Scute (Shell) Shedding in Turtles

Learn how to tell if your shedding turtle is healthy or sick

Swimming turtle

JamesDeMers / Flickr / CC By 2.0

A turtle's shell is composed of about 60 bones. The outside of the shell is layered in scutes, which are plate-like scales similar to the keratin composition of fingernails. They protect the bones and cartilage of the shell underneath. Most of the time, it's perfectly normal for turtles to shed their scutes as they grow. But a peeling shell can also indicate disease, depending on the type of turtle and whether it's healthy.

In addition to shedding scutes, a turtle sheds its skin. A turtle's skin is different from yours because it's not elastic and doesn't stretch to allow for growth. As certain species of turtles grow, you'll see that they outgrow and shed their soft skin in stages. This is most common in aquatic turtles, and it also serves as a way to stave off infections

It's usually fine to just allow your turtle to shed its scutes, but there are times when you'll need to take action to ensure that your pet is healthy. Sometimes you may be able to use a home remedy to help your turtle if it's shell is unhealthy; in other cases, you may require the services of a vet.

Why Do Turtles Shed Their Scutes?

Healthy shedding occurs as part of a turtle's normal growth, as the shell expands with the rest of its growing body. Other common reasons include parasites, algae, environmental issues, and illness. It's important to be able to distinguish healthy shedding from problems that could endanger your pet's health or life.

First, determine whether the shell under the peeling scutes looks normal. Anytime the shell looks deformed, red, bone is exposed, or the shell feels soft or spongy, there's a problem and you should see veterinary advice as soon as possible. You should also see a vet If your turtle is continuously shedding scutes or the scutes are peeling but not falling completely off.

Healthy Shedding

All turtles shed their scutes, and younger turtles must shed in the process of growing. But even adult turtles shed their scutes from time to time. This is especially common among aquatic turtles: Shedding enables the turtle to get rid of shell rot and parasitic infections that can result from spending too much time in the water and not enough on dry land. Box turtles and snapping turtles that don't spend much time in the water don't shed their scutes as often. When they do, it's usually part of a healing process.

Peeling as part of the growth process is normal as long as the thin layers come off, revealing shell that looks and feels normal.

  • Scutes should generally be intact and whole and not come off in parts. If they don't, it could be a sign of disease. Be aware that sharp rocks can damage your turtle's scutes or cause it to prematurely shed, so ensure that nothing in its environment is potentially dangerous.
  • Scutes should not be very thick and should appear almost translucent. Essentially they should look like the shell where they come from.
  • It's normal for a turtle to eat some of its scutes after they fall off. But to be safe, remove shed scutes from the tank as they could damage your turtle's throat and internal organs.

Health Issues That Cause Shedding

Dysecdysis (abnormal scute shedding) can leave your pet's shell exposed and vulnerable to infection. It can also be a sign of liver, kidney, thyroid, or bone disease. Shell rot is another serious problem, which can lead to permanent shell deformity. Other reasons why your turtle might shed abnormally include:

  • Overfeeding, which can lead to too-rapid growth or other health issues
  • Injuries caused by sharp rocks or the like in a turtle's environment
  • Basking in an area where it's too hot
  • Fungal and bacterial infections
  • High ammonia levels in the turtle's water (It's important to have a good filter with biological filtration)

Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity and cause of your turtle's dysecdysis. If the problem is relatively mild, start by ensuring that conditions in your pet's habitat are optimal. In some cases, minor changes to your pet's enclosure can eliminate the problem. Check to be sure that:

  • There are no sharp rocks or other items that can cause injury
  • The ideal temperature is maintained and there are no "hot spots" that can injure your turtle
  • Your water filter is of good quality, works properly, and filters biological as well as chemical contaminants

If the problem is more serious or is not alleviated by changes to the habitat, it's best to check with the vet. While it's possible for you to remove fungi and algae from your turtle's shell, it's easy to injure the shell. it's best to have an expert handle the problem. Your vet may also be able to recommend medication or diagnose an underlying medical issue.

One of the more common treatments for shell rot is debriding: a process of gently cleaning off the rotten shell and then treating the underlying tissue with antibiotics such as silver sulfazadine cream. Vets may also give the turtle an injection of ceftazadine. Some turtles need regular debriding to stay healthy (along with a proper habitat and nutrition). If the turtle's shell is actually fractured or has deep rot, vets are often able to patch the shell until it grows back on its own.

If you are cleaning the shell yourself, use a very soft scrubber such as a soft toothbrush and work very slowly and carefully. If you don't have access to antibiotic cream, another option is an antibacterial ointment such as Betadine or Povidone-Iodine. Once debrided, a turtle should be kept dry and warm. This process may have to be repeated several times over the course of a few weeks. If, after several debridings and use of antibacterial ointment, your turtle is still shedding, visit your vet.

Prevention

In many cases, there's no need to prevent scute shedding—in fact, it's a necessary and important part of turtle growth and health. To avoid problems, however, it's important to maintain an appropriate environment for your turtle and check in with a vet as soon as health issues arise.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.