I think it’s probably fair to say tortoises can be viewed as both tough and vulnerable at the same time. On the one hand they’re seen as these armour plated, living tanks that would probably survive a nuclear blast, but on the other hand, they’re slow moving, docile, and seemingly lacking in any defensive ability, save perhaps for being able to withdraw their head and limbs into their shell.
Injuries can and do happen, check out this article if you’d like more information on what to do if your tortoise does is injured by a predator.
All this can be very confusing for tortoise owners, and it can be particularly nerve racking especially if you’re planning on putting your tortoise in an outdoor enclosure for the first time. You might be wondering what predators, if any, are out there, and what risk they pose to your beloved pet.
Tortoises are of course slow moving, they can’t run away from danger, and they aren’t typically aggressive enough to take on a predator. Their major line of defence is their shell, or indeed if they’re large enough, their weight.
This can’t be said of baby (juvenile) tortoises, they’re light enough to be carried away by predatory mammals and birds with ease, and their shell is soft enough to be cracked by the jaws of a fox, or being dropped from height by a bird of prey.
There are also some special considerations to keep in mind when you have other pets as well as your tortoise. Whilst they may not be inherantly predatory, even domesticated animals can be unpredictable.
Mature Tortoise Defenses
Beyond their shell and weight mature tortoises have a few other tactics to at least try and protect themselves if they have to.
Burrowing serves several purposes for tortoises: it provides a warm and insulated shelter either during the day, night, or during hibernation; as a nest for a female when giving birth; or as a defensive maneuver.
How effective burrowing would be for your pet if he or she was caught off guard, is debatable, although they might well like to create burrows in their enclosure, partly to use them as a form of ‘escape’ should they need to.
Whilst tortoise’s certainly don’t have any teeth, anyone who’s ever been nipped by one will tell you they can still give a nasty bite when they want to. Alongside their powerful jaws tortoises have a horny beak like top lip that, unless trimmed by a vet, will add to the potential damage their bite can inflict.
You might have noticed that your tortoise’s lower shell has a protrusion (ie that sticks out below his head). This ‘horn’ like appendage is designed for fighting with other tortoises, to try and get under an opponent’s shell and flip them over. It might not prove too useful against other predators however.
Tortoise shells don’t come in all kinds of striking colours and patterns by accident. In most cases they’re designed to blend in with their natural habitat, hence the earthy or sandy colours that most tortoise shells exhibit.
In the wild tortoises can use their camouflage to great effect, particularly if they’re able to combine it with being partially submerged in a burrow. With any luck they can trick a predator into not realising they’re even there, especially given their knack for being able to keep perfectly still.
Unfortunately camouflage probably won’t be the most effective form of defense for a tortoise in captivity, unless they’re able to burrow readily, and the surrounding soil and flora and fauna closely matches their shell and skin.
What are the Natural Predators of a Tortoise?
Whilst in their natural habitats tortoises can be faced with a formidable range of adversaries, from coyotes in the deserts to big cats like jaguars in the rain forests, taking tortoises out of their natural habitat doesn’t ensure their safety from predators. Even here in the UK there are a number of predators that will attack, or even kill and eat a tortoise given the chance.
Would a Fox Attack My Tortoise?
Here in the UK the most likely threat to a tortoise kept outdoors are foxes. We’re fairly lucky in this respect, in the US various other beasts such as coyotes and large lizards can all prove to be a threat to our shelled friends, but in general the advice to keep them from attacking your tortoise is the same.
A solidly built enclosure is essential, and this includes a covering for the roof in the form of a strong mesh that doesn’t inhibit air and sunlight.
As foxes are also burrowing creatures it’s important to pre-empt their attempts to dig down underneath the enclosure to get in – anyone who has ever owned chickens may have learnt this the hard way too!
The solution is to embed the side walls of your enclosure a good half metre in the ground to make it difficult for a fox to burrow their way in.
Do Hedgehogs Eat Tortoises?
I know what you’re thinking. How can hedgehogs be a threat to tortoises?! Sure they’re prickly little characters, but they spend most of their time keeping out of the way of predators themselves don’t they? Well yes, but only during the day.
Believe it or not, by night when they emerge from their slumber hedgehogs will happily chew on things, including tortoises limbs. Whilst they’re not likely to be as persistent as a fox, it’s still bad news for your tortoise.
To prevent this, take the same approach as you would with foxes, ensuring there aren’t any gaps they could sneak through. A gap in a fence need only be about 5cm high for a hedgehog to fit through – don’t be deceived by those spines!
Do Hawks and Other Birds of Prey Attack Tortoises?
If you’ve noticed hawks, kestrels or other birds of prey in your local area then there’s a very strong possibility of them attacking your tortoise if they think they can get a meal out of it. The risk is particularly bad if you keep juvenile tortoises as these are light enough to be carried away by birds and eaten in the safety of their nest.
Other birds such as crows and even seagulls can even pose a risk, although of course they pose slightly less of a threat because they aren’t large enough to carry a tortoise away.
To advice to keep all birds at bay is simply to include a strong covering mesh on your enclosure that birds can’t fit through, and of course don’t forget to keep it in place at all times, unless you’re present.
Will Rats Attack My Tortoise?
Rats will attack your tortoise if given the chance and they are also attracted to tortoise poo, so if you keep your tortoise in an outdoor enclosure then you need to make sure it is rat proof.
Rat attacks on tortoises can be fatal so it is vital to keep your tortoises away from rats. Rats are highly intelligent creatures and can get through the smallest holes (if you can get your finger through it, a rat can get through it) so make sure you regularly check your enclosures for any wear and tear and points of weakness that a rat could nibble through.
The safest option for your tortoise would be to bring it in to your home at night rather than leave it outside in its enclosure but this is a matter of personal choice.
Sonic rat scarers are available to purchase (affiliate link?) if you want to try to prevent rats from entering your garden. Unfortunately rats are nocturnal so you’re unlikely to see them during the day or even be aware if you have any in the immediate vicinity of your home. In light of this, we would recommend remaining vigilant and ensuring your tortoise enclosure is secure at all times.
Rats have also been known to attack those tortoises that have been hibernated in a box and placed in a shed. We wouldn’t recommend this method of hibernation due to the fact that you are relying on fluctuating temperatures but if you choose this method of hibernation you need to ensure your shed is completely rat proof.
Will Badgers Attack My Tortoise?
Badgers are opportunistic and fierce predators that will attack and kill a tortoise if the opportunity arises. As with other predators, we’d recommend that your tortoises enclosure is always fully secure and you do not allow your tortoise to free roam in your garden.
Will Cats Attack My Tortoise?
A cats curiosity will be spiked by a tortoise which may result in a cat swatting and patting at a tortoise with its paws. This could lead to serious injury or even the death of the tortoise. As a result you will need to ensure that your tortoise is kept away from cats in a secure enclosure.
Cats are also attracted to soft substrates as a place to go to the toilet so again, to avoid your tortoises enclosure becoming the neighbourhood cats toilet then you need to ensure it is fully secure. Tortoises are known to eat both cat and dog poo if they happen upon it due to it being an easy high protein source in the wild, but that’s not to say you want your tortoise eating it or to be washing it off your tortoises shell and feet. You also won’t want your tortoise ingesting any of the nasty bacteria that lurks in cat poo. The best method to circumvent this problem is to ensure your tortoise enclosure is fully secure.
You can purchase sonic cat scarers to try to deter cats from entering your garden.
Do Sonic Cat Scarers Affect Tortoises?
There has been much debate on whether tortoises can hear the ultrasound frequency emmitted by both cat and rat scarers and the general consensus is that they cannot.
Humans hear sounds between frequencies of 20Hz to 20 kHz; above 20 kHz is ultrasonic. Dogs and cats can hear up to at least 27 kHz so the signal emitted by the scarer would be between 20kHz and 27 kHz.
Tortoises do not have very good hearing but can actually hear some sounds below our hearing range. Experts suspect that tortoises have a hearing range as low as 50 Hz to 1500 Hz.
In short it is very unlikely your tortoise should be bothered by a cat or rat scarer because it is too high a frequency sound for it to hear.