One of the most common questions we are asked at Internet Reptile is whether it is better to house a pet tortoise in a tortoise table or a vivarium. As with most subjects in the reptile world, a genuine choice creates debate, meaning researching online or asking on advice groups will often leave you with more questions than answers.
In this article we will try and explain the advantages and drawbacks of both types of housing to help you make the right choice for you whilst alleviating some of the common myths and misconceptions.
We are writing this article in relation to the most commonly kept species such as Hermann, Horsfield and other Mediterranean or Russian Tortoises. More specialist species may have different requirements such as increased humidity which is unlikely to be achieved in a table.
What makes a great home for a tortoise?
In their natural habitat, wild tortoises neither live in tables or vivariums so what matters when we keep them in captivity is not the type of enclosure, but how well we can recreate the environments from which they originate. The type of enclosure will dictate the ease or difficulty in meeting these requirements so we will address each of these requirements in turn to help you decide how best to set up your new pets’ home.
Tortoises benefit greatly from a well-ventilated environment, it’s important for them to be able to breath fresh clean air that is not stuffy or too humid. This is the overwhelming reason why tortoise tables are recommended and vivariums get a bad press.
Whilst ventilation will almost always be greater in an open topped table, the idea that a vivarium cannot offer an adequate level of ventilation is not really true. Any quality, well-constructed vivarium designed for reptiles will have good ventilation built in. Vents at both lower and upper levels of a vivarium and correctly positioned heating will allow for more than adequate ventilation for most species. Additional measures such as allowing a small gap at the side of sliding doors or installing additional mesh ventilation panels can also help this further if deemed necessary.
Tortoise Table: Easy to achieve
Vivarium: Care should be taken choosing a vivarium with good ventilation
It is critical to ensure that your tortoise has access to the correct basking AND ambient temperatures. If using a tortoise table, the reality is that your ambient room temperature will also be the ambient room temperature in the table. This means that tortoise tables are generally unsuitable for use in chilly or draughty rooms.
A wooden vivarium on the other hand offers excellent levels of insulation and therefore warmer temperatures can be maintained within the vivarium, this makes draughts, or cold or varying room temperatures are less of an issue.
An enclosed area is of course more prone to overheating meaning that thermostatically controlled basking lamp is a necessity. Whilst this may cost a little more, it should not be seen as a disadvantage as more precise temperature control will always be better for your tortoise
Tortoise Table: Difficult to maintain correctly unless controlled at a room level.
Vivarium: Easy to achieve warmer, precisely controlled ambient temperatures.
Whilst it is not the best way of heating and providing UVB for a tortoise, we acknowledge that the budget nature of ‘all in one’ Mercury Vapour Lamps (MVB) means they are popular, as these cannot be used with a thermostat, they are only suited for open table designs.
The better way of meeting the UVB requirements of your tortoise is with a high output linear T5 lighting system (such as the Arcadia ProT5). These easily screw to the roof of a wooden vivarium, but you may need to come up with a DIY solution to install over most tortoise tables
Tortoise Table: Cheaper budget MVB option available. Can be tricky to install linear lighting
Vivarium: Easy to install quality linear T5 lighting
We’d recommend a floor area of around 4x2’ for a baby tortoise and this will need to be significantly larger as the tortoise grows. Tortoise tables and vivariums are both available in sizes suitable for baby tortoises ‘off the shelf’ but larger setups may require a custom build no matter which you choose.
Large tortoise tables are often converted from wardrobe frames or bookcases lying on their back whereas vivarium’s will likely need custom work. Once tortoises get much larger, sheds or garages tend to be more popular enclosures.
Tortoise Table: Cheaper for the same floor space, easy to build or convert
Vivarium: Potentially expensive especially at much larger sizes.
Safety and Security.
Children or household pets can present a risk for tortoises if they are able to come into contact with them; likewise, hot basking lamps or other electrical equipment presents a risk to children or pets that may come into contact with them. The small but present risk of disease transmission should also be factored in.
A table can be safeguarded against some of these risks with a custom mesh lid, but these can look unsightly and cause problems of their own. Most vivarium’s however will eliminate the risk as much as possible.
Tortoise Table: Difficult to secure/make safe when other pets or small children are present
Vivarium: risks are more easily made safe
In a warm room with well-regulated background temperatures and no external factors such as the presence of other pets or small children we’d recommend using a tortoise table as not only is it a cheaper option it will also afford maximum fresh air and ventilation for your pets.
However, we understand that this type of situation is far from typical in most households in the UK unless special provision is made. If this applies to you, don’t worry, a good vivarium will allow for far better levels of temperature control, safety and security. Ventilation is not an issue with a properly constructed vivarium so should not be a cause for concern.
Whilst we don’t believe cost should be a factor when setting up a home for any animal, the typical table setup is cheaper due to its reliance on room temperatures and the use of all in one “MVB” lamps and we do understand that this can be important.
The best option for heat and light provision for your tortoise will always be a thermostatically controlled basking lamp used alongside a linear high output T5 lamp. This is easier to install in a vivarium setup but a little DIY or modification to most tortoise tables will also allow the same kind of equipment to be used and should definitely be considered.
We house and raise tortoises in both tortoise tables and vivarium setups and have not experienced any differences or issues in the growth rates or health of any of our tortoises.
Much more important is the ability to maintain the correct temperatures and the provision of a good quality UVB lighting system that will help ensure your pet tortoise will thrive rather than just survive.