If you’re considering buying a tortoise as a pet or if you’ve just got a tortoise then you might be wondering how close a relationship you can form with him or her. Many tortoise owners really want to know if their tortoise is capable of giving them love. So, let’s find out.
Can a tortoise feel love? Since tortoises are reptiles, they are not capable of feeling “love” as we humans understand it. However, tortoises do show signs of affection and appreciation for their owners. They follow their pet parents around, tolerate handling, eat directly from human hands, and come to us when they see us.
What we can say for certain is that tortoises can show affection (and, in fact, we can prove that – thanks to a world class tortoise expert’s input) and that keeping tortoises is an emotionally rewarding experience.
Related article: Do pet turtles and tortoises show affection?
So, let’s look at tortoises how they view the world, how they love being touched, the recognition of tortoises for people and whether they can form a bond with us.
How Does A Tortoise View The World?
It’s quite important to note that a tortoise, as a reptile, sees the world quite differently to mammals (like us, human beings) and that this is going to tend to color their responses to stimuli and their emotional responses.
Mostly, tortoises seem to react to environmental stimuli and their responses are directly linked to these things. This, in turn, makes their reactions much harder to anticipate than a mammal’s reaction to any given additional stimulus.
Related article: Tortoise Anatomy: What tortoises are made of, and why!
For example, you will quickly gauge whether a cat enjoys being picked up or not, but a tortoise may respond positively one day and then the next it might lose its mind and bite you. This isn’t because you did something differently but more that they sense the world around them is not the same and thus, their response is different.
Yes, this can make a tortoise a fairly confusing pet to own and even the most experienced of tortoise handlers can occasionally upset their pets without realizing what they’ve done.
Related article: Tortoises bite: Here’s what you need to know
Tortoises And Touch
However, despite the oddness of tortoise’s reactions to people, there’s one thing that everyone seems to be agreed upon – tortoises will respond positively to touch.
The shell is not a hard dead lump but rather a tactile transmitter of sensation. You will quickly come to identify how a tortoise likes to be touched. Some enjoy having their shells caressed, others prefer a gentle scratching motion on the neck, and you’ll find that they often stretch out their necks to help facilitate this.
As a general rule, the longer you’ve had a tortoise the more relaxed it is about being touched. If you ensure that you never hurt or distress your pet, it will come to trust you and it will be fine about being stroked and caressed. Treat it badly, however, and it may never come to trust you at all.
Related article: Are tortoises and turtles good classroom pets?
Tortoises Definitely Love Being Touched
Matt Evans of the Smithsonian National Zoo Reptile Discovery Center says, “Tortoises enjoy tactile sensations, rubbing, scratching, that kind of thing. So when we go in there with them and we’re engaging with them – we’ll kind of rub their shell, scratch their head a bit and when we do that, they extend that neck out and they’ll look like they’re enjoying it a little bit and that’s just something we do to interact with the tortoises on a daily basis.”
Given that his job is to spend all day, every day with tortoises we’d be pretty sure that he knows what he’s talking about. He also wants people to know that tortoises are capable of genuine affection even if they aren’t as cuddly as some other animals.
You can see Matt playing with some giant tortoises in the video below and we tend to agree, those tortoises look like they’re having fun:
Will A Tortoise Come To Recognize A Person?
It’s important to recognized that tortoises aren’t the rocket scientists of the animal kingdom and it may take them a while to learn to respond to you – it’s not that they’re not clever, they very much are for a reptile of their size, but they weren’t designed to have owners and thus, it takes some getting used to you before they know who you are.
Eventually, they come to appreciate the sound of your voice (as long as it’s kept low and friendly – tortoises do not love shouting), the touch of your hand, the smell of you and, of course, some of the behaviors you have when interacting with your tortoises.
Most of all, they’re likely to associate you with food because being fed is pretty much every animal’s top priority and with safety, because you keep their environment in a condition where they don’t spend their time being stressed.
Once they’ve come to recognize you, it’s pretty obvious. They perk up when you enter the room and they will often enthusiastically rush up to greet you (possibly in the hopes of a treat or two).
The more time you spend around your tortoises and, in particular, in interacting with your tortoises – the more pronounced these responses become.
Will my tortoises form an affectionate bond with me?
This is where things become a bit more difficult. In general terms, tortoises don’t really bond with other tortoises. They prefer their own company and while they can learn to tolerate each other, sometimes, a tortoise that isn’t mating would rather not see another tortoise, ever.
However, as we’ve just discussed – there’s a definite positive reaction between a tortoise and a human owner once they’ve come to recognize them. Does this mean that they’ve bonded with us?
We’d like to think that they do. After all, this is a similar reaction to that of a dog or a cat when their owner comes home and they’re pleased to see them but… it’s also possible that this is a reflex action based on the fact that you often come equipped with food.
Some will argue that this means there is no real bond – the bond is illusory, and that the real relationship is not with you but with the currency you’re spending on the tortoise.
We think that’s pretty bleak. While it is entirely possible that your tortoises are only in it for the food – we’d prefer (as pet owners) to take the interaction at face value. We feel our tortoises are pleased to see us, so they are.
Even so, don’t we humans decide who we like and dislike by how they make us feel? Tortoises might be doing the same exact thing!
Anthropomorphism: The Biggest Sin In Animal Keeping?
We’re talking tortoises not philosophy, so, we won’t get too deep into this but there is a concept known as “anthropomorphism” which is where human beings ascribe human-like qualities to animals.
The idea is that animals aren’t human and thus don’t think or feel in the same way that we do and it’s pretty meaningless to pretend that they do.
We understand this argument, but we do feel it misses the point somewhat. As a pet owner, you can never read an animal’s mind be it a tortoise or an elephant, so why would you worry too much about the precise definition of a feeling?
We’d argue that what matters is how a particular action feels to you. As long as your animals are clearly happy and healthy (and this is easy to tell), then surely the benefit of owning a tortoise (or any other pet) is the emotions they bring out in you, the owner?
Related article: How to tell if your tortoise is happy and healthy
Can a tortoise love you truly?
We doubt your tortoise will ever bring you flowers or sing you love songs because that’s not what tortoises do.
However, despite the arguments in favor and against tortoises feeling love, we’re pretty sure that they do feel love even if it’s not a perfect replica of the love that you feel for your tortoise in return.
We’ve seen that tortoises can learn who we are and can respond to play affectionately, we don’t think it’s a big leap of faith to say that’s probably the only way that a reptile can express its love for its owner and we’re glad that it does.
We maintain that tortoises can feel love, but only to some extent. Not only because we like the idea that they can return our affection towards them but by how they react when they see us. Of course, we don’t see the world from our tortoise’s point of view, and we may be committing the sin of anthropomorphism, but we don’t think it matters much.
If you want a pet which gives and receives affection, you won’t go wrong with a tortoise and arguing over what exactly constitutes “love” from a tortoise’s perspective is an argument that doesn’t really change that.