As the proud parent of a pet turtle, you have probably noted all manner of amusing actions from your little reptile. She might even follow your finger around when it’s near or inside her tank. If this has happened to you, you might be wondering what motivates your turtle to chase after your digits like they’re her long lost friends.
Why does my turtle follow my finger? Your turtle follows your finger because she associates it with food. She might even think your finger is food! Although this behavior itself is mostly harmless, you’ll want to take steps to ensure that your turtle doesn’t actually catch your finger, as some turtles do bite.
Now that you know why your fingers are so appealing to your turtle, we’ll explore why this is the case and the steps you can take to avoid getting bitten. Although it might seem tempting to allow your turtle to chase and play with your finger, there are better, less dangerous ways to entertain her.
Why Turtles Associate Your Fingers With Food
Turtles are smart little creatures who have excellent memories. There have been several scientific studies done surrounding turtle and tortoise memory and intelligence. In one of these studies, Florida red-bellied cooters were taught specific tasks by their trainers. These turtles were able to remember what they had learned up to seven and a half months later.
In another study, red-footed tortoises were trained to associate specific colors with certain foods. Each colored sheet shown to them was also associated with a specific amount of food. The tortoises in the study were able to remember and identify each color cue even after a whopping 18 months.
Turtles’ memories are especially driven by factors that impact their survival. In the wild, turtles will cover quite a bit of ground, even crossing dangerous, busy roads, to return to remembered sources of food and water, as well as previous mating sites.
If a wild turtle can remember where he got a great meal a few months ago, your pet turtle can definitely remember you (and your fingers) as reliable sources of delicious snacks.
As cute and entertaining as it may be to play a game of “Catch Me If You Can” with your pet turtle, your best bet is to break the association they have between your fingers and their meals. This will ensure you don’t get bitten.
You can break this association by doing several things. First, you can feed your turtle in a container or area that is separate from their main tank. This will teach them not to expect meals in the comfort of their “home”. It will also keep their habitat cleaner!
Second, don’t place food directly in front of your turtle’s face. Make them work for it a bit by placing it across their tank or terrarium and removing your fingers from the vicinity. Third, don’t tap on the glass of your turtle’s enclosure to get her attention, or wiggle your fingers near her face. Make your fingers as uninteresting to them as possible.
Finally, if you must “hand-feed” your turtle, do it with tweezers or tongs, removing direct contact with your fingers from the equation altogether.
Turtles don’t have teeth, but they do have strong beaks and they can and will bite you. These bites can pose certain risks to you and are best avoided if at all possible.Even though your turtle may appear small and non-threatening, their bites can cause incredible pain and discomfort.
Turtles don’t particularly like to be handled and your pet may snap at you when you attempt to handle them. Your turtle may bite you because she feels scared, stressed, or threatened, or because she mistakes your finger for food.
Box turtles are known for being relatively docile, for example, but they can still make this honest mistake. Certain species of male tortoises also bite to establish dominance. They are more apt to bite each other, rather than humans, but it does happen.
Bacterial infections following a turtle bite are not uncommon. Turtles are known Salmonella carriers, and this bacteria can easily transfer into a bite wound. Symptoms of this type of Salmonella infection can include fever, headache, and pain and pus at the site of the bite.2
If your turtle does deliver a bite to you, be sure to clean the wound as soon as possible and apply disinfectant. You should also apply antibacterial ointment to the affected area and wrap it with sterilized gauze.
After you’ve completed these first aid steps, call your doctor as soon as possible. Oral antibiotics may also be necessary, as well as a tetanus shot if the bite wound is deep enough.
If your turtle bites you and will not let go, do not attempt to pry her mouth from you. This can worsen your own wound and will also frighten your turtle and cause her pain and additional stress, and she may bite harder. Instead, remain as still as possible, which should encourage her to let go. Once she does let go, give her some space so she can calm down.
How to Handle Your Turtle Properly
There are many things you can do, in addition to feeding your turtle without the use of your fingers, to both avoid turtle bites and raise a turtle that is less fearful of you and therefore, less likely to bite in the first place.
First, always be sure to approach your turtle from the front. Turtles can hear lower-frequency sounds and can sense vibrations, but they don’t have the greatest sense of hearing. Avoid sneaking up on your turtle friend and taking her by surprise.
You should also avoid picking your turtle up, unless it is absolutely necessary to move her for some reason. Turtles do not enjoy being picked up as it makes them feel unsafe. Picking up could cause them to bite, kick, scratch, or empty their bladder.
If you do need to pick your turtle up, hold her securely with both hands. Place one hand on each side of her shell, between her forelimbs and hindlimbs. Turtles can be wiggly and slippery, so this hold is important to ensure that you do not drop her. A fall could break a turtle’s shell or one of her limbs, or could even be fatal.
If you’d like to interact with your turtle, instead of holding her, place her on the floor or inside a shallow enclosure. Place your animal on solid ground as gently as possible to avoid injury.
Allowing turtles to roam freely around your home is discouraged for many reasons, so you should limit her to one room (bathrooms are your best bet, as they are typically most easy to clean). Sit near your turtle, but let her come to you when she feels comfortable enough to do so.
You can attempt to pet the top of your turtle’s head, as well as her chin and cheeks, if she doesn’t show any signs of fear when you reach toward her. You can also gently stroke her shell. Never pick your turtle up by her tail. Hopefully the very thought of doing so is enough to make you recoil. Picking a turtle up by her tail can dislocate the bones there, which is quite painful.
If you need to rotate your turtle onto her back, rotate her head over tail, rather than side over side. Turning a turtle side over side can cause her intestine to twist and can be fatal. In addition, never leave your turtle on her back longer than is absolutely necessary. This position is very unnatural, and in turn, very stressful for her.
Never tap or scratch your turtle’s shell. Your turtle’s shell is made of living tissue and is actually quite sensitive. Scratching it can cause fungal infections, and tapping it can cause pain and be very stressful.
Remember never to wiggle your fingers in front of your turtle’s face or otherwise encourage her to play with them.
Last, but not least, be sure that your turtle is fed regularly (typically four to five times per week) and provide her with a balanced diet, as well as a shallow dish of clean water and the appropriate supplements.
Even though it’s cute, allowing your pet turtle to chase your finger around might not end well for either of you. You should avoid using your finger as a source of entertainment for your turtle and feed her without using your hands whenever possible.
Take the appropriate steps to encourage your turtle to trust you and learn that you are not someone to be feared. Doing all of this can ensure a bite-free relationship between you and your pet.