While it’s easy to tell when most animals are happy, the same can’t be said for reptiles like tortoises. Deciphering a tortoise’s subtle body language can be challenging if you don’t know the signs.
Torts can be hard to understand, even for relatively experienced tortoise owners. The good news is there are ways to tell if tortoises are happy based on their health, physical appearance, and behavior.
The signs of a happy tortoise are a strong shell, clear and shiny eyes, dry and wrinkly skin, a pink and clear mouth, an unsoiled tail, no beak overgrowth, a strong appetite, and environmental curiosity.
It’s normal for adult tortoises to sleep up to 12 hours and for baby tortoises to sleep up to 22 hours. Tortoises are diurnal, so they’ll most actively engage in favored behaviors during the day.
How To Know If My Tortoise Is Happy And Healthy
Here are the physical and behavioral signs of a happy tortoise:
1/ Active And Curious Behavior
Tortoises aren’t fast-moving, but they’re curious and active animals.
They like exploring their environment, investigating objects, and following their owners. They’ll free-roam in search of food, bathing spots, places to dig, climbing opportunities, and things of interest.
Aside from exploration, happy and contented tortoises enjoy basking in the sun and absorbing UV rays. Ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals rely on their environment for temperature regulation.
2/ Interested in Food
A healthy and happy tortoise should have a voracious appetite.
Wild tortoises never know when they’ll get the chance to eat, so it makes sense that they’d eat a large quantity of whatever food they find. So, most pet tortoises will eat whatever food you provide.
Inappetence is rarely a positive sign unless a tortoise is in the 2-6 weeks (depending on the tortoise’s size) leading up to brumation (the reptile equivalent of hibernation).
Brumating tortoises mustn’t have food in their stomachs because it’ll decay and cause bacterial infection.
While it’s possible that a tortoise may not like the food you’re offering, it’s more likely that it’s unwell. Possible health problems include parasites (worms), mouth rot, or respiratory infection.
A tortoise should normally eat 5 out of every 7 days, with 2 ‘starve days.’ That’s because tortoises have a slow digestive system, and not eating for a while allows them to catch up.
3/ Strong, Smooth, And Shiny Shell
Tortoises hide in their shells when they feel vulnerable, so a strong and robust shell makes them feel safe. The shell’s appearance also provides insight into whether a tortoise is happy and healthy.
You can tell if a tortoise is thriving by looking at the overall condition of its shell. The top of the shell (carapace) should be smooth yet firm (free from lumps, bumps, and injury).
The scutes should be evenly arranged without any large gaps.
The growth rings (light-colored bands due to layers of keratin underneath the current ones) should be positioned between the bony keratin plates and marginal scutes (at the outer edges).
If a tortoise’s shell is cracked, pyramiding, or soft, this signifies Metabolic Bone Disorder (MBD). A tortoise with a damaged shell is vulnerable to injury and predation, so it’ll feel stressed and afraid.
The underside of the tortoise (called the plastron) is a collection of bony plates that protect a tortoise’s stomach (ventral surface) from harm. It should be smooth, sealed, and damage-free.
4/ Poop Consistency And Regularity
Tortoises pass 3 types of waste: feces, urine, and urates. They often pass all three at the same time, so you may observe urate deposits on a tortoise’s poop. Tortoises should produce waste every 2-3 days.
The fecal matter of a healthy tortoise should be brown or greenish-brown with a firm, consistent texture.
If a tortoise has runny poop, it could be due to a lack of fiber. If the waste contains undigested food, it likely has worms (roundworms, whipworms, hookworms, giardia, and tapeworms are most common).
Constipation can become an issue if a tortoise isn’t drinking enough water. If you see a tortoise straining and lifting itself off the floor, it likely has dry and hard feces.
5/ Bright, Shiny Eyes And Unpuffy Eyelids
A well-cared-for tortoise will have clear, bright eyes. If a tortoise’s eyes appear runny or weepy, this discharge signifies an injury or infection (viral, bacterial, or fungal).
According to The Veterinary Journal, mycoplasmosis is a common respiratory illness in all tortoise species. Respiratory conditions are characterized by symptoms like:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Breathing difficulties
- Bulging eyes
- Appetite loss
Young tortoises and older animals with weakened immune systems are prone to respiratory infections. Fortunately, respiratory infections can be treated with antibiotics and anti-viral drugs.
Tortoises can also experience watery eyes if their retina is irritated or injured.
Shut eyes and swollen eyelids are caused by a lack of vitamin A (retinol), exiting brumation, abscesses, third eyelid issues (nictating membrane), eye infections (conjunctivitis), and trapped debris.
6/ Tough And Dry Skin
Tortoises have tough, rugged skin suited for challenging terrains. Their scaly skin is most prevalent in their most vulnerable areas, like the forelegs, hind legs, and groin.
The skin’s tough and scaly texture allows tortoises to navigate harsh environments, like rocky areas and prickly bushes, without injury. It also wards against dehydration and infection.
Healthy and happy tortoises have dry and wrinkly skin with a tough texture. So, if a tortoise’s skin seems wet and soft, this could mean there’s an infection, parasites, or skin problem, like fly strike or ticks.
Grey patches on the skin (and pits on the shell) are warning signs of a fungal condition. This will most likely arise if the substrate in the tortoise’s enclosure is overly damp.
Even so, a tortoise’s skin shouldn’t be too dry because this can lead to cracking and soreness. Ensure the tortoise hydrates sufficiently and is given access to warm soaks (below neck level to prevent drowning).
Tortoises shed their skin, so you’ll notice areas of flaking (white-colored skin). Tortoises’ dead skin doesn’t come off in one piece (like snakes), so you shouldn’t pick it off.
Instead, allow the old and dead skin to come away naturally.
7/ Pink Mouth And Tongue
To open the mouth, ask someone to hold the tortoise securely behind the ears and jaw with one hand and push the lower jaw down with the other hand. That way, you can check inside the mouth.
A healthy mouth should normally be clear and pink on the inside. However, the mouth might be stained if a tortoise has just eaten. Tortoises eat lots of greens, so chlorophyll can stain their mouths green.
If its mouth is discolored and swollen, and there’s a cheese-like discharge, the tortoise could have mouth rot (infectious stomatitis). If it has mouth rot, it’ll lose its appetite and become lethargic.
8/ No Beak Overgrowth
Tortoises don’t have teeth, so they use the sharp edges of their beak to bite off pieces of food. The beak should be relatively short with a curved point, meaning the chin should be visible.
The most common causes of beak overgrowth include the following:
- Unsuitable diet, such as overly soft foods.
- Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroid disease.
- Malocclusion (misalignment between the maxilla and the mandible).
- Injury and trauma.
The tortoise will have trouble eating if the beak grows too long or misshapen.
9/ Unsoiled Tail
Tortoises move their tails from one side to the other when urinating and mating, which are performed by the cloaca. Unlike in other animals, tail-wagging doesn’t signify happiness.
Male tortoises typically have longer and bulkier tails than females, so they can be used to determine sex. Tortoises don’t have menstrual cycles, so the tail is a useful gender determinant.
The tail should be unsoiled to minimize the risk of ‘fly strike’ (myiasis).
Loose and runny feces will stick to the area around the tail, attracting blowflies. They’ll lay their eggs (larvae) in the compromised tissue, which will feed on the flesh.
If a tortoise naturally walks low to the ground, it may compromise the tail and vent, creating an entry point. Outdoor tortoises are most at risk of ‘fly strike,’ especially during hot weather.
10/ Receptive To Petting
Tortoises can be receptive to affection from their owners once they feel comfortable.
Healthy tortoises can recognize their owners after prolonged interaction. When this happens, some tortoises enjoy a rub of the neck or head.
However, when tortoises are fearful or stressed out, they dislike petting. So, the tortoise could retreat into its shell when you approach or display defensive behavior like biting.
How To Tell If A Tortoise is Unhappy
Tortoises experience stress, especially when their needs go unmet.
Unfortunately, tortoises don’t exhibit obvious unhappiness like cats and dogs. For this reason, it’s easy to miss the key signs and symptoms of dissatisfaction and discomfort.
If you’re wondering whether a tortoise is unhappy, here are some of the signs:
- Unexplained appetite changes.
- Self-isolation and withdrawal.
- Hiding a lot.
If a tortoise exhibits the above behaviors, you must determine the cause(s).
How To Make A Tortoise Happy
Tortoises have minimal physical and emotional needs compared to other popular pets.
Here are some ways to ensure your tortoise stays happy and comfortable:
Most tortoises are herbivores, which means they usually feed on plant matter. So, tortoises must be fed a plant-based diet high in fiber but low in protein and fat.
If a tortoise consumes too much protein, this can lead to pyramiding (excessive upward growth of the scutes). Too much fat can lead to impaired organ function and weight gain.
This should be accompanied by clean drinking water to keep them hydrated. This will keep the internal organs functioning optimally, keep the shell healthy, and prevent constipation.
If a tortoise isn’t given sufficient space, it can discourage them from indulging its roaming, exploring, and grazing instincts. This will leave them feeling unhappy and stressed.
There’s no such thing as providing too much space, as wild tortoises are always walking.
Tortoises can’t regulate their body temperature, so they rely on their environment for warmth. They need a temperature gradient with warm and cool ends.
If tortoises get too cold, they can’t digest food and maintain robust immune systems. A tortoise that gets too cold can grow ill, so you must provide a heat lamp at one end of the enclosure.
Interesting Things To Do
Curious tortoises love to explore and interact with their environment.
Incorporating shallow bathing bowls, small rocks, logs, dirt mounds, and wooden bridges into the enclosure stimulate its exploratory instincts, keeping them active and entertained.
Tortoises are capable of feeling happiness. You’ll be able to tell when a tortoise feels upbeat and in a good mood based on its health and willingness to interact with its environment.