Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to trim a tortoise's beak - with pictures!

Tortoises kept in captivity frequently get overgrown beaks, which then need to be trimmed. Many tortoise keepers pay a vet to do this. However, did you know that trimming a tortoise's beak is actually safe and easy enough that you can do this at home?

NOTE: If you are not sure whether you can do this, please don't risk your tortoise's health. Have an expert show you how. Paying to treat an infected cut is a lot more expensive than paying to have your tort's beak trimmed, and it would be so sad to injure your pet. 

Mo was one of my rescues. His beak was EVEN longer when we  first got him!
You will need a few supplies:
Toenail clippers (XL), stainless cuticle trimmers, a white pencil, a skewer, a nail file.
I bought the stainless steel cuticle trimmers on eBay for $2 - they are by a well-known German brand, and very well made. It took 2 weeks to ship from China. Make sure it has the clipping feature, so you can get good leverage.
I don't often use the skewer - this is only necessary if you need to trim the bottom beak, which is rarely necessary. I used the skewer to gently pry open the tort's beak (holding the skewer perpendicular to the beak, so Mo ended up having the skewer in his mouth in the way a horse has a bit), which was only necessary once when we first got Mo. Normally the bottom beak will keep itself short by rubbing against the inside of the top beak. 

Today I will trim Mo's beak:
Mo's beak is too long. 
I know this is hard to believe, but Mo's beak has gradually been trimmed 2x since we got him. It was so terribly overgrown that we couldn't see his 'chin'. We didn't want to trim it all at once, because it can make a tort pretty sore, and we didn't want it to interfere with his eating. 

1.) You will want to tightly wrap your tortoise into an old rag or piece of cloth you don't mind throwing away when you are done (paper towels will be shredded by their claws). Getting his beak trimmed is stressful for a tort, and he WILL expel every bit of feces he has in his gut. My female also pees... have a back-up cloth ready, and wear some clothes that need to go in the laundry anyway. 

2.) With the white pencil, draw a line marking up to where you want to trim your tort's beak. You'll have to trim it bit by bit, and you don't want to stop before you are done, or go too far. This will also help keeping it even on both sides. 
I drew a white line starting at the corner of his mouth, parallel to the top of Mo's head.
3.) Some people choose to hold onto their tortoise's head while they trim. I find that this only freaks the tortoise out even more (making them really struggle and squirm), and most Russian tortoises can't (or don't) pull their heads all the way into their shell. I personally choose to 'free-hand' it (just holding the legs out of my way). You'll be able to reach the beak carefully, even when the head is almost pulled completely in. Just be careful not to poke the eyes or nares (nose).
If you DO choose to hold the head, however, THIS is how:
Wait for the head to be far out. Then firmly but gently hold on with thumb and pointer
just behind the jaw bone on each side.

If you do choose to hold onto your tortoise's head, make sure his eyes don't start bulging, or his eye lids don't turn purple. This means you are closing off his wind pipe, and he can't breathe. You can use the middle and ring fingers to hold the right front leg out of the way.
Make sure you are holding your tortoise's head on either side, behind the jaw, rather than top and bottom. This way your tort can easily breathe, AND you have a good grip. Again, I choose to free-hand it and don't hold the tort's head...

4.) Gently but firmly hold your tortoise's shell against your chest, with your left hand, hold the tort's front leg(s) out of the way, and as soon as you can reach it, begin clipping on the right side, always with the tips of the cuticle trimmers facing towards the front of the beak.
Start on one side, using the cuticle trimmers.
Clipping a tortoise's beak will feel a lot like clipping a thick-ish human toenail, but a little more brittle. The sides are thinner (and easier to clip), and the front is the toughest. 

5.) Bit by bit, clip away the beak, approaching the line you drew. Mo needed so much of his beak trimmed, that I had to cut parallel to the line several times before I was done.
Almost done - but as you can see, I still need to trim a little more away, up to the line.
6.) the very front of the beak may be thick enough that you have to use the XL conventional toe-nail clippers. Be careful not to get any of the tortoise's skin flaps caught in the corners of the clippers - that's one reason why I prefer using the cuticle trimmers. 

Much better! I just need to file the edge smooth.
7.) Finally, carefully file the edges smooth with a nail file (not the metal kind). 

8.) Throw away the cloth wrap, then rinse off your tortoise in warm water, to get rid of any feces, and to clean away any little shards of beak material that might be stuck in the skin flaps. 


Your tortoise will probably pout for a day or two - having a beak trim is stressful, but NOT trimming an overgrown beak is more harmful in the long run than any stress caused by the trim. 

Some tortoises only get an overgrown beak in the front (especially in young tortoises who aren't fed properly, too soft food, not enough calcium). This was the case with the little Greek tortoise Boo. Here's a before/after pic of his trim:
Boo's beak was VERY overgrown in the front. It still needs to be trimmed a little more.
To maintain your tortoise's short beak, make sure to feed your tortoise on a flat rock, and offer a cuttlefish bone (available in the bird section of most pet stores). Also, as long as your tortoise is healthy, there is no reason to cut up a tortoise's food. Let your tortoise work a little while he eats! 

Feel free to ask questions in the comment section if you have any!


  1. Hi Thank you for this information. I'm still hesitant, but cannot find a vet that will do it. So I'm getting some cuticle cutters this afternoon. How often does this have to be done?
    I'll also buy a cuttle bone.
    And I didn't know there should be humidity in her bedding.
    I'd never heard of trimming the beak, the cuttle bone or the humidity, and of course the pet store never mentioned it to me.

    I'm so happy to have found your blog. Thanks.

  2. I am so glad you found this to be helpful.

    Depending on how you keep your tortoise, and if there are any pre-existing overgrowth issues (some tortoises with MBD grow beaks faster than they should), hopefully once you've trimmed the beak, won't have to again. My tortoise Timmy needs it every year, the others all grind their beak down naturally once I've trimmed it.

  3. Thank you for this information. We have had our Russian tortoise for over 10 years. I started thinking I did something wrong because his beak was longer, I knew it would have to be trimmed. But now, I know I can do it myself. Thanks

  4. Have been looking around for a tutorial on this. I knew my torts beak was too long but was so worried I'd shatter it if I tried to clip it. I've been filing it down gradually and it looks much better. Thank you for the info!

    1. Thank you, Debbie, I'm glad that you found my tutorial helpful.
      I've actually put together a little video showing how to file a beak, too ( Not everyone feels comfortable clipping a beak, and I also sometimes just use a file, since it's less traumatic overall... it just takes longer. :)

  5. This helped so much but I think I need more. My box turtle Glitter, has been in the family for 29years. Her shell was already pretty smooth and worn. She has NEVER liked anything good for her like carrots, green stuff of any kind, ect. We would give her salad and she would walk away and take the cats food. So, when dinner time came we would fix her a plate of whatever we were having. My parents have since not been able to keep her so I brought her to my house. She still won't tough a veggie unless it is cooked and seasoned. She is not doing so well since she came out of hibernation this year. I don't know if it's the move or something else. She looks pretty rough. I was hoping for some advice because I want to do what is best by her. also, any hint on how to get her to eat raw veggies would be so helpful. I trimmed her beak and nails, thank you for the tutorials.
    Stephanie Perkins

    1. Tortoises and turtles are incredibly stubborn. The trick to get them to eat healthily is to not offer them anything else. One of my rescues had been fed nothing but Romaine lettuce, and refused to eat anything else. It took more than a month of me offering him healthy food every day, him refusing it... but I knew tortoises can go without food for a long time, so I just soaked him every day, to make sure he was hydrated, and waited. In the end I out-stubborned him.

    2. With regards hibernation. .. mine is 12 and never hibernated her yet. I was told it knocks ten years off their life but to me it's worth it knowing she won't die whilst hibernating xxx

  6. Thanks so much for this very informative blog. My turtles name is Mister T. He's about 15-20 years old. His beak has gotten really long and I'm worried he's unable to grab his food. I had to hand-feed him. I think his beak is too long to file (it will take me hours), so I'm going by your advise and get a cuticle trimmer, toe nail clipper and nail file. I've also subscribed to your YouTube page. Thanks again!

    1. You are so welcome! If you don't have cuticle trimmers handy, regular nail clippers will work, too. The tricky part with turtles (vs tortoises) is that some are able to close themselves inside the 'trap door' of their shells - be careful not to get your fingers stuck in there! I learned that the hard way helping out trimming a whole bunch of beaks at the reptile rescue... Good luck! :)

  7. does it hurt the tortoise?

    1. As long as you are careful while you hold the tortoise, and don't cut too short, it won't hurt the tortoise. It is akin to cutting your fingernails or trimming a horse's hooves. Just like if you are trimming your fingernails, if you cut too short, you might hurt yourself. Better to err on the safe side.

      This does stress the tortoise because it probably doesn't like to be messed with in this way. However, a severely overgrown beak is more detrimental to its health in the long run than 10 minutes of stress.

  8. I have notice a couple of cracks on the side of my tort's lower beak (which does need trimming as well) I'm afraid of trimming bc I don't want to make them worse.. Anything I can do about them?

    If you could email me, I'll actually get your answer -I will forget to check this page and tend to avoid computers when I'm not at work. (email on the cell phone rocks!)

  9. I think the vet over trimmed my turtle's beak. It was a new vet and there is literally an open hole...Can I send you a picture to an email address ?

    1. Oh dear! I am sorry this happened to you. What did the vet say after it happened?
      Yes, you can email me a picture to biochemnerd (at)

  10. I use dog toe nail clippers (not the guillotine kind) on one of my moms red foots.
    Tonight when I was clipping Henri's beak back I got her to open her mouth more than normal and noticed a white "shelf" on the roof of her mouth, is this normal?? it looked like it took alot of space in her mouth. She has other growing problems and crawls on her back knees insead of on her feet and she is drastically smaller that another tortoise we got at the same time (they were also the same size). She eats just fine. Any ideas? thanks - Bethany

    1. Hi Bethany,
      honestly, I would go see a vet that has experience with tortoises. That doesn't sound normal. If she has other problems, it could be that she is lacking calcium, or doesn't have enough UVB. Or that 'shelf' could be a tumor or growth that prevents her from eating efficiently.

  11. My turtle has a crack on his lower jaw and it needs to be trimmed too. Help?

    1. Cracks like that usually result from other husbandry issues, such as lack of calcium, or stressed kidneys.
      I recommend finding a good reptile vet who can help you with this. Lower beak trims are more difficult, and there is less margin for error... so I don't recommend trying to do this at home.

  12. Hey, I trimmed my Greek Tortoise's beak a while back after reading this and he has been way happier since then. He can eat so much easier. Your weird obsession with tortoises is super helpful!

  13. Awesome info! Now I can trim Rosie's beak!

  14. I took my tortoise to the vet for a checkup because he wasn't walking on his feet but was dragging his back legs. She recommended calcium & UVB light. She also trimmed his lower beak. Before she did this, he was eating fine. Now he refuses to eat and is sleeping more than usual. Is this normal? Will he come out of this state? He is worrying me. He has a mild calcium deficiency.

    1. Your vet is correct that your tortoise needs UVB and calcium. You can also help him build leg strength by making sure the substrate (additive free topsoil by itself or mixed with coconut coir) is packed down enough that he had good footing - a lot of loose substrates cause weak legs in tortoises because they kind of 'swim' through it to move around.

      It is normal for a tortoise to be a little tender after a beak trim for a day or two, but after that it should go back to normal eating. You might call your vet and ask them for a follow-up if this doesn't change.

      It is normal for a tortoise to be less active during the cold months. However, if he is calcium deficient (due to lack of UVB), then you should not allow him to hibernate. Wake him up each day, soak him in a shallow warm water bath (in a bin), and offer food.

      What tortoise species do you have? There is a wonderful group on Facebook called "Russian Tortoise Owners" - do a search in the search bar at the top. I'm one of the admins on there, and we can probably help you there.

    2. Thank you so much for the reply. I do wake him everyday and offer food. But he just looks at me and walks away. The vet recommended calcium glubionate (1.4mg?). Does this have a flavor. I am thinking he doesn't want to eat because he doesn't like the flavor. He is a Russian Tortoise. I will definitely look for the group.

    3. I would try offering several different versions of calcium. If your tortoise doesn't eat the food when it has calcium sprinkled on it, then I would hold off on that. Get a cuttlefish bone (bird isle in the pet store) and place that in the enclosure. Also, I have a blog post about how to make a home-made calcium block: - a lot of my tortoises that won't touch any other source of calcium totally go wild for those.

      Another good option for providing calcium is to get a natural supplement (made of ground up high-calcium plants) called TNT. Carolina Pet Supply sells it. I put it into a salt shaker, and shake it over the food a few times each week.
      Some foods are also higher in calcium than others. Kale, grape leaves, plantain weed, and collard greens are very high in calcium. If you can find them (or grow them), turnip greens also are high in calcium. Opuntia cactus (nopales) has a lot of calcium, too.

      I hope this helps.

  15. I use the Rep-Cal calcium and Vitamin D. What are you trying to feed? I use Mazuri tortoise food. I supplement with romaine/kale etc... I have 2 Russians, both girls. Rosie is about 10 I think (rescue), and Zen is about 15 or so (rescue). I spoke with a successful breeder of Russians who recommended the Mazuri. At first they wouldn't touch it, so soaked in some apple juice/ water mixture and slowly got rid of juice. They now gobble it up! I have always cypress mulch for them. They have been happy and healthy <3

    1. Hi Margo,
      I am glad to hear your tortoises are happy and healthy!
      To answer your question, I stick with feeding a wide variety of tortoise-safe weeds and dark leafy greens exclusively. We are blessed to have weeds available for most of the year (sometimes I have to buy greens in Dec and Jan, but not this year!). I have never fed factory-made pellet food, and I don't plan to. I think some breeders use it because they have so many tortoises, it would not be realistic to collect enough weeds to feed them. However, even 'good' factory-made tortoise foods still have soy and more sugar in them than would be found in their natural habitat.
      That said, I think each tortoise owner should make the decision themselves, so please don't feel like I am criticizing or judging. :)
      For calcium I have cuttlefish bone in each enclosure, and I sprinkle TNT (from Carolina Pet Supply) a few times per week. I also have the home-made calcium blocks in the enclosures, and the torts freely help themselves.


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