What to do if Your Tortoise Isn’t Eating or Drinking Properly or Their Behaviour Isn’t Normal

As much as I love tortoises, it’s a shame they aren’t better communicators! Sure the same is true of other animals, but at least a dog can let you know when something is up by its body language and behavior.

Tortoises are something more of an enigma, meaning you need to be a bit more assertive to recognize when they aren’t feeling right. Unlike a dog you won’t find a tortoise moping around whimpering at your feet when they’ve got an upset stomach.

What you can do however is get to know your tortoise’s normal behavioral patterns; in particular things like how much they tend to move around their enclosure, and how much food they tend to eat each day. If you’re able to get a good handle on their routine you’ll be much better placed to recognize when something is wrong, and be in a position to do something about it.

If you’d like more detailed information on caring for your tortoise all in one convenient place, be sure to check out our species-specific eBooks on tortoise husbandry. These cover everything from properly setting up your tortoise habitat, to correct heating, feeding and breeding manage.

What is Normal When it Comes to Eating and Drinking?

I’ve found the best way to determine the right amount of food to provide a tortoise every day is the tried and tested method of providing a large amount, and then noting how much is eaten by the tortoise within 20 to 30 minutes. You can then provide this same tailored amount every day. Simple!

Armed with this knowledge you should then be able to tell when something is up if your tortoise starts to struggle to eat some or all of their daily feed.

Drinking is a different story altogether in my experience; it can be a rare sight indeed to see my tortoise drink, but it definitely does happen. It’s best to serve salad leaves wet, or spray them with water to ensure your tortoise takes on extra fluid whilst eating.

Another popular, and recommended, practice is to bathe your tortoise once per week to encourage them to take on water if they’ve been a bit lax in their own time. Of course the benefit of placing the tortoise in a shallow bath is that water can be taken in by both the mouth and cloaca.

You Know Your Tortoise Best

It’s a bit of a cliche to say that as their owner you know your tortoise and their habits best, but of course it really is true. Every breed is a little bit different, and every tortoise is a little different again.

Trying to get the opinion of someone else who owns a tortoise might not be the most helpful thing you can do, especially if their tortoise is a different species to yours, or a different age and so on. What constitutes ‘normal’ for them, is unlikely to be normal for you, and if you’re not careful their advice could throw you off the scent of what’s really wrong.

Why is my Tortoise Not Eating or Not Eating Enough?

Once you’ve established that your tortoise is indeed not eating as they should be, the next thing to do is try and determine the reason why, and if possible put it right. If your efforts prove futile, then it’s time to call the vet, both because of the potential for death by malnutrition and/or the underlying reason for it in the first place.

The reason for a tortoise to be put off its food tends to stem from one of the following:

  • Stress resulting from a perceived unsafe environment (eg. other animals close-by that might be seen as a threat, or recent relocation of the tortoise’s home to unfamiliar surroundings
  • Improper vivarium set up; for instance inadequate heat or UV light leading to improper digestion of food
  • Parasites such as worms causing digestive upset
  • Lack of humidity or too much humidity (depending on the species)

Clearly some of these problems are easier to rectify than others, and it makes sense to start with the low hanging fruit first. So before you do anything else, make sure your setup is 100% correct for your species, and make any changes you need to, whether that means buying a bigger tortoise table, or a more powerful heat source. You should also clean everything thoroughly to prevent the ongoing spread of parasites or microbes.

Next you should try and encourage your tortoise to drink by bathing him every day. Tortoise owners commonly report that drinking usually leads to eating, and some will use an early morning bath as a means to encourage eating.

If after a few days you believe your efforts are being carried out in vein, you should book an appointment with a vet who will be able to diagnose the underlying cause, and hopefully provide treatment in the form of antibiotics, specialist worming medication, or nutritional supplementation.

Why is my Tortoise Not Drinking Enough?

If your tortoise is eating as normal then there’s a good chance they’re taking on enough water, especially if you’re serving them fresh leafy green vegetables with residual water on them. As long as they’re eating properly I wouldn’t worry too much, they would perhaps just benefit from a slightly more regular bathing/soaking schedule.

Many people believe that a tortoise’s desire to drink is largely governed by the container provided to them to drink from, with some believing that a shallow dish set into the ground or substrate is more encouraging than a dish sat on top of the substrate or ground. There might well be some truth to this; at a guess I would say a tray set into the ground more closely resembles a ‘puddle’, which is of course a more natural source of water, so the tortoise might instinctively be drawn to drink from it.

Just a theory, but there’s no harm in making this quick adjustment to your setup if you haven’t already.

Why is my Tortoise Not Moving Enough?

If your tortoise seems lethargic and sluggish (even for a tortoise!) it could be down to many of the same factors discussed with regards to them not eating properly, but a particularly likely candidate for the problem is an insufficiently high enough temperature in their enclosure.

As we all know tortoises are cold blooded creatures and require heat from an external source to warm them up and get their metabolism moving . Without heat the tortoise goes into a semi-hibernative state to conserve energy. The trouble is of course that this prevents them from eating and drinking as well, so it’s bad news if left to continue for too long long.

If you’re not sure that the ambient temperature in your tortoise’s enclosure is correct then get yourself a decent thermometer to check, and if it’s not high enough (both during the day and at night) see what you can do to make sure it is; for example with a more powerful heat bulb, or a heat mat in addition to your existing heat bulb.

You might also notice your tortoise’s back legs not working properly, hence their slow or labored movements. Malfunctioning back legs can be indicative of a number of possible ailments:

  • Constipation – if the tortoise is struggling to pass droppings it can put pressure on his insides leading the impeded movement of the back legs. Once again a more regular soaking schedule should hopefully introduce moisture into their digestive tract, making it easier for the waste to pass, so give this a go first
  • A incorrect diet, or one which is rich in sugary fruit and vegetables can cause diseases such as gout and kidney problems. These are serious ailments and will require veterinary intervention if suspected
  • Metabolic bone disease (often informally called ‘Soft Shell Syndrome’) can cause weakness through the shell or skeleton, so you might notice it in the form of leg weakness. Once again, correcting any weak links in your lighting, temperature and nutritional strategy (including calcium) should stop this from worsening, but seek help from a vet if you think the problem isn’t getting better after a few weeks.

Tortoise Not Opening Eyes Properly

A tortoise that won’t open its eyes usually isn’t doing so because it doesn’t want to, rather because it can’t, and worse still it can be a sign of eye infection or vitamin A deficiency, both of which are fairly nasty and will most likely require veterinary attention to resolve. It could also be down to the same sort of issues described earlier regarding incorrect UV light, temperature and diet, or something more common like a respiratory infection.

If you wish you can first try increasing the humidity in your vivarium and soaking your tortoise to make it easier/encourage them to open their eyes and provide hydration which they might be lacking in their current state.

I would definitely consult with a vet before administering additional vitamin A supplementation (if deficiency is suspected) because giving too much can actually be dangerous, so it’s definitely best left to the professionals in the first instance.

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