There is a strong debate on the internet whether tortoises can be trained or not. Of specific interest is whether a tortoise can be potty trained—meaning can he be trained to relieve himself in a specific location? Some people swear tortoises can be potty trained while others vehemently refuse to accept that reptiles can be trained to do anything at all. We’ve got an answer for you, but you might be surprised.
So, can a tortoise be potty trained? Tortoises can be potty trained to some extent but it’s not an easy task. Potty training tortoises is more like convincing them to do a natural behavior when you ask and less about teaching something completely new.
That said, there is still hope for tortoise owners hoping to potty train their pets. As we said, it can be done, but not quite how you’re probably imagining.
How do you Train a Tortoise?
Before you can potty train a tortoise, you must understand how a tortoise is trained at all. They’re not like dogs or cats or birds. You can’t usually teach them a brand-new trick. You can’t teach them to do something unnatural.
However, you can work with what they already know and what they can already do. Training a tortoise is all about convincing them it’s worth their time and efforts to do something when you ask them to. It’s about playing to their strengths and adjusting your expectations.
Part of training a tortoise to do anything is to watch the individual tortoise’s behavior. Find something it’s already used to doing and then encourage it to do that more. How do you convince a tortoise to perform? Easy; give him a treat. Almost all tortoises are food-motivated. Just be sure to avoid too many treats. An obese tortoise is less likely to learn quickly and it’s bad for their health anyway.
Patience is the Key to Potty Training a Tortoise
Tortoises are slow-growing, long-lived reptiles. They are never in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. There is nothing you could say or do that will change that behavior.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t slowly impact their behaviors over time. That’s how potty training a tortoise is going to happen. It’s slow, laborious, and might even be frustrating, but tortoises are smart. While they may not necessarily want to please you, they will be happy to work for their food.
It may take months or years to teach a tortoise to use one potty spot or a litter box of sorts. It may never happen at all. You need to be prepared for that by having patience.
Let Instinct be your Guide to Potty Training your Tortoise
Tortoises are creatures of habit. They will often do the same things at the same time on each and every day. A smart tortoise-keeper will recognize the patterns of their tortoises and take note.
One of those habits should be potty breaks. Nearly every tortoise has a particular way they like to relieve themselves. It may be right after breakfast or it could be in the bath water. Figure out what bathroom habits your tortoise has and get ready to be creative.
Adapt to his needs
Once you’ve figured out your tortoise’s pattern, change a few things you do to help encourage the behaviors you want. In this case, you want to focus your efforts on helping your tortoise learn to potty at a specific time and a specific place.
Make it easy for her to succeed. Make all your changes gradually and take notes on how she reacts. If she seems stressed by any changes, stop and switch back for a while. A stressed tortoise isn’t going to learn anything.
Start the schedule
A great help to potty training any animal is the routine and strict schedule. Once you know how long it takes your tortoise to digest her food and when she usually poops, you can start to adjust the schedule to slowly change when she goes.
This will take time, so stay patient. Slowly adjust feeding time or bath time, or whatever other event helps stimulate her need to go. If your tortoise always goes to the bathroom an hour after meal time, take her to the potty spot 50 minutes before that time and wait, for example.
The potty spot
It is highly unlikely you’ll ever train a tortoise to poop in a litter box like a cat. That said, you do have a chance of teaching your tortoise to potty on a specific surface. After watching your tort and figuring out his potty routine, you can start to change his environment.
If he always poops after breakfast, for example, change the surface that breakfast is served on. You’ll want to keep using his bowl or dish, but place the dish on the new surface. After some time, your tort might begin associating the new surface with food and potty time.
For humans, it’s gross to think of pooping where you eat, but tortoises don’t usually care. Don’t worry about upsetting his sensibilities.
After a month or so and many, many poops, start moving the potty surface away from the food dish, closer to the section of tank you’d like to make the bathroom. If this is working, you may start to notice your tort moving toward the potty surface right after eating and then doing his business. Congratulations! You just potty trained your tortoise!
Now, keep moving the potty surface an inch at a time toward the right location. At this point, you may always have to use the potty surface, or your tortoise may see the new location in the tank as the potty spot. You’ll have to figure out which one your tortoise thinks.
Many Tortoises Poop in the Water
If your tortoise is like most others, he might like to relieve himself in the bath water. The warm water is soothing and relaxing, encouraging a nice release of waste.
Rather than trying to change this behavior, use it.
If your tort only ever poops in the water and never in the rest of the tank, he is already basically potty trained. Lucky you! But that doesn’t help give your tortoise a nice, soothing, clean soak.
You can try switching dishes for bath time. If you know he’ll poo the moment he touches the water, put him in one dish for potty time. When he’s done, switch him to the real soaking tub so he’s not stewing in his own excrement.
After some time, he may begin to expect this change of bathing locations. He might even try climbing out of the potty tub to head toward his clean soaking tub.
Try Outside for Potty Time
Some tortoises don’t like a mess in their tanks. These tortoises are often happier if you let them go outside each day to potty on the grass, dirt, or rocks in the yard. If you’re having trouble getting your tort to potty where you want him to in his cage, bring him outside to see what happens.
Each day, note where he relieves himself. Is it a specific spot? Is it a particular surface? Figure out what he likes and try to replicate it in his tank. If it turns out to be the whole outdoor experience that helps him poop, so be it. You have a potty-trained tortoise!
Why does this even work? It’s, once again, a matter of instincts and using what your tort already does. Tortoises are often stimulated to relieve themselves after vigorous exercise. Exploring the yard is hard work and therefore is likely stimulating his need to go. Let that work in your favor.
You’re Really Training Yourself
If you’re an astute reader, you may have noticed a pattern here. The pattern is that you are watching and learning from your tortoise and changing your behaviors. Not the other way around.
In essence, your tortoise just trained you to manage his potty routine.
Don’t be alarmed. It doesn’t mean your tortoise is some kind of evil poo genius. It simply means you love your pet and wish to give him the very best life possible. Managing his potty routine and being aware of his needs are just two ways you’re giving him what he needs to thrive.
When you’ve learned what your tortoise does normally, especially in the potty department, it’s a lot easier to identify illnesses, injuries, or stress. Keep watching your tortoise, keep working with him for better potty habits, and along the way, enjoy your bonding time.
Can you train a tortoise to do tricks? You will have to be very persistent but it is possible. Learn about tortoises and tricks in this article:“Can you train a tortoise to do tricks?”
Can you paint a tortoise shell? No, please don’t. While it might be fun for you, it will be very harmful for your tortoise. It can even be fatal. Read the details here: “No, please don’t paint that tortoise’s shell!”
Why do tortoises bury themselves? Tortoises dig themselves in the dirt instinctively for a variety of reasons. Most often it’s to regulate their temperature. Learn more in this article: “Why do tortoises bury themselves?”