You might think that turtles are slow, lethargic and unassuming reptiles. While the first two may or may not be true, snapping turtles are definitely not unassuming. As their name suggests they snap. Simply translated, they bite. What do you do if you get a snapping turtle bite? Although the bites aren’t too common if you approach the turtles properly, there are many ways to limit your exposure to the possibility of a bite. With a jaw strength of 200-300N of force and a sharp beak made for tearing, if they do get you, it’s probably going to hurt and require action from you. Here we will give you a step by step guide to dealing with a snapping turtle bite.
Before we get into the treatment, we must first look at why snapping turtles bite at all. The simple answer is that snapping is their only defense. They can’t fit their heads and limbs inside their shells to escape predators so biting is the way they protect themselves. And turtles aren’t known for being great thinkers. They just do what comes naturally to them. If they happen to bite you, it’s just a reflex. It’s not personal.
In the wild, you are most likely to get a snapping turtle bite when you either provoke or accidentally surprise the snapping turtle. Since they frequent shallow bodies of water, it’s possible to unknowingly surprise the turtle while swimming or wading. It also happens from time to time that people out fishing on the bodies of water that the turtles live in can encounter them. But for the most part, the turtles stay in the water, so as long as you don’t mess with them, they will leave you alone. A snapping turtle isn’t going to jump into a boat just to bite you. In fact, their natural inclination is to try to escape if they can rather than stand and fight. So if you don’t bother them, chances are they won’t bother you.
A greater danger comes with female turtles. Female snapping turtles will emerge onto dry land to lay eggs, so you may also accidentally encounter one on land during this time, usually around Spring. The best advice is to give them a wide berth and let them go about their business. After all, the turtle doesn’t want anything from you and has no reason to bite if you don’t give it one. But if the turtle is surprised or scared, they will attack by snapping – most likely at your toes.
You should never provoke a snapping turtle in the wild. Be warned: if you provoke it, it will bite. If you see a snapping turtle in the wild, just don’t touch it at all. The best thing to do is to move away and report the sighting to your local wildlife authorities if it is in a heavily trafficked area. If it is in its own habitat and you are the intruder, just extricate yourself from the area and leave the snapping turtle to its turtle business. If you come across a snapping turtle in your yard, leave it alone and keep pets and children away from it. Turtles are much more comfortable in the water than they are on land, so if there’s a turtle in your yard, it’s not going to stay for long. Stay calm and wait for it to move on. If you find a snapping turtle in your swimming pool, call your local wildlife authority. They can direct someone to come and remove it if the turtle decides it doesn’t want to move on by itself. Don’t try to remove it by yourself – it’s very easy to hurt either yourself, or the turtle, or both by trying to handle it without the proper training and protection.
When keeping these reptiles as pets, snapping turtle bites are rare but they do happen. The most likely reasons your pet snapping turtle may bite are because it’s either scared or injured. To avoid the bites altogether you need to be gentle when handling your pet snapper. And if you suspect he or she might be injured, take even more precautions.
The most common areas where a snapping turtle bite will occur in the wild is on your fingers or toes. But when keeping snapping turtles as pets, some people also get bitten on the face. Assuming you would never hold a wild snapping turtle up to your face like you might with a pet, of course. Which you really shouldn’t.
If you’ve been unlucky enough to get a snapping turtle bite in the wild or from your pet, here are the steps you should follow:
Table of Contents
5 Steps to Take When Snapping Turtle Bites
STEP 1: Stay Calm
This may seem obvious, but it’s much easier to say it than to do it. Still, the best thing to do if you have been bitten by a snapping turtle is to stay calm. This will limit the damage to your skin and also help to keep the snapping turtle calm. Remember: they bite when they are scared. Don’t scare them more when they have your finger in their mouth. The more you struggle and fight, the harder they will clamp down with their jaws, making the situation much worse than it needs to be. Take a deep breath and try to think rationally. Don’t let the pain get to you.
Part of remaining calm is not making erratic and sudden movements. Move slowly and deliberately as you progress to Step 2. Scaring the turtle further can cause them to clamp down more which will make the bite worse. Staying calm will also allow you to think and progress through the next steps without forgetting anything important.
STEP 2: Remove The Turtle
Now that the turtle has snapped onto your finger or toe, for example, you need to remove the turtle to be able to assess the damage and perform first aid treatment on the wound.
Never try to forcibly remove the snapping turtle. Don’t pull on it or grab it by the tail. Don’t try to force the snapping turtle’s mouth open either. Any of these actions will make the actual wound much, much worse. Additionally, if you grab or pull the turtle by the tail, you risk inflicting harm to them. Now both you and the turtle are extremely unhappy.
Picking up a turtle by the tail or pulling on its tail can dislocate its vertebrae causing irreversible damage. Also, be warned that if you grab the snapping turtle by the tail alone, they can easily turn around and bite you (or the person trying to help you) again. If this happens, start again at Step 1.
Although the pain may be rough, never kill a snapping turtle that has bitten you. Before it dies it will grip you even harder causing even more pain and enlarging the wound. Plus, it’s not a nice thing to do when there are easier ways to remove it humanely. After all, it’s just doing what turtles do naturally.
Once the snapping turtle has bitten you, you have two options to remove it. You can simply wait and stay calm and the turtle will usually release you from its grip in a short period of time naturally. If you can’t wait, you can also submerge the turtle and your finger/toe in water. Stay very still and the turtle should let go. This may be easier if you’re in the wild, since turtles usually stay fairly close to the water that they spend most of their lives in. But if the snapper that has bitten you is a pet, you could perform the same trick in a bathtub or sink.
As soon as you have removed the turtle from yourself, get it away from you, or yourself away from it! The last thing you need is another bite which is likely since the snapping turtle will be agitated already. It’s better for both if you to cool off and give each other some space.
STEP 3: Treat The Wound – First Aid
A snapping turtle bite can vary in size and severity depending on the size and health of the turtle, the area of the bite and many other factors. You may be one of the lucky ones where the turtle doesn’t pierce the skin. This would be most common with smaller turtles. If the skin is not pierced you may end up with only a small red area or a bruise depending on the location of the bite.
To treat this small bruise or reddening, you need to clean the area with antiseptic gel or ointment and soap and water just to be safe. You will have some slight discomfort for a while but you’ll count yourself lucky that when the snapping turtle attacked, it didn’t draw blood.
For the more serious injuries, when the turtle has broken the skin, there is more to do. You will see some blood (remember to stay calm because panicking never helps). Obviously, the deeper the cut, the more blood you’ll see coming from the wound. Just remember that a lot of wounds, especially ones that break the skin, can look a lot worse than they actually are.
The first thing you need to do is clean the area. Do this immediately to prevent infection. Since snapping turtles have salmonella bacteria on their skin and in their mouths, infection is going to be your biggest concern. Especially if you were bitten in the wild, in a snapping turtle’s natural swampy habitat, where the water you encounter is often full of pathogens. Keeping the wound clean is essential to prevent a bad situation from becoming much worse.
To clean the wound, wash it thoroughly with warm water and a mild soap. Then, apply an antiseptic gel or cream to further combat a possible infection. Wrap the bite with clean gauze and apply slight pressure if the wound continues to bleed. In the case of more serious turtle bites, you may want to take a trip to the doctor to make sure no serious damage has been done.
STEP 4: Calm The Snapping Turtle
If you were bitten by a wild snapping turtle, the best thing to do is get away from the angry reptile as quickly as possible. Chances are, if it was scared enough by you to bite, it will want nothing more than to get away from you as quickly as possible, too. Wild animals only fight when they feel they have no other choice.
But often, it’s people’s pet turtles that bite them, since it’s far more likely you’ll handle a turtle that lives with you than one you find in the wild. In that case, you need to think about your turtle’s wellbeing as well as your own. In the heat of the moment, you may be mad at the turtle for biting you. But remember that it’s an animal, and your pet, and it didn’t mean you any harm. It’s just reacting on instinct.
Now that you have done first aid on your snapping turtle bite, you’ll want to check in with your pet snapping turtle. Make sure they are in a safe, familiar area so they can recover from the stress of the bite. I know it might sound silly but they don’t bite unless they are scared or injured so you want to make sure your turtle friend is ok too.
Additional things you can do to calm your snapping turtle are: make sure it’s on a low flat surface and leave it alone – picking it up or stroking it will likely agitate it further. The last thing you need is to have to deal with another snapping turtle bite.
STEP 5: Treat The Wound – Aftercare
Once first aid is completed on your bite, to be on the safe side, you should seek help from a medical professional. Only a trained doctor or nurse will be able to tell you confidently what else might be required to treat the wound.
They will check for signs of infection such as swelling around the bite or pus in the wound. Other symptoms of an infection can be a headache or fever.
In some cases, your doctor may also recommend additional aftercare such as a tetanus shot or a course of antibiotics to treat for infection. If the snapping turtle bite does not break the skin and the pain at the bite site subsides in a few days, you likely don’t need to consult a doctor. If you’re not sure though, it’s always better to check with the medical professional.
It Could Be Worse
Although the ordeal of dealing with a turtle bite is painful and an inconvenience, it can always be worse. A large snapping turtle could bite a finger right off – especially the small fingers of a child. Count yourself lucky if you’re only dealing with a bite.
You could also be one of those crazy people who get snapping turtles to bite them for educational or entertainment purposes. One bite isn’t so bad, is it?
Trusting Your Snapping Turtle Again
If you’ve been bitten by your pet snapping turtle, it may be hard to start trusting them again. But remember – they didn’t bite you for no reason. Try to determine the cause of the bite. Did you accidentally scare or surprise the turtle? Are they sick or injured and need to be taken to the vet? Are they agitated or stressed in some way that made them try to defend themselves in this way?
If you can determine why your turtle bit you, you can begin to trust that they won’t do it again as long as you’re careful. Ultimately, if a turtle bites you, chances are you were doing something wrong. Think about it from the turtle’s point of view. After all, you’re much bigger and smarter than them, and they don’t know what your intentions are towards them. It’s on you as a pet owner to try and figure out what was the source of any conflict between you and your turtle.
Once you’ve made the effort to see things from the turtle’s point of view, you may quickly see what you were doing wrong and why the animal bit you. This will help rebuild the trust between you and your turtle. You can then look forward to many more happy years with your snapping turtle.
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