Softshell Turtles

The care guide for pet softshell turtles

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

Pet water turtles like red-eared sliders are popular pets but if you are looking for one that is a little more unique you should consider getting a pet softshell turtle. These strange looking turtles lack the one characteristic almost all turtles share - a hard shell - and are actually quite fast on land.

Softshell Turtles

  • Name: Softshell turtle, Smooth softshell turtle, Apalone mutica, Florida softshell turtle, Apalone ferox, Spiny softshell turtle, Apalone spinifera
  • Size: Up to 14 inches long for Apalone mutica and Apalone spinifera and over two feet long for Apalone ferox

Softshell Turtle Housing

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 two feet long and will need large areas to swim. We don't recommend these turtles for the typical household due to their size.

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 75-100 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 their fragile body. In addition to the sandy bottom, provide driftwood to allow your turtle to safely escape the water and bask when necessary and live aquatic plants if able to.

Softshell Turtle Lighting

Most softshells actually do better in enclosures that are kept in the mid 70's. Water heaters designed for fish and reptile heat lights can be utilized to maintain a constant environment. 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 10-12 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. The UVB rays will expire before the visible light does.

Softshell Turtle Diet

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.

Softshell Turtle Health

Since these turtles are lacking a hard carapace you need to make sure their soft shells do not get damaged. Infections and wounds are common in softshell turtles as well as ear infections and intestinal parasites like other reptiles get.

Annual check-ups with an exotics vet are recommended so that you can have a fecal checked for parasites and make sure there aren't any health issues with your pet turtle.

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.