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Are Softshell Turtles Dangerous?

Although spiny softshell turtles and other species of softshell turtles are perceived as potentially dangerous due to their aggressive behavior, sharp claws, and powerful jaws, they are not inherently dangerous to humans. While aggressive, they aren’t as likely to take off a finger as a snapping turtle would, but you could still getget some painful bites if you’re not careful.

The potential risks are not so much their powerful bite, but that the turtles carry pathogens such as salmonella, which can be potentially fatal for young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

As such, it is important to approach and treat softshell turtles with care, especially if they are wild. You also need to wash your hands after handling a softshell turtle to avoid contracting a salmonella infection. 

It’s certainly a subject worth a closer look, so to quantify how dangerous a softshell turtle might be we’re going to explore what we know about their bites, how to treat them, salmonella concerns, and more. Let’s get started!

Softshell Turtle Bites

Baby Softshell turtle
Hatchling bites won’t hurt you, but it will probably pinch!

There is not a lot of hard data specifically focused on softshell turtle bites, but there are some useful studies on turtle bites in general.

One, entitled “Evolution of bite performance in turtles” goes into detail about the bite specifics of several turtles, including common box turtles (Terrapene carolina), Russian tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii), pond sliders (Trachemys scripta),  alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), and musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus).

Softshell turtles included in this study include Malayan softshell (Dogania subplana), Chinese softshell (Pelodiscus sinensis), black-rayed softshell (Amyda cartilaginea), spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera), and the Florida softshell (Apalone ferox).

Now, to give you a baseline of comparison for the data we’re about to share, A healthy adult human has a bite force of about 285 newtons (about 65 pounds of force).

Keep this in mind and we’ll share some bite force information for some softshell turtle species and then we’ll compare it to snapping turtles for a more complete picture!

According to this study, the Malayan softshell (Dogania subplana) has a bite force of 37.30 Newtons (8.39 pound-force), the Chinese softshell (Pelodiscus sinensis) has a bite force of 59.44 Newtons (13.36 pound-force).

Next, we know that the black-rayed softshell (Amyda cartilaginea) has a bite force of 210.43 Newtons  (47.3 pound-force), the spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera) has a bite force of 12.21 Newtons (2.74 pound-force), and Florida softshell (Apalone ferox) has a bite force of 41.50 Newtons (9.33 pound-force).

By comparison, the bite force of a common snapping turtle is 210 Newtons (47 pound-force) and the alligator snapping turtle has a bite force of 160 Newtons (36 pound-force).

The Black-rayed softshell is the only softshell in the study that comes close to biting as hard as a snapper, while most of the others simply don’t have anywhere near the same biting force!

Still, softshell turtle bites are certainly not pleasant and you could get a painful laceration for your troubles, so be sure to be respectful when a wild softshell is nearby or when handling a captive one.

Want to learn more about turtle bites? Check out Bit by a turtle when you’re done here. The article will open in a new window if you want to click now so that it’s ready and waiting!

What do you do if a softshell turtle bites you?

Florida softshell turtle
If you see a softshell in the wild, keep your distance – they become aggressive if frightened

Like many animals, softshell turtles are likely to become aggressive if they feel threatened and you could get bitten. If it’s nesting season, adult females may be more aggressive. It is important to treat all turtle bites as soon as possible. While the bite may seem minor, you want to make sure that it is treated and cleaned to avoid infection.

Most softshell turtles are small, so let’s look at how to treat a bite from one of these so that you’ll know what to do if it happens!

Bites that do not break the skin

If a softshell turtle bites you, it might not even draw blood or break the skin. That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt — it will probably still sting like the dickens!

For these bites, simply wash the affected area with warm water and some soap. As with any painful bite, the affected area can be swollen and red, but this should go down within a few hours. If you are still experiencing swelling after 24 hours, then it is advisable to visit a medical professional.

Bites that cause minor injuries

Most softshell turtle bites are not serious, but sometimes they can still break the skin and draw blood. If you are bleeding, you’ll need to treat the wound, but not all bites will require medical attention.

These include bites/wounds that do not bleed for more than 10 minutes; bites that aren’t to the chest, throat, abdomen, and nose; and bites that do not spurt, gush, or spray blood.

You need to clean the bite quickly and disinfect it to help reduce the risk of infection. You may need to treat the bite for a few days before it fully heals, making sure that the wound is kept clean and that the bandages are fresh.

If the wound DOES become infected, then it’s a good idea to have a medical professional take a look at it. While the bite itself may be innocuous, softshell turtles are aquatic and so anything they’ve picked up in the water might be passed into the wound.

Treating minor injuries

Things you need include antibiotic cream/ointment such as Neosporin and Polysporin, bandages such as Band-Aid, a clean cloth, potable running water, and some soap.

Steps

  • You don’t want to treat the wound with dirty hands, so start off by washing your hands with running water and some soap. Once that is done, then we’re ready to start treating the injury.
  • Begin by applying pressure to the bite using a clean cloth or spare bandage. The bite should stop bleeding within 10 minutes. If it does NOT, then seek medical attention immediately. Also, if the bite is bleeding profusely, rather than a slow seepage, then it is and will require immediate medical attention.
  • After the bite stops bleeding, run it under clean water for about 5 minutes to remove any debris such as dirt or other contaminants that may have come into contact with the wound.
  • Next, apply some topical antibiotics such as Neosporin and Polysporin. This should help with the pain and kill pathogens in the bite. If you witness negative side effects from using antibiotics, such as swelling, a rash, or anything else out of the ordinary, then stop immediately and contact your doctor.
  • After applying the antibiotics, cover the bite with a clean band-aid or standard bandage.
  • You need to change the bandage whenever it is dirty and when you do, apply antibiotics before replacing the bandage.

If the wound shows signs of an infection or doesn’t seem to be healing after 24 hours, then contact a medical professional. While it’s probably fine, with softshell turtles being aquatic it’s best to be on the safe side.

Serious Bites

With serious injuries, the best you can do is perform first aid while waiting for a medical professional. Serious injuries caused by softshell turtles are rare but they do occur.

One example is the report of a Malayan softshell that bit off the nose of a 17-year-old local! This turtle has a bite force similar to that of a Florida softshell and is capable of delivering such a bite under the right circumstances.

As the nose is soft, it’s particularly vulnerable to serious injuries that don’t require a lot of force but thankfully, such incidents are extremely rare.

Softshell turtles have long necks, so the lesson here is to be sure never to bring them close to your face. It makes sense when you think about it — from the turtle’s perspective you are not only a non-turtle, but you’re bringing their head close to your mouth like you might try to eat them!

Serious bites that require immediate medical attention include bite wounds that bleed for more than 10 minutes, bites to areas such as the chest, throat, abdomen, or nose, and bites that spurt, gush, or spray blood.

You also want to make sure that the bite victim isn’t displaying any symptoms that might indicate a reaction to the bite.

Some of these symptoms include chest pain or discomfort, change in mental status such as confusion, difficulty focusing, strange behaviors, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, loss of consciousness or fainting, severe pain, vomiting, or dizziness.

Individuals with bleeding disorders that can cause excessive bleeding should seek medical attention for any bites that break the skin, as well. Simply put, if the bleeding doesn’t stop, seek medical attention.

First Aid

While you wait for emergency services, you should go ahead and perform basic first aid. This is also necessary if you will be transporting them to the hospital yourself.

The first thing to do is to apply pressure to the bite to minimize blood loss. Use a cloth or a spare bandage to apply the pressure. Do not remove the cloth/bandage, even if it gets soaked. Simply add another layer of cloth.

Keep the pressure on the bite until you get professional medical attention.

Luckily, softshell turtle bites rarely require immediate medical attention, but when in doubt, always contact your doctor first to be on the safe side!

The dangers of salmonella in Softshells

Softshell turtles are more likely to carry salmonella than other turtles
Softshell turtles are more likely to carry salmonella than other turtles

Turtles, including softshells, can and sometimes do carry salmonella. Regardless of how clean your turtle enclosure is, the turtle can still harbor the bacteria that causes salmonellosis or as it’s better known, salmonella.

While relatively harmless, it can be very dangerous to children below the age of 5 years, adults above the age of 65 years, and people with weakened immune systems or lowered resistance to bacterial infections due to immunodeficiency (such as HIV/AIDS), cancer, diabetes, and pregnancy.

As the prevalence of salmonella bacteria is much higher in softshells than in other turtles such as sliders, common musk, and painted turtles, care must be taken as far as their handling.

How do people contract salmonellosis?

Reptiles, including softshell turtles, generally carry the salmonella bacteria on their bodies, even if they are healthy and kept in a spotless enclosure. When you touch or handle the turtle, the bacteria gets on your hands, clothes, and skin.

Furthermore, the bacteria can also be found in the water in the turtle tank or ponds, but that’s not all. It may be found on ANY object that the turtle has come in contact with, such as the floor, carpets, tables, or countertops.

If you touch your turtle or its enclosure and then eat a sandwich without cleaning your hands, then you could contaminate your lunch!

Once you ingest the salmonella bacteria, then you are at risk of an infection. Kids are most at risk, as they tend to touch the turtle and then put their fingers in their mouths or rub at their eyes. As such, it’s best that any handling of the turtle is fully supervised and that the child washes their hands immediately after.

What are the symptoms of an infection?

Symptoms of salmonella infection include abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. While these symptoms are generally mild, they can be severe enough that some individuals may need to seek medical attention. If you aren’t sure, then visit the doctor immediately!

With salmonella, the infection can spread from the intestines to the bloodstream, allowing the bacteria to reach locations throughout the body that it normally could not. While rare, this can be fatal, so if you suspect salmonella infection then be sure to get medical attention right away.

How to avoid contracting salmonella infection from your softshell turtle

To help reduce the chance of contracting salmonella infection from your softshell turtle, be sure to practice the following:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after you have touched the turtle, its enclosure, or any object or surface that the turtle has touched. If there is no soap and water available, hand sanitizer is also a good option.
  • Children should NOT be left unsupervised with softshells. An adult should be there to supervise any human interaction and make sure that the child washes their hands thoroughly after they’ve handled the turtle.
  • Clean the tank and any object within the tank outside of your home. You want to avoid cleaning the turtle habitat and its contents in places like the kitchen sink or your bathtub, otherwise you might be transferring salmonella to these surfaces.
  • Don’t allow the turtle to roam throughout your house unchecked and keep them away from places where food and drink are kept or served.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to pick up a softshell turtle?

Softshell turtles may be handled safely, provided that you do it the right way. To properly pick up a softshell turtle, slide your hand underneath the turtle from the back (avoiding the mouth.) and then lift it up.

Do NOT pick them up from the sides, as they have a long flexible neck and can bite you.

What is the disease in the soft-shell turtle?

The main disease that the softshell turtle spreads is salmonella infection and even clean, healthy turtles can carry this. While salmonella infection is generally harmless, some individuals will have a much higher risk of contracting it.

This includes children below the age of 5 years, adults over 65 years, and people with weakened immune systems or lowered resistance to bacterial infections due to immunodeficiency (such as HIV/AIDS), cancer, diabetes, and pregnancy.

Are softshell turtles very aggressive?

The softshell turtle is one of the more aggressive than most turtles, perhaps to make up for their lack of a hard shell.

These freshwater turtles are very defensive and quick to attack. Just remember that this is a fear response – if you leave the turtle alone or in the case of captive softshells, learn proper handling, then you shouldn’t need to worry.

Can softshell turtles be a good pet for experienced pet owners?

While softshell turtles, including the Florida softshell turtles, require specific care related to water quality, temperature range, and diet consisting of aquatic insects and small fish, they can be fascinating pets. However, potential pet owners should be aware of the commitment required to provide proper care, including the risks of bites and the need to maintain a safe distance to prevent startling these sensitive creatures.

What unique features do softshell turtles have?

Softshell turtles, including the Chinese soft-shelled turtles and the Florida softshell turtles, are distinguished by their flat shell, large scales, and long snouts, which allow them to breathe easily on the surface of the water. Their diet often includes aquatic insects, contributing to their role in maintaining healthy water quality.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while softshell turtles, such as the spiny softshell turtles and Florida softshell turtles, may display aggressive behavior when threatened, they pose little danger to humans who respect their space and understand their needs. The real risks come from potential salmonella transmission and environmental factors like habitat destruction, which underscore the importance of responsible pet ownership and conservation efforts.

As long as you treat these reptiles with care, caution, and respect, you should be fine.

That said, softshell turtles are more likely to carry salmonella than other popular turtles like sliders, common musk, and painted turtles. It can be found not only on the turtle but also in the water that they live in and any other surface they come in contact with.

When ingested, salmonella can cause an infection, and this is really the biggest danger that softshell turtles pose. Thankfully, with proper handling, care, and knowledge, it’s a danger that you can easily avoid!

Thinking about raising a spiny softshell turtle? Check out our care guide so that you’ll be prepared!

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