Many pet tortoises will pace, tracing the same path around their enclosure, for hours on end. So why is your tortie engaging this maddeningly repetitive behavior and how can you get them to stop?
Why is my tortoise walking in circles? Your tortoise is walking in circles because they are bored, understimulated, or their enclosure is too small. Turtles are highly intelligent animals who need regular enrichment and lots of room to roam. They can definitely get bored, and if they do, they will pace.
Providing your captive tortoise with the right amount of space and stimulation is crucial to their health (both mental and physical). Read on to find out how you can create the ideal habitat for your tortoise, and what you can do to keep them well-entertained.
The Best Habitat for Your Tortoise
Have you ever been to a zoo and seen a tiger pacing back and forth inside his meager, two-acre enclosure? This is because tigers cover massive amounts of ground in the wild, sometimes roaming for hundreds of miles in search of food.
Some people question whether tigers should even be kept in zoos, because of their instinctive need to roam large areas. When these tigers don’t get the same opportunity to roam in captivity as they would in the wild, they get bored, and they pace.
The same concept is true for your pet tortoise. A wild desert tortoise, for example, can have a home range that is anywhere from 10 to 100 acres. Most people who keep pet tortoises simply cannot offer this type of acreage to their pet, and that’s fine.
The quality of the space you provide just needs to be greater than the quantity of the space your tortoise would have in their natural habitat. This means providing your tortoise with as much square footage as you are able, and also providing objects that stimulate and entertain them.
First of all, glass enclosures, such as aquariums, are highly discouraged when it comes to captive tortoises. Tortoises do not understand the concept of glass, and it can cause them quite a bit of stress. This is because your tortoise can see a vast area beyond their enclosure, but they can’t get to it.
This can cause pacing, and might also motivate your turtle to attempt to escape their enclosure, which can result in injury. If you absolutely must use a glass enclosure, create a visual barrier for your tortoise.
For example, you can apply colored tape along the side of the enclosure, about 4-6 inches above the surface of the substrate. This tape alerts your tortoise to the fact that there is actually a barrier between them and the outside world.
Preferably, you will house your tortoise in a large wooden enclosure, or in an outdoor garden with stone walls or a tortoise-proof fence. The space requirement for tortoises varies a bit according to their species, size, and sex.
A single adult male desert tortoise needs at least 120 square feet, for example. However, you can house two or three female desert tortoises in the same amount of space. A smaller species, like the red-footed tortoise, needs a habitat that is at least 36 square feet.
As a general rule, your tortoise’s enclosure should be about ten times as long as their length and five times their width. The height of the walls should be at least three times their length to prevent them from climbing out.
Remember, a bigger enclosure is always better. Also, be sure to provide your tortoise with at least one form of shelter, where they can hide from bad weather.
“In pretty much every species it’s been shown that the ability to have choices and make decisions and perform a full range of natural behavior is paramount to animal welfare,” says Carrie Davis, director of behavior and education at Reptelligence: Reptile Enrichment, Training & Education.1
There are lots of ways you can enable your pet tortoise to make decisions and engage in the natural behavior that will best stimulate their mind.
First, be sure to provide the right type of substrate. Tortoises are avid diggers and many of them love to bury and burrow, especially during the warmer months. Be sure to do some research on the type of substrate that is best and safest for your individual tortoise.
Different species of tortoises have different requirements for the humidity level of their environment, and may either need a dry substrate or one that helps retain a bit of moisture. Whatever substrate you choose, be sure that you provide enough depth for digging.
Second, when feeding your tortie, try to mimic the way they have to work for their meals in the wild. Instead of placing their food on the ground in front of them each day, you might use tortoise-safe food toys, hang their food away from the ground using a clip so they have to reach for it a bit, or hide their meals in various places around their habitat.
You can also allow your pet to nibble on tortoise-safe plants from your garden or indoor pots.
You can also provide your tortoise with toys or safe household items (such as plastic boxes or bottles and balls that are too large for them to eat). In addition, consider putting as many natural items in your turtle’s habitat as possible. These items can include leaves, branches, living sod, live plants to graze on, large water dishes, and different walking surfaces (such as bark and rocks).
Tortoises can also benefit from regular baths. Soaking your tortoise provides an opportunity for hydration and enrichment. Place your tortoise in a tub of appropriate size that they cannot escape from. Fill it with water that is approximately 82℉. The water level should go about halfway up their shell. Allow your tortoise to soak and explore for 15-30 minutes.
If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even try training your tortoise. Several studies have been performed over the years to measure tortoise intelligence. In one published in 2019, Galapagos tortoises and Aldabra tortoises were successfully trained to bite the end of a particular colored stick in return for their favorite food.
Some of these tortoises even remembered their training up to nine years later2. It would be pretty easy for you to replicate this study with your own tortoise and see how long they can remember their lessons. Just remember, patience is key.
Happy, Healthy Tortoises
So, how can you tell if all of this enrichment is working and you have a healthy, happy, well-stimulated tortoise on your hands?
First, a healthy tortoise will have a smooth, firm shell without any lumps or cracks. Their scutes, or shell scales, should not have any gaps or soft spots between them. Their skin will appear rugged, but free of sores and wounds.
Their eyes will appear bright, shiny and alert, rather than runny or weepy. A well-exercised tortoise will also have strong muscles and will resist if you gently push or tug on one of their legs. A healthy tortoise will also stand tall, with their plastron, or belly, off the ground.
A healthy tortoise will also have a healthy appetite. If your tortoise suddenly loses interest in food, you should call your veterinarian as soon as you can. Lastly, a tortoise who is in good health will be quite active, displaying a desire to explore and play. A lethargic tortoise is never good.
It can be a bit difficult to gauge the emotions of your tortoise, as they express them quite differently than a pet dog or cat would. Over the years, there has been much discussion among tortoise owners about if and how they can tell their tortoise is happy.
The consensus seems to be that a happy tortoise will show excitement and curiosity. If your tortoise moves quickly toward an object of interest, or stretches their neck to get a better look at something happening across their habitat, they are displaying some signs of being a satisfied reptile.
On the other hand, a turtle who is feeling down may act “sullen” or gloomy. They will move slowly, ignore their owner, or sit in one place for an extended period, perhaps tucked into their shell. If you notice behavior like this and you’re fairly certain they aren’t sick, it’s probably time to offer your turtle some novel enrichment.
If you catch your tortoise pacing their enclosure, it’s most likely because they’re bored. There are a variety of easy, inexpensive ways to offer them exercise and enrichment. Offer them some new foods in new ways, let them take a stroll around your (fenced) yard or garden, give them some new toys, or give them a good soak. They’ll thank you for it!