Turtle Injuries and Bites
Today we’re going to talk about turtle injuries and bites. You may think of turtles as slow, gentle creatures, but experienced keepers will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth! These animals are highly active and can hurt themselves quite easily if we aren’t careful.
In fact, injuries to the shell and other parts of a turtle’s body are common both in nature and captivity. Our job as keepers is to make these things as unlikely as possible.
In ideal world, a pet turtle would never have to deal with an injury, but accidents can happen so it’s worth knowing what to do – and how to prevent them in the first place.
Most turtle bites are caused by territorial behaviour, competing for food or simply frustration at having another turtle in their space. In young turtles, bites are pretty uncommon, but as they reach adulthood, they steadily get crankier with each other.
The below video is a good example of a tortoise being territorial and is chasing of a dog and even starts a match with another tortoise flipping it over in the end.
When it comes to territorial behaviour, this is most often expressed during the mating season and between competing males. Generally, it boils down to a bit of shoving, but it can also escalate to biting, sometimes to the point of causing injury.
Competing for food can also result in bites, though these do tend to be less severe. The same goes for competing for space. This doesn’t mean these bites aren’t a problem however, as the victim will be experiencing intense stress.
No matter what kind of bite it is, your first step when dealing with it should be to separate the animals! If the bite is bleeding, you then need to follow the steps in the first aid section of this article.
Preventing Turtle Bites
First, remember that aggression varies between species – it is incredibly important that you research the exact species of turtle you are keeping! After all, each species has different needs and temperament.
North American Box Turtles (Terrapene spp.), for example, tend to be much terrestrial than Asian Box Turtles (Cuora spp.). The males of these species also tend to be much meaner fighters – often biting at the face of their opponents.
This is illustrative of the fact males are larger and more territorial in many terrestrial and semi-terrestrial turtle species. In some of these species where male combat occurs, a larger male may viciously bully a smaller one. That same male could also bully a non-receptive female, given that she would also be smaller.
As a rule of thumb, the more aquatic a species is, the smaller the males are, and the less likely bullying and biting will occur.
I recommend researching the mating habits of your pet turtle species. Do they engage in territorial combat? If so, housing them together could be a bad idea, period.
If you feel confident that your turtles are from a peaceful species (and have read research suggesting this) then providing adequate space is an effective way to prevent bites from frustration or food competition.
In the wild road accidents with vehicles are quite possibly the most common injury to freshwater turtles in many countries. In fact, if you grew up in the USA or south-eastern Canada it’s likely you’ve already witnessed this for yourself.
In captivity things are a little different, but injuries are unfortunately quite common. Generally, captive turtle injuries arise from unsafe enclosures, falls, dogs and heating equipment.
Enclosure injuries are often rubs or scratches to the shell, skin, or nose from trying to escape or climbing over rough ornaments. Water being too shallow is another cause – diving into rocks or gravel can easily cause a shell injury.
For their part, falls are quite common, but often follow an escape from an outdoor enclosure, or an elevated indoor one.
Preventing Turtle injuries
First things first – if you make an enclosure for a pet turtle, make sure it’s safe. Sharp rocks can easily scrape and grind abrasions into a turtle’s shell, particularly if it hits them when diving into the water.
Collisions with the bottom of the enclosure are usually only a problem if the water is too shallow. For an adult fully aquatic turtle, the water depth should be at least twice the length of the carapace (top of the shell).
For semi-aquatic species or bottom walking species, give them a sloping entrance to the water part of the enclosure, not a ledge they can jump off.
As for the land or basking parts of the enclosure, make sure there is nothing rough or spikey the turtle could rub itself on. A Dremel tool is a great way to eliminate rough bits from ornaments. For logs and branches, sanding any spikey bits is easy and effective.
When it comes to falls, these usually occur following an escape. A turtle on the run (figuratively speaking) can get surprisingly far in a short amount of time. Often their little escapade ends when they fall down some stairs or off a wall.
The result is of course a cracked or damaged shell. To prevent this, make sure the walls of their enclosure are at least twice the height of their carapace, even if you think this is overkill. Also, remember to place ornaments that they could climb away from the sides of the enclosure.
It’s very important that you don’t underestimate a turtle’s ability to climb. Believe it or not, there are reliable accounts of Wood Turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) figuring out how to climb 6ft chain-link fences.
To avoid burns from heating elements, always make sure they are out of reach from your pet. Use an infrared temperature gun to check how hot their basking spot is daily. Remember that excessive peeling of the scutes can be a sign a basking spot is too hot.
How to tell between a fresh injury and an old one?
Depending on where you live, you may one day find an injured turtle crossing the road, or in your backyard. When this happens it’s important to quickly figure out whether the injury is a new one, or an earlier one that has already healed.
If it’s new, take the turtle to a wildlife rescue, state/national park (with Ranger station), or your local vet. If it’s old, then release the turtle back to the wild. It may have been travelling to a nesting site or some other important activity. If it was crossing a road, put it safely on the other side, in the same direction it was crossing towards.
Let’s look at a few tips to tell between old and new injuries.
Signs of new injuries:
- Visible cracks in shell with white or pink patches between them
- Exposed white bone on the shell or head
- Cuts or cracks with dirt stuck in them
Signs of old injuries:
- Missing chunks of shell, or holes in shell with smooth, clean edges that are a similar colour to the rest
- Missing feet or toes, where the skin is smooth and dry, giving the end of the leg a rounded appearance
Turtle bite and injury first aid
If a vet isn’t available within 24 hours, or for minor injuries, you may have to do a little first aid yourself. Follow these steps:
- Remove the turtle from the water
- Clean the wound and apply povidone iodine or silver sulfadiazine to the affected area.
- Place the turtle in a box with some slightly damp paper towels. Keep it somewhere warm. If it is a pet turtle, keep it at about 5F (3C) warmer than the ambient temperature in its enclosure.
- Keep in the box until veterinary treatment is available (if you decide it is necessary) but return to water for a couple of hours a day for minor wounds. Do not return to water at all for major shell wounds.
- Don’t give up on an injured turtle! Remember that they are quite literally some of the toughest animals around.
Other possible injury’s
Is your turtle alive or unconscious? If they are unconscious, they may need oxygen. I wouldn’t recommend mouth to mouth, however a light puff of air in their face may help for oxygen.
Check out this article if your turtle is in water and not moving, you may be wondering if your turtle is drowning.
Skin rashes and wounds
So far, we’ve discussed how bites and injuries can be treated and prevented. Now it’s time to take a quick look at skin rashes and wounds.
Sometimes these can be caused by an injury from a rough rock or decoration, for example. Other times they can look very much like an injury, despite in fact being from a bacterial or fungal infection. In this case, what you’re dealing with is remarkably similar to Shell Rot – a necrotizing infection that attacks turtle shells.
Whenever you spot a rash, cut, or sore spot on your turtle’s skin, it’s important to determine the cause, and let this decide how you treat it. Fortunately, there are some clues which can help with this, and they are listed below.
Wounds cuts and scrapes:
- Are linear. They go in one direction and tend to be a line or several lines.
- Are localised to one area
- They bleed at first, then stop
- Are generally circular. This makes them look like spots or blotches.
- Often grow, and then spread
- Can look like shedding skin but leave sore areas underneath. Remember, normal shedding is natural, and should never make the skin red.
- Usually do not bleed in their initial stages
Treatment and prevention
By looking for the above clues, it’s usually possible to decide which problem you are dealing with. If you believe that your turtle has a simple cut or wound on its skin, then all you have to do is follow the first aid advice we’ve outlined earlier in this article.
When dealing with very minor wounds, it isn’t imperative that you keep your turtle out of the water all the time. Just conduct the treatment and let it dry out in a box for about an hour, then return it to its enclosure.
In the case of skin infections, whether bacterial or fungal, treatment is exactly the same as that for Shell Rot, which you can read about here. The only difference is that skin heals slightly faster than the scutes that make up a turtle’s shell.
Treatment for a skin infection should be yielding results after 3-4 days. If not, it is vital that you seek the help of a vet. If left to progress, a skin infection can eventually lead to Septicaemia, which is deadly.
As always, either a wound or an infection should prompt a full husbandry review. You must find out how it happened, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again! The guidance provided earlier on preventing injuries applies equally well to skin wounds.
When it comes to infections, however, you need to review the temperature and hygiene of your enclosure. It may be necessary to raise the temperature or install a more efficient water pump and filter.
When to see a vet
If either a wild or captive turtle has a major shell wound or crack, consult a vet immediately and give as much detail over the phone as possible. In the meanwhile, consult the article: What can be done to fix a cracked shell? on this website.
If the turtle is bleeding, burnt or scraped you need to assess this and decide how bad it is. My advice is to always seek the help of a vet for any injury that is more than superficial. When you see a cut that is bleeding a lot, or an injury that appears to have gone through the shell, you must seek the help of a vet to guarantee a full recovery.
For very minor scrapes and cuts, however, you can follow the steps 1 to 4 in the previous section for a few days, or until the cut appears to have scabbed over.
Injuries and bites are quite common in turtles. They are active, sometimes grouchy animals that can be determined escape artists. If we don’t pay attention, they can quickly come to harm.
Nonetheless, in captivity we should always strive to make accidents as unlikely as possible. Focusing on preventing escape, learning about their needs, and providing safe, secure enclosures helps with this.
Of course, when keeping animals, the occasional injury does happen no matter how hard you try to prevent it. What matters is how you deal with it.
Your first steps should always be to remove the turtle from water if it’s an aquatic species and clean the wound. From there, you can decide how serious it looks and whether to consult a vet.
Whatever the case may be, it’s time to do some investigating! Use the forum and the care sheets on this website to do some research and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
As always, comment or get in touch for more help!
What Next? Well… Check out the links below!
- Pet Turtle Care
- Turtle First Aid
- Turtle FAQ
- Turtle Definitions
- Turtle Rescue and Adoption
- What to do with a cracked turtle shell