Tortoises are becoming increasingly popular as companion animals today. Tortoises do not make noise and are easy to find in most local pet stores.
But tortoises and turtles also have a reputation for carrying an infectious bacteria called salmonella that is zoonotic (can be transferred from animals to people).
So many new aspiring owners are concerned about whether tortoises bite and how to stay safe while handling their new pet.
In this article, learn whether tortoises bite, why tortoises bite and how to reduce the risk of your tortoise biting you.
Do Tortoises Bite
The short answer to the question do tortoises bite is yes. However, unlike many other wild species, biting is not a tortoise’s first line of defense against predation and other threats.
We will talk about the main reasons why tortoises bite in the rest of this article.
Watch a Tortoise Biting Their Handler
In this short YouTube video, you can get a glimpse into tortoise biting behavior and learn more about why a tortoise might choose to bite.
Do Tortoises Bite on Purpose
As Kidspace Children’s Museum explains, tortoises will bite on purpose, but the purpose is not usually one of aggression.
As The Tortoise Group nonprofit points out, the most common reason why tortoises bite is to see if something is edible.
For example, perhaps you go to handle your tortoise right after you peeled and ate a tasty banana. Your tortoise has a keen sense of smell, which aids in foraging low-lying food in a wild setting.
So your tortoise will smell the banana on your finger and mistakenly think your finger is the food they want to eat. The result can be a painful bite.
Do Tortoise Bites Hurt
Reptile Gardens explains the difference between tortoise mouths and the mouths of more common pets like dogs and cats.
Dogs and cats have teeth. Tortoises do not.
Instead, tortoises have a sharp ridge that functions a lot like a pair of sharp garden scissors. Tortoises use their jaws to bite plant matter, fruits, flowers, and (in some species) small insects or rodents, or even carrion.
Then their powerful neck muscles and strong digestive acids help to compress and digest the food on its way through the digestive tract.
If you have ever accidentally been trying to cut something with scissors and caught the end of your finger in the shears, you know that this can hurt.
In the same way, tortoise bites can definitely hurt!
Since tortoises can be very tiny or very large, the bite strength and capacity to injure a human vary greatly. However, you always want to try to avoid getting bitten by a tortoise, regardless of their size or jaw strength.
Do Tortoises Ever Bite for Self Defense
Tortoises may seem to be slow physically and mentally, but as New Scientist highlights, research has shown that the latter is far from true.
In fact, researchers discovered that when conditions are sufficiently warm for these cold-blooded reptiles, tortoises perform as well as (if not better than) primates and rodents on sophisticated intelligence tests.
Tortoises are immediately on their own from the moment they hatch out of their egg and never get any training on how to forage for food, identify safe food sources or defend themselves.
So a tortoise that feels very threatened may in fact bite. But the more typical defense response of tortoises is to retract as far as they can into their shell and pretend to be dead, to pee or poop to repel predation, or to try to walk away.
If all these other strategies fail, a tortoise will certainly bite as a method of self-defense.
What Are the Main Reasons Why Tortoises Bite
Tortoises will bite for a number of different reasons that start to make more sense when you learn more about their wildlife and behavior.
Tortoises bite when seeking a mate
As this slightly comical yet very true story in the Daily Mail illustrates, biting can serve an important role in certain rites of passage, including mating.
Male tortoises have been observed to bite female tortoises as a method to get them to hold still for mating.
Some but not all tortoises emit pheromones. Pheromones are invisible (visually) but potent (olfactory) chemicals signaling sexual readiness to mate, as Science Direct points out.
In tortoise species that emit pheromones, tortoises may be somewhat more specific about what or whom they bite. The pheromones help the tortoises identify a potential mate.
But there are also tortoise species that do not produce pheromones, and these species must depend on sight to locate a suitable mate. Since the majority of land tortoise species are quite solitary, they may not ever have seen one of their kind before.
As American Zoology explains, anything that is tortoise-shaped and appropriately sized could potentially get bitten as the tortoise searches for a mate.
When a tortoise locates what they think is a potential mate, they may bite during mounting to hold the female in the place.
Male tortoises have also been observed to fight and spar with one another by biting and shell ramming when there is a female present that is ready to mate.
Tortoises bite to get a reward
As SciTech points out, tortoises in laboratory and zoo settings have been taught to bite colored balls in exchange for a food reward.
Since foraging in a wild setting is a full-time job for a tortoise, the instinct to eat when the eating is good is very strong in these animals.
Researchers have used this instinct to their advantage when training tortoises to test their intelligence, memory, and recall.
Tortoises bite to avoid being handled
Until tortoises can talk to us in a common language to explain exactly why they bite, the best information we have comes from our own direct observation.
This thread in the popular Reptile Forums explains that tortoises who are not used to being handled may bite as a way to discourage their owners or rescue personnel from handling them.
Tortoises can be socialized to accept handling, but most tortoise species will not come to enjoy it, especially if it is introduced when they are already an adult.
So if you try to pat their necks or touch their feet or shell, a tortoise may bite to let you know they don’t like to or they are scared of what you are doing.
Can You Catch Salmonella From a Biting Tortoise
As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) highlights, it is possible to catch salmonella from any kind of contact with a tortoise or turtle.
The salmonella bacteria easily travels from the tortoise to the person and can cause a variety of health symptoms. The onset is typically quick and includes symptoms like diarrhea, cramping, and fever.
However, the CDC also points out that there are lots of other more common ways to catch salmonella, including by handling contaminated food and from keeping poultry.
People who have an open or still healing skin wound will be more likely to develop salmonella whether from a tortoise bite or simply washing ahead of contaminated lettuce.
Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned sales of tortoises and turtles four inches long or smaller.
You can go a long way towards preventing your tortoise from biting you by learning proper tortoise handling methods.