Before You Touch a Tortoise: 8 Facts You Should Know (Explained)

Tortoises are not your conventional pets as they are not cuddly or active, given their anatomy and general nature. Although they may not be as affectionate as others, they still show love in their unique, clumsy way. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the tortoise can feel through its shell and may even love it. 

Baby tortoises can quickly get stressed if they are frequently handled. Therefore, you are advised to minimize touching them. For adult tortoises, they may enjoy your touch but you need to be aware that they may carry the salmonella bacteria on their bodies.

Read on as we bust the myths related to touching tortoises to explain why it isn’t such a bad idea and the safety precautions you can take.

Touch a Tortoise

Is It Safe To Touch a Tortoise?

The first thing you notice about a tortoise is its solid shell that they walk around with and retreat into if they need to. This shell isn’t just armor but also a part of their body; therefore, they can feel touch through it. It may not be like your sensitive skin, but they also get a sensation when you stroke it. Being part and parcel of the tortoise’s body, you can touch the shell as you pet it. Some even seem to be comfortable and snuggle closer when you rub them. 

The only concern regarding getting close to a tortoise is salmonella. It is a bacterial infection that can be fatal for at-risk individuals like the elderly and children. It is highly contagious and can quickly transmit from pets to humans. You can also pass it to other people you contact. Humans can acquire these bacteria even from other surfaces in the house.

However, the infection should not discourage you from owning or touching a tortoise. If you practice proper hygiene and keep the animals away from direct contact with food, you and your family will be safe. Besides, reptiles tend to carry salmonella, but that doesn’t make them terrible pets. 

Can You Touch a Baby Tortoise?

Baby tortoises need special care to keep them healthy and happy. They are incredibly delicate; hence, it is essential to keep a close eye on them. They can get stress from simple actions like frequent picking up or rough handling. Experts advise that you minimize or avoid touching them to make them more comfortable. Hatchlings are too sensitive to touch; thus, you should wait for them to get older. 

While the baby tortoise may not harm you in any way, it is best to be careful with them. When you pick them up, avoid turning them over, as it disorients them and stresses their internal organs. Also, ensure that you are careful when holding them to prevent them from slipping and falling in the process. Additionally, keep them away from children or other pets in the house, unless you let them socialize for a short time but under your supervision. The best way to handle baby tortoises is to place them in your open palm to avoid holding them too hard. 

Watch them keenly, as they are likely to slip out of your hold, fall, and break their shell. Note that baby tortoises’ organs are delicate, and their forming carapace is extra sensitive. Therefore, they can feel and respond to even the slightest touch. 

Can You Get Salmonella from Touching a Tortoise?

Every pet comes with an array of ups and downsides. The greatest fear by potential tortoise owners is that the pets carry salmonella. These bacteria are common in reptiles, including tortoises, but the good thing is, you can prevent it, and not all tortoises have it. Although your tortoise doesn’t necessarily host it, it is advisable to assume that you can contract it. 

What Is Salmonella?

Other than what they hear, most people don’t know the details about salmonella. These bacteria are responsible for severe health-related issues in humans and animals. It mostly causes food poisoning and other related illnesses. The primary salmonella carriers are reptiles and amphibians, especially those in captivity. You can get the bacteria from touching an infected tortoise’s skin, shells, or excrements. Unlike its effect on humans, salmonella doesn’t make the affected animal sick since they have gradually developed an immunity. 

Sadly, you can contract it when you contact an infected reptile. Similarly, the reptile can transfer it to other animals, and other people can get it from you. The bacterium is especially lethal to babies and old tortoises with low immunity and other health issues. The symptoms include fever, diarrhea, stomach pain, and joint cramps. It can also be fatal and lead to the untimely death of the infected.

How Can a Tortoise Transmit Salmonella? 

Given how lethal the bacteria can be, a tortoise or a reptile owner has to be cautious. First, it is imperative to understand how your tortoise can transfer it to help you know how to prevent it. They mainly carry it in the shell, and it being the most touched part, you can contract it by touching it. 

The bacteria can also live in the skin, particularly in the folded areas hidden from view. It also lies in the tortoise’s scales; these deep crevices are the best hiding places for the bacteria. They are also present in the internal organs like the digestive tracts, and, consequently, the tortoise’s excrements also carry the bacteria. 

Another common ground is the nails since tortoises tend to walk over their excrements. Lastly, the tortoise’s enclosure can hold the bacteria. They spend most of their time there; hence, the walls and objects around will likely harbor salmonella. 

How To Avoid Salmonella?

Getting a pet reptile doesn’t mean that you will undoubtedly get the virus. You can take certain precautions to ensure your safety and that of the people and animals around you. Besides, not all tortoises carry bacteria. 

Proper hygiene is key when keeping pets, not just reptiles. First, you need to wash your hands before touching a tortoise to prevent transferring the bacteria to its body. If your tortoise is safe, you will likely pick up salmonella from other places and transmit it. Secondly, you need to wash your hands after handling them because an infected tortoise can easily pass them to you. It would help if you had soap and running water or antibacterial wipes.

It is also vital to keep their enclosure clean at all times. When trying to dispose of their excrements, please remember to use gloves and thoroughly wash your hands. You also need to keep your tortoise away from the kitchen or anywhere that you place your food. 

Do You Need To Wash Your Hands After Touching a Tortoise? 

Our hands carry invisible germs, rendering us vulnerable to various illnesses. Reptiles, including those we keep as pets, host deadly bacteria like salmonella on their bodies, which can be transferred to us. Therefore, it is imperative to wash your hands after touching a tortoise to keep infections such as salmonella at bay. Ensure that you clean up with soap immediately after handling tortoises or other pet reptiles to avoid spreading the germs on different surfaces. 

Also, avoid washing hands in the kitchen because you risk touching other utensils. Instead, you can use sinks in different rooms, or to be sure, wash outside the house. Alternatively, you may use antibacterial wet wipes in the absence of water. They effectively clean hands and other household surfaces. Note that it is vital to wash your hands before touching your pets to avoid infecting them with foreign bacteria. 

Can You Touch a Tortoise While Pregnant?

Tortoises host salmonella; hence, it is advisable for pregnant women and other vulnerable individuals (children and older people) to avoid it at all costs. They can only contact them with extra caution. For instance, they need to ensure that they thoroughly clean their hands with disinfectants immediately after touching them.

Even if the tortoise looks healthy and clean, it can still host the salmonella bacteria on specific body parts. Thus, a pregnant woman will be at risk of illnesses if she touches a tortoise. If she contacts an infected tortoise and handles food without washing her hands, she can ingest the bacteria. When pregnant, the mother’s immunity drastically drops. With a compromised immunity, her body may fail to fight the bacteria effectively. 

Additionally, the salmonella can enter the mother’s gut and finally into the blood with the low body defense system. As a result, it may spread to the unborn and increase chances of infant fatality.

Therefore, if you touched a tortoise while pregnant and noticed symptoms like painful joints, stomach cramps, and dehydration, consult your doctor as soon as possible. The case is so severe that doctors advise expectant mothers working closely with reptiles to take maternity leave.

Do Tortoises Like To Be Touched? 

The tortoise’s shell is not a hard lifeless armor, as most people believe. They can feel a sensation when you touch them. Most tortoises seem to love rubbing or scratching on their shells. They also love it when you touch their skin, particularly the head and neck area. You may even notice that they tend to move closer into your hands and stay put when you rub the shell. 

The more time you spend with tortoises, the more they will get fond of you and recognize your touch. However, not all tortoises are alike; while some will enjoy occasional touching, others find it stressful or disturbing.

Given that they are solitary animals, they may enjoy being alone instead. When you get to understand your pet’s personality, you will tell whether they are fond of the human touch or not.

Can a Tortoise Feel When You Touch Its Shell?

The tortoise’s shell contains numerous nerve endings and blood cells attached underneath. These nerves enable the reptile to receive stimuli and send impulses to the brain for translation. Thus, a tortoise can feel your touch, scratch, and even pain when hurt. It disputes the old belief that tortoiseshell is a lifeless bony structure. 

The reptile can feel a sensation on its shell from touch and respond accordingly. It may remove its head when you touch it and even sink further into your hold. Depending on the tortoise, it may also follow you around or come closer to your hand to show that it wants more rubbing. If your tortoise is of that nature, you need to pet it often to make it recognize your touch faster.

Can You Kiss a Tortoise?

In some cases, tortoises can identify you if they get used to your presence. They can also show affection and get friendly whenever you are around. You may not expect them to show love like humans, dogs, or cats, but they show it in their own clumsy and awkward way.

You can dearly love your pet, but some actions may put your life at risk. For instance, kissing your tortoise will increase your chances of contracting a salmonella infection.

Regardless of how clean or healthy your tortoise looks, it is not a good idea for it to come into contact with your mouth. It is the fastest way for the bacteria to get into your body. If you can get it from touching your pet, you will get it faster from kissing it. The most vulnerable people are children. They are mostly oblivious of their actions and end up kissing reptiles. 

They can also touch their droppings, not knowing that they need to wash their hands. To be safe, keep your tortoise out of your children’s reach unless it is under your close watch. You can also teach them not to kiss them and inform them about the benefits of handwashing. 


One of the downsides of owning a pet tortoise is the risk of contracting salmonella infections. However, there are still numerous advantages to having these incredible creatures in your house. If you are religious about personal and environmental hygiene, then you don’t have to worry about contracting the infection. 

You only need to worry if you are part of the at-risk group, including children, pregnant mothers, older adults, or those with weak immunity. Remember to wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling your pet, and if you notice any infection-related symptoms, you can consult your doctor about it.

More tortoise facts here:

Harvey Wells

I am an intense cool pets lover. I have tortoises, tarantulas and a few other exotic pets. And I would love to share what I have learned.

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