Last Updated on August 13, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Tortoises are calm and even-tempered creatures, so it can be hard to tell when a tortoise feels sad.
You may think that a lack of activity, disinterest in food, or an unwillingness to spend time with you is normal behavior, but tortoises can get depressed and need assistance to feel better.
Tortoises with depression will act lethargic, showing little interest in exploring their enclosure, interacting with you, bathing, drinking, or eating food.
They may develop physical symptoms, such as unhealthy shells and dull eyes, spending more time than usual hiding or sleeping.
Is My Tortoise Depressed?
Tortoises get depression due to low dopamine levels, which may seem odd since reptiles aren’t emotional. However, tortoises become depressed due to chemical imbalances in the brain.
According to the Journal of Physiology, dopamine can be found in tortoises’ brains.
This neurohormone can be found in the part of the brain comparable to the mammalian corpus striatum, where dopamine pathways are located.
Dopamine is the neurohormone in charge of motivation and satisfaction, which is why, when experiencing low dopamine levels, tortoises won’t be interested in eating, drinking, or exploring.
It takes longer for a tortoise’s dopamine levels to decrease than a mammal, which is part of why the signs of depression in tortoises are so difficult to detect.
It takes longer to get back to baseline levels when dopamine decreases significantly.
Do Tortoises Get Sad Like Humans Do?
Tortoises get sad, but not in the same way that humans do. One of the many differences between tortoises and humans is that tortoises aren’t capable of ruminating.
Their needs are very immediate, so when a tortoise gets depressed, it’s not because of something that happened or might happen in the future.
If tortoises feel like something is wrong in the present, it’ll affect them negatively. This could be anything from unappetizing food to inadequate humidity levels.
The issue with a tortoise’s immediate situation will lead to stress. If this persists and the tortoise feels stressed out for a long time, it’ll affect its dopamine levels, resulting in depression.
Is My Tortoise Depressed Due To Loneliness?
Tortoises don’t feel lonely in the way that humans do.
Wild tortoises are solitary creatures that only get together to mate. Even female tortoises leave their eggs after a few days, as they have no instinctual desire to care for their hatchlings.
If your tortoise is depressed, it’s not because it desires companionship. So, it’s not advised that you house two tortoises together unless both are female. Also, two males will become territorial and fight.
Signs of An Unhappy Tortoise
Tortoises aren’t as vibrant as other pets, like cats or dogs, nor are they vocal, like parrots. To answer the question, “Is my tortoise unhappy?” look for other signs.
Tortoises are slow-going creatures. However, a depressed tortoise will act uncharacteristically lethargic and may spend the entire day hiding in its burrow or sleeping almost constantly.
Tortoises brumate during the winter, and as the brumation time approaches, their metabolism will slow down, and they’ll grow more lethargic.
This is normal, as most (not all) healthy tortoise species will get ready to brumate around late August. Outside of this period, lethargy is a red flag.
Disinterest In Exploration
It may seem like tortoises don’t care about being active and having fun. However, tortoises love exploring, climbing, and digging.
A healthy and happy tortoise will be curious in and out of its enclosure. So, any general disinterest in its environment makes a tortoise unhappy.
Tortoises all have different personalities, no matter what species they are. Even species considered calmer or less friendly than others will be active when healthy.
Refusal To Eat
Tortoises don’t need to eat every day, and they lose their appetite in readiness for brumation. Also, tortoises will have two “starve days” per week.
Low dopamine levels cause low motivation in tortoises, so they lose interest in eating and drinking. If the tortoise shows no interest in food or water, this signifies a low mood.
Poor Physical Health
Long-term depression can lead to poor physical health. The lack of activity, food, and water eventually causes nutrition-based illnesses.
Conditions that can occur in a depressed tortoise include:
- Weak immune system.
- Eye irritation.
- Excessive skin and shell peeling.
- Metabolic bone disease (MBD), such as pyramiding and soft shell.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for the symptoms to go unnoticed until their physical health is impaired.
Why Is My Tortoise Sad?
If your tortoise seems unhappy, it’s important to address why. A vet’s intervention may even be necessary, depending on the problem.
A diet with low nutritional value can lead to various health issues. Since the tortoise will lack the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals to function, it’ll wear down and feel low.
A poorly fed tortoise will find that its immune system becomes less resilient, its shell loses integrity, its eyes look sunken, and its energy levels fall.
A sad and depressed tortoise may show a lack of interest in eating, alongside health problems related to an unsuitable diet.
Depending on the species of tortoise, a balanced diet should include the following:
- Formulated pellets.
- Flowers and weeds, like dandelions.
There are foods that tortoises shouldn’t eat because they’re unhealthy or toxic.
Poor Basking Area
Tortoises must have a basking area with UVB for two reasons:
- Shell health.
Tortoises are cold-blooded, meaning they practice thermoregulation to absorb warmth from external sources. Tortoises that lack a warm basking area cannot regulate their core temperature.
A tortoise that can raise and lower its temperature can experience the following:
- Digestive issues.
- A slower metabolism.
- Low energy levels.
According to the Journal of Zoology, overheating tortoises will salivate to excess as an evaporative cooling method.
Tortoises are perceived as calm, relaxed animals. While this is true, persistent stress can leave tortoises feeling unsafe and anxious. When exposed long-term, tortoises become lethargic and depressed.
Tortoises retreat into their shells when frightened or stressed. A tortoise will remain this way until it feels safe to leave or sees an opportunity to hide elsewhere. Depending on how anxious the tortoise feels, it may persistently hide away or burrow.
Many things stress out a tortoise, including:
- Other pets, such as dogs entering the enclosure.
- Improper setup (too small an enclosure, insufficient enrichment, nowhere to dig).
- Too much or improper handling.
- Excessively noisy environment.
Illnesses will sap a tortoise’s energy, making it feel lethargic and removing its appetite. Sickness in tortoises regularly goes undetected as the symptoms can be difficult to notice early on.
What looks like depression may be a combination of symptoms caused by an underlying illness. Lethargy and a lack of appetite are caused by depression and illnesses.
According to the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, the signs of illness in tortoises include poor body condition, weakness, and lethargy, which can be mistaken for depression.
Look for any of the following additional signs, including:
- Nasal discharge or snot bubbles.
- Crust around the eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Labored breathing.
- Lack of appetite.
- Abnormal poop.
- Sunken eyes.
An injured tortoise will act out of character, so it may hide away to avoid showing discomfort, no longer move around due to the pain or be unable to eat due to the injury.
Inspect your tortoise for injuries, paying particular attention to the shell, beak, and softer skin where the tortoise’s appendages adjoin to the shell.
A tortoise that isn’t provided with enrichment will likely become depressed. Its entire life is spent in its enclosure. So, if there’s nothing to keep it occupied, it’ll grow bored.
Tortoises enjoy being allowed outside to explore the yard and eat the greenery they find. Always supervise these sessions, and keep them away from toxic plants.
A varied diet keeps a tortoise active. Remove any uneaten food within 24 hours, or it’ll attract bugs.
Shallow water dishes or fountains are recommended for keeping tortoises hydrated, creating a new sensory experience.
Tortoises enjoy digging, so lining the enclosure with topsoil allows them to burrow.
You can add live plants to the enclosure. These give tortoises smells, textures, and sights to explore.
A hide or cave-like structure is a great idea, as the tortoise can retreat and relax safely, which is just as important as enrichment to shy and retiring tortoises.