Sunday, August 10, 2014

Keeping tortoises cool on hot days

When Summer finally comes, and the weather heats up, it is SO important to make sure your tortoise doesn't overheat or dehydrate! I will outline a few simple but important precautions you need to take to insure your tortoise remains happy and healthy, even during a heat advisory.
Being outdoors is so good for tortoises... but can also be dangerous!
First, always keep in mind that if the air temperature is 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), the ground temperature in the sun can easily be 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), which is unsafe for our chelonian friends!

In the wild, tortoises have the opportunity to dig deep into their burrows to enjoy cooler temperatures and even to aestivate (Summer version of hibernation). They can seek out DEEP shade under bushes and trees and rock crevices. They can roam for miles in the morning to find a suitable spot to hide from the midday sun.

In captivity, keepers often only provide flimsy hides that don't actually insulate tortoises from the heat. Some outdoor enclosures don't have deep shade from trees or bushes, and the substrate is too shallow to dig into. Tortoises can be trapped, and may suffer from heat stroke if left in the beating sun for too long.

(some tortoises like to dig more than others)
If your tortoise is outdoors, and the weather is warmer than 85 degrees F, your tortoise really needs to have some form of insulated hide that also allows it to dig several inches or feet into the soft, cool soil to regulate its body temperature. Such a hide can be built from wood and insulation material, or made from a sturdy half-pipe or half flowerpot, with several inches of soil piled over top. You can plant sod over top to help keep the dirt in place (possibly with some kind of netting under the sod, to prevent erosion).

In the picture below, you can sort of see one of my insulated hides up against the wall. It is both attractive and useful! I made it from a sturdy plastic bin (once upon a time a recycling bin), with soil piled on top, and a little rock garden with succulents. Even on a hot day, the inside of the hide only rises to about 70 degrees F (21 degrees C). The soil inside is soft, and tortoises can dig about a foot down into it.

A hide that is insulated by dirt and a rock garden with succulents!
The tortoise enclosures are large, and are planted with several bushes, and a tree partially shades a portion of the tortoise yard all day long. As a result, the tortoises can decide which part of the temperature gradient they want to spend time in. They come out into the sun in the morning, to raise their body temperature. Then they eat and wander for a few hours. During the hottest afternoon hours, they hide away in the cooler, shadier areas. Then they usually come back out in the cooler evening hours, or they dig in for the night.

To help regulate the temperatures in their tortoise garden on hot days, I hose it down thoroughly every couple of hours. The tortoises have come to appreciate the cool rain shower from the hose - almost all of them come out to visit while I'm spraying down the outdoor tortoise habitats. On extra hot days I also set up an umbrella to shade part of the enclosure.

Another measure I take to help the tortoises stay healthy in warm weather is to soak them once a week. When it is not as hot, I let them self-regulate their water intake, since they do have a nice big planting saucer full of water to bathe in or drink out of. However, 100 degree weather can dehydrate a tortoise awfully fast.

8 soaking Russian tortoises
Here's the whole bale of my RTs, 6 females and 2 males, ranging from 4.5" to 9" SCL, all soaking in some cool water this afternoon. We have a couple of really hot days coming up, so even though they live outside, I soaked them in the kiddie pool to make sure they are well hydrated.

Using an infrared temperature gun to check the ground temperature regularly might save your tortoise's life.

If there is a heat advisory in your area, and you are not sure if you will be able to come home during the hottest hours of the day, it is safer to bring your tortoise into the cool inside (NOT the garage, which is often much hotter than outside!) for the day. Being in a boring bin is safer than being stuck in the heat!

CAUTION: If your tortoise has been outside in very hot weather, and is acting lethargic, is incessantly pacing, is foaming at the mouth, vomiting or is having neurological symptoms, IMMEDIATELY put it in cool water and run room temperature water over the top of its shell to help it reduce its body temperature. Then call an emergency veterinarian and seek help ASAP! Tortoises can die from heat stroke!


  1. Hi, I am a new reader here, and am wondering if predators are an issue for keeping Russian Tortoises outdoors. We have hawks, and I am afraid of keeping ours outdoors.

    1. Very good question. We have hawks, too. However, our tortoise enclosure is right next to the house, and hawks like to have more space to fly - they would never go that close to the house. I have shrubs and bushes, so there isn't really a clear line of sight down to the ground from far above in most of the enclosure. I know some tortoise keepers hang clothes lines above human-head-level criss-crossing the enclosure. This, along with tree branches that overhang, will deter larger birds (crows, hawks etc) from flying into the enclosures, but small birds (which are harmless to tortoises) still can fly or hop in.

      In our neighborhood we do have 2 raccoon, and they concern me a little. Raccoon are fairly lazy though, and don't like to work for a meal. As long as the tortoises have dug in at night (and they do have several deep burrow hides), they are safe. I do a quick walk-through in the enclosure to make sure everyone is dug in. If a tortoise parked itself in a corner, then I bring it inside.
      If you look back a few blog posts, I show pictures of our enclosure. :) This might give you some ideas.

    2. Thanks for the reply! We live in a more cooler area, so I think we'll have to only bring our tortoise out on days that are above 70 degrees. Also, we had a hawk dive bomb and catch a little brown bird recently in over-6-feet-tall plants, so my fears currently outweigh all else!

    3. One thing you could do to prevent hawks from flying in would be to hang a marine fishing net above the tortoise area. Little birdies could get in, but not big birds could fly in from above.
      I actually have a spare HUGE one. If you are interested in it (it would be cheap), please contact me via Etsy (the link to the shop is in the right side bar) and we can work something out. :)

  2. I just adopted a desert tortoise, we are in for some "HOT" weather and she will not stay in her burrow we built her, she would rather go under a fountain near by, she is active but I worry. I was told it is not good to bring in and out either. Help I don't want anything to happen to her "Tilly" I do put her in water in the day and there are shade trees and bush for her to climb under, she has quite the habitat indeed.

    1. An adult desert tortoise (or juvenile over 4") will be able to regulate its body temperature by moving in and out of the sun and shade. As long as you make sure that there is some deep shade (please refer to my blog post about The importance of Deep Shade), as well as some sunshine, your tortoise will self regulate by going to the temperature zone she needs.

    2. it is 95 in the shade here in Yuma, I took a reading and behind the rock she go's behind 83 but she is not going there, and I need some info, help on why she will not go in the burrow we made, we tried having entrance slop down. we tried flat, we even put a half bucket in thinking maybe it was too BIG for her??? any ideas?? it is in the shade, in the corner of house she has the entire front of house for habitat with water and planted stuff they like, husband built with 5/8 out door plywood, solid....substrate is sandy dirt. husband thought maybe shut her in the area of burrow and make her stay in??? Help our temps can get up to 120 here in the summer......

    3. Hi Donna, I would suggest that for a few weeks, you place her into the burrow each evening, making sure you do so in a way that she sees how to get there as you carry her, and block the entrance, in essence trapping her in there for the night. It won't take long, and she will learn that this is a good spot to sleep, and possibly even retreat to during hot days. :)

  3. Thank you for the advice, we remade her burrow again and she will have nothing to do with it. she like it behind a rock I placed up against the house BUT it is not cool enough there for her as our temps can reach up to 119 for many days at a time, june thru oct then she will go into hibernation so trying so hard to make her happy. Husband does not like the idea of trapping her in somewhere she does not like to be. must be something she is sensing...anyway fish and wildlife say build a burrow where she likes to be so that will be our next attempt. wish me luck, I have sure fallen for this tortoise for sure!!! she does love it in the bathroom tub in a lil hide I made for her she is in cooling down now as it is still 108 out.....:(
    Yuma az

  4. Hello! I live InPhoenix Arizona,mand we have a desert tortoise who lives outside. He has plenty of shade, is fed well, and a water dish to soak in, along with grass and dirt to dig his burrow. We want to live in Heber, AZ elevation 6000' for the summer. What is the best way to care for my tortoise in the cooler, higher region? Thanks


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