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What Does A Tortoise Do When It Is Scared?

Last Updated on October 6, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises don’t display outward emotions, but certain behaviors inform us when they’re fearful.

When scared, tortoises retreat into their shells, tucking away their head and legs to keep themselves safe. Tortoises may urinate out of fear, and in doing so, they make themselves less desirable to predators.

If a threat is continuous or prolonged, this can result in low energy, lethargy, and inappetence.

Tortoises scare easily as an adaptive response to threats like predators and extreme weather (hot or cold). However, they can suddenly be startled by actions and noises that aren’t a threat.

How To Know If A Tortoise Is Scared

While tortoises don’t display outward emotions, you can recognize when a pet tort is frightened. The signs of a scared tortoise include the following:

Hiding Inside Its Shell

Tortoises have strong shells, which provide safety and protection from external threats. Unsurprisingly, they’ll revert to this safe space when feeling unsettled or scared for their safety.

While a tortoise’s shell has feeling and isn’t inpenetrable, it’s a formidable barrier.

If you see a tortoise withdrawing inside its shell, the chances are that something in its living environment has made it feel uneasy or frightened.

Entering the shell is accompanied by a hissing sound. This is caused by air being expelled by the lungs as the head and legs are withdrawn into the shell.

Tortoises sometimes hide in their shells when in a new environment. Usually, this behavior ceases after a few weeks once the tortoise adjusts and acclimates to its new home.

If the tortoise is afraid of you due to being picked up or handled, it needs time to develop trust. So, spend more time together (without handling) so it can grow accustomed to your appearance and smell.

Defensive behavior can occur if you have predatory pets (like cats or dogs) or wild animals enter the enclosure at night. If so, defensiveness will continue until the living environment is deemed safe.

how to know if a tortoise is scared

Burrowing Activity

Burrowing is a natural behavior for most tortoise species, which they do for various reasons, ranging from temperature regulation to moisture retention to protection from threats.

Tortoises from hot and dry climates may dig deeper burrows to avoid the blazing-hot temperatures. Tortoises may dig shallower burrows in locations with more frequent rainfall to prevent flooding.

Of course, tortoises aren’t always near their burrows when they’re scared, so they’ll dig a makeshift burrow to partially hide and camouflage themselves, hoping they won’t be spotted.

Lack of Appetite

Exposure to undesirable situations stresses a tortoise, resulting in lethargy and fatigue. When scared, tortoises eat less and sometimes refuse to eat entirely.

A tortoise may focus more on avoiding the perceived threat than eating its meals. So, a threatened tortoise may stop eating until it no longer feels afraid and vulnerable.

However, loss of appetite can be a symptom of many illnesses. Discuss the symptoms with a herp vet if you notice a pet tortoise eating less than usual.


While urination is a normal physiological process for tortoises, it can signify fear, especially if other stress-related behaviors accompany it.

When a tortoise is scared, it’s likely to empty its bladder. This is common when someone picks up a tortoise unexpectedly, especially if it’s an unrecognized individual.

Some tortoises will urinate when confronted by predators to make themselves less appealing. The volume of liquid released makes it an effective defense mechanism for a slow-moving animal.

However, losing a large volume of liquid means the tortoise is vulnerable to dehydration.

What Are Tortoises Afraid Of?

Tortoises are easily startled by real or perceived threats in their environment, and their defense mechanism allows them to react to dangers quickly by taking evasive action.

Things that tortoises are afraid of include:


Wild tortoises are preyed on by various predators, including:

  • Coyotes.
  • Raccoons.
  • Canids, such as foxes and coyotes.
  • Birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles.
  • Raccoons.
  • Badgers.
  • Rats.

So, tortoises have an overwhelming fear of predators lurking in their environment. While few captive tortoises don’t encounter these predators, they’ll still experience a stress response.

However, accurately detecting scents depends on the age and health of the tortoise.

According to the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, upper respiratory illnesses can interfere with their olfaction, making detecting scents in their environment difficult.

This can sometimes cause a tortoise to sense things that aren’t there and experience stress.  

Snowy Weather and Storms

Tortoises are terrified of snowy weather because it seals their burrows, making it impossible to escape. Unfortunately, this causes tortoises to die from suffocation or hypothermia.

Tortoises are vulnerable to many illnesses when exposed to cold weather conditions for too long. Tortoises are ectotherms, relying on their environment for temperature regulation.

So, a tortoise must stay indoors during snowfalls and heavy storms. However, brief exposure to light rain can benefit tortoises by allowing them to remain clean and rehydrate.

what do tortoises do when they are scared?

Loud Noises

According to SOPTOM, tortoises have evolved to detect low-frequency sounds. So, they’re easily frightened by loud noises.

If a tortoise lives in an outdoor enclosure, it may be scared by the sound of people shouting or passing cars. If it stays in an indoor enclosure, it may be frightened by loud music and TV.

Thunderstorms are likely to startle tortoises. However, once a tortoise grows accustomed to living in a noisy environment, it may no longer be frightened by loud thunderclaps.

Are Tortoises Afraid of The Dark?

Tortoises aren’t afraid of the dark as they have good eyesight and reasonable night vision due to the number of rod cells (photoreceptors) in the retina.

Most tortoises prefer to sleep in their burrows, which can get very dark inside.

Why Is My Tortoise Afraid of Me?

Tortoises are easily frightened by new environments and people. If you’ve recently brought a tortoise to your home, it may exhibit fearful behaviors, such as hiding in its shell and remaining burrowed.

Tortoises need more time than most pets to become familiar with a new setting. So, be patient and supportive of the tortoise until it gets used to its new living environment.

While things may be awkward for a few weeks, allowing the tortoise to become comfortable around you lays a solid foundation for a lasting friendship with these long-lived animals.

When tortoises are thrust into a new environment, they can take time to adjust to their home. So, limit the time you spend picking up and holding the tortoise to allow it to relax and settle in.

Instead, spend time in the tortoise’s presence so it grows used to your appearance and scent. Over time, it’ll realize that you’re no threat to its happiness and physical well-being.