Why Is My Tortoise Inactive?

Have you noticed that your captive tortoise sleeps for long periods throughout the day? Are they forgoing meals, spending more time than usual hiding, and just generally being “lazy”? You may wonder if this is typical behavior for a tortoise, especially a younger one who was previously active and healthy.

Why is my tortoise inactive? Your tortoise is inactive either because the lighting and temperatures in their enclosure are not at the proper levels, they are sick, or because it is time for them to hibernate. Hibernation is vital to the health of many species of tortoise and should not be prevented.

If it is not the right time for your tortoise to hibernate, and they are lethargic, you may need to adjust the light and temperature in their habitat or determine whether they are ill. Read on to determine whether your tortoise is attempting to settle in for their long winter’s nap, and what you should do to support your tortoise through their hibernation. 

Tortoise Lighting and Temperatures

Proper lighting and temperatures are absolutely crucial to the health of your tortoise. Tortoises who are too cold will often become slow, lethargic, and largely inactive. Tortoises who do not receive the appropriate amount of UVB light can become sick and may die. 

Be sure to provide your pet tortoise 12 hours of exposure to UVB light per day. This can be provided outdoors via direct sunlight, or by placing a fluorescent UVB bulb above your tortoise’s enclosure. You will need to change this bulb about once every 6 months.

Keep in mind that the windows in many homes filter out UV light, so simply placing your tortoise’s enclosure in front of a window, indoors, may not provide them with the light they need for good health.

The temperature requirements for your tortoise will vary a bit based on their species. Below is a table that illustrates the ideal basking and cool temperature ranges for several species of tortoise.

Species Basking Area Cool Side
Greek Tortoise 85-90°F 70-75°F
Leopard Tortoise 90-95°F 75-80°F
Russian Tortoise 85-90°F 70-75°F
Redfoot Tortoise 80-90°F 70-75°F
Sulcata Tortoise 95-100°F 80-85°F

Tortoises need appropriate basking temperatures to digest food properly. They also need access to a cool spot to prevent them from becoming overheated. You should measure both your tortoise’s basking area and cool spot using reliable, digital thermometers.

If your tortoise is displaying any signs of lethargy, one of the first things you should do is check your tank’s thermometers and use an infrared thermometer to measure the surface temperature of the basking area and cool area.

Signs of a Sick Tortoise

Sick tortoises will often become lethargic and refuse to eat, among other things. There are several common illnesses among tortoises and inactivity could be a sign that your tortoise is suffering from one of them.

  • Respiratory Infections: Tortoises can get infections in their respiratory system just like humans can. These infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungal growth. Improper diet and temperatures are two contributors to respiratory ailments in reptiles. Symptoms of a respiratory infection in your tortoise can include loss of appetite, nasal discharge, lethargy, a tortoise who is easily tired, difficulty breathing or noisy breathing, and puffy eyes. 

 

  • Dehydration: Some people assume that reptiles such as tortoises get all the water they need from the vegetation they feed on, but this is not the case. Tortoises need regular access to a dish of fresh water, in addition to forced soaks, or baths, to maintain proper hydration. A tortoise who is suffering from dehydration will be underweight, lethargic, and  inactive. They will also lose their appetite and have sunken eyes, thickened urine, dry feces, and dry, flaking skin.

 

  • Metabolic Bone Disease: Metabolic bone disease is a term for a group of conditions that can cause a tortoise’s bones and shell to soften and become deformed because they are not receiving enough calcium. This condition is typically caused by poor diet, an imbalance of certain vitamins and minerals, improper temperature, and a lack of access to UVB light. Tortoises with metabolic bone disease will often be lethargic and in some cases, may become unresponsive. They will also have soft, leathery shells, bowed legs, will be constipated, will refuse to eat, and will display a lack of coordination.

If your tortoise has become lethargic or inactive and is displaying any of the other symptoms of one of these illnesses, call your veterinarian and make an appointment for your pet immediately.

Tortoise Hibernation

Hibernation, or brumation, is a state of dormancy, or deep sleep, that many animals enter to survive the cold, winter months. It is a vital part of the natural cycle for tortoises, as well as other reptiles such as turtles and snakes.

Reptiles cannot produce their own body heat, as we all know, so as the temperature around them falls, so does their metabolism. This means that all of their physiological functions, such as digestion and reproduction, also slow down.

Species of tortoise that hibernate include Desert, Russian, Hermann’s, Greek, and Marginated. Other species of tortoises, such as Sulcata, Leopard, Egyptian, Radiated, Golden “Greek”, Redfooted and Yellowfooted, do not hibernate. 

In the wild, many tortoises hibernate from October or November until April or May. This can vary depending on the environment and species of tortoise, however. Captive tortoises will not need to hibernate for such a long period of time.

The one exception to allowing your tortoise to hibernate is when they are sick or underweight. Hibernation can be dangerous, and even deadly, for a tortoise who is sick. Tortoises need to be healthy and have good fat and water reserves to survive hibernation.

More often than not, a sick tortoise is not eating well and cannot adequately store the energy they will need for hibernation. An animal’s immune system will also slow during hibernation, and a tortoise who is already feeling unwell will not be able to fight off additional infections.

Tortoises under three years of age typically don’t hibernate either. They are still developing and therefore need to continue eating, drinking, and so forth throughout the year. 

As previously mentioned, when your tortoise hibernates, they will slow their metabolism down dramatically. At times, it may almost seem as though your tortoise is no longer alive. Their breathing, heart rate, and temperature will all drop. Rest assured that this is perfectly normal and your tortoise is still alive.

How to Help Your Tortoise Hibernate

First and foremost, your turtle needs a pre-hibernation examination by a licensed veterinarian to ensure they are healthy enough and weigh enough for hibernation. You should also ask your veterinarian about how long to hibernate your tortoise based on their age and size.

Once your tortoise has been cleared, you can begin preparing them for hibernation. Monitor your tort closely as autumn approaches. As the nighttime temperatures in your area begin to drop into the 60s and the days grow shorter, your tortoise will start to become less active. When you notice this, it is time to begin your tortoise’s fasting period. 

The fasting period will last two to six weeks, depending on your tortoise’s size. During this time, you need to ensure that your tortoise has an empty gut and a full bladder. An empty stomach is absolutely essential for hibernation. If your tortoise has partially digested food in their gut it can decay in their stomach and cause infection or asphyxiation.

Start your tortoise’s fasting period by feeding them less and less over a period of about two weeks, then withholding all food altogether for two weeks more. You should enable your tortoise to fully hydrate by bathing them and providing fresh water daily. These warm baths will also encourage your tortoise to defecate, clearing their gut.

 The best place to hibernate your tortoise is indoors, inside a refrigerator used expressly for the purpose of hibernation (where no food is stored). A hibernating tortoise needs to be kept around 40°F and a fridge can provide the perfect, consistent temperature. 

Place your tortoise in a box that is slightly larger than your pet. Fill the box with the proper substrate, and make sure it has air holes for ventilation. The substrate in the box needs to be deep enough that your tortoise can bury itself. Make sure the temperature in your tortoise’s hibernation spot does not exceed 50°F, or drop below 35°F.

You’ll need to check on your hibernation tortoise regularly and bring them out of hibernation if they lose more than 1% of their body weight each month, they remain active during their hibernation period, they attempt to bask, they display signs of illness, or they empty their bladder. 

Be sure to bring your tortoise out of hibernation by allowing them to slowly acclimate to room temperature.

Conclusion

An inactive, lethargic tortoise may be a sign of improper husbandry, or it might simply be a signal that your tortoise is ready to hibernate. If your tortoise seems less active than usual, or is sleeping more throughout the day, be sure to check their tank temperature, light source, and humidity levels.

If all of these check out, examine your tortoise for signs of illness and call your veterinarian if you notice anything concerning.

If the autumn season is upon you and temperatures are dropping, consult your veterinarian about whether your tortoise is healthy enough for hibernation.

  1. https://azeah.com/tortoises-turtles/hibernation-recommendations#:~:text=Hibernation%2C%20sometimes%20referred%20to%20as,outside%20fall%20their%20metabolism%20slows.
  2. https://www.exoticdirect.co.uk/news/tortoises-and-hibernation
  3. https://www.myfamilyvets.co.uk/tortoise-hibernation 
  4. https://www.auroraanimalhospital.com/exotic-pet-care-sheets 
  5. https://sites.google.com/site/tortoiselibrary/health-and-medical/respiratory-infections 
  6. https://sites.google.com/site/tortoiselibrary/health-and-medical/hydration