If you’ve just bought a tortoise or your tortoise is suddenly looking a little off color, you might be wondering if it’s possible for tortoises to suffer from stress and if so, how serious the consequences of that stress might be. Honestly, the answer is not surprising.
Can tortoises die of stress? Yes. Tortoises can die of stress, though it is a fairly rare occurrence. All animals, including tortoises, can become stressed and the symptoms of stress can cause issues with both motivation and the immune system. If a pet tortoise is stressed for long enough it may become sick which can lead to its death.
Let’s take a look at the 6 main causes of stress in pet tortoises, the impact of stress in tortoises, and how to help tortoises that are stressed.
Can Tortoises Die Of Stress?
The answer is certainly yes, tortoises can die of stress. According to the Greenland vet site, tortoises, “collected from the wild are subjected to a great deal of stress during shipping which makes them susceptible to disease. Many of these tortoises die in transport. The ones that survive arrive quite sick. By purchasing a captive-bred animal, you will help discourage the inhumane importation of wild caught tortoises and end up with a happier, healthier pet as well.”
Of course, it’s not just wild tortoises that can die from stress, pet tortoises can too if the circumstances under which they’re raised become too problematic for them.
The Impact Of Stress On Tortoises
What is it that makes stress such a problem for tortoises? Well, it’s not so much tortoises as all creatures. Human beings, rats, chickens, etc. can all die of stress and tortoises are no exception to this rule.
That doesn’t mean that tortoises are particularly fragile, either. They don’t die instantly if they become stressed, but the impact of stress builds up over time and eventually the impact can be fatal.
Immune System Problems
The biggest issue when it comes to stress is that it takes its toll on the immune system. In Drake et al.’s paper on “Complex immune response and molecular reactions to pathogens and disease in a desert reptile” they found that both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of stress could lead to immune suppression.
This, in turn, made the tortoises more prone to bacterial infection and it reduced the response to such an infection once it was acquired. This, again, doesn’t mean that a stressed tortoise will die but it means it will become sick more easily and it will find it harder to fight off such an infection when it does become sick.
Stress can also lead to a sort of depression and/or lack of motivation in tortoises. This, in the long-term, might lead to the tortoise failing to compete effectively for resources with other tortoises around it.
Again, this might cause your tortoise to become weaker, which would have an impact on the immune system and, as we’ve already said, this can make it easy for them to get sick.
What Causes Stress In Tortoises? 6 Main Factors
There are many different sources of stress in tortoises and it can help to understand them if you want to prevent stress in your pets.
A tortoise is not a cat and it won’t enjoy being picked up to be cuddled. In fact, being picked up causes a severe amount of stress and anxiety in an animal which will only get lifted up in the air in the wild, if something is trying to eat it. So, while it’s OK to occasionally pick your pet up to inspect it for any damage, dirt or disease – you should make these periods brief and infrequent.
Tortoises are just fine being kept alone. If you put them together, they’re almost certainly going to compete (or fight) at some point. While they are fairly docile creatures, one (or more than one) tortoise is going to find itself at the bottom of the pecking order and he or she can feel bullied. This is a stressful for tortoises as it is for people.
Related article: Can tortoises fight and kill each other?
If tortoises don’t enjoy being picked up, they really hate being moved from one place to another. You are removing all that familiar surrounding and their safety net of known places and replacing it. This is a hugely stressful experience and if you really must move a tortoise it must be handled carefully.
Tortoises shouldn’t be subjected to loud noises, or music, on a regular basis. Our job as tortoise keepers is to mimic our pets’ natural habitat as closely as possible. Constant loud noise and/or music is not an occurrence in the wild. It doesn’t matter how much you love loud music; your tortoise is going to find it stressful.
Related article: Do turtles and tortoises like music?
Tortoises are very much creatures of habit and if you change things around in their environment, they can find that stressful too. Try not to move around things in your room if you keep them inside or within their enclosure if you keep them outside.
Injury or Illness
Just as you would, a tortoise which is sick and/or in pain is likely to be going through a reasonable amount of stress. You can’t do much about this kind of stress except ensure that you don’t add other stress on top and that you get your tortoise seen to by a vet if they haven’t already.
Indicators Of Stress In Tortoises
You can’t ask a tortoise if it’s stressed but you can observe them and if the deviate from their normal routine too much – it might be stress that’s causing it.
Tortoises lives have a rhythm to them of sorts. They follow this pattern: they bask, they feed, they bask some more, they shelter for a while, they feed and then they burrow.
If there is an interruption in this circadian rhythm, it’s normally because they feel insecure and stressed. It’s the earliest warning sign of stress that you can find.
Basking and Sheltering Issues
Tortoises need to bask in the light to maintain their body temperature and their happiness. If they stop basking this is often an indication of severe stress – and it needs to be addressed quickly as failing to bask can be fatal.
A stressed tortoise may also fail to shelter properly when entering hibernation which might lead them to risk freezing to death.
As with human beings, a stressed tortoise may also go off their food and drink. If you notice a tortoise isn’t eating, you should pay close attention – animals going off their food suggests a serious underlying problem. As you’d expect, if tortoises don’t eat, they can starve to death.
Preventing Stress In Tortoises
Sadly, there’s no school of psychotherapy for stressed tortoises which means that as a tortoise owner your options are really to try and minimize stress wherever possible.
Remove Sources Of Stress
The easiest thing to do if you believe a tortoise is stressed is to remove the source of that stress from the tortoise or insulate the tortoise from the source of stress if that’s not possible.
You should find that as soon as the stressing element is removed from the tortoise’s life that it quickly recovers and is “as normal” again.
Develop A Safe Space For Your Tortoises
You should also provide a safe and happy place for your tortoise to be in and most importantly, it should be full of places for the tortoise to hide.
As burrowing animals, tortoises love to hide when things aren’t quite right, and this will immediately reduce their level of stress.
If they can’t burrow, the ability to hide under a leaf or in a dark place can be as good for them. So, make sure that their environment promotes a low stress lifestyle and you shouldn’t have too many problems with tortoise stress.
Can tortoises die of stress? Yes, tortoises can die of stress but they really shouldn’t. There is no good reason for a tortoise with a loving owner to suffer from undue stress. You just need to ensure that there are no regular sources of stress around your tortoises and that they have a safe space to hide when they’re stressed.
And while wild tortoises can die of stress when they’re abducted to be turned into pets – you can help prevent that too by only buying a tortoise from a reputable and caring breeder.