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Do Tortoises Need a Heat Lamp? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQ

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By Nicole Cosgrove

galapagos tortoise basking under a heat lamp

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lauren Demos

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Tortoises are cold-blooded animals, which means they are unable to generate warmth themselves and have to rely entirely on environmental heat to get energy and survive. What’s more, because these animals naturally originate in places like the Mediterranean, they are used to living in high temperatures.

As a tortoise owner, you need to replicate these conditions as closely as possible to ensure your tortoise is healthy and happy. Yes, tortoises need heat lamps. A heat lamp helps provide warmth while also making your tortie as comfortable as possible. And, while heat mats can provide a good source of heat for some animals, they are not generally recommended for tortoises because they need to get their heat from above.

Tortoise 101

Tortoises are reptiles, which means they are cold-blooded. Somewhat uniquely, they have shells, but rather than living inside their shells, the shells are a part of the tortoises. They are essentially an extension of the animal’s ribs.

The majority of tortoises are herbivores, and they live off vegetation on the ground—grasses and low-lying leaves. They are known for being the longest-living land animals in the world, with some living more than 100 years. They are slow-moving creatures, and they rely on their shell and plastron to protect them from potential predators rather than fleeing or fighting.

eastern hermann's tortoise in terrarium
Image Credit: Ketta, Shutterstock

Tortoise Environmental Requirements

When we keep animals like pets as tortoises, it is our responsibility to try and mimic their natural habitat as closely as possible. This not only makes them comfortable, but it helps ensure that they live long and healthy lives. Tortoises come from a range of different environments, from deserts to jungles, but they all have one thing in common: they are hot.

Tortoises can be kept outside in the summer months, allowing them to benefit from natural UV light and warmth from the sun, but they may need additional heat in the evenings and certainly during the colder months.

A tortoise enclosure needs to be somewhere between 70°F and 90°F depending on the species of tortoise. It will also require a basking area that offers access to high temperatures, and tropical tortoises especially need a humid environment with up to 80% humidity levels. It can be very difficult to achieve these conditions and ensure that they stay constant, without an enclosure and the use of products like heat lamps, basking lamps, and misters.

Heat Lamps

There are many types of heat lamps available. Combination lamps not only provide heat but also offer the UV light your reptile requires. Basking lamps give off a red glow and raise the ambient temperature of the air within the enclosure, while blue heat lamps can be used through the night without preventing your Tortie from sleeping. Typically, an enclosure will have a heat gradient so there will be a cool end and a hot end, with the temperature increasing or decreasing towards either end.

a tortoise basking on a heat lamp
Image Credit: Tati Ponomareva, Shutterstock

What Happens If a Tortoise Gets Too Cold?

If the temperature drops too low, your Tortoise may go into brumation. This is natural and, in the wild, it enables cold-blooded animals to survive the cold, winter months. They will find a warm, dry, safe spot, and their vital signs, including pulse and breathing, slow to a virtual standstill. Their metabolism also drops, which means they don’t need to eat or drink either. And they will only come out of this state when the temperature warms up. While it is natural for Tortoises to brumate, they should only do so once a year and if they aren’t able to prepare properly, they may not have the stored energy to survive it. Also, if the temperature gets too low even during brumation, your Tortoise could die.

How Close Should a Heat Lamp Be to a Tortoise?

Heat lamps are important, but they can be dangerous if they are placed too close to the Tortoise, or items within the enclosure. Ensure that the lamp does not come into contact with other items and that it is between 6 and 10 inches from your Tortoise’s back. Take into account any rocks or other platforms that may raise the height of the Tortoise when calculating the distance

two tortoises in a terrarium
Image Credit: Suzanna Bunch, Shutterstock

Can My Tortoise Survive Without a Heat Lamp?

Some types of Tortoises, such as European Tortoises, can endure and thrive in lower temperatures, but even they need basking spots, and they can perish if temperatures drop too low. As such, it is a good idea to have a heat lamp available for any type of Tortie. This also enables you to better control and maintain the temperature at the most desirable level.

Can a Tortoise Live Without UV Light?

UVA light is used to control the Tortoise’s circadian rhythm, which is essentially a Tortoise’s sleeping pattern. Too much or too little sleep can prove fatal for these little reptiles. UVB light enables the Tortoise to synthesize vitamin D3 and enables it to control body temperature. Both UVA and UVB light are important to Tortoises and while they may be able to get both from natural sunlight, UV lights give you control over the level and amount of light that is provided at all times.


Tortoises make fascinating pets. They are fun to watch, although they can be quite slow, and because they are reptiles, they have some very different characteristics and physical features from humans and mammals, so they are educational. However, you do need to ensure that you meet all of the needs and requirements of a pet Tortoise to ensure it is healthy and comfortable.

One such requirement is temperature. Depending on the species of Tortoise, it will require between 70°F and 90°F of heat, and if you can’t guarantee year-round appropriate temperatures naturally, you have to use a heat lamp to recreate these temperatures for your Tortoise.

Featured Image Credit: KARI K, Shutterstock

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