Tortoises are reptiles, so the answer to whether they need water or not is clearly ‘yes.’ But how much water do tortoises need, how often, and what are their preferred water sources?
Also, what happens if they don’t get enough water, and how can you detect the early signs of dehydration?
We’ll answer these questions and more in today’s article, so let’s get to it!
Natural Habitat of Tortoises and Their Water Sources
Tortoises are widespread throughout a variety of habitats, including desertic regions with few water sources nearby. They also inhabit regions like grasslands, forests, scrublands, savannas, tropical forests, and even aquatic habitats.
With such an ecosystem variety, it’s only natural that tortoises have a multitude of water sources in their natural habitat. These include rivers, ponds, various water streams, and even lakes and rainwater formations.
Another interesting aspect of these animals is their astounding evolutionary resilience and adaptation. This feature is more prevalent among desert tortoises that don’t have access to as much fresh water as other species. To make up for it, these species have adapted to consume less water than most other tortoises.
Other noteworthy exceptions are sea turtles and tortoises. These species live in saltwater environments, so they cannot use that water for drinking. Instead, they have evolved to extract much of the water they need from their food.
Sea tortoises prefer to consume seaweed, jellyfish, fish, crustaceans, and other food sources with high water content.
They can also go on land frequently to bask in the sunlight and drink water from rainwater puddles or nearby freshwater sources, provided they aren’t too far from their natural ecosystem.
Meeting the Water Needs of Tortoises in Captivity
Your tortoise pet requires easy access to water and food in captivity to remain healthy over the years.
The situation is more critical when it comes to water because tortoises can handle the lack of food better than dehydration. So, how can you meet your tortoise’s water necessities?
Consider the following approaches:
- Have a water dish – A water dish or a water bowl is absolutely necessary in this sense. The tortoise will use it for drinking water directly and soaking itself occasionally to cool off and rehydrate. Keep in mind to replace the water frequently to make sure it’s always fresh and clean. This is to incentivize the tortoise to drink whenever necessary and prevent contamination with dirt, feces, or food leftovers that can promote bacterial growth.
- Include water-rich foods in the diet – Fortunately, tortoises have a predominantly herbivorous diet, so their food already contains sufficient water. Not enough to satisfy the tortoise’s daily needs, but enough to cover much of them. Fruits, especially, are rich in water, but they also contain a lot of sugar, so only feed them to your tortoise in moderation.
- Spraying the habitat – Air humidity is also important to help the tortoise hydrate properly. Invest in a hygrometer and spray your reptile’s habitat regularly to keep humidity levels at the ideal values. You’re looking for values around 50-60% for most species.
Tortoises don’t need as much water as other reptiles, but you still need to make sure they’re properly hydrated throughout the day.
Especially since tortoises consume water during the digestive process and eat more frequently than other reptiles. Fortunately, their normal food also contains plenty of water, so you shouldn’t have any problems in this sense.
Signs That Your Pet Tortoise is Not Getting Enough Water
Your tortoise will let you know immediately if it’s not getting sufficient water.
Some of the signs to note include the following:
- Changes in behavior – A dehydrated tortoise will appear more lethargic and inactive. This is because any level of activity forces the body to consume water to support the movement of muscles, joints, and the nervous system. So, your tortoise may appear lethargic and move slower than usual. This is generally the first sign to consider.
- Changes in appetite – Eating and digesting food consumes resources, primarily water. As I said, tortoises can get water from the food they eat, but that’s not enough. If the tortoise is dehydrated, it may stop eating altogether to conserve energy and prevent digestive problems. If the reptile doesn’t get enough water, it may have problems digesting the food and experience dry fecal matter, leading to constipation and impaction.
- Shedding skin or inflammation – Tortoises store water everywhere in their body, including the skin and shell. Dehydration can cause the tortoise’s skin to appear dry, rough, and even break down in some cases. It can also cause skin inflammation and eye problems, among many other issues.
- Changes in body temperature – A tortoise without access to sufficient water will overheat, which will accelerate its body water loss. The lack of water, combined with the higher core temperature, can lead to organ failure and respiratory problems. Tortoises use to drink water and bathe regularly to lower their body temperature when getting too hot.
- Changes in color, shell texture, and eye appearance – These 3 changes are pretty tell-telling when it comes to low water content in the tortoise’s body. The tortoise’s body color will change visible due to dehydration, rendering the tortoise duller with paler coloration. The shell may also become brittle and dry compared to the healthy and humid appearance of a healthy and well-hydrated reptile. The eyes are also great indicators of dehydration, as they appear dry and sunken.
It’s important to note that tortoises exhibit multiple signs of dehydration and that they become increasingly more worrying the more the condition aggravates.
Severe dehydration is deadly for tortoises and all reptiles in general because it leads to overheating, organ failure, shock, comma, and death.
Tips to Monitor and Improve Your Pet’s Hydration Levels
You want to keep your tortoise well-nourished and hydrated to avoid health issues over the years.
When it comes to improving your pet’s hydration levels, consider the following:
- Ensure a constant source of freshwater – Your tortoise should always have access to a clean, healthy, and freshwater source. Whether it’s a dish, a bowl, or any other recipient, your tortoise needs access to a freshwater source, which you will then need to replace daily or even 2 times per day.
- Ensure food variation – Tortoises need proper meal variety to get the ideal nutrients. But this isn’t the only reason for that. Another reason is that different food items have different water contents. Providing your tortoise with sufficient food variation can nourish and hydrate the reptile properly at the same time.
- Soak the tortoise – If the tortoise doesn’t take baths on its own, you can do that yourself. Not take baths on your own, but help the tortoise with its bath time. Soak the reptile in its water bowl several times to moisturize the skin and improve its hydration levels. Don’t overdo it, though, because this can lead to oversaturation, which isn’t exactly ideal. We’ll discuss this point shortly.
- Check for signs of dehydration – Sometimes, the tortoise may be sick or deal with digestive problems or parasites and may refuse to drink water. You might not be able to observe the tortoise drinking directly, but you can keep an eye out for any early signs of dehydration. We’ve already discussed some of them previously. This allows you to prevent more severe cases of dehydration and act fast so that your tortoise makes a fast recovery.
- Keep your vet posted – Inform your vet about any unusual symptoms or behaviors that may indicate dehydration or any other health issues. Most disorders in reptiles either come with mild symptoms at first or have no symptoms at all in the initial phases. By the time the symptoms come through, the situation may already be too advanced. Fortunately, you can tell that something’s not right even in the absence of any obvious symptoms by assessing your tortoise’s behavior.
Not that we’ve determined how dehydration looks in tortoises and what you can do about it, but let’s also check the opposite end of the spectrum.
Signs That Your Pet Has Too Much Water
There is such a thing as drinking excess water. This phenomenon is called hyponatremia and explains the effects of excess water on the kidneys and blood.
Excess water intake leads to water poisoning, which means that the kidneys cannot eliminate the extra fluid, which may cause them to stop working.
The electrolytes and sodium in the blood will also dilute past the safe limit, which can result in death.
This condition can affect any animal species, including those that live in semi-aquatic or even aquatic ecosystems. Tortoises are no exception, either.
Some of the signs of water poisoning include:
- Swollen eyes or face – This is the effect of excess water accumulation in the eyes and under the skin. It should be fairly easy to notice, at which point you must act fast.
- Soft shell – This is an even more ominous sign because if the shell becomes soft and spongy, this is a sign of shell rot. If that happens, you know that the situation is already severe, and you need to contact your vet for guidance and treatment.
- Respiratory problems – You can tell that something’s not right if your tortoise coughs, wheezes, or expresses breathing difficulty. This is typically associated with a respiratory condition; when it comes to excess air humidity, that condition is most likely pneumonia. Again, only a vet can help you deal with this problem fast and effectively to prevent the downfall.
- Lethargy – While lethargy isn’t a sign of water poisoning on its own, it can be when paired with other symptoms. You should never take your tortoise’s lack of activity as a normal behavior, especially if it comes with other signs like lack of appetite, squeaking, rapid head bobbing, and other tell-telling signs.
- Diarrhea – Diarrhea is almost always associated with excess water intake, although it’s not limited to that. It may also suggest internal parasites, food poisoning, and other digestive problems. Either way, diarrhea is a dangerous condition because it can dehydrate the reptile fast.
These issues show that too much water can be just as damaging as too little and that balance is key in everything.
You can prevent dehydration and hyponatremia by understanding your tortoise’s water needs and creating a balanced water intake system. Your tortoise will inform you of what it needs if you pay close attention.
Additionally, I recommend informing yourself on your tortoise’s general requirements in terms of habitat, parameters, nutrition, and other factors so you can have a clearer picture of what the animal needs.