Why your tortoise needs a good soak - TortoiseOwner.com

Here’s Why Your Tortoise Needs A Good Soak

Got a tortoise and wondering whether you need to give it a bath? Well, despite being relatively clean animals – pet tortoises absolutely do need you to give them a hand and arrange for the occasional soak and there are good reasons why this is the case.

So, why do tortoises need to soak? Tortoises need to soak twice a week or so to help them stay hydrated and clean. This keeps them strong and healthy, avoiding getting sick from dehydration or bacteria that can build up on their body. Tortoises also need to soak so that the shell and the skin do not crack from dryness.

Fortunately, soaking a tortoise is easy and fun. Let’s see why, and how to do just that.

Why Do Tortoises Need To Soak?

There are two reasons that tortoises need to soak and they’re both quite simple:

  • Tortoises just get dehydrated. Tortoises need to stay hydrated; it helps keep their skin and shell in good condition and just as with all creatures, it keeps their internal organs working properly. In the wild, a tortoise will occasionally give itself a soak to help with this, in captivity, they need your help.
  • Tortoises can be affected by low humidity. A low humidity environment is great for mammals because it keeps us dry, but for reptiles – it’s a different story and if there’s not enough water in the air, their skin and shell can quickly start to dry out. This can be reversed with a soak.

From a pet owner’s perspective, there is a third reason – it’s simply more hygienic that way. Giving your tortoise a soak helps get rid of dirt and any bacteria or other potentially problematic microorganisms.

Forced Soak vs Voluntary Soak?

In the main, tortoises are quite amenable to a bath and they often really enjoy the experience. However, if your tortoise tries to flee at the first sight of water and won’t stay in a bath, you need to bath them anyway.

This is quite easy to do; you just use a bath with higher sides that they can’t climb out of. This is a “forced soak” and you don’t need to use any actual force to make it happen.

How To Bathe A Tortoise

Bathing a tortoise is very easy and it won’t take you long to have your tortoise clean and shiny again. You might have read about it here: How to clean, bathe, and wash a tortoise safely but here are the steps, really quickly:

Fill A Container

You start by ensuring that your tortoise has a pleasant place to bathe. You want, ideally, a container that your tortoise can climb out of and that means the sides need to be relatively low. However, if you’re forcing a soak – you might want to use higher sides.

The water must be warm, but it must never be hot. It should feel lukewarm to the touch and no hotter. If it is hotter – either add some cold water or wait for it to cool. If the water is too hot, it won’t help your tortoise’s skin and might even start to cook him or her.

Your tortoise’s head should be above the surface of the water at all times. If you want to soak the shell more than you get with the bath on a flat surface, raise one end of the container using a book or similar object. Put the tortoise’s head in the newly created shallow end and let the body fill the space in the deeper water.

Soak Your Tortoise

You don’t need to do much if you’re just letting your tortoise moisturize through a soak. You just let them wander about in the water to their heart’s content and their body will rehydrate naturally without any input from you.

That’s because the water is basically sucked into the tortoise’s body through its cloaca (which is under the tail).

What To Do If It Poops?

Most tortoises poop when they get wet. In fact, we’ve got a great article on tortoise pooping on the site already. This is nothing to worry about, but you should empty the water out and replace it as soon as your tortoise poops. This stops your tortoise from getting any kinds of infection from the dirty water.

Related article: Why do tortoises poop in water?

Let Your Tortoise Rehydrate

Your tortoise will need some time to soak to take full advantage of the water and rehydrate effectively. We’d say that this will take at least 20 minutes, but it might even take up half an hour. Assuming you’re not force soaking, you’ll know when the tortoise is ready because they’ll try to climb out of the bath by themselves.

Dispose Of The Water

You’re not likely to catch anything from your tortoise’s bath water but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Tortoises do carry the salmonella bacteria which can cause food poisoning in human beings and that food poisoning can be serious enough to kill.

So, don’t pour the water down the kitchen sink or anywhere you would wash your face. We’d recommend pouring it directly into a drain or pouring it down the toilet (flush immediately if you use the toilet and then add a little bleach for hygiene’s sake).

Give The Tortoise A Dry Down

While tortoises do need the luxury of a good bath, you should never send them back to their environment wet. That can cause them to be too cold or to get too humid which can invite infection and illness.

Take a towel and gently pat them dry, make sure you get in all the edges of the shell as well as around the tops of their head, arms, legs, etc.

Once again, for good hygiene – it’s a good idea to wash the towel separately from any that you use yourself.

Repeat When Necessary

You should repeat this process as often as necessary. See below for details on how often a tortoise should be soaked.

How To Thoroughly Clean A Tortoise

Sometimes, a soak is not enough and you have to thoroughly clean your tortoise.

Give Your Tortoise A Soak

It’s important to note that most of the time, a tortoise only needs a soak, and this should be administered as per the instructions in the last section. Your tortoise will only need a scrub if it has damage to the shell or if it is absolutely filthy and the dirt won’t come off during a soak.

If you are going to scrub your tortoise, it should soak for at least 20 minutes in clean water before you start scrubbing.

Toothbrush To Scrub

The best tool for scrubbing a tortoise is an old but clean toothbrush though a nail brush will also do in a pinch. You want to be firm about scrubbing your tortoise, but you don’t want to be aggressive.

You begin by scrubbing all the shell and you really want to ensure you clean out the cracks between the scutes (the plates on your tortoise’s shell) as you go. Then you can scrub the arms, head, legs, etc. but it’s important to note – you need to be much gentler with your tortoise’s skin than you are with their shell.

Get Rid Of The Dirt

After you’ve scrubbed for a bit, you may find that there’s some dirt building up on the surface of your tortoise’s shell and skin. Just use some clean lukewarm water to rinse this off. If you need to change the water in the bath because it’s getting too dirty, go right ahead.

Once your tortoise has been polished up to a nice clean state, you ought to take a few moments to inspect them and see if there any cuts or damage to the shell or their limbs. If you find anything that seems out of place – you might want to talk to a vet about it.

Give It A Dry Down

As before, while tortoises do need the luxury of a good bath, you should never send them back to their environment wet. That can cause them to be too cold or to get too humid which can invite infection and illness.

Take a towel and gently pat them dry, make sure you get in all the edges of the shell as well as around the tops of their head, arms, legs, etc.

Once again, for good hygiene – it’s a good idea to wash the towel separately from any that you use yourself.

Never Use Soap On A Tortoise!

One thing that you should be very aware of is that you should never, ever use a soap or a detergent on a tortoise while cleaning them. It can be really tempting to do so but, in reality – the soap is likely to be toxic to your tortoise. They might finish their bath clean but very ill or even dead. Stick to using clean, fresh water only. It’s safest that way.

Can You Use Moisturizer On A Tortoise?

Some owners rub their pet tortoise with baby oil or other moisturizers. We simply don’t agree with this practice. Tortoises don’t use these products in the wild and there is a strong possibility that they might be harmful to your pet.

Water is enough to keep your pet hydrated (possibly with some electrolytes) and nothing more is needed unless your vet instructs you otherwise.

How Often Should A Tortoise Be Soaked?

The number of soaks a tortoise needs can vary depending on the species of tortoise, the age of your tortoise, the weather, whether your tortoise lives in your home or outside, etc.

If the tortoise lives in your house, they will need at least one bath a week. If they live outdoors at least two baths a week.

If your tortoise has recently emerged from a hibernation state – you should immediately give them a bath as the odds are, they’ll be quite dehydrated when they wake.

During hibernation, if your tortoise is living inside, you should only give them a soak once a month or so as their metabolism will have slowed down substantially, and they won’t need as much water.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Tortoise Is Dehydrated

There are three things that you can do if you suspect that your tortoise is still dehydrated even though they are getting a regular soak: you can boost the humidity of their environment (if they live indoors), you can add watery foods to their diet and you can change the bath water and their drinking water for an electrolyte solution.

Boost The Local Humidity

You can do this if you have a humidity control on the environment that you keep your tortoises in or if you buy a humidity controller. You don’t need to go overboard, mind you, you’re not looking for a Noah’s flood style boost to humidity but just a gradual increase in the water available in the air.

Add More Watery Foods To Their Diet

Your tortoise’s food should consist of leafy green vegetables which tend to have a high water content anyway, but you can add even more watery sources of nutrition as long as they’re safe for your tortoise to eat. Tortoises get more of their water from their food than by drinking – so upping the water content of their food makes sense.

How To Make An Electrolyte Solution For A Tortoise

Before you administer this solution to your pet tortoise, please consult your vet.

The recipe to make tortoise electrolytes is:

  • 1 part iodized table salt (this should contain sodium chloride and iodine only)
  • 1 part of potassium salt (this is potassium chloride)
  • 1 part baking soda (this is sodium bicarbonate)
  • 12 parts sugar (any pure sugar will do for this – do not use a sugar substitute, tortoises don’t use NutraSweet, stevia, etc. )

You can also buy Morton Salt Lite (and similar products) which combines iodized table salt and potassium salt into a single product. If you want to use this – just swap that out for both ingredients and use 2 parts Morton Salt Lite, instead.

OK, once you’ve mixed this lot up effectively – you have the basic electrolyte powder. This must be dissolved in water before you give it to your tortoise.

Please note that once you mix this solution, it has a definite shelf-life and it should be kept for no longer than 24 hours in a refrigerator. Bacteria and mold will begin to grow in the solution, and these can harm your tortoise’s health.

The mixing ratio should be:

  • 1 cup of water: 1 heaped tablespoon of the electrolyte powder
  • 1 liter of water: 2.5 heaped tablespoons of the electrolyte powder
  • 1 gallon of water: 2/3 of a cup of the electrolyte powder

You can then use this electrolyte solution in two ways. The first is to replace your tortoise’s soak water (tortoises often drink quite a bit during a soak and this is the easiest way to get them drinking) and the second is to replace the water in your tortoise’s water dish.

What Else Can You Add To These Electrolyte Solutions?

It’s been suggested that you can also add other things to the soak water/electrolyte solution including:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Calcium (though calcium powder is both bitter and hard to dissolve in water)
  • Fruit/vegetable (to give flavors to the water to make it more palatable)

However, we’d note that there is no clear indication that swimming in any of these things is beneficial to your tortoise and while it can’t hurt – if your tortoise is short on vitamins, minerals, or calcium, you should continue adding these things to its food and drinking water until the deficiency has been corrected.


So, you now know why your tortoise needs a good soak. The main issues are dehydration and humidity control.

It’s important to remember that while you can treat these problems at home effectively, if they go on for more than a week or so without responding to your treatment, it’s best to get a vet involved and have your tortoise thoroughly checked out in case there other underlying problems at work.

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