Can an upside-down tortoise turn itself over?

Can an Upside-down Tortoise Turn Itself Over?

Sometimes, a tortoise owner stumbles on their precious companion struggling on their back, looking rather pathetic and helpless. Some pet tortoises end up in this predicament more often than seems normal. It makes us wonder how did it get there, can it right itself, and will it die if it can’t flip over? Believe it or not, science has actually studied this and has an answer for you!

Can an upside down tortoise turn itself over? A tortoise can turn itself over but it can take a lot of work. The shape, size and health condition of a tortoise affects its ability to turn itself over. The rounder the shell, the easier it is for a tortoise to turn itself over but if a tortoise is large or sick, it will be more difficult.

To truly understand this surprisingly common tortoise issue, and hopefully prevent it or help correct it, just read on. There’s a lot more to upside-down tortoises than luck and acrobatics.

Why is Your Tortoise Upside Down?

Perhaps one of the most shocking revelations to new tortoise owners is the fact their pets can sometimes end up on their backs. Unless you witness the flip happening, it can be one heck of a mystery. If you missed the main event and simply walked in on your topsy-turvy tortoise, let your mind be at ease. There are a few reasons she may have flipped.

The short and simple list is:

  • Illness
  • Injury
  • Other tortoises
  • Climbing incident
  • Bad habits

Here’s more information on each of these possibilities. If you can figure out how and why your tortoise is turning over, you can take steps to prevent it.

Why tortoises flip over

Climbing mishaps

Many times, an upside-down tortoise has more to do with their poor climbing abilities than anything else. As short, stout, sturdy creatures, tortoises weren’t built for speed or agility. That doesn’t stop them from curiously climbing their environments.

Unfortunately, a tumble from high enough or starting from just the right angle can land a tortoise awkwardly on its back. This is seen most often in younger tortoises trying to climb a water dish, a hide, or up onto a rock that just wasn’t made to be climbed. Sometimes, they try to climb the corners of their tanks or the room, too.

How to prevent it: If your tortoise is prone to this adventurous mishap, take the offending decorations out of his enclosure. It may take a while to figure out which furnishing is causing the problem, but once you find it, things should go back to normal. For necessary objects—such as feeding or water dishes—try switching to a shallow, wide model.

Other tortoises

Did you know that male tortoises may fight one another? Since they’re both heavily armored, doing damage in the form of bites and scratches isn’t very effective. Instead, male tortoises often try to upend one another. Male tortoises know that getting your opponent flipped onto its back is a surefire way to win a fight and impress the ladies.

It might seem silly to humans, but this is a natural and normal part of tortoise life. It’s an instinct, so it’s not likely you’ll be able to train this out of your male tortoises.

How to prevent it: Your best bet is to separate male tortoises who display this behavior. You may even have two females that don’t get along, so they should be separated, too. Keeping them separated prevents them from tipping one another over. You can always let them have social time under your supervision.

Illness or injury

It’s not fun thinking about illnesses or injuries to our tortoise buddies, but we have to be realistic. If your tortoise keeps ending up on its back, there could be something wrong with him. Illnesses and injuries should be your next suspicion if your tortoise keeps flipping over. Is he eating, drinking, defecating, and sleeping well? Does he seem lethargic or unresponsive? Pay attention and report to your vet right away if he’s not acting like himself.

How to prevent it: Reptiles can be hard to keep healthy, so educate yourself on proper tortoise care and handling. The best way to prevent illness and injury-related flipping over is to be sure your tortoise doesn’t get sick or injured in the first place. Remember, he depends on you to provide him with a suitable, safe, and healthy environment.

Weird habits

If you’re certain your upside-down tortoise isn’t being tipped over by a rival, trying to climb on the furniture, or ill, you may just have a strange companion. Sometimes tortoises just turn over. It’s not clear why they do it, but a few tortoises seem to enjoy flipping over, or at least they tend to do activities that land them upside-down.

How to prevent it: This one is a lot tougher to prevent. Unless you can catch your tortoise in the act, you may never know how or why she is flipping over. A good way to catch them in the act is to set a camera on them and walk away. You might get lucky and catch it on video so you can take steps to prevent them from doing it again. Likely, however, if it’s a habit or an activity they enjoy, you may not be able to stop them.

What happens when a tortoise turns upside down?

The first thing that happens when a tortoise flips upside down is panic. The heavy, low-walking reptiles aren’t built for this kind of position, so they may start to flail and freak out. Some upturned tortoises will sit still for a moment or two while they try to figure out what happened, but they all eventually begin to wiggle and flail.

That panic is understandable, of course. Tortoises know that they are completely vulnerable if they flip upside-down. Not only are they rendered totally immobile, but they’re also exposing their softer undersides to predators. Even pet tortoises get scared when they flip over, even though there shouldn’t be any predators at home.

Sometimes the panicked flailing is enough to rock a tortoise back onto its feet. If it’s lucky and has a rounder shell, that will happen much faster. If it has a flatter shell, however, it may not be able to flip back over easily.

After the tortoise realizes it can’t flail itself upright, it may decide to slow down a bit. Since tortoises can’t twist their bodies like mammals can, she will need to extend her neck and push against the ground with her nose. With any luck—and lots of muscle power—she can push herself over and get back on her feet.

Unfortunately, sometimes tortoises find themselves upside-down and jammed in the corner of their enclosure. In this case, there isn’t much he can do except wait for you to notice.

Can a tortoise die from being on its back?

The chances of a pet tortoise dying on its back are pretty low if you happen to interact with your tortoise often. If, however, you don’t spend much time with him on a daily basis, his chances of dying on his back are drastically increased.

There are some scenarios where a tortoise is more likely to die on its back. If you can find ways to prevent these situations from happening, you’ll drastically increase your tortoise’s chances of survival if he does tip over.

A tortoise is likely to die on its back if it’s left out in the sun. In this case, the tortoise is in danger because of overheating. Since they are cold-blooded, they can’t sweat or regulate their own body temperature. Being stuck in the sun isn’t good for anyone, especially a reptile! You can prevent this tragedy by supervising your tortoise’s outside time. Never leave him unattended outdoors, especially on hot days.

Another bad situation is if your tortoise suddenly tips over into a dish or other furnishing that is slightly larger than its shell. In this case, the shell can get lodged inside the dish and no matter how much she struggles, she won’t be able to flip back over. You can prevent this by making sure her dishes are too small for her shell to fit in, too large to get stuck in, or so shallow she can’t fall into it anyway.


It can be stressful to find your pet tortoise on its back. The best thing to do is stay calm, help her turn over, and then check her for injuries. She may have some spots on her neck of legs that have rubbed raw, so be sure to check carefully. If she seems okay, just leave her alone and let her rest. It was probably traumatic for her, but she should recover in no time.

Common Questions

Should I be afraid if my tortoise is upside-down? Generally speaking, no. Mother Nature is clever in her designs. It would be silly to create an animal that couldn’t right itself when flipped over. While it’s not going to be a pretty sight, a healthy tortoise can and usually will turn itself back over without any help.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help if you walk in on your tortoise flipped upside-down. Reach in and help him out. But you don’t need to panic if your tortoise is one of the silly fellas who seems to do this on purpose. Just find some ways to make flipping upside-down a little tougher to do.

How long can a tortoise be on its back? This depends on a lot of factors. If it’s safe in its temperature-controlled enclosure, is not in the water, and is otherwise healthy, it can survive on its back for hours. Please don’t leave a tortoise on its back though – if you find your pet in this situation, please turn it back over and check for injuries. If your tortoise is sick or weak, keep an eye on as flipping upside-down could prove fatal.

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