Are you wondering how to keep your tortoise healthy and happy? Wondering if there’s more to tortoise care than just putting food in the cage? Tortoises can benefit from enrichment, and we’re here to show you what they need!
Tortoises need to be stimulated both physically and intellectually in order for them to live a healthier life. Enrichment can include providing a varied and colourful diet, environmental decor that increases natural behaviours like digging or hiding and puzzles to stimulate the brain.
Tortoises are a unique pet. They require special care and attention to be the happiest they can be. Tortoises are not like cats or dogs, who can take care of themselves for long periods of time when their owner is away from home.
These animals need to have fresh water every day and live in an environment that replicates their natural habitat – this means having appropriate temperatures, humidity levels and food.
Considering enrichment when you’re setting up a habitat for a tortoise can go a long way towards improving the tortoise’s life in your care. One of our tortoises is over 200 years old, so we know a thing or two about looking after these amazing creatures.
Keep reading to learn more about tortoise enrichment and how to keep your tortoise happy.
What Is Enrichment in Animal Welfare?
In animal welfare, enrichment is the theory that mimicking a wild animal’s natural habitat as closely as possible in captivity while also offering an animal a chance to exercise its intellect can enrich its life. (Source: Ft. Worth Zoo).
Enrichment is thought to improve animal welfare in the following ways:
- Adds diet variety: Food enrichment is a popular type of enrichment for all different wild animals since many of them benefit from a varied diet that mimics their diet in the wild. This variety improves the nutritional profile of the animal’s diet and also provides enjoyment since animals enjoy the taste of their food just like humans do.
- Reduces animal stress: Wild animal enclosures that don’t mimic the animal’s natural environment have been shown to increase levels of stress and anxiety in captive animals drastically. In extreme cases, lack of enrichment can lead to behavioural issues such as pacing. (Source: Animal Welfare Institute).
- Increases breeding capacity: In zoos and wildlife preserves, environmental enrichment has been shown to increase the chances of non-domesticated animals reproducing in captivity positively.
- Prevents boredom: Animals that aren’t provided with enough enrichment can become prone to boredom. This boredom leads to behavioural issues such as depression, repetitive behaviours, aggression towards other animals, and even self-injury. (Source: NPR).
While the concept of enrichment began as a response to concerns about the ethics of zoos that do not replicate natural environments, this concept has translated well into home reptile keepers’ animal husbandry practices. Because tortoises are not domesticated animals, they benefit from having an environment that encourages natural behaviours.
Why Is Enrichment Important for Tortoises?
Enrichment is important for all captive wild animals, but it can positively influence tortoises in particular. Since they’re confined to a relatively small space compared to their natural habitat, making that space as enriching as possible can prevent behavioural problems and increase general good health.
Here are some of the ways that enrichment can benefit a tortoise:
- Enrichment increases nutritional variety. One of the main ways people enrich a tortoise is by offering a wide variety of different foods. This nutritious buffet helps replicate the tortoise’s naturally varied diet in the wild, which would include anything it could forage for itself.
- Tortoises are wild animals. Unlike dogs and cats, which are domesticated, tortoises aren’t bred to engage with an artificial environment geared towards human beings. Without environmental enrichment, this leaves them vulnerable to additional stress that can make them unhappy and sick.
- Tortoises feel emotions. Science has shown that reptiles like tortoises openly display basic emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure. They speculate that reptiles are likely to display a wider range of emotions than humans can interpret. This emotional range means they can be deeply affected by boredom and discomfort. (Source: Texas A&M University).
It might be hard for a tortoise owner to figure out whether their tortoise is happy or not, but providing appropriate enrichment goes a long way towards making sure of it.
Visual Enrichment for Tortoises
Another way that tortoise owners can help improve their tortoise’s enclosure is to address visual enrichment. Tortoises have good vision and are especially attracted to bright colours such as yellows and reds that mimic the brightly-coloured flowers that attract them to plant food sources in their natural environment.
What Colours Do Tortoises See?
Tortoises can only see some of the colours in the colour spectrum, such as yellows, reds, and greens. However, tortoises can also see in the ultraviolet light spectrum, which helps them detect their food.
What Colours Do Tortoises Prefer?
It might seem odd to think about tortoises having a colour preference, but there have been scientific studies to determine just that.
After placing tortoises in enclosures with blue, red, and yellow-coloured stimuli such as plastic blocks and bananas, scientists found that tortoises were predominately attracted to the red and yellow blocks. This preference was theorised to be the result of tortoises pursuing the colours that most closely imitate their food sources in the wild, making perfect sense.
Introducing enrichment objects of differing colours has been shown to also introduce an element of choice into the animal’s life, forcing it to make an educated decision. These intellectual exercises are a significant aspect of reinforcing cognitive enrichment. (Source: Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Sciences).
Since science has identified which colours tortoises prefer, tortoise owners can set up an enclosure that caters to those preferences. In theory, this helps to keep the tortoise happier and more visually engaged.
Lighting for Tortoises
Besides providing enrichment items that are brightly coloured to give tortoises visual stimulation, tortoise owners also need to pay attention to the lighting in their tortoise enclosure. Like other captive wild animals, tortoises benefit from being exposed to a natural day-night cycle rather than being left in darkness or left in bright lighting twenty-four hours a day.
Proper lighting is important for tortoises to help stimulate their natural lighting in the wild and help provide them with the ultraviolet light necessary for them to produce the calcium they need.
Without proper lighting, tortoises can become calcium-deficient and even end up with a debilitating disorder known as metabolic bone disease. Symptoms of calcium deficiency in tortoises include the following (Source: AvianandExoticVets.com):
- Loss of appetite
- Bone fractures
By not providing sufficient warmth for tortoises you can also worsen metabolic bone disease. Without heat, tortoises can’t properly digest their food. This lack of warmth can result in poor calcium absorption even if the tortoise is offered calcium and mineral supplements.
READ NEXT (OPENS IN NEW TAB) : Keeping Tortoises Complete Guide for Beginners
Auditory Enrichment for Tortoises
Auditory enrichment isn’t as important as other aspects of animal welfare enrichment for tortoises as it is for some other wild animals. This is because tortoises have only been shown to respond to a handful of sound frequencies, and those frequencies are only the sounds associated with tortoise behaviour, such as mating calls or the sound of hatching eggs.
Can a Tortoise Recognise Its Keeper’s Voice?
While it has been shown that a tortoise can and will respond to its keeper over other people, especially if it has learned to associate its keeper with enrichment items like treats, it’s not known whether a tortoise is capable of recognising its keeper’s voice. However, a tortoise can likely recognise its keeper based on sight, smell, and regular appearance.
Do Tortoises Like Music?
Since tortoises are not known to respond to music one way or the other, it’s unknown whether tortoises like music based on observation.
However, one of the benefits of keeping a tortoise as opposed to an animal with more sensitive hearing is that tortoises can happily tolerate music or loud noises as long as the musical vibration isn’t directed at the tortoise enclosure by a speaker. While tortoises don’t respond to many sounds, they are responsive to vibrations.
Other types of animals (such as dogs) have shown a direct positive response to auditory enrichment like music. This has convinced zoos and other animal welfare facilities to play music for tortoises as a form of auditory enrichment too. (Source: Phoenix Zoo)
Food-Based Enrichment for Tortoises
Food-based enrichment is one of the most popular forms of enrichment in animal welfare because animals of all species enjoy eating, and most wild animals are used to a varied diet that can be difficult to replicate in captivity.
Tortoises have a high need for variety and fresh food in their diet as herbivores, but 80% of their diet should be formed from leafy greens. However, tortoise keepers can still use enrichment theory when feeding their tortoise by paying attention to the following during food selection:
- Taste: Tortoises don’t experience taste in quite the same way as people. Bitter greens like arugula or dandelion that might be considered too bitter for human consumption are considered delicious to tortoises. Tortoises also enjoy sweet food enrichment items such as chopped-up fruits.
- Colour: As mentioned in the previous section, tortoises have a good sense of colour. Providing them with brightly coloured food items such as red bell pepper, cherries, or yellow watermelon can provide additional visual and cognitive stimulation as well as stimulation for their taste buds.
- Texture: Tortoises are sensual animals, and one way to enrich their food offerings is to offer foods with different textures. Offering whole foods that the tortoise has to “work for” (such as a whole strawberry) can provide a different kind of tactile experience than a flower blossom or a handful of chopped greens.
- Variety: Offering tortoises a variety of different food enrichment items allows them to choose the foods that have a colour and taste they prefer. Through trial and error, you can figure out which food enrichment items your tortoise likes best. Offering a variety of different food enrichment items also helps with cognitive enrichment by providing choice.
Providing a wide range of fresh food options for tortoises isn’t just important for their happiness. It’s also an important part of making sure they get the nutrition to stay healthy.
What To Avoid with Food Enrichment
There are plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that are great for tortoises to eat as part of dietary enrichment, but several foods aren’t a good option for tortoises that you should avoid. Here are some foods that you should be sure to keep out of your tortoise enclosure:
- Canned or frozen vegetables
- Dairy products
Many of the foods on the banned list for tortoises are there because they contain dangerously high levels of sodium. Since tortoises can’t process excess sodium easily, this can lead to serious long-term health problems for the animal.
Environmental Enrichment for Tortoises
Environmental enrichment is any type of enrichment item that affects the tortoise’s behaviour within its enclosure. In most cases, environmental enrichment involves changing the enclosure environment to conform more closely to the tortoise’s natural habitat.
Here are some ways that tortoise keepers traditional introduce environmental enrichment to their tortoise enclosures:
- Digging: Sand and soil are both popular substrates in tortoise enclosures because most species of tortoise greatly enjoy digging activities. In the wild, some species of tortoise will create an underground burrow.
- Water features: While tortoises are not aquatic and cannot survive in deep water, using water fountains or shallow trays of water, can be a way to safely introduce water to tortoises in a stimulating way. This also provides them with a drinking source to avoid dehydration.
- Live plants: Live plants such as non-toxic succulents or potted edibles like pansies can provide visual interest to a tortoise enclosure while also providing them with things in the environment for them to investigate (and snack on).
- Hiding: Tortoises will often seek shelter in a hide or burrow for various reasons, such as seeking out privacy or regulating their body temperature to a lower degree by getting out from under a basking lamp. Hides are one of the most important parts of adding enrichment to a tortoise enclosure since they’re necessary for stress reduction.
When setting up an enclosure for a tortoise, it’s important to remember not to clutter the enclosure with too many rocks and logs. A few items to play with or climb on are fine, but too many can hinder a tortoise’s movement or even cause them to tip over onto their backs.
Olfactory Enrichment for Tortoises
Olfactory enrichment refers to any enrichment that involves a tortoise’s sense of smell and taste. Tortoises have a strong sense of smell and especially like the smell of flowers since this is one of their food sources. (Source:Tortoise Group).
Increasing the olfactory enrichment of a tortoise’s enclosure is as simple as including some fragrant flowers that are edible, such as pansies or lilies. Here are some of the other flowers that can be offered to a tortoise that will excite its sense of smell.
- Roses (petals only)
If you forage plants from outdoors such as honeysuckle or roses to introduce to your tortoise for olfactory enrichment, it’s important that you make sure to source them from an area that hasn’t been treated with fertilizers or pesticides. It’s also good to wash any offered flowers and greens thoroughly, regardless of origin. Pesticide residues can be dangerous for tortoises to ingest.
Along with plants that are safe for tortoises to eat, there are also many common houseplants and backyard plants that are toxic and should be kept away from your tortoise. Here are just a few of the plants found around the house that might poison your tortoise.
- Bird of paradise
- String of Pearls
- Sweet Pea
To be safe, always look up any flower you’re planning on using for olfactory enrichment in your tortoise enclosure before giving your tortoise access to it. Some houseplants are perfectly safe for your tortoise to munch on, while others may make them violently ill.
Avoiding Tortoise Enclosure Bad Smells
Since tortoises have a strong sense of smell, another part of olfactory enrichment is to make sure that their enclosure never smells dirty or musty. Tortoises are generally clean animals, but the humidity and heat in their enclosures can lead to the build-up of bad-smelling bacteria. This is not an olfactory condition that would happen to tortoises in the wild.
To prevent bad smells from your tortoise enclosure, make sure to give the enclosure a thorough cleaning once a week. This is also a good time to introduce your tortoise to some enrichment time outside of their enclosure while you give it a good scrubbing.
Here are some other tips for avoiding bad smells in your tortoise enclosure:
- Remove faeces immediately. Letting faeces sit under a heat lamp in your tortoise enclosure will only make them smell more strongly. If you see your tortoise use the bathroom, don’t wait until enclosure cleaning day to get rid of it. This just gives bad-smelling faecal bacteria the chance to build up in the enclosure.
- Sift substrate daily. Sifting the substrate each day helps prevent the build-up of anaerobic bacteria pockets in the substrate that can cause noxious smells.
- Provide plenty of ventilation. Tortoises should preferably be kept in a large mesh enclosure, a room, or a large outdoor enclosure. Glass tanks contribute to the build-up of bad odours in your tortoise enclosure. Glass enclosures also prevent the tortoise from effectively regulating its temperature.
Cognitive Enrichment for Tortoises
All aspects of animal enrichment engage animal cognition to some degree, but there are some cognitive enrichment activities for tortoises that are specifically designed to exercise a tortoise’s mind.
Here are just a few activities you can do with your tortoise to help exercise their cognition:
- Treasure hunt: Hiding food enrichment items around a tortoise’s enclosure gives them something to seek out in their environment. Choosing fragrant prizes for your tortoise treasure hunt, such as honeysuckle blossoms or ripe cut strawberries, can help your tortoise use their nose to find the hidden treats.
- This or that: This is another cognitive enrichment activity that can be performed using food items. Place two food enrichment objects in the tortoise enclosure and see which of the two the tortoise chooses. Exercising food preference is also a way for tortoises to exercise their cognitive abilities by emulating choices they would make in the wild.
- Touching a pointer: Tortoises can be taught to stretch out their neck and touch a training pointer in exchange for treats such as cut fruit. Learning this “trick” helps exercise a tortoise’s brain, and it can also be used to train a tortoise to be more docile and easier to handle during veterinary exams.
- Puzzle treats: Rubber dog toys used to dispense treats can also be used in tortoise enclosures and stuffed with chopped vegetables, sliced grapes, or frozen corn kernels (thaw before use). While it may take a little trial and error on their part, a tortoise will eventually learn to play with a treat puzzle just like a dog would.
Tortoises may seem to have simple cognitive tasks compared to people, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the chance to use their brains. Studies have shown that wild animals given a chance to engage in cognitive enrichment are less likely to participate in negative captivity behaviours than animals who are not provided with cognitive enrichment.
Are Tortoises Smart?
Tortoises might seem like slow-minded creatures if you observe them, but don’t let their docile demeanour fool you. Science has recently shown that tortoises may be more intelligent than we’ve ever given them credit for.
Tortoises have even been shown to be capable of mastering touch-screen technology, a capability that has previously only been associated with higher-cognition social mammals such as dolphins, apes, and elephants. (Source: LiveScience)
The hypothesis for why tortoises are capable of such strong decision-making cognition compared to other animals is because tortoises must be capable of foraging and defending themselves from the moment they hatch without parental intervention or education. This gives tortoises a very practical type of intellect.
Social Enrichment for Tortoises
Tortoises need many kinds of enrichment to mimic their natural habitats, but one aspect of enrichment tortoises don’t really need is social enrichment with other tortoises. Tortoises are a solitary type of animal and are perfectly happy to have an enclosure all to themselves. Here are a few of the reasons why keeping multiple tortoises together permanently should be avoided:
- Two male tortoises will show aggression towards each other. Male tortoises are highly territorial and will consider any other male in their vicinity as a threat to their position. Keeping male tortoises together will cause them to fight and greatly increases their general stress levels.
- A male tortoise kept with a female tortoise will harass her. Keeping mixed-pair tortoises together permanently (rather than just during a mating) is not recommended because the male tortoise will constantly try to mate with the female tortoise. This will lead to the female tortoise becoming stressed and possibly aggressive in defense.
Two female tortoises can be kept together safely if their enclosure is large enough to accommodate two tortoises comfortably, but tortoises are generally not dependent on each other’s company for social enrichment.
Can Different Tortoise Species Be Kept Together?
The primary danger associated with mixing different species of tortoise together is that some parasites and micro-organisms that one tortoise carries might be harmless to that species but could sicken or even kill a different tortoise species. For this reason, it is recommended that different species of tortoise be kept in separate enclosures and not socialised.
Human-Interaction Enrichment with Tortoises
As reptiles, tortoises aren’t considered capable of feeling or displaying more profound emotions such as love. However, this doesn’t mean that a tortoise doesn’t associate its keeper over time with food, which can lead the tortoise to consider human interaction enriching.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to human-interaction enrichment with a tortoise:
- Tortoises are sensory animals. This means that they have a deeper relationship with their immediate sensory environment than they do with their keeper. Because their relationship with their environment is always changing, environmental parameters that make a tortoise docile one day will cause it to bite on another.
- Tortoises enjoy touch. Since they are tactile animals, tortoises have been shown to respond positively to gentle human touches, such as having their shell stroke or the back of their neck scratched gently. Rather than an unfeeling tool like a fingernail, the turtle’s shell is actually sensitive to tactile sensation, just like its skin.
- Tortoises won’t necessarily bond with a human on an emotional level. While tortoises have been shown to react positively to seeing their keepers, this is believed to be an association that the tortoise has between seeing its keeper and being fed. Because tortoises are solitary animals in the wild, they don’t seek out human company.
Tortoises do get some positive enrichment impact from interacting with humans, but really only so much as we represent a fixed object in their environment that interacts with them by introducing food and positive sensory stimuli.
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Tortoises Need Enrichment to Be Healthy
People may not generally consider tortoises as the type of pet that needs to be kept entertained, but in reality, tortoises as a wild captive animal require even more enrichment than domesticated animals as dogs and cats do. Without it, these interesting reptiles don’t have a good chance of thriving in captivity.