Is It Dangerous Finding Your Tortoise on its Back

Is It Dangerous Finding Your Tortoise on its Back?

When keeping pets, we are always learning to keep them as safe and happy as possible. Finding your tortoise on its back can be a real shock when your first discover your shelly little friend on his/her back. As a responsible pet owner, you are sure to know if it is dangerous to find your tortoise on its back.

Unfortunately, yes, it is unsafe for your tortoise if you find them on their back, and they have been like that for an extended period. The tortoise’s internal organs are structured in a way that they only function correctly when upright. It can be fatal to your tortoise if they are on their back for an extensive period.

Ok, that sounds scary but don’t panic; there are some simple tips and advice below for keeping your tortoise safe.

What to do if you find your tortoise on its back?

The first thing to do is not freak out if you come to your tortoise and find it on its back. Finding your tortoise on its back is could be a sign of problems with your tortoise or its enclosure. But it could also just be a harmless mishap that your tortoise has done while playing.

Simply turn the tortoise over the correct way and do it slowly and carefully. Flipping your tortoise over too quickly can cause damage to their bowels.

Check over your tortoise, make sure they are not dehydrated, and put them in a shady place to recover.

Finding your tortoise on its back could mean there is a problem with your tortoise enclosure, which we will go into a little more detail below.

How long can a tortoise be on its back?

There is no definite answer to how long a tortoise can be on its back, but eventually, if they are don’t right themselves, or you don’t, it will become fatal to them. However, the life of your tortoise is not in imminent danger.

Things that start to happen once a tortoise is on its back:

  1. Twisted intestines this is more likely to happen when your tortoise has been flipped by force. It can occur when they spend a prolonged period on their back. If your tortoise stops pooping or seems stressed after being on their back, urgently take them to the veterinarian.
  2. Empty their bowls as much as this is not a significant problem at first; after some time, your tortoise is likely to become dehydrated.
  3. Your tortoise’s internal organs will press against the large lungs; this will fill the top part of the tortoise’s shell, and over time, become stressful to the tortoise.
  4. Vomiting is something that can happen due to the abnormal pressure and position on their organs. Your tortoise can breathe in the vomit, which can cause choking and breathing problems.
  5. Stress will kick in physically and mentally for your tortoise if he can not right himself.
  6. If your tortoise is unable to right themselves when outside, they can become sunburnt and dehydrated.
  7. Other animals are more likely to attach your tortoise. It has been known for flies to lay eggs on and in an upside-down tortoise.

As much as these all sound scary, if you come to your tortoise and find them on their back, as long as it’s not been too long, they should be fine.

Can Tortoises Right Themselves?

Yes, tortoises can right themselves when they find themselves on their back. By using a combination of the head and feet to achieve their goal. Some tortoises are better at doing that other due to their shell shape, and the health of your tortoise will have a significant impact on their success.

The tortoise hasn’t survived in the wild for this long and has not adapted. The tortoise’s shell is their most prominent change in evolution, becoming more domed, helping when needing to right-themselves.

If you have a healthy tortoise, then it is highly likely to be able to right itself were as an unhealthy animal will find it much more difficult.

Your tortoise environment will have a significant impact on the tortoise’s success and failure of righting themselves. If you have a very loose substrate, a tortoise will find it hard to get any purchase to flip themselves over.

A tortoises self-righting is not guaranteed and comes down to many different things being in their favor. However, if you have the correct setup, it should be no problem for your tortoise.

Can Tortoises Right Each Other

Tortoises very rarely show any cooperative behavioral traits when they are kept together. However, many people who own more than one tortoise have found this behavior changes when a tortoise is on its back. It is not unheard of other tortoises to help a tortoise right itself.

It may be down to the tortoise is more vulnerable and in the wild could attract predictors. But no one knows why their behavioral trait changes so much when this situation happens.

The more likely thing to happen if you have more than one male tortoise is for them to fight. A tortoise form of fighting involves flipping the other tortoise onto the tortoise’s back.

What Causes Tortoise to Flip Over?

There are many reasons that your tortoise flip over, such as:

Mishaps when climbing

Our little shelly friends aren’t built to climb, but this doesn’t stop them from exploring their surroundings by climbing. So most of the time, an upside-down tortoise is down to mishaps when climbing.

It is a lot more common for younger tortoises to find themselves on their back as they explore their new home and learn their limits. Younger tortoises seem to love the corners and love to climb them, which often leaves them ending up on their back.

If your tortoise is often flipping, try to take out the item they are climbing on that is causing the problem. Discovering what item is causing the problem can take some time, or you could setup a webcam to capture your little friend when you’re not around. Many innocuous things can cause your tortoise a problem.

Tortoise Friends

Male tortoises are prone to fighting, and due to their heavy armor, biting would be a little ineffective. So what fighting tortoises do is try to flip the other tortoise onto their shell. Flipping their opponent onto their shell is a surefire way to win the fight and impress the opposite sex. As much as that may sound a little silly to civilized humans, it is perfectly normal for tortoises.

There is very little to do if you have tortoises that are fighting each other. The best way of stopping this behavior would be to separate the fighting tortoises. Femail tortoises can not get along and can at times fight. It doesn’t mean you can’t let them have a social experience together; just try to keep a closer eye on them a little more.

Illness or injury

We don’t like to think about our pets being ill or injured, but we must face facts to look after them. If they suddenly start flipping on their back, it could be a sign of illness or injury. Check on their other behavior traits like their pooping and eating; if this has changed, a vet visit would be advisable.

Funny Personality

If you have checked everything like obstacles and their health is fine, it could be an odd personality. We don’t know why but for some, tortoises just turn themselves over more than others. It doesn’t have to mean that there is a problem; you just may have a tortoise with an odd personality. Setting up some sort of camera to see how it is happening can ease your mind.

How Can I Prevent My Tortoise Flipping Over?

We love our pet tortoises; however, one thing about keeping them in captivity is that they are more likely to flip onto their back. The artificial enclosure that we house are tortoises has many things that can lead to them flipping over. We put raised objects, raised walls, all things that the tortoise will attempt to climb over; hence the more likelihood of them flipping in captivity than in the wild.

Even though it’s hard, an enclosure without 90-degree corners would be perfect as tortoises seem to love a corner of a pen. A 90-degree corner is where tortoises seem always to flip themselves onto their shell. Placing something to make the corner more rounded like a piece of wood will go a long way to stopping your tortoise, flipping themselves onto their shell.

If your enclosure has shallow walls that your tortoise can see over the top off, the curious little devil will want to explore. Extending the walls so your tortoise can’t see over the top will discourage them from trying to climb out of the enclosure.

Ultimately if you have a very adventurous tortoise, there is very little you can do to stop them from climbing. Tortoises are adventurous, and we shouldn’t stop this other than trying to make them as safe as possible.

Keep an Eye on Your Tortoise Remotely

If your tortoise keeps flipping themselves over when you’re not around, keeping an eye on them would be great, and a Wi-Fi camera could be the perfect solution.

There are many Wi-Fi webcams now available online that’s are relatively cheap. If you are at a loss why your tortoise is flipping over, setting up a webcam pointing out their enclosure can pinpoint the problem.

You will be able to quickly discover how and why your tortoise is flipping onto its shell. We can always keep an eye on after all sauces 24/7, so the webcam can do the job for us. You will quickly discover what the problem is and be able to rectify it very quickly.

Use a Firmer Substrate

Giving your tortoise something firm and rigid to push up against is what will allow them to right-themselves. Many people will use a straw and many other unstable substrates; this is not ideal for a tortoise enclosure.

A firm claggy sand substance or soil is perfect for a tortoise enclosure. Many different brands and now making firmer substrate that is ideal for tortoise enclosures; just make sure when you’re picking yours that it is firm and not like a straw substance.


So we discovered that tortoises being on their back is dangerous for the health it could even be fatal. However, with some to follow tips, you can keep your enclosure much safer for your tortoise. Fatalities due to tortoises being on their back are very rare, and as pet owners, we should see how tortoise on their back before anything devastating happens.

Tortoises are adventurous animals despite their slow movements, which catch a lot of owners out. We are not lousy pet owners if our tortoise ends up on their back in most cases; this just means you have a very adventurists tortoise.