Tortoise Temperament: Do These Gentle Reptiles Bite?

The short answer is, yes, tortoises can bite, but I'm delighted to tell you that they generally aren't aggressive.

Dec 23, 2023By Tanya Taylor
tortoise temperament do these gentle reptiles bite

I recently became a tortoise owner, and I love spending time with these gentle reptiles and learning about their unique personalities. I’ve discovered they’re sweet, inoffensive creatures, so I was surprised when someone asked me, do tortoises bite?

Do Tortoises Bite? The Surprising Truth

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More often than not, tortoises only bite humans through fear, not aggression. They may also nibble at human fingers or toes because they have mistaken them for a tasty new snack.

Tortoises and turtles don’t have teeth - they have a sharp beak and strong jaw, but that doesn’t mean their bites don't hurt. Their snappy mouths can easily pinch and even pierce human skin.

Some species snap harder than others. A bite from a herbivore tortoise will rarely break the skin, but it can still be painful and leave a mark. On the other hand, omnivore tortoise bites can be eye-wateringly painful and leave a nasty open wound.

Will a Tortoise Bite its Owner?

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Technically, a tortoise can bite their owner, but they usually do it out of fear or by mistake. That’s not to say there aren't some tortoises out there with a bad attitude, but generally, tortoises don't make a habit of biting people.

In the few months I've had my tortoises, they’ve never shown signs of aggression, and I would be incredibly surprised if they did. That said, I’m aware that biting can happen occasionally, so let's take a deeper look at the situations where a tortoise might bite its owner:

Through Fear

Tortoises are pretty placid and usually retreat into their shell if they're frightened. But, if they are in a high state of anxiety, they will sometimes bite out of self-defense as a last resort to save themselves. They’re shy little creatures and may be wary of strangers and are easily startled if you pick them up by surprise or handle them roughly. If a tortoise bites you when you handle it, put it down because this is a sign that it’s not comfortable.

By Mistake

I love to watch tortoises foraging, and I find it funny how they chomp away at everything in their path. They have a big appetite and will test most things to see if they can eat them, and sometimes, this includes your fingers and toes! A hungry pet tortoise can easily mistake your digits for food, especially if you wear colorful nail polish, which they might think is a tasty flower.

What to Do if A Tortoise Bites You

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It doesn’t happen often, but if a tortoise bites you and breaks the skin, you must clean the wound immediately with antiseptic. They have lots of bacteria in their mouths and often carry salmonella, so watch out for symptoms in the days after a bite.

I must also mention that tortoises can hold on when they bite. I know it’s easier said than done, but you must relax if a tortoise latches on to your skin. It will only let go when it doesn’t feel threatened anymore. The worst thing you can do in that situation is try and pull or shake it off. This will only make the little critter hold on harder.

If a tortoise breaks the skin of another tortoise through biting, you must seek veterinary advice about the wound. Tortoises sometimes bite at themselves, usually due to shedding or skin complaints, and this is another reason to contact your vet.

Do Tortoises Bite Each Other?

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Tortoises will bite each other and are more aggressive towards their own species than they are to people. Especially during mating season, when things can get pretty hairy in a tortoise creep.

If you notice that your torts are biting each other, it’s usually due to the following reasons:

  1. Out of dominance - A tortoise will sometimes bite another tortoise to show dominance. This happens a lot when you introduce new members to a group.
  2. Because of Hormones - The most common reason for biting and aggression among tortoises is hormones. Some male tortoises can go a little crazy around mating time and be incredibly aggressive towards other males and females.
  3. Due to Boredom - Tortoises are intelligent creatures and may bite each other due to boredom. They may also fight among themselves if they live in a small, overcrowded space or don't have a good diet.

Are Some Tortoises Species More Aggressive than Others?

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Tortoises aren’t aggressive creatures, but as we’ve discovered, they can have their moments. Generally, wild tortoises are more aggressive than pet ones, males are more hostile than females, and juveniles might challenge boundaries more.

Aggression levels in tortoises comes down to many factors, including their personality, age, environment, and the season, not just the species. Even the most placid species, such as the Leopard, can have their moments, especially during mating season.

That said, there are a few tortoise species that are generally more prone to aggression to others, and these are:

  1. The Succula - Can be territorial with people, animals, and other tortoises.
  2. The Hernmans - Their color determines how hostile they are.
  3. The Marginated - Are particularly aggressive during mating, especially towards their mate.

How to Deal with Biting and Aggression in Tortoises

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As I mentioned, biting and aggression in tortoises is rare, and you won't see it often. But I think it’s crucial to know what to do if a shelled friend suddenly becomes aggressive.

So, below, I’ll share with you my top tips for dealing with and preventing biting and aggression in tortoises:

  • Always be gentle when you handle them.
  • Don't take them by surprise - Never snatch them up. Go slowly - let them see your hand first.
  • Don't handle them too much - especially if they don't enjoy it.
  • Don't handle them when they are stressed - Or if they are hiding in their shell.
  • Use gloves when you handle aggressive tortoises.

For aggression among tortoises:

  • Separate males during mating season if they are aggressive to one another.
  • Separate antisocial tortoises if they bully others - do it at the first signs of bullying because it can quickly escalate.
  • Provide a healthy living environment - Ensure they have plenty of space and hiding places and that you feed them a healthy diet.
Tanya Taylor
By Tanya Taylor

Tanya is a trusted animal care professional and has devoted her life to animals. In her 25-year career, she’s worked with all kinds of creatures in many environments, including three years caring for small animals as a veterinary nursing assistant and five years birthing down racehorses.

She is an expert farm and dog sitter - and has spent many hours volunteering at her local pony sanctuary. Tanya is originally from Liverpool in the UK, but now she lives in Ibiza, Spain, with her cheeky red terrier Leo and three Leopard tortoise hatchlings, Ninja, Tiny, and Orwell.