It’s normal for animals to grow stressed. While cats and dogs show stress openly, tortoises are much harder to read. Since tortoises have thick and scaly skin, their facial expressions give little away.
Anything that stops tortoises from feeling safe and stable can be stressful. It can be due to transportation, temperature extremes, having nowhere to burrow, lighting, diet, and overcrowding.
The signs of stress in tortoises include food refusal, hiding, strange behavior, and excess pee.
Small amounts of stress are okay if your tortoise has the space and resources to recover quickly. However, the stress will worsen if you fail to offer sufficient space.
Do Tortoises Feel Stress?
Tortoises feel stress, but it isn’t necessarily bad. Acute (short-lived) stress is normal and necessary.
Let’s say your tortoise is outside, and the neighbor’s dog has entered your yard. Your tortoise will quickly become stressed and recoil into its shell. This is sensible because it reduces the chances of a dog bite.
If you remove the dog and help the tortoise feel safe, it’ll calm down and feel normal again. In this case, the acute stress has served a purpose, but now it’s not needed anymore.
In some cases, stress can become chronic (ongoing), which is when it becomes a serious problem.
What Is Stress in Tortoises?
Homeostasis is a tortoise’s natural ability to stay healthy while adapting to the external environment. So, it’s a state of health where everything feels balanced, and the tortoise feels stable.
Stressful events like dog encounters disrupt homeostasis. The tortoise then enters ‘flight-or-fight mode’ to deal with the stressful situation.
If the stressful situation subsides (e.g., the tortoise hides and the dog is sent away), the tortoise can begin to relax, and homeostasis is restored.
Stress is healthy and helpful as long as homeostasis can eventually be restored. If homeostasis can’t be restored, chronic stress develops.
Why Does Chronic Stress Develop in Tortoises?
Chronic stress develops when the tortoise doesn’t have the right conditions to maintain homeostasis.
So, let’s say that a predatory animal (raccoon, badger, rat, or bird of prey) entered your yard. If you forced your tortoise to stay in the yard 24/7 under these conditions, it would constantly feel stressed.
The tortoise would recoil into its shell out of fear/stress, but it would have to stay tucked away indefinitely. That is until you change the external environment or give it extra resources like an enclosure.
The point is that if the tortoise is in an environment where it feels under constant stress and doesn’t have enough resources to relieve it, it’ll become chronically stressed.
In real terms, this is most often caused by poor husbandry and inadequate living conditions. If you don’t provide the conditions for your tortoise, it’ll struggle to maintain homeostasis and become sick.
What Causes Stress in Tortoises?
Anything that threatens your tortoise’s ability to maintain homeostasis can cause stress. Let’s look at the most common reasons for stress in tortoises:
Tortoises prefer to bask and shade throughout the day to maintain a balanced body temperature.
So, if your enclosure is too small and doesn’t offer a temperature gradient, your tortoise might struggle to maintain homeostasis.
Most tortoises enjoy ambient temperatures between 20-25 degrees Celsius (68-77F), though it can vary by species. There should also be hotter basking spots at around 30 degrees Celsius (86F) and cooler spots to hide away/take shade.
If a tortoise can’t regulate its body temperature easily, it’ll become stressed.
Unable To Burrow or Hide (When Stressed)
A tortoise will burrow down to safety or hide when it feels threatened. For this reason, you must provide your tortoise with a hiding spot so that it feels safe.
If there is nowhere to hide, a stressed-out tortoise will struggle to recover and return to homeostasis.
Remember that tortoises are solitary creatures, so that they can spend lots of time alone.
Overcrowded or Small Enclosure
If you’re keeping more than one tortoise in the same space, overcrowding could lead to stress.
Tortoises will fight over resources. During the breeding season, male tortoises will also ram the shells of female tortoises and bite the backs of their legs, which can be very painful in a crowded space.
Also, a female tortoise will become very stressed if there are limited egg-laying sites.
Lack of Water
To ‘drink’ water, tortoises partially submerge themselves in the water. Some owners fail to provide enough water, and their tortoise becomes dehydrated.
Unfortunately, dehydration is quite common in pet tortoises and may lead to renal failure. If water is only rarely available (or insufficient), your tortoise will be stressed and unable to retain homeostasis.
Too little humidity can also cause stress in tortoises, especially if it continues for a long period.
60% – 80% humidity tends to work for most tortoise breeds. If the humidity dips too low, your tortoise may become lethargic and develop skin problems.
Lack of UVA/UVB
As mentioned, tortoises need to be able to bask to stay healthy. They can access UVA/UVB through direct sunlight and a basking lamp.
Whereas sunlight provides UVA and UVB, some basking lights only provide UVA (always check the label).
According to The Veterinary Nurse, tortoises are probably happier and less stressed when they have access to UVB rays (in addition to UVA).
Too Much Light
Although tortoises need access to light for basking, they also need access to the dark. If they’re kept in a pen that constantly has a light on, this can lead to stress over time.
Eating a healthy diet helps tortoises build their resilience to stress. Eating a bad diet means the tortoise will feel weak and find it hard to recover from normal day-to-day stressors.
The most common deficiency in pet tortoises is Vitamin A. Providing your tortoise with a healthy, balanced diet is one of the best things you can do to build its resilience to stress.
Moving and Transport
Transporting your tortoise will cause some distress, no matter how well you plan the trip.
How quickly this stress resolves itself is up for debate. According to a study by NCBI, tortoises who were transported had still not returned to homeostasis after four weeks. However, other studies have shown that tortoises can bounce back within about 24 hours of being transported.
Also, another study by OUP found that it depends on the personality of the tortoise – some seem much more vulnerable to stress than others. This makes sense because we know that humans (and other animals) all seem to have different tolerance levels for stress.
Vet visits can also cause a lot of stress for tortoises. Not only because they need to be transported there but also because some vets don’t have adequate holding facilities to keep tortoises comfy.
Are Tortoises Easily Stressed?
Tortoises might seem more easily stressed than other pets, but this is untrue.
It would be more accurate to say that tortoises have specific care needs. And these care needs must be met so the tortoise can de-stress effectively.
This means that preventing stress in tortoises does require a holistic approach.
Can You Tell If a Tortoise Is Stressed?
Acute stress is quite easy to detect. A tortoise will either retract into its shell or expel large amounts of pee and poo when frightened, and this is quite a common reaction when trying to transport a tortoise.
However, it can be harder to detect chronic stress in tortoises for these reasons:
- Tortoises have heavy and scaly skin. This means tortoises can’t communicate stress through facial expressions as many mammals do.
- Tortoises also don’t make much noise (except in extreme pain), whereas mammals sometimes let us know that they’re feeling stressed through sounds.
- Tortoises are also slow-moving naturally, and some barely move at all. This behavior might indicate anxiety or apathy in mammals/birds, but it’s not the same in tortoises.
- Due to the biology and anatomy of tortoises, diseases take a long time to manifest and progress. It can take several months or years for things like abscesses to develop enough to be visible.
How Do You Know If a Tortoise Is Chronically Stressed?
For the reasons mentioned above, chronic stress is often hidden in tortoises, but there are some things you can look out for. Here are some of the most prominent signs of stress in tortoises:
Abnormal behavior can be difficult to look out for if you’re new to owning tortoises, as you won’t know what ‘normal’ is. Some examples might include the following:
- Failing to bask and hide throughout the day
- Avoiding all forms of water
- Seeming more lethargic than usual
Refusing To Eat
According to BVA Journals, tortoises may refuse food after a stressful period, like being handled too much, being transported improperly, or being kept in poor conditions.
Food refusal is serious and often requires veterinary care.
Can Tortoises Die from Stress?
Although rare, a tortoise can die from stress.
The stress doesn’t typically kill them directly. Rather, according to Desert Tortoise, ongoing stress causes the tortoise’s immune system to weaken, making it more vulnerable to bacterial infections and diseases.
Indeed, if a chronically stressed tortoise can’t find homeostasis, it’s likely to fall sick and possibly even die in a small number of cases.
That’s why it’s important to minimize chronic stress in your tortoise. By providing your tortoise with proper care and resources, it’ll be able to balance its health naturally.