Can Tortoises Overheat?


Under normal circumstances, a warm environment is welcomed by tortoises. Since they are cold-blooded, they need a certain temperature in order to be comfortable. Still, even tortoises can overheat when exposed to high temperatures, which is why you need to pay close attention to this particular variable.

As the owner of a tortoise, you are probably already aware of the fact that tortoises are cold-blooded reptiles and cannot produce their own body heat. You also likely know therefore that because of this they need a lot of external warmth to keep themselves comfortable – which is why they spend so much time basking in the sun in the wild.

With that in mind, is there such a condition as being “too hot” for a tortoise? Can they overheat? What can you do to make sure they are suitably comfortable – and are there any signs that tell you the temperature is off/having an adverse effect? Read on as we look to answer some of these questions.

Why Environmental Temperature Is Critical for Tortoises

For a tortoise to be able to function properly, it requires heat. Without heat, normal processes such as appetite, demeanor, locomotion, digestion, and even healing won’t be able to perform in the way that they should. 

And since their bodies are not able to produce that sort of temperature on their own (they are cold-blooded, after all), they need to collect that heat from the outside. Ideally, and in most cases, they should get their heat from the sun (particularly in the summer), but when kept in an indoor enclosure, a basking lamp is widely accepted to be the most appropriate solution. 

Still, just like humans can get too hot, there is such a thing as “too much” for tortoises as well. The preferred environmental temperature for tortoises is 30 degrees Celsius (around 86 degrees F), so if their environment goes any higher than that, they might turn lethargic. So you should always endeavor to make sure their environmental temperature is neither too high, nor too low.

Specific Dangers of Tortoises Getting Too Hot

When a tortoise gets too hot, there are some specific dangers that might befall it – which will ultimately cause it to perish if not addressed. Here are the signs that your tortoise is getting too hot:

  • Lethargy

Perhaps the most common danger of tortoises getting too hot lies with the fact that they become lethargic. Think about days when you feel hot and no longer want to move from your spot – the same thing can happen to tortoises. 

The problem is that since they are inherently slow moving in nature anyway, it may not be immediately obvious when they are too hot. Plus, many people assume that if the temperature is too high in one spot, their tortoise would simply move to another, cooler area.

However when the heat really is that great, once they become lethargic from overheating, even doing that might become too much of an effort for a tortoise.  

  • Loss of Appetite

If a tortoise gets too hot, not only can it be sent into a state of lethargy, but it may also lose its appetite. Nevertheless, tortoises need nourishment in order to survive, and if they do not eat, they run the risk of perishing.

Whilst loss of appetite might not be such an issue in the short term, loss of desire or ability to drink certainly could be. This is just one of many great reasons for regularly soaking your tortoise so that he or she can take on water.

  • Heat Stroke

Tortoises that get too hot may also be in danger of experiencing heat stroke. Not only can this lead to foaming around the mouth, it may also cause your tortoise to vomit. If you see these symptoms, consider it an emergency because it may as well lead to its death if ignored. 

How to Monitor Tortoise Temperature

To monitor the temperature of your tortoise enclosure effectively, you’ll need to get two thermometers specifically designed for this purpose. Yes you read that correctly; not one, but two thermometers. One should be placed near the basking lamp, while the other should be placed at the cooler end of the enclosure.

Incidentally, be sure to position the ‘hot end’ thermometer at a height below the bulb, as this will pick up the heat that’s directly radiated from the lamp. 

It’s also a good idea to be able to monitor the temperature of the tortoise itself if you can, with the aid of a hand held infrared thermometer.

Keep in mind that when you are monitoring the temperature of the tortoise directly, you need to do so from their highest point – which is the top of the shell. You shouldn’t take it from ground level, because that’s always a couple degrees colder.

How to Prevent Overheating

To prevent overheating, there are some preventive steps that you may want to keep in mind. Some may help you in the long run, but they can also be useful to cool down an already-overheated tortoise. 

  • Don’t Use Vivariums Unless You Have a Tropical Tortoise

Vivariums may be cool, but unless you have a tropical tortoise that needs its own microclimate, you should avoid using one of these as the base for your setup Instead, consider getting a tortoise table, as these prevent the greenhouse effect. Since they are not fully enclosed, the chance of the greenhouse effect occurring is much lower – thereby, protecting your tortoise. 

  • Don’t Use Both Artificial Heat and Heat From the Sun

This could be an issue particularly if you keep your tortoise enclosure next to a particularly sunny window. In the height of summer there would likely be no need to double down on the level of heat you provide, so there would be no need to have your heat lamp switched on.

  • Make Sure Your Enclosure is Has Good Ventilation

A tortoise needs ventilation for the same reasons that humans do: stale air isn’t healthy and there may be a build up of carbon dioxide and other potentially toxic compounds.

If the enclosure is not properly ventilated, it can promote the growth of mold, fungus, and other parasites – all of which can increase humidity in the space. This rise in humidity can also cause the temperature to go up.

  • Don’t Use Heat Mats

Heat mats are good when the temperatures are low and the tortoise is not hibernating – but if it is too hot, then you don’t need them. Heat mats will just raise the temperature even more, causing the tortoise to overheat.

  • Regularly Bathe Your Tortoise

Your tortoise may have its own little shallow “pool” to drink from and bathe in on their table, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a bath now and again, not least because it encourages them to drink, but also because it helps regulate their temperatures.

Make sure that you use room-temperature or lukewarm water that is not too cold. You want them to cool down, not freeze to death.

  • Avoid Other ‘Greenhouse’ Effect Triggers

There are other items that may also lead to greenhouse effects in your enclosure, particularly if you are using a vivarium (even correctly)– so it’s something that you need to be careful about.

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Are there any items that you use to raise the temperature? Are there any other reflective surfaces in the enclosure? It’s good practice not to leave any more than the bare minimum of man made items in there, because it can negatively affect the comfort level of your tortoise.

  • Rite Your Tortoise if They Topple Over

In some cases, a tortoise that falls onto its back may be at risk of suffocation due to its lungs being crushed by the weight of its internal organs. Having said that, this isn’t a huge concern for all but the largest, heaviest species.

The bigger worry for all tortoises is the risk of overheating if the tortoise topples over directly under a heat bulb, it could quite literally ‘cook’ as a result of being unable to get clear of the heat.

Again, for the most part you shouldn’t worry about this happening too much. Nine times out of ten a tortoise can rite itself successfully. What it does pay to do however, is keep a regular eye on your tortoise, just in case.

The Bottom Line

In the end whilst it isn’t the most common problem you’ll encounter, yes, a tortoise can overheat. To prevent that from happening, you need to make sure that their environmental temperature stays at around 30 degrees Celsius.

Watch out for any symptoms of overheating – and if you notice any, first and foremost try to get your tortoise to cool down right away, and then try to address the reasons for why it has happened, and how you can prevent it from happening again.

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