Last Updated on October 6, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Wild tortoises spend much of their time burrowing, walking, climbing, and foraging for food. This lets them wear down their nails naturally, ensuring they don’t grow too long and sharp.
Captive tortoises aren’t always as active as their wild counterparts, leading to nail overgrowth. Overgrown nails can cause walking difficulties, injuries, bacterial infections, and arthritis (joint pain and inflammation).
So, monitor the tortoise’s claw length and clip them every 6-12 months to prevent overgrowth.
To prevent overgrown claws, add an abrasive substrate, logs, rocks, and soil mounds to the tortoise’s enclosure to allow them to wear down their claws naturally.
Should You Cut A Tortoise’s Nails?
While nails are vital to the tortoise’s anatomy, they can reach uncomfortable lengths.
Overgrown nails are aesthetically unappealing, but there are more important reasons why long nails are problematic for tortoises. These include the following:
Injury And Infection
Allowing a tortoise’s nails to grow unchecked significantly increases the risk of injury and infection.
Overgrown claws can get caught on things, inflict painful scratches on the skin, or injure an eye. If you have more than one tortoise, the one with long nails may accidentally injure the other.
Any open wounds can allow harmful pathogens like bacteria to enter the bloodstream, leading to shell rot. The symptoms include shell softness, discoloration, foul odors, and pus or discharge.
Allowing a tortoise’s nails to grow too long negatively affects its walking ability. When a tortoise’s nails become overgrown, they bend downwards, making movement uncomfortable.
Tortoises with overgrown nails may unwittingly alter their gait to minimize pain temporarily. Unfortunately, this adjustment strains the joints, legs, and soles of their feet.
Arthritis And Joint Pain
According to the Journal of Biology, arthritis in tortoises is linked to trauma wounds caused by overgrown claws. Tortoises affected by arthritis experience severe joint pain, making movement difficult.
How To Trim A Tortoise’s Nails
If a tortoise’s nails have grown too long, you can trim them to ensure they remain happy and healthy.
Herp vets are experienced at trimming overgrown tortoise nails and will cut them for a fee. However, you may trim the tortoise’s nails at home to avoid a stressful car journey.
You don’t need special equipment to trim the nails. You can securely hold the tortoise in place with a towel. Then, you can cut the nails using standard pet nail clippers.
If you cut the quick, applying 5% hydrogen peroxide (or cornstarch) can be used to stop the bleeding.
Here’s a simple guide on how to trim a tortoise’s nails at home:
Tortoises dislike human handling, even if they’ve emotionally bonded with the owner.
Any negative feelings will be amplified when attempting to do something it doesn’t understand. Unfortunately, be prepared for fear-based acts, such as emptying the bladder.
Attempting to hold down the tortoise to clip its nails makes it feel even more uncomfortable, so it’ll likely squirm around to free itself, leading to falls that can cause injury.
So, before clipping the nails, ensure it’s as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Wrapping the tortoise’s body in a towel prevents it from squirming and gives you a significantly better grip.
If you’re trimming the nails on the tortoise’s front limbs, wrap the towel around the lower part of its body. Then, change the position of the towel to the upper half of the body when focusing on the rear limbs.
Put the tortoise between your thighs when trimming to give you a better grip. Ask a friend to hold the tortoise as you trim its nails because this frees up your hands and gives you more control.
Clip the Nails
You should clip the tortoise’s nails carefully to avoid inflicting injuries. Tortoises’ nails have quicks that contain blood vessels and nerves. So, cutting the quick will result in pain and bleeding.
The quick is easy to identify. It’s located in the middle of the nail and is black-colored, unlike the rest of the nail, which is much lighter. Stay 3 mm away from the quick when trimming the nails.
Some tortoises will become aggressive when handled. If you’re not careful when trimming the claws, it may attempt to bite you to free itself.
Keep your fingers away from the tortoise’s mouth during the nail-clipping process. Also, wash your hands when you’re done because tortoises, like all reptiles, have salmonella on their skin.
What Happens if I Cut the Nails Too Short?
It’s still possible to inadvertently cut the quick when trimming despite exercising caution. For example, the tortoise may move suddenly just as you’re about to cut one of its nails.
If this happens, dab the injured claw into cornstarch to staunch the bleeding. Alternatively, apply 5% hydrogen peroxide to the wound to control the bleeding and prevent bacterial infection.
While trimming overgrown nails is essential, the procedure can be uncomfortable for a tortoise. You can minimize the need for cutting by providing the right conditions.
Here are ways to keep a tortoise’s claws short to prevent the need for clipping:
Living in a cramped space limits a tortoise’s movement, reducing opportunities to wear down its nails.
To mitigate this problem, house a tortoise in a spacious enclosure with ample room for movement. Doing so motivates the tortoise to indulge its instincts for roaming and exploration.
As mentioned, digging burrows is important for tortoises since it keeps their nails short.
It’s easier for wild tortoises to wear down their nails in this way. After all, their natural habitat is covered in abrasive soil and rocks, which create friction.
To keep a tortoise’s nails short, replicate their natural environment by providing an appropriate substrate.
A mixture of sand and loam soil is ideal for the tortoise enclosure since tortoises can dig more easily. Ensure the substrate is deep enough (at least 3-4 inches) to accommodate digging.
Adding accessories like rocks and logs to a tortoise’s enclosure can keep its claws from growing too long. As the tortoise climbs over these obstacles, the friction will naturally file its nails.
A tortoise won’t experience pain, provided you don’t cut the quick. According to Contributions to Zoology, tortoises’ nails have a hard keratin layer (a fibrous protein).
Aside from the quick, which contains blood vessels and nerves, tortoises’ nails consist of dead cells. Consequently, clipping the nails correctly will be pain-free. Use sharp, clean clippers.
Tortoise nails must be clipped twice yearly if they aren’t worn down naturally.
If you don’t yet feel comfortable carrying out the nail-trimming procedure, take it to a vet and learn how to do it properly. Then, you can cut the tortoise’s nails like a pro the next time.