Turtle Shell Rot: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, & Prevention

What are the signs of turtle shell rot?

Is shell rot extremely dangerous for your turtle?

Understanding the symptoms and causes of turtle shell rot is very important to the health and well-being of your turtle.

By recognizing the signs of shell rot, you will get proper treatment before it becomes hazardous to your turtle.

This knowledge could very well save your turtle’s life.

Knowing the causes of turtle shell rot will help you avoid it in the future.

In this article, we will explore the symptoms, causes, and treatments of turtle shell rot so you will know how to spot it and what to do.

turtle shell rot

What Are the Symptoms of Turtle Shell Rot?

The symptoms of shell rot include small pits on the surface of the shell, a reddish fluid under the scutes, a layer of slime on the shell, or softening, lifting, or flaking scutes. The shell may have a foul odor, and scutes may fall off and expose the bone and nerves underneath.

As a result of shell rot, bacteria or fungus will attack the soft tissues underneath the shell.

Algae will also cause this condition in aquatic species of turtles.

If shell rot is left untreated, these abscesses will get worse and result in significant tissue damage.

Shell rot may also lead to a severe disease called septicemic cutaneous ulcerative disease, or SCUD.

This form of sepsis is marked by bacteria growth in the bloodstream.

SCUD is fatal if the bacteria are allowed to thrive in the bloodstream, as they will attack the turtle’s vital organs.

Another indication the shell rot has become serious is if your turtle has swollen eyes, is lethargic, or lacks an appetite.

These are all signs of a severe infection set in, and you should seek veterinary care as soon as possible.

What Are the Causes of Turtle Shell Rot?

The most common cause of turtle shell rot is shell damage, which happens for several reasons.

Shell damage may result from aggressive fighting, causing shell rot to develop at the site of the injury.

Poor enclosure conditions such as improper humidity and temperature result in cracks within the shell.

Moldy bedding and a dirty habitat will also lead to shell rot due to bacterial growth.

These cracks provide another source for shell rot to occur.

For aquatic turtles, poor water conditions will cause shell damage and bacteria overgrowth leading to shell rot.

Ensure your aquatic turtle has an area to get out of the water and dry off every once in a while.

This will help to thwart harmful bacteria growth on its shell.

Be sure to remove anything with sharp edges from your turtle’s enclosure, as these sharp objects will damage the shell if the turtle crawls over them, leading to shell rot.

How Do You Treat Turtle Shell Rot?

Consult a veterinarian for the proper diagnosis and treatment, especially if this is your first time dealing with shell rot. 

A veterinarian will be able to scrape away the diseased parts of the shell more efficiently, as well as administer anesthesia to your turtle if the damage is severe and a lot of cleaning is required.

They will also be able to administer and prescribe more powerful antibiotics than what you would be able to buy at your local pet store.

If you want to help your turtle right away, determine the cause of the shell rot and remedy the problem.

Separate turtles which become aggressive with one another and inspect the enclosure for any sharp objects.

Remove the turtle from any water and keep it dry until its shell is healed.

The only time the infected turtle should be wet is when you are cleaning its shell.

If the infection is mild, use a soft toothbrush with mild soap to clean off any dirt, algae, or damaged pieces on the shell’s outer layer.

After very gently removing as much debris as possible, use a plastic card or utensil to scrape out the white pits.

If you are unable to remove them, allow the shell to dry and then do it again.

If these pits are very severe, it is best to let a veterinarian remove them.

UV Light Will Help

Give your turtle a minimum of 20 minutes of UV light every day, either through a UV lamp or natural sunlight.

You also need to keep your turtle warm to promote the healing process.

An antibiotic cream such as silver sulfadiazine should be applied several times a day to all affected areas of the shell.

This entire treatment process will need to be repeated twice a day for one week or until your turtle’s shell is back to normal.

Create a clean can calm enclosure for the turtle until it is healed; it will help on the bacteria and stress front. 

This enclosure should include a substrate such as a towel and shredded newspaper to be replaced every day.

You should only provide the basics in this enclosure, such as a UV light, heat lamp, and a hide box, and ensure it is cleaned every day.

Continue to give your injured turtle food and drinking water every day.

The healing process for shell rot takes an extended period of time, but if you do not notice any signs of improvement after 5-7 days, it is time to seek the help of a veterinarian.

Watch for other symptoms such as refusal to eat, lethargy, swollen eyes, or red, sticky, wet areas on the shell; you should also immediately seek the help of an exotic veterinarian for proper treatment.

Any delay in treating your turtle could lead to SCUD or other life-threatening infections, which will cause your turtle a great deal of pain.

How Is Turtle Shell Rot Prevented?

Preventing shell rot is much easier than treating it after it has happened.

Whether you want to protect your turtle from shell rot in the future, or your turtle has already suffered through the disease, it is crucial to take preventative measures.

Habitat Cleanliness

Regular habitat maintenance and always providing clean water is a crucial preventative step.

If you have dealt with shell rot in the past, clean the enclosure and provide clean water more frequently than you did before.

It is also essential to remove any moldy or soiled bedding frequently.

Proper Temperature And Humidity Levels

Use a thermometer to monitor your turtle’s habitat and ensure proper temperatures are consistently being achieved.

You should invest in a hygrometer to measure the habitat’s humidity levels as well.

A dry environment will cause your turtle’s shell to crack, while a too-humid environment will cause its shell to soften.

Both of these conditions open your turtle up for the potential of bacteria or fungus to get underneath its shell.

A basking area away from water should be provided by using a heat lamp.

This is especially useful for aquatic turtles who need to periodically dry their shell out to prevent excessive algae or fungus overgrowth.

Enclosure Safety

If you keep more than one turtle within the same enclosure and notice they are becoming aggressive towards each other, you will need to keep them in separate enclosures.

This prevents any injury to your turtles brought on by being bitten or scratched.

Scrutinize your turtle’s habitat for any sharp edges or objects which may damage your turtle as it crawls or climbs.

If you own an aquatic turtle, invest in a good water filter, thoroughly clean the tank, and do water changes regularly to prevent harmful algae or bacteria from accumulating.

What Are Other Diseases Common in Turtles?

There are a few other common diseases among pet turtles, including vitamin A deficiency, abscesses, parasites, respiratory illnesses, and metabolic bone disease.

Vitamin A deficiency happens when you do not feed your turtle a proper diet.

It is essential to include a variety of leafy greens and vegetables in your turtle’s diet, as well as adding calcium and multivitamin supplements.

The symptoms of vitamin A deficiency in turtles are swollen eyes, lack of appetite, lethargy, kidney failure, and respiratory illness.

Abscesses are directly caused by vitamin A deficiency, and the symptoms are large swollen areas behind the turtle’s eyes and on the sides of its head.

A lack of vitamin A also causes respiratory illnesses.

Bubbles in the mouth, nose, and eyes of the turtle are ample signs to watch for with this.

Other signs include lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, and breathing with an open mouth.

Parasites such as flukes, roundworms, and tapeworms result from an unclean habitat or improper diet.

Parasitic infections may also be passed from one infected turtle to another.

Usually, parasite infections do not show any symptoms until they have become severe.

Symptoms include diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Metabolic Bone Disease, or MDB, is an easily preventable but severe disease. 

MBD is caused by a calcium deficiency, which leads the turtle’s body to leach the calcium it needs from the bones.

Signs of MBD include lethargy, inability for the turtle to walk or stand, bumps along the legs and tail, and a softening of the carapace and plastron.

As the shell softens, it increases the chance of causing damage to the attached spine.

There is not a cure for MBD, and it is often fatal due to the crippling bone deformities it causes.

Metabolic bone disease is easily preventable by providing a calcium supplement powder with vitamin D3 when feeding your turtle.

Common Diseases And Symptoms Table

The following table illustrates these common diseases, along with their symptoms, for a quick reference.

Common Diseases in Box TurtlesSymptoms
Shell RotCuts, cracks, or pits in the carapace or plastron, red discharge, slimy areas on the shell, peeling scutes, unpleasant odor
Vitamin A DeficiencyLethargy, lack of appetite, swelling of the eyelids or ears, kidney failure, respiratory illness
Respiratory IllnessBubbles in the mouth, nose, and eyes, lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, breathing with an open mouth
AbscessesLarge swollen areas on the sides of the head behind the eyes
ParasitesDiarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss
Metabolic Bone Diseaselethargy, inability for the turtle to walk or stand, bumps along the legs and tail, and a softening of the carapace and plastron

Monitor your turtle’s appearance and behavior regularly, and if you notice any of these symptoms, you need to seek proper veterinary care right away.

Any delay in diagnosis and treatment could be fatal for your turtle.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Your Turtle Shedding and Shell Rot?

Aquatic turtles shed their old scutes to make room for newer, larger scutes as their shells grow.

These scutes will fall off in one piece and may look almost clear.

Sometimes a turtle will eat the shed scutes, so you may not even see them.

Other reasons an aquatic turtle will shed include being overfed and growing too quickly and fungal infections, too high of a temperature in its basking area, and high ammonia levels in the water.

Not all species of turtles completely lose their scutes, however.

Most land turtles retain the old scutes for their entire lives, with the new scutes growing right on top of the old ones.

However, all turtle species will shed the skin on their head, feet, and tail.

Just before the skin sheds, it will have a hazy appearance.

You may even see pieces of the skin hanging from your turtle’s limbs.

You should never peel loose skin or scutes from a shedding turtle.

Be patient, and the turtle will be done with the process in a couple of days.

Turtles will also shed as a defense mechanism to fight off infections and shell rot.

Aquatic turtles shed more often than other turtle species because they are constantly in the water and therefore more prone to having bacterial and fungal overgrowths.

The normal events which most often cause a turtle to shed are right before hibernation and after they emerge from hibernation.

It is easy to tell the difference between shell rot and shedding among land turtles, as they do not actually shed their scutes.

You will be able to tell when an aquatic turtle is shedding by inspecting its shell.

If shell rot is present, there will be pits and other apparent shell damage, whereas a healthy shell indicates the turtle is simply shedding.

Final Thoughts

Shell rot is a common, sometimes serious condition in turtles.

By carefully observing your turtle’s behavior and appearance, you will be able to notice the signs of shell rot and treat it before it becomes severe.

Proper habitat maintenance and a balanced diet will help prevent shell rot and other diseases affecting turtles, ensuring your pet lives a long and happy life.

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