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Why has my tortoise started biting?

Why Do Tortoises Bite? (Humans, Each Other + Females)

Last Updated on September 18, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises rarely bite their owners, even when afraid, but it happens. However, the most common fear-based response is to hide in their shells or burrow out of sight.

It can be a surprise when a tortoise is eager to nip at your fingers or toes. You may even find the tortoise biting male or female tortoises or themselves.

Tortoises bite due to hormonal changes, mating rituals, food confusion, stress, self-defense, and territoriality. Tortoises also bite each other due to space, territory, and mating rights disputes.

The bite force of a tortoise can hurt or break the skin, especially bites from larger species.

Why Has My Tortoise Started Biting?

A tortoise may start biting things randomly, including fingers, toes, other tortoises, or inedible objects.

In some cases, this means the tortoise is showing aggression. It may have become defensive of its personal space due to territoriality or fear.

It may be trying to show dominance over an object, another tortoise, or its owner by nipping. Bored tortoises fight to pass the time or bite objects to entertain themselves.

This changes if the behavior is uncharacteristic for your tortoise. In this situation, the biting habit may be due to curiosity, like the tortoise determining if the object is edible.

Tortoises bite new objects when curious or food debris remains, giving off odors. Since tortoises have bad eyesight, they may take a bite to determine if it’s food.

Why Do Tortoises Bite Humans?

Sometimes, a tortoise will bite your finger while handling, bathing, or feeding. Here’s why:


Your tortoise may think that your finger is edible during hand-feeding.

If you have food residue on your fingers, your tortoise may mistake your digit for a meal. Wiggling your finger may also confuse omnivorous tortoises, as they may think it’s a worm.

tortoise is trying to bite me


Tortoises value their privacy and can get overstimulated by too much handling.

If your tortoise bites you suddenly, it may want to be left alone. Most tortoises can be socialized to enjoy handling, but this differs between tortoises.

A tortoise in a grumpy mood may dislike handling and immediately respond aggressively. Give it some space if your tortoise liked being petted yesterday but is unfriendly today.

Hormonal Changes

During the mating season, your tortoise will be excitable and easily aggravated, so it may bite you to impress a potential mate or defend its territory.

Why Do Tortoises Bite Toes?

A tortoise may start chasing your feet to bite your toes. This can be for these reasons:

Within Easy Reach

Depending on the tortoise’s size, your feet may be the only part of you it can reach. If your tortoise is annoyed, it’ll bite to drive you away. Since your toes are easy to reach, this is the body part it targets.

Defending Territory

A tortoise may bite your toes to claim territory against a perceived threat.

That’s most likely if you’re sitting down or the rest of you is obscured from sight. Given that tortoises don’t have good vision, they may think your feet are a different creature.

Toes Look Like Food

As with your fingers, a tortoise may confuse your toes for a wiggling worm, perhaps because your nails are painted red. Tortoises can see a wide spectrum of colors to forage. 

Why Do Tortoises Bite Themselves?

Although it appears strange, there are instances where a tortoise will start biting itself, especially around the legs. This can happen for the following reasons:


Tortoises shed their skin, but not as you might expect from a reptile.

Unlike snakes, which remove their skin all at once, tortoises shed in patches. A patch of flaking skin sometimes causes a tortoise discomfort, so it’ll bite the area for temporary relief.

Skin Infection

A tortoise may bite itself due to discomfort from a skin infection. If you notice redness, swelling, or bleeding around the area bitten, it signifies a fungal or bacterial infection.

Why Do Tortoises Bite Each Other?

When several tortoises are kept together, they may start chasing, biting, and nipping at each other. Here are the most common reasons why this happens:

Fighting And Self-Defense

Tortoises enter disagreements with each other. According to Herpetologica, tortoises express discontent by snapping and biting. If the tortoise is in a bad mood, it may chase the rival and bite it.

Display of Dominance

According to Herpetological Monographs, tortoises are mostly passive and avoid conflict when possible. However, they still maintain hierarchies in the wild that are enforced through biting.

This could occur when a new tortoise is introduced to the enclosure. The older tortoise may want to show the new tortoise that this is claimed territory that it doesn’t intend to surrender.

While this behavior is common among male tortoises, it can occur between males and females.

Mating Process

During the mating season, it’s common for male tortoises to start biting females. This is a part of the courting process, including copulation.

Female tortoises are usually larger than their male counterparts. So, they can get away if they don’t want to mate with a certain male.

In response, the male will bite the female’s leg to slow her down and keep her in place. He’ll then bite the female so they can complete the mating process before she shows aggression.

If the male has bitten a female tortoise during the mating process, separate them afterward.

tortoise biting other tortoise

Do Tortoise Bites Hurt?

Tortoises don’t have teeth, but their bites can still be painful. They have a sharp ridge on the front of their mouth that acts like a pair of garden shears when eating food.

How Strong Is A Tortoise Bite?

A tortoise’s bite force in PSI hasn’t been scientifically studied.

However, the alligator snapping turtle has one of the most powerful bites at 1,000 psi. A carnivorous turtle will have a more powerful bite than a herbivorous tortoise.

Is a Tortoise Bite Dangerous?

Tortoises don’t have teeth. They have strong neck muscles and a sharp beak-like mouth. Larger tortoise species can issue a more painful bite. However, most pet species are small.

Is a Tortoise Bite Poisonous?

A tortoise’s bite isn’t poisonous, but its mouth will contain bacteria that can be transferred to your bloodstream if human skin is breached.

If your tortoise does bite you, wash the site of the wound and apply an antibacterial agent.

Most tortoises won’t bite their owners unless they feel curious or confused. Also, a tortoise may bite if it feels hormonal, territorial, annoyed, or distressed.

Tortoises are more likely to bite each other when defensive or during the mating season.