Despite having a robust shell to protect them and being able to live very long lives, tortoises tend to be a lot more delicate than they look. Small changes to the environment can have a huge impact on your pets, which has the potential to disrupt their normal bodily functions. One of the chief concerns many tortoise keepers have is when their tortoises suddenly stop eating.
There are a number of reasons why a tortoise would suddenly stop eating, Both from the keeper’s actions, or inaction. These may include improper temperature control or lighting, hibernation or illness While this is the case, however, a pet tortoise not eating can be a sign of a much bigger problem lying underneath. That’s why it’s important to know the reasons why this happens and what you can do about it.
Here’s a list of things you can do when you have a problem with a pet tortoise not eating.
Find the Reason Why
Before you even consider how to get your tortoise eating again, you’ll have to understand why they’re doing this behavior in the first place. It wouldn’t be productive to go straight to feeding your pets only for the underlying issue to occur again. You’ll just be running in circles, and you’ll end up stressing your tortoise out immensely whenever they go through that cycle again.
Since you’re reading through this article, we’re going to assume that you pretty much have an idea of what your tortoise’s needs are, and have made arrangements to meet these needs as best you can. Sometimes, a pet tortoise not eating is a direct result of minute changes to the environment, things that you could have missed yourself.
It can also mean that your tortoise is suffering from an illness. But you wouldn’t be able to find out if you don’t eliminate all the probable causes first.
Tortoises are ectothermic or cold-blooded, just like most reptiles, which means that they either produce very little body heat, or none at all, so tortoises can only get as warm as their immediate environment.
In order for tortoises to function normally, they’ll need to be kept in the right temperature range, and since they can’t do that themselves, you’ll need to help them out with basking lamps and heat lamps.
You should remember that tortoises perceive their environments differently from humans. You may feel like things are warm and comfortable where you are, but that might not be the case if your body is only a few inches off the ground, like a tortoise’s.
It’s also important to maintain a temperature gradient for your tortoises in their enclosure, where you have a warmer side where they can bask and warm up, and a cooler side for them to relax in if it gets too hot for them. Your tortoises should be able to move freely between these temperature gradients depending on their needs, so make sure nothing is blocking their path.
The comfortable temperature range for most tortoise species is 68 to 80 F. On one side of the enclosure, you’ll need a basking area that is about 100 F. Usually, the basking area is where your basking or heat lamps are concentrated.
Some species, particularly the ones that live in forests, like red foots and elongated tortoises, can tolerate cooler temperatures. They usually don’t bask as often as desert species do, since they’re more used to sunlight that has been broken up by the canopy. For species like these, you can be okay with a basking area of only about 90 F.
It’s never a bad idea to double check your temperatures every once in a while, even if your thermometers say they’re at the right range. If you are able to invest in a laser thermometer, you will be able to check the temperature in your enclosure in real time and quite accurately.
Easy Access to Food
It may sound like common sense and a little simple but its extremely important your tortoise can have easy access to its food. Most of us use a custom made tortoise or reptile food bowl for this as they are designed with low walls and sometime a ramp to allow easy access for your tortoise. We have a few examples of good tortoise food bowls below.
It is also important to keep the area where your tortoise eats as clean and hygienic as possible. This means cleaning out the dish each day after your tortoise has eaten and removing any food debris from your tortoise enclosure.
Zoo Med is a known retailer of reptile paraphernalia, and they have a good selection of items for tortoises as well, including tortoise tables and food bowls. Zoo Med food bowls are designed to give tortoise and other reptiles easy access to there food as well as being easy to clean. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give is I have the zoo med reptile ramp bowl in my own tortoise enclosure and my tortoise loves it.
Aside from heat, your tortoises will also need UV light. There are two types of them: UVB and UVA. UVB helps tortoises produce Vitamin D, which is essential for bone health, whilst UVA helps with encouraging their normal behaviour. Most commercial UV bulbs produce both types of UV, but it’s still best to double check your bulbs before purchasing.
Tortoises perceive the world in UV light. That’s why sometimes tortoises might act differently around you depending on whether their UV bulb is on or not. To them, you look like a totally different person when you’re not glowing in UV.
UV lights should be turned on anywhere between 10 – 14 hours a day. Less if you’re able to add natural sunlight into their enclosure. Having insufficient lighting may cause your tortoises to not only lose their appetite, but also start making them inactive.
Some tortoise species, especially the Mediterannean ones, will undergo hibernation. For these species, it’s actually not normal to be active for 365 days of the year. Sometimes, despite having an optimal environment for your pet tortoises, they may still need to hibernate. If you’ve checked your tortoise’s habitat and they seem healthy, then hibernation may be the reason for a pet tortoise not eating.
Forcing your tortoise to stay awake through hibernation or not undergoing the proper procedures when they do hibernate can adversely affect your pet tortoise’s health, including abnormal growth, metabolic bone disease, kidney problems and in worse cases, a severely lowered lifespan.
If your tortoise seems healthy and their environment doesn’t have any issues, then you should consult with your vet to check if your tortoise is indeed trying to hibernate. If that’s the case, make sure that they have the right environment to do so. Do note that not all tortoises hibernate. Make sure to do the proper amount of research before trying to force your tortoise into it.
To help your tortoise hibernate, stop trying to feed it. Start lowering the habitat’s temperature by at least 2 or 3 degrees each day, until you’re at around 50 F. This will lower your tortoise’s metabolism in preparation for it to hibernate. Do not let this go lower than 32 F. The best temperature for hibernation is around 36 F – 41 F.
You may also use to the refrigerator method, where you starve the tortoise out from about 2 – 4 weeks before hibernation (depending on the age), and you keep them in a box inside the fridge. Keep your tortoise in a plastic container where they can turn 360 degrees comfortably, with a bit of sterilized soil or substrate at the bottom. You can keep this securely closed with rubber bands.
You will then need to take the container with your tortoise and put them in an opaque cardboard box containing some insulating materials, like shredded paper or poly chippings. You can now put them in the fridge (not the freezer!). Make sure that both the container that has the tortoise in it and the box you keep it in has air holes. Do not make it air-tight.
Hibernation typically lasts anywhere between 3 weeks for 1 year old tortoises to as much as 22 weeks for adults. It’s also not advisable to force your tortoise to hibernate if you’ve only had them for less than a year, no matter how old they are.
Once they wake up, simply put them in lukewarm water to warm them up and you can put them back into their habitat once they’ve hydrated and flushed out their systems. Their appetite should come back in a day or two. If they still aren’t eating in a week, it’s best to visit the vet.
Speaking of vets, if you’ve made sure that the tortoise enclosure is calibrated just right, and your tortoise doesn’t need to hibernate, then it’s probably safe to assume that they’re sick. Look for any symptoms that may indicate illness, such as a runny nose, swollen eyes, discolorations on their skin, or if they haven’t pooped in a while.
If you believe your pet to be sick, take them to the vet immediately. You may need to look for a specialist on tortoises or reptiles in general.
Encouraging your Tortoise to Eat
Once you’ve solved the problem of your pet tortoise not eating, it’s time to start encouraging them to eat. There are a number of ways you can go about this, and it involves a lot of patience and effort on your side.
Switching it up
Sometimes, tortoises are as finicky as most kids. They may simply not like what you’re giving them. Adding variety to their diets can help you determine their actual preferences. You can keep a food journal jot down how your tortoise reacts to certain types of food.
Give a bit of moisture
If you’re feeding your tortoises pellets, try soaking them in water on it to make it soft and a bit soggy. Some tortoises prefer their pellets this way. You can also soak the pellets in fruit juice to add a bit of flavor to them.
Add a bit of color
Certain tortoise species are attracted to bright, colorful objects. Giving them a treat, like fruits or berries can entice them to eat. Do keep in mind though that some species, especially the ones living in arid climates, shouldn’t eat fruit often, since too much sugar can harm their kidneys. Forest tortoises should be fine though.
Tortoise species that live in the forests, like red foots and elongated tortoises supplement their diets with protein in the form of worms, bugs, slugs and snails. If you have these particular species, try offering them insect feeders like mealworms, slugs, or even tiny pinky mice if you’re not squeamish. Digging up earthworms in the garden can also be a good source for them.