What Is Box Turtle Shell Rot?

What is box turtle shell rot, and how can you recognize the symptoms?

Is there a treatment for shell rot, and how can it be prevented?

Recognizing signs of illness in your box turtle is an essential part of caring for them.

In addition to a healthy diet and well-maintained habitat, you should regularly inspect your box turtle’s appearance and behavior.

Box turtle shell rot is a severe condition which may be fatal if proper care is not taken immediately.

In the article, we will explore the symptoms of shell rot and the underlying causes and how to prevent it from happening to your turtle.

box turtle shell rot

What Is Box Turtle Shell Rot?

Box turtle shell rot is a condition where bacteria or fungus infects the blood vessels in a turtle’s shell. The shell rot will cause small pits and soft spots in the turtle’s shell and cause parts of the shell to fall off and expose the nerves and bones underneath.

The bacteria causing shell rot comes from the box turtle’s environment, such as dirty water or an unclean habitat.

This bacteria can enter through cracks in the turtle’s shell, where it grows and becomes an infection.

Shell rot can occur on either the top half of the shell, known as the carapace, or the bottom half of the shell, known as the plastron.

To keep away the bacteria causing shell rot, it is vital to maintain a clean environment for your box turtle.

This includes cleaning your turtle’s habitat regularly and removing any bedding which has become moldy, as well as providing clean freshwater daily.

What Are the Symptoms of Box Turtle Shell Rot?

Some diseases in box turtles are difficult to diagnose because of the subtle warning signs. 

However, with regular inspection of your turtle, you will easily be able to spot signs of shell rot.

Box turtle shell rot symptoms include a red discoloration to parts of the shell, a bad smell, slime on the shell, and flaking of the outer layers of keratin, known as scutes.

Scutes will be firmly attached to the bone in a healthy shell, and if shell rot is present, these scutes will quickly come off.

If you notice any injuries to your box turtle’s shell, such as cuts or cracks in either the carapace or plastron, you should carefully monitor your turtle’s condition.

Keep your turtle’s shell as clean as possible to avoid any bacteria or fungus from entering underneath the keratin layer and causing infection.

When turtles get sick, quite often, they will stop eating and become lethargic. 

Paying attention to your turtle’s eating habits and behavior is vital because any change in these behaviors will alert you to a sick turtle right away.

What Are the Causes of Box Turtle Shell Rot?

The leading cause of turtle shell rot is bacteria or fungus, which enters cracks in the shell, either in the carapace or plastron, where it then makes its way into the turtle’s bloodstream.

Cuts on a turtle’s shell can happen due to being bitten by another turtle in the enclosure or from sharp objects within the habitat the turtle may have crawled over.

Cracks can occur on a box turtle’s shell due to improper temperature or humidity in its habitat.

Proper humidity in a box turtle’s habitat should range from 60-80%. 

Too much humidity, especially combined with a too-cold environment, can cause problems for your turtle.

The habitat’s ambient temperature should be between 70-90° degrees Fahrenheit (32° C), and you should place a 75-100 watt heat lamp above the enclosure to provide a warm basking spot for your box turtle.

Unclean water is also a cause of shell rot, as harmful bacteria or fungi from the water can quickly get into any cuts or cracks in your turtle’s shell, especially the plastron.

Moldy bedding and an otherwise dirty environment can breed bacteria and fungi harmful to your box turtle. 

Remove feces or uneaten food and provide fresh, clean water every day. 

Once a month, do a deep cleaning of the habitat by washing and drying everything in the tank and then removing and replacing the substrate.

Be sure to remove any sharp objects your box turtle may encounter in its habitat to avoid any accidental cuts and scrapes.

If you have more than one box turtle, it is good to monitor them, especially when introducing a new turtle to the enclosure. 

Turtles may become aggressive towards each other when they are first introduced, leading to cuts and cracks in the turtles’ shells due to biting and scratching.

How Should You Treat Box Turtle Shell Rot?

If this is your first time dealing with shell rot in box turtles, or if there is pus or sticky areas on the damaged shell and your turtle is lethargic and not eating, you should consult a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Your box turtle may require more specialized care and injectable antibiotics, especially if the infection has reached the turtle’s bloodstream.

If the cuts or cracks are very superficial and dry, and your box turtle is still eating and behaving normally, there are steps to take to heal box turtle shell rot at home.

The first step in treating box turtle shell rot is to figure out what is causing it and fix the issue.

Ensure there is clean water for the turtle to drink and thoroughly clean its enclosure, taking care to remove anything sharp which might have caused the shell injury in the first place.

If you have two turtles fighting with each other, you will need to separate them.

The next step is to keep the turtle as dry as possible, except when you clean its shell. 

This will decrease the turtle’s chances of being exposed to any bacteria or fungus worsening the shell rot. 

The turtle will need to be kept dry until its shell can heal properly.

Give your box turtle a bath and gently scrub the shell with a soft toothbrush to eliminate any dirt. 

If there are loose keratin pieces, you should remove them very gently. 

Remember, scutes affected by shell rot will come off quite easily, while healthy scutes will be firmly attached to the bone.

After your turtle is dry, apply a diluted betadine solution to the shell to kill any bacteria remaining. 

This will help to speed up the healing process.

You will need to apply an antibiotic cream to any infected areas on the shell several times a day. 

The best choice is silver sulfadiazine cream, which requires a prescription. 

A triple antibiotic cream from your local store will also work.

All steps of this treatment should be followed once or twice a day until the turtle’s shell is healed.

If at any point in this home treatment, the shell rot does not seem to be healing or your turtle displays signs of illness such as puffy eyes, lethargy, and poor appetite, you should seek veterinary care immediately.

What Other Diseases Are Common In Box Turtles?

Common diseases in pet box turtles include vitamin A deficiency, respiratory illness, abscesses, and parasites.

Vitamin A deficiency is caused by feeding your box turtle an improper diet. 

Turtles need variety in their diet to ensure their nutritional needs are being fulfilled. 

A lack of vitamin A will cause changes in the outer layer of skin and the mucus glands and membranes lining the mouth, kidneys, eyes, and upper respiratory tract.

Turtle vitamin A deficiency symptoms include lethargy, lack of appetite, swelling of the eyelids or ears, kidney failure, and respiratory illness.

Respiratory illnesses are caused by vitamin A deficiency, as stated above, or bacteria.

Signs of a respiratory infection include bubbles in the mouth, nose, and eyes of the turtle and lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, and breathing with an open mouth.

Abscesses in box turtles are also related to vitamin A deficiency. 

These abscesses are very common in a turtle’s ears and will present themselves as large swollen areas on the sides of the head behind the turtle’s eyes.

Parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, and flukes, are caused by improper diet, a dirty habitat, or they may be passed on from another infected turtle within the habitat.

Generally, parasites do not cause any symptoms until they have become severe. 

Signs of parasite infections in box turtles will include diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

If you notice signs of any of these diseases in your box turtle, you should seek treatment from a veterinarian as soon as possible for proper diagnosis and treatment.

The following table shows common diseases in box turtles, along with their symptoms, for a handy 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

If you notice your box turtle showing any of these symptoms, you should seek proper medical treatment from a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Any delay in treatment could be fatal to your turtle.

How Can You Prevent Box Turtle Shell Rot and Other Diseases?

Maintaining a clean habitat for your box turtle is key to preventing shell rot and other diseases.

Feces and uneaten food should be removed from the habitat daily, along with providing clean freshwater.

Once a month, you should deep clean the habitat by removing everything in the enclosure, washing it, and letting it dry. 

Any moldy or otherwise soiled substrate should be removed and replaced with fresh substrate.

Any sharp objects which may harm the box turtle’s shell, especially the plastron, should be removed from the enclosure as well.

If you have two turtles within the same habitat being aggressive towards each other, you should separate them to avoid any injuries to their shells from biting or scratching.

Provide a UV light over the enclosure to ensure your box turtle has a place to get warm and dry. 

UVB lighting is essential for box turtles to process calcium, helping them maintain healthy bones and shell growth and prevent metabolic bone disease.

Feeding your box turtle a varied diet of meat, vegetables, and fruit is essential to prevent nutritional deficiencies, leading to disease. 

A box turtle’s diet should consist of 60% meats, 30% vegetables, and 10% fruits to maintain proper health.

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

It is easy to tell the difference between your box turtle shedding and shell rot, as box turtles don’t shed their scutes. 

New scutes grow underneath the old scutes, and a turtle will retain these scutes for its entire life. 

This process allows the shell to expand with the growing turtle’s body.

However, box turtles shed their skin from time to time, which is an entirely normal process. 

You should never peel this skin from your turtle’s body, as doing so will cause injury.

Simply allow your box turtle to shed its skins on its own and remove any skin pieces you find in the habitat.


Shell rot is a common and sometimes severe condition in box turtles.

With careful observation of your turtle’s appearance and behavior regularly, shell rot should be spotted and treated before it becomes too severe.

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

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