If your turtle’s shell is white, don’t flip out just yet. The good news is that this is pretty common. The better news is that it’s pretty easy to fix.
Why Is My Turtle’s Shell Turning White?
More often than not, if it’s your turtle’s shell that is the problem (and not its’ skin) and it looks chalky, it’s due to hard water. You can fix this by using distilled or conditioned water, as well as cleaning its shell.
I’ll explain a little bit more about what hard water is, and how exactly you can fix it below. This is usually going to be the problem, but not always! As you’ll soon find out, it could be a few other things as well.
Hard Water and Your Turtle
Here’s how to immediately recognize hard water.
Is the white color evenly coated on the turtle shell? Or evenly coated around a portion of the shell, usually the bottom half? Does it look almost chalky or powdery? Like you could wipe it away?
That’s due to hard water.
Also, it’s important to note that hard water doesn’t always look like a chalky residue covered over a large part or all of your turtle’s shell. It could show up in the form of small or tiny white spots on your turtle’s shell.
These white spots will often be quite small and usually be located in the raised ridges or ends of your turtle’s shell. They should be bright white in color, and it may start to come off with some gentle rubbing or scrubbing.
An easy way to tell if your turtle shell’s white spots or chalky residue is to put a little bit of plain white vinegar onto the affected parts of its shell and see if it fizzes. This is a sure sign that its calcium carbonate and due to hard water.
You’ll need to be extremely careful doing this however, as any vinegar that gets into your turtle’s eyes or ears can produce a painful sting for them! I would advise anyone to only try this on the upper part of its shell that is nowhere near its head and to immediately wash off any vinegar afterward.
Don’t confuse this with shedding!
Shedding will be a lot more obvious. It won’t look chalky, and you’ll be able to almost “see-through” parts of your turtles’ scutes as they become translucent and start to peel off.
You may also see that chalky, powdery stuff on your turtle’s skin. Usually, you will see it around its claws. It will look a lot like dried-out skin. It definitely will not look moist or stringy.
It’s from the hard water.
What is Hard Water?
Basically, it’s just water that has a ton of dissolved minerals inside, especially calcium and magnesium. It’s considered “hard” because as the water dissipates, it leaves behind these trace minerals. Usually, you will see these trace minerals left on things such as:
- Shower faucets.
- Glasses and cups.
Most of the running water in the United States is hard water. This is due to the fact that ancient seabeds with very high concentrations of limestone once covered most of the region.
Now, although hard water looks bad, here’s the good news:
I have read through a few studies and they all have shown that there are no negative health consequences or side-effects to drinking or using hard water. In fact, in one study I found, hard water may be beneficial for humans due to the extra calcium and magnesium, particularly in malnourished individuals.
At least for humans.
For example, this New Zealand study looked at the effects of hard water on plaque build-up in rabbits. One group of rabbits was given Purina rabbit pellets and distilled water and the other groups, pellets and different types of hard water. After 3 months the rabbits who drank the distilled water had slightly more plaque build-up than those who drank the hard water.
I simply haven’t come across any studies on the possible health consequences of remaining in hard water for too long for turtles, but based on the non-effects on humans, it should be the same for turtles.
Trace minerals aren’t bad for turtles, and I couldn’t imagine they are in high-enough amounts to do any damage.
However, it does look bad AND, in the long-term, you are better off not using hard water just to be safe.
How to Fix Your Turtle’s White Shell
The good news is that this is really easy to fix.
Just follow these simple steps and your turtle’s shell will be back to looking all spiff and spammy in a few weeks.
Step 1: Use Distilled or Treated Water
This is the easiest step because that is literally all you need to do. You have 2 options:
- Use distilled water.
- Use water treated with a water-conditioner or water-softener.
Either option is OK, and 1 is not better than the other.
Personally, I use distilled water because the area where I am living currently has it available right downstairs from my home, and it’s really cheap.
I want to make an important note here though: whatever you do, don’t simply throw out all the old, hard water in your turtle’s tank and replace it all with distilled water. If you’ve got a significant amount of water in your tank (for an aquatic species), you will want to slowly replace the hard-water with soft-water.
This is because when you throw out all your old, hard water you will also be throwing out all the beneficial bacteria and you’ll probably get a case of New Tank Syndrome.
When you do your water changes, use distilled water and only change out 25% or so at a time. You’ll avoid NTS this way.
Your other option is to use a water-conditioner or water-softener.
This stuff is really cheap (less than $10) and will last you a really long time. All you do is buy a bottle, collect your hard-water in a bucket or something and add a few drops. Give it some time and viola, goodbye chlorine and heavy metals and minerals.
Again, the same method applies. Don’t change out all the water. Do it in stages and steps.
Once you start to do this, you should see your turtle’s shell improve in just a few weeks. It might not totally go away after or week or so, but you should definitely be seeing some improvement. Around a month in, if you’ve been doing your water changes right, your turtle’s shell should be totally free of that white chalky substance.
Step 2: Clean Your Turtle’s Shell (optional)
This is not necessary, but it can speed up the process of getting your turtle’s shell free of that white chalky stuff.
I created a quick video to show a little bit of a visual guide to how to do this.
It’s really easy to do. I found a good method that has worked for me in the past. Here’s what you do:
- Put a few cups of distilled water into a bowl.
- Drop a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into the water and mix it with an old toothbrush.
- Make sure your turtle’s shell is completely dry.
- Lightly brush your turtle’s shell using the toothbrush.
- If you see it come off, perfect.
- Let the turtle dry out afterward, and then put it back into its tank.
- If you notice any lesions, gashes or breaks in the shell anywhere, stop immediately.
Now, like I said all the way back at the top, hard water is going to be the cause of your turtle’s white shell most of the time.
But not all the time.
Here are a few more common reasons for this occurring.
Fungal Infections, Shell Rot, and Your Turtle
The reason for your turtle’s white shell color could also be due to a fungal infection or shell rot rather than hard water.
If it’s a fungal infection though, it won’t be evenly coated and distributed.
Here’s what it will look like:
- You will see brighter, denser white spots that are all over the place, or in one location.
- May see white or grey fuzzy patches on the turtle’s skin and shell.
- You see something that looks like a disgusting moldy cheese substance on its’ skin.
- Green, raised spots of patches.
One of the biggest hints that it’s a fungal infection is how quickly it grows. If this is something that is recent, and if the spots seem to be growing and getting bigger day by day, it’s more likely to be a fungal infection.
It is usually fairly easy to distinguish the white spots on turtles’ shells due to hard water as opposed to a fungal infection or shell rot. If it were the latter, you will notice a few other things, such as:
- Small holes or pits in the shell, especially where there are white spots or discolorations.
- Often the color will be an off-white or cream color rather than the “chalky-white” of hard water residue.
- It will usually be accompanied by an awful, rotten meat like smell. This is a tell-tale sign of shell rot.
How do Turtles Get Fungal Infections?
Fungal infections are pretty common in turtles, and the 2 biggest culprits are generally:
- Poor water quality.
- A bad basking spot.
Here’s how fungal infections can develop from either.
Poor water quality. What happens is usually:
- The turtle feeds inside its tank.
- The tank doesn’t get cleaned often or thoroughly enough.
- Bits of food and defecate fall to the bottom, which eventually combines to form the perfect slimy, disgusting breeding ground for bacteria and the development of fungus.
- The warm water temperature of the tank (combined with the lack of adequate cleaning) keeps the bacteria and fungus alive and thriving.
And with the basking spot, what happens is:
- The basking spot is placed in a poor position or isn’t big enough
- The turtle cannot dry out enough due to poor positioning or lack of heat
- Fungus and bacteria start to develop on the turtle’s shell and skin
How to Fix a Fungal Infection
The good news is that fungal infections are relatively easy to fix. The bad news is that this will take a little bit more work than fixing simple hard water.
If your turtle looks to start developing a fungal infection, you could possibly kill it early. Here’s how:
- Remove your turtle from the tank.
- Do a thorough cleaning of the tank.
- Place some water in a large bowl or bucket and warm it up to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Add 2 tablespoons of salt to the water.
- Let your turtle soak in the saltwater for around 15 minutes, 1x or 2x daily for 4 or 5 days straight.
- Let your turtle dry out for around an hour before placing it back inside the tank.
If the fungal infection has spread a bit more, you’ll probably need something a bit stronger to do the job. Here’s a good method:
- Remove your turtle from the tank and allow it to be completely dry.
- Apply silver sulfadiazine cream, or betadine or iodine solution to the fungal spots using a q-tip.
- Keep the turtle out of the water for the rest of the day, allowing the solutions to do their work.
- Place the turtle in a warm area, around 80 degrees Fahrenheit if possible.
- Continue applying every day and notice if the shell starts to improve.
- Don’t forget to allow your turtle to be in the water for at least some part of the day.
Before placing your turtleback inside his or her tank, you’ll want to do a thorough cleaning of the tank and everything in it. Adding a bit of chlorine can really help a bit, but make sure to allow everything to dry completely before re-adding your turtle to the tank. Remember to use distilled or treated water.
Shell Rot and Your Turtle
Now, I don’t want to scare you, but it could also be shell rot.
I won’t lie to you, shell rot can be a serious problem. But it is fixable. More often than not, however, you will be able to almost intuitively know the difference between shell rot and simple hard water (or fungal infection).
Shell rot looks really bad:
- You might see bright white spots appearing over the shell.
- Bits and pieces of shell will have fallen off.
- You may see bits of flesh where the scute has fallen off.
- It will probably smell terrible.
- There may be fluid leaking over the shell from the infected area.
Turtles get shell rot from a variety of reasons:
- Too much or too little moisture in the tank.
- Poor sanitary conditions.
- No heating or improper heating.
- A bad diet
What happens is a turtle’s shell will get damaged somehow, usually from falling off something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge, visible injury it could be something as small as a decent scratch. Due to something not being right in the tank, fungus and bacteria infect the wound and it starts to spread throughout the shell.
Eventually, the shell rots away, leaving flesh exposed while the bacteria and fungus eventually make their way into the body.
If left untreated, the turtle sometimes dies.
It’s a pretty serious problem and a bit beyond the scope of this article to tell you how to deal with it. I’d rather do the topic its due justice, due to its seriousness.
The main thing with shell rot though is that:
- If it’s shell rot, you will probably know it.
- Shell rot is contagious, so you will need to immediately separate your turtles.
Lack of UV Light and Your Turtle
Lastly, there is 1 more possible reason for your turtle’s shell turning white.
I have only found a few cases of this, so it’s not common, but I still wanted to mention it.
And that is the turtle’s shell turning white, or seeming to lose its color. And by losing color, I don’t mean turning a bit dull, which often happens naturally, but rather, notice that the colors on your turtle’s shell start to fade and be replaced by a white or grey-ish color.
If you see this happening, what seems to be happening here is that your turtle isn’t getting enough UV-B light. Either the light you are using isn’t strong enough, or there is something wrong with the basking area or your light just has stopped emitting enough UV-B due to the rate of decay.
In all of these cases, make sure you’ve got a decent UV-B light to correct and fix the problem.
- Most of the time your turtle’s shell is turning white due to hard water.
- You can fix this by using distilled/treated water and by cleaning the turtle’s shell.
- It may be due to a fungal infection as well.
- This can be treated through OTC topical medication.
- It may be due to a lack of UV-B light.
- It’s not likely to be shell-rot (you would know it), but if it is, it’s quite serious and you’ll need to treat it ASAP.