Last Updated on October 11, 2023 by Samantha Harris
An outdoor tortoise may pace straight from one end of the enclosure to the other. If it has an indoor tank or table, it may wander along the glass, seldom stopping for breaks.
Most tortoises pace back and forth when bored, confused by the glass walls of their tank, or lack sufficient room to explore and develop.
If a tortoise appears restless, it may be stressed by external noises or a diet change. Tortoises may pace to impress their mates during the mating season or cope with sexual frustration.
Consider getting a tortoise a bigger enclosure or setting up visual barriers with cardboard.
Why Does My Tortoise Pace?
It’s natural for tortoises to move around and explore their environments. However, if this behavior seems obsessive, it’s usually a negative sign with one of the following connotations:
Tortoises are slow-moving creatures, but they still require enrichment to stay happy.
If your tortoise doesn’t have toys, hides, or climbing spots, it’ll get bored and try to create fun by wandering back and forth to stay busy.
Unfortunately, this isn’t healthy and won’t keep your tortoise entertained for too long. It’s a warning sign that it’s bored and may become lethargic, refuse to eat, or display aggression.
Bored tortoises will brood in the corner of their tank or attempt to climb out of their enclosure frequently.
Confused By Glass
Tortoises can see through glass, but they don’t understand the material.
They believe an invisible barrier keeps them from exploring the outside world. So, a tortoise may wander back and forth along the tank wall, looking for an opening or hoping the barrier will disappear.
This isn’t harmful to the tortoise; some will stop after a few days. However, others become obsessed with getting out through the glass and become stressed when they can’t.
Consider getting a different tank if your tortoise constantly starts headbutting the glass or paces. A wooden enclosure that allows you to look at it from above will be a safer, less confusing option.
Certain tortoise species are known to be energetic, to the point of walking several miles each day. This includes the African, Greek, Mediterranean, and desert tortoises.
This is an evolutionary instinct used to locate food, expand their territory, and stay away from predators. However, this instinct can stay with your pet tortoise, making it eager to explore its habitat.
If your tortoise is kept in a small tank and can’t move around freely, it may start pacing to burn off energy. It could also grow frustrated when it reaches one end of its enclosure and needs to turn around to go the other way.
Provide a larger tank with more toys and climbable objects to burn off surplus energy.
Tortoises are likelier to pace around their enclosure just before or during the mating season. According to Behavioral Ecology, tortoises pace to impress and attract mates in the wild.
For pet tortoises, pacing is used for expending pent-up energy and frustration that would otherwise be used for mating. If your tortoise doesn’t stop walking back and forth, it may be sexually frustrated.
If you find your tortoise pacing around aimlessly, this can be a symptom of illness or discomfort. Known as perennial restlessness, this indicates that your tortoise cannot hold still.
Perennial restlessness usually involves:
- Aggressively scratching at walls.
- Little interest in food.
- Breaking toys and decorations.
- Incessant pacing.
Here are some of the causes of restlessness in tortoises:
Tortoises can’t hear specific frequencies but can pick up heavy vibrations.
Stomping near a tortoise’s enclosure, playing bass-heavy music, or construction happening nearby can cause distress. The same applies to cars driving by, deep-sounding barks from dogs, and thunder.
The tortoise will move around, climb, and attempt to escape from the incoming danger as it sees it. If it can’t hide, or the scary sound doesn’t go away, the tortoise might go from burrow to burrow, one corner of the tank to the other, or pace around restlessly.
Tortoises have an efficient digestive system but can still become sick due to abrupt dietary changes. For example, changing from high-fiber to high-water-content food may cause diarrhea, leading to distress and restlessness.
Unlike turtles, which require high protein diets, tortoises are usually herbivorous. According to PLOS One, picky tortoises carefully track the phenology of their preferred food plants.
Therefore, tortoises should be fed a low-protein diet and more leafy greens. An upset stomach can make a tortoise restless since it takes so long to digest food.
If your tortoise keeps pacing around even after you give it its favorite food, it’s either sick or unhappy.
Tortoises don’t need food daily and can survive for many weeks without consistent meals. However, that doesn’t mean you should allow your tortoise to stop eating.
Pacing tortoises with inappetence could have the following problems:
Many illnesses, especially respiratory infections, can affect a tortoise’s appetite or interest in food. Intestinal worms can severely irritate a tortoise’s stomach and depress its appetite.
Your tortoise may have stomatitis, which is most common after the tortoise comes out of brumation. This mouth infection makes it painful for the tortoise to chew and swallow certain foods.
The tortoise will feel distressed, pacing in frustration.
A tortoise may be dehydrated due to excessive heat, an inability to soak, or in the 1-2 weeks after brumation.
When the tortoise is thirsty, it’ll seek water. The tortoise may search for fresh, clean water if hydration is unavailable, difficult to access, or dirty. This may cause it to pace relentlessly, even ignoring food to prioritize this need.
Tortoises cannot survive for longer than a week (at most) without hydration.
If the temperatures in the enclosure fall out of a comfortable range, the tortoise may lose its appetite as it prepares to brumate. It may pace back and forth as it searches for a burrow to hide in.
If your tortoise dislikes its food, feels scared, or is bored, it may become stressed.
A stressed tortoise may pace back and forth to cope with its frustration.
Baby tortoises are more sensitive to external influences than adult tortoises.
If kept in a glass enclosure, baby tortoises may confuse their reflections with other tortoises. They may continually try to reach the others to play together. Given that glass is in the way, the baby tortoise will pace back and forth.
Depending on the age and species, a baby tortoise may start pacing around when it sees you. This could be to get your attention, food, or want you to let it out of the enclosure.
Pacing in female tortoises usually happens for two reasons:
- During the mating season, when they want to attract a mate.
- Before laying eggs, they need to find an appropriate nesting spot.
In both cases, the pacing will be accompanied by uncharacteristically aggressive behavior, including:
- Head banging.
- Ramming surrounding objects.
How To Stop Tortoise Pacing
Tortoises live simple lives, and it doesn’t take too much to get them out of a pacing frenzy.
Here are some ways to stop a tortoise from pacing:
If your tortoise has sufficient room to play and explore, it won’t pace back and forth restlessly. Get a larger tank or create an outdoor enclosure that allows them to wander freely and create burrows.
Stress and the lead-up to brumation can cause your tortoise to pace around. These factors can be caused by accidentally setting the temperatures too low.
Check your tortoise species’ requirements and ensure it’s getting enough UV light. Most tortoises thrive at 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit, so adjust the heat lamp or ceramic heater accordingly.
If your tortoise can see beyond its enclosure but can’t reach this new space, it may be pacing to find a means of escape.
Use a material other than glass or set up barriers that limit a tortoise’s line of sight to keep it focused on its tank, not the outside world. Wood, plants, cardboard boxes, and drawings are good options.
You can avoid boredom with more hides, toys, climbing areas, and a broader range of food. This will keep your tortoise active and entertained, so it doesn’t have to pace constantly.
Tortoises usually pace back and forth because they’re unwell or unhappy. You can make adjustments by checking on their environment, health, and external factors, returning the tortoise to its routine.