Turtle shell peeling is a normal, natural process that all turtle species go through. This article will quickly teach you how to recognize healthy peeling, and what to expect.
Do Turtles Shed Their Shells?
Yes, similar to how snakes shed their skin, turtles do shed their shells.
A turtle’s shell is made up mostly of small bones. The average turtle shell has around 60 bones.
These bones are covered by plates, called scutes. These scutes are made up of keratin, the same material that human fingernails are made up of. As a turtle grows, its scutes will often fall off. This is called shedding and is the subject of this article.
How often do turtles shed their shell?
While it depends on the species of the turtle, most turtles will shed their shell about once a year. However, younger turtles shed more frequently (to accommodate growth), while older turtles tend to shed less frequently.
Below are two examples of normal turtle shell peeling.
The first picture below shows a turtle that is starting to peel. You can see that the peeling is happening uniformly across many of the scutes.
The peeling below is an example of a turtle that has a lot of scrapes on their shell. While this is more common for turtles in the wild, it can also happen to pet turtles in captivity. It is completely normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
While turtle shedding is usually natural, it could be caused by an illness or improper care. This is especially true if you notice your turtle is developing a white substance on their shell. It’s usually caused by hard water, and can cause your turtle’s shell to dry out and peel.
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Why Is My Turtle’s Shell Peeling?
Your turtle’s shell is peeling for two reasons. It is usually natural from growing, but it could also be an attempt to fight off and fight shell rot, or other turtle infections and sickness.
As a turtle’s shell is made up of scute-covered bones, as a turtle grows larger, its shell must accommodate its new size some way. To learn more about a turtle’s shell, check out my article can turtles feel their shell?
Turtle Shell Peeling
As a turtle’s shell (bones) grows larger, the old scutes (the outer portion of the shell) must fall off to make way for the newer, larger scutes.
But, that isn’t the only reason a turtle will peel its shell.
You see, one of the reasons that turtle will bask (layout in the sun), besides to dry out its shell and skin, is to raise its internal temperature. And if a turtles shell is covered in algae or any other type of ‘blockage’, this will interfere with its internal temperature, causing it to move slower and become more at risk.
An easy way to improve your turtle’s shell health is to add calcium enhancers to your turtle tank. It only costs $7.
Shedding its scutes is a means to keep a turtle’s shell clean and free of any type of blockage or infection.
Furthermore, turtles’ shells will peel when it is injured or damaged. If a scute is damaged or lost somehow, turtles’ shells have the ability to regenerate.
And so lastly, a turtle will shed as a means to heal itself.
Now that you know why do turtles shed their shells, let’s next move on to what types of turtles shed, and how often?
Do Turtles Shed Skin?
A turtle’s skin is more rubbery and tough, and similar to its shell cannot accommodate growth very well. Therefore, a turtle does shed their skin to help promote growth. Sometimes, people will think their turtle is shedding skin, when the skin is naturally just very dry.
How Often and What Types of Turtles Peel Their Shells?
Generally speaking, aquatic turtles will peel their shells much more often than other types.
The reason for this is that shell rot and parasitic infection are much prone to occur in the water, and so turtles that spend a higher proportion of their lives in said water, are much more at risk from this.
Shell peel is thus, a natural defensive mechanism against this.
If you fear your turtle may be at risk for a parasitic infection, you should add this to your water. It only costs $6. The solution is designed specifically for turtle tanks, and breaks down organic waste and excess debris in your tank.
Other types of turtles, such as box turtles, do not shed their scutes as often. And when they do, it is largely as part of a healing process.
And how often does this shedding occur?
There are two periods where a turtle will often shed.
Immediately before hibernating, and right after emerging from it.
Right before a turtle hibernates, it will sometimes experience some peeling. This is totally natural and will prepare it for the long sleep ahead.
However, a turtle will typically shed much more often right after emerging from hibernation, where it will bask quite often. This period is sometimes known as ‘the frizzes.’
There are other reasons why a turtle will peel its shell, such as:
- Being overfed and growing too fast (this usually happens when owners feed their pet turtles too many (and nothing but) protein pellets.
- Its basking area is too hot.
- Fungal infections.
- High ammonia levels in the water (which is why it is important to have a good filter with biological filtration, see this article to learn more about a turtle tank filter).
- Certain diseases.
My Turtle’s Scutes Are Not Shedding!
If you are certain that your turtle is NOT shedding its scutes, it’s usually because your water and basking temperature isn’t right, there is a problem with your UV lightbulb or your turtle just isn’t getting enough calcium in its food.
Let’s get into this a little bit further.
- Your water temperature or basking temperature is too high or too low. Check what water and basking temperature are appropriate for your species and adjust as necessary. For most common pet species, the water temperature will be in the 70s or 80s and the basking temperature in the 90s. To track your turtle tank water temperature, you should check out this digital thermometer that also measures pH level.
- Your UV light is old or has become weak. UV light-bulbs degrade in quality over time. It’s often recommended to change them every 6-months. A lack of UV light can have a profound effect on your turtle’s health.
- Your turtle isn’t receiving enough calcium in its diet. If your turtle isn’t eating calcium, it can’t grow. Make sure your turtle is getting calcium through its diet. A really easy way to increase calcium in your turtles diet is with calcium blocks.
I want to mention one more thing here.
It’s entirely possible that your turtle IS shedding its scutes. Usually, this is because either your turtle is eating the scute right after it peels off, or you can’t see them in the aquarium. If your aquarium has a substrate or rocky bottom or has plants, they may be lodged in there somewhere.
For starters, you need to be sure that your turtle isn’t actually shedding its scutes. As turtles get older their shell peeling becomes less conspicuous. You might see a scute peeled off here or there every once in a while, but that’s it.
What to Look for in Turtle Shell Peeling
A turtle peeling its shell is a very natural thing.
That said, a turtle doesn’t always shed its scutes for natural reasons. And sometimes when it does, there are very real bad reasons for this (such as from the list above).
With healthy turtle shell peeling and shedding, the scutes will simply fall off, as a whole (usually). And not just from the top of their shells. The bottom of your turtle’s shell will also peel off, as will the sides and the smaller scutes lining the edges.
If you see scutes peeling or falling off from the bottom or edges of your turtle’s shell, don’t be surprised or worried as this is totally natural and healthy.
You may notice that portions of the scutes seem to ‘lift-off’ up from the shell. This is normal. Whatever you do, don’t physically force them off.
They will come off on their own. You can tell that a scute is ready to come off when you can very easily peel it off yourself.
If there is any sort of resistance seemingly coming from the shell, it isn’t ready to come off. You should stop immediately and not try to force it off.
However, if the turtle’s shell is covered with ‘blockage’ such as algae, you may try cutting it away with a knife.
Just be super careful! Or better yet, just wait it out.
How to Recognize Healthy Turtle Shell Peeling
The easiest way to recognize whether a turtle is shedding its scutes in a healthy, normal fashion is what they look like after they fall off.
They should be intact and whole. A turtle’s scutes should not come off in parts (in general).
If they are, this may be a sign that your turtle is suffering from something.
Sharp rocks are oftentimes a cause for a turtle to prematurely shed some of its scutes or to even damage them, so make sure you are vigilant about ensuring a proper environment for your turtle.
Another way to recognize proper turtle shell peeling is the scutes themselves. They shouldn’t be very ‘thick’. They should look almost partially translucent.
Essentially, they should look an awful lot like the shell that they just came off of.
One last thing to note, it is quite normal to see your turtle try or attempt to eat some of its scutes after they fall off. It may even be successful in breaking off a piece and swallowing it!
This is totally normal, turtles do this sort of thing. But just to be safe, ensure that there are not random scute pieces laying around your tank. They could very easily damage your turtle’s throat and insides. Check out this article to see if a turtle can live without a shell.
- Turtle’s shed their scutes (parts of their shell) primarily to grow.
- Aquatic turtle shedding is healthy, normal and frequent when young. Box turtles and tortoises do not normally shed their scutes.
- If your aquatic turtle is not shedding, especially while its young, its probably because the water or basking temperature isn’t correct, your UV lightbulb is old or weak or it isn’t receiving enough calcium in its diet. It may also actually be shedding its scutes without you realizing it.
- Most of the time, you don’t need to do anything when a turtle sheds its scutes. They will come off naturally. You can help them shed their scutes by pulling them off, but ONLY if there is no resistance and they come off easily. If there is resistance, stop pulling and let it come off naturally.