This Is Why Tortoises Headbutt and What It Means for You

Tortoises will headbutt each other by bracing their legs and ramming themselves forward. This causes their shell to collide with other objects, tortoises, or humans. Tortoises won’t harm themselves with headbutting. At worst, they may flip over another tortoise. Aside from handling squabbles, headbutting can have several useful purposes.

(This article is relevant to BOTH turtles AND tortoises)

Male tortoises will headbutt each other to show dominance, claim mating rights, or court a female. Gravid female tortoises will ram objects to protect themselves and drive off threats, so they can lay their eggs in privacy. Bored tortoises may express their frustration or create their own fun by ramming into things.

If your tortoise is ramming you, this is usually due to over-handling or food delivery problems. It wants you to quit picking it up or petting it for a couple of days. It may be eager to get its meal and will ram you to ask for food more quickly. If it’s not getting enough food, headbutting is a natural way for a tortoise to show its frustration.

reptiles are fun

Why Does My Tortoise (and turtle) Headbutt Everything?

Tortoises headbutt naturally in the wild, but it can appear strange when your pet starts ramming everything in sight. Pet tortoises won’t restrict themselves to any one object. You may find yours headbutting:

Male tortoises are more inclined to headbutt things than female tortoises. Targets include inanimate objects, other pets, and people. The behavior can have several meanings, depending on what your tortoise is ramming:

Ready to Mate

According to the Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism, headbutting can indicate that your tortoise has entered the mating stage of its growth. During this time, your tortoise will have excess energy and hormones driving it to impress a mate. It will spend its time headbutting random objects to “scare” them off, so it can claim mating rights for the area.

It will also be burning off its sexual frustration through exercise if it can’t find a mate. Should a female be present, your male tortoise can even ram against her shell with a headbutt. This is designed to show his prowess, as well as exhaust or knock females into submission for the breeding process.

It’s a heavy-handed approach, to be sure, but it’s natural in tortoises. For wild species, it can even last for several days as the courting rituals continue.

About To Lay Eggs

If a female has reached sexual maturity, then this tortoise may be preparing to lay eggs. In response to her maternal hormones, she may become more aggressive. This will result in headbutting to drive away other tortoises, pets, people, or inanimate objects that she misinterprets as a threat. The female tortoise will be trying to:

Defend herself and Protect the eggs to Scare off potential threats

Demonstrate Authority

If your tortoise (or turtle) is headbutting, it may be trying to demonstrate its authority. Because of their more solitary nature, tortoises can become territorial and try to establish who the dominant member of the tank is. To accomplish this, fights will break out wherein tortoises headbutt each other.

These ramming sessions are designed to scare, hurt, or flip opposing tortoises over. Usually, once a tortoise has been flipped, it becomes the loser of the engagement, and the winning tortoise will disengage. The losing tortoise (usually the smaller one) will then be wary of the winning tortoise and stay out of its way.

To some degree, this is a natural behavior in pet tortoises, and, thus, it’s to be expected. A few spats to establish dominance will break out. If your tortoises are constantly ramming each other, they’re likely feeling hormonal or overcrowded. They may also be incompatible as tank mates and need to be separated.


Tortoises are capable of being social, but they prefer their own space. In this way, they like neighbors but not roommates. If your tortoise feels overcrowded, then dominance fights are more likely to break out. The tortoise will be trying to defend its personal space and drive off the competition. This is a means of protecting food and water resources, as well as burrows.

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Some tortoise species are more social than others and won’t mind sharing space. Some will even allow other tortoises into their numerous burrows. However, if your tortoises are constantly fighting, then consider if they need a bigger tank or if they’re incompatible species.

Competing For Food

Tortoises will begin headbutting others if they feel like there isn’t enough food and water for everyone. They’ll defend their resources and keep others at bay to avoid starvation or dehydration. It could mean your tortoise is overcrowded, but you may also be feeding it too little or too infrequently. Tortoises always need constant access to water.

In the wild, tortoises establish their territory and burrows wherever there are ample resources. They’re happy to share if there’s enough for everyone, but if the tortoise deems the amount to be small, it will drive off others.

This can lead to the tortoise headbutting everything in sight. Since tortoises aren’t that intelligent, they can mistake inanimate objects for rivals as well. That can make furniture or decorations the recipients of a warning headbutt.


Tortoises are easy-going creatures that don’t need much to stay calm. However, if the humidity and temperature ranges of their enclosures are unbalanced, this can lead to stress. The physical stress can escalate into emotional stress, and tortoises will act out just like any creature.

This can lead to added aggression directed at anything in sight, as the tortoise is trying to relieve its distress. Headbutting and ramming will be an outlet and a misguided attempt at defense.

This can also happen when a tortoise feels overhandled. If you pick it up, pet it, cuddle it, or interact with it too much throughout the day or week, the tortoise can feel overwhelmed. Because of this, whenever it sees you, it may try to ram against your feet or ankles.

This is a means to drive you off, so you don’t handle it more in the future. In this event, it’s best to leave your tortoise alone for a couple of days so that it can recharge its social batteries.  

Feeling Bored or Frustrated

Tortoises lead simple lives, but they still need entertainment. If your tortoise is left bored, with nothing to explore, climb, or forage around for, then it’s likely to become aggressive. The tortoise will begin ramming objects, other tortoises, and even the walls of its tank to entertain itself.

It may also be trying to escape to find more interesting activities. Glass walls are the most likely victims of a tortoise that’s bored, as it won’t understand why it can’t get through the invisible barrier.

If this is the case, strive to provide some environmental “landscaping.” Consider adding plants, hideouts, mounds, or other items for the tortoise to climb on. It will keep the tortoise occupied and happy.

Why Does My Tortoise Headbutt Me?

Most tortoises headbutt their owners due to over-handling or food problems. The tortoise may dislike being handled too much and want you to back off. It may also perceive you as competition for a meal since you’re the one who brings the food. It will then get confused and believe that, while food is about to arrive, you’ll surely want some of it.

A cuter reason is that the tortoise is eager to receive the food. It wants you to put the meal down right away and is ramming you to diligently ask for this.

The tortoise may also be frustrated about how little food is being provided. It will act out this aggression on the very person that’s delivering the food.

It may not be directly asking you for more. Instead, it has come to associate you with the arrival of food, and it’s frustrated that there isn’t enough, so it acts out at the same time. These are two separate actions. While the tortoise may not be intelligent enough to see these two acts as one total question, we can interpret it as such.

Of course, if you’re dealing with a tortoise during mating season, it could be as simple as breeding aggression or defensiveness. Male tortoises will be trying to compete with you for a female. Scaring you off is a way to secure mating rights. Meanwhile, a female tortoise may be preparing to lay eggs and want you to leave so that she has a secure, private area to lay them.

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Can My Tortoise Injure Itself While Headbutting Stuff?

Tortoises can’t ram anything hard enough to cause themselves physical harm. This is a perfectly natural behavior that tortoises evolved to display over millions of years. Wild and pet tortoises alike have the instinct to ram, and they will do so many times throughout their lives.

According to the Mechanics of Materials and Structures, turtle and tortoise shells are specifically shaped and grooved to distribute the impact of ramming. They’ve evolved to ensure this practice doesn’t result in serious damage to themselves.

Not all of the tortoise headbanging sessions are meant to damage another tortoise permanently. At most, it should be jarring, unpleasant, and perhaps result in another tortoise getting flipped on its back. It’s not meant to physically harm or kill anything.

Because of this, a tortoise can’t hurt itself either. This is partly because tortoise shells are so thick, strong, and resilient. They’re made of bone and keratin, with thick plates that offer additional protection. The outer ridge of the shell is designed for ramming and is therefore reinforced.

Tortoises shouldn’t be stopped from ramming out of concern for their safety. Instead, you should pay attention to what the ramming means. Your tortoise may be in emotional or physical distress, and this is its means of expression. If you can resolve that problem or give it a different outlet, it’s likely to stop ramming.

Likewise, your tortoise is in control when it comes to headbutting. The chance of it getting injured is minimal. At the most, it may fall onto its back and get stuck there. Only this can be harmful.

When Do Tortoises Start Headbutting?

Tortoises can begin headbutting at any age. Some begin a few weeks after hatching, while some owners report that their tortoise only started headbutting at age 40.

Some may never headbutt, while others may do it consistently every few weeks, depending on the conditions of their environment. The behavior varies from tortoise to tortoise, as it’s a personal choice and means of expression.

Why Do Tortoises (and Turtles) Ram Things?

Since tortoises ram objects, each other, and people for a reason, there are ways to discourage the behavior. By narrowing down what is motivating your headbutting tortoise, you can calm it down and quit.

Keep in mind that this isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a tortoise is merely expressive hormonal behavior because of mating season. So long as it isn’t fighting with another tortoise and causing it stress, it may be fine to let your tortoise tire itself out. This can be a good way of dispensing with its extra energy during that time. Some owners even find it cute to watch their tortoise ram against a stuffed animal or house plant.

If your tortoise is fighting with other members of its tank, however, or it’s particularly large and heavy, then it’s good to stop the behavior. The tortoise won’t harm itself, but it may upset its companions or damage smaller objects. Here are tips for preventing headbutting:

Avoid keeping two male tortoises, as they will naturally try to establish dominance against one anotherDon’t pair male and females together as mating season can lead to headbutting as a courting ritualMake sure your tortoise’s enclosure is spacious enough, so it doesn’t experience overcrowdingOffer a varied diet with portion sizes large enough for all members of the tankProvide constant access to waterEquip the tank with climbing, hiding, foraging, and exploring toys, such as ramps, plants, rocks, and other objectsPrior to mating season, lower the enclosure’s temperature by a few degrees.Don’t touch your tortoise too roughly or provide it too much attention. Leave it alone for at least a few hours every day

Headbanging or headbutting is a common activity in tortoises, especially among males. It’s a natural behavior for them, and you will become accustomed to it as an owner.

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