Shell Rot in Turtles & Tortoises: Here’s How to Treat Their Shell NOW…

Shell rot is the term that is used to refer (opens in new tab) to an infection that is anywhere on your turtle or tortoise’s shell.

Shell rot can occur on both the carapace (top ½ of the shell) and plastron (bottom ½ of the shell). The medical term for shell rot is ulcerative shell disease.

Unfortunately, helping heal your turtle or tortoise’s shell can be quite a long process…

However, that is by NO means meant to discourage you from taking proper steps to help salvage your pet’s shell!

In fact, should you be in search of an effective home treatment plan that can cure most mild cases of shell rot, well, look no further!

This article will explain what shell rot is, what you can do to help treat it from home, and when you need to go see an exotic veterinarian. 

So, without further ado, let’s dive right into discussing all things shell rot!

What Is Shell Rot & What Does It Look Like? 

Shell rot occurs when the bacteria found in your turtle or tortoises environment infect the blood vessels in the shell of a turtle. 

This will eventually cause small pits and divots in their shell and give their shell a moth-eaten appearance. You may also start to see soft spots forming or even have small areas of bloody discharge.

If your turtle or tortoise pet has a very bad shell rot, it may cause entire scutes to fall off.  This would expose the bone and nerves that are underneath the hard shell covering.

Shell rot is usually caused by an overgrowth of bacteria found in dirty environments, such as dirty water or moldy bedding.

As such, it is VERY important to know how to keep the water in your aquatic turtle tank clean and how to properly clean your tortoise’s environment.

Shell rot usually needs aggressive treatment such as antibiotics and daily cleaning.  This usually takes a very long time to heal.

Contact your exotic vet if you think that your turtle or tortoise has an infection before it causes them too much pain and suffering.

Shell Rot Causes

Shell Rot
Here you can see the faded, white, and moth-eaten appearance scutes take on when affected by shell rot.

Unfortunately, there is more than one thing that can lead to shell rot. Consider the following culprits behind this devastating disease… 

Shell Rot Cause #1: Damage to the Shell

Damage to the shell is usually responsible for the start of shell rot.  Once your tortoise or turtle has damaged its shell, it allows bacteria to grow in the cracks that are created. in

Here are some common examples of how your tortoise could damage their shell:

  • Fighting With Others. Tortoises and turtles can fight with other tortoises in their enclosure. Many times, this can crack their shells. 
  • Incorrect Humidity and Temperature. Your tortoise and turtles need the correct humidity water temperature in their cage. If their enclosure is not kept at the right temperature and humidity, their shell could crack.
  • Sharp Items in Their Cage. Most tortoise cages have things for them to hind in or climb on top of. Many of these may have sharp edges that can injury your tortoise’s shell. 

Shell Rot Cause #2: Improper Water or Habitat Conditions

Once your turtle or tortoise has damage to their shell, the bacteria that are living in their environment can cause these cracks to get infected. 

Your turtle or tortoise can get this infection from unclean water, moldy bedding, or unclean enclosure. 

Because of this, it is highly recommended that you clean your turtle’s water frequently!  Also, clean your tortoises drinking water that they may also play in very frequently and change out any soiled bedding.

Shell Rot Cause #3: No Dry Place

Turtles, such as the Red-Eared Slider, will NEED a place that they can get out of their water.  They will spend most of their time swimming around in their water, but they will need a place that they can get out and stay dry. 

There are many floating docks that you can put in the tank with your turtle.  Sometimes your turtle may be too heavy, and when they climb on these, they will sink too far in the water.

This sinking will cause the underside of their shell to still be in the water.

When your turtle gets out of the water, they need a place where NONE of their shells is in the water. This allows their shell to dry fully.

If you have a big turtle, you will need to build them something that they can get up on that is completely dry. 

Shell Rot Symptoms

There are many symptoms that you will see if your tortoise or turtle has shell rot.

For starters, you can usually see the cracks in their shell.  These cracks will progress to a moth-eaten white appearance.

You will then start to notice that their shell does not look even. You may even see some of the plates start to live on the edges. 

In severe cases, you can see discharge coming from these parts of the shell.  This discharge usually has a VERY bad smell, making it hard to miss from both a visual and olfactory perspective.

As this progresses, the shell may start to pit with parts falling off and exposing the bone underneath.

Sometimes this bone will look normal but can be infected if they have had this disease for a very long time. 

Mild Shell Rot Home Treatment

Turtle or tortoise suffering from a mild case of shell rot? If so, give the easy 5 step regimen below a try.

Step #1: Figure Out What is Causing the Shell Rot 

If it is poor water quality, change the water to clean water. If you have two turtles or tortoises that are attacking each other, put them in separate enclosures.

Also, look around the cage and make sure that you that there is nothing that is causing damage to the shell. 

Step #2: Isolate Them From Water In Their Tank

If you have a turtle, remove them from their tank of water and keep them dry until their shell heals.  The tortoise should also not be able to get wet during this time except when you are cleaning their shells. 

Bottom line? Try to keep their shells as dry as possible. 

Step #3: Clean Your Pet’s Shell

Get a very soft bristle brush such as a baby toothbrush. Use this brush to scrub off any dirt or algae.

Give your turtle or tortoise a bath and gently scrape off anything that will come off. This will help keep their shells clear of an infection

Step #4: Kill the Bad Bacteria

Use a Chlorohexidine solution to clean your turtle or tortoise’s shell. You can also use hydrogen peroxide, but it will cause the healing process to be even slower as it can also damage good healthy cells.

Step #5: Apply Healing Cream

At this point in the treatment plan, you’ll want to  The best choice is silver sulfadiazine cream, but you can also use Neosporin or another triple antibiotic cream. Apply this cream a few times a day to all the areas that you see that are infected.

All in all, this full treatment regimen will need to be one to two times a day for 5 to 7 days or until your turtle or tortoise’s shell is back to normal. 

However, it is important to note that while these steps will help with most shell rot infections, some infections are simply too far progressed, and they will require the assistance of an experienced exotic vet. 

When to See the Vet

turtle at vet
Although the treatment plan outlined in this article should help your turtle or tortoise overcome mid cases of shell rot, it is by no means guaranteed to work. Knowing when to take your pet to an exotic vet for treatment can be the difference between life or death, so monitor their progress closely.

Many times, at-home treatment will be enough to clear your turtle or tortoise’s infection. 

Now, if you have been treating them at home for a few days and you do not see any improvement, you will need to take your turtle or tortoise to an exotic vet. 

Also, if you notice that it is getting worse, it is time to see a vet as shell rot can progress to Septicemic Cutaneous Ulcerative Disease (SCUD). 

SCUD is a VERY serious condition where the bacteria that is growing on the shell can get into the bloodstream. This can be a fatal disease as the pathogens are carried in blood supply and can start attacking your turtle or tortoise’s organs.

Usually, to treat SCUD, your turtle or tortoise will need antibiotics given either by mouth or as an injection.

How to Prevent Shell Rot 

Usually, with treatment, your turtle or tortoise will be able to fully recover from shell rot. By being a little more proactive, you can easily prevent shell rot in your turtle or tortoise.

These are common preventative measures you can take to prevent shell rot in your turtle or tortoise…

  • Keep Sharp Objects Out. When you are treating their shell, make sure to fully examine your turtle or tortoise cage for anything that can cause damage to their shell.
  • Keep Their Cage Clean. It would be wise to look at your cleaning routine. If you are not cleaning your turtle or tortoise’s cage appropriately, step up on the frequency of your cleaning. 
  • Monitor Their Temperature & Humidity. Make sure you are monitoring the temperature and humidity inside of the enclosure. If the humidity is too low, they will dry out, and the shell will start to crack.  If the humidity is too high, their shells will get too soft, and the edges of the scutes can peal up, allowing bacteria to get under there. 

Wrapping Up Shell Rot

Shell rot is a condition that many vets see in turtles and tortoises.

To avoid having your pet become another statistic, you’ll need to ensure their habitat is kept clean and at perfect temperature and humidity. 

If something is even just a little off can cause their shell to crack, giving bacteria a perfect place to take over.

Many times, this can be easily treated at home. However, there may come a time when you need to take your turtle or tortoise to the vet. 

The earlier that you start treating this, the faster and easier your turtle or tortoise will be able to return to normal. 

By keeping your turtle or tortoise’s habit clean and environment at a stable temperature, you can easily prevent shell rot. 


I’m Stacey, the owner of this website and lifelong reptile lover, caretaker, and educator. Here you will find everything from information on how to care for reptiles, to even how to give your reptiles the best fighting chances against a range of common reptile diseases and illnesses, and everything in between!

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