Softshell Turtles

These turtles are not suited for beginners

Closeup of Florida Soft-Shelled Turtle, Trionyx ferox, swimming in wetland habitat. Wakodahatchee Wetlands, South Florida. USA
Johann Schumacher / Getty Images

They're not for the beginner, but if you're interested in an aquatic profile that's a little out of the ordinary, you may want to consider a softshell turtle for a pet. As the name suggests, these strange looking turtles lack the one characteristic almost all turtles share: a hard shell. This makes them more susceptible to attacks in the wild, but unlike their fellow turtles, softshells can move quickly on land.

In places where turtle soup is a regular menu item, it's likely that softshell turtle meat is part of the recipe. But if they can avoid the stew pot and the occasional alligator, softshell turtles can be intriguing pets for the right owner.

  • Name: Softshell turtle, Smooth softshell turtle, Apalone mutica, Florida softshell turtle, Apalone ferox, Spiny softshell turtle, Apalone spinifera
  • Lifespan: More than 25 years in captivity
  • Size: Up to 14 inches long for Apalone mutica and Apalone spinifera and over two feet long for Apalone ferox
  • Difficulty: Advanced. These turtles are not timid and do not like being handled. They'll attack if they feel threatened, and are generally aggressive toward other turtles.

Softshell Turtle Behavior and Temperament

These animals, which are eaten as delicacies in some parts of the world, are foragers in the wild, and prefer to submerge themselves in mud when on land. Since they are more vulnerable to predators due to their lack of a shell, these turtles can be aggressive. It's not a good idea to house pairs of them together because they'll probably attack each other, and they have sharp claws and strong jaws that can do serious damage.

Females get to be much larger than males, and may not be suitable as pets at all unless an owner can find a sufficiently large enough enclosure.

Don't plan to have a softshell turtle as a pet in a home with a small child. Although they look cute, these animals take a long time to become accustomed to humans and aren't the cuddly pet they may appear to be.

And if you have a dog, a softshell turtle may not be a good idea; a curious dog can do serious damage to a turtle defending itself.

Housing the Softshell Turtle

The kind of softshell turtle you choose will determine the size of tank you will need. The large Florida softshell turtles can weigh over 40 pounds and reach over 2 feet long and will need large areas to swim.

The spiny and smooth softshell turtles are a more manageable and practical sized pet turtle. They can be kept in a large fish tank, usually 75 to 100 gallons or larger. The water must be kept very clean and there should be nothing that could cause a potential wound on your softshell turtle in that tank. Canister filters, submersible filters, and other efficient filtration systems should be utilized to prevent bacterial and fungal infections on your turtle.

In the wild, softshell turtles love to bury themselves in the sand. By providing clean play sand in the bottom of their tank you'll encourage natural behaviors and prevent other harsh substrates like gravel from hurting its fragile body.

In addition to the sandy bottom, provide driftwood to allow your turtle to safely escape the water and bask when necessary and include live aquatic plants if possible.

Heat

Most softshells actually do better in enclosures that are kept above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Water heaters designed for fish and reptile heat lights can be utilized to maintain a constant environment.

Light

UVB lighting is recommended in addition to heat lights. Reptiles cannot properly convert the calcium they eat into usable nutrition in their bodies without the invisible UVB rays. These special lights should be kept on for 10 to 12 hours a day and not be blocked by any glass or plastic. These bulbs should also be changed every six months, even if the light doesn't burn out.

Food and Water

Softshells eat a variety of insects, amphibians, eggs, and fish in the wild. In captivity, they are also primarily carnivores but will adapt to eating floating turtle pellets. Fish, gut-loaded crickets, worms, and other readily available prey items are typically offered to pet softshell turtles.

Larger turtles will even eat pinky mice and small amphibians such as frogs. You should always place the food in the water and let your turtle eat without having to get out of his pool.

Common Health Problems

In the wild, softshell turtles are a favorite meal for alligators. Even in captivity, since these turtles are lacking a hard carapace, they are much more vulnerable to injury than other pet turtles.

You need to make sure your turtle's soft shell does not get damaged. Infections and wounds are common in softshell turtles as well as ear infections and intestinal parasites, which are common in most reptiles.

Annual check-ups with an exotics vet are recommended so that you can have a fecal inspection. The vet will check for parasites, which can wreak havoc on a turtle's immune system and overall health.

Proper tank set up and water quality is the key to keeping a healthy softshell turtle. These reptiles are not for beginners but experienced herp lovers will get enjoyment from watching and caring for these unique turtles.

Choosing Your Softshell Turtle

Try to get your turtle from a reputable breeder who can provide a health history. You'll want to look for a turtle that's alert, moves quickly (remember, they're faster than their shelled cousins) and does not appear lethargic.

Any scaliness or cuts on its carapace may indicate a turtle that has suffered an injury, which could mean it has other less obvious health issues as well. Its eyes should be clear and free of any mucus or crustiness.

Don't try to handle a softshell turtle that is not familiar with you; it will bite or scratch if it feels threatened.

Different Species of Turtles

If you're concerned a softshell turtle may not be for you, but like the idea of having a turtle as a pet, here are a few other species you may want to check out:

Or, you can check out our other aquatic turtle profiles to choose your next pet.