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is it normal for a tortoise to sleep with its head out?

Why Does My Tortoise Sleep with Its Head Out?

Last Updated on October 14, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises are creatures of habit with few body language variations. This means it’s immediately apparent when a tortoise develops a new behavior, like changing how it sleeps.

Perhaps a tortoise once preferred to sleep in its shell. Now, the tortoise is sleeping with its head out.

Owners may believe this sleeping position is due to illness, injury, or impending death and feel concerned. However, some tortoises sleep this way for comfort, warmth, or safety.

What’s A Normal Sleeping Position for Tortoises?

Each tortoise species has different preferences regarding how and where they sleep, depending on their environment, how safe they feel, and their personalities.

For example, while some tortoises like exclusively sleeping in their burrows, others prefer to be above ground or in a secluded corner.

Usually, tortoises sleep with their heads and legs retracted inside their shells. This protects them from predators while vulnerable and enables them to conserve warmth.

That makes it odd if you find a tortoise sleeping with its head outside its shell. Perhaps its legs are tucked in, but its head isn’t, or it’s sprawled out.

Is It Normal for A Tortoise to Sleep with Its Head Out?

If a tortoise always sleeps with its head outside its shell, this is considered normal behavior.

However, if the habit develops suddenly, it could indicate a problem, especially if other unusual symptoms accompany the position.

Combined with other signs, sleeping with its head outside of its shell could indicate:

Injury

The most prominent feature of a tortoise is its ability to retract its head into its shell. This is made possible by flexible neck muscles that fold vertically, allowing the neck to move inward toward the torso.

Unfortunately, if a tortoise develops a neck injury, it might experience pain and discomfort when retracting its neck inwards.

Consequently, the injured tortoise might sleep with its head outside to minimize pain. This issue will likely be accompanied by the following:

  • A lack of appetite.
  • Reduced overall movement.
  • The neck is held at an odd angle.
  • Never retracting fully, even when frightened.

Age

Older tortoises sleep with their heads outside their shells more often than juveniles because they’re usually larger, more settled into their environment, and comfortable with their owners. They don’t feel the same need to protect themselves by retracting their heads.

An old tortoise can retract its head when it chooses, such as when startled. It might also sleep with its head retracted during colder weather but not at other times of the year.

Environmental Conditions

According to the Herpetological Journal, tortoises adopt different sleeping positions at different times of the day for thermoregulation purposes.

For instance, during the daytime, tortoises prefer to sleep with their heads and limbs extended out of their shells to warm their bodies in the sun.

At night, they sleep with their heads and limbs tucked inside their shells to keep themselves warm as temperatures drop.

This is likely why you only find your tortoise sleeping with its head extended during the day.

do tortoises sleep with their heads out?

Feeling Safe

No matter the tortoise’s age, sleeping with its head extended usually indicates comfort.

Tortoises are defensive prey animals that rely on the protection of their shells to keep back attacks from predators. Sleeping is a vulnerable position that leaves a tortoise partly unaware of its surroundings.

It feels safe if your tortoise is willing to enter this vulnerable state with its head exposed. It trusts that the area is free of predators and that you’ll protect it from harm.

Individual Preference

Tortoises might sleep with their heads outside their shells because they enjoy it. If the tortoise doesn’t manifest signs of illness or discomfort, you can assume it finds the position comfortable.

Illness

An unwell tortoise may lack the strength to retract its head. Despite being slow-moving animals, tortoises experience bursts of energy and activity. So, they’ll eagerly explore their tanks, burrow, and forage for treats if they’re healthy.

A sick tortoise will devote most of its energy to recovering. So, it’ll lack the interest or strength necessary to tuck into its shell. This may last a few days as the tortoise heals or go on longer with more severe ailments. To identify this cause, check for these signs:

  • Discharge from the nose or mouth.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Lethargy or being far slower than usual.
  • Increased drive to hide or hold still.

Tortoise Sleeping A Long Time With Head Extended

Some owners get spooked when they find their tortoise sleeping for hours with its head extended. One sign of death in tortoises is no muscle control and hanging from their shells when picked up.

This position isn’t harmful if your tortoise wakes up and remains active after a few hours.

According to Southeastern Louisiana University, on average, younger tortoises sleep longer than older ones, with some resting for 19-22 hours.

If the baby tortoise feels safe and comfortable, it may do so with its head extended. Meanwhile, adult tortoises sleep for about 12 hours and may leave their heads out as a sign of comfort.

After sleeping, your tortoise should brighten up and search for a meal. It may explore its tank, climb on objects, or make burrows. As long as it doesn’t appear lethargic, it’s healthy.

If your tortoise sleeps like this during the day, it may be sunbathing instead of sleeping. Extending its body parts outside of the shell allows it to absorb additional sunlight and heat, and if the temperatures aren’t intense, it could stay there for hours to enjoy the warmth.

Check the tortoise every few hours to ensure it remains active. If it’s otherwise acting normal, it’s okay.