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what should a tortoise beak look like?

How Do I Know If My Tortoise’s Beak Is Too Long?

Last Updated on September 17, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Looking at a tortoise from the side, you’ll see a hard and sharp overhang over the mouth. This is known as the tortoise’s beak, which is responsible for breaking off and grinding food before swallowing.

If a tortoise’s beak appears overgrown, hanging past its jawline, it’s too long and needs trimming.

The easiest way to identify an overgrown beak is by monitoring the tortoise’s eating ability. If the beak is too long and misshapen, it’ll be unable to open and close its jaw properly.

A varied, self-discovered diet fed on an abrasive surface like a flat rock will naturally keep the tortoise’s beak worn down. However, meals that are chopped into small pieces lead to overgrowth.

What Should A Tortoise Beak Look Like?

A healthy tortoise’s beak should be short with a slightly curved point at the end.

When you look at a tortoise, the underside of the jaw (its chin, to use a human anatomical reference) should be visible. If the beak is too long, you’ll observe an overhang at the front or around the beak.

how long should a tortoise beak be?

What Are The Signs That A Tortoise’s Beak Is Too Long?

A tortoise’s beak is made of keratin. In a way, tortoises’ beaks are like human fingernails, which will continue to grow unless trimmed or worn away.

Here are the signs of an overgrown beak:

  • Unable to open jaw sufficiently. This can be observed by watching the tortoise eat.
  • Beak rubs against front legs. This action can lead to irritation and open wounds.
  • Strange clicking noise. The beak rubs against the bottom of the mouth, causing a clicking sound.

There are other causes of clicking and squeaking, so this doesn’t always indicate an overgrown beak.

Why Is My Tortoise’s Beak Too Long?

According to the Reptile and Amphibian Practice in California, an overly long beak is often a sign of malnutrition because wild tortoises don’t need beak trims.

Unfortunately, pet tortoises aren’t always given the right diet or conditions.

Non-Abrasive Surfaces And Foods

When a tortoise forages for food, the beak experiences wear and tear as it encounters abrasive substances and sifts through the undergrowth to find food.

This keeps the beak at a manageable and healthy length as the natural environment wears it down.

According to Science Direct, the beaks of tortoises that don’t have access to abrasive surfaces and foods won’t be naturally kept an optimal size and shape.

Individual Growth Rates

Tortoises’ beaks grow at different rates, so some need a trim twice a year, while others never need a trim.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

An oversized or overly long beak can be caused by underlying health conditions, like metabolic bone disease, which leads to malformed bones and softened shells.

MBD can result in the upper and lower beak being misaligned, meaning that the tortoise won’t be able to bite off and swallow its food properly.

Although filing the beak down will address the situation, it won’t resolve the cause of MBD. The solution is to provide more calcium and ultraviolet (UV) light exposure.

do tortoises need their beaks trimmed?

How To Trim A Tortoise’s Beak

According to Tortoise Feeding and Nutritional Requirements in the Companion Animal, filing replicates the natural process achieved through contact with abrasive foods and surroundings.

A tortoise’s beak contains blood vessels and nerves, so it’ll feel what you’re doing if you make an error.

Improper beak trimming may result in pain and bleeding, so it’s advised that you ask a herp veterinarian to trim the tortoise’s beak the first time so that you can learn from watching the process.

Once a vet has demonstrated the correct procedure, you’ll feel confident enough to trim the beak. Trimming the front of the beak is easier than trimming overgrowth around the mouth.

Here’s how to file a tortoise’s beak:

  1. Ensure the tortoise is comfortable and secure.
  2. Use a towel wrap to prevent the tortoise from moving or pushing the clippers away.
  3. Ensure you can access the tortoise’s face, as some tortoises will retreat into their shells. Trimming the beak while its head is in the shell is possible, but it’ll be much harder.
  4. As you clip, the tip of the beak must finish with a sharp point. That’s why clipping should be performed at a 45-degree angle, with one clip on each side of the beak.
  5. Some light filing may be required to smooth the edges of the beak after clipping.

Trimming shouldn’t be required more than once or twice per year, and it can be avoided entirely if the tortoise is given the ‘tools’ needed to keep its beak short.

Alternatives To Tortoise Beak Trimming

One of the best ways to prevent a tortoise’s beak from growing too long is to give it a cuttlebone.

According to the Natural History and Medical Management of Terrestrial and Aquatic Chelonians, a cuttlebone is a source of calcium and an abrasive surface that wears down the beak naturally.

If the tortoise is disinterested in cuttlebone, you can make it more interesting. Add color and flavor by soaking the cuttlebone in carrot juice because tortoises are drawn to bright colors, like orange.

Feed the tortoise its meals on a flat rock to expose its beak to the rough surface. Again, the abrasiveness will give the tortoise a means of keeping its beak a manageable length.

Avoid cutting the tortoise’s food into bite-sized chunks to make it work for its food. That’s part of how tortoises keep their beaks short in the wild, so this same process is essential in captivity.

With natural interventions and trimming options available, keeping the beak at a manageable length is a simple yet crucial part of tortoise husbandry.