You’d be amazed to learn that one of the most controversial subjects in tortoise rearing is the use of heat mats with some very strong opinions being bandied around. If you’re worried that your tortoise is getting cold, you will rightly so be wondering about the heat mat.
Should tortoises have heat mats? A tortoise may benefit from the use of a heat mat or a heat pad but only in very specific circumstances, such as when the animal is sick. The problem with using heat mats regularly is that they do not promote basking behavior, which is essential for the healthy development of a tortoise.
In this article we will see why a heat mat can sometimes help but why exactly it should not be a regular thing. Before that, let’s take a quick look at why a tortoise might need an external heat source and how best to provide it.
Tortoises Are Cold-Blooded
It’s important to recognize that a tortoise is a reptile and so it is “cold-blooded”. This means that a tortoise has no thermoregulatory system. In simple words, it cannot control it’s own temperature (like us mammals). It is at the mercy of the weather in which it finds itself.
Related article: So what makes tortoises reptiles?
Because of this, tortoises can be greatly affected by extremes of weather. For example, it is very possible for a tortoise to freeze to death. A concerned tortoise owner might want to help out her pet when they think the temperature is so low that it might be dangerous to their tortoise.
So do tortoises need an external heat source?
Tortoises need to bask in order to live and a happy and healthy life. That means they need UV light which is normally found in sunshine and that light needs to help raise their temperature to a point that it’s comfortable to bask in.
In most cases, if a tortoise is kept outside, natural sunlight is enough for this purpose. However, if a tortoise lives in a vivarium, it is much less likely to be able to find a basking spot that works without a little bit of a heating boost.
In fact, most tortoises need a basking temperate of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit which is a bit warmer than most people find comfortable in their homes.
Heat Lamp or Heat Pad?
There are quite a lot of choices for heat sources for tortoises. One thing that we need to be clear about is that heat pads can be dangerous to healthy, adult tortoises.
This is for two reasons:
- Heat mats do not provide much in the way of radiant heat. This, in turn, can disrupt the tortoise’s natural thermoregulatory system.
- They do not promote basking of any kind. This will reduce the overall health of the tortoise and it will be unable to produce certain vitamins naturally and it will stop their bodies from effectively processing certain minerals too.
Heat pads are best used in very specific cases. In particular:
- When a sick tortoise requires a heat source overnight.
- This is mostly true when the tortoise is diagnosed with respiratory problems and/or has been prescribed antibiotics (the temperature of a tortoise’s body needs to be constant to promote the antibiotics to function effectively).
There are other forms of heating which ought to be avoided completely in most situations:
- Infra-red dull emitters (ceramic heaters) can be a great source of heat for basking tortoises but they can lead to rapid death if a tortoise is flipped over underneath one. If they fall into the tank they can kill quickly. While they do promote basking – they don’t contain any UVB which is a problem.
- Hot rocks/heating rocks just don’t these regularly lead to severe burns for tortoises and have no advantage at all apart from looking pretty.
- Radiant heat panels which are basically heat pads but ones that are mounted on the wall – they’re reasonably safe to use compared to some other heat sources but have the same disadvantages as heat pads for daytime use.
A better choice for heating a tortoise’s enclosure will be through the use of UVB lighting and in particular via the use of a fluorescent UVB tube light. This is the second best thing if direct sunlight is not available.
How Should You Keep A Tortoise Warm?
OK, we can appreciate that this ends up a little confusing. So, let’s talk about the types of heating to use and when.
A tortoise needs to bask, and they need a good healthy dose of Ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) while they do so. They would normally get this from the sun but indoors, they won’t.
The UVB enables your tortoise to make Vitamin D3 in their bodies. Vitamin D3 is completely essential to allow them to process calcium inside their bones and muscles. Without effectively processed calcium – the tortoise can end up with metabolic bone disease (MBD) which is as unpleasant as it sounds.
So, a fluorescent UVB tube light is required and you should use a reflector with this light to ensure that none of the light escapes the vivarium.
You should purchase a T5 UVB tube when possible as this is a more recently developed technology that pushes light farther into a space. However, a T8 UVB tube will do.
The exact basking temperature for tortoises does depend on their species and you should look this up and try and enable that temperature in the daytime environment for your tortoise.
Related article: The 10 best tortoise species that make wonderful pets!
As you might expect, a tortoise won’t bask at night and thus there’s no need to supply UVB to a tortoise at night.
Most tortoises do not need any heat boost at night. Their bodies function on a daily cycle which is in harmony with nature. That means they’re used to the idea that the sun goes down, the earth cools and they’re designed to deal with that.
However, sometimes (as mentioned above) you may need to care for a sick tortoise overnight and then you might want to use a heat mat to do this.
It is vital that you do not place the heat mat under the tortoise but rather mount it on the wall so that the tortoise does not come into contact with the mat. If it gets too hot, your tort won’t get burnt – they can simply choose to walk away.
These mats will allow the tortoise to sleep at night too as they emit no visible light, they just keep your sick tortoise at a healthy temperature.
Which Tortoises Are Most Likely To Need Additional Heat?
There are many different species of tortoise and those that are used to living in tropical and sub-tropical regions often require much more heat than those from temperate regions.
If you own these tortoises then you should be aware that they cannot survive outside at night in temperate places and ought to be kept indoors.
Do Outdoor Tortoises Need Heat Sources?
If you are worried that your outdoor tortoise might need additional heat at night, it’s best not to buy any kind of heat mats or lighting systems (this is good news for your wallet too). You can buy an outdoor enclosure which acts like a miniature greenhouse that traps in heat during the day to keep your tortoise safely warm at night.
However, be warned these enclosures can’t work miracles. In the middle of Winter, they won’t trap enough heat.
Should My Tortoise Live Indoors During Winter?
Yes. Tortoises can freeze to death and unless you live somewhere that is warm and mild all year round – it’s best to bring tortoises in for the Winter. This is a nice part of the year as a tortoise owner as you’ll see more of your pets than you usually would.
We don’t recommend keeping tortoises indoors all year round, if you can avoid it, however as this isn’t how a tortoise lives in the wild.
Should tortoises have heat mats? Most of the time, no. We’d only recommend a heat mat for use when you have a sickly tortoise that will benefit from a raised body temperature at night. They don’t promote basking in the day and that is an essential part of keeping tortoises healthy.
As reptiles, your tortoises may need additional heat, particularly if they are kept indoors and it is important to ensure that your tortoises have the right heat source to live safely and healthily.