It’s important that you study up on an animal before inviting one into your home, but no matter how prepared you are for your turtle, it can still be quite alarming when you notice their scutes beginning to flake in places.
Scute shedding is usually completely normal; snakes frequently shed their skin, as do lizards...it’s a reptile thing.
But sometimes, it can also be a sign that something is seriously wrong with your turtle and that immediate action is required, so let’s discuss some of the reasons that shedding might occur and how to handle them.
One of the best indicators that your turtle’s shedding is a natural and healthy occurrence is if the whole shell seems to be shedding together.
That’s not to say that it’s all coming off together as one piece; the scutes will always peel independently of one another. But if you can see signs across the shell as a whole that shedding is taking place, it just means that your little reptilian rascal is growing.
Turtle shells grow as the rest of their body grows. It’s common for us to feel a dislocation between their shell and the fleshy parts of their anatomy because we as a species are a very squishy lot, but a turtle’s shell is actually part of its spine and is normally made up of 60 bones.
So, it’s not growing to accommodate growth elsewhere, it’s growing alongside the rest of your turtle’s body.
Further validation that your turtle’s shell is shedding as the result of a growth spurt is that each scute will be peeling as one thin piece, and when it finally falls off, if you hold it up to a light, it should be vaguely translucent.
This outer layer is actually made up of keratin, just like your fingernails, horse’s hooves, or the outer shell of reindeer antlers.
After each piece has dislodged, you should examine the section of new shell to make sure it’s healthy. If it’s a good dark color, has a nice sheen to it, and is void of soft spots, it’s a sign everything is how it should be, and the ejection has gone well and wasn’t the symptom of something more insidious.
You may also notice, floating in the water of your tank, ecdysis that doesn’t look to have originated from your turtle’s carapace, and that’s because they shed from their plastron, the ventral (underside) part of their shell.
It’s perfectly healthy that the plastron and carapace shed simultaneously. In fact, it stands as further evidence that your turtle is simply growing up big and strong.
Should You Remove Peeling Scutes?
It can be tempting to help your turtle friend along by removing loose flaps of shell, but there’s no reason to intervene.
You can just let nature take its course and the dying layer will dislodge of its own accord. In fact, if you force the loose pieces of shell off too soon, you can damage the new shell beneath.
Once the scute peeling is fully dislocated from your turtle, don’t be surprised if you witness a bit of light turtle cannibalism as they try to take a bite out of their own ecdysis.
Don’t worry; your turtle isn’t some sort of sick freak; this is completely natural, but you should still prevent them from doing so by removing the peel from the tank as it can hurt their throats or internal organs.
Another risk of leaving dead shell in your tank is that it might get caught in a filter and break it, so to be safe, check your turtle’s habitat frequently and remove any peel that you find.
Shedding Due to Problems in Their Environment
I know we all dote on our turtles and like to consider ourselves responsible turtle parents, but the truth is sometimes the problem is us.
One mistake people make in their turtle tank is to decorate it with sharp rocks. A sharp rock can damage a turtle’s scute, which will trigger the shedding process.
This is a sign of healing, but any undue shedding is never a great thing, especially if it happens recurrently.
Probably the most common accidental mistreatment of turtles is when they’re overfed.
If a diet’s a little too large for their tiny turtle bellies, they’ll start to grow more than natural, and their scutes will automatically kick into action and begin releasing their top layer.
Your turtle loves being warm, but there’s a limit to what they can handle when they kick back and soak up that UV sun.
If the basking temperature you’ve set up in their habitat is too hot, it can force their shedding process, so work frequent temperature checks into your routine.
High Ammonia Levels
Ammonia is a gas that turtles produce, but it just so happens that it’s toxic to them. In the wild, their habitat never stagnates, so ammonia is perpetually drawn away, but in a tank, it can build up to a dangerous point.
Shell shedding can in some instances be a sign that your turtle is slowly poisoning itself.
The first step in preventing ammonia problems is to check your filters are doing their job. You can also use testing strips to check the PH and ammonia levels in your water, and remember, you should be changing the water at least partially once a week.
Scute shedding isn’t always a sign of wellness and good times to come. It can also be a manifestation of ill health.
This form of shedding is known as dysecdysis.
Fungal, Bacterial, and Parasitic Infections
Infections are so prevalent in pet water turtles because their lifestyle is a little too rock and roll for such a small body of water.
They commonly take their food into their water area to eat, which soils the water in itself, and then they literally soil themselves in said water.
All in all, it leads to a pretty unsanitary soup, and if not properly cared for, they’ll probably develop an infection that can lead to the shedding of scutes.
Thankfully, it’s easily identified as long as you know what you’re looking for. A fungal infection may discolor the shell as well as trigger ecdysis. Keep an eye out for any hints of red or white in your turtle's carapace, soft spots, or exposed bone, as these are a dead giveaway something’s gone awry.
It’s also quite common for a slimy film to develop over the infected areas of the shell.
A fungal shell infection can often bring a rather unpleasant smell along with it as well. Turtles aren’t the most hygienic of earthlings, but if their pong seems to have gotten remarkably unavoidable as of late, it’s a good idea to make a quick shell check.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease is caused by an imbalance of phosphorus and calcium in your turtle’s system. It both weakens and warps bone structure, and as a result, your turtle may start shedding. It can lead to severe fatigue and weakness as well as tremors and bone fractures.
The best way to avoid this nasty ailment is to optimize your turtle’s habitat, balance their phosphorus and calcium intake, make sure they have decent light and dark cycles, and help them get plenty of exercise.
It’s perfectly normal for turtles to develop an algal coat. It’s not a health risk as such, but it will create a barrier that can prevent heat from penetrating their shell and raising their internal temperature to the desired rate.
To beat the chill, they’ll start to shed as a means of cleaning themselves. If, however, algae begin to grow beneath partially shed scutes, moisture can build up which can lead to shell rot.
If you have any reason to suspect your turtle is shedding due to illness, you must take them to a vet immediately. After that, your first move should be to ensure that everything in their habitat is up to code.
Check ambient temperature, water temperature, basking temperature, your UV bulb, check your filters are all functioning as they should, removing both chemical and biological impurities, and double-check dietary plans.
For any kind of shell rot (a general term for infection), a vet will undertake what’s known as debriding, extremely gentle cleaning of the shell and the treatment of damaged tissue beneath any peeling with antibiotic creams.
The debriding process may need to be repeated several times, so it’s possible your vet may give instructions on how to continue yourself. Always use an incredibly gentle tool such as a soft-bristled toothbrush, and make sure you have the correct ointments.
After each cleaning session, it’s important that your turtle remains dry and clean for 2-3 days, with only a small amount of water for drinking.
What if Your Turtle Isn’t Shedding?
When they first encounter scute shedding, people’s first thought is to assume the worst, that there’s something incredibly wrong with their turtle pal, but if it’s shedding because of a growth spurt, it’s actually a sign your title is thriving.
But then the worry becomes, well what if my turtle never sheds? This is the real problem as it indicates something just isn’t quite right. Luckily, though, if this is the case, it’s rarely a problem with your turtle, and more likely to be a mistake on your part that can be quickly rectified.
If your turtle never sheds, it could be due to calcium deficiencies. Without the correct amount of calcium in their diet, your turtle will stop growing.
The best way to slip your special little partner some extra calcium is to feed them live fish. It may not be the nicest scene to watch, especially if you’re a fish lover, but eating full fresh fish will boost their calcium levels significantly, and as a bonus, turtles find the hunt mentally and physically stimulating.
Another way to fix this problem is with calcium enhancers, fishbone meal in the form of blocks or little pellets.
Your turtle doesn’t just bask under its UV sun cause it likes to kick back and relax, it needs the UV so it can absorb vitamin D, which it then converts internally into vitamin D3. Without vitamin D3, your turtle can’t utilize the calcium in its diet and will excrete the excess, leading once again to a deficiency.
UV lights fade over time; that’s a given. A good rule of thumb to ensure your turtle is never chilly is to switch out the UV bulb every 6 months.
Sometimes, it’s the other way around, and the reason your turtle won’t shed is that the basking temperature is too high for it. Proper basking temperatures can differ, but for common pet species, the ideal temperature is normally between 90-95°F.
The same is true of the water temperature. If it isn’t just right, it can lead to an unhealthy, unhappy, sluggish turtle that refuses to bask, which means it won’t grow, and consequently, won’t shed.
If your turtle is fully grown, you’ll need to keep that water between 70-78°F, and if you’ve got some hatchlings on your hands, between 78-80°F.
It is Shedding, You Just Can’t See the Sloughed Scute
It’s quite a common occurrence that if a turtle’s dead shell lands somewhere with an obscured view, perhaps in the substrate or plant life, or if it’s eaten by the turtle itself, owners just don’t see it happen and assume that it never did.
Do All Turtles Shed Their Shell?
All turtles, no matter the species, shed skin from their neck and legs, but not all turtles shed from their shell. It’s not an occurrence exclusive to water turtles, but water turtles do shed far more than other species.
Some of them, including the Deirochelys and Trachemys species, shed once annually to reduce their weight so they remain agile under water. Other turtles in the wild will exhibit light shedding before hibernation, or more specifically, brumation, and then shed heavily when they fully reanimate.
As long as you care for your turtle by the book, it’s incredibly rare that their scutes will shed for anything other than healthy reasons. Hurray!
That said, you should remain vigilant. The faster you notice an issue, the faster it can be resolved.