We care for turtles and tortoises of all types, ages, and sizes at the Backwater Reptiles facility. While most of these shelled reptiles are pretty low maintenance, from time to time, they do require some additional care such as nail trimming or beak trimming.
Most of the time, trimmings won’t need to occur more than once or twice per year, and the process will be quick and easy to perform. However, because Backwater Reptiles accepts rescue animals, we do often receive turtles and tortoises who need to have this process taken care of right away.
In this article, we’ll address these topics and answer the following questions:
How to trim turtle and tortoise nails
Why is it necessary to trim turtle and tortoise nails?
How to trim a tortoise’s beak
Why is it necessary to trim a tortoise’s beak?
How to Trim Turtle and Tortoise Nails
What supplies do I need to trim my turtle or tortoise’s nails?
Luckily, you really don’t need many supplies to trim turtle or tortoise nails and the supplies are identical regardless of whether you’re using them on a turtle or a tortoise.
In order to trim your turtle or tortoise’s nails or claws, you will need:
1) Cat/Dog Nail trimmer OR human cuticle nail trimmer
2) Paper towels or other soft pliable material such as a normal towel
3) Corn starch
How do I trim my turtle or tortoise’s nails?
The first step you’ll want to take when trimming your turtle or tortoise’s nails is to secure the animal safely and eliminate squirming and discomfort to the animal as much as you can. This can be accomplished by wrapping the animal in paper towels or a soft towel. It will also help avoid slipping as it can be somewhat tricky to get a firm grip on the animal’s shell without some sort of “blanket” to hold the animal in place.
If you are trimming the front nails, wrap the back half of the animal firmly but not too hard. You don’t want to squash or harm the animal, and wrapping it up half way will help to make sure you don’t unintentionally over-restrain it.
Some owners find it useful to place the turtle or tortoise between their thighs while trimming, while others keep the animal on a counter or other hard, torso-height surface. We have used both methods and we recommend doing whatever feels safest for you as the whole process will run smoother if you are confident in your abilities.
Once your turtle or tortoise has been securely wrapped, you’ll need your clippers. There are many types on the market and the type of clipper you will use will vary based on the size of your animal and the thickness of the animal’s nails or claws. We don’t usually use the guillotine type of clippers as we find they provide less accuracy, particularly with terrestrial turtles and tortoises. Our clipper of choice tends to be either the manicure clippers used by people or the scissor type used on cats and dogs. When it comes to your own pet’s needs, we recommend using whatever feels most comfortable for you personally that will also get the job done quickly. The speedier you are able to perform the process, the less stress you will cause the animal.
Once you’ve determined which type of nail clipper works best for you and your animal, you will simply trim the nail as close to the quick as possible without actually hitting the quick itself. The quick of the nail is the portion that still receives blood flow. It’s essentially a blood vessel within the nail or claw.
The corn starch is really just a precautionary measure. You will only require it if you accidentally trim the nails or claws too close to the quick and cause bleeding. If this occurs, simply dab the tip of the claw in enough corn starch to staunch the bleeding. And while you’ll obviously want to avoid hitting the quick if possible, this is not always realistic as reptiles are not known for their ability to sit still during procedures such as nail trimming. But not to worry – your animal will recover quickly and so long as you keep an eye on the nail itself to avoid infection, there shouldn’t be any lasting damage.
Keep in mind that turtles and tortoises in particular, can be shy animals. They will likely do everything in their power to tuck in their feet as much as possible when you try to trim their nails. Please be patient with your pet and don’t attempt to trim their nails if you don’t feel you are capable and prepared for this measure. There are plenty of veterinarians who will perform this process for a small fee and we highly recommend taking your turtle or tortoise to the vet if you are nervous about doing the procedure on your own.
A word of caution: Sometimes the process of nail trimming can bring out attitude in even the calmest of animals. If at all possible, keep your fingers away from the beak of your turtle or tortoise so that you can avoid potential bites. You also want to avoid being scratched by the long nails, which is another reason why we do recommend wrapping the animal in a towel if possible.
Some helpful tips and tricks for getting your turtle or tortoise to stick out a leg:
1) Tickle the animal’s shell. This is particularly useful underneath the shell on the plastron. Sometimes the sensation of touch elsewhere on the animal’s body will bring it out of hiding.
2) Push in gently on the leg on the other side of the retracted limb. There is only so much room inside a shell and a natural response to the crowding will be to relieve it by pushing out a limb.
3) Hold the animal in the air rather than cradling it in your lap. Because the animal will sense that there is nothing underneath it, it might try to walk or start wiggling a little bit and there’s your opportunity!
4) Please be patient with your shelled friends. Never shake or jiggle your turtle or tortoise as this is not only stressful but could cause the animal injury. Eventually, your turtle or tortoise will get tired and you will be able to get at their toes without much struggle.
For your convenience and reference, we’ve included a brief video below demonstrating how we trim nails at the Backwater Reptiles facility.
Why is it necessary to trim my turtle or tortoise’s nails or claws?
While it is true that several species of turtle (cooters, sliders, and three-toed box turtles to name a few) naturally have longer front nails as a sign of prowess or physical fitness, in captivity, these long nails can become a health hazard if they grow too much.
Aquatic turtles can accidentally get their claws caught in filters or in carpet if you remove them from the tank for some exercise. The nails can also unintentionally injure other turtles as they do tend to climb all over one another if they are kept communally. Not to mention, if you enjoy handling your turtle, shorter, clipped nails are far less likely to inflict scratches on their owner.
In the wild, turtles and tortoises walk or exercise enough that their nails will naturally wear themselves down to a manageable length. However, in smaller enclosures, the nails can continue to grow and therefore will require trimming.
How To Trim a Tortoise’s Beak
What supplies will I need to trim my tortoise’s beak?
Trimming a tortoise’s beak is a bit tougher than trimming a turtle or tortoise’s nails, although the supplies needed are virtually the same.
1) A pair or clippers. Human cuticle clippers or pet scissor nail clippers will both work.
2) Paper towels or another type of soft towel or wrap.
3) A nail file. Do not use the metal or glass kind.
And that’s pretty much it! Not much is needed, but you will definitely want to make sure that the pair of clippers you select is an appropriate type. They need to be small enough but still strong enough to cut through the beak quickly.
How do I trim my tortoise’s beak?
First of all, we’d like to mention that you can help minimize the amount of beak trimming you actually have to do by providing a cuttlebone within your tortoise’s enclosure. Like many bird species, tortoises can use a cuttlebone to chew or nibble on to keep their beak at bay.
However, if you do find that you need to trim your pet’s beak, the first step is to secure the animal using the paper towels or other wrap. If possible, you’ll want to make sure that you can keep the legs inside the wrap so the tortoise doesn’t push the clippers away or use them to shield its face.
Next, you’ll want to be very patient in order to gain access to the tortoise’s face. Odds are your tortoise will be shy and it will retreat into its shell. If you are careful and very delicate, you might be able to trim the beak while the tortoise’s head is inside the shell, but it’s much easier if you can gain access while the tortoise has its head outside the shell.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to grip the tortoise’s head gently but firmly for a few brief moments while another person utilizes the clippers to trim the beak. However, we’ve found that for most tortoises, this can actually stress the animal more. Ultimately, you know your animal best and you should use whatever methods work best for you and your pet while minimizing stress.
With most clippers, we’d recommend performing a series of clips. You likely won’t be able to clip the entire beak in one shot. Try angling the clippers at 45 degrees on both sides at first to create a “point” at the beak’s tip. Then you can carefully trim the tip of the point and get it semi-squared off. You’ll want to mimic the natural shape of the tortoise’s beak as much as possible.
Once you have managed to trim the beak down to a normal length, you might need to file it a bit in order to shave down any rough edges. This is where your nail file or emery board comes in handy.
When filing, we highly recommend avoiding files with sharp points or very stiff natures as they can unintentionally injure the tortoise if it happens to jerk or squirm during the process. A simple, flat, emery board works best for this procedure.
Below you will find a video demonstrating how we trim tortoise beaks at the Backwater Reptiles facility.
Why is it necessary to trim my tortoise’s beak?
In the wild, tortoises have to work a lot more to find their food as well as to consume their food. This means that their beaks actually endure more wear and tear and essentially, trim themselves.
In captivity, your tortoise has no need to forage or roam or even really chew its food because most owners do all of that for them. While this is standard pet owner behavior, it does mean that your tortoise could eventually require a beak trim, especially if it doesn’t have a cuttlebone to rub on.
If you allow your tortoise’s beak to become overgrown, it can actually inhibit the animal’s ability to eat. The beak can prohibit the tortoise from opening its jaw wide enough to fit anything its mouth.
Another serious issue that we’ve witnessed in some of our rescue tortoises is scale rub. If the beak becomes too overgrown, it can begin to rub against the scales on the tortoise’s front legs causing irritation and infection.
Turtles and tortoises are very popular pet reptiles and they require relatively minimal care. However, from time to time, it might become necessary to trim either their beaks, their nails or both.
We hope that this article has helped instruct you how to go about these processes. And please – if you’re not comfortable performing these procedures or you think that you might injure the animal by performing them, take the reptile to a vet. Don’t risk your pet’s health.