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Do Tortoises Have Feeling in Their Shells?

Last Updated on September 27, 2022 by Samantha Harris

Tortoise shells are definitive features that distinguish them from other living creatures. While their shells are considered protective armor, many people wonder if tortoises can feel inside them.

A tortoise’s shell contains nerves that connect to its central nervous system. So, tortoises can feel pain and pleasure when their shells are touched, stroked, knocked, dropped, or injured.

The shells are just as perceptive as other parts of the body. For this reason, your tortoise will experience pleasure or discomfort, depending on how the shell is handled.

Are Tortoises Attached to Their Shells?

The shell is an inseparable part of a tortoise’s anatomy, forming part of its skeletal structure. The ribs and spine are fused inside the shell and contain nerves connected to the nervous system.

This makes the shell necessary for a tortoise’s survival. A tortoise that has had its shell removed won’t survive for long. Any damage to the shell can make it vulnerable to infections and health problems.

Tortoises grow together with their shells right from birth.

Do Tortoises Feel Pain in Their Shells?

The common misconception that tortoises don’t feel pain in their shells comes from the assumption that, since the shell is made from bone, it’s devoid of any nerves.

Tortoise shells contain main nerves and nerve endings that make them sensitive to touch. Consequently, tortoises feel pain when their shells are injured or damaged.

How Does a Tortoise Use Its Shell?

When people think about tortoise shells, they usually regard them as protective housing. However, shells serve a wide range of functions that are necessary for your tortoise’s survival, including:

Defense Against Predators

Wild tortoises have many predators that seek to hunt them for food.

Since tortoises can’t defend themselves against predators, their shells provide them with cover by allowing them to retreat inside them when attacked.

Protection from Injuries and Infections

Tortoises have fragile bodies and organs that are vulnerable to injuries and infections.

So, their shells protect their internal body organs. Without it, most tortoises would easily succumb to fatal injuries and infections, which may result in death.

do tortoises like being touched?

Structural Stability

A tortoise’s shell is intimately connected to the spine, rib cage, and bones.

For this reason, the shell gives the tortoise’s body its shape while providing support for organs such as the heart, kidneys, and lungs.

Shelter from Harsh Weather

Many tortoise species are native to environments characterized by adverse weather conditions, such as drought, sandstorms, and hail. Tortoises’ shells act as a protective shelter in extreme weather.

Anatomy of A Tortoise’s Shell

A tortoise’s shell is composed of keratin.

The shell’s anatomy has two parts: the carapace (outer layer) and plastron (inner layer).


The carapace is the domed outer part of a tortoise’s shell. It comprises a fusion of 50 bones, including the rib cage and vertebral column.

A tortoise’s carapace is split into plated segments known as scutes, which are designed to add an extra layer of strength and protection. The scutes start off as pale or whitish in young tortoises and gradually darken with age.

The scutes on a tortoise’s carapace are assigned different names depending on their location. For instance, those found along the back of the carapace are known as vertebral scutes, whereas the ones located on the sides are called costal scutes.


The plastron is the underside of a tortoise shell that includes the anterior and posterior struts and the bridge of the shell.

In most tortoise species, the plastron is larger than the carapace. However, just like the carapace, it’s also separated into scutes that run down the central seam.

In male tortoises, the plastron is concave in shape, which allows them to mount females during mating. Meanwhile, females have a convex-shaped plastron, making it easier for males to mount them.

According to a European Congress of Herpetology, tortoises with a markedly domed plastron (typically males) are more successful at self-righting (getting themselves off their backs when they overturn).


Scutes are the plated subdivisions found on a tortoise’s shell that give it its signature appearance. Scutes are made from keratin and named according to where they are found on the tortoise’s shell.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Tortoise Shell

Tortoises are vulnerable to most shell problems, including pyramiding, shell rot, and soft shell. For this reason, it’s important to know how to tell the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy shell.

Here are some characteristics of a healthy tortoise shell:

  • Smooth carapace
  • Firm to the touch
  • No obvious bumps and signs of injury
  • Presence of a growth ring which appears as a palish band between the scutes

An unhealthy tortoise shell could exhibit the following signs:

  • Uneven scutes (some scutes appear raised compared to others)
  • Falling scutes
  • Discoloration of scutes
  • Emission of foul-smelling discharge from the shell
  • Easily damaged shell
  • Presence of fluid under the scutes

Do Tortoises Like Their Shells Being Touched?

Tortoises aren’t known for being social creatures.

Most of the time, they feel threatened by physical touch. Of course, some tortoises are more receptive to touch than others, especially when comfortable with their handler. However, tortoises don’t enjoy being handled by humans, including being touched on their shells.

Tortoises’ shells are sensitive to tactile sensations, just like other parts of their bodies. So, don’t apply too much pressure when touching them, as this can cause discomfort and pain.

Do Tortoises Like To Have Their Shells Scratched?

Don’t respond to shell scratching in the same way. While some tortoises enjoy being petted and gently scratched, others may find it unpleasant and threatening.

Remember, tortoise shells have nerves and nerve endings that connect with their nervous system. This means any tactile sensation, including light scratching, can cause pain.

It’s important to note how your tortoise responds when the shell is scratched. For instance, check whether your tortoise retreats into its shell when you attempt to scratch it. Usually, this is an indication that the tortoise feels threatened or uncomfortable.

Do Tortoises Love Their Shells Rubbed?

Tortoises can feel good from having their shells rubbed. However, nerve endings inside tortoise shells also imply that they can experience a pain response when their shells are rubbed aggressively.

Can a Tortoise Survive Without Its Shell?

The shell is an important part of a tortoise’s anatomy, which serves various purposes, including shelter against harsh environments, protection against predators, and effective thermoregulation. For this reason, a tortoise is unlikely to survive for long without its shell.

When a tortoise’s shell is damaged, it won’t be able to defend itself against predators. This would make it vulnerable to attacks and die sooner than its healthy-shelled counterparts. The tortoise will also be prone to infections and injuries, which can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated early.

Besides serving as protective armor, tortoise shells also form part of the skeletal structure. This means the shell is attached to the vertebrae, ribcage, and other bones that make up the skeletal system.

do tortoises feel pain in their shells?

What Happens When a Tortoise Is Out of Its Shell?

Tortoises are incapable of coming out of their shells. It’s impossible to forcibly separate a tortoise’s body from its shell without ripping apart its body and exposing its internal organs.

Attempting to forcefully separate a tortoise from its shell would cause considerable damage to the animal’s body, which may lead to untimely death.

What Happens If A Tortoise Cracks Its Shell?

A cracked tortoise shell is a serious medical emergency that needs to be addressed immediately if its health is to be salvaged.

Tortoises require healthy shells to protect themselves from predators and safeguard their internal organs from damage. If a tortoise cracks its shell accidentally, its ability to function can be severely impaired.

For instance, a tortoise whose shell is cracked is more susceptible to predators since it can’t protect itself against attacks.

Scientific Reports revealed that a damaged shell could impair a tortoise’s ability to self-right after falling on its back. So, the tortoise won’t live long in the wild, as it would be vulnerable to predators.

Likewise, a cracked shell leaves a tortoise’s internal organs exposed, thus making them prone to injuries that can prove fatal if not treated early.

Moreover, having a cracked shell is hazardous to a tortoise’s health since it leaves them vulnerable to infections such as shell rot, ulcerative shell disease, and soft shell.