Tortoises are pets that are undeniably fascinating and full of character. Certain tortoise behaviors and quirks can be baffling to owners, understanding these can allow us to take better care of our pets. A common behavior, particularly among male tortoises’ is headbanging or headbutting. But why do tortoises do this and what does it mean? Here is what you should know.
So, why do tortoises headbutt? Headbutting is a perfectly normal behavior in tortoises. Male tortoises will headbutt to assert their dominance and mark their territory. Headbutting is a typical part of a tortoises mating ritual, so owners may notice an increase in this behavior particularly in the spring months when it is mating season.
At first, headbutting (also known as headbanging) can be a worrying behavioral trait in your tortoise. However, it is not typically a cause for concern.
If you are worried about your tortoise hurting themselves, or damaging their shell, or are worried that it is a sign of aggression, this article will provide the information you need to best take care of your tortoise.
Why Do Tortoises Headbutt Things?
Male tortoises are more likely to headbutt objects, other pets, and even people than female tortoises.
In fact, headbutting is a perfectly normal behavior in male tortoises, signaling that they have reached the mating stage in their development.
However, it is important to note that female tortoises who are gravid (carrying eggs) have also been known to become defensive and even a little aggressive with their headbutting during this time.
Tortoise owners have shared many anecdotes of their pet tortoises headbutting all sorts of objects in their homes.
From feet to baskets, flower pots to lawnmowers it seems nothing is safe from a tortoise on a headbanging rampage!
You may find your male tortoise is headbanging to appear assertive and mark his territory.
Rest assured that this is perfectly normal behavior and absolutely no cause for concern.
If you watch closely, you will see your pet tortoise tucking his head fully inside his shell before making contact with the person or object he is set to headbang.
The primary purpose of a tortoise’s shell is for protection. Therefore, your pet is unlikely to hurt themselves by headbutting.
It could be that your tortoise is ‘in season’ and looking for something to mate with.
If you have more than one pet tortoise, you may find they try and mate with each other. If you only have one pet tortoise in your household, inanimate objects are likely to become the focus of their mating attempts.
Why Do Tortoises Ram Things?
Ramming, headbutting or headbanging, is generally considered a normal behavioral trait in tortoises. Typically, male tortoises are more likely to exhibit this behavior.
There is no hard and fast ‘rule’ as to when a male tortoise will start head-butting things.
Tortoises can start headbanging at any age, some owners have even shared stories of their male tortoise starting to headbutt at 40 years old!
If your tortoise is head-butting, it is likely that they are asserting its dominance.
This could be sexually or it could be over their territory.
A tortoise may headbutt inanimate objects if there is no other tortoise in their environment that can become the subject of their affection.
In certain circumstances, a lack of stimulus for pet tortoises can exacerbate head-banging behaviors.
If your tortoise is bored, it may lead to slightly more aggressive behaviors and can signal boredom.
If this is the case, then tortoise owners should try to provide some ‘landscaping’ in the environment.
For example plants, mounds, things for the tortoise to climb on, and hideouts to keep them entertained.
Another reason your tortoise could be ramming is if they feel there is competition for food.
This primarily occurs when there are several tortoises living together. Your tortoises may ram each other at feeding times.
If your tortoise views you as competition for food, you may find that they try to ram you as you are feeding them or putting their food down.
This can also happen when you interact with them on occasion.
In general terms, head butting is not a sign of aggression in tortoises, it is rather a normal behavioral trait.
However, some tortoise owners may be concerned that their pet is showing signs of overtly aggressive behavior.
Why Do Tortoises Get Aggressive?
There are several factors that may cause some aggressive behavior in your pet tortoise.
It is important to note that generally tortoises are not aggressive animals by nature, so it can be useful to understand and identify the source of your tortoise’s aggression.
Aggression usually has a trigger, so there are some things that you can look out for if your pet tortoise is showing signs of this behavior.
You may experience some aggression from your tortoise if:
- If your tortoise is not given enough ‘alone time’ in their own space (it would be super frustrating for humans too to have people constantly in and out of their bedroom!),
- There are different species of tortoise kept in close proximity (the same enclosure),
- There is a lack of stimulation (by way of landscaping and toys) in their enclosure,
- Two (or more) male tortoises are homed together in the same enclosure,
- Your female tortoise is gravid carrying eggs,
- Your tortoise is hungry (yes, tortoises can and do experience hanger).
If your tortoise is showing signs of aggression, try to eliminate or at least minimize any of these contributing factors as a first step.
It can be easy to confuse normal tortoise behaviors, for example, headbanging, with aggression.
Consider the above points to determine whether or not you truly believe your tortoise is being aggressive.
Can You Stop A Tortoise Headbutting?
Whilst tortoises cannot be ‘trained out’ of their behaviors, like head butting, for example, there are several things that owners can do that may help to minimize it.
Try to avoid keeping two male tortoises together as this can cause competition between them leading to aggression.
Instead, male-female pairings tend to work well at subsiding aggression by providing company for your pet tortoise.
Just be aware that in mating season, they will need to be monitored.
Make sure the enclosure you are providing for your tortoise is big enough and your pet has ample space to move around.
Providing ample food and water can help to defeat hunger and prevent competition for food.
If you are providing fresh foods, be sure to remove any leftovers at the end of each day to avoid rotting and bad smells.
Consider reducing the temperature f the enclosure by a couple of degrees in the time leading up to the mating season.
Try not to over-handle your tortoise or give them too much attention.
Generally speaking, tortoises are not the most social animals and may become frustrated with constant attention.
Whilst it is not possible to train a tortoise out of the headbutting behavior, these things can help to reduce them.
Headbutting or headbanging is normal behavior that tortoises, particularly male tortoises, are likely to exhibit in their lifetime.
Your tortoise is unlikely to harm itself by headbutting as it will tuck its head in and make an impact with its shell.
If you are worried your tortoise is becoming aggressive, ensure that they are well-fed, not -overhandled and that there is plenty of stimulation (entertainment) in their enclosure.
Remember, it is perfectly normal for pet tortoises to headbutt all sorts of objects including their owners!
Headbutting comes naturally to them and we can assure you that, as an owner, you will undoubtedly grow used to it and even being to love it!
If you are interested in learning more about display behavior in tortoises, this fascinating study is a good resource to check out!
I am a practiced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site I created to share everything I’ve learned about pet ownership over the years and my extensive research along the way.