All about Indian & Burmese Star tortoises, Angulates, and Golden Greeks...

Indoor Tortoise Housing & Allergies

- enclosure materials, air quality, etc. -

Sri Lankan star tortoise, Geochelone elegans

Indian Star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), Sri Lankan type

Bad allergies from substrates

My tortoises spend a great deal of time outdoors because I live in a warm climate, but during the short winter many of them live in my house. I am allergic to just about every product that can be used as a indoor substrate in tortoise enclosures, even "mild" ones like coconut coir and coconut husk chips. Fir / orchid bark and cypress mulch are totally unacceptable substrates for me because I am most allergic to them.

I used to keep my tortoise enclosures in the family room and home office to observe my tortoises' daily antics, but no matter how hard I tried, keeping my indoor pens totally odor and allergen free was not possible. Just way too much substrate! I could always smell the substrate, clean or dirty, and it would make me itch.

Finally, I got tired of fighting my allergies and gave my tortoises their own room. That was a very smart decision. Not only does a separate tortoise room reduce the level of my allergies, but also helps keep the tortoises warmer with less need to use those very desiccating basking bulbs and heating elements.

Formaldehyde & paint fumes

Self built wooden tortoise tables are popular, but unfinished wood has a strong wood odor that I am allergic to it. If I use unfinished wood, I have to seal all surfaces with a low volatile organic compound (VOC) varnish or paint, and then let it air out thoroughly.

Particle board, aka chip board, is a composite material manufactured from wood particles and binders. It contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde is a type of VOC and is readily emitted into the air. This can cause a build up, especially in a poorly ventilated area.

Exposure to high concentrations of formaldehyde can cause upper respiratory irritation and trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people. It can also irritate eyes, nose and throat, and cause itching. Additional symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and headache. I can only wonder what the effects on tortoises might be...?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most significant sources of formaldehyde in our homes are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. Typical examples of these are furniture, cabinets, and paneling.

Materials made with UF resins include particle board, plywood, and medium density fiberboard (MDF). Of the pressed woods, plywood releases the fewest fumes and MDF the most.

Update Jun 2011: The U.S. government added formaldehyde to the list of cancer causing agents (carcinogens). When buying pressed wood products, look for goods made with ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or with no-added formaldehyde (NAF) resins.

Safety of plastics

Plastic tubs sold specifically for reptiles, human or animal food storage, water storage, or fish housing, are the safest to use. Plastic products sold for other purposes can be made of questionable, even toxic, materials. Use caution. Some plastics are most toxic when heated up.

1.) Safe plastics - OK to use

Plastics labeled as #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP are considered safe with no known health issues. Only plastics with recycling numbers #1, #2, #4 and #5 should be used for food storage. These are the safest plastics to use as tortoise dishes or tubs.

2.) Questionable or toxic - NOT recommended

I avoid plastic products made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl), a known toxic. PVC containers are not safe for human food storage, so I don't consider them safe for my tortoises either. PVC contains BPA and phthalates which can be released into food and drinks. The highest risk occurs when PVC containers are heated. PVC products can be identified with the number 3 or letter V, but not all products are marked.

Indoor air quality

Clean, allergen free indoor air is important for asthmatics and allergy sufferers, especially for those with severe symptoms. The best way to reduce indoor allergens is to install a whole house high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration unit. This central unit will clean all heated and cooled air before it's pushed into rooms.

Unfortunately, these central HEPA units are expensive to install. A much cheaper alternative is to use a portable, room sized HEPA air cleaner. Buy a big, powerful unit and keep the room door closed for efficient filtering. The larger the purifier, the faster and better it will clean the air in the room.

Keep a HEPA air cleaner at least in your bedroom to breath clean air during sleep. If your indoor tortoise enclosures are in your indoor living areas, running HEPA filters 24/7 in those rooms as well will help lessen your allergies noticeably.

Look for "true HEPA" air purifiers, not "HEPA like" filters. True HEPA filters can remove a minimum of 99.97% of airborne particles that are 0.3 micrometers in diameter. They remove allergens, pathogens, and odors from the air. HEPA filtering units are used at health care facilities, operating rooms, pharmaceutical laminar flow hoods, museums, libraries, and many other places.

Ideally, keep the tortoise pens away from your bedroom. Most people are not allergic to tortoises themselves, but to something else in their enclosure. Often, substrate is the main culprit.

Dust mites & humidity

A lot of folks are allergic to dust mites. They are microscopic, hardy creatures that live and multiply easily in warm, humid places and are the most common cause of house dust allergies.

Dust mites feed on dead skin cells shed off by humans and pets. Thus, they are commonly found in bed pillows, mattresses, wall-to-wall carpets and soft furniture. Usually, people aren’t actually allergic to the dust mites, but to their microscopic feces and corpses. Dust mites prefer temperatures at or above 70°F (21°C) with a relative humidity of 75-80%. Like reptile rooms!

Almost every home has dust mites. Eradicating them is difficult, but you can greatly reduce their numbers with proper environmental controls. People who are very allergic to house dust should not use vaporizers or humidifiers and may actually need to use a dehumidifier to keep the indoor humidity below 55%.

High indoor humidity also encourages the growth of molds that people can be allergic to. Even if you don't see mold growing, it may be present in your home and make you sick.

Properly set up vivariums can work well for allergic keepers because they keep plant and substrate odors confined to the enclosure. Allergic and asthmatic tortoise keepers can be very sensitive to substrates in open top indoor tortoise pens. With this I mean the odor of the clean substrate itself, not the smell of tortoise feces or urine.

Always wash your hands

Tortoises can carry Salmonella bacteria that is transferable to humans. The most common source of Salmonella infection is contaminated human food, but about 3-5% of salmonellosis cases are associated with exotic pets. They include birds, frogs, geckos, iguanas, tortoises, turtles, and snakes.

It's estimated that 60-90% of reptiles harbor the Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tracts. However, humans, dogs, cats, and farm animals can also be reservoirs of the Salmonella bacteria.

Typical symptoms of Salmonella infection include diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and headache.

Do not let small children handle tortoises or other reptiles, at least not without close adult supervision. Always, always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching reptiles, their cages, or dirty supplies.

Disposable gloves

In addition to frequent and through hand washing, I also use disposable gloves, especially when cleaning indoor tortoise enclosures. Disposable gloves are available in latex, nitrile, and vinyl. Latex gloves are made of rubber, and some people are allergic to them. Vinyl and nitrile gloves are latex free. I buy my gloves powder free and a size larger than I need. This makes them easy to slip on.


Related pages: substrates, indoor housing

This page is not intended as medical advice. I am just sharing my personal experiences. Always contact your own allergy physician for advice and treatment of your allergies!

Allergics = a category of people, who have allergies (Urban dictionary)

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