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Can Turtles & Tortoises Feel Their Shell? Facts & FAQ

Kristin Hitchcock

By Kristin Hitchcock

red-eared turtle in a home terrarium sitting under a heat lamp

Yes, it is believed that turtles and tortoises can feel their shells as both turtles and tortoises have nerves in their shells.

Many turtle owners will explain that their turtle likes to be scratched or rubbed on their shell. Many tortoises and turtles will also react to touches on their shell, which they wouldn’t do if they couldn’t feel their shell. All of these reasons point toward turtles and tortoises feeling their shells pretty well.

However, we don’t know exactly what touch on their shell feels like. It may feel just like normal skin, or it may feel a bit like a touch on your fingernail does.

The Nerves in a Turtle’s Shell

Turtles and tortoises have nerves in their shells so it is commonly thought that they can feel touch and vibrations through their shell.

Because they have nerves in their shell, they can also feel pain in their shell. Therefore, a hard or sharp impact may cause pain and discomfort. Cracks in their shell will likely be very painful—imagine a broken fingernail but over a much larger portion of your body.

That said, not all turtles and tortoises have the same shell. Different species may have different levels of feeling in their shells. Some have very strong shells, while others are thinner and may have more feeling.

We don’t know exactly how the anatomy of different shells affects how their owners perceive touch, but it likely does alter their perception. Some turtles also have a thin layer of skin over their shells, such as the Leatherback Sea Turtle. These turtles may have extra-sensitive shells.

top view of a pond slider turtle
Image By: Yan Miatselitsa, Shutterstock

Do Tortoises and Turtles Feel When You Rub Their Shells?

Yes, practically all tortoises and turtles will feel it when someone rubs their shell. Therefore, if you own a turtle or tortoise, you may want to bond with them by petting them just like you would a cat or dog. It’s not uncommon for these creatures to ask for petting, just like most other pets.

However, whether or not turtles or tortoises like to be petted is a different story. Some absolutely will, but others may not. It likely has a lot to do with whether the animal was petted when younger. Many domestic turtles fall into this category. Wild turtles may find the sensation weird or scary, though, simply because they aren’t used to it.

Many turtles do like it when their shell is brushed. After all, they cannot scratch their shell or brush it themselves. Therefore, they may particularly like it when someone brushes it for them. Even if a turtle doesn’t need cleaning, getting the brush out regularly can be a great way to bond with them.

Do Turtles Like Their Belly Rubbed?

You should never flip a turtle onto its back to rub its belly as it can cause health problems. Plus, it often stresses them out, as they cannot right themselves in this position. (Usually, at least—some species can.)

However, the bottom side of a turtle is usually the place that gets dirtiest. Therefore, you’ll need to brush this area regularly. This is usually done by holding the turtle perpendicular to the ground, though, or sliding a brush underneath larger turtles. Either way, turtles do seem to like this area rubbed and brushed.

Turtles often have nerve endings closer to the surface on the bottom of their shell. Therefore, this area may feel particularly good to them. Of course, it does vary from species to species.

african sideneck turtle
Image By: Debbz87, Shutterstock

How Sensitive Are Tortoise and Turtle Shells?

Tortoises and turtles can feel through their shell, as they have nerve endings in them. However, their shell is probably less sensitive than human skin. It’s likely a bit like the feeling of touching your fingernail. However, you can only detect pressure and vibrations. It’s not as sensitive as the rest of your finger.

That said, it’s only the surface that is less sensitive. Cracking a turtle’s shell is extremely painful. Once those nerves are exposed, it can be extremely painful for the turtle.

Final Thoughts

Turtles and tortoises can likely feel touches on their shells. Their shells have nerves very close to the surface, which allows them to detect vibrations and pressure. While we can’t know for sure what touching a turtle’s shell feels like, it’s probably similar to being touched on a fingernail.

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Featured Image Credit: Liubov Sydorenko, Shutterstock

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