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Aquatic Turtle Scute (Shell) Shedding

A common question for new aquatic turtle pet parents is, why is my turtle’s shell peeling and should I be concerned? 

The plate-like scales on your aquatic turtle’s shell are known as scutes; which are composed of keratin similar to a human fingernail! Below the scutes is the epithelium layer, the epithelium is the layer that produces the outer shell layer of scutes. Below the epithelium layer, a turtle’s shell in composed of a whopping 60 bones that offer support and protection to vital organs.  

When a turtle grows, the epithelium produces new scutes that grow under the old ones, allowing the shell to expand. When you notice a scute beginning to shed, you’re watching your turtle grow! Not all turtles and tortoise have this effect; most land tortoises will not shed their scutes, they will just compound and make a thicker, stronger shell. Why wouldn’t the aquatic turtle shell do the same? If the scutes did not shed, it would make the shell thicker and heavier, making it harder for the turtle to swim. This is also great for shell maintenance; as the scutes shed, the turtle will lose any foreign growth on their shell. 

Should I be worried?

An aquatic turtle shedding its scutes as it grows is completely normal but there are some things to watch out for. Consult with your veterinarian if you observe any of these concerns:

  • Area beneath the scute that appears to be red, bloody or exposed bone
  • Scutes that are disformed and or falling off in parts 
  • Scutes that appear too thick- they should be translucent
  • Signs of scrapes, scratches or gashes in the shell
  • Foreign growth on the shell

How to avoid issues with scute shedding 

While completely avoiding shedding issues can be hard to do, there are steps you can take to mitigate the chances of your aquatic turtle having issues. 

  • Ensure there are no sharp objects in your aquarium
  • Make certain the basking area is the appropriate temperature
  • Water quality is key! Make sure you have proper flow and filtration, paired with water changes, these can help keep your turtle in good health 
  • Feed a premium diet and be sure to not over or under feed
  • Make sure your habitat is not overcrowded

If you do encounter a problem with shedding of scutes, or health concerns in general, please seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

Reviewed by Don Spaeth, Petco’s National Aquatic Care, Education and Programs Manager

Don is Petco’s National Aquatic Care, Education and Programs Manager. He is an avid aquarist who has worked with and cared for freshwater and marine aquatic life for over 40 years. Throughout his 27+ years with Petco, Don has actively been involved with our aquatic vendor partners and worked to promote aquatic education both in store and company-wide.