Do Turtles Smell? 3 Stinky Reasons Why And Their Solutions!

Jun 8, 2021

Do turtles smell

Robust shells, months-long slumber, and breathing through butt – the ways turtles have adapted to triumph over 5 mass extinctions is truly commendable. With these slow-moving, unassuming reptiles, there’s more than what meets the eye. And that brings us to today’s question – do turtles smell? Are they able to ward off predators like skunks? 

Do Turtles Smell? Besides some species like musk turtles, turtles don’t produce a strong natural smell. However, their bodies can easily pick up the scent from their surroundings. Some common reasons are a dirty tank, a wound, and leftover food. A turtle living in a polluted environment will naturally smell bad. 

Do Musk Turtles Smell?

musk turtle
Musk turtle

Some species are notorious for giving off a stench smell. Have you ever smelled an eastern musk turtle? It didn’t get the nicknames ‘stinkpot’ and ‘stinking Jim’ for no reason. In my experience, it smelled like a nasty armpit odor. 

However, eastern musk turtles don’t effuse such a potent scent all the time. This especially happens when they are threatened. When in danger, these turtles produce small amounts of pungent yellow liquid that helps to deter predators. 

And recent researches have shown that this smell isn’t just used to put off predators. It also plays a vital role in courtship and reproduction. 

Other such species are snapping turtles. They’re known to release a foul smell from behind their legs when stressed. Apparently, they smell like rotten fish. 

This strong smell is highly detectable in the land, water, and air. And the intensity grows stronger as they grow older. However, it’s rare in turtles bred in captivity. 

It’s reported that some sea turtle species like hawksbill, olive ridley, and green turtles also produce distinct smells. But I didn’t find much information on the topic as it’s still up for discussion. 

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Do Pet Turtles Smell? 

pet turtle
Pet turtle

If you have a snapping or musk turtle as a pet, you can expect a foul smell occasionally. However, most pet turtles, who come from semi-aquatic and terrestrial families, do not naturally produce a bad smell. However, they can pick up unpleasant odors from their environment. 

Popular pet turtles like red-eared sliders, painted turtles, and box turtles aren’t known to produce any kind of unique smell from their body. Don’t worry! 

Now, let’s dissect the reason behind the bad smell and what you can do about it! 

Why Do Turtles Smell Bad?

The most common reason behind the stinking smell in turtles is an unhygienic environment. In turn, the wrong atmosphere could be due to excess food and gunk residue, algae, ammonia, and molted skin. Wounds and Infections like salmonella could also cause it. 

Unhygienic Tank 

Turtles are easily the messiest pets ever. They eat and poop in the water – inevitably making the tank very dirty. If your filtration system is not strong enough to deal with the waste they produce every day, you will end up with a filthy and cloudy tank in a few days. 

Most of the time, the waste gunks get stuck in the nooks and crannies of the plastron and carapace, resulting in a foul-smelling turtle. 

Likewise, if the ammonia levels increase in the tank, it will produce a terrible odor that we’re all pretty much familiar with. 

Thus, an unhygienic tank with insufficient water parameters is usually the number one reason your turtle stinks. 

Incorrect Eating And Pooping Style 

No matter how much you clean the tank, if your pet turtle eats and poops in the same tank it lives in, you’re never going to have a clean tank. Since turtles only fit small amounts into their mouth, quite a bit of food goes to waste. Those particles will then float in the water and stick on your pet’s shell later on. 

Thus, when feeding, always make sure that you transfer your pet to another container filled halfway with water. And only after your pet is done eating and pooping, transfer it to the original tank. 

Turtles usually take anywhere between 5-30 minutes to poop after eating. I’m sure you know your pet’s pooping pattern better! 

If you don’t, make sure to study the timing for a week or so. It does sound tedious, but believe me, it’ll save you a lot of time and effort in the future. 

Infections And Rots

Unfortunately, other common reasons behind the funky turtle smell are infection and wounds. Even worse if they’re undetected or untreated. For instance, salmonella is often associated with a pungent smell. And as you already know, this bacteria is quite commonplace in turtles. 

Besides it, several kinds of infections and rots can cause the turtle to smell bad. If there’s pus in an open wound, it will naturally give off a very unpleasant smell. Thus, it’s always best if you inspect your pet’s body thoroughly if you smell anything wrong. 

But make sure that you’re handling the turtle gently. When threatened or under stress, they often resort to biting. I’ve been bitten by my slider turtles a few times before, and I must say, it wasn’t pleasant at all! 

So, these three are the most holistic and common reasons why turtles smell. But there’s got to be a solution, right? 

Keep reading! 

How To Bathe A Turtle? 

map turtle
Map turtle

Bathing your turtle will eliminate all the algae and gunks living in your pet’s body – thus effectively eradicating the bad smell. It also helps them with shedding and rehydrating. However, you have to be very careful when giving turtles a bath since there’s always the risk of salmonella lurking behind. 

You should never use the sink or bathtub for bathing your turtle. Salmonella is a very hardy bacteria that put up a good fight against disinfectants. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Preparation

Clean the dedicated turtle-washing tub thoroughly. You must use a plastic bucket or washtub set aside solely for this purpose. The container should be big enough to fit your turtle. 

Fill two-thirds of the container with room temperature water. If you have a terrestrial turtle not too fond of swimming, reduce the level of water. 

Next, assemble all other tools you will need: a soft toothbrush and a pitcher with lukewarm water. It’s best if you use dechlorinated water to reduce the chances of eye infection in a turtle. 

Don’t use any shampoo unless prescribed by the vet. 

Step 2: Clean The Turtle 

Gently place the turtle in the container. Don’t forget to let him explore the area on his own for some time to familiarize himself. This will definitely help to destress your pet. 

Next, using a soft-bristle toothbrush, scrub the entire shell. Make sure to use extra elbow grease on areas with buildup. But don’t forget to be gentle – turtles can feel even the slightest sensation on their shell.

Also, don’t miss out on the plastron and the dirt between scutes and rings. 

This is also the most convenient time to check for any signs of injury.

Once you’re done cleaning your pet, rinse it with the lukewarm water from the pitcher thoroughly before putting it back into the enclosure. 

And don’t forget to give him a small treat for being such a good sport! 

Step 3: Clean Up

After safely flushing down the water from the container, wash the pitcher, toothbrush, and the container with soap water. Once you have stored the bathing tools, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 40 seconds. 

How To Keep My Turtle Tank From Smelling? 

Keeping a turtle tank from smelling is a straightforward process if you follow all the basics of turtle keeping. You need to ensure the tank’s size, temperature, and filtration system are suitable for your pet. As long as the tank is clean and your pet’s healthy, there won’t be any outlet for a pungent smell.

The Right Tank Size 

Baby turtles can easily fit in your palm. Thus, you can keep up with a small 30-40 gallon. However, once even the smallest pet turtle grows up to 6 inches, with big ones like red-eared sliders clocking in at 12 inches. 

There’s a general misconception that the smaller the tank, the lower the maintenance needs. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality, smaller tanks are more difficult to maintain due to their temperamental nature. 

If the tank is too small, it will get dirty too quickly – inevitably leading to a pungent smell. Thus, I always recommend going with the bigger tank the very first time. This way, you will have to pay once. 

Here’s a 150 gallon Starfire tank by SC Aquariums. I bought this one for its minimalistic look after reading the reviews on Amazon, and I’m yet to be disappointed. It’s a beautiful tank made with heavy-grade glass. 

It comes with a plumbing set that includes everything you need to get a tank up and running. 

Cleaning Routine 

If you don’t dedicate consistent spadework for your turtle tank every week, no tank or filtration system will work in your favor. Raising a turtle is a long-term commitment, after all. The rule of thumb is to remove the debris daily and clean the tank once a week. 

Suppose your turtle eats and defecates in a different container. In that case, you won’t have to worry much about eliminating the debris every day. Otherwise, use a tong to remove big pieces and a siphon cleaner to vacuum out the small pieces. 

Here’s a cheap yet super effective siphon and gravel cleaner by Luigi that I love. It can clean around 30 liters within 5 minutes! 

Also, conduct partial water changes weekly. Don’t overdo it. If you do, it’ll wipe out the good bacteria colony and backfire badly. 

The weekly cleaning rule also applies to terrarium and basking places.

When cleaning your pet’s habitat, steer clear from commercial, all-purpose cleansers made for generic purposes. Most have strong scents and chemicals that can be life-threatening to turtles. Always make sure the disinfectants and cleaners are turtle-friendly. 

5 Step Turtle Tank Cleaning Guide 

  • Unplug filter, heater, and other appliances 
  • Use a siphon vacuum to remove around 70% of the water and put it in a bucket 
  • Remove the filter sponge and wash it with the water kept in the bucket to retain good bacteria 
  • Remove algae from tank surface using an algae scraper 
  • Clean the substrate using a siphon cleaner with small head so it won’t suck in substrate 

And by the way, if you’re dealing with a cloudy turtle tank, don’t forget to check out our comprehensive guide to tackle it! 

Strong Filtration 

Since turtles are inherently messy creatures, any run-of-the-mill filter won’t do. Actually, filtration is one such department where you shouldn’t cut any corners. In addition to ensuring your pet’s wellbeing, it’ll also save you tons of time and money in the future. Treating a sick turtle can easily cost hundreds of dollars.

Also, simply installing a strong filter won’t do. You need to frequently change the media where the foul-smelling bacteria harbors. 

Here’s the Cascade Canister 1500 filter I use from Penn-Plax. 

It comes with 5 baskets that allow enough room for customizing media needs. Working at 350 gallons per hour, it makes keeping the tank clean a lot easier. 

Read thousands of rave reviews yourself! 

Right Temperature 

Temperature plays quite a pivotal role in keeping the tank clean and foul smell at bay. For most semi-aquatic turtle species, 70-80° Fahrenheit should be enough. If the water parameter is not correct, it can cause infections and shell rot, leading to a foul smell. 

Similarly, as the temperature increases, the levels of ammonia also increases. And we all know how ammonia smells, right? 

Most heaters these days come with an in-built thermometer. If you want easy readability, you can buy a separate heater and place it at the front of the tank. 

Should You Ring The Vet? 

If your turtle still smells bad after a bath and tank-cleaning session, there’s definitely something fishy (no pun intended!). This could be due to fungal infections like shell rot or some internal issue. At this point, it’s best to ring up the vet and book an appointment. 

Don’t worry – when detected and treated early, shell rot isn’t dangerous to your pet’s wellbeing. 

Final Words: Do Turtles Smell? 

So, do turtles stink? No, they don’t stink unless your tank setup stinks! Turtles don’t produce a foul odor as some other animals do. However, their body can easily pick up the scent from their environment, making them stinky! 

You should always make sure that your pet’s tank is clean at all times to prevent any kind of smelly buildup. 

That being said, some species of musk turtles and snapping turtles are capable of secreting a bad, sweat-like smell to ward off their predators! 

Keep Reading!

Can Turtles Eat Pineapple? Are Pineapple Leaves Poisonous To Turtles?

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.