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Turtle Bites – (Causes and Treatment)

Turtles generally bite when threatened. As such, you can expect wild turtles to be more likely to bite. Captive turtles do also bite, however they are less likely to.

Also, some species are more prone to aggressive behavior than others are. Snapping turtles, for instance, are notorious for their aggressive nature and powerful bites.

The best course of action is to stay away from wild turtles, especially snapping turtles (both the alligator snapping turtle and the common snapping turtle).

In fact, snapping turtles are capable of delivering bites powerful enough to amputate fingers. So unless you want to lose some digits, I advise that you stay away from wild snapping turtles.

Turtle Bites

Turtles Known To Cause Serious Injuries With Their Bites

Turtles and tortoises are among the most well-protected/armored animals in the world thanks to their shells. All their organs are inside the shell. However, many also possess strong powerful bites which they will use to protect themselves when threatened.

While wild turtles are quick to bite, pet turtles usually aren’t. Even with that, your pet turtle may still bite you. This is especially true when they are not used to you or their environment.

For small turtles such as sliders (Trachemys scripta), cooters (Pseudemys), and map turtles (Graptemys), the worst is usually a shallow cut. They don’t have the bite force to break the skin. This isn’t true of big turtles such as several softshells and snapping turtles.

Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles got their name because they will snap at you when threatened. They are known for their combative disposition and powerful beak-like jaws.

The two most popular snapping turtles are the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).

Common Snapping Turtle
Common Snapping Turtle

The common snapping turtle can be found from southeastern Canada all the way down to Florida. It has a wide geographical range and as such, it isn’t uncommon to come across them.

The common snapping turtle is a rugged and muscular looking turtle. They are quite large and can reach lengths of 20 inches (50 cm) in carapace length. Common snappers are dark brown to tan in color.

They have very long tails which can be almost as long as the turtle itself. They also prefer to stay underwater, where they can flee quickly from any threat instead of attacking.

While their claws are very sharp, they use them primarily for digging and gripping. Pet common snapping turtles should be left to experienced turtle owners and reptile specialists.

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtles are similar to the common snapping turtle in both size and coloration. However, both turtles belong to different genera.

Alligator snappers can easily be distinguished by distinct ridges on their carapace that resembles spikes or the rugged ridged skin of an alligator.

They can be found in the Florida Panhandle all the way over to East Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Since snapping turtles are common, you can easily find them. If it’s in the wild, it’s best to leave it alone. However, if it’s on a road, you may be compelled to move it to safety.

If you must, there are several ways to safely move it without getting bitten. You can lay a tarp or blanket under the turtle and pick up the blanket/tarp with the turtle in the middle.

You can use a shovel to pick it up from the back. Just make sure that the shovel is square across the bottom of the turtle’s shell. You can also grab the common snapping turtle just above its back legs and move it to safety.

If you want to pick up an adult alligator snapper, you need to grab the carapace edge right before the tail and just behind the head.

Never grab a snapping turtle by its tail. This can cause the turtle serious injuries. Also, never drag it across the road, you can seriously bruise the plastron and limbs of the turtle.

While these bruises may seem superficial, the common snapping turtle lives in a humid and moist ecosystem. As such, the bruises can easily get infected.

Always approach a snapping turtle from behind, if you don’t want it to attack you.

Snapping turtles are quite docile underwater and seek to actively avoid confrontation by swimming away. However, they can be very combative on land.

Softshell Turtles

Smooth Softshell Turtle
Smooth Softshell Turtle

Softshells are another aggressive set of turtles. North American softshell turtles belong to the genus Apalone and include species such as Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox), spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera), and smooth softshell turtle (Apalone mutica).

Softshell turtles can easily be identified by their tough leathery shell. Most American softshell turtles reach lengths of 5 to 11 inches as adults, although the Florida softshell is known to reach lengths of 24 inches.

The long necks of the softshell turtle mean that it can reach back to bite you. While small softshell turtles can’t cause much damage, bites from large softshell turtles can be very serious. Softshell turtle bites are generally painful.

mississippi map turtle
Mississippi Map Turtle

Popular turtle species such as sliders (Trachemys scripta), cooters (Pseudemys), and map turtles (Graptemys) can bite you when scared. This is particularly true of wild turtles.

Captive turtles are more tolerant of human interaction and hardly bite. They know humans aren’t a threat and instead view humans as a food source.

Regardless of this, avoid picking them or approaching them if you can. Regular handling is very stressful for the turtles. Unlike dogs or even cats, turtles prefer to be left alone unless it’s feeding time (do not touch them while they feed). Some especially wild ones may even refuse to eat while you’re around.

Box turtles may also bite when handled although this is rare. Such bites are usually delivered by wild box turtles who aren’t used to humans.

Tortoises are herbivores and very docile in nature. However, they can mistakenly bite a human. Although they have good eyesight, they can mistake your leg for a shrub and try to bite it.they can also mistake your toes for berries or even worms.

Can I Train My Turtle To Stop Biting?

Turtles have different personalities. This varies not just from one species to another but also from one individual turtle to another. Species such as the common snapping turtles, the alligator snapping turtles, and several softshell turtle species are more prone to biting. Similarly, wild turtles are more likely to bite than captive-bred turtles.

Captive-bred cooters, map turtles, box turtles, sliders, and painted turtles are less likely to bite. Regardless, particular individuals may still bite even though the species as a whole is docile.

Turtles can’t be trained like dogs and other pets, but you can modify their temperament through care and patience.

Young turtles are more likely to be aggressive, however, as they grow used to you they become less aggressive. Also, a turtle may think your fingers are food and may try to have a taste, this is normal with newly acquired turtles. As time goes on, they will warm up to you and begin to view you as a friendly presence.

Unless your turtle is a snapper, these bites are generally innocuous and cause little to no damage.

Why Does My Turtle Bite Itself?

This may seem odd but turtles are known to bite their own limbs. While this is very uncommon, it is not unheard of.

This is usually down to many reasons:

  • The turtle may be shedding. The skin may be stuck and as such, the turtle may be trying to loosen the skin so it can easily fall off. The turtle may even be trying to consume the skin it’s shedding. As far as the turtle isn’t injuring itself, this behavior is ok.

Something may be irritating the turtle’s skin:

  • Cause: Poor water conditions
    Solution: make sure the water is clean, properly filtered and the water chemistry is right (pH, nitrate, ammonia, and chlorine levels are optimal).
  • Cause: There may be an object stuck under the scale.
    Solution: Careful inspection can reveal this object stuck under the scales. Remove the object with a pair of tweezers and apply Polysporin to the wound using a q-tip.
  • Cause: Mites may be attacking the turtle. Since mites cannot survive underwater, this problem can only occur among terrestrial turtles.
    Solution: Soak the turtle in an anti-mite solution for 10 yo 20 minutes every day for 2 weeks. Also, treat the enclosure for mites. 

If you just can’t the reason why the turtle is biting itself, then you should see a vet for treatment if the turtle is causing significant harm to itself.

Treating A Turtle Bite


If you have been bitten by a turtle, you may need to treat it depending on the severity of the bite. If the bite draws blood, then you need to treat it with antibiotics as turtles carry salmonella.

If it’s a deep and serious injury, you’d need immediate professional medical attention. Since snapping turtles have enough bite force to amputate a finger, immediate medical attention may be needed for serious bites.

However, for shallow cuts that draw blood, you need to properly clean and treat the injury before seeking professional medical treatment.

Removing The Turtle

Sometimes, a turtle will hold on once it has bitten you. Do not try to pull the turtle off you as this can cause more damage. Submerge the turtle, and it should let go.


Serious turtle bites are uncommon but not unheard of. If a turtle bites you hard enough to draw blood, you need to seek medical treatment. This is a must as turtles carry salmonella.

Aggressive turtles prone to biting include the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, and softshell turtles (Apalone).

Regardless, turtles such as cooters, sliders, and even map turtles can still deliver painful if not innocuous bites. Also, wild turtles are more likely to bite than captive-bred turtles are.

Similarly recently acquired turtles and juveniles are also more likely to bite than adults are. As the turtle gets used to you and its environment, it will learn to tolerate you.

What’s your experience with turtle or tortoise bites? Leave a comment below!

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Saturday 9th of December 2023

Is spinach ok for box turtles? I've read that it is not good for them, but I have spinach I could offer the turtle I keep.