Can Tortoises & Turtles Feel Their Shell? Facts & FAQ


Can Tortoises & Turtles Feel Their Shell? Facts & FAQ

human hand is stroking the shell of a small domestic land turtle

Turtles and, to a lesser extent, tortoises are popular pets in the United States and are found in millions of American homes. One question many have about these reptiles is whether they can feel their shell if, for example, you scratch or pet them. The answer is a resounding yes! Even though it’s hard and quite sturdy, turtles feel almost as much through their shells as we do through our skin! You can keep reading to discover how the amazing creatures feel through their thick, hard shells and how to ensure you don’t cause your turtle any pain when you handle them.


How Do Tortoises and Turtles Feel Their Shells?

It might surprise you that a tortoise or turtle’s shell is made of bone. The only difference is that, unlike most other animals, these bones are on the outside of the tortoise or turtle’s body rather than the inside.

Over the bone are plates called scutes which, surprisingly, are made from the same material as your fingernails, keratin. You know it hurts if you’ve ever accidentally slammed a door on your finger or hit your fingernail with a hammer. That’s because your nails have nerve endings; the same goes for the bones and scutes of tortoises and turtles.

a female hands holding a pet turtle
Image Credit: Ivan Smuk, Shutterstock

How Sensitive Is a Turtle and Tortoise’s Shell to Touch?

According to researchers and scientists, the shells of tortoises and turtles are incredibly sensitive. If, for example, you scratch their shell, a turtle will sense the scratching as easily as if you were scratching their bare skin. In effect, their shells are highly sensitive to touch.

Tortoises and turtles feel it when you scratch, stroke, or tap on their shells. Veterinarians recommend handling both reptiles gently and carefully, making sure not to drop them, hit them forcefully, or touch them in a way that might cause your turtle or tortoise to become alarmed or stressed.

Can Turtles and Tortoises Feel Pain Through Their Shells?

Knowing that turtles and tortoises can feel their shells, it’s not a large leap to realize that they can also feel pain via their shells. Many turtle owners don’t realize this or don’t believe reptiles feel pain. Sadly, many have also done things like drill holes in a turtle or tortoise’s shell to carry them more easily or chain them up so they can’t escape.

You should not drill, cut, or otherwise damage a turtle or tortoise’s shell in any manner since it can be excruciating.

Small turtle
Image Credit: Travel-Fr, Shutterstock

Do Tortoises and Turtles Feel Pressure Through Their Shells?

Just like you can feel it when, for example, someone puts pressure on your toe, a turtle or tortoise can feel pressure through their shell. So, for example, if you place a large rock on top of a turtle or tortoise (but please don’t), they would indeed feel the pressure and likely feel very uncomfortable.

Should You Paint a Tortoise’s or Turtle’s Shell?

Many turtle and tortoise owners, especially those with children, paint their pet’s shells as a fun activity. However, that is a very bad thing to do. The reason is that, like humans and many other animals, these reptiles convert the sun’s UV rays into Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for their health and wellness, and without it, their health will suffer.

In effect, painting a tortoise or turtle’s shell will block UV rays from passing into its body and thus prevent it from being able to make Vitamin D. This, in time, can lead to bone deformities, a weakened shell, and other health issues. In short, never paint your pet tortoise or turtle’s shell; if you have, remove the paint as soon as possible.

Tortoises Eat Broccoli
Image Credit: Melina Massola, Shutterstock

Can Turtles and Tortoises Come Out of Their Shells?

This is a question many pet owners have, and the answer is that neither the turtle nor the tortoise can come out of their shells completely. Yes, they can stick out their heads, feet, and tails, but that’s just extending them.

However, just like your tongue is attached to your body and isn’t removable, a tortoise or turtle’s shell is completely attached to the rest of their body and is not made to be removed for any reason. Their scutes fall off occasionally as the animal grows, much like a dog or cat’s hair falls out, and their finger and toenails grow and need to be clipped.

Should You Pick Up a Turtle or Tortoise by Their Tails?

Many people believe that, to move a turtle that might be able to bite, you should pick it up by its tail. This, however, is 100% false. Just like their shell is part of their skeletal system, a turtle or tortoise’s tail is part of their spinal cord and spine. Picking them up by their tails could paralyze or even kill a turtle or tortoise, so you should never attempt to do it.

If you need to move a turtle or tortoise, the best way to do it is to gently grab the edge of its shell around the mid-point and lift it slowly. Be aware that many turtles and tortoises will urinate when picked up, so expect it and don’t drop them if they do. Move them where you want them to be, and then wash your hands.

person carrying an Eastern Box Turtle
Image Credit: Lisa Holder, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

As we’ve learned, tortoises and turtles can feel through their shells, including touching, scratching, and pressure. They also feel pain, so you should never drill or cut into a tortoise or turtle’s shell for any reason.

The shell is an integral part of their skeletal system. It’s also their armor and protection from predators, has nerve endings, and also has keratin, just like human fingers and toenails. We hope this information has been enlightening and given you food for thought about your pet turtle or tortoise and how they experience the world around them.

Featured Image Credit: tamiti, Shutterstock

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