One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about has to do with tortoise care and understanding why a pet tortoise may not be coming out of their shell. Understandably, a tortoise that won’t leave their shell can be a big cause of concern for new tortoise owners.
There are a range of reasons for why this may be happening – some have easy fixes, while others may require attention from a vet. I recommend scrolling through my list below to see if any of the quick fixes help. You might have to consult with a vet if the problem persists.
Why won’t my tortoise come out of its shell?
Top 5 reasons a tortoise won’t come out of their shell:
- They feel threatened or scared
- The environment they live in is not the proper temperature
- They are lacking proper nutrition
- They aren’t used to human contact
- There is a larger illness or injury that you are unaware of (a vet is needed in this case)
Tortoise feels threatened
When assessing this scenario, ask yourself this important question: Is your turtle surrounded by loud noises often OR could a one off noise or event potentially have spooked your little friend?
If it is the latter, your tortoise will probably be fine in a few days. I have often heard tales of an owner accidentally dropping something or slamming a loud door near their turtle. In an instance like this, they typically retreat into their shells and can remain a bit reluctant to come out for a few hours or even days. This is also common during 4th of July when there are a lot of fireworks.
There might also be another animal in the are that is making your tortoise anxious. This could be dog, cat, or even large birds.
How to help
Make sure that you do everything possible to avoid another loud sound. If you anticipate loud noises such as a storm or fireworks, you should consider temporarily moving your tortoise to a quiet room in your house.
This can be a much harder issue to fix if this becomes a chronic issue.
If you have an outdoor enclosure, make sure that it is predator proof to help ease your tortoise’s fear of other animals.
If you can’t think of any particular event that could have spooked them, try to think through any loud noises that may naturally happen throughout the day. This could be shouting, dogs barking, lawn mowers, construction, etc. If your tortoise is frequently exposed to sounds that frighten it, do everything possible to change their environment to get them in a more peaceful habitat.
This is particularly important when a turtle is new and you are introducing it to their new home.
Additionally, make sure the habitat you create has plenty of hiding places and substrate. You want to make sure they can hide or burrow just as they would in the wild.
Below is a makeshift tortoise house that one of my friends made for his tortoise. His tortoise retreats there quite often and uses it as their safe spot.
Regulating the temperature is absolutely crucial for the health of your tortoise. Unfortunately it is one of the biggest mistakes new turtle owners make. Do not get a pet turtle unless you are committed to monitoring and controlling the temperature of their environment.
In a prior article I discussed how cold temperatures can cause your turtle to stop eating, and additionally, it may be a reason they are reluctant to leave their shell.
Your habitat should have 4 different sections/settings with different temperatures. This is why a single thermometer is often not enough.
Use an infrared gun to easily check the temperature for each 4 sections: A warm side, a cold side, a basking spot, and the night temperature. The exact temperatures are different by species so make sure to do some research to see what temperatures best suit your species of tortoises.
I have a list of recommendations for Russian tortoise heat lamps and they should work for other kinds as well.
Lack of proper food or water
Just like temperature, the root of many potential ailments comes down to food and nutrition. Additionally, make sure the water is clean and replaced frequently. Diet will vary depending on species but check out the following articles for a deep dive depending on species:
- Best food for a Russian Tortoise
- Best food for a Sulcata Tortoise
- Best food for a Red-Footed Tortoise
- Best fruits and vegetables for a Hermann Tortoise
If your turtle is not fed the proper diet, it can cause a lot of stress. This can eventually lead them to staying in their shells.
Your tortoise is not used to human contact
If you have a new tortoise, there is a chance it hasn’t had a lot of human contact yet. You may notice that as you get near it retreats in its shell but then seems more comfortable when you leave. If this is the case, it probably just needs to adapt to human contact.
This should happen naturally over time but there are a few tips to speeding up the process:
- When approaching your tortoise, pet them gently and speak softly
- Provide positive reinforcement when they come out of their shell. This can include petting them and offering them treats
- Don’t approach them from behind
After your tortoise adjusts to their surrounding, they should feel more comfortable and come out of their shell more. This is especially true if you are the one that regularly feeds them.
Illness or injury (vet assistance needed)
If you have confirmed that the turtle’s environment meets the criteria I discussed above, and you have given it time to adapt to a new environment, and it still won’t come out of its shell, there may be a larger issue at hand.
There is a chance your turtle has an illness, or they might have injured a body part.
It is impossible to properly diagnose the issue without knowing all the details, so I suggest you get vet assistance. They will most likely ask you to confirm that the nutrition and temperature/habitat for the tortoise is appropriate so make sure you are checking those boxes first.