Turtles may not have teeth, but they do have strong, powerful beaks that can be very painful when they bite down on you.
From little box turtles to big snapping turtles, they all bite for one reason or another, and understanding why they bite will make you a lot less likely to get bitten in the future.
With this in mind, keep reading this article to learn everything there is to know about turtles and why they bite, what to do when they bite, and much more.
Why do Turtles Bite?
Like most animals, when turtles are threatened, they may resort to biting you as a way to protect themselves and get you to back off.
Wild turtles who are not used to humans are much more likely to bite you than those that live in captivity but don’t put it past them as they can give you a nasty nip, too, when needs must.
Staying away from any type of turtle that you come across in the wild is the best thing to do.
Some species of turtle are more prone to biting than others because they are naturally more aggressive such as snapping turtles which are very well known for their powerful bites and aggressive nature.
Snapping turtles can even completely bite your fingers off, so it’s best to keep away from them as much as possible.
Here are two of the main reasons why turtles will bite. It is worth remembering these reasons so that you can avoid getting bitten by a turtle.
They Feel Threatened
As we mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons for a turtle to bite you is because they are feeling threatened. As you are probably aware, turtles are not very fast, which is why they have a strong shells to protect them from predators, as they are not able to outrun them.
However, sometimes the shell is not enough to protect them, and will instead resort to biting.
When a turtle has a sense that it is in danger, it will bite you if it feels there is no other way to get you away from them.
You should keep in mind that turtles are never ones to seek out attention or affection from a human, so approaching one in hopes of stroking them will not end well for you.
Some turtles are less likely to bite you straight away because they wait for you to get bored and move on from them, but if you keep poking at them, you can expect them to bite.
Turtles that reside in the wilderness are much easier to scare because they are not accustomed to humans like the ones that are kept as pets or at zoos. If you saw a big scary alien coming towards you, you would feel scared too!
They Mistake You for Food
Sometimes turtles can mistake your fingers and toes for food, such as a small piece of vegetable or meat. Turtles are opportunistic when it comes to eating, which means that if they see food in front of them, they will go for it at any chance they can get it.
Feeding a turtle with your hand will also make them easily mistake your hand as an extension of the food that you are feeding them.
To avoid a turtle mistaking your fingers and toes for food, you should never walk around them without wearing shoes and not feed them straight from your hands. Instead, throw the food out in front of them so that they can eat it off of the ground.
Turtles are able to hide in dense vegetation and tall grass, and if you are walking through with bare feet, you are the only one to blame if you end up getting bitten.
Another thing to remember is if you are holding a turtle because you are moving them, checking them or for any other reason – do not hold them close to your face because a bite to the face is much more painful than one to the fingers or toes and can even leave you with a scar or worse.
When Snapping Turtles Bite
Snapping turtles will not hesitate to snap at you if they want you to leave; this is where they got their name from. They have a very powerful beak, and when it is paired with an aggressive nature, these turtles can do a lot of damage.
The common snapping turtle, also known as the Chelydra serpentina, and the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) are two of the most common types of snapping turtle.
The common snapping turtle is native to the southeastern area of Canada but can also be found all the way down to Florida, which makes the probability of coming across one quite high.
You will know when you see a snapping turtle as they are quite scary looking in the fact that they look muscular and rugged like they have been through some combat in their time – which they probably have.
These turtles are large and can reach up to 20 inches long and are tan and dark brown, making them disguised in murky waters.
Entering water where there are snapping turtles will put your toes and feet, and even legs at risk of being chomped on, especially if you are wading through the dirtier areas, which are where they like to hide.
Usually, in areas where snapping turtles are present, signs will be posted around that warn you to avoid the water.
Since they have such a powerful bite, snapping turtles can eat a lot of different things, such as snakes, frogs, insects, birds, smaller turtles, fish, and even small mammals.
They are very good hunters, and when they set their sights on prey, they snap at them very quickly and kill them almost instantly.
When Softshell Turtles Bite
In addition to snapping turtles, softshell turtles are another especially aggressive species.
They have very long necks, which give them a big range of bites, so even if they are a few feet from you, that beak can snap down on you in no time before you even have time to react.
Most softshell turtles can reach up to 11 inches in length, but the Florida softshell turtle can grow to be over twice as long as this, with about 24 inches being measured on average.
Softshell turtles that are quite small will not be able to do as much damage as the larger ones but can still give you a nasty bite.
When Captive Turtles Bite
Generally, turtles kept in captivity will be much more tolerant of humans and will therefore feel less threatened when approached, fed, or handled.
However, this is not to say that it will never happen as they are still very capable of biting, and it is definitely not unheard of.
Even if your turtle is kept in captivity, it will still find handling quite stressful because it makes them very vulnerable, and usually, when they are touched or picked up in the wild, it is because they are being attacked.
You should only handle your turtle when you really need to, such as when you are moving them or giving them treatment, and do not touch them when they are eating.
Herbivores such as tortoises are more docile, but when they bite humans, it is typically because they have been mistaken for food instead of because they wanted to attack.
Can You Teach a Turtle Not to Bite?
It would be very useful, but you cannot train a turtle to not bite in the same way that you would train a dog, but you can make them happier by making some changes to their lifestyle, which in turn will make them less likely to bite.
Possibly surprising to some, turtles vary in personality, and this spans over not just species but individual turtles as well.
Species such as the snapping turtle and the softshell turtle will have a higher chance of biting you than ones that are captive-bred, such as the box turtle and painted turtle, but you can still have a box turtle that is naturally prone to being more aggressive or a softshell turtle that is more tolerant.
Turtles that are young will be more aggressive, but as they age, they will get progressively more tolerant and docile. Young turtles will also mistake fingers for food more frequently than those who have aged and learned what food is and what is not food.
What to Do When You Get Bitten by a Turtle
It is not always avoidable, and you might get bitten by a turtle; in this case, you should follow these next steps in accordance with the severity of the wound.
If the bite was severe enough to draw blood, you must use antibiotics to treat the wound, as some turtles can be a carrier of salmonella which will make you sick if it enters your bloodstream.
If the wound is even more severe such as a bite from a snapping turtle, going to the hospital as soon as you can is the best option.
This is especially vital if your finger is only hanging on by a thread because surgery will be needed to reattach it and heal the nerves and blood vessels.
On the occasion that the bite was not too bad, the only thing you need to do is clean it properly and make a visit to your doctor for professional input.
Sometimes a turtle will keep a hold of you, and in this instance, you might try to pull them off of you, but this will not work and will only leave you in more pain and a more serious wound.
Instead of trying to pull the turtle off, submerge it in water as soon as you can, and it should let go.
What Not to Do When You Get Bitten by a Turtle
Since you now know what to do if a turtle bites you, it is also good to know what not to do. When a turtle bites you, do not hit them or pull at them because it will only apply more pressure to the wound, and hurting the turtle should be avoided, even if they are hurting you.
If you are not near any water to allow you to submerge the turtle, the next best thing is to simply wait until the turtle lets go.
When the turtle does let go, don’t put your hand anywhere near food or your mouth because the wound might be crawling with bacteria and germs, which can be spread if you are not careful.
To prevent this from happening, your hands need to be washed as soon as possible or wherever else the wound was.
It might sound impossible, but if you are bitten by a turtle, you should stay calm because stressing the turtle out even more will not make it let go anytime soon.
When the turtle releases, leave the area as soon as you can, and if the turtle that bit you was a pet, you should leave it alone in peace for a couple of hours for it to calm down.
What Does It Mean When a Turtle Bites Itself?
As well as humans, turtles are known to bite themselves; even though it is quite rare, it can still happen and can be due to various reasons.
The most common reason is that the turtle is shedding their skin, and they are biting itself to help get the dead skin off of them if it gets stuck.
They may also be biting themselves because they are eating the skin that is being shed. If the turtle is not hurting itself, you do not need to worry about this behavior because it is natural, and they are only trying to help itself.
You should not try to peel their skin off, though, because you are likely to hurt them instead of helping them.
However, you will have to intervene if your turtle is biting itself because something is irritating their skin which can be due to the quality of the water that they have in their tank.
The water must be cleaned regularly, filtered properly, and have the right chemistry with the correct levels of nitrate, pH, ammonia, and chlorine.
Another thing that could irritate the turtle’s skin is an object or a bit of debris that gets stuck under their scales. To treat this, you should look at the turtle carefully, and if you spot the culprit, carefully remove it with a pair of scissors.
After you have gotten the debris out from underneath the scale, applying some Polysporin to the area with a Q-tip will ensure that it is cleaned.
Mites can cause turtles to bite themselves as well, but it is only a risk that terrestrial turtles face because mites are drowned when submerged in water.
In order to get rid of mites from the turtle’s skin, you can soak them in a solution specifically made for getting rid of mates for about 15 minutes every day for about two weeks.
To prevent the mites from infesting your turtle again though, you must treat the whole tank to rid of any other mites.
If you have gone through these different reasons for a turtle to bite itself, but none seem to apply to your turtle, then you should take them to the vet as soon as you can before your turtle hurts itself.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Turtles Like to Be Petted?
One of the reasons why your turtle may have bitten you is because you tried to pet it. Generally speaking, turtles do not like to be petted or handled, but many will tolerate it anyway; some might even enjoy it to some extent.
Other turtles will naturally not be too thrilled about being petted. This comes down to their individual personality, their history with humans, and their health because if they are unwell, they will be stressed and more likely to bite.
You can try using a clean toothbrush to gently scratch their shell, as turtles have a lot of nerve endings in their shell and will find the scratch quite pleasant.
This is a great option if you are still unsure if your turtle will bite you because if they go for you, they will only bite the toothbrush instead of your hand, and you will know from there where you stand!
Why Does My Turtle Hiss at Me?
Turtles make a hissing sound by pulling their head into their shell, sometimes, the hissing sound is made involuntarily, but other times, it is done to send a message.
When hissing is done on purpose, especially when you approach the turtle, it means that they want you to back off and be left alone.
You should be thankful that they gave you a warning before biting you; if you respect their way of communicating, they will be less stressed.
A turtle that has recently been brought home from a pet store, for example, will probably hiss at you for the first few days or weeks as they get used to you and their new environment.
If you respect their wishes and give them plenty of space, the turtle will warm up to you as their food provider and will slowly let go of their grudge.
Even though it is quite rare, a serious bite from a turtle is definitely not unheard of, and sometimes the bites are bad enough that you will need to make your way to the hospital as soon as you can before you lose your finger for good.
Even if the bite wasn’t that severe, you must still seek medical treatment because turtles can carry bacteria and salmonella which will make you very ill if not taken care of.
Turtles such as snapping turtles and softshell turtles are the most aggressive types of turtles, and if you come across one in the wild, it is in your best interest to avoid them as much as possible because they will not back down from a fight.
Even smaller turtles that are kept as pets can bite, but if they are happy and handled with respect, they will usually only bite if they mistake you for food but even then, is much less likely for adult pet turtles to do.