UV: The old style T8 tube bulbs produce very little UV. 5.0 bulbs produce almost none. Compact fluorescent type bulbs are ineffective UV sources and sometimes burn reptile eyes. They should not be used. So what works? T5 HO tubes are best. Arcadia makes the Pro T5 kits in several lengths. ZooMed has a 10.0 HO tube that is safe, effective and reliable. There are some new LED UVB bulbs hitting the market now too. The cheaper ones don't do much, but some of the pricier ones work great. I'm running several of the ZooMed LED UV bulbs and they are fantastic. I expect them to last a long time for me and UV output is great according to my Solarmeter 6.5. Speaking of the meters, there is no way to know what is happening in your enclosure without a meter. Your tortoise may be getting too much UV, or none at all. This needs to be measured, not guessed at. Buying the meter will save money in the long run as you won't be wasting perfectly good working bulbs at 6 month intervals. You will wait to buy a new bulb until a new bulb is needed.
16. UV duration: There is no need to run UV bulbs for 12 hours a day. This makes no sense. It is totally unnecessary and completely unnatural. High UV from daybreak to lights out does not happen in the wild. Outdoor UV levels outside build slowly in the morning, peak mid day, and drop off in the afternoon. Outdoor UV levels are much stronger in summer time. Our tortoises only need 15 minutes of UV once in a while to make the needed D3, which is then stored in their bodies for later use. Dietary D3 also gets the job done, further reducing the need for UVB. A few hours mid day is more than enough UVB exposure, and this more closely simulates what is happening outside.
17. Deep heat projectors: The wavelengths of energy these create are very desiccating. They cause pyramiding. Better to use a CHE or RHP for ambient heat. Control these devices with a thermostat.
18. Water dishes: Terra cotta plant saucers sunk into the substrate work the best. Nothing bought at a pet store works well.
19. MVBs: Mercury vapor bulbs. Heat light and UV all in one bulb. Sounds great, but it doesn't work. As mentioned in #16, we don't want high levels of UV all day every day, but the tortoise does need a basking lamp all day (except forrest species) for heat and light. These two different things need to come from different sources and be on their own timers. MVBs sometimes make way too much UV. Other MVBs stop producing any UV at all after a few months. These bulb are also fragile, temperamental, finicky about what fixture you can use them in, expensive, and unreliable. They are also high wattage and hot, which will over heat a closed chamber. You ARE using a closed chamber with the heating and lighting inside, aren't you??? On top of all those reasons not to use them, they are extremely desiccating to the carapace and cause pyramiding, even when used in an otherwise humid environment.
20. CFLs: Some of these burn reptile eyes. Not all of them, but some of them do. Some people mistakenly believe this was only a problem for the early models, and it is now fixed. It isn't. My reptile vet friends see several cases a year of photokeratitis in reptiles housed under these bulbs. They are also a poor source of UV. These bulbs should not be sold or used.
21. Hibernation? Its actually correctly referred to as brumation in reptiles. Here is a thread on that topic:
22. Dogs: Don't do it. I'm a career professional dog trainer. Dogs and tortoises should never have access to each other. It doesn't work, and it won't work. No amount of introducing, or socializing, or training will stop your dog from mauling or killing your tortoise. Keep them separate. teach the dog to "leave it" and stay away from the tortoises at all times, and ensure that the tortoise is always protected by fencing or barriers that cannot be breached. Don't learn this lesson the hard way. It is awful. Next to dehydration, the loving family dog is a top killer of tortoises. Your dog is not "different". Many dogs will ignore the tortoise for years, right top until the day it doesn't. Please please please protect your tortoise from this awful fate. Please.
23. Going on vacation? Leave the tortoise home. Work it out one way or another. Your tortoise will not enjoy being carted about and removed form its home. Timers, thermostats, web cams, etc... Friends, family, neighbors, paid pet sitters, etc... Find a solution that suits you and your situation.
24. Never mix tortoise species. This is another potential death sentence.
25. Want to have a successful and enjoyable tortoise keeping experience? Don't buy a tortoise species that is not suited to your climate. Don't get a red foot or an Aldabra in CA, and don't get a leopard in Tennessee. Don't get a sulcata anywhere that isn't warm and sunny most of the year. Don't get a large species if you live in a small apartment in the frozen north. Sulcatas are the wrong species for almost everyone. Can you house cattle on your premises? Cattle that need to be kept warm all year every year? If not, then a sulcata probably isn't for you.
26. If you are going to be a tortoises keeper, it is very advantageous to also learn to be a farmer. Or at least a gardener and pasture grower. And if you don't want to grow your own, then learn to be a scrounger. The best foods you can feed to your tortoise are free. You just have to spend time learning your local plants and weeds, and then spend time collecting your free tortoise food. I'd rather spend time on a nature walk collecting tortoise food than driving to the store, fighting traffic and waiting on red lights, and waiting in line to pay for expensive greens, wondering the whole time what chemicals, insecticides and other industrial farming stuff is on those items.
27. Enclosure types: Open topped enclosures only work if the room conditions are what the tortoise needs. Adult Testudo, for example, are fine at normal room temperatures and humidity, as long as they have adequate lighting, a warmer basking area, a humid hide, and appropriate UV. Baby sulcatas, for example, are NOT fine at 70 degrees and 30% humidity. There is no way to maintain the correct living conditions for a baby sulcata with an open topped enclosure. That is like trying to heat your house in winter with no roof. Your house heater can run all night long and your house will never warm up. It doesn't work. Everyone is sorry that you got bad advice and bought the wrong type of enclosure. Let it go. Now you know better. Move on and get the right type of enclosure for your baby. You need a closed chamber. We all wish you had found this info BEFORE you bought the wrong type of enclosure.
28. "My tortoise is not eating...": Tortoises are grazing animals. They should be eating every day. I can only think of two exceptions unless something is terribly wrong. New tortoises will sometimes take a few days to settle in, and its normal for any temperate species to not be eating in the fall while preparing for brumation. Outside of those two scenarios, your tortoise should be eating. Please don't wait a week, or several, before asking for help.
29. "Tortoises do better outside." No they don't! Well... yes they do in some cases, but not in all cases. Wait... what? Okay... I'll explain: In a favorable climate and in favorable weather, ADULT and large juvenile tortoises do much better in large, secure, well designed, well planted, tortoise enclosures outside. Night box type shelters are also essential for this to work well, with rare exception. So what am I talking about here? Babies. Babies do NOT do better outside. I have been doing side-by-side experiments with this for over a decade. Babies do MUCH better when kept mostly indoors in controlled, stable conditions that are correct for the species. Babies in the wild do not walk around exposed to hot sunshine, dry conditions, and every predator with a pair of eyes. Babies hide. That is why almost nothing is known about baby tortoises in the wild. "The lost years". No one knows where they go or what they are doing from hatching until the time when we start seeing them again as large juveniles and subadults. We SPECULATE that they stay well hidden in deep undergrowth and leaf litter. They exist almost 100% hidden from view in damp, moist conditions. Regardless of whether or not this speculation is correct, we have proven thousands of times over that in captivity, babies do better in warm humid conditions, with humid hides, plants, cover, damp substrate, closed chambers, and daily soaks. This is not debatable anymore, and it applies to all species that I know of. If you could make beef jerky in your enclosure, it isn't right for any baby tortoise of any species. My general rule of thumb is no more than an hour of access to sunshine per day per inch of tortoise. Babies do not "need" to go outside at all. If you really want to do it anyway, make sure the enclosure is secure, has deep shade, is protected from dogs and other predators, cannot flood, and keep the time to a minimum for tiny babies.
30. We have a member here named Will. Will is a biologist by trade and well studied on tortoise nutrition. He started a business that is revolutionizing the way we feed our tortoises. Will doesn't pay me, and I don't get anything for this shameless plug. I'm typing this because I personally use his products daily, and it has changed how I feed my tortoises. At certain times of year, many of us have no alternative but to feed grocery store produce. By itself, this isn't a great way to feed a tortoise. Will's company, https://www.kapidolofarms.com, offers all sorts of organic dried leaves, cactus chips, cactus flour, and more that you simply sprinkle on top of the day's greens, or mix it all in with them, which is what I do. This makes it SOOOOOOO easy to improve the quality of grocery store greens and add fiber and variety to your tortoises diet. At any given time, I have at least a half dozen options. Dried mulberry leaves, moringa, echinacea, ginkgo, marsh mallow, nettle, plantain weeds, dandelion, clover, rose petals and hips, raspberry leaf, and many more. All you do is prepare your tortoise's food for the day as you usually do, and then sprinkle some of these dried items on top, or mix the dried items all in with the greens. This is a fantastic way to make your tortoise's food better every day. I've been using his products since he started selling them a few years ago, and I have nothing but good to say about all of it.

Here is a breakdown of the four heating and lighting essentials:
  1. Basking bulb. I use 65 watt incandescent floods from the hardware store. Some people will need bigger, or smaller wattage bulbs. Let your thermometer be your guide. I run them on a timer for about 12 hours and adjust the height to get the correct basking temp under them. I also like to use a flat rock of some sort directly under the bulb. You need to check the temp with a thermometer directly under the bulb and get it to around 95-100F (36-37C).
  2. Ambient heat maintenance. I use ceramic heating elements or radiant heat panels set on thermostats to maintain ambient above 80 degrees day and night for tropical species. In most cases you'd only need day heat for a temperate species like Testudo or DT, as long as your house stays above 60F (15-16C) at night. Some people in colder climates or with larger enclosures will need multiple CHEs or RHPs to spread out enough heat.
  3. Ambient light. I use LEDs for this purpose. Something in the 5000-6500K color range will look the best. Most bulbs at the store are in the 2500K range and they look yellowish. Strip or screw-in LED bulb types are both fine.
  4. UV. If you can get your tortoise outside for an hour 2 or 3 times a week, you won't need indoor UV. In colder climates, get one of the newer HO type fluorescent tubes. Which type will depend on mounting height. 5.0 bulbs make almost no UV. I like the 12% HO bulbs from Arcadia. You need a meter to check this: https://www.solarmeter.com/model65.html A good UV bulb only needs to run for 2-3 hours mid day. You need the basking bulb and the ambient lighting to be on at least 12 hours a day.
Here is the care sheet for tropical species like sulcatas, stars, leopards, and pancakes:

Here is the care sheet for temperate species like greeks, hermanni, Russians, desert tortoises, and Chersina:

Along with the temperate species care info, here is the brumation info:

Here is the explanation of what is going on with babies that are started too dry:

Here are all the night box building threads:

I hope this information will help keep many tortoises healthy and thriving, and help keep many tortoise keepers happy and fulfilled with their decision to keep a tortoise. Please feel free to share any or all of this information.
@Tom Merry Christmas and thanks for sharing your wisdom! About the flat rock under the basking bulb- is there a particular type you can recommend? Is this so the tortoise can have a nice little hot spot to rest on? Thank you!
 
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