Monday, September 16, 2013

Why not to keep 2 tortoises together - a lesson learned the hard way

Today I would like to write about an important lesson that I learned the hard way: it is not a good idea to keep 2 tortoises together (yes, there are exceptions)
When tortoise owners ask me if I think they should get a second tortoise, I tell them: only if they plan to get a second enclosure. Then I advise them to spend the money on spoiling their 1 tortoise first: build a big outdoor enclosure, enlarge the indoor enclosure, upgrade the lighting. Put some money into savings for emergency vet care (you'll need it at some point during your tortoise's 80 or so years of life!).

...."But she's so.... lonely!"
Believe me, I've been there. Humans seek companionship, as do many other mammals. We like to project our own feelings onto our pets, and so, we assume that our tortoise would be happier with a 'friend.' Please know that I am not judging you for wanting to get another tortoise. Getting a little 'friend' for a tortoise can be so tempting. The truth is: (except for a few species like redfoot torts, aldabras, or pancake torts), most tortoises are loners in the wild. They roam several acres, and only occasionally encounter other tortoises. If a tortoise encounters another, they will fight, mate, or both. Then they wander apart again (or one is chased away by the other).

When thinking about getting another tortoise,
a person often thinks they will be best buddies...
If you are thinking of getting your pet tortoise a 'buddy' then I hope you read my story first, and put some serious thought into your decision after reading about my experience. Keeping 2 tortoises together (especially of the testudo species) is NOT a cake walk.

In reality, it will look like this... *BITE!* ... a lot of the time.
If you get a male and a female, after much biting and bullying, there will be plenty of mating too. More than there would ever be in nature. Enough mating to kill the female.

No comment. 
If the female can't get away from the male, he will seek her out again and again (more than in nature, since there she CAN get away). My friend rescued a tortoise female earlier this year whose vent was terribly infected and torn and chafed and ripped from all the mating. It took her a long time to heal.

The infected, oozing, puss-filled tail of my friend's rescued female that was mated too much.
(I'm posting a small picture just so it's not too gross)
Here is how I learned my lesson:
I started out with one female Russian tortoise, Timmy. After I had her for a few years, I decided I'd like to get a second tortoise. A few knowledgeable people on the tortoise forums advised against this. They warned me that tortoises, especially the testudo species (to which Russian tortoises belong) are very territorial. They told me that the tortoises would compete for food, for the basking spot, for space. They told me that they would bite and ram, and one would become stressed, hurt, and might die.

"Timmy needs a friend. My tortoises will be different and won't fight."
For some reason, I was convinced that 'my' tortoises would be different. I set up a my enclosure with lots of site barriers. I soon adopted a little male, Roz. For the first 18 or so months, everything went well. There were NO signs of aggression, both tortoises ate together, basked together, slept together. Yay! My tortoises were the exception!

Wait. What?! My male is biting my female?! Oh no!
Then one day, Roz matured. Roz discovered that he was a rapist little man-tortoise with needs and urges. Roz discovered that he didn't like sharing his food. Roz discovered that he could boss Timmy around, in spite of being half her size. Roz became a big, mean, bossy, biting bully. Timmy lost scales on her legs, and even got a bite wound on her face once. Roz got to spend a lot of time in the time-out bin until I separated him permanently.

Watch this video of Roz bobbing his head at Timmy (which is territorial behavior), and then circling her and biting her:

In the wild, this is 'normal' courting behavior. However, in the wild, the female can get away! In captivity, while both tortoises were kept in the same enclosure, Roz wanted to mate with Timmy 15+ times each day. He spent his spare time bullying her away from the food or the basking spot. Timmy started to become withdrawn, and wanted to hide and sleep all the time. I separated the two, and she started eating again, thank goodness.

Now, the 'easy' solution would have been to re-home Roz. This, however, was not an option for me. I had made a commitment to care for him, and did not want to break this commitment. The 'harder' solution was to a) separate my male, b) build a larger enclosure, and c) get a little harem of female tortoises for him. It took me nearly a year to find females, since in the pet trade, most tortoises are male. I finally got Mila and Jill, and then Lady.

Roz and his harem, basking.
I know that some people will advise that two female tortoises will get along fine. I disagree: one will always be the underdog. At least for testudo species, if you want to keep multiple females together, you should get 3 or more. This way they are less likely to fight, and the bullying will be divided a little among them.
During the Summer, the tortoises happily (and peacefully) lived outside in the large tortoise garden I built them. They will be divided over several indoor tortoise tables for the winter.

They spread out over the entire tortoise garden, except to eat.
IF you decide you want more than 1 tortoise, please avoid keeping 2 males together, or 1 male and 1 female. Either 3 females (with LOTS of space) or 1 male and 3+ females might work... but even then, you may find yourself needing a degree in tortoise diplomatics!

IF you decide to keep multiple tortoises, please remember that the enclosure size must adjust accordingly for multiple tortoises! If the absolute minimum size for 1 tortoise is 2'x4', then each additional tortoise will need at least that much more space. As always, larger is better when it comes to tortoise enclosures!


39 comments:

  1. Excellent Katie, very well written and easy for the lay person to understand.
    Mary Esther

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent documentation!

    (Hi, Mary Esther!!....Mo says "hi" as well).

    ReplyDelete
  3. This information is great & very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This was very very helpful for me in understanding what is actually going on with my Male & Female Greek Tortoise.

      Delete
    2. Blimey, glad I read this because I was just about to get a male tort for my much loved female. Thank you. Thought again now

      Delete
  4. Thank you for that information!!! I was thinking of getting a buddy for my guy.. now I am not. I'd rather give him the tlc that he needs

    ReplyDelete
  5. This information is soooo helpful. I bought my 2 tortoises 2 years ago, and for the first 18 months they were fine, but now one is displaying all the behaviours you outline here. I can't believe the tortoise breeder didn't advise me not to buy 2! Looks like I will be buying a second enclosure! Thanks for the really good advice.

    ReplyDelete
  6. noooo... why didn't I read this before buying a new one ToT...
    yesterday I bought a friend for my lonely indian star tortoise yume, to my surprise yume really doesn't like his new friend and bit her in the face and chasing her... I was shocked and looking for information, thank God I found your blog, but it means a lot of homework for me now duh....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sorry your tortoises are fighting! Indian stars are actually fairly docile, so as long as you provide sight barriers, multiple hides, and possibly 2 basking spots in a large enclosure, you may end up being ok. If all else fails, you can always build a second tortoise table... or better still, an XXL outdoor enclosure. :)

      Delete
  7. Unfortunately I made the same mistake as you, I bought a buddy for my male horsefield who turned out to be female, and now he is always biting her and looking to get some action... I would look to keeping them apart but I live in the UK so it is not warm enough to keep them outside, and my current living arrangements mean that I don't have the space for a second enclosure. I only wish i had access to this information before I purchased my 2nd tortoise 2 years ago. It really isn't fair to keep 2 together. For the time being I have put up sight barrier and installed an extra hide but it has only had a small effect. I don't know what else to do ]:

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sorry you are dealing with this situation. I wonder if you could buy a board to put up a barrier down the middle of the enclosure? Then install a second basking light. Not ideal, but at least this way the male won't pester the female.
      On a side note, we live in the Pacific Northwest, which has a climate almost identical to the UK. As long as it is 17 degrees C or warmer, and there is a sunny spot, it IS warm enough to keep the tortoises outside, at least for a few hours. Mine live outside from May-September, and then intermittently I take them outside on warm days that happen before and after those months. I would strongly encourage you to try to do so too - even just setting up 2 kiddie pools with a board over the middle for shade would be SO good for them. Natural UVB light from the sun is 100% better than artificial lighting. Plus, this would allow them to have some time separate.

      Delete
  8. What exactly are the species that do this?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are only few species that don't do this.
      Tortoises that are especially prone to such bullying are Russian tortoises, Greek tortoises, any other from the Testudo species, sulcatas, and many others.

      Delete
  9. Thank you for this information this helped me a lot but I was wondering can I put two female redfoot tortoises together
    Thank you

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, this depends on the space and the set-up you have. If you have a huge space, then 2 female redfoot tortoises most likely will be fine together. Keep in mind that they do get quite large though, so when I say 'huge space' I am talking 8ft x 10ft at minimum.

      Delete
  10. Thank you for this information this helped me a lot but can I put two female redfoot tortoises together?
    Thankyou

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have 2 Tunisian tortoise's who have been together for 16 yrs and all of a sudden the male has started knocking the female around their box which is a large one. They go outside he still seeks her out!!! Why start doing this after all the time they've been together? Will I have to separate them anyone have a solution other than splitting them��

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Most likely the reason that the male is now showing aggression is that he has matured sexually. In Testudo species (including Tunisian tortoises), it is not so much a question of IF they will start bullying, but more a question of WHEN. Sounds like you have reached that 'when' time.
      Unfortunately, the only real solution is to provide 2 separate set-ups. During the indoor season, I house my Russian tortoises in a stacked set-up (think bunk beds, but for tortoises). This minimizes the floor space necessary for multiple set-ups. Outdoors, I have partitioned the area so that each male has their own space, and the females are together, but with the option to further partition the space.
      I hope this helps.

      Delete
  12. Hi. I have a 4 yr old Herman tortoise, who when I got him he was in an enclosure with 2 others. Should I get another one? I'd really like some help... Many thanks ��

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, as the above blog post outlines, tortoises don't feel 'lonely' like e.g. some mammals. Hermanns tortoises are very territorial, and would end up bullying and fighting!

      Delete
  13. Not sure where my other post went but hey if it gets repeated all the better!!
    Thank you so much I now know what to do. All the nodding and biting of her legs and mating, screaming like a mouse it's been worse than watching game of thrones!!! and I hadn't known what do. But I do now. You may have just saved a wee tortoises life!
    Thank you so much as she's been hiding for a few days now and I've been very worried.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for being willing to adjust care to save your female!

      Delete
  14. How often do you recommend to allow some "play time" when we only have one male and female each?

    And is it OK for the barrier separating them to be see thru (but touch proof)?

    ReplyDelete
  15. How often do you recommend to allow "play time" when there is only one male and female each?

    And is it OK for the barrier separating them to be "see thru" (but touch proof)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good questions. First, is your intent to breed? In that case, be sure that the female is at the prime of health, and larger than 7.5 inches SCL (measured by placing her onto a ruler, and measuring linear shell length). Below that size, she would most likely not lay fertile eggs anyway, so it wouldn't be good for her to have to deal with mating. Plus, if she is still growing, her bones need the calcium, so you don't want her little body to have to use calcium to make eggs!
      Once the female is large enough, really you just need one successful mating - the 'deposit' can last her for several years of fertile eggs. She will be most content if she is not in constant contact with the male - in fact, she might deem her surroundings unsafe if she is being harried by the male, and then won't lay eggs!

      I would make the barrier as opaque and insurmountable as possible. If the male can see her, he will constantly try to break into her area, and will obsess over that boundary until he can get past it.

      Delete
    2. Thank you for your reply and info

      The female leopard tortoise is about 10 inch (what you said above)

      I got the male about half a year ago, started mating 1 or 2 month after adjusting to the new environment, few times a day at that, and I've just decided to separate them a month ago (before stumble upon this page)

      The female had laid eggs 3 times, on 3/5, 14/6, and 15/7. Listed it out just to make sure the frequency is normal.

      Some advices are appreciated

      Delete
    3. Ah, well leopard tortoises of course get bigger than the Mediterranean species - so 10" is still quite young, but does have the potential to lay fertile eggs.
      I believe you made the right decision to house them separately though, especially if mating was happening several times per day. That's just not fun for the female!

      Different females lay eggs at different intervals - mine lay several clutches 3 weeks apart. The gaps you mention sound very reasonable. Are you leaving the eggs in the ground, or digging them up and incubating them?
      If you do get babies, here is a link to a good care sheet for baby leopard tortoises - written by Tom, a tortoise keeper I know and trust! http://www.tortoiseforum.org/threads/how-to-raise-a-healthy-sulcata-or-leopard-version-2-0.78361/

      Delete
    4. I dug them out, buried them in containers with composite, but no incubator is used.

      Malaysia has the right temperature or 26-32°C all year round under shade

      I decided not leaving them in the ground due to:-
      1. the temperature raised to 46 under direct sun and the eggs are only 2 to 3 inches from ground surface
      2. the ground gets very hard after being compacted, which I doubt any babies are able to break out of it (digging by mum still ok since she will lubricate it during digging)

      Delete
  16. I have two redfoots... the first was a gift, the second an adoption. I thought the second, smaller tort was female, and my first tort certainly seemed to think so. (:O) But now I know they are both males, and they are starting to be less tolerant of each other... I do have two basking spots/hideyholes/water pans, and I can separate them with a sort of sliding door. But they are definitely aware of each other anyhow, and want to get together, even if it's to have an argument... I feel like my first tort was kind of bored and depressed alone, because he didn't have any real diversions. But I'm not really sure how things will go here for the long haul. Perhaps they will work something out and mellow as they get older...?
    :/

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have two males (I did not know they were two males, and they are both sort of adoptees) - redfoots. When they were first put together, the larger tort acted as tho the smaller was a female, mounting 'her' frequently. I assumed 'she' was female too... but now I know they are both male, and the smaller tort has been challenging the larger, and just recently they are really very aggressive toward each other, including the larger tort biting at the smaller tort's face. I am keeping them separated, but it means a much constricted space for both of them. Can this relationship be saved??
    :/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, redfoots are one of the few species that can be housed in multiples... however, they must have A LOT of space (for 2 juveniles, I would say at least a 4"x8" indoor area, and three times that much for outdoors).

      Even in sexually immature tortoises, mounting behavior can be observed, but this is not for the purpose of reproduction, it is a show of dominance. The smaller tortoise will often become withdrawn and stop eating. It's important to set them up in adequate separate enclosures (enough space for each, proper lighting). Have you considered building bunk-bed style enclosures? That way it doesn't take up more floor space, but they each have their own level. There are many examples of such set-ups online, e.g. on www.tortoiseforum.org.
      As they become adults and grow to a more equal size, you may be able to reintroduce them if you have a very large area for them. Keeping 2 males together is often tricky though, no matter what species.
      Best of luck!

      Delete
  18. I bought two Herman hatchlings in August and I was told they were both girls so I was very happy. As time went on one would chase the other and mount them, this behaviour happened daily even thigh they slept together at night. I later found out that I have two boy tortoises and that one will probably not thrive as well as the other due to one being dominant. I have given the placid tortoise to a friend as I did not want it being bullied but it has been a very difficult decision to make as we loved that little tort and I did want two together. :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry this happened to you. Whether it's 2 females or a male and a female, or 2 males, I have to say though that with Hermanns, Russian torts, and Greeks, it rarely works out well. They are scrappy, territorial little tortoises! In the long run, you made the right decision to separate them. I know it wasn't easy, but rehoming one of them probably saved its life.

      Delete
  19. I wish I had seen this also.. about 5 years ago after having my female tortoise for 2 years I decided to get a male. It is really not a great idea! At first like yours, they were great and a 'pair' in my eyes but 2 years later he began bashing her shell, mating and biting now and then. I didn't think much of it and I wish I paid more attention at the time. We got them a bigger enclosure but one day the female had passed away. I feel very irresponsible writing this now! At the pet store we got told this would be okay.. It didn't seem like an issue at all having the 2. But I still have the male by himself and I'm sure the female passed due to the 2 living together when I think about it now it must not have been nice for her at all! I highly recommend not mixing a male and female together in the same enclosure.

    ReplyDelete
  20. How do you sex horsefields I have 6 2 in one enclosure 3 in another.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jennifer, it just so happens that I wrote a blog post about this: http://tortaddiction.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-helpful-guide-to-determining-sex-of.html

      Delete
  21. I want to get baby horse field tortoises if I buy them from young together will they still fight, I think I read somewhere while researching that you can't determine the sex of the tortoise till about 2 years. I'm hoping to get them about 6 months, even younger if possible

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jade,
      unfortunately, buying 2 baby tortoises together (even from the same clutch!) will not prevent them from acting territorially aggressive towards each other once they approach sexual maturity. They may be OK at first, but there are many cases where even babies fight and bite and compete for food and space and warmth to the point where 1 falls way behind in growth and may die. I do not (and would not recommend) house babies together after the first year or two... and even then, not all pairings go well, so they often end up having to be separated and kept solo. I'd recommend you get 1, and spoil the heck out of that one. :) You can spend the extra money on a larger habitat, or build an outdoor space?

      Delete
  22. Very interesting helpful knowledge. Thanks a million for sharing! You answered my question and saved me from troubles.🐢

    ReplyDelete

Your comment will be visible after moderation.