Lesson 4: Redfoot Tortoise Substrate

TEXT VERSION: Redfoot Tortoise Substrate Needs

….with exotic animal specialist (herpetologist) Danielle Inman & redfoot tortoise keeper Shannon Cutts

SHANNON: What is the best substrate to use for a pet redfoot tortoise?

DANIELLE: Obviously at this point most people will have realized I am a huge proponent for keeping these animals outdoors whenever possible.

That said, if you cannot keep them outdoors on a natural earthen substrate that is bioactive and has live plants, you can certainly use packaged substrates.

Things like hardwood mulches, coconut fiber, mosses like sphagnum moss are great – even things like unfertilized topsoil – those are all great options.

Now there are a few things that go into choosing the substrate for your redfoot’s enclosure.

You want to make sure that you choose something that helps us maintain the critical humidity.

You also want to make sure you have something that is deep enough so your redfoot can burrow. Especially for hatchling and juvenile redfoot tortoises this is a very big part of their enrichment. It is a natural behavior. It is something that they should be allowed to do.

It helps them thermo-regulate and it helps them feel safe.

And so making sure that the substrate is deep enough to allow for that habit is very, very important.

Now you want to stay away from softwood, so things like pine and cedar. Those can have phenols in them that are respiratory irritants and can make your redfoot sick. So definitely stay away from those.

Things like coconut fiber and sphagnum moss are great additions to the redfoot tortoise habitat because obviously we are creating this humid and warm environment and that is a perfect environment to grow bacteria and fungi that are opportunistic and can cause problems for your redfoot or for your home.

So using materials like coconut fiber and sphagnum moss – those are materials that are naturally very aseptic. And what that means is that they are resistant to the growth of those opportunistic bacteria and fungus. And so they are a bit more forgiving when it comes to your cleaning habits and the environment we are creating within that terrarium.

redfoot turtle cartoon

NOTE from Shannon

Substrate is really the only aspect of redfoot hatchling care I didn’t struggle with in Malti’s all-important first year of life.

The reason for this is simple. I somehow lucked out and decided to buy sphagnum moss. I bought dry blocks of it that you soak in water until it expands like an old school Chia pet. It expands because the dry moss starts soaking up moisture like the organic sponge that it is.

I would put a big heaping pile of fresh, wet sphagnum moss into my baby girl’s habitat and she would head right in and burrow into the middle of it. The moss was like a natural humidity cave and she still loves it today (even though today I need to give her a much bigger pile of the stuff before she can bury her entire bulk inside it).

Thankfully, today she also mostly lives outdoors, where the unique and all-pervasive, um, aroma of fresh wet sphagnum moss can dissipate naturally instead of filling up my tiny casa with a scent that is like….well, let’s just say it is like incense that woke up on the wrong side of the bed. The very wrong side.

But love of a tortoise being what it is, I lived with that scent inside our casa for not one, not two, not three but nearly four years before she finally transitioned to living outdoors most of the year.

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