You’re probably pretty familiar with the idea of a snake shedding its skin, but when it comes to your turtle doing something similar, it might take you by surprise. It’s actually very normal for turtles to rub their shells against rocks or the walls of their aquarium in order to help the shedding process along.
So why is my turtle rubbing its shell? The mostly likely answer is that its shell is peeling, and rubbing against other surfaces helps the shedding process.
Read on to learn more about the molting or shell peeling process. You’ll find out what normal shedding looks like and how to identify shell rot as well. Armed with this information, you’ll be fully prepared when the time comes for your turtle to shed its scutes!
The Process of Turtle Shell Peeling
Unlike humans, a turtle’s skin doesn’t stretch as it grows. Instead, turtles outgrow their skin in stages. While the turtle’s shell is similar to a ribcage, growing with the turtle, the scutes that cover the shell will peel off and be replaced as your turtle grows. Shell peeling is most common in aquatic turtles, but you may see it in other species of turtles as well.
Why Do Turtle Shells Peel?
There are a few explanations as to why your turtle’s shell is peeling, but overall it is a natural process and nothing to be concerned about.
The Growth Process
Many turtles go through the process of their shells peeling. A turtle shell is made up of about 60 bones, and they are covered in scales called scutes. The scutes are made of keratin, which is the same material your fingernails and toenails are made of. As turtles grow, these scutes fall off and new ones grow in their place.
Fighting off Infection
Another reason your turtle’s scutes may peel off is to fight against infection, sickness, or shell rot. When turtles bask, their internal temperature rises. If their shell has some type of blockage (for example, if it is covered in algae), this can keep them from absorbing essential UVB rays.
They’ll begin to move more slowly, and their immune system won’t be as strong. As a result, your turtle may shed its scutes to get rid of the blockage so it can once again take in the nutrients it needs.
A Way to Heal
Finally, turtles’ shells may peel as a result of damage or injury. If your pet has somehow lost or damaged a scute, it has the ability to regenerate it and grow a healthy scute in its place.
Why Aren’t My Turtle’s Scutes Shedding?
There are a few reasons why your turtle may not be going through this natural process. These include:
- Lack of Calcium: If your pet doesn’t have enough calcium in its diet, it won’t be able to grow. Add a cuttlebone supplement or kale to its diet to fix the problem.
- Weak UV Light: Your UV light won’t last forever, and its strength decreases over time. It’s recommended to replace your light about twice a year. Turtles get lots of essential nutrients from UV rays, so If your light isn’t strong enough, your pet can develop a variety of health issues.
- Temperatures Are Off: The basking area of your turtle’s aquarium should stay in the 90s, and the water should range from 75 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Take note that it’s possible for your turtle to shed its scutes without you noticing. This is because your pet may eat the scute immediately after it peels off, or the scutes could get stuck in the substrate.
What Does Normal Shell Peeling Look Like?
The top of the shell isn’t the only part that will peel! The bottom and edges of the shell will shed as well. You may see scutes that are partially lifted from the shell while they are in the process of peeling off. Don’t pull or rip them off; wait for them to fall off naturally.
Healthy scutes will generally be intact and whole when they fall off. If they come off in parts, this could indicate a health issue. The scutes should appear almost translucent when they are in the peeling process. In the middle of the process, you might notice that it looks like shreds of tissue are coming off of your turtle, or that trails of tissue paper are attached to its shell. This is all normal.
It’s pretty common for turtles to eat their scutes as they fall off, but if you notice any floating around in the tank, it’s best to remove them. You don’t want them to get trapped in the filter or build up and make the tank water dirty or cloudy.
One issue you need to look out for as a turtle owner is shell rot. Shell rot is a general term that refers to damage of the turtle’s shell. It’s particularly common in turtles who spend a lot of time in the water. Because they don’t spend enough time on dry land, their shell never completely dries out. This causes erosion, shedding, and infection.
Some symptoms to look for:
- Pitted rough areas on the shell
- A moss-covered shell
- An unpleasant odor coming from the shell
- A red tinge to areas of the shell
- Flaky scutes
Treating Shell Rot at Home
If your turtle only has a mild case of shell rot, it’s possible to treat it at home with the following steps.
1. Identify and fix the cause of the problem. Usually the cause is dirty water, an inadequate basking area, or temperatures that aren’t at the right level. Once you’re certain that your turtle’s environment is perfectly optimized, you can move on to the next step.
2. Clean your turtle’s shell with a toothbrush and mild soap. Use gentle circular motions to clean the shell. Afterward, dry your turtle thoroughly. The damaged scutes should come off easily as you go through the cleaning process. If they don’t come off after using the toothbrush, it’s best to take your turtle to the vet.
3. Find a dry container and place your turtle there for at least two hours so it can dry completely. Your turtle will still need to spend some time in water each day.
4. Repeat this process every day for up to a week. If the problem persists, it’s time to take your pet to the vet.
(Remember to only use a general antiseptic to disinfect your turtle’s shell. Nolvasan, or chlorhexidine, is recommended, although hydrogen peroxide or an antibiotic ointment also works.)
How Shell Rot Is Treated by a Veterinarian
A veterinarian will first debride, or remove, the dead areas of the shell. Often they will use a scalpel blade or a toothbrush to carefully scrape the dead areas away. Generally, a vet will dry dock a turtle that has shell rot.
This means that they will only be in the water for about an hour a day and will spend the rest of their time in a soft towel kept at the ideal body temperature. They’ll also be provided with plenty of UV light.
Topical antibiotics are often used as well. Sometimes a feeding tube is necessary. It’s very important for turtles with shell rot to receive a healthy and nutritious diet, but often when they’re sick, they refuse to eat. A feeding tube helps them get everything they need to keep their immune system and body running properly.
If you’re concerned that your turtle might have shell rot, you’ll need to talk to your veterinarian. They can give you more information about how much time your pet should be spending in the water, and if you can handle the problem at home.
How to Handle a Molting Turtle
A turtle that is going through the shell peeling process (also referred to as “molting”) needs slightly different care. Its shell may appear cloudy and feel much softer than usual, so take extra care when handling your pet. As always, make sure to wash your hands before and after touching your turtle; this helps to prevent salmonella.
Many turtle owners report that their pets enjoy a gentle back scratch when they’re going through the shedding process. If you choose to do this, just make sure to scratch very softly and carefully. Don’t try to peel off the scutes.
If you see your turtle rubbing its shell on different surfaces in its aquarium, it’s most likely just growing. It’s a common and normal process for turtles to shed their scutes and grow new ones as they become larger in size.
However, turtles are sometimes afflicted with a problem called shell rot that you should be on the lookout for. Minor cases can be treated at home, while more serious cases will need to be taken care of by a veterinarian.