Tortoises are normally calm and easy-going animals. They’re not high maintenance or difficult to please, and they require little handling to remain in a good mood.
A tortoise is stressed when it hides in its burrow or shell near-constantly. It may refuse to eat or act lethargic even when it’s not trying to brumate.
Tortoises get stressed by environmental changes, such as improper lighting, heating, humidity, or space. So, if you rearrange its enclosure or change its room, this can be unsettling.
When tortoises are stressed, their immune system will weaken, and the likelihood of getting an infection is higher. A stressed tortoise may refuse to eat or drink until it starves or dies of dehydration.
Is My Tortoise Stressed?
Tortoises get stressed, just like any animal. Although most are calm and easy-going, they can still become distressed, angry, or scared. These feelings feed into stress and result from it. Tortoises are not impervious to outside stressors, nor are they incapable of getting upset.
Tortoises don’t act out like a cat or dog might when they’re stressed. Instead, you’ll notice your tortoise not wanting company and withdrawing from its normal routine.
Signs Of A Stressed Tortoise
It’s not easy to tell when a tortoise is stressed, especially if you’re a new owner. You will need to look for changes in its behavior and routine.
A stressed tortoise will spend most of its time hiding. It will withdraw into its shell and not protrude its legs or head. It may tuck itself deep within a burrow and refuse to come out, even in warm conditions.
Happy tortoises will do this now and then, even throughout a single day. If it’s a constant habit, though, your tortoise is likely stressed.
There might be something inside your tortoise’s enclosure that it deems frightening. Even moving to a new place can cause an acute episode of stress and send your tortoise into hiding. This usually subsides a week or two after arrival.
Lethargy is a common sign of stress in tortoises. According to the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, it can signal illness or the lead-up to brumation. You can tell the difference based on the accompanying signs:
- Sick tortoise may produce discharge or have difficulty breathing
- Tortoise preparing to brumate will do so whenever temperatures begin to drop
- Stressed tortoise will just appear lethargic, even in warm temperatures, and be unwilling to move around or explore
Stressed tortoises will be conserving their energy and trying to hunker down. This may be an attempt to hide from a predator, or the tortoise may be exhausted from the strain on its body of being hyper-alert. If the tortoise is overstimulated, it can also be tired from all that input.
Loss of Appetite
A stressed tortoise may refuse to eat. It might have no desire to eat, or it might be unable to reach food because that means leaving its hiding spot or exerting energy to move around. As such, lack of appetite can be its own symptom or a result of the other two symptoms.
A refusal to eat can also indicate sickness or injury, but it will have other signs along with it. If your tortoise appears fine, isn’t trying to brumate, and refuses its meals, there is something in its environment that needs to be tweaked.
How To Tell If Your Tortoise Is Stressed
You may find the signs of stress in your tortoise aren’t obvious. Conversely, you might have difficulty telling them apart from signs of illness or your tortoise’s normal temperament.
In these cases, you can look to the tortoise’s surrounding environment. If you notice that any of these factors are off, there’s a good chance your tortoise will only get more stressed or is about to become stressed:
Temperature and Humidity
Tortoises can tolerate a wide range of conditions. However, it can stress them to live in an environment that’s too different from their natural habitat.
For example, some tortoises are happy in temperatures from 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit, while others need temperatures closer to 90-100 degrees. Forcing one to live in the conditions of the other can lead to stress in tortoises.
Likewise, humidity plays a vital role in your tortoise’s happiness and health. Some prefer 40% humidity, while others need as much as 90%. Too much or too little, according to your tortoise’s species, can lead to stress.
Be sure to check the requirements of your unique species. You can make tweaks if the enclosure is a little too far out of its comfortable ranges.
Improper lighting is usually the source of your tortoise’s stress problem. Tortoises usually hail from parts of the world that receive a lot of sunlight. They rely on it to aid their growth, energy levels, digestion, and skin health.
If your tortoise lives indoors, check the amount of light that your tank’s bulbs put out. If you have timers on them, check that they’re providing an appropriate amount of light for your tortoise’s species.
If your tortoise lives outdoors, pay attention to how much sunlight it receives on average. If you’ve had a slew of cloudy days or something has begun to shade the enclosure, you may need to install extra lights. Tortoises need at least 8-10 hours of UV light per day.
Without UV lighting, your pet will not be able to synthesize vitamin D3, which is necessary for calcium absorption. Without calcium, your tortoise’s growth and bone structure development will be hindered. Your tortoise could even develop metabolic bone disease, experience bone pain, and struggle to walk as a result.
Variety is important in your tortoise’s diet. Although they appear to be simple creatures, tortoises rely on an acute sense of smell and color vision to forage in the wild. They’re used to sampling from a wide range of plants. Eating the same thing every day can lead to stress.
Make your tortoise’s meals more interesting with various vegetables, weeds, flowers, and leafy greens. You can choose foods like:
- Mustard plant
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
Remember that fruit contains a lot of sugar, so you should only give it a couple of times per week. Vitamin supplements are also vital for your tortoise’s growth and development. You can easily purchase vitamin A and calcium supplements from a local reptile store. Sprinkle them over the food you provide to your tortoise each day.
Tortoises can have as many as 40 burrows and travel 10 miles or more while exploring in the wild. As such, you can’t expect a tortoise to be happy with a tiny enclosure that stops it from moving around or exploring.
Get a larger tank for indoor tortoises, or give them a chance to explore your home with your supervision. If your tortoise lives outside, expanding its enclosure so that it can move around and create additional burrows should improve its stress levels.
The material of your tortoise’s enclosure may also be causing it stress. It’s usually recommended that you avoid glass tanks or walls for your tortoise, as see-through materials can confuse them.
A tortoise will not understand why it can see through the glass but not walk through it. Some try to butt their heads against the glass, while others try to climb the walls in an attempt to get out. If your tortoise displays this behavior, it may be wise to switch to a wooden enclosure.
Some tortoises can be trained and socialized to like handling from their owners. However, they are not cuddly animals and can get overstimulated easily. If you’re handling your tortoise for long periods throughout the day, or even several times a day, this can stress it out. Some tortoises are less tolerant than others and may get upset if handled more than 2-3 times a week.
The way they’re handled can also play a role. If a small child pokes and prods at the tortoise excessively, this can stress the animal. If the tortoise is turned upside-down, pushed around, shaken, or accidentally dropped, this can leave it stressed for several days. If the tortoise is injured during this handling, it may be stressed for some time.
Tortoises prefer neighbors, not roommates. If you keep multiple tortoises together, they may have disputes over food, space, and mates. This can lead to fighting and bullying among the tortoises.
The odds are even higher when you force two males to share a tank or enclosure. The weaker or more docile tortoise will get stressed by this ordeal, but neither will be in a good mood.
Tortoises can get stressed by a great deal of noise and vibration. If heavy construction is performed near your home, or you play music with a heavy bass, this can upset the tortoise.
That’s because tortoises mainly hear through vibrations picked up in their shells. They may be unable to detect your speaking voice but clearly hear when you’re playing drums or walking toward them.
Tortoises can get startled by heavy vibrations, especially if they’re constant or jarring. Being persistently afraid can then raise the stress levels in your tortoise.
Can a Tortoise Die of Stress?
Although they won’t have a heart attack from a sudden fright, the persistent stress will have a long-term impact on their health. This can make them susceptible to diseases. According to Ecology And Evolution, both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of stress can suppress the immune system.
When the immune system is impaired or suppressed, a tortoise becomes more prone to bacterial infections. It will become sick more easily and find it harder to fight off infections.
Tortoises can also refuse to eat or drink until they die of starvation or dehydration. This can take several weeks but is an unfortunate way to die.
When wild tortoises are collected and transported to be sold as pets, many of them will undergo an extreme amount of stress. Being captured, stored, transported, and exposed to new sounds and smells is distressing. Many of these tortoises die during transport. The ones that survive typically get sick.
Even tortoises born and bred in captivity may die from stress. That makes it important to calm down your tortoise and provide it with a stable environment. That will ensure it returns to full health and happiness instead of gradually wearing down to a terminal state.
How to Calm a Stressed Tortoise
Tortoises are some of the easiest animals to calm down. By making tweaks to their environment, diet, and exposure to stressful events, your tortoise should mellow out inside of a few days.
Stop Environment Changes
Tortoises are creatures of habit. They do not appreciate having their environment changed frequently.
You should avoid moving objects around their enclosure, rearranging their hides, or changing out food dishes. Cleaning the area too frequently can disturb the tortoise, as can moving its tank. Whenever something must be changed out, use an identical replacement set in the same place as before.
You should also avoid moving your tortoise from one environment to another very often. It will feel unsafe if it is constantly exposed to unfamiliar surroundings. Instead, try to maintain a set routine.
Keep the Environment Quiet
If construction work is being performed nearby, pad your tortoise’s enclosure to limit the vibrations. If you want to play bass-heavy music, consider doing it in a room far away from your tortoise or use headphones.
Avoid walking with heavy footsteps near your tortoise, or place its tank up high where the vibrations will be limited. The more steady and consistent your tortoise’s environment is, the happier it will be.
Do Not Keep a Tortoise with Other Aggressive Tortoises
Most tortoises prefer to be kept alone. If you own multiple tortoises, give them a larger tank so that they can explore independently of each other. You can avoid housing males together, or at least separate tortoises that are actively bullying each other. The fewer conflicts your tortoises experience, the less stressed they will be.
Don’t Handle Your Tortoise Too Much
Tortoises can learn to recognize their owners. However, they are not prone to hugging or huddling together in the wild, so they won’t appreciate too much handling. Keep your play sessions hands-off for the most part, and tone back handling if your tortoise appears stressed.
If the tortoise doesn’t appear to mind, you can pet it, hold it, or give it a bath. However, when it starts to withdraw or act aggressive, give it space.
Provide Enrichment For A Tortoise
An entertained tortoise will be a happy one. You can provide a wider range of foods, give it more hides, and provide deeper substrate so that it can burrow. Climbing toys will also keep a tortoise busy, giving it space to mimic foraging or exploring behavior. Some tortoises become stressed from boredom alone, so keeping the tortoise entertained will help even out its moods.
Tortoises can get stressed, even if they don’t act out when they’re upset. By keeping an eye on their behavior, you can catch the problem early. It will usually take a few adjustments to their environment to resolve it.