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How do turtles show affection to humans?

Unlike cats and dogs, turtles are solitary animals and aren’t very sociable as pets. Along with fish, amphibians, and other reptiles, they tend to fall into the category of ‘display pets’ for this reason. These animals prefer to be left alone for the most part and don’t do well with excessive handling.

So, how do turtles show affection to humans?

While they aren’t overly fond of being handled, turtles can grow some attachment to their human caretakers. This takes time but once a little trust has been developed, turtles won’t shy away from you or attack you when approached. They may even run or swim up to you when they notice your presence.

What are turtles?

sea turtle swimming

In order to understand how turtles show affection, it is important to understand what they are. Turtles are reptiles — specifically reptiles of the order Testudines which includes over 300 species. Turtles can be easily identified by their shell and while this might resemble a hard outer housing, it is part of their body.

Rather than being an external housing, the shell is actually a set of specially developed ribs!

Turtles fall into 3 categories — sea turtles, freshwater turtles, and tortoises, although today we’ll be focused on freshwater turtles such as cooters, sliders, snappers, box turtles, and others that are commonly kept as pets.

As reptiles, the turtle brain isn’t capable of the emotional attachment that other animals such as mammals and birds exhibit.

This is in part based on the concept of the “Reptilian Brain”, also known as the “Reptilian Complex”. The term is based on the fact that the forebrain of reptiles is dominated by the basal ganglia and a number of the surrounding structures which are in charge of feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction.

While turtles may not have the emotional intelligence of mammals, they still do express emotions such as fear and affection, and they can also identify and remember human faces and voices. All of this allows them to express a wide range of behaviors such as aggression, fear, and affection toward humans.

A turtle that is comfortable and relaxed around its caretaker can be stressed and scared around strangers, something you’ll likely see firsthand if you have a pet turtle at home.

How turtles show affection

Turtles, though not pack animals like dogs, still show signs of affection and recognition towards their familiar people in various ways. For instance, a turtle’s shell might not convey emotions in the way a dog’s tail does, but a relaxed turtle stretching its neck towards you or a turtle staring intently at you for a couple of minutes are good signs of their trust and emotional bond.

Especially with species like red-eared sliders, which are known to be more social animals, these signs of recognition are their way of showing that they’ve accepted you as part of their family

If a turtle likes you, you will notice it. Captive-bred turtles are usually more friendly and comfortable around humans and tend to be noticeably more affectionate than wild turtles.

Turtles show their affection by being comfortable in your presence. It may also follow you around when out of its enclosure or move toward you if they are inside it. The turtle may simply sit close and watch you, and may also stretch out its neck towards you from time to time.

Another common affectionate behavior is swimming towards you when they see you.

One of the best ways to bond with a turtle is through feeding. Turtles are generally fond of the ones that feed them and after a while, don’t be surprised if you see the turtle swimming towards you when you enter the room.

Of course, not all turtles will behave this way and they may not swim towards you all the time. This just boils down to individual personalities and species traits. Like people, some turtles are more social than others.

When a turtle doesn’t like you, trust you, or isn’t fond of you, they may hide in your presence. Newly acquired turtles normally exhibit this behavior and it will take time for them to warm up to you. It might be days or even months, but in time they will shop retreating whenever they see you.

Once they come to see you as their caretaker, they’ll start to trust you and will be much more relaxed or even friendly in your presence.

Turtles may also attempt to bite people they are unfamiliar with and while these bites are generally innocuous, they can be painful and in some cases, may cause serious harm.

Species such as common snappers and alligator snappers are capable of severing fingers with their bites, but with smaller turtles the bite may range anywhere from a hard pinch to a minor laceration that you’ll need to clean and bandage if you get bitten.

A newly acquired turtle is very likely to try and bite you. Don’t take it personally – This is a defensive action because the turtle is afraid and doesn’t trust you – and it’s no guarantee of their future behavior.

Some turtles may never warm up to you and this can be a matter of the turtle’s personality, but more often it is down to the species tendencies. Some are naturally friendlier than others, while turtles like common snappers, alligator snappers, stinkpots, and softshells tend to be more aggressive.

Reasons why a turtle may not like you

Turtles need to be fed on time and given adequate living space. Handling should also be minimal until you’ve developed a bit of trust. A turtle that has just met you is going to be frightened, so you’ll need to be patient and prove to them over time that you’re not a threat.

The following are the reasons why your turtle may seem to dislike you.

Excessive/ Aggressive Handling

Turtles don't like when you're pushy!
Don’t be pushy – you might get a bite for your troubles!

Unlike dogs, turtles don’t appreciate excessive handling. While it is okay and even beneficial to handle them, this should be very limited in the beginning and if your turtle seems uncomfortable, you should put them back in their enclosure right away.

Many species do not like to be handled at all. Most snapping, mud, musk, and softshell turtles absolutely hate it, and for these species, it is advisable to only handle them when you need to. Other turtles such as cooters, box turtles, and sliders are much more tolerant of handling.

That said, even with these, you have to limit how often you handle them and the roughness with which you do so.

Frequent and rough handling is stressful for turtles and can lead to the turtle avoiding you whenever you get close to them. As such, it’s best to minimize handling your pet turtle and small turtles should only be handled when absolutely necessary.

This can be when you need to examine them for illness or injury, move them to another tank for feeding, or clean their enclosure.

Do NOT place the turtle on its back and never grab the turtle by its tail. Being on their back is terrifying for turtles and lifting by the tail can severely injure them. Don’t try to force the turtle out of its shell, either.

A turtle hides in its shell when scared or stressed and trying to force them to peek out of the shell will stress your turtle and you may even get a nasty bite for your troubles.

If you have an affectionate turtle, you can interact with it by petting its head, chin, and shell, just be sure to keep your movements slow at first so that you don’t startle the turtle and if you get bitten, don’t punish the turtle. You’re considerably larger and the turtle may well be frightened.

If your turtle is inclined to be friendly, you’ll be able to pet them eventually, but it’s going to take time and patience.

Tiny Enclosure

A tiny enclosure can be stressful for a turtle, so you’ll want to ensure that your turtle’s enclosure is big enough. As a rule of thumb, for every inch of the turtle’s upper shell (carapace), there should be a gallon of water within its enclosure.

For example, a turtle with a straight carapace length of 5 inches needs about 50 gallons of water. For any additional turtle, add about 5 gallons of water for every inch of the turtle’s carapace and this will ensure that both turtles have enough room.

The basking area should also be large enough to comfortably fit all turtles in the enclosure at the same time.

For more info on enclosures, check out our guide on Box turtle setups – it’s chock full of useful info and if you don’t have a box turtle, use the search with your turtle’s common name!

Aggressive Tank Mates

Turtles won't always get along, especially during mating season!
Turtles and tortoises won’t always get along, especially during mating season!

Some turtle species don’t do well with tank mates. Species like snapping turtles, for instance, must be housed alone. Even species that can be housed with other turtles such as map turtles, cooters, and sliders, can still be stressed out by their tank mates — especially if there isn’t enough room within the enclosure.

Additionally, there may not be enough places to hide within the enclosure. Plants, floating logs, mini ‘caves’, and other objects can serve as places where the turtles can hide from one another when they need to be alone.

Even non-aggressive turtles can become aggressive during breeding/mating season. Male turtles, especially, tend to become particularly aggressive toward females and other males that they view as competition.

The victim of the aggressor is usually stressed out and this continuous stress can make it belligerent towards you. Thankfully, the solution here is very simple: Move the aggressive turtle to a separate tank until the mating season is over.

Does your turtle bite? Find out about treating turtle bites and turtle training techniques when you’re done here!

Inadequate Feeding

Usually, turtle owners tend to overfeed their pets and this can lead to poor health. On the flip side, owners sometimes don’t feed the turtle enough. Unhealthy or hungry turtles won’t feel well and may very well become aggressive and attempt to bite you.

How to get your turtle to show affection

If your turtle loves you, it may be affectionate towards you, but you need to keep in mind that some turtles may never show affection. While they may tolerate the presence of others, turtles are solitary creatures and most just want to be left alone unless you’ve brought food.

You should be able to tell in time if your turtle has a friendly bent or prefers to be left alone, you’ll just need to be patient.

Handle them with care

As already mentioned, most turtles simply want to be handled with care. If you wish to handle your turtle, make sure that it’s okay with it. If the turtle remains hidden within its shell or struggles when you handle it, then it wants to be left alone.

We don’t recommend picking up turtles unless you have to. You can show affection by petting the shell, head, and chin of the turtle.

Provide an Adequately Sized Enclosure

The enclosure doesn’t need to be massive, but if it’s tiny and cramped your turtle is not going to be a happy camper. As a rule of thumb, for every inch of the turtle’s carapace, provide a gallon of water.  If you have several turtles, start with the largest.

For instance, a turtle with a carapace length of 3 inches needs about 30 gallons of water, and a turtle with a carapace length of 10 inches needs 100 gallons of water. For each additional smaller turtle (or turtle of a similar size as the biggest), add about 5 gallons of water for every inch of the turtle’s carapace.

This ensures that all of the turtles within the enclosure have enough room.

The basking area should also be large enough to comfortably fit all turtles in the enclosure at the same time. Provided that you give them enough space, your turtles will be much happier and more inclined to be friendly if their personality supports it.

Proper Husbandry

Husbandry refers to the care you’re giving your turtle, and it includes things like lighting, water and basking spot temperatures, pH of the water, and all the other environmental conditions of the enclosure.

All these have to be just right in order for the turtle’s basic needs to be met and in turn, for it to be happy instead of stressed or feeling poorly.

You also need to provide an adequate diet – don’t rely on pellets alone, but also provide animal and plant matter so that the turtle doesn’t get bored of their meals and consequently, will be getting all of it’s nutritional needs filled.

Feeding is also an excellent way to bond with your turtle – they’ll know that it’s you feeding them and you’ll see it in their behaviors!

When you’re done here, if you’re still not sure about bringing a turtle home, check out Vetstreet’s article on 9 things to know before adopting a turtle. It’s a great read that might help you to make your decision!

Frequently Asked Questions

Do turtles like to be with humans?

Turtles are very solitary in nature and generally prefer to be alone. While they are often friendly, they aren’t needy, and they have no problem not being around their owners all the time. While they may like being with humans, they simply don’t need the constant attention that a dog or a cat would.

Many turtle enthusiasts find this independence appealing. The turtle may be left alone for long stretches of time and as long as you provide a clean enclosure with clean water and feed them regularly, they’re perfectly content to be alone. It’s just part of their charm!

Are turtles affectionate to humans?

Turtles can be affectionate to humans, but generally not in the way you expect. They don’t generally like to be touched, stroked, or held, although some turtles will allow this and may even enjoy it. For the most part, however, a turtle shows its affection by not retreating when they see you.

Turtles can recognize faces and voices, and may even swim or crawl over enthusiastically when they see you. It all depends on the individual and the species, so if you’ve just brought a turtle home then you’ll just have to be patient and see what kind of personality it displays!

Can turtles bond with their owners?

Most turtles form bonds with their owners based on the care that they provide. Turtles tend to become fond of whoever feeds them and they will welcome your presence as they know that it means they’re about to get fed.

Feeding is an excellent way to bond with your turtle and over time, it will quickly learn to recognize your face and voice, and might even let you scratch their neck or feed them by hand if you’re patient and gentle in handling them.

How do you know if a turtle is happy?

A happy turtle is an active turtle. If the turtle is happy and not stressed, it will bask openly or privately, and swim freely around the tank in a carefree manner. A happy turtle should also be excited about feeding, and swimming towards you when it’s time for their meals.

An unhappy turtle will generally remain hidden most of the time and likely avoid basking, although if the turtle is new it may just need you to give it a little time to adjust to its new home.

How do turtles show affection to humans? The Conclusion

Turtles are solitary creatures and have their own way of showing affection. A turtle that is fond of you may follow you around when out of its enclosure and may swim towards you when you enter the room. The turtle may simply sit close and watch you, or stretch out it’s neck to get a better look when you’re near.

Turtles generally show interest and affection towards the human that feeds them and once a turtle is comfortable around you, they may even allow you to pick them up or even to touch them if you’re lucky!

If you want the turtle to be affectionate towards you, you’ll need to treat it right. Avoid excessive and aggressive handling and you should also ensure that the turtle’s enclosure is adequately sized. Feedings should be on a regular schedule and in sufficient amounts so that your turtle isn’t over or underfed.

Finally, make sure that there aren’t any aggressive tank mates within the same enclosure. With plenty of space and all their needs met, a friendly-natured turtle is going to be much more likely to display affection towards you – just keep in mind that some individuals may simply tolerate you at best.

They have their own personalities, after all, so ultimately it’s all down to you and your turtle!

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