Turtle Shell Peeling: Why Does This Happen?

Why do turtles’ shells peel? Is it normal? Yes, turtles do shed their shells and these pieces are known as scutes.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • Why do turtles shed?
  • How often does it happen?
  • How to tell the difference between shedding and shell rot
Red-eared slider shedding its shell

Turtles shed pieces of their shells, known as scutes, as they grow, and this occurs mostly in older or adult turtles. The shell of a turtle is a part of them, and therefore grows with the animal. 

Turtle shells are primarily made out of bone, and the shell is actually the evolved and expanded ribs of the turtle. The bone solidifies and has created the turtle shell. The external most layer of the shell is a thin piece of keratin, and each individual scale is a scute. These scutes, made of keratin (the same material as our fingernails), are made to protect the turtle’s shell from being damaged. 

Caution

Never pick, cut, or try to remove a turtle’s scutes. This is very painful for them!

As young turtles, the shell simply grows with the turtle however, when they become older, mature adults, the scutes and the keratin layer will peel off in a thin layer. This peeling is shedding, and is totally normal for your turtle! There can be times when a turtle’s shell peeling is a bad thing. Younger turtles do not shed, and if there is peeling of the shell this could be a problem. Also, tortoise species do not shed their scutes, so peeling would be unnatural!

How Often Do Shells Peel?

Turtles will peel, or shed, their scutes more or less frequently depending on their age and the species. Some turtles will not peel at all, and peeling would be abnormal, such as in Russian tortoises, Leopard tortoises, Sulcata tortoises, and other species of common tortoises. 

Common species of aquatic turtles that shed are Red-Eared Sliders, Yellow Belly Sliders, Painted turtles of all subspecies (Southern, Eastern, Midland, etc.), Map turtles, and Diamondback Terrapins will all shed their shells. Some of these species shed more easily and readily than others. The shells of these turtles are constantly growing as they eat, so depending on how quickly they grow, their shells will shed more or less often! For example, Sliders and Painted turtles will shed fairly regularly once they reach about 4 inches (sexual maturity). These turtles will lose their scutes a few times a year, as frequently as every two months, or as infrequently as once every year or two. In some species, such as Map turtles and Diamondback Terrapins, they shed fairly infrequently in captivity compared to their wild counterparts. 

Wild turtles often have an easier time shedding their scutes due to a variety of factors, including natural sunlight and a more natural diet, as well as access to more UV light. Map turtles will have an easier time shedding than terrapins and will shed once every few months or once per year. 

Diamondback Terrapins, especially males, do not shed frequently at all, and may do so once every year or once every two years. Females will begin shedding at about 4 inches, but even then it may take one to two years to shed.  The peelings from these turtles, and the shed scutes, can be found often at the bottom of the aquarium or habitats they are kept in.

At 2 years old, my Red-Eared Slider began shedding her scutes and did so very regularly, about once every month or two. On the contrary, my female Diamondback Terrapin grew well past 5 inches in two years, and a strange fungus grew on her shell, giving the entire thing a discolored white appearance. This type of fungus, through research and identification, was not harmful, but would hinder shedding at times of the species. After access to an outdoor pond and basking under the natural sunlight, at 3 years old she shed her scutes for the first time, revealing a healthy and beautiful shell underneath the older layers. 

Why Do Shells Peel?

Turtle shells peel as a form of growth. In the same way that humans lose their teeth as they get older, once turtles reach a certain size or age, they will begin shedding their scutes in the form of peeling. The scutes will either shed in entire pieces or in small flakes. 

Regardless, the process occurs as a result of growth. The keratin of the scutes on a turtle’s shell is the same material our fingernails are made of. Over time, as they grow, the scutes will peel and pop off, revealing a more brightly colored shell underneath that is slightly larger than before. 

Because turtles are constantly growing, and often do not reach full sizes for years, they will shed regularly well into adulthood. 

I currently own an 18-year-old Diamondback Terrapin who has a 10-inch carapace (top side) of the shell, and she is still shedding scutes regularly. The plastron (bottom side) of a turtle’s shell will also shed regularly, and even the bridge (connecting the plastron and carapace) will shed! The peeling should be clear and fairly thin, though this will depend on if there has been stuck scutes that accumulated over time. 

How to Identify Healthy Turtle Shell Peeling

A healthy, peeling shell will be slightly discolored in appearance, and more frequent basking behavior will be noted in your turtle. This is often a sign that they need to shed their scutes. They may also “itch” their backsides against objects in their enclosure by rubbing their shell back and forth against the decor. This is fairly common, and because the turtle’s shells have nerve endings, they can feel their shells. 

Therefore, when they are scratching, and rubbing their shells back and forth, they are quite literally itching themselves! Itching is a good habit for turtles to help get any stuck scutes loose. 

A healthy peeling turtle should not only be itching, but they will bask more frequently. If the turtle is basking and the scute appears to begin peeling and coming off, this is a good sign! The shell will peel most often when the turtle is basking. The process of wetting the shell and then drying under their basking spot will lift the scutes and aid in the shedding process. This is completely normal, and healthy for the turtle. 

The scute itself should appear fairly thin and clear unless there has been built-up scutes and shed that the turtle could not previously remove and has built up over time. In this case, the peeling shell piece should be slightly thicker than normal. 

Rapid growth and too high of a protein diet not varied (feeding too many pellets) can create issues shedding for pet turtles. A normal scute peeling should be the thickness of a few pieces of paper stacked. The shell should appear cloudy and slightly discolored before shedding, a lot like a snake does! This makes sense, as both animals are reptiles. The scute, when it sheds, will feel like a thin piece of plastic. It is relatively strong and flexible, though it will quickly become brittle and break easily after a few days. The shell that is revealed underneath should be a brighter color than when the scutes were covering the shell. Your turtle may appear like a whole new animal after it sheds!

Shell Peeling Or Shell Rot? How To Tell The Difference

The main difference in a peeling shell versus shell rot is in the type of peeling that is occurring. Basically, shedding is the removal of the scute, and it will come off like a thin, small piece of plastic. 

Comparatively, shell rot does not actually assist in shedding. Instead, shell rot will eat away at the shell due to a bacterial infection, and cause divots and pits in the shell. When a turtle cannot shed their shell due to either not being able to bask, not a warm enough basking spot, or lack of access to UVB lighting, the scutes can become stuck to the shell. 

This can become a problem and actually lead to shell rot, as material and debris can get stuck between the layers of the shell. When this debris decomposes, it can feed nasty bacteria that will eat away at the shell and can cause a big problem if left unattended.

Small spots in the shell are likely to be hard water stains, as shell rot will be fairly apparent and eat away at the shell. Peeling will be thin pieces of the scute and should come off in entire pieces if the turtle is healthy.

📚 Read More >> Guide To Shell Rot

When Should You Be Concerned About Shell Peeling?

If your turtle is having trouble peeling its shell and shedding, it may be worth intervening after a few weeks of this. When the scutes become very discolored, filled with algae, or when shell rot appears underneath the scute, it may be time to take action.

The turtle also may appear agitated and itching against everything it can and basking as often as it can. These are all red flags, and although it usually just takes time for the turtle’s shell to peel properly, if enough time has passed you should intervene. A trip to the vet is necessary in cases of severe stuck shed and shell rot. They will likely prescribe an antifungal medicine to fight fungal infections. 

What If Your Turtle’s Scutes Aren’t Peeling?

Do NOT pick at the shedding scutes! This is extremely important as you can do a LOT more damage than good if you pick at the turtle’s shell. If a scute is shed too early and you forcibly pull the scute off, not only is this EXTREMELY painful for the turtle, but they will have exposed bone underneath. This then requires a lot of attention and keeping clean, as it runs the risk of infection and needs to be kept very, very clean until it grows back. If it has been a few weeks and your turtle is not shedding, consider brushing the shell with an old toothbrush or other soft brush to loosen things slightly and clean the shell of any algae or material that is preventing the scute from coming loose. 

Drydocking is the process of taking your turtle out of the water and keeping them dry for a few hours. During this process, you use a heat lamp or the sun to keep your turtle warm (but make sure not to let them overheat or dehydrate!). Drydocking, or an hour or so in the sun regularly, can really help improve the quality of your turtle’s shell. There is nothing better for a shell with issues than natural sunlight. The process of getting wet and then drying contributes heavily to the process of shedding, therefore dry docking can help if your turtle won’t bask. 

Do Certain Turtles’ Shells Peel More Than Others?

Yes! Some species bask way more often than other species, therefore they are more likely to shed more easily and readily than others. Sliders and Painted turtles in particular are species that bask very often. They also can handle more poor water quality than other species, therefore even water not up to the best standards with a basking spot can lead to regular shedding. 

Basically, even in suboptimal conditions, Sliders and Painted turtles may shed and peel their shells. It is recommended though, to aid in the process, to keep their tank water as clean as possible with a high-powered filter and provide a proper basking area. 

Map turtles and Diamondback Terrapins may have a more difficult time shedding, particularly males of both species because they are smaller than females. Females will begin shedding around 4 inches, which may take 1-3 years. Even after reaching 4 inches, these species may not shed yet. Sliders and Painted turtles will often regularly shed at 1-3 years old. Once they begin, they often do regularly, usually every month or two, for the rest of their lives. 

FAQs

Should I scrub my turtle’s shell?

Scrubbing a turtle’s shell gently with a toothbrush or similar material can be beneficial for your turtle. Scrubbing once a month or as needed will keep the shell free of debris and aid in the peeling process. This may also remove any stuck shed or pieces of peeling shell that has become stuck. Much like brushing your teeth is important, brushing your turtle’s shell regularly (but not too frequently, monthly is fine) will keep it algae and debris-free. This debris usually prevents the scutes from shedding off, so brushing will assist in this process.

Is it normal for a Red-eared slider’s shell to peel?

Yes, Red-eared sliders are one of the most common species to have their shells peel. Females, in particular, will get fairly large, and then begin shedding their scutes. If well taken care of, the scutes should peel off, but may come off as flakey pieces that peel when they bask. Over time, their shells will grow and they shed scutes in the process. This is totally normal, like kids losing their baby teeth, except if they were to do so regularly every few months into adulthood!

Why does a turtle’s shell turn white?

A turtle’s shell may turn white due to hard water stains. These are simply from your pet turtle drying off from in the water and returning to the water constantly. Over time, the water that evaporates from their shell leaves behind minerals that accumulate on the shell. This is not a problem so long as you scrub the shell regularly or scrape gently away at these stains. They will also usually peel off when the turtle sheds. This is only a problem if the stains cover the entire turtle and it is causing stuck scutes when they shed and irritate the turtle.

Why do a turtle’s shell peel every now and then?

Turtles grow nearly their entire lives, and even when they approach full grown they keep getting larger. To accommodate for this, their shells need to shed their scutes, which are the individual scales on the shell. These outer layers will shed the pieces of the shell to make room for the larger shell underneath (though only very slightly larger). Over time, your turtle will grow larger and larger and continue to produce scutes and peel even when older! One of my Diamondback Terrapins is 18 years old and still sheds her scutes despite being 10 inches in length.

Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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