Last Updated on September 20, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Scratching and digging are common behaviors in tortoises.
The tortoise anatomy makes them skilled at creating burrows and hiding away in tunnels. Aside from protection, wild tortoises dig to find food, climb obstacles, and remain cool in soft soil.
This instinct carries over into captivity, so it’s natural and healthy for a tortoise to scratch at its bedding and burrow in its enclosure.
It’s only a problem if the tortoise scratches at the ground and enclosure walls.
Tortoises do this to test the boundaries of their home. As long as it’s limited to curious prodding occasionally, it’s a tortoise’s way of exploring and seeing if it can expand its territory.
If the tortoise scratches the walls constantly, the tortoise likely feels bored, trapped, has a too-small enclosure, or has nowhere to burrow elsewhere.
Why Does My Tortoise Scratch?
It’s normal for tortoises to scratch the ground for no reason other than recreation. Wild tortoises spend their time burrowing for safety, exercise, and shelter.
In a domestic setting, where the tortoise has all its needs met, it won’t need to dig out of necessity. Instead, it’ll dig as a form of enrichment to occupy its time and stay active.
Some tortoises have up to 35 burrows in the wild. Don’t expect a tortoise to give up this habit just because it’s dug up its substrate in other parts of the enclosure.
A tortoise should take breaks from digging to perform other tasks.
Eating, sleeping, drinking, and foraging should be other parts of its routine. You have a problem if a tortoise digs incessantly without pausing to care for itself or play in other ways.
Such tortoises are often emotionally distressed. Their inability to stop digging means:
More Room is Needed
A lack of space is the most common reason your tortoise won’t stop scratching.
That’s especially true if a tortoise is scratching the walls of its enclosures, not the ground. Rather than leisurely building tunnels for fun, it’s trying to force the boundaries of its tank further away.
According to the Veterinary Nursing Journal, tortoises in small, enclosed tanks can show unnatural behaviors. Refusing to do anything but dig will accompany aggression, pacing, and appetite loss.
A tortoise table should be at least 4 x 2 feet. Depending on the tortoise’s species and size, this may need to be doubled. Any smaller and your tortoise will feel trapped and restless.
Your tortoise will also get less exercise, which may lead to long-term health problems.
Seeking Escape Routes
Tortoises are natural explorers who like to wander, forage, and establish sprawling territories. It’s normal for a tortoise to look for escape routes in its tank, even when happy.
The tortoise won’t realize that the bounds of its enclosure are permanent.
It’ll roam around in search of passageways that lead beyond. Despite their slow pace, wild tortoises are adept at climbing over rocks, digging under barriers in their path, and finding their way around.
In light of that, a tortoise may dig at the edges of its tank to try and build tunnels. It may be convinced that the bounds of its enclosure are merely obstacles it can circumvent.
If a tortoise pauses to do other activities, this is normal behavior. You should only be concerned if the tortoise appears obsessed, which means it feels unsafe and wants to escape.
Restlessness And Boredom
Tortoises may appear lethargic and easy-going, but they still require physical and mental stimulation to remain happy. Being left in a tank with no toys, climbable objects, interesting meals, hiding places, or treats to forage will make your tortoise bored.
It’ll try to entertain itself by digging or looking for a way to escape. This can escalate into restless behavior, where the tortoise becomes obsessed with the following:
- Pacing against the walls.
- Digging as far down as it can.
- Being aggressive.
If it doesn’t find entertainment soon, it can become depressed. This can result in a loss of appetite, self-destructive behavior, or excessive sleep.
A small enclosure will also cause restlessness. The tortoise won’t have enough space to move in, making it feel restless as it covers the same limited ground multiple times daily.
As mentioned, tortoises have a natural compulsion to dig that must be satisfied. If the base of their tank doesn’t allow this, and there isn’t enough substrate to compensate, it’ll become frustrated.
A tortoise’s substrate should be at least 2-3 inches deep. If you can provide a thicker layer, that’s best so the tortoise can burrow far enough down to hide. This will give it a feeling of safety and keep it interested in building complex burrows.
Just remember that certain types of substrate are better for digging than others. Straw, hay, and coconut husks are ideal, while mulch and hemp are discouraged. That’s because mulch tends to clump and become solid, and it’s harder to dig into. Meanwhile, hemp can splinter, causing injuries.
A tortoise may dig to rearrange its substrate. Tortoises do this so that it’s more comfortable, much like how we fluff pillows and rearrange blankets.
Depending on the tortoise, this may be harmless behavior or a symptom of a larger problem. On the one hand, some tortoises dig as a part of their normal routine, such as right before sleep. This is merely your tortoise settling in for the night.
If you’re concerned about this compulsive habit, don’t stop the tortoise from digging. Instead, check its surroundings to determine the root cause of the problem.
If its tank is exposed to heavy foot traffic, loud pets, or powerful smells, this could be what’s stressing your tortoise. Eliminating these issues will help the tortoise calm down.
Tortoise Scratching in Corner
Where a tortoise scratches can tell you a lot about its motivations. For example, your tortoise may not burrow in the center of its tank but instead choose one of the four corners. This can be due to:
This may be a harmless decision based on how the substrate piles up in the corners. Tortoises enjoy the experience of digging in thick but soft earth, which a pile of substrate can mimic.
Additionally, the tortoise will aim to burrow down as far as possible. Substrate tends to gather and clump up in the corners of a tank, especially if the tortoise has already dug into the center and thrown the substrate against the walls.
The substrate there is more compact and allows the tortoise to burrow deeper, which makes it more fun.
Feeling of Security
Tortoises rely on burrows and their shells to hide from predators, so they huddle in tight, secure places. This gives them fewer blind spots and reduces the feeling of being exposed. The ideal locations for this are the corners and walls of an enclosure.
Some tortoises, like Hermann’s tortoise, are more prone to this than others. If you want to make your pet feel more secure so it doesn’t hide in the corners all day, provide more hiding spots. Making the substrate deeper to create burrows elsewhere in the cage will also ease discomfort.
Scratching At Night
Your tortoise may appear silent throughout the day, only to annoy you with scratching noises at night. This can leave you puzzled about why night-time hours are the best for a tortoise to scratch and dig.
In truth, most tortoises burrow throughout the day, but it’s harder for you to detect the sound then. It’s often masked by the ambient noise of the day, or you may be distracted by other activities and tune the scratching out.
If you’re sure that the tortoise only scratches at night, this can be for these reasons:
Despite having good night vision, most tortoises sleep at night and remain active during the day.
Because they’re more vulnerable at night, with a wider range of predators looking for them, it’s important for a tortoise to feel safe before it drifts off. This can lead to your tortoise scratching at its tank to try and build a hiding spot.
Aside from that, your tortoise might become spooked by a loud noise or obvious movement in a dark room. The tortoise may then try to burrow down to protect itself, or if it feels too exposed, it may scratch at the walls to escape.
Making the tortoise feel safe and comfortable before nightfall can help reduce this after-hours scratching.
You can purchase hiding spots specifically made for tortoises or make your own with stacked rocks, deeper substrate, or a small wooden house. Even a large, bushy plant or a roof jutting from a wall can help.
If your home drops in temperature at night, you may be tempted to constantly leave a heating lamp on for your tortoise.
After all, it’s important to maintain a warm ambient temperature to prevent your tortoise from accidentally brumating. Sudden temperature drops can be dangerous for ectothermic reptiles.
However, if you get the temperature wrong and the enclosure remains too hot for the tortoise to sleep at night, it will start digging.
Tortoises often use their substrate to manage their internal body temperatures. According to the Journal of Herpetology, the body temperature of inactive tortoises often mirrors their substrate.
If a tortoise feels too warm, it’ll automatically seek out cooler spots. This may involve burrowing into the substrate or escaping the tank to find shade, water, or cooler substrate.
Evening temperatures inside a tortoise’s enclosure should be about 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. This will vary slightly based on your tortoise’s species, so check for specifics before adding or subtracting a heat lamp.
Adding water, shade, and hiding spots can achieve lower temperatures.
How To Stop A Tortoise From Scratching
It’s normal for a tortoise to scratch, but not obsessively. When this happens, It’ll annoy you with the persistent sound and leave the tortoise feeling stressed.
To prevent this, here are some ways to stop a tortoise from scratching:
Ensure your tortoises have enough room to explore, play, eat, drink, sleep, and burrow.
The type of enclosure is also vital. Indoor enclosures often use glass or plastic, while outdoor enclosures may use stone, wood, and concrete. The right material will depend on the tortoise’s preferences.
For example, glass enclosures often cause digging. Tortoises won’t realize that there is a barrier and will attempt to walk through it, which can lead to digging and headbutting.
If this happens to your tortoise, change the material or add a visible barrier, like wood or wire, against the outside of the glass.
Depending on whether they burrow or explore more frequently, certain species will benefit from deep tortoise tables instead of wide designs.
Additionally, vivariums create a lot of humidity, so do not use them for arid desert species.
Digging may result from boredom in your tortoise, indicating that it needs more enrichment. A lack of exercise can lead to behavioral issues and put your tortoise at risk for illness and disease.
Add more toys, hiding spots, and plants to the tortoise’s tank. You can occasionally take the tortoise out of its enclosure so it can explore your home with supervision.
Leaving treats around its tank (or in your home) for the tortoise to hunt down will keep it busy and stimulate its foraging instincts.
Ensure that there’s enough substrate for the tortoise to dig through. If the tortoise can’t hide under a few layers of bedding, the substrate needs to be deeper.