Home » Why Do Tortoises Bite? (Humans, Themselves, Each Other, Females)
Why has my tortoise started biting?

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

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

So, it’s confusing when your tortoise is suddenly eager to nip at your fingers or toes. You might even find the tortoise biting other tortoises, female tortoises, or themselves.

Tortoises bite due to hormonal changes, mating rituals, food confusion, stress, self-defense, and territorial battles. Tortoises that bite each other do so due to disputes over space, territory, and mating rights.

The bite force of a tortoise can hurt or break the skin, especially if you own a larger breed of tortoise.

Why Has My Tortoise Started Biting?

Your tortoise may start biting things at random, including fingers, toes, other tortoises, or inedible objects.

In some cases, this means that your tortoise is showing aggression. So, it may have become defensive of its personal space due to territoriality or feeling scared.

It may be trying to show dominance over an object, another tortoise, or its owner by nipping. Bored tortoises will pick fights to pass the time or bite objects to keep themselves entertained.

This changes if the behavior is uncharacteristic of your tortoise, or they aren’t aggressive when biting. In this situation, the biting habit may be due to curiosity, such as the tortoise determining if the object is edible.

Tortoises will bite new objects they’re curious about or bite when food debris remains, giving off odors. Given that tortoises have bad eyesight, they may take a bite to see if it’s food.

Why Do Tortoises Bite Humans?

Sometimes, a tortoise will bite your finger if you’re handling, bathing, or feeding it.

Here are the reasons why:

Hunger

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

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

tortoise is trying to bite me

Handling

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

If your tortoise bites you suddenly, it could be asking to be left alone. Most tortoises can be socialized to enjoy handling from humans, but this differs between tortoises.

A tortoise in a grumpy mood may dislike handling and immediately respond with aggression. If your tortoise liked being petted yesterday, but can’t stand it today, give it some space.

Hormonal Changes

A tortoise may bite you during the mating season due to 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?

Your tortoise may start chasing your feet so that it can bite your toes.

This can have the following explanations:

Within Easy Reach

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

Defending Territory

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

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

Toes Look Like Food

As with your fingers, a tortoise may confuse your toes for wiggling worms or a type of berry.

That’s common if your nails are painted a bright color. Tortoises can see a wide spectrum of colors and use this to forage for vegetables and fruit. 

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:

Shedding

Tortoises shed their skin, but not in the way you’d expect from a reptile.

Unlike snakes, which remove their skin all at once, tortoises shed in patches. In some cases, a patch of flaking skin will cause your tortoise discomfort, causing it to bite the area for short-term relief.

Skin Infection

Your tortoise may bite itself due to discomfort from a skin infection.

If you notice any redness, swelling, or bleeding around the area where your tortoise bites, it’s a sign that it may have a bacterial or fungal 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 reasons why this happens:

Fighting And Self-Defense

Tortoises get into disagreements with each other.

According to Herpetologica, tortoises express their discontent by snapping and biting. If the tortoise is in a particularly 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’ll still maintain dominance hierarchies in the wild, which are enforced through biting.

This usually occurs 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 most common between male tortoises, it can also 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’re capable of running 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 that they can complete the mating process before she runs away or displays aggression of her own.

If your male has bitten a female tortoise during the mating process, separate the two of them afterward. While these bites won’t injure the female, she’ll likely be agitated after the event.

tortoise biting other tortoise

Do Tortoise Bites Hurt?

Tortoise bites can hurt, but they don’t hurt for the same reasons as dogs or cat bites since they don’t have teeth. They have a sharp ridge on the front of their mouth that acts like a pair of garden shears when eating food.

The sharpness of this ridge and the tortoise’s powerful neck muscles come together to generate a painful bite.

How Strong Is A Tortoise Bite?

A tortoise’s bite force in PSI is hard to determine since it 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.

The bite force will depend on its species and its reason for biting. If a tortoise bites you out of frustration and annoyance because it doesn’t want to be handled, the bite can be quite painful.

Is a Tortoise Bite Dangerous?

Tortoise bites can be harmful to the skin.

Tortoises may not have teeth, but their beak-like mouth is sharp. Add to this the strength of their neck muscles, and what you have is a pretty dangerous bite.

A tortoise’s mouth is relatively small, so most pet species will do no more than tear the skin.

Is a Tortoise Bite Poisonous?

A tortoise’s bite isn’t poisonous. However, a tortoise’s mouth may contain bacteria that can be transferred to your bloodstream if it manages to break your skin.

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

Most tortoises won’t bite their owners unless they’re curious or confused about what they’re nibbling on. If your tortoise feels hormonal, territorial, or distressed, it may bite as a warning.

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