One of the most fascinating things about a turtle is the fact that they live so long, many will live as long as 10 - 80 years with some larger turtles even making it to 100+ years old. This is quite an impressive feat and it means that a pet turtle is essentially a pet for life and in quite a few cases, they will outlive their owner and be passed down to the next generation family member.
When you have a turtle that can live this long then it’s an owner’s primary responsibility to ensure two things; first, that the turtle is healthy and secondly, and arguably most importantly, that your turtle is happy.
It may seem like an obvious and basic point but if your turtle is going to live such a long life, it is crucial that as an owner, you make sure it’s the happiest life it can live. This is of course true for an owner of all pets but there’s something slightly different when it comes to having the opportunity to make a pet happy for a life that could potentially last 80+ years!
Making sure your turtle lives a happy life is one thing but many will wonder how you can actually go about making a turtle happy and also what signs you need to be aware of that indicate a turtles happiness.
As a reptile, they do not have some of the obvious signs that you’d expect to see in a dog and you will therefore need to be aware of some of the more individualistic and ‘discrete’ forms of happiness.
Below, we’ve listed out some of the most well known and widely researched signs that a turtle is happy (from both pet owners, vets, and scientists) and checking some of these off will go a long way to giving your pet turtle the best life possible.
The single most important sign of a happy turtle is a healthy turtle. It’s a key consideration that we don’t try to project human emotions onto a turtle, their reptile brain does not have the same functions and needs as a human, and as long as a turtle's basic living requirements are being met then this essentially means that they are ‘happy’.
The key then is to ensure that your turtle is healthy and this involves a few basic checks which include making sure the turtle has clear eyes with no weeping or swelling, ensuring they are breathing steadily and normally and checking to see that they are eating regularly.
Like we say, these are basic checks and requirements but as long as your turtle does not demonstrate any of these potential health issues (cloudy or weeping eyes, no appetite, and difficulty breathing) then it’s fair to assume they are comfortable and happy.
Closely linked to the health of your turtle is of course eating regularly and a great way to know if your turtle is happy is if it comes to you for feeding. As you develop a bond with your turtle, it will begin to positively associate you as both the owner and provider of food.
Once a turtle feels comfortable and safe in its environment it will come to you for food and this is a great sign that your turtle is happy, it’s only when a turtle stays hidden or ignores food that you need to be concerned as this could be a sign of illness or stress.
Besides coming to you when you present food, a further sign of happiness is when a turtle begs it’s owner. Some water based turtles will splash to get the owner’s attention when they enter the room while others will move in your direction to beg.
We know that begging seems like a strange act for a turtle to do but it’s one of the best signs that your turtle is both comfortable and happy in its environment as this level of interaction with an owner shows a great degree of feeling secure in their presence.
Swimming is natural for turtles and there is not too much detail necessary for this point. If your turtle spends adequate time in the water either swimming or splashing then this is a good sign that your turtle is going about its natural routine.
What we will say, however, is that providing some small fish or insects into the water can be great mental stimulation that allows your turtle to hunt. This should be done as a treat alongside your turtle’s regular diet and is purely a way to allow your turtle some mental stimulation through hunting.
When your turtle is not swimming or splashing around in the water then we’d expect to see them frequently make use of a basking spot. Giving your turtle a good basking spot with access to a full spectrum light is essential and seeing your turtle make use of this spot is another good sign that they are acting naturally.
Basking is essential for a turtle to dry out and rest when outside of the water so make sure this area is easily accessible and comfortable. Seeing your turtle basking is a great sign that your turtle is happy and going about its natural routine and many turtles can bask for up to 10 hours per day!
While we’ve mentioned that a turtle can bask for extended periods of time and can also often be seen in the water, it’s important to ensure that they are engaging in regular exercise. If you notice that your turtle is frequently hiding and not moving about then it could be a sign of stress, fear, or illness and would need to be looked into.
Providing your turtle with a large environment to roam around in is essential as a turtle in the wild will have a natural and surprisingly large territory for which they can roam and regular exercise is a good sign of happiness.
A lot of owners will even let their turtle spend time roaming around outside of their tank and if they can do this freely without hiding then this is again another good sign of happiness. Just make sure that when roaming outside of its tank that everyone in the household is aware and that there are no potential hazards or escape routes that could endanger your turtle.
Playing in its tank can mean two things in this sense as it will depend on what sort of environment you have provided it with. When we say play, this is kind of linked in with the point about exercises however it’s more focused on your turtle doing things it would do naturally whilst receiving mental stimulation.
Therefore, you should create an environment that allows the turtle to swim, bask, dig, roam around, hide, climb, and even hunt. All of these are a turtle's natural way of ‘playing’.
To take this one step further, however, you can also add toys to their tank for them to genuinely play with. This could be a ball or empty shell to push around, something that floats in the water for them to move around, or even a small & simple obstacle course for them to explore for mental stimulation.
We are leaving this to last for a very specific reason and that is because not all turtles like to be handled or petted. It’s a very individualistic trait that we would not recommend forcing on a turtle just to try and test their happiness as a reluctance to be petted could simply mean that they don’t like it or don’t feel safe.
Once you have had time to bond with your turtle and learn its behavior then you will know whether or not they like to be petted and if they do, then this can be a great sign that your turtle is happy. Allowing an owner to hold and pet them is a sign that the turtle is relaxed in your company.
There are countless pet owners that find their turtle enjoys being petted and some even like their shell to be gently stroked (we must emphasize gently as the shell is highly sensitive), if your turtle stretches out its neck to hint at further petting then this is one of the best signs that your turtle is enjoying it and is ultimately happy.
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into ensuring a turtle's happiness with health being the priority. As far as we are aware, turtles do not have similar emotions to humans and therefore to ensure a happy turtle you should be looking to make their environment in captivity as closely related to what they would have in the wild.
Once you do this and see that your turtle is displaying typical behavior as what they would in the wild, then you can add additional things to further enrich their lives like toys, a more stimulating environment and even petting (as long as your turtle actually likes this).