Last Updated on: 6th October 2023, 12:18 pm
A pet tortoise needs a calm, anxiety-free lifestyle to avoid stress and the onset of ill health.
As ectotherms, tortoises rely on external warmth and humidity for their bodies to function. Tortoises must also be fed a species-appropriate diet and receive the right balance of light and darkness.
Tortoises are solitary territorial animals, so keeping two or more male tortoises together can be stressful, especially without sufficient space. A tortoise also needs hiding places to relax and decompress.
A stressed tortoise will become increasingly sedentary, hiding more and interacting less while refusing to eat and drink. It may also become constipated, struggling to pass waste.
Failing to address stress will weaken a tortoise’s immune system, making it more susceptible to illness and disease. Sometimes, the vulnerability caused by stress can have life-threatening consequences.
Are Tortoises Easily Stressed?
Tortoises can become stressed and anxious if you fail to meet their dietary and lifestyle expectations. Avoiding these outcomes is essential if a tortoise is to remain in homeostasis.
Homeostasis is a process in the tortoise’s body that helps it remain stable.
A tortoise in homeostasis will be calm. This means all internal organs (including its digestive system) will function optimally, and the tortoise can adapt to natural environmental changes.
If a tortoise is no longer in homeostasis due to stress, it’ll be vulnerable to severe illness and disease. Stress can be avoided, but owners must know and recognize the various triggers.
What Stresses Tortoises?
Here are the different causes of stress in pet tortoises:
Unsuitable Living Conditions
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to provide the ideal enclosure for tortoises. All species have different requirements, but tortoises are vulnerable to the following:
As tortoises are ectothermic, they rely on external heat sources to remain warm.
If a tortoise can’t thermoregulate, it’ll become stressed. During a tortoise’s waking hours, its habitat should have a warm side, heated by a lamp, and a cool side to retreat to periodically.
While the exact temperature needs of tortoises are species-specific, the warm side of the enclosure should be around 86°F and the cool side around 68°F.
Most tortoises don’t require a heat source at night. However, if temperatures drop below 53°F, a low heat source that doesn’t emit light is recommended to keep the tortoise’s body functioning.
Humidity is almost as crucial to a tortoise as ambient temperature. If a tortoise is kept in an environment lacking moisture, its shell will suffer, making it increasingly uncomfortable.
Dehydration and the development of crystalized bladder stones can occur.
The appropriate level of humidity for a tortoise enclosure depends on the species. A tortoise from an arid climate, like a sulcata, leopard tortoise, or Indian star, will flourish in 45 – 55% humidity.
If a tortoise is from more tropical climes, it may require humidity as high as 80%. Examples of tortoises needing more humidity are the red-footed tortoise and the Burmese brown.
Research a tortoise’s humidity requirements and get a hygrometer to ensure it’s achieved.
Tortoises require UV light in their habitat to see well enough to negotiate terrain and UVB light to thermoregulate and synthesize vitamin D3, which is needed to absorb calcium.
Without access to light (or sunlight), a tortoise will likely become stressed and unwell.
Tortoises must also have balanced circadian rhythms, involving a daily cycle of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. Excessive illumination or darkness is as stressful for tortoises.
Exercise and Recreation
Tortoises may not be the most active animals, but they still require space to explore. Keeping a tortoise in a small, cramped environment will lead to boredom.
Many tortoise species enjoy climbing, so provide this opportunity while taking appropriate safety precautions to prevent escape. Climbing also builds muscle tone and strength in the legs.
Tortoises don’t play with pet toys but love burrowing, pushing items, and foraging for food.
Lack of Hiding Places
A tortoise will feel uncomfortable if denied a natural hiding place in a habitat.
Most tortoises prefer a minimum of 2 hiding places – one enclosed, like a cave, burrow, or overturned box, and at least one more open location, such as a rock or clump of grass.
Hiding places provide a tortoise with a place to sleep. A tortoise will feel vulnerable during this time, so it will be much more comfortable dozing in a location it considers safe and private.
Tortoises also retreat into hiding places to avoid attention and extreme weather.
Overcrowding and Territorial Fighting
Tortoises are solitary, territorial animals by nature.
Wild tortoises will only interact during the mating season. Stress and conflict are likely if 2 or more tortoises are forced to share the same space and resources.
Although tortoises jealously guard their territory, they don’t mark terrain with urine to deter intruders.
If another animal or human enters the tortoise’s space, they’ll likely start butting heads. Forcing two males to share a space will likely result in stressful competition.
Both tortoises will desire alpha status in the enclosure and fight for dominance. The tortoise that loses out is at risk of bullying and acts of domination, leading to disquiet.
Male and female tortoises will also struggle to share the same space.
Male tortoises can be aggressive in their pursuit of breeding during mating season, regardless of whether their advances are welcome, and a female can find sharing a space traumatic.
Excessive Handling and Movement
Some tortoises learn to enjoy human company and seek out owners. Others prefer to avoid physical interaction with humans beyond feeding, choosing to keep their own counsel.
Regardless of how affectionate a tortoise may be, they prefer to keep their feet on the ground and loathe being picked up. While carrying and moving a tortoise may be unavoidable, keep this to a minimum.
According to ISRN Veterinary Science, it can take a tortoise up to 4 weeks to recover from the stress associated with handling and transport.
Wild tortoises are foragers, traveling across their terrain and habitats and grazing on a range of leaves and vegetation. This helps tortoises to get the right balance of vitamins and minerals to thrive.
Captive tortoises may explore a backyard and nibble on plants but rely on owners for food. If you feed a tortoise too many foods that are high in protein, this can lead to pyramiding (abnormal shell growth).
Injury or Illness
Typical warning signs that a tortoise is unwell include:
- Lethargy and lack of interaction with owners or the tortoise’s environment.
- Breathing through the mouth, especially gasping or panting for air.
- Swelling on the body and onset of hitherto unseen lumps and bumps.
- Discharge from the eyes, nares, or mouth.
- Sudden and inexplicable weight loss.
- Drooping of the head.
- Hiding to excess.
- Loss of appetite.
A tortoise with an open cut on its skin is at significant risk, as flies may get into the wound. Also, inspect the tortoise for loose or missing scutes or other damage to the shell’s integrity.
Is My Tortoise Stressed?
Common stress indicators include the following:
- Refusing to eat or drink outside of hibernation season.
- Excessive hiding, whether withdrawing into the shell or refusing to leave a hiding place.
- Becoming constipated – a tortoise should pass waste at least once every 2 to 3 days.
If a tortoise is stressed, you must adjust its lifestyle, diet, or environment.
Can Tortoises Die from Stress?
It’s rare for a tortoise to become so stressed that it dies, but the secondary concerns associated with stress can cost a tortoise its life.
According to the journal Ecology and Evolution, prolonged periods of stress can also lower a tortoise’s natural immunity to disease.
Stress in a tortoise is also dangerous to humans. Chelonian Conservation and Biology stated that tortoises carry and shed zoonotic salmonella bacteria.
How To Help A Stressed Tortoise
The easiest way to manage stress in tortoises is to identify and rectify the cause. Change the tortoise’s diet, adjust how you interact with the tortoise, minimize handling, and review its enclosure.
Removing stressors from a tortoise’s life will create a more comfortable long-term experience, but you may still wish to assist them in the short term.
Mix chamomile (scented mayweed) into your tortoise’s diet to encourage serenity.
Chamomile has soothing properties that calm a tortoise and act as an appetite stimulant. This will encourage the tortoise to start eating regularly again.
Tortoises are exotic pets that are often misunderstood, so life in captivity with owners who fail to meet these requirements can be stressful.
Do your utmost to give your tortoise a happy, tranquil lifestyle. Ensure the temperature and humidity settings are optimal and its diet is species-specific.