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In general, tortoises are not aggressive towards humans but sometimes it might not appear this way. We have had many questions from novice tortoise owners regarding their pets ‘chasing’ them. In some cases this is territorial behavior, but other times the tortoise is simply looking for food.
Territorial Behavior in Tortoises
Although not generally aggressive, a tortoise can become quite territorial. If you have allowed your tortoise a lot of space and the ability to roam about your house, you might find that with time it considers you a trespasser. Your tortoise might actually think that you have invaded its space. It is important therefore that your tortoise has an open enclosure in the home rather than giving it the freedom to roam the house at will.
Chasing and Biting
When a tortoise is acting territorially, you might notice that it chases you and that it may even snap at you or try to bite your feet. If your tortoise is exhibiting such behavior, place it back into its enclosure, as a bite or nip from a tortoise can actually be quite painful. Tortoises could also bite when feeling threatened or frustrated.
Head Banging in Tortoises
Head banging is another sign of territorial behavior (unfortunately it has nothing to do with bopping away to heavy metal music) and is something that tortoises often do in the wild when trying to display dominance. In its natural habitat, a tortoise might bang its head on objects around it or even against another tortoise it is trying to ward off.
You might also be surprised to learn that tortoises bang their heads with females when trying to mate. In some species the male will even bite the female; it is thought they do this to help stimulate ovulation in the female.
In captivity, tortoises might ram their owners, banging their head against them as the unsuspecting human brings the food. This is usually because tortoises see their owner as competition for the food.
What Causes Aggression in Tortoises?
If your tortoise is acting in an aggressive and territorial manner, there may be some obvious reasons for this. Fortunately, many of these causes can be easily rectified, which will then reduce or eliminate the behavior.
One of the more common reasons a tortoise might become aggressive is if it is carrying eggs. A female tortoise will naturally have a powerful desire to protect her eggs and might feel more threatened by you than usual because of this.
Another reason for aggressive behavior is hunger. A tortoise might become aggressive if it is not getting sufficient food. This can happen, for example, if you are providing food that your tortoise doesn’t like. It will not be eating enough and will subsequently not be getting the nutrition it requires. This can then lead to it becoming angry and aggressive.
Your tortoise might also not like it if you are going in and out of its enclosure too often. It is best to limit your interaction with the tortoise to feeding and cleaning when it is acting aggressively.
There are actually a few things that you can do to limit aggressive behavior. Limiting contact with the tortoise for a period can help, but you can also try to provide additional items in its enclosure. It could be the case that your pet is bored and frustrated. Reptile toys or balls can provide hours of entertainment for your tortoise and may help to relieve stress by keeping it occupied.
It is also worth looking at your tortoise’s diet to ensure it is eating enough. If you find that it is pushing its food around the enclosure, it could be the case that it does not like the food. Try different foods to see how it reacts; a varied diet is best for tortoises.
Tortoises chase their owners for various reasons. Aggression and territorial behavior is one reason but don’t be surprised that it could just be that your tortoise is simply ‘happy’ to see you (especially if you have food with you).
- Featured Image (Boulenger’s Cape Tortoise): Abu Shawka – public domain
- Leopard Tortoise: Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0
- Texas Tortoise: Clinton & Charles Robertson – 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
- Chaco Tortoise: Arteivanna – CC BY-SA 4.0
- African Spurred Tortoise: Melissa Mitchell – CC BY-SA 3.0