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Tortoises are generally calm and friendly creatures, but they can get stressed out from time to time. Unfortunately, stress in a tortoise is often caused by poor husbandry. The good news about that however is that these issues can be easily remedied.
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How Do You Know if Your Tortoise is Stressed?
There are a number of signs a tortoise is stressed, but you should also be aware that some of these signs can also indicate an illness. It is important to be alert to the symptoms of illness and, if you are worried for the wellbeing of your pet, speak to a vet for expert advice.
A tortoise that is stressed will spend a lot of time hiding. When a tortoise withdraws into its shell and will not protrude its legs or head, it is almost certainly caused by stress. If your tortoise is doing this, it is likely that it is finding something in its enclosure frightening. A move to a new home can result in acute episodes of stress, but these will usually subside within a week or two of arrival.
Lethargy is a common symptom of stress in tortoises, but it can also a sign of illness. Identifying whether or not your tortoise is stressed or ill will mean looking at all of the signs and symptoms. Lethargy caused by illness will rarely be the only symptom. Look for other signs such as nasal discharge and labored breathing.
Loss of Appetite
As you might imagine, a stressed tortoise is unlikely to want to eat. Nevertheless, as with lethargy, a loss of appetite can often be one of the first signs of illness. As above, it is important to be alert to all the symptoms your tortoise is displaying and, if you are worried, contact a vet.
What Causes Stress in Tortoises
One of the biggest causes of stress in a tortoise is a change in environment. This typically happens when a tortoise is moved to a new home, whether that be when first purchased or if you are changing its enclosure to a new one. Obviously, this is something that cannot be helped, so if a move like this has caused stress in the tortoise then it is a good idea to keep things calm until your pet gets used to its new surroundings.
You can do this by keeping lights dimmed and temperature levels a bit higher. Make sure your tortoise is well hydrated and that the environment has the correct humidity levels. You may also want to consider giving your pet a short daily soak in warm water (as long as this is not causing additional stress).
Other causes of stress are:
- insufficient lighting
- incorrect temperature levels
- poor diet
- insufficient space
- glass enclosure.
It is important that you have the temperature set for the species of tortoise you have. It is your job as a tortoise owner to ensure that you create an environment that is as close to your pet’s natural habitat as possible. You will need to establish a temperature gradient within the enclosure with both a warm and cool side. This allows the tortoise to move from one area to another when it gets too hot or too cold.
Quick Tip: Look to have the warm side (under the basking light) set between 86-90oF while the cooler side can be between 68-75oF. Some species may also require night time heating of about 60oF.
You will also need to ensure humidity levels are correct. Tortoises that hail from arid parts of the world will require lower humidity levels than those that come from more humid areas.
Lighting is also important. Remember that most tortoise species hail from parts of the world where there is a lot of sunlight. They need this light to help with digestion and to generally stay healthy. Unless you live in a warm sunny part of the world and your tortoise has an outdoor enclosure, you will need to provide artificial UV light.
Your tortoise will need at least eight to ten hours of UV light per day. Without UV lighting, the tortoise will be unable to synthesize vitamin D3, which is required for the absorption of calcium. Calcium is vital for the tortoise’s growth and bone structure. As well as this, without it your tortoise could develop metabolic bone disease (MBD). Tortoises with MBD will struggle to walk and will suffer bone pain.
When it comes to diet, variety is important. Your tortoise’s diet should comprise mostly vegetables such as mustard, dandelion, chicory, and clover. You can grow your own from seeds to ensure you have a constant supply. Tortoises can also eat things like bell peppers, cauliflower, and sweet potato.
Quick Tip: If you are giving your tortoise fruits, be sure that these only make up around five to ten percent of its diet. Fruits such as kiwi, melon and berries are suitable. As fruit contains a lot of sugar, it is best to limit it to a couple of times per week.
Vitamin supplements are also important for your tortoise. Calcium and vitamin A supplements can be purchased from your local reptile store or online and sprinkled over the food you provide. If you’re interested, here is a great selection of reptile supplements on Amazon (opens in a new tab).
I have already mentioned that a move to a new enclosure could be causing stress in your tortoise, but there are other issues in relation to enclosures that need to be considered. For example, you might not be aware, but a glass enclosure could be the cause of stress in your tortoise. Tortoises just don’t ‘get’ glass. They can see through it, but they cannot understand why they cannot walk through it. Some will butt their head against the glass or continually try to climb the walls in a bid to get out. Therefore, it is better to have a wooden enclosure.
A lack of space can also induce stress in a tortoise. These creatures walk for miles in their natural habitats looking for food; if they are penned into an area that is too small, they could become stressed.
Stress is not uncommon in tortoises but can usually be rectified by looking at the environment in which it is kept. However, as many of the symptoms of stress are similar to those caused by illness, it is important to be aware of the signs of common illnesses such as respiratory disease and pneumonia.
I suggest that if your tortoise is displaying signs that are out of the ordinary, you first look at temperature, lighting, and humidity levels to ensure these are at correct levels. If the tortoise’s behavior continues to worry you, it would be prudent to seek advice from a professional exotic vet.
- Featured Image (Texas Tortoise): Clinton & Charles Robertson – CC BY-SA 2.0
- Leopard Tortoise: Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0
- Speckled Cape Tortoise: Abu Shawka – CC BY-SA 3.0
- Spur-Thighed Tortoise: Donkey shot – CC BY-SA 3.0
- Gopher Tortoise: Andrea Westmoreland – CC BY-SA 2.0
- Radiated Tortoise: Charles James Sharp – CC BY-SA 4.0
- Red-Footed Tortoise: Bjoertvedt – CC BY-SA 3.0
- Boulenger’s Cape Tortoise: Abu Shawka – public domain
- Chaco Tortoise: Arteivanna – CC BY-SA 4.0
- African Spurred Tortoise: Melissa Mitchell – CC BY-SA 3.0