Handling a chelonian patient exam


An overview of techniques for handling and restraining turtles, tortoises and terrapins was presented at the 2024 Fetch dvm360 Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Turtle handling

Photo: DAndreev/Adobe Stock

Caring for exotic pet patients requires handling unique to each species. However, for many species, there is not an abundance of information available on how to best achieve optimal interactions.1 In a lecture at the 2024 Fetch dvm360 conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, Katrina Lafferty, BFA, RLAT, CVT, VTS (Anesthesia/Analgesia), senior technician in the anesthesia and pain management department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, aimed to increase the comfort level of veterinary team members handling reptiles and other exotic species.1

During an overview of techniques for chelonians, Lafferty provided recommendations and best practices for humanely and safely handling and restraining turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. Following her advice and recommendations from other expert exotic veterinarians can help protect chelonians from injury while also keeping their handlers safe.1

Keeping calm

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins tend to be calm patients and are generally easy to restrain.2 “Chelonians are fun. They tend not to be aggressive, with the exception of the snapping turtle, which is very aggressive,” she said.

However, proper technique is required to ensure a positive, low-stress encounter for every chelonian patient. “This is not a rock. This is a living creature,” Lafferty reminded Fetch attendees.

In a peer-reviewed article, author Sarah Kolb, BAS, CVT, LAT, VTS (Exotic Companion Animal) recommended holding chelonians in an upright position because many do not do well when placed on their backs.2 She and Lafferty also advised carefully holding the shell on both sides between the front and rear legs, using 2 hands.1,2

“Remember that the shell itself is also living tissue. It has blood. It has innervation. It is something that grows and heals. When you’re holding them, be respectful of that,” Lafferty said.

Avoiding injury

Chelonians are strong, have the ability to extend their necks, and can deliver a bite. With aggressive chelonians such as snapping turtles, the experts advised holding the shell with both hands well beyond the midline, toward the rear.1,2 In particular, snapping turtles are able to reach very far back to bite, Lafferty noted.2 If needed, a makeshift muzzle, such as a cup placed over the patient’s head, can be used as a low-stress solution to avoid injury.2

Additionally, some chelonians have a hinge shell that can catch human fingers if these patients are held improperly. “They can clamp pretty hard, or they can pinch,” Lafferty warned.

If needed, sedation with medication can be used for restraining stubborn or aggressive chelonian patients. However, veterinarians should note that chelonians metabolize drugs more slowly than other species, so recovery may be prolonged.2

Examining the head and legs

According to Lafferty, it can be a challenge to make the head and legs accessible for a physical examination. However, there are methods that help make head and leg examinations possible.1

Many chelonian patients will pull their heads in their shells, but patience and humane techniques can draw them out. “The best trick to get the head out of the shell is to push the hind limbs into the inguinal fossa,” Lafferty said.

In some cases, covering chelonian patients’ eyes helps to relax them and may result in the head coming out.1 Kolb also suggested tipping a chelonian patient slightly forward to persuade the head to protrude.2

Gentle use of sponge forceps or whelping forceps to help pull the head up may also work, according to Lafferty.1 “They have to be willing to work with you. You cannot hold their head out if they’re resistant to that because you will hurt them,” Lafferty told the Fetch audience. “If a little bit of gentle traction is all that they need to pull their head out, that’s OK. But it would not take well to sponge forces to grab them and pull them out if they are unwilling."

According to Kolb, handlers should always avoid excess pressure on a chelonian’s trachea during a head examination by holding the sides of the neck.2

Imaging for the patient

In examinations that include radiology, holding a turtle, tortoise, or terrapin may not be an option, but there are solutions. “If you can be clever with these turtles and tortoises, you don’t even have to sedate them for a lot of their imaging,” Lafferty said.

She and Kolb both suggested using a simple object—a cardboard box, for example—that fits under the patient’s shell but is slightly smaller than the plastron and tall enough to suspend the chelonian’s limbs off the table.1,2 Lafferty noted that these animals are unable to move around the imaging table if they cannot reach the ground.1


“What I want you to remember is that this is not a robot that can walk; these are actual living creatures, so make sure you are handling them with that in mind,” Lafferty said. “There are organs. There’s tissue. There’s blood. There’s fluid inside that turtle or that tortoise. Hold them with both hands. Don’t carry them around like it doesn’t matter.”


  1. Lafferty K. You gotta know when to hold ’em: exotic animal restraint. Presented at: Fetch dvm360 Conference; March 15-17, 2024; Charlotte, NC. Accessed May 9, 2024. https://ce.dvm360.com/learn/course/fetch-charlotte-2024-proceedings/proceeding/fetch-charlotte-2024-conference
  2. Kolb S. Low-stress veterinary visits for reptiles. Today’s Veterinary Nurse. September 1, 2023. Accessed May 9, 2024. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/behavior/low-stress-veterinary-visits-for-reptiles/
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