Sometimes on a hot day, you might check on your tortoise only to find that your beloved pet has submerged their head fully into their watering dish. Your tortoise might not even be moving, which can definitely shock some new tortoise owners the first time they see it! However, as long as you’ve made sure that your tortoise’s enclosure or habitat is fully safe with no water deep enough for them to submerge their whole body in, this is nothing to worry about.
So, why does my tortoise put his head underwater? Tortoises can put their heads underwater and fully submerge their nose, mouth, and even eyes for short periods of time. Tortoises will do this to drink, clean out their sinuses, or sometimes just soak!
In this article, we will discuss some of the reasons that tortoises submerge their head, such as for drinking or soaking. We will also outline the basics for placing water dishes or soaking trays in your tortoise’s habitat, as well as some of the dangers of improper water placement.
How Tortoises Drink
Did you know that tortoises drink their water in a somewhat different way than other land dwelling animals do? To drink water, tortoises will put their nose to the bottom of their water bowl or soaking tray and leave it there as they rehydrate.
Some species of tortoises, such as the Aldabra Tortoise native to some of the islands in the Indian Ocean, even drink through their nose rather than their mouth! These tortoises have a special flap in their throat that they use to keep water out of their lungs — when they are breathing air, the flap opens to allow oxygen into the lungs, but if they are inhaling water, the flap closes so that the water redirects down the throat instead.
When tortoises drink water this way, they can often submerge their head fully, making it look as though they are simply sticking their head underwater not moving. However, if you find your tortoise in this position, take a closer look at its throat to see if it is drinking water. If your tortoise is drinking, you should be able to see its throat bobbing up and down ever so slightly as it swallows, just like a human’s does!
If you see that your tortoise’s head is underwater, then notice a slow stream of bubbles coming up from their nostrils, don’t be worried! This is perfectly normal as well. Bubble blowing under water can be a way for your tortoise to flush out and clean its sinuses especially in climates where it is common to have very dry winters, such as the desert in California and Arizona.
When flushing out their sinuses, your tortoise will put their head under water and inhale water into their nose, then blow the water out to rinse out any dry mucus that may have accumulated due to the dry and cold weather.
When your tortoise blows out all the water, a bit of air from the lungs will follow it — this is where the bubbles are coming from! However, bubble blowing when your tortoise’s head is out of the water can be cause for concern, and might even warrant a trip to the vet.
If your tortoise is blowing bubbles from its nose while its head is not submerged underwater, then these bubbles are most likely made up of mucus in the sinuses, and are a sign that there is too much mucus buildup in your tortoise’s nasal passageways.
If you notice your tortoise blowing bubbles out of the water, then your tortoise may have a respiratory infection and should be taken to the vet to be screened for health issues.
Soaking Your Tortoise
Your tortoise may also put their head under the water when you are soaking them. Soaking tortoises is good for their health, as well as a nice way to keep them cool in warmer weather and an opportunity for you to clean their shell (gently and using something with soft bristles such as an old toothbrush).
However, the feeling of water on a tortoise’s shell or belly can cause them to urinate or defecate in the shallow water pan that you have put out for them. This happens because water on a tortoise’s shell simulates the feeling of natural rainfall that they would experience while living in the wild.
Since tortoises are generally desert animals, rainfall in their natural environment is scarce, so if a tortoise feels rainfall its first instinct is to rid its body of old waste so that it can rehydrate with fresh water.
Be careful if this happens, as their instinct to drink water may kick in right after they have defecated in the soaking pan, and they can begin to drink the contaminated water.
If your tortoise eliminates waste while soaking in their soaking tray, end the soaking session right away and switch out the water for clean, fresh water so that your tortoise can drink without having to worry about drinking their own bodily waste.
You should generally soak your tortoise at least once a week. Tortoises can benefit quite a lot from deep-water soaks, especially in hot climates or dry summers, when your tortoise might be more prone to dehydration than in cooler or wetter months.
When soaking your tortoise, you can fill a large Tupperware container or plastic tub, depending on how large your tortoise is. Always use warm, dechlorinated water when soaking your tortoise, and fill the tub enough that it covers the body, but leaves the head sticking out to breathe.
If this is difficult, you can place the tub on a slight incline so that your tortoise is angled with its head higher than its shell.
What to Watch Out For
Not all sumbersions in water are safe for tortoises, though. The most serious danger of leaving a soaking pan or water dish out for your tortoise is the possibility that the water may be too deep. Tortoises, unlike turtles, are not aquatic animals.
While turtles have special evolutionary body functions that allow them to breathe underwater for as long as they like, tortoises evolved differently into terrestrial animals. This means that tortoises cannot swim in water, as they do not have any of the organs or natural systems needed to process water, and their shell is too heavy for them to float.
If a tortoise is placed into water that is deep enough that he cannot stick their head out to breathe, he will sink and drown at the bottom of whatever body of water he has been placed in.
When you are leaving out water for drinking or for soaking your tortoise, always make sure that the water level only comes up to about halfway up your tortoise shell, and is shallow enough for your tortoise to put their head completely out of the water at all times while they are standing on all 4 feet.
This will ensure that your tortoise is not at risk of drowning even if they climb into the soaking pan or water dish by themself without your supervision.
As mentioned above, always make sure that all water you use for soaking, misting, or watering your tortoise is fully dechlorinated. The easiest way to do this is to use bottled drinking water or spring water from a grocery store, as filtration systems installed in your home may not be able to fully remove the chlorine and metal deposits from your tap water.
Do not use distilled water! This has been filtered to the point that most of the necessary minerals and vitamins have been removed, and can actually cause your tortoise to have an upset stomach or other health problems.
If you don’t want to use water bought from a store, you can also treat your tap water with chemical dechlorinators (available in the fish aisle at most pet stores) or simply fill a container with tap water and leave it open to sit out for at least 24 hours.
If you see your tortoise sticking their head fully underwater in their soaking tub or water dish, this is nothing to worry about! Tortoises will often submerge their heads as a way to drink water by inhaling it through their nose, or to clean out their sinuses by rinsing out their nostrils!
Tortoises might also stick their heads underwater during soaking, as the act of soaking your turtle simulates rainfall and triggers your tortoise’s natural instincts to find and drink clean water after a rainstorm.
However, you should be careful not to let your tortoise submerge its head for too long, or to put your tortoise in water that is so deep that it cannot raise its head for a breath of fresh air. Because tortoises are not aquatic animals, doing so can actually cause them to inhale water into the lungs or even drown.
If you suspect that your tortoise has breathed water into its lungs, don’t hesitate to take it to a vet for help expelling the water and making sure your turtle survives the experience.