Being bit by a turtle is usually nocuous, but they can also be very painful and serious. Some bites, such as those delivered by snapping turtles, can cause serious injuries including excessive bleeding, wound infection when not treated well, and even amputation of the finger.
Even innocuous bites from a common pet turtle such as a red-eared slider can result in a lot of bleeding. Why would a turtle bite you? Well, a turtle may bite because it feels threatened, stressed, or mistakes your hand for food.
What do you do when bitten by a turtle? Well, it depends on how serious the bite is. Treatment can range from simply washing your hands with tepid water and soap to seeking immediate professional medical attention.
I got Bit by a turtle
When to seek immediate medical attention or call 911
Turtles may be innocent and gentle creatures but on rare occasions, they can cause serious injury with their bites. We will discuss how to treat turtle bites later on in this article, but you need to know when to call 911.
Some turtle bites can cause a lot of blood loss or can be at vulnerable parts of the body. These bites can have serious implications when not treated as quickly as possible by professional medical personnel.
The wound bleeds profusely – If you are bleeding excessively, then you need to call 911. Now most turtles are incapable of delivering such bites. A few species, such as the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), are however capable of delivering bites that can cause you to bleed profusely.
Softshell turtles can also deliver very serious bites that cause excessive bleeding.
The wound spurts (sprays or gushes) blood – This is a sure sign that something is seriously wrong, i.e. a blood vessel was ruptured by the bite.
You need to apply pressure to the bite using a clean cloth or bandage to minimize blood loss as you wait for the medical professional or paramedic.
Bleeding doesn’t stop after 10 minutes of applying firm pressure – Sometimes, the bite does not look serious, but you just can’t stop the bleeding. If after 10 minutes of applying firm pressure, the bite is still bleeding, call 911.
The wound is to the nose, throat, chest, or abdomen. Softshell turtles and snapping turtles can bite off part of a human nose. There has actually been a documented case of such an occurrence in Malaysia.
Snapping turtles can actually break bones and even amputate a finger. As such, they can deliver serious bites to vulnerable body parts such as the nose, throat, chest, and abdomen. If this occurs, call 911.
The victim shows any emergency symptoms such as dizziness, unconsciousness, vomiting, rapid breathing, irregular breathing, or trouble breathing. If the bitten person shows any of the following symptoms, then you need to call 911.
If any of these conditions occur, seek medical attention immediately. However, do not try to drive to the hospital yourself if you are the victim of the bite. Call 911 or have someone else drive you to the hospital.
First aid for serious injuries
As we have established, snapping turtles can cause serious injury and profuse bleeding that may require you to seek immediate medical attention.
There have actually been a few cases in the U.S. of alligator turtles amputating fingers. This is an example of a serious injury. Read the section above for more instances of serious injuries.
Here is what to do if the bite causes serious injury.
- Call 911.
- After you call 911 if the person has no neck, head, or spine injury, lay the person on their back with legs elevated 12 inches. You mustn’t elevate the head.
- Remove debris or dirt in the wound and apply pressure to the wounded area using a cloth, shirt, blanket, towel, or any other clean fabric you can find. If you can find a clean cloth, use that.
- Keep the pressure until the emergency personnel arrives.
- If you can tape or tie the cloth to the wound. If the cloth gets soaked in blood, don’t change or remove the cloth, instead add another cloth.
Treating less serious bites that still break the skin
Sometimes, the wound caused by chelonian bites may not be serious but can still break the skin. If that’s the case, then first aid is crucial as there is a risk of infection which in turn can lead to more serious complications.
Just as an example turtles carry salmonella, which can make you quite sick. If the bite breaks the skin, take it seriously. Here are the steps to take.
The person treating the wound must wash the hands. This greatly reduces the risk of infection.
Apply pressure to the wound. In order to stop bleeding, you need to apply firm but gentle pressure to the wound. Use a clean cloth or bandage to do this.
If the bite is still bleeding after 10 minutes, then it is a serious injury and you need to seek immediate medical attention. (Refer to the section – When to seek immediate medical attention or call 911.)
Clean the bite. Once the bite stops bleeding, you can now clean it. Cleaning the wound helps remove any debris and dirt. Clean the bite by rinsing the bite using clean water for 5-10 minutes.
Use a clean cloth to remove any residual debris. If you cannot remove all visible debris or dirt, you need to seek medical attention.
Apply antibiotic cream/ointment, now that the wound has been cleaned. Polysporin and Neosporin are good choices. If the ointment causes mild irritation such as rash, stop using the ointment and seek medical help from a professional.
Cover the bite. The reason we cover wounds is to keep it clean. Use a Band-Aid or other types of bandage to cover the wound.
Change the dressing daily or when necessary. Change the bandage whenever it gets dirty or wet. If it doesn’t get dirty or wet, change it once a day. Re-apply the ointment/cream, whenever you change the dressing.
Keep an eye out for infection. It’s not uncommon for superficial wounds to become infected.
Some symptoms of an infected wound include – redness, swelling, redness, and a feeling of pain around the wound, change in color of the wound, pus, increase in the size of the wound, the opening of the wound, and fever. If the victim shows signs of infection, see a doctor immediately.
Depending on the extent of the wound, you may require stitches. Speak to your doctor about this.
What if the bite doesn’t break the skin?
Sometimes, a chelonian’s bite doesn’t break the skin. This is, however, still painful. The area usually feels sore. If this is the case, wash the bitten area with mild soap and warm water.
Turtles with the worst bites
While each turtle has a distinct personality, some species are known to deliver painful bites. These bites can just be painful without breaking the skin.
They may also cause wounds or even amputations depending on how powerful the bite is as well as the sharpness of the turtle’s beak. Here are some turtles that can deliver painful bites. Of course, this list isn’t definitive by any means.
There are two species of snapping turtles and they are the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) and the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina).
These apex predators are known to deliver the worst bites of all turtles and are pretty aggressive as well. There have been a few documented cases of alligator snapping turtles biting off a human finger.
Be careful around snapping turtles least you lose a finger. Luckily, these turtles keep to themselves and are only vicious when threatened on land. When in an aquatic environment, the turtle will simply swim away.
Softshell turtles also deliver dangerous bites. There is a documented case of a softshell turtle biting off a human nose.
They may not be able to amputate fingers but they can cause serious bleeding if they hit a blood vessel while biting. Because softshell turtles are flexible, they are known to reach back and bite humans that pick them up.
Musk and mud turtles
Musk and mud turtles also have similar mannerisms and temperaments. Both are likely to bite when threatened. Their bites are generally innocuous although painful.
If they do break the skin, what you usually have to worry about is wound infection. Treat bites of these turtles seriously. Examples of mud turtles include Eastern mud turtle (K. subrubrum) and Scorpion mud turtle (K. scorpioides). Examples of musk turtles include flattened musk turtle (S. depressus), razorback musk turtle (S. carinatus), and the stinkpot (S. odoratus).
However, box turtles are American pond turtles. Box turtles belong to the genus Terrapene. Some common box turtles kept as pets include the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) and the three-toed box turtle (T. c. triunguis).
Slider turtles are also commonly kept as pets. They are generally gentle and peaceful. But even they can deliver painful bites. The larger the turtle, the more capable it is to deliver bites that break the skin.
So you have been bitten by a turtle, what do you do? Well, assess the damage done. If the bite is deep or serious then you would require professional medical attention from a doctor, maybe even a few stitches.
First of all, get your first aid right. If the bite is bleeding, stop the bleeding by applying firm direct pressure with a clean cloth or gauze (sterilized, of course).
Rinse the wound under running water for several minutes, then apply topical antibiotic and cover the bite with a bandage such as a band-aid. If the bite doesn’t cause a wound, then clean the bite with tepid water and mild soap.
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