Last Updated on October 9, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Unlike turtles, tortoises cope better in hot climates. The desert tortoise is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, with limited rainfall and frequent scorching heat.
Even so, tortoises can get heatstroke. Depending on the species, anything exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit has life-threatening implications for tortoises.
Desert tortoises can handle these temperatures best. However, cold-climate tortoises like the Russian tortoise may overheat if temperatures exceed 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit.
All tortoises like the warm weather since they’re cold-blooded reptiles and require outside temperatures to regulate their internal temperatures.
They also require less water than turtles and have highly effective organs that glean every last bit of moisture from their food. That’s why some tortoises appear to rarely drink.
A tortoise can get heatstroke if exposed to the sun and heat, especially without shelter or water.
Tortoises have different heat tolerances, but most thrive at 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to Ecology and Evolution, the optimal temperature for Aldabra tortoises is 77-90 degrees Fahrenheit. This giant tortoise is native to Seychelles, near Madagascar, which enjoys a tropical climate.
Higher humidity offsets the temperature, keeping the Aldabra tortoise hydrated in hot conditions.
The desert tortoise is home to a climate that can reach a scorching 140 degrees Fahrenheit as ground temperatures. However, desert tortoises don’t bask in these conditions.
They burrow into the ground, which creates cooler tunnels. They’ll struggle with temperatures that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit without proper shelter and sufficient water.
Russian tortoises handle cold temperatures best and shouldn’t be exposed to heat above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Although they’re a breed of desert tortoise, they hail from climates that reach excessively cold temperatures, which makes them more vulnerable to intense heat than others.
Consider the tortoise’s species and native habitat, and monitor it closely in warm temperatures.
Can Tortoises Get Too Hot?
Even tortoises from natively hot climates need a reprieve from the heat.
They achieve this by soaking in water, finding shade during the heat, and building cool burrows underground to shelter them. So, the fastest way for a tortoise to overheat is to be exposed to sunlight on hot days.
Although not ideal, even this can be tolerated if the tortoise has enough water.
Most tortoises overheat when dehydrated, which limits their natural defenses against heat, and their shell, organs, and skin can no longer protect them.
Chances of a severe heatstroke increase significantly if the tortoise is also engaged in physical activity. This burns energy and saps them of internal moisture, which is why most tortoises seek shade and lie down on hot days.
If your tortoise stays above ground instead of burrowing, its chances of heatstroke skyrocket. According to Advances in Meteorology, soil temperature at the surface level is higher than the air temperature.
So, while your outdoor thermometer may read 100 degrees, your tortoise lying in the dirt could be experiencing 120 degrees or more.
Even if your tortoise isn’t outside, this can still be dangerous. A tortoise enclosure that’s not ventilated correctly can work as a mini greenhouse.
The heat will be trapped inside and only rise, leaving your tortoise baking in its enclosure. So, it’s crucial to properly air out your tortoise’s tank whenever a heat lamp is involved.
Tortoise Heatstroke Symptoms
According to the Journal of Natural History, tortoises of all sizes are affected by heatstroke in the same way. These symptoms develop gradually as a tortoise gets hotter and more dehydrated. Look out for:
- Gaping mouth.
- Loss of appetite.
- Walking difficulties.
- Drooling or foaming.
Take action immediately if your tortoise manifests one or all of the above symptoms. You’ll need to cool down your tortoise, as it won’t be able to cool itself.
Take The Tortoise To A Cooler Area
Remove it from the area whether your tortoise is outdoors or in its tank. That can involve bringing it indoors with air conditioning or setting it in a room with a fan. Ensure it’s shaded and not exposed to direct sunlight, even through the windows.
Be sure the temperature change isn’t too dramatic, as this can negatively affect your tortoise’s system. The new area should be cool, not cold.
Give Your Tortoise A Bath
Fill a tub with room-temperature water and place the tortoise inside to soak. You may be tempted to provide cold or ice water to help it cool down immediately. However, this sudden temperature change may send your tortoise into shock.
Instead, let it soak in medium-temperature water to absorb moisture through its skin and gradually cool down. This will also help it rehydrate, both through its skin and through drinking its bath water. If the tortoise defecates in the bath, change it and start again so it only drinks clean water.
Once it has been in the water for 20-30 minutes, change out the water for a slightly colder batch. Continue this until you’ve reached the average temperature at which you regularly bathe the tortoise.
Tortoises glean most of their liquids from food and bathing. If your tortoise is overheating, it may feel too lethargic and ill to drink appropriately.
So, provide foods with a high water content. The tortoise may not eat initially, but ensure it always has constant access to the food.
If your tortoise eventually eats, it’ll glean water, nutrients, and fiber. This will give it energy and help it recover. Ideal foods include:
Depending on the severity of heatstroke, a tortoise may recover fully in a few days. If the tortoise is still foaming at the mouth and lacks coordination, take it to the vet.
Even if you cool a tortoise off immediately, it could suffer long-term brain or organ damage from heatstroke. So, consider these measures to avoid heatstroke:
Vivariums are popular because they’re cheap and aesthetically pleasing. However, they often deal with ventilation issues because they’re primarily built to warm their inhabitants.
This can be good for a tortoise, but vivariums can quickly escalate to dangerous temperatures if improperly monitored.
So, if you’re a new owner or can’t always monitor your vivarium, consider a different enclosure.
You can install fans and ventilation points around the vivarium if you own one. This will ensure the temperature remains more balanced, with less room for error.
Don’t Use More Than One Heat Source
Some owners use a heat lamp and direct sunlight at the same time on their tortoises, which is unwise. The combination can produce a furnace effect in the enclosure.
Of course, exposure to the sun’s rays promotes melatonin production, which helps the tortoise get enough sleep. The tortoise will synthesize adequate amounts of vitamin D3, improving calcium absorption and strengthening the skeleton and shell.
Temperatures produced by the sun are difficult to regulate for a tortoise. A tank in direct sunlight can quickly become too hot, even if you don’t use a heat lamp. If you intend to use sunlight for your tortoise, turn off its heat lamp or take it outside to bask. Never use both at the same time.
Whether inside or outside, tortoises may accidentally flip over, putting them at risk of heatstroke. That’s because the top of a tortoise’s shell is a thick layer of keratin and bone that helps shield the tortoise’s inner organs from the intensity of direct heat.
When a tortoise flips over, its belly is exposed. This area of its body is thinner and ill-prepared to deflect the heat, so it can quickly grow overly warm and begin to dehydrate.
That’s made worse if the tortoise can’t right itself again. As temperatures rise, it’ll be unable to move to a cooler area or shade, and it won’t be able to seek out water.
Always check your tortoise whenever it’s basking to ensure it’s upright. If it overturns, place it on its feet and watch for signs of distress.