Shell rot can be scary but it is treatable and preventable. Read below to learn how to fix shell rot and how you can prevent it.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What is shell rot?
- What does shell rot look like?
- How can I treat it at home?
- When should I see a Vet?
What's In This Guide?
What Is Shell Rot & What Does It Look Like?
Shell rot or “Septicemic Cutaneous Ulcerative Disease (SCUD)” is a common problem in aquatic turtles and some reptiles because of all the time they spend in the water. Red-eared sliders(RES) are susceptible as they require a lot of water in their tank. It is caused by microorganisms (bacterial or fungal) that get under the protective layers of the scutes (individual pieces that make up the shell) of a turtle and begin to eat away at the tissue underneath. Sometimes, algae that build up on the turtle’s shell can contribute to the condition. It usually starts with a form of shell breakage or wound that gets infected and worsens and is potentially deadly if not treated.
Symptoms of shell rot usually start as an almost unnoticeable discoloration on either the carapace (top of shell) or plastron (bottom) of a turtle’s shell. The color change can be white, yellowish, or green with a mold-like appearance. It can show up as spots or blotches and can appear anywhere on the shell. It can then progress into small pits or divots, have a moth-eaten appearance, turn soft, and emit a smelly and bloody discharge. At this point, the shell is softened and can crumble, exposing the tissue underneath which can get infected. Sometimes shell rot can be mistaken for scute shedding. With scute shedding, all of the carapaces will eventually shed with paper-thin layers coming off.
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Turtles in captivity tend to have more subtle signs of shell rot which can also include a reddish tinge at some areas of the shell or the development of a slimy coating. Sometimes, flaking and an easily damaged shell are also signs of shell rot. In severe cases, parts of the scutes (outer shell) can fall off and expose the tissue, bones, and nerves underneath which can be really painful for the turtle.
There can be two forms of shell rot: dry or wet, differing mainly on how they present and the cause. Dry rot is lighter in color (white or tan) and is associated with fungal growth. It can make the shell fragile and bitter, quickly causing it to break or crumble. Dry rot commonly affects older turtles with more brittle shells. If the shell sustains too much damage, it can be hard to repair or recover.
Wet rot is a bit more serious as it can quickly become an aggressive infection. It usually shows up as a white or yellow discoloration, dark pockets, spots, or pits and is often accompanied by a discharge (pus) or foul smell. It is usually caused by a bacterial infection of a pre-existing wound on the turtle’s shell. Younger turtles that have softer shells can get this more often but it still affects turtles of all ages.
Shell rot can be prevented and treated with proper care and attention. However, it’s always best to check with your vet if you suspect a bad case of shell rot or if home treatment does not improve the situation.
What Causes Shell Rot In Red Eared Sliders?
- Poorly kept tank with dirty water
Shell rot is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection that can come from water in a turtle tank that is not kept clean. Since red-eared sliders are around water all the time, they are prone to these infections especially when there’s a previous wound on the shell. The best way to prevent shell rot is really to keep your turtle’s tank clean. Invest in a good turtle filter, maintain good water quality, and change part of the water every week. Turtles are messy – you should be aware of this already if you own one, and keeping their habitat clean ensures their good health.
- A damaged shell can became infected
Shells can be damaged through sharp objects in the tank or a fight with another turtle. These small cuts and scrapes can easily become infected since turtles spend a lot of time in the water. If not treated, it can turn into shell rot especially if your tank is not kept well. An unkempt tank is a breeding ground of bad bacteria and fungi. If you have more than one turtle in a tank, observe if they tend to fight as these can lead to injuries. Prevent this by getting a bigger tank or housing them separately.
- Improper habitat conditions
Your enclosure should have the correct water temperature, water quality, lighting, and humidity and be kept clean at all times to keep your red-eared slider’s health in top shape. A basking area that should always be above the water line and kept dry will also prevent shell rot by giving your turtle an area to completely dry off. Floating docks can sometimes sink under the weight of your turtle so half of their shell can still be submerged while basking. They should have a spot to be able to completely dry their shell. Not getting enough UVB light will make your turtle sickly and thus unable to fight infections like shell rot.
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Can I Treat Shell Rot At Home?
Yes, you can treat shell rot at home especially at its early stages. However, it is often a long process that requires consistent cleaning and aggressive treatment. You will need to clean your turtle’s shell and apply an antiseptic like betadine and give it some time to dry every day (dry docking). As always, make sure to bring your RES to the vet if it looks like a bad case of shell rot or if it is not improving after treatment at home.
How To Treat Shell Rot At Home
What you’ll need:
- A soft toothbrush
- Warm water
- Antiseptic (like betadine or povidone-iodine)
- Topical antibacterial medicine (if needed)
- Clean towels and towels you don’t mind soaking in betadine
- Paper towels (alternative)
- UV lamp or heat lamp
- A scalpel/sharp knife (if needed)
- Wear gloves and use warm water and a soft-bristled brush to scrub your turtle’s shell. Make sure to scrub the whole shell even if it is not affected by shell rot. Use circular motions to prevent abrasion especially around the affected area. Rinse well with warm water after.
- In severe cases, you may have to remove some dead areas of the shell which you can gently scrape off with a sharp knife. This is called debridement and should only be done at home if you are confident enough. Otherwise, bring your turtle to a vet.
- After a thorough cleaning, dry your turtle well with absorbent non-fiber towels or paper towels. Make sure there is no moisture left!
- Apply betadine on the affected area (you can use the normal betadine – these are the same as those advertised for shell rot) and let your turtle dry off away from water for about 20 minutes so the medicine can be absorbed. Do this step for only 2-3 days because betadine can inhibit shell growth.
- As an extra precaution, you can also wrap your turtle’s shell in a towel soaked with betadine for about 5 minutes then let it dry so you can treat the whole shell.
- If the shell rot has a foul odor, apply an antibacterial or antibiotic cream (silver sulfadiazine ointment or 2% mupirocin ointment) to the affected area as well. Do this twice a day for a week. Make sure to keep the turtle away from water after swabbing for 30-40 minutes to let the medicine work. If there is no significant change, switch to an antifungal cream (any over the counter cream works).
- You will have to do the steps above every day for several weeks (except the betadine soak) depending on severity so it’s best to catch shell rot early on and treat it quickly.
Other treatment tips:
- You can increase the time your turtle is away from water a few hours each day by taking it out of its tank and just giving it a small bowl of water to drink until the shell rot is better.
- You can dry dock your turtle completely by limiting its access to water to 1 hr/day to eat and poop. The rest of the day it can be in a soft towel with a shallow water bowl and a UV light for 20 minutes/day or place your turtle out in the sun to get natural sunlight. Make sure to keep them in their preferred temp.
- Increase the protein in your turtle’s diet to help with the healing process by feeding it more bugs for a few weeks. You can also give it extra vitamins and supplements to help it fight infections.
- Make sure to isolate the affected turtle if you have others in the cage.
- Clean your tank thoroughly before putting your turtle back in.
When To See A Vet
Take your red-eared slider to the vet if you have a particularly bad case of shell rot (e.g. if it affects a big area, there are multiple lesions, and basic home treatment has not improved the situation). If you notice a foul-smelling discharge and your turtle is not eating or has become lethargic, it is better to bring it to the vet. Shell rot needs consistent and aggressive treatment involving topical antibiotics and daily cleaning so if you think you cannot give adequate care, then consult your veterinarian immediately. Keep in mind that shell rot can be fatal in bad cases and is quite painful for the turtle so when in doubt, it’s best to see your vet.
How To Prevent Shell Rot
The best way to prevent shell rot is by keeping your turtle’s tank and water quality in tip-top shape: clean and free from sharp objects that can cause injury to your turtle, and with the proper habitat conditions (temperature, lighting, heating, water quality). Wounds, which is often where shell rot starts, can be avoidable but shell rot can also appear without wounds in the first place if your turtle’s tank is kept dirty.
Arrange your tank’s furniture in a way that minimizes scratches, abrasions, and chips to the shell and opt for smoother tank furniture. Your tank should also have an area kept completely dry for basking. If you have multiple turtles in a tank, you will have to isolate the one showing signs of shell rot as this is contagious. As a precaution, all turtles should be cleaned thoroughly and monitored if you see one affected by shell rot. A thorough tank cleaning should also be done after.
Read Also >> Best Turtle Tanks For Red-Eared Sliders
Can shell rot kill turtles?
Yes, shell rot can kill turtles if left untreated. The infection on the shell can breach the soft tissue underneath and enter the bloodstream causing septicemia or an infection of the blood by a bacteria. If it comes to this point, your RES can die after a few days so it’s always best to catch these things and treat them early on. Better yet is to prevent them by keeping a proper habitat for your turtle.
Is shell rot contagious to humans?
Shell rot is not exactly contagious to humans but safety precautions are still needed when treating this at home since you are dealing with bacteria and/or fungi. Always make sure you work on a clean surface with gloves and that you are thoroughly clean before and after treating your turtle’s shell rot.
Is shell rot contagious to other turtles?
Take note that shell rot can be contagious to other turtles so it’s best to isolate an affected turtle if you see any signs. Also, turtles can carry salmonella, which is a bacteria harmful to humans on their outer skin and shell surfaces. It is, therefore, best practice to always wash your hands after handling turtles.
Can a turtle shell repair itself?
Yes, a turtle’s shell can repair itself but slowly. It eventually heals and grows back but the important thing is the wound underneath it is treated and kept free from infection. A turtle’s outer shell, called “scutes” is made of the same substance as fingernails and hair – keratin. In some cases where the wound is too big or healing takes too much time, the shell is augmented with fiberglass, epoxy, or even steel by vets.
Why is my turtle’s shell turning white?
White discoloration on your turtle’s shell can just be due to hard water (water with too much limestone or chalk). This can be prevented by using water conditioners or using distilled water in your tank. However, it may also be a fungal infection so check thoroughly. Fungal infections often occur as spots. Treat them using an over the counter, topical, antifungal cream.
Shell rot can be fixed if caught early and treated aggressively but be aware when you have to take your turtle to the vet as the infection can turn fatal quickly. Prevention is better than cure in this case, so keep your turtle’s tank clean with the proper habitat conditions and make sure it doesn’t have any sharp objects that can wound your turtle. Shell rot treatment is a simple, but tedious process and recovery can take long so it’s best to avoid it altogether by keeping your turtle clean.
Quick info on shell rot:
Shell Rot – The Tortoise Library
Detailed care guide especially for severe cases:
How I treat shell rot in turtles — Vet Tails
Quick facts about a turtle’s shell:
Other diseases that infect turtles:
Common Diseases of Aquatic Turtles
Fact sheet and advice on how to prevent salmonella infection from turtles and other pets:
Pet Turtles: Cute But Commonly Contaminated with Salmonella