You may have noticed that your pet turtle has broken one of their claws, or that one of them is missing altogether. Sometimes this is cause for concern, and other times you don’t need to worry at all. You may also be wondering if there’s anything you can do to boost your turtle’s overall nail health.
First, will my turtle’s nails grow back? Yes, your turtle’s nails will grow back. Claws grow continuously in turtles and tortoises. In the wild, a turtle’s nails will naturally wear down and sometimes break as they move over rough terrain. They will grow back, much like a human fingernail will.
Hopefully this comes as a relief to any turtle owner who has noticed that their pet has broken a nail. You might also wonder what constitutes a “healthy” break, and when a missing claw warrants a call to your veterinarian. Read on to find out more.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Turtle Nails
A turtle’s nails, as well as her shell, are made from keratin, the same structural protein that makes up human hair and nails. The length of the claws on a turtle’s front limbs can often be used to determine whether that turtle is male or female. Female turtles typically have shorter claws on their front limbs, and males have longer claws that are used during mating.
Tortoises have especially strong claws and are excellent diggers. Certain species of tortoise dig burrows for shelter and some females will dig holes in which to lay their eggs.
As previously mentioned, the nails of a turtle or tortoise grow continuously, much like a human’s finger and toenails. In the wild, a turtle will wear their nails down naturally as they move over a variety of rocks and rough terrain. In a captive environment, given a spacious enclosure and the right type of substrate, a turtle will wear down her nails the same way she would in the wild.
However, if you’re not providing adequate housing for your turtle, she may not have the opportunity to wear down her nails while moving and digging. This can result in claws that are overgrown and need to be manually trimmed, as well as an unhealthy, unhappy turtle.
Aquatic turtles, such as Red-eared Sliders, don’t typically have an issue with overgrown claws, even if they’re housed in a tank without abrasive substrate. For box turtles who are kept in cramped aquariums without abrasive substrate (if you are using newspaper or wood shavings, for example), overgrown nails are common.
Be sure to do your research on selecting the best substrate type and depth for your turtle or tortoise, so that she doesn’t end up with grossly overgrown nails.
Overgrown claws pose several dangers to your turtle. They can easily get caught in various areas of the turtle’s habitat, which can result in the loss of the claw, or even a toe. If your turtle injures herself in this way and the wound is not promptly treated by a veterinarian, it can result in a serious infection.
Overgrown claws can also prevent your turtle from using her feet normally, causing abnormal movement and pressure on her footpads, which can cause sores to develop. These sores are quite painful and can also result in an infection if they are not properly treated by a vet.
If overgrown claws are not trimmed and continue to grow for extended periods of time, they may even result in deformities of your turtle’s feet and toes, as well as painful arthritis in her joints. Your turtle can also injure herself, her tank-mates, or you with her overgrown claws.
Trimming Turtle Claws
Many aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles do not need their nails trimmed. Red-eared Sliders, for example, do just fine with longer claws. Longer nails do not hinder their movement, are actually a prominent feature of male sliders, and are used to attract mates. If you have any concerns about your aquatic turtle’s nail growth, be sure to have a conversation with your veterinarian.
If you are going to trim your turtle’s nails, be sure you have a pair of well-sharpened clippers designed specifically for this purpose. You should also keep some hydrogen peroxide and a styptic pencil handy. (Styptic pencils are available at many pet stores and online.)
If you’ve ever trimmed a dog or cat’s nails, you know that these mammals have an area of soft tissue in the center of their nail, called the quick. The quick contains a blood vessel that will bleed quite a bit if you trim your furry pet’s nail in the wrong spot.
Your turtle’s nails also contain a quick, similar to a cat or dog’s, that will bleed in the same manner. If this happens, apply hydrogen peroxide to the nail with a cotton swab or a piece of sterile gauze. Next, dry the nail completely and apply the styptic to stop the bleeding.
If your turtle’s nails have become overgrown, it might seem rather tempting to cut them back all in one go. This is not recommended, however, and will likely result in a snipped quick. Trimming any animals’ nails back slowly, over a longer period of time, allows the quick to shrink back into the nail.
This makes it possible to trim the nails to shorter and shorter lengths without cutting the blood vessel in the process.
Broken Nails: When to Worry
Routine nail wear and breaking is normal, but is there ever a time when concern is warranted? In short, yes. If your turtle completely tears off one of her nails, to the point that it is bleeding, you need to call your veterinarian immediately.
The biggest concerns for this type of injury are pain and discomfort for your turtle, as well as the possibility of a bacterial infection. Your turtle will need to be examined by a veterinarian to determine the best course of treatment, which may include pain medication and a course of antibiotics.
Once you make an appointment with your vet, you’ll want to do a bit of first aid for your injured turtle. Rinse her wound with clean water and keep her on a clean, dust and dirt-free surface, away from flies.
Even in a situation like this, your turtle’s nail will most likely grow back unless the nail bed has been significantly damaged. A nail that has been torn off completely will just take a lot longer to regrow.
In addition to providing an environment in which your turtle’s nails can wear down naturally, and providing the occasional manual nail trim, feeding your turtle with the proper diet will help to strengthen her nails and prevent serious breaks.
Turtles who do not receive enough vitamin A, calcium, and other nutrients can suffer from dry skin, overgrown beaks and nails, and shell deformities. I’ll use the example of a box turtle in the following discussion of diet, since they’re most commonly afflicted with overgrown nails.
As adolescent reptiles, box turtles need to be fed daily. As adults, they can be fed each day or every other day, depending on their appetite. Animal-based protein is acceptable for some box turtles, but you’ll need to consult your veterinarian about this.
If your vet determines that protein is a necessary part of your box turtle’s diet, you can give them insects such as crickets, mealworms, and wax worms.
Your turtle should also be given a wide variety of leafy, nutrient-rich vegetables. These types of vegetables should make up a high percentage of her diet and can include collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, kale, Swiss chard, clover, watercress, bell peppers, and green beans.
A smaller percentage of your turtle’s diet can include other vegetables like squash, sweet potato, cucumber, and carrots, as well as fruit. Fruits that are turtle-safe include apples, pears, mango, grapes, peaches, and melon. Raw fruits and vegetables are best, as they contain the most nutrients.
You also need to supplement your turtle’s diet with an appropriate calcium powder. Most veterinarians recommend lightly sprinkling your turtle’s food 2-3 times per week with calcium gluconate, lactate, or carbonate. Over-supplementation can also be an issue, however, so be sure to consult your veterinarian about the individual needs of your turtle.
Last, but not least, your turtle needs a source of ultraviolet (UV) light in her tank. Your turtle spends a large portion of her day basking and utilizes this type of light to manufacture vitamin D3, which she needs for proper calcium absorption.
Broken nails are not uncommon in turtles and might not always be a cause for great concern. Be sure that you are practicing responsible turtle ownership by providing your turtle or tortoise of any species with a tank that is large enough for adequate movement, the right type of substrate, and a proper diet. This will contribute not only to good nail health, but to the overall wellness and happiness of your pet.