Is my tortoise unhappy? Constantly scratching/digging

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Hello!

I am new to this forum, but have had my Russian tortoise for about 14 years. I got her when she was young and I was 12, and we have grown up together. Throughout this time, I've learned a lot more about how to care for her and have always tried to give her as big and as good of enclosures as I can given space and money constraints (I am a student in grad school currently). Right now, she lives in 2 Zoo Med Tortoise Houses put together (a 6'x2' enclosure) inside and also has a 7'x4' chicken coop outside that I leave her in for several hours a day when it's nice out, which is often because I live in California. However, this brings me to my question - no matter how much space she has, she is ALWAYS scratching at the walls and digging. She goes through periods where she is always scratching at the walls of her cage inside, and when I move her outside, it's the same. Even when I let her free roam in the backyard with my eye on her, she just immediately finds a plant and starts digging at the base. Is this a sign that she is lacking something in her environment/enclosure, or is this just how she is? I know that her indoor cage could be bigger, and I am planning on building her a larger tortoise table as soon as I have a semi-permanent home and can build something custom/know that I have enough space (I've been moving into new spaces every year for the last 6 years). Thank you so much for your help! I really appreciate it, and am happy to provide more details if helpful.

Thanks again!
 
Last edited:

Littleredfootbigredheart

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 28, 2023
Messages
1,471
Location (City and/or State)
UK
Hi! Welcome to the forum😁

Aw Russians are such little personalities, and it certainly sounds like you have a a little personality there😂

May I ask what type of lighting you use in your indoor enclosure? Do you use indoor uv?

Also do you happen to know what your ground temps get to in both enclosures? A good way to check is with a temp gun

I only ask because sometimes they dig down to escape the heat, or maybe the lighting is too harsh, I doubt either of those are the reasons tbh giving the fact you say they do it no matter were they are🥲it’s just all I can think of right now.

If possible could you attach some photos of both your enclosures? Maybe we’ll see something we might not have thought of that could possibly be bothering them
 

EppsDynasty

Well-Known Member
Platinum Tortoise Club
Joined
Oct 4, 2022
Messages
1,059
Location (City and/or State)
Canebrake Ca
@SusannaH ..... This might not be right but in my opinion stress. You mentioned that you move her inside and out everyday, that is stressful. We have noticed in our rescue that tortoises that do not have a permanent home and get moved in and out do the same thing you mention .... Dig and scratch, no matter the species. You also mentioned you have moved every year for the past 6, this is stressful. Depending on where in CA you are a permanent (summer) home outside might be better. Allow her to have her own space and be a tortoise, instead she is being moved everyday. I am not a seasoned tort expert but do have 15+ tortoises that I take care of every day. I have these same issues with tortoises that are stressed out and are without a place to call their own.
 

TammyJ

Well-Known Member
5 Year Member
Joined
Jun 21, 2016
Messages
7,628
Location (City and/or State)
Jamaica
Yes, pictures would help. Has your tortoise ever been with another tortoise?
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Thanks to all of you for your responses! All of that information is very helpful. I am currently renting my place and am not allowed to do any modifications in the backyard, but am moving again this summer (hopefully for the last time in the near future) and my new place has a fence in the backyard. I will look into creating a permanent outdoor home for her there. I have been moving her between her indoor and outdoor enclosures to give her more space, as her cage is only 12 square feet, but I can see how that might be creating more stress for her. Attached is a picture of her indoor enclosure, as well as a link to the chicken coop from the amazon storefront: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09X9TNYWH/?tag=exoticpetnetw-20 (I don't have a pic of it with her in it on me right now, but I have the largest size - 88" x 41"). I always make sure that part of the chicken coop is positioned in the shade when I take her out, and that she has a hide and a water dish/some food. I would have loved to have been able to make her a more fancy tortoise enclosure outside with plants, better hides, etc., but unfortunately have been renting places that either have no backyards or do not allow furniture/modifications in the backyards. Also, if I have more time, I will sometimes just let her roam free in the yard (as opposed to putting her in the pen) and keep an eye on her - the pen is mostly for when I have stuff to do but want her to have some outside time.

In her indoor enclosure, she has a warm side (with her heat lamp and UVB, where she spends most of her time during the day), a dig box with aspen snake bedding in it, and another hide on the cool side of the enclosure. I do not have a temp gun for the ground temperatures but will look into getting one and obtaining the ground temperatures. Thank you again for all of your help, and I appreciate any further feedback!
 

Attachments

  • IMG_4120.jpeg
    IMG_4120.jpeg
    201.7 KB · Views: 2
  • IMG_4121.jpeg
    IMG_4121.jpeg
    231.1 KB · Views: 2
  • IMG_4122.jpeg
    IMG_4122.jpeg
    301.9 KB · Views: 2
  • IMG_4123.jpeg
    IMG_4123.jpeg
    232.5 KB · Views: 2

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Yes, pictures would help. Has your tortoise ever been with another tortoise?
Also, she has never been with another tortoise as far as I know - there was one time where she escaped my yard and I found her a YEAR later a mile from my house (crazy story) but that was ~7 years ago.
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Also, I do notice her scratching more when it is very hot outside - so perhaps it could be partially a temp issue?
 

Tom

The Dog Trainer
10 Year Member!
Platinum Tortoise Club
Joined
Jan 9, 2010
Messages
64,197
Location (City and/or State)
Southern California
This is fairly normal behavior for a Russian. They wander miles in the wild. Your enclosures are both too small. That is a contributing factor. A larger enclosure would likely reduce this.

I like having an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for young tortoises. They get used to it after a short adjustment period. I prefer to have adults of suitable species just live outside full time, but with suitable accommodations. I show how to do that I this thread:

More here:
 

Littleredfootbigredheart

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 28, 2023
Messages
1,471
Location (City and/or State)
UK
Also, I do notice her scratching more when it is very hot outside - so perhaps it could be partially a temp issue?
I’d definitely do temp gun checks on warmer days to make sure it’s not getting uncomfortable out there and double check the ground temps in the enclosure👍
I’d also remove the aspen from the indoor enclosure and have the whole thing bark, not that it’s contributing, just thought I’d mention it because aspen could cause respiratory issues or irritate the tortoises eye, the orchid bark you’re using is what’s recommended🙂

Something else that isn’t the cause to the behaviour but thought I’d mention🥲I’d recommend switching out that water dish for a terracotta saucer, the one you’re using has been known to be a potential flipping hazard because of the steeper sides, they also lack grip. You can sit the saucer flush with the substrate

Perhaps the behaviour is down to some stress from moving/wanting more space, which I’m sure you’ll get sorted as soon as you’re in the position to😊
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
This is fairly normal behavior for a Russian. They wander miles in the wild. Your enclosures are both too small. That is a contributing factor. A larger enclosure would likely reduce this.

I like having an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for young tortoises. They get used to it after a short adjustment period. I prefer to have adults of suitable species just live outside full time, but with suitable accommodations. I show how to do that I this thread:

More here:
Thank you so much for your response! I am sadly aware that my indoor inclosure is too small (6'x2') - it's the best that I've been able to do with constant moves and living in apartments, but I am hopeful that I will be able to house her outside year-round after I move this summer. The outdoor enclosure is 29 square feet, which is close to the minimum that I've seen stated on this forum of 32 square feet, but I do understand that moving her back and forth might be creating additional stress. Thank you for the helpful links!
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
I’d definitely do temp gun checks on warmer days to make sure it’s not getting uncomfortable out there and double check the ground temps in the enclosure👍
I’d also remove the aspen from the indoor enclosure and have the whole thing bark, not that it’s contributing, just thought I’d mention it because aspen could cause respiratory issues or irritate the tortoises eye, the orchid bark you’re using is what’s recommended🙂

Something else that isn’t the cause to the behaviour but thought I’d mention🥲I’d recommend switching out that water dish for a terracotta saucer, the one you’re using has been known to be a potential flipping hazard because of the steeper sides, they also lack grip. You can sit the saucer flush with the substrate

Perhaps the behaviour is down to some stress from moving/wanting more space, which I’m sure you’ll get sorted as soon as you’re in the position to😊
Thank you so much for this! I really appreciate the tips about the temp gun, the water dish, and the aspen - I will switch the water dish and the aspen bedding asap and will order a temp gun! I actually have noticed that the last week or so we've had a cool spell and she's barely scratched at all, so maybe the temp regulation has a larger role than I initially thought. Thank you for your kindness and advice, I really want the best for my tort and I am so grateful for the tips!
 

Littleredfootbigredheart

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 28, 2023
Messages
1,471
Location (City and/or State)
UK
Thank you so much for this! I really appreciate the tips about the temp gun, the water dish, and the aspen - I will switch the water dish and the aspen bedding asap and will order a temp gun! I actually have noticed that the last week or so we've had a cool spell and she's barely scratched at all, so maybe the temp regulation has a larger role than I initially thought. Thank you for your kindness and advice, I really want the best for my tort and I am so grateful for the tips!
No problem at all! Let us know how your little one is getting on over the coming weeks😊
 

_The_Beast_

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 3, 2021
Messages
162
Location (City and/or State)
Canada
Thank you so much for your response! I am sadly aware that my indoor inclosure is too small (6'x2') - it's the best that I've been able to do with constant moves and living in apartments, but I am hopeful that I will be able to house her outside year-round after I move this summer. The outdoor enclosure is 29 square feet, which is close to the minimum that I've seen stated on this forum of 32 square feet, but I do understand that moving her back and forth might be creating additional stress. Thank you for the helpful links!
Just a quick note to add that moving her to different enclosures for part of the day may not be a source of stress when it's an established routine. Lots of torts, particularly smaller ones, go to an outside enclosure for some or all of the the day for a set period of time and then are brought back inside. Hatchlings, for example, often start with smaller amounts of time outside and it increases as they grow. Outside time is also be weather and climate dependent.

It sounds like larger indoor and outdoor enclosures, along with checking temps, is what's needed to address the behaviour you're seeing (that said, your tort may just always decide to wage war on plants now and again no matter the size of the enclosure! They're stubborn little dudes). An indoor-outdoor routine may be a good way to get them more walking/stomping space while your indoor enclosure is smaller than the outdoor one.

Can you share pictures of the outdoor enclosure space so folks can help you tailor what you have while you work on creating a more long-term solution?
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Just a quick note to add that moving her to different enclosures for part of the day may not be a source of stress when it's an established routine. Lots of torts, particularly smaller ones, go to an outside enclosure for some or all of the the day for a set period of time and then are brought back inside. Hatchlings, for example, often start with smaller amounts of time outside and it increases as they grow. Outside time is also be weather and climate dependent.

It sounds like larger indoor and outdoor enclosures, along with checking temps, is what's needed to address the behaviour you're seeing (that said, your tort may just always decide to wage war on plants now and again no matter the size of the enclosure! They're stubborn little dudes). An indoor-outdoor routine may be a good way to get them more walking/stomping space while your indoor enclosure is smaller than the outdoor one.

Can you share pictures of the outdoor enclosure space so folks can help you tailor what you have while you work on creating a more long-term solution?
Thank you so much for this response! It's good to know that the indoor/outdoor switching might not be too stressful if I'm keeping her schedule consistent. I got the chicken coop because I knew that her indoor space was too small, so my hope was for exactly what you mentioned - give her some space to stomp around during the day.

I am actually traveling right now and don't have a picture of her outdoor coop handy, but it's basically this one on amazon (largest size): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09X9TNYWH/?tag=exoticpetnetw-20. I have some cardboard around the sides so that she can't see out. Unfortunately, the apartment that I live in currently is very strict with outdoor "furniture", so I have to assemble/disassemble the coop every day to put her outside (I can't leave it in the yard). Additionally, the yard is very fine cut grass, not ideal for a tort (no interesting digging areas/dirt patches/etc.). I try to make it more interesting for her by putting a hide, water dish, and some heads of lettuce/weeds in there, but I know that it's not good enough for a permanent outdoor enclosure. Luckily, I am moving in a few months to a new place that has a huge fenced in backyard with dirt beds, plants, and places to dig (and hopefully laid-back landlords), so I am hoping to let her roam free a bit more once I move. I can send a picture of the actual outdoor enclosure when I get back next week if this doesn't make sense - thank you so much again!
 

S2G

Well-Known Member
Joined
Feb 21, 2021
Messages
153
Location (City and/or State)
AL
Youre just going to have to do the best you can right now & shes going to continue that. Russians are some wild wondering characters that need space & a lot of line of sight breakups to keep that at bay. Shoot you really need a wire lined bottom outside to keep them jokers from digging out! I thought my russian was going to be like my hermanns, but its like he has red bull in his water dishes. He doesnt chill until it gets hot midday or in his house for the night.
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Youre just going to have to do the best you can right now & shes going to continue that. Russians are some wild wondering characters that need space & a lot of line of sight breakups to keep that at bay. Shoot you really need a wire lined bottom outside to keep them jokers from digging out! I thought my russian was going to be like my hermanns, but its like he has red bull in his water dishes. He doesnt chill until it gets hot midday or in his house for the night.
Thanks so much for the response! Same - my Russian is insanely active in the summer (she tends to chill out and spend more time in her hides in the winter but right now she is ON something). You're definitely right about the wire lined bottom - because I'm not allowed to do any yard modifications I can't dig to place a barrier underground and I was worried about wire on top of the grass getting caught in her nails so I just sit outside with her and do work or check on her every 20 mins or so while she's outside. The apartment situation is so frustrating because it's way more work for me AND suboptimal for her, but you're right that I'll just continue to do my best until I can hopefully move her to a permanent outdoor enclosure in September. Thanks again for responding and the advice!
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Hi guys! Quick update - I think I might have discovered one of the reasons for my tort's frequent digging. I should have clarified this in the original post, but she is typically digging down, like she's trying to make a burrow, and not up, like she's trying to escape. I did some more reading on this forum, and realized that her bedding was not nearly deep enough. I am embarrassed to say this, but aside from her hide at one end of the cage that was filled with the aspen snake bedding (which has since been replaced), it was only 1-2" in some places. I gave her 3x as much bedding, so she now has about 5" to dig in, and piled some timothy hay in the corners where she likes to dig because I noticed that she loves to dig under hay or pine straw when she's outside. Lo and behold, I haven't noticed ANY scratching since then - she has made quite a large burrow where she is completely covered by the bedding and hay and is spending most of her time there with some quick trips out to get food and bask. I feel very bad that she has had to deal with this for so long, but I'm happy that she seems to have a bit of relief now. I know that she still would benefit from a larger enclosure so I will try to make that a reality in the next couple of months, but I am relieved that she seems to be comfortable for now. Thanks again everyone for all of your help!
 

The_Four_Toed_Edward

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 6, 2024
Messages
909
Location (City and/or State)
Finland
Hi!

That update sounds great. Yes, tortoises like to dig and will scratch the bottom if they reach it too easily.

I would keep an eye on the timothy hay, since it can be an irritant for two reasons: when moist, it molds easily, but when dry it becomes dusty and seems to irritate some tortoises.
 

SusannaH

New Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2024
Messages
10
Location (City and/or State)
CA
Hi!

That update sounds great. Yes, tortoises like to dig and will scratch the bottom if they reach it too easily.

I would keep an eye on the timothy hay, since it can be an irritant for two reasons: when moist, it molds easily, but when dry it becomes dusty and seems to irritate some tortoises.
Ah, okay - thank you so much! Is there a better alternative that is similar? I've noticed that she likes to dig under a "mat" of stuff to completely bury herself. I will definitely keep an eye on it for mold and will check her eyes/nostrils/behavior while it's in her enclosure
 

The_Four_Toed_Edward

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 6, 2024
Messages
909
Location (City and/or State)
Finland
Ah, okay - thank you so much! Is there a better alternative that is similar? I've noticed that she likes to dig under a "mat" of stuff to completely bury herself. I will definitely keep an eye on it for mold and will check her eyes/nostrils/behavior while it's in her enclosure
Fir bark is what comes to mind, I don't know if others have other suggestions.
 
Top