Have you just looked at your tortoise and realized that it’s pacing around its enclosure with the intensity of a person pacing the floor while preparing for something stressful? It’s OK. This, it turns out, is completely normal behavior for a tortoise and here’s what you need to know about it.
Why do tortoises keep pacing? There are 3 main reasons for a tortoise that keeps pacing: It’s a normal mating behavior designed to attract the opposite sex, pacing can be a reaction to the glass in some vivariums or terrariums, and finally, it may be that your tortoise is from a species that walks a lot and finds the enclosure a little small.
So, let’s take a look at each of those behaviors in turn and what (if anything) you might want to do so that your tortoise is happy and healthy.
Tortoise Pacing Reason #1: The Mating Frustration
The first reason that a tortoise might not stop pacing is that they’re feeling frisky and there’s no-one around for them to get frisky with. Tortoises love to mate. In fact, they were once called by The Independent newspaper, “The rabbits of the reptile world”.
It also turns out that if you show a tortoise videos of tortoises making love, then you can quickly awaken their mating instinct. Yes, tortoises are not only extremely randy, but they also appreciate a good bit of tortoise porn.
Tortoises Love To Be Alone
However, the advice on all tortoise sites (including this one) is that tortoises are, generally speaking, happiest when they’re kept on their own, right? So, there are a lot of tortoise out there doing the right thing by their pets but leaving in them in a state of something approaching permanent sexual frustration.
Thus, they start to pace. They pace because that’s one of the early mating behaviors for tortoises to catch the eye of other tortoises. You might think of it as the tortoise equivalent to a bird’s mating dance.
Tortoise Mating Is An Adventure Sport
Mating is a quite peculiar performance in tortoises. You can normally tell when tortoises are ready to mate because they become a bit (or in some cases, a lot) more aggressive than they normally are.
Male tortoises will instantly attack another male tortoise if they discover one when they’re ready to mate. This attack can be very violent – so much so that it can lead to serious injury to the loser, leaving them with a scratched up shell and with large gouges out of their skin.
Should the male then find a female, the male will then become aggressive with her (and, in fact, the lady will often be aggressive right back at this point) but after some persistent biting and butting up against her – if the lady is in the mood, she backs down and lets him mount her. (Yes, tortoises like it rough.)
All That Energy Has To Go Somewhere
So, as you can see – there’s a lot of energy involved in a sexually motivated tortoise and if there is no mate around, that energy has to go somewhere and it tends to lead to the tortoise pacing all over the place.
This is nothing to worry about. You don’t need to do anything. You certainly don’t need to find your tortoise a mate and let them do what comes naturally (and, in fact, it’s often a bad idea to breed certain types of tortoise at all as in some places young tortoises are often thrown out or abandoned by their owners).
Just let them walk off their frustration, it’s good for them – they get rid of some of that energy and it helps them to stay lean and fit.
Related article: Exactly How Much Exercise Do Tortoises Need?
Tortoise Pacing Reason #2: The Glass Trap
We often think of animals as having enhanced senses when compared to human beings. Well, there’s no evidence that your tortoise is hiding some sort of tortoise superpower and they generally have poor hearing, they have a limited sense of taste (based on scent), and their sense of touch isn’t that developed either.
Tortoises See Well
This means that your tortoise’s primary sense is its sense of sight and while they don’t appear to have incredible eyesight, it’s at least as good as ours is. A tortoise has color vision and it’s also thought that they see quite clearly in ultra-violet (which is something that our eyes can’t achieve).
This means that if you house a tortoise in a glass vivarium and the base of the vivarium (the bit at your tortoise’s eye level) is also made of glass, your tortoise can see out of their home and, to the tortoise, it looks like the world is going on forever.
This can lead to them pacing up and down the glass in frustration, because they’re trying to get somewhere that they think is interesting, but they just can’t work out why they can’t move forward.
Your Tortoise Doesn’t Get Glass
While tortoises are reasonably clever reptiles, glass is beyond their ability to understand or to fathom out. There is nothing like it in the wild. So, they see nothing in the way but keep finding something in the way – but being persistent, they don’t want to give up.
This leads to pacing up and down the glass bottom of the vivarium. This is frustrated pacing. It’s not going to harm your tortoise if it continues, though we can imagine that it might raise their stress level a bit which could, in theory, lower their immune response.
Related article: Can tortoises die of stress? [6 Causes]
How To Make It Easier For Your Tortoise
However, it’s not really nice to keep an animal in a state of permanent frustration either and this is pretty easy to remedy – just put something around the base of the vivarium so that the tortoise can’t see out anymore. What they can’t see, doesn’t exist and they’ll quickly stop pacing and go back to doing whatever else it is they do, instead.
Related article: Do pet tortoises need toys?
Tortoise Pacing Reason #3: The Space Conundrum
You’d think that an animal with a reputation for being slow, like a tortoise, would prefer to sit around in the same place all the time, right? Well, not in the case of tortoises. In fact, your average tortoise is reasonably mobile.
There are some exceptions to this rule – giant tortoises, for example, are so incredibly slow that they travel only a few hundred meters in a month, but most tortoise species are much more mobile than a giant tortoise.
Many species of desert tortoise can do about 3 to 5 kilometers per hour. They don’t move this fast only in emergencies, they move this fast because there isn’t a huge amount of food kicking around in the desert – so they have to wander around to find it.
That’s 3-5 kilometers an hour and a mobile desert tortoise may spend several hours a day wandering about. Think about the size of your vivarium, is it several kilometers long? If it is, you’re amazingly lucky but we’d assume that like the rest of us – it isn’t and it’s maybe a few meters long at most.
That means your tortoise may end up pacing quite a lot inside the vivarium because it’s got all the natural energy that it brings to life in the wild into a much smaller space. Again, this is nothing to worry about – if you’re feeding your tortoise properly and it’s eating that food, they’re not going to run out of energy and they’re pacing because that’s what they’re built to do.
Of course, if you can afford it and have the space, you might want to extend your vivarium for a pacing tortoise to have more space to pace in but it’s not essential, either.
Should you worry if a tortoise keeps pacing? Assuming that there no signs of ill health or distress, in which case take your tortoise to a vet, then the main reasons for a tortoise to pace are all fairly harmless and there’s no need for you to worry about your pet.
Tortoises are much better at walking about than you might expect them to be for slow animals. It won’t hurt them at all.