How I treat shell rot in turtles

Shell rot is the common way to say a turtle has an infection of its shell, which can be secondary to damage or poor husbandry.

Wild turtles generally present dehydrated and in poor body condition with a mosscovered malodorous   shell. Pet turtles tend to have more subtle signs but these can include a red tinge to areas of the shell, slime over the shell, a bad smell, flaking of the scutes and an easily damaged shell. 

There a few steps that I take in almost every case of shell rot which I have outline below.


The first step I take when treating shell rot is to debride (remove) the dead areas of shell. This can be done by gently scraping at them with a scalpel blade or sometimes we even have to cut dead areas away. I think soak the shell with a dilute betadine preparation for ten minutes, as picture below. I then scrub the shell with a surgeons hand brush and toothbrush to remove any left over flakes or debris, and finally rinse with fresh water. This process can be repeated in severe cases every few days.

Soaking and scrubbing the shell of a wild turtle with shell rot

Soaking and scrubbing the shell of a wild turtle with shell rot


I generally dry dock turtles with shell fractures or shell rot. For shell rot cases I put them in water four one hour a day to eat and toilet then dry dock them in a soft towel with a small, shallow water bowl for the remainder of the day. It is also important to get these turtles some UV light! At least twenty minutes a day in the sunshine or a set up with a UV lamp works well. It is also important the species are kept at their preferred body temperature to encourage the body to heal, a cold turtle can not mount an immune response. As a general rule around 25C suits most Australian turtles, with a heat lamp or heat source they can move to and from as they please. 


Antibiotic cover is essentially in severe shell rot cases or if the shell has been fractured. Topical antibiotics such as silver sulfazadine cream applied daily can be enough for many cases. If they need systemic treatment as well I generally use ceftazadine injection. Regular cleaning as described above will also help.


Many sick turtles won't eat which makes it hard for them to have enough energy to heal. Feeding the turtle an appropriate diet for the species is very important. If they refuse to eat and are in poor body condition I generally place a feeding tube into the oesophagus. This allows them to be fed daily and given water to keep them hydrated through the tube. This is particularly important in turtles with plastron fractures because they can not be immersed in any water at all until the fracture starts to heal. 

A turtle under anaesthetic after an oesophagostomy tube has been placed. 

A turtle under anaesthetic after an oesophagostomy tube has been placed. 

Shell rot is a common problem that can be treated with the right tools and knowledge. Turtles tend to get sick slowly and there for heal slowly so remember to be patient when treating a case (or be patient with your vet who is treating your turtle) because it may take weeks to completely heal.  

If you have any questions please contact me. 

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Love Reptiles? Check out my other posts such as Pain Management in Reptiles and How I Treat Tail Necrosis.