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Red-Eared Slider Shell Rot: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

If you have a red-eared slider, it’s important to be aware of shell rot. 

This condition can cause a lot of damage to your turtle and, if left untreated, can be fatal. 

In this post, we will discuss what causes shell rot, the symptoms you should look for, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What Is Shell Rot?

Shell rot is a bacterial or fungal infection that affects the shell of turtles. The bacteria or fungus can enter through cracks or breaks in the shell, and once it’s inside, it starts to eat away at the shell tissue.

Shell rot, medically known as “Septicemic Cutaneous Ulcerative Disease (SCUD),” is a common alignment in aquatic turtles due to the time they spend in the water.

Fungal or bacterial microorganisms get under the protective layers of the scutes (shell sections) and infect the tissue below.

The infection can start on just one scute and quickly spread to the others if not treated early.

If left untreated, shell rot can cause serious damage to your turtle’s shell and eventually lead to death. That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognize the symptoms of shell rot and get treatment for it as soon as possible.

What Is Shell Rot
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Causes of Shell Rot in Red-Eared Sliders

Shell rot occurs when bacteria or fungi get under the shell and infect the tissue underneath. A few different things can cause shell rot in red-eared sliders: dirty tank water, a damaged shell, or an inappropriate environment

Dirty Tank Water

One of the most common causes is a lack of cleanliness. A red-eared slider can produce a lot of waste. This has to be cleaned regularly.

If your turtle’s tank is allowed to get dirty due to infrequent cleaning, the build-up of waste can create an environment conducive to the growth of bacteria and fungi.

Regularly clean the tank by partially changing water weekly and doing a complete change and tank scrub monthly. Use an excellent quality filter to maintain water quality between cleaning.

Red-Eared Sliders movement

Shell Damage

If your turtle’s shell is cracked or broken, it allows bacteria and fungi to get under the shell. This can start an infection.[1]

Algae that builds upon the turtle’s shell can contribute to the condition. It usually begins with a form of shell breakage or wound that gets infected and worsens.

Shells can be damaged by many things:

  • Sharp objects in the tank
  • Falls
  • Fighting with another turtle
  • Improper handling

Red-eared sliders are primarily solitary, so they should be housed individually. If housed together, they need a large space and plenty of hides. Feed them separately to prevent food aggression. 

Familiarize yourself with how to hold a red-eared slider safely, as human handling errors are the number one cause of fall-related injuries. Turtles do not like being handled, so limit handling to necessary things like moving tanks for cleaning.

Shell Damage

Environment

The environment for a captive turtle is arguably the most essential part of their care. An improper environment can lower the immune system of a red-eared slider.

Ensure the temperature and lighting is within natural ranges to keep your slider in tip-top health. The stronger a turtle’s immune system is, the more likely it will combat ailments like shell rot.

UVI (ultraviolet index) 3.0–4.0
Water temperature 75°F–85°F
Basking temperature 85°F–95°F
Night temperature 65°F–75°F

The basking spot positioning can also inadvertently contribute to shell rot. Floating platforms are popular for their natural appearance and ease of use. But if a platform is too small for a slider, it may sink under the weight, causing part of the shell to be in the water while basking.

Red-eared sliders should be able to dry their shell during basking completely.[2]

Symptoms of Shell Rot in Red-Eared Sliders

The symptoms of shell rot in red-eared sliders are mostly on the shell surface, such as discoloration, unevenness, flaking, and a slimy texture. As the infection progresses, an open wound may develop with smelly discharge.

The first symptom of shell rot in red-eared sliders is discoloration of the shell (both the plastron and the carapace). 

This discoloration appears “mold-like” with white, yellow, or green blotches.

As the infection progresses, the shell will soften and break down. This can eventually lead to open wounds that are susceptible to further infection. In extreme cases, the scutes can be entirely removed with bone and nerve surfaces.[3]

Stage Symptoms
Early signs DiscolorationSlimy textureScute flakingShell unevenness
Progression Visible cratersShell softeningDischargeFoul odor
Severe infection Exposed nerves or boneCrumbling shellOpen woundBehavioral changes: lethargy and loss of appetite

How To Treat Shell Rot In Red-Eared Sliders

If you think your red-eared slider has shell rot, the first thing you should do is take them to a qualified reptile veterinarian. They will be able to prescribe the appropriate course of treatment which may include topical or oral antibiotics, surgical removal of affected areas, pain relief, and wound care.

After the initial treatment, you will need to monitor your red-eared slider closely. The shell may take several months to a year to completely heal.[4]

During this time, it is important to:

  • Keep the wound clean and dry
  • Change the water in the tank regularly
  • Apply any prescribed ointments or creams as directed
  • Give your red-eared slider a stress-free environment
  • Provide a diet rich in vitamins and minerals

Related: Red-Eared Slider: Care, Diet, Habitat & More

Can I Treat Red-Eared Slider Shell Rot At Home?

Yes, you can treat the early stages of red-eared slider shell rot at home. Home treatment should be done under vet approval and only for mild cases. 

You can treat shell rot at home following these four steps:

  1. Clean the shell
  2. Dry thoroughly
  3. Apply a vet-approved topical ointment
  4. Keep the shell dry

Contact a vet for advice before commencing an at-home shell treatment plan. If the shell rot is advanced, your vet may wish to see the slider for more intensive care.

An experienced reptile vet can confirm the diagnosis to ensure you have not confused the symptoms with another alignment. Treatment for shell rot is stressful for your turtle, so a professional diagnosis is essential.

This is especially important if you are an inexperienced owner.

Step 1: Shell Cleaning

Wear gloves while handling your infected turtle. Bacteria from your own hands can transfer to any wounds present on the shell and cause further infection.

Take a soft-bristled brush (like a toothbrush) and gently scrub the entire shell. This will help remove any dirt, debris, or dried pus stuck to the shell.

You can also use a weak salt water solution (0.05%) to clean the shell. Soak your red-eared slider in the saltwater for about 15 minutes, then rinse with fresh water.

Do this before every topical treatment to remove old ointment and prime the surface for maximum absorption.

Shell cleaning
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Step 2: Drying The Shell

Once the shell is clean, it needs to be completely dry before applying any ointments.

Thoroughly dry the shell with a soft cloth or paper towel or let air dry. Do not use any kind of heat lamp or hair dryer as this can damage the shell further.

Step 3: Topical Ointment

Apply a topical ointment prescribed by your vet or a triple antibiotic ointment from the pharmacy. Follow all application instructions from the product packaging.

Do not attempt to remove any scutes yourself, as this can damage healthy tissue beneath them. If scutes are falling off on their own, this is usually a sign that the shell rot is severe.

Step 4: Keep Dry

It is essential to keep the shell dry for at least an hour after treatment so it can begin working. This means no swimming and limited contact with water.

Set up a temporary tank with a shallow layer of clean water for drinking and bathing. Change the water every day and clean the entire tank weekly. 

If this “drydocking” causes a sharp decline in food consumption, allow the slider in their normal tank but with 1–2 hours a day without water to completely dry out.[5]

Related: How Long Can A Red-Eared Slider Be Out Of Water?

When Do Red-Eared Sliders Brumate

When To See The Vet

If your red-eared slider has any open wounds, is lethargic, has a loss of appetite, or you cannot control the infection with home treatment, it is time to see a vet.

In addition to the topical treatment, your vet can prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection and pain medication to help your turtle feel more comfortable. 

Follow all dosage and frequency instructions from your veterinarian.

In some cases, surgical treatment may be necessary to remove necrotic tissue (dead or dying tissue) from the shell. This will help to prevent the spread of infection and promote healing.

Preventing Shell Rot In Red-Eared Sliders

Prevent shell rot in red-eared sliders by providing an appropriate tank environment with the correct temperature and UV parameters. A high level of hygiene and cleanliness also reduces shell rot risk.

While shell rot can be a serious condition, it is treatable if caught early. The best way to deal with shell rot is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Here are some tips for preventing shell rot in red-eared sliders.

Provide a Clean And Spacious Habitat

The tank should be large enough to allow your turtle to move around and explore. It should also be deep enough to accommodate a basking area, about one-third of the size of the tank.

Change The Water Regularly

The water in the tank should be changed every week. Clean the basking spot daily. Remove waste or uneaten food from the tank as soon as possible to prevent bacteria from growing.

Red-Eared Slider Health

Provide a Diet Rich In Calcium

A healthy diet is essential for your turtle’s shell to stay strong. Be sure to offer a variety of foods, including dark leafy greens, vegetables, and commercially-prepared turtle food. Add calcium supplements to their diet.

Related: What Do Red-Eared Sliders Eat?

Offer a Clean Basking Area

The basking area should be large enough for your turtle to completely move around and dry off. Clean it daily to prevent bacteria from growing.

Provide a UVB light

UVB light is essential for your turtle’s health. Be sure to offer a full-spectrum UVB light, and replace it every six months.

Final Thoughts

Shell rot can be a severe condition, but it is preventable with the proper care. If you suspect that your turtle has shell rot, see a vet as soon as possible. With treatment, your turtle will make a full recovery.

About Sophie Herlihy (Zoologist)

Sophie Herlihy, a trained zoologist, is a lover of true misfit animals. With a specialty in insects, birds, and rodents, she helps the Misfit Animals craft factual and valuable informational pieces on various animals.