Many people like to imagine that their pets have human qualities and similar needs. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can introduce some misconceptions about what a tortoise does and does not need. Humans need companionship; without it, we become lonely and can even die. It makes sense that we’d want to make sure our tortoises aren’t lonely, too.
But are tortoises better in pairs? In the wild, tortoises live relatively solitary lives. They usually come together for breeding purposes but live most of their lives alone. Female tortoises may guard their nests, but they do not protect or raise their babies. That means even very young tortoises naturally live on their own.
It’s a comfort to know that pet tortoises probably won’t get lonely, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t live with a buddy. Below, I’ve dug up some interesting facts on pet tortoises and how they do with and without companions.
Do tortoises need other tortoise companions?
Tortoises, like many other reptiles, didn’t evolve with a built-in need for companionship. They are perfectly happy on their own in the wild. Pet tortoises aren’t that far removed from their wild cousins, so they too are just fine alone.
That said, some tortoises can learn to live peacefully with other members of their species. A very select few even seem to prefer spending time with other tortoises. I once knew a pair of tortoises who grew up together. One fell ill and passed away after many years, leaving his tankmate alone. The remaining tortoise, while physically healthy in all regards, had some subtle personality changes after the death of his pal.
Was the remaining tortoise grieving? Did he miss his buddy?
We may never know the answer to that, but I personally believe he did miss his companion. It’s not clear whether reptiles have the capacity for emotions and feelings in the same way that humans do. To me, however, it was obvious to me that these two tortoises shared some kind of a bond, even if just one of tolerance and familiarity.
That’s enough proof for me, but you’ll need to decide for yourself.
Should I get two tortoises?
If you’re like me and want to give your tortoises the best chance at a happy life, you may be wondering if adding a buddy to the tank is a good idea. Even if tortoises were designed for solitary living, yours might actually be quite happy with a friend.
But before you go buying an army of tortoises to keep your shelled friend company, keep these points in mind.
Male tortoises can fight
Earlier I mentioned my friend’s pet tortoises that grew up together. A sharp reader may have caught that they were both males. While those two males lived harmoniously together for many years, they weren’t alone. In fact, there were four other tortoises in that enclosure, all of which were females. The male to female ratio was pretty good so the two males didn’t have a need to fight.
Two males alone together will likely get into some scuffles. If the enclosure isn’t large enough, they will definitely get into many battles. Males can be territorial, and this is not a behavior that can be trained out or worked out on their own.
If you choose to get companions for your current tortoise, or you want to get multiple baby tortoises at once, make sure you have two females. If you want many tortoises, consider getting one male and two or more females. Just be sure there are enough ladies to go around for the fellas and you should be fine.
That said, be prepared for bullies. Some male tortoises are just mean to other males, no matter the ratio of males to females. In this case, the aggressive male should be removed and placed alone in an enclosure. He’s just not good company!
Don’t mix species
There are some parasites and organisms that are common on certain species or tortoise and don’t harm them. Yet, those same organisms can be deadly to different species of tortoises. It’s best not to mix two or more tortoise species together, even if you believe yours are all parasite and dangerous organism-free.
Be generous with space
I like to imagine tortoises like my introverted friends. They like other humans enough to spend time with them sometimes, but they need lots of space to rest and recharge after contact. I know this because I’m one of them—an introvert, not a tortoise, much to my chagrin.
Basically, if I spend too much time with other humans, I get cranky. Tortoises can be the same way when it comes to contact with other tortoises.
Tortoises are like introverted people. If you’d like to house them together, be sure to provide plenty of room for each tortoise to have some personal space. This means a very large enclosure—go much bigger than suggested. It also means multiple hides and lots of places they can retreat and get a breath.
Don’t force interactions
Tortoises are not toddlers. They don’t need to learn social skills in order to survive. You can’t pressure them to go make friends. You should never force two (or more) tortoises to interact or spend time in close proximity. If they feel like being social, they’ll do so on their own.
Forcing tortoises to interact is a recipe for disaster. Even friendly, social tortoises can be egged into aggression by well-meaning humans forcing them to be near one another.
Just let your tortoises go about their business all on their own. Friendships, or at least tolerance, builds slowly over time, even for tortoises.
Provide enough for everyone, plus some
Unless one of your tortoises has a problem with portion control, you should always provide plenty of food for each tortoise in the tank. In fact, provide more than enough to go around. You should have a little left over that needs to be removed after each feeding.
Why do you need to provide so much food?
Simple. Tortoises may become aggressive if they think there’s not enough food to go around. It’s not terribly common to see food aggression in tortoises, but it can happen. You don’t want to set them up to battle over dinner. It’s a bad habit to break once it’s set root.
Avoid it by providing everything your tortoises need, plus enough extra to keep everyone happy.
The bully on the playground was probably the biggest kid in class. That is true in the animal kingdom, too. While the biggest tortoise in the tank may not necessarily be the aggressor—the one who starts the fights—he’ll likely be the one to end it.
Unfortunately, that will leave the smaller tortoise stressed, injured, or dead.
Avoid mixing tortoises of different sizes. You probably won’t be able to match their sizes perfectly. And if you’re bringing two babies home you can’t always predict how fast they’ll each grow, but do your best to match them.
Anyone who has never had a pet tortoise will probably scoff at this, but tortoises have personalities! Some are friendly and playful, while some prefer to sit and watch the action happen. Some love to be handled and spend time with humans, while others don’t like to be bothered.
Just like people, tortoises will have other personality types they’ll get along with best. Don’t match your boisterous, energetic tortoise with a grumpy tortoise, for example. Try to match their personalities so one doesn’t annoy the other.
Accept that it may not work
You can do everything right, provide a ton of space, lots of extra hides, and plenty of food and water, but the tortoises just aren’t thriving. You need to accept that not every tortoise will be able to live with others.
Remember that tortoises evolved as solitary animals for a reason. If you try to force companionship on them, you may stress them out and that can end in disaster. Illness, stress, injury, and even death can occur if you try to force tortoises to live together.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t give it a try if that’s what you want and you can handle the added responsibility. I am, however, saying that you need to be prepared to remedy a bad situation. Don’t put two tortoises together unless you’re ready to immediately separate them if things don’t work out.
Can I let my separated tortoises have time together?
Definitely! If you choose to keep multiple tortoises in separate enclosures, it’s perfectly acceptable to give them time each week to explore a common, neutral play area together. Keep a close eye on them and never leave them unattended, though.
Some tortoises will enjoy saying hello to a distant friend from another tank. Other tortoises couldn’t care less about social time. Again, don’t force an interaction, but there’s no reason you can’t give them an opportunity to meet and get some social time from across the playpen or yard.
Do be ready to separate them, however. If they seem to be stressed out, upset, or angry, get them back into their tanks. This may fade over time with multiple exposures, or they may never get along. You need to be prepared for both possibilities.
Keeping tortoises is a lot of fun, and keeping multiple tortoises just increases the fun factor. But having tortoises living in the same enclosure may not be a good match for your specific pets. In that case, keep them in their own tanks and set up safe, supervised social times for them to get acquainted if they want to.
Can you keep two tortoises together? Yes, but not every tortoise will enjoy this. Two males should never be left alone together. It’s okay to have two females together. You can also do a tank with mixed genders as long as there aren’t too many males.
Do tortoises need friends? No, tortoises do not need friends. Some pet tortoises may enjoy having a mate, while others may not like it at all. Tortoises are naturally solitary animals.