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Substrate / Bedding for Tortoises

In this article we will examine the types of issues you should take into consideration when choosing a substrate and/or bedding for tortoises and show how SmartBedz can be a useful component. In particular we examine the particular substrate needs of two of the most common types of tortoise and describe the ideal Mediterranean and Sulcata tortoise bedding.

Bedding for Tortoises click here to buy our universal bedding litter from our online shop

Is There an Ideal Bedding for Tortoises?

The most important thing to know about substrate / bedding for tortoises is that there is no single type of substrate which will be suitable for all types of tortoise. This is because there are many different species of tortoise which will be adapted to different types of natural substrate. The perfect substrate for a desert dwelling species could be extremely harmful to a rain forest species, and vice versa. It is essential when you are choosing a substrate or bedding for tortoises that you research the particular species thoroughly, find out as much as you can about their natural habitat, and then aim to mimic that as closely as possible, particularly in terms of the level of dryness or moisture which should be present. A tortoise adapted to a dry substrate such as sand will begin to suffer from shell rot, respiratory problems and mould infections if forced to live in a damp environment. Equally, a tortoise adapted to damp conditions will quickly become chronically dehydrated if placed into a very dry substrate.

Although SmartBedz provides many benefits to some species of tortoise we recommend taking specialist advice on your particular species prior to use. The following information provides general advice on substrate / bedding for tortoises which we provide for guidance purposes and to suggest possible ways that SmartBedz could be used where appropriate.

Bedding for Tortoises to Definitely Avoid

Regardless of species there are some types of substrate which should never be used, for a variety of reasons. We briefly list them here in approximate order of hazard.

Hemp shavings: Contains very sharp, hard fragments which can cause serious external and internal injuries to tortoises and other animals.

Wood or bark shavings/chips/pellets: These are indigestible if eaten, causing impaction problems, regardless of the type of wood used. Some woods (cedar and pine) are a particular problem for many animals due to the toxicity of the natural oils from these types of timber, but the problem is magnified for tortoises as exposure to the heat from UV lamps causes the natural oils to be expelled in greater volumes. However some types of bark work very well for some moist habitat species - researching your species is essential.

Calci-sand: A special preparation of sand with high levels of calcium. Although intended as a specific health benefit (tortoises often need calcium supplements and this is one way of supplying it), it can be extremely dehydrating when used in isolation, since it acts rather like salt, drawing out moisture from the tortoises skin, unless the species is specifically adapted to a very dry, sandy substrate. Notably, even sellers of calci-sand will point out the dangers of gut impaction possible if too much is eaten.

Rabbit pellets: Dry pellets formed from alfalfa or similar plant material. Criticised as being dehydrating if used as a direct substrate, it can also cause problems if eaten due to high protein levels which are unsuitable for tortoises.

Coconut fibre: Compressed fibres often supplied in brick form, it needs to be rehydrated before being use as a substrate. It is criticised as being too dusty and dehydrating as well as the fibres themselves causing impaction problems. It is also prone to harbouring mould and fungus.

Newspaper or other paper: If used as a sole substrate, paper presents a significant fire hazard when exposed to UV heat lamps. It also fails to allow burrowing in search of cooler, moister conditions, which many species require. Many owners put sheets of newspaper underneath their substrate as a urine absorbing layer. This will not harm the tortoise but can be difficult to remove without emptying the entire contents of the tortoise?s living space. Newspaper has only limited absorbency, unless very large amounts are used, and virtually no odour control properties and so will need changing very frequently.

How to Use SmartBedz as Part of Your Tortoise Bedding Solution

The problems with the substrates mentioned above allows us to outline some of the qualities needed in a substrate / bedding for tortoises.

Firstly, it should not cause problems if eaten. SmartBedz is a hard pellet made of processed straw, but it quickly breaks down when moistened. Most tortoises will happily eat grass and hay and should have no problem digesting a straw based product. It is also made from a low protein raw material (straw) and so will not cause excess protein issues.

Secondly, it should be non-toxic. SmartBedz is a completely natural product with no added chemicals. Its odour control properties are the result of its high absorbency, not the use of any scents. It is also virtually dust free and has been heat treated to ensure it cannot introduce any bacteria, mould or fungus into the tortoise environment.

Thirdly, it is clear that many owners observe a need to collect and absorb urine which filters down through the upper substrate, often using newspaper for this purpose. SmartBedz is far more absorbent than newspaper and much better at odour control too.

We therefore suggest using SmartBedz in two main ways, depending on the species of tortoise. The first approach is for tortoises that are adapted to very dry conditions and who need extra help staying dry in a UK climate. The second approach is for tortoises that are adapted to moist conditions. We can illustrate these two approaches by focusing on two of the most common types of tortoise kept as pets.

Sulcata Tortoise Bedding

The Sulcata tortoise is prone to dehydration and should not be placed directly on a super dry substrate such as calci-sand or dry pellets. A commonly used medium for Sulcata tortoise bedding / substrate is a moist but well drained sand/loam mix. This type of substrate holds its moisture and also allows burrowing. SmartBedz should therefore not be used as the main substrate for Sulcata tortoise bedding due to its dryness and high absorbency, but can usefully be used to assist with urine absorption and odour control by using it as a base layer underneath the soil/sand mix. This layer will last many times longer than newspaper and will keep odours under control much more effectively, resulting in fewer changes.

Mediterranean Tortoise Bedding

Mediterranean tortoises, also known as ?common garden? tortoises, actually include several different species all originating from countries around the Mediterranean Sea. They are all adapted to dry, rocky conditions and like to climb and dig. For these tortoises, SmartBedz may be used as a main substrate, since it provides a suitably dry and uneven surface which can be dig into if the depth is sufficient. But you may wish to add other elements to the living area such as larger rocks, bark, a slightly moister sand/loam area etc to provide variety. Since ?Mediterranean? does include a range of species it is especially important to check the requirements of your particular species, to monitor the health of your tortoise closely and be ready to try alternatives until you find what works.

When Not to Use SmartBedz as a Primary Substrate

We would advise against using SmartBedz as a substrate in isolation in the following two scenarios.

If your tortoise requires high levels of moisture in its substrate, using SmartBedz in its dry form is not recommended as it may cause dehydration. SmartBedz can be moistened by spraying with water, and due to its absorbency it will tend to hold its moisture quite well. The amount of moisture added can be varied to whatever level is preferred by your tortoise, and moistened pellets will begin to break down to form a soft bed, which some species will like. However, if too much moisture is added this will limit its urine absorbing properties.

Dry pellets can be hard to walk across for hatchlings and can cause problems. We do not recommend using dry SmartBedz as a substrate for hatchlings.


Using SmartBedz as a top layer substrate makes it extremely easy to see solids and remove them (compared to finding solids on a compost type substrate for instance). It is also easy to scoop out wet areas and replenish.

Using SmartBedz as a litter layer underneath the main substrate makes spot cleaning unfeasible and you will need to completely change the substrate on a regular basis. However, using SmartBedz means this will be a lot less frequent compared to using newspaper as a liner due to the high absorbency and superior odour control.


SmartBedz is fully biodegradable and so can be disposed of into compost heaps or used as mulch. Small amounts can be flushed.

Bedding for Tortoises click here to buy our universal bedding litter from our online shop

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