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How to Handle Turtles and Tortoises

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Turtles and tortoises are very popular as pets, but what should a potential owner expect from these interesting shelled creatures? They are cute, but are they cuddly? They have sharp mandibles, but will they bite? And can they be handled – and if so do they enjoy it? Just what can you expect in the way of interactions from your captive turtle or tortoise?

Actually, despite the fact that they are reptiles, collectively a grouping of animals both well-known for over-emoting, turtles and tortoises are rather responsive to the overtures of their keepers. Most species quickly equate the presence of a person with the probability of being fed, and once acclimated, will eagerly paddle or plod to a position where they can greet their keeper.

Most turtles and many tortoises don't ever go much beyond this stage, but some tortoises become surprisingly tame. For example, our radiated tortoises plod stolidly along on tiptoe behind us when we're working in their enclosure, and should we stop, the tortoises will come around in front of us and collapse on our toes with an audible "sigh." If we reach down and rub their shells, they will then again stand fully erect and stick their head out to have their face and neck rubbed. They are probably the most responsive chelonians (turtles and tortoises) that we've ever had. A friend in California has some big leopard tortoises that react similarly.

Keep Handling at a Minimum

However, with that said, we hasten to add that neither species enjoys being lifted from the ground and will hiss in concern and promptly withdraw into their shell if such liberties are taken.

Semi-aquatic turtles, even relatively tame, long-term captives, usually react adversely to being picked up. They may show their displeasure in one or more of several ways. This includes kicking and scratching, attempting to bite, withdrawing fully into the shell, or voiding the contents of their cloaca and bladder when lifted. So, while turtles and tortoises are cute, most are not at all cuddly.

It is best to meet turtles and tortoises on their own terms. Let them be the ones to make the overtures. Physically restrain and lift them only when absolutely necessary.

Tips on Handling Turtles or Tortoises

How you lift a turtle or tortoise will depend on the size and the type.

  • A baby chelonian of any kind can be merely encircled with the fingers and thumb, and physically lifted. The creature will probably feel more secure if laid in the open palm of your other hand. But always restrain him. Don't allow him to scramble off your hand. A fall or drop could break your turtle's or tortoise's shell, break a limb, or even cause death.

  • A larger turtle or tortoise should be grasped in both of your hands, one on each side of the shell, between the forelimbs and the hind limbs. Tortoises are easily carried in this way, but semi-aquatic turtles can still kick strongly and if they are large may cause minor scratches. These scratches should be sterilized and dressed.

  • Some long-necked turtles (common snappers, soft-shelled turtles, snake-necked turtles) can even reach around or over their shell when being so held and very literally bite the hand that holds them.

  • A large common snapping turtle (some may weigh more than 50 pounds) can be held immediately behind the shell by its heavy tail, but keep the top shell and neck directed away from your leg so you won't be badly bitten. It is best not to handle them unless absolutely necessary. Some turtle handlers are concerned about harming the tail and recommend that this turtle be handled with thick gloves holding them by their shell, directly in front or as close to their back legs as possible. Remember, never take your eyes off of their head to prevent a bite.

  • Large softshells of some species may exceed 100 pounds in weight and are among the more difficult turtles to hold safely. It seems that no matter how you hold them you will get kicked and/or bitten. Softshells are most safely handled by grasping them firmly by the rear of the top shell with one hand and by the very front of the shell with the other. Force the knuckles of the foremost hand downward to make it difficult for the turtle to fully extend its long neck. Keep in mind that although many parts of a softshell are soft, the mandibles are not. The jaws of these turtles are formidably powerful.

    Don't Scratch the Shell

    Take care not to scratch a softshell's shell when handling it. Fungus may result.

    It is important that when handling your turtle of tortoise, you do so in a manner that will minimize the possibility of injury to either you or the animal. The shell is not impervious to feeling but is a living growing entity that can break or be otherwise injured. Your chelonian will feel, and usually respond to, your slightest touch.

    Never drop your turtle or tortoise. Always take the necessary precautions to prevent your turtle or tortoise from falling. If any injury does occur, consult a reptile-oriented veterinarian immediately.

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