Good and Bad Substrates

First you need to decide what substrate matches your tortoise natural substrate and then try and replicate this as closely as possible



These substrates can be successful when utilised in the correct way.



  • Newspaper - This is very useful when used as a base in a shed where the tortoise can bask under a reflector spot bulb, when required, during the day and sleep safely at night. The tortoise must be able to go out into a garden area during the day. The garden must have a variety of substrates and suitable plants, for the species of tortoise. It is not suitable to use newspaper as the only substrate especially in areas such as tortoise tables. You also need to ensure that the newspaper cannot come in contact with the bulb as this could cause a fire. DO NOT use glossy paper or magazines as they can be toxic.

  • Ready Grass - This is useful if you have got Leopards or Sulcatas. We find that this as a substrate in the shed area helps to hold the heat and helps to keep your tortoise warm. You obviously have to remove any faeces and any wet areas but we find that tortoises tend to go outside and keep the indoor area quite clean. If you can buy in the large bags it works out cheaper.

  • A mixture of 50% topsoil with 50% play pit sand. This is the most suitable substrate to use especially when tortoises have to be kept indoors. This is suitable for juveniles as well as tortoises that have to be overwintered eg. for medical reasons. For Mediterranean tortoises the mixture can be 70% topsoil and 30% play pit sand, as they live in a drier substrate but for tropicals like Hingebacks, the mixture needs to be the 70%/30% with the addition of some damp moss and leaf litter to help keep it moist.


Other substrates that we DO NOT recommend and the reasons why.


  • Calci-sand - This is NOT suitable for tortoises as it causes dehydration in the tortoise and it also harbours bacteria from their faeces and urine. It can also cause eye irritation and if ingested it may cause gut impaction and possibly death.

  • Fibre based substrate - These CAN cause dehydration in the tortoise and usually they are very dusty which can cause respiratory problems. This substrate CAN also harbour mould, parasitic and bacterial organisms as it soaks up the urine and faeces.

  • Alfalfa Substrates - These are also known as rabbit pellets and they CAUSE SERIOUS PROBLEMS for tortoises regarding dehydration and CAN also cause respiratory problems. Alfalfa is very high in protein which is not suitable for tortoises; especially the Mediterranean species which are vegetarians.

  • Pine/Cedar Shavings or Chips - These MUST NOT be used at all. When these get hot they give off highly toxic fumes. They will also cause the tortoise to become dehydrated and if they eat it, it will cause gut impaction which will end in death.

  • Bark Chippings and Mulch - These are not very good as they can harbour mites and other parasites. If they ingest any, it will USUALLY BE FATAL. Orchid or Cypress bark chippings can be used but they need to be sterilized first. This can be done by putting into an oven to cook and then cooling before use. For moist habitats this could then be used and sprayed to form humidity. Pine or Cedar bark chippings MUST NEVER be used under any circumstances.

  • Hemp - Because this is used as bedding for horses, people think that it is safe for tortoises, but it is definitely not. It contains very sharp pieces which will cause deep injuries. You may find that these injuries are in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, limbs or the cloaca. You may not notice them until it is too late and then they are infected. Tortoises HAVE DIED because of this substrate so our advice is definitely NOT TO USE IT.


Over the years we have spoken to people who have contacted us because of problems with their tortoise. Most of these problems stem from the owner using totally the wrong substrate, amongst other things. They all seem to have done little or no research and the seller has made money by selling totally the wrong items to them. Hopefully the above information will help other tortoises before it is too late.


Please contact us if you have any questions at all. That is what we are here for, to try and help you.