Why Do Turtles Shake Their Shells? There’s More To It Than What Meets The Eye

Jun 25, 2021

Why Do Turtles Shake Their Shells

You might have noticed your turtle shaking its shell like it knows how to twerk. It takes two to tango. So when you scratch a turtle’s shell, he is bound to show you his twerking skills. Does a turtle shaking its shell mean that it’s getting irritated or enjoying it? 

There are distinct cues that you, as a turtle owner, need to understand when caring for a turtle. Most dog owners know in an instant if their dog is happy, sad, or something is bothering them. Just like that, as a pet turtle owner, you too should know if anything is wrong with your turtle. 

Then,

Why Do Turtles Shake Their Shells? 

Turtles shake their shells when they get rubbed on some kind of surface. Turtles, too, have the animal itch on their back, and shaking helps them relieve the itch. That is why whenever you scratch your turtle’s back, you might see it shaking its shell. 

Watch this fun video of a turtle shaking its shell to some music:

And if you are wondering how turtles get an itch, then here is why.

Poor Hygiene 

Red-eared slider in tank

Turtles are messy creatures. They eat and excrete in the same tank. Had it been in the wild, they wouldn’t have any problem because the freshwater in nature always recycles. They are large enough to not be dirty anytime soon. 

However, a captive turtle has to live within four tank walls, no matter how big it is. This is why the tanks for captive turtles get dirty quickly. And a dirty turtle does have an itchy back.

Sign Of Scutes Falling Off

A turtle can have an itchy back when it has a shell rot. When a turtle has shell rot, its scutes will start tearing off. Your turtle will have a strong urge to relieve the itch. And you will find it scratching against any surface it finds in its vicinity.

Barnacles Attached To Sea Turtles

Barnacles on turtles

Barnacles are common in sea turtles. Though most barnacles do not pose a threat to turtles, there are some which can cause discomfort on their shell and skin. These barnacles will attach themselves to the turtle’s body and burrow into their skin. This can cause openings in a turtle’s skin and makes them vulnerable to infections.

So when a turtle has an excessive amount of barnacles on its body, it will try to counteract the discomfort by rubbing its shell on the sea floors and reefs. 

To find in-depth information on barnacles on turtles, don’t forget to read this article

Lack Of Moisture In Its Body

Like humans, a turtle also has an itch when its skin becomes dry. Except for some terrestrial turtles, most of them require moisture in their body. Moisture is necessary for a turtle to grow a healthy shell. An unhealthy shell will result in shell rot and even fatal infections.

So, 

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Can A Turtle Feel When You Touch Its Shell?

Baby painted turtle

Yes, turtles can sense when touched in their shells. Their shells have nerve endings that let them know every sensation, like rubbing, scratching, and even petting. This is why you see some turtles dancing and wiggling their bums when you pet them.

Their shells are made up of keratins, the same substance that makes up our nails and hair. Also, these keratins have nerve endings on them, so your turtle does get the sensation when you touch its shell. 

Since shell rot is one of the most common reasons behind turtles shaking their shells, let’s delve a bit deeper into this topic. 

How To Know If Your Turtle Has A Shell Rot?

Eastern box turtle shell

Besides shaking shells, some other common signs of shell rot are discharge with a pungent smell from the infection, softening of scutes, pittings on the shell surface, and withering of scutes. In severe cases, the bony tissue will also be visible on the shell. 

How To Prevent Shell Rots In Turtles?

To prevent shell rot, there are several precautionary measures that you should apply while caring for your turtle. Factors like the tank’s environment, diet, basking routine, and nutrient supplements play pivotal roles in preventing shell rots. 

Replicate Natural Habitat

Although it’s not possible to recreate the natural habitat, you must include the most integral features in your turtle’s habitat. An ample amount of space for swimming, proper water temperature, correct water parameters, and the presence of aquatic plants will prevent your turtle from getting a shell rot.

Feed Proper Diet

Diet is a crucial factor in the development of shells in turtles. If you have a baby or juvenile turtle, it is best to feed it a protein-based diet. Provide calcium and vitamin supplements for healthy growth. This will prevent shell rot along with most other health complications too.

Here’s the calcium supplement by Zoo Med that I give my turtles. 

I chose this brand over others since this supplement is made with bio-available calcium sources. It also has safe levels of vitamin D3 they need to metabolize calcium and phosphorus. 

Appropriate Basking Spot

Basking helps a turtle get the necessary vitamins along with maintaining proper body temperature. Install UV lights above the tank. Invest in a UV light that emits both UVA and UVB rays. Turtles get vitamin D from UV lights which helps in healthy growth. 

I’ve recently switched from the classic two-bulb setup to full-spectrum mercury vapor bulbs to save space. These bulbs emit both UVA and UVB lights and have a 6000-hour lifespan. 

And although they come with a 6-month warranty, I haven’t faced any complications so far! 

As for the basking spot, it needs to be dry. It will be even better if the location of the basking spot gets natural sunlight. 

Frequent Inspection

To prevent shell rot, you should be proactive and regularly inspect your turtle’s shell. It will be easy to treat a shell rot if you spot it early. Also, schedule routine visits to the vet for checkups. 

Avoid Hazards And Accidents

You need to take utmost precautions when you have other pets alongside turtles. Precarious pets like dogs and cats can injure your turtle’s shell. A cracked and damaged shell is an open invitation for infections, which ultimately causes shell rot. 

So, your turtles must be kept in a place where other pets cannot reach. 

Now that you know how to prevent shell rot in a turtle, you also need to prepare for the rainy days. What to do when you find out that your turtle already has a shell rot?

How To Treat Shell Rot?

  • Take your turtle out of its tank and put him in a dry place.
  • Fetch a povidone-iodine 10% solution (you can also use normal Betadine).
  • Use a Q-Tip to apply the medication to the infected areas.
  • Be mindful that the medication doesn’t get into the turtle’s eyes, ears, or mouth. It can irritate your turtle. 
  • After treating with Betadine solution, place your turtle in a dry basking area for a few hours to let the solution be soaked into the shell. Using UV lights makes the drying process faster. 
  • A rotten shell needs to be kept dry as possible. If you see your turtle reaching for water, keep it in a dry place after medication for at least an hour.
  • Repeat this until the shell rot is completely treated.
  • If you don’t see signs of improvement or notice anything unusual, immediately ring up your vet and book an appointment. 

Final Words: Why Do Turtles Shake Their Shells

A turtle’s shell is a living organ made up of skin, keratin, nerve endings, and so on. Thus, it can perfectly feel any kind of sensation in its shell. 

A turtle shakes its shell to get rid of the itch it gets when its shell is being rubbed against any surface. It’s just as common and normal as when dogs do it! 

However, if you find your pet turtle shaking its shell quite frequently, even when it’s not being handled or caressed, the itch could be due to shell rot and infections. Don’t forget to be vigilant and treat the cause on time! 

Keep Reading!

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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.