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Why Do Turtles Smell? And Our Guide To Cleaning Your Turtle

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Turtles are amazing creatures and can make wonderful exotic pets.

If you are considering getting your own pet turtle, you are probably wondering if they smell or if their tank will develop a pungent odor that will affect the scent of your home.

We have written this article to help you understand whether turtles smell and what you can do to prevent them from developing an odor. Read on to learn more!

Turtle walking on a yellow background

Do Turtles Smell At All?

Turtles don’t exactly produce a smell of their own (such as the smell that we associate with a wet dog, as an example) – but they may produce a foul smell if they, or their tank, is not kept clean.

Food or vegetation can get stuck in the tank or on the turtle itself, emitting an unpleasant smell as they rot.

So, in simple terms – yes, turtles do smell, but only when they are not taken care of properly (or if you have a kind of turtle that releases smelly compounds, such as a stinkpot turtle).

Why Do Turtles Smell?

Turtles are reptiles, which means they have scales instead of hair or feathers. Their bodies contain glands that secrete mucus, which helps them to move slowly and keep their scales in good condition.

Unfortunately for turtle lovers, this mucus also traps bacteria, waste, debris, and even scraps of rotten food.

In the wild, turtles are very clean animals that don’t emit any foul odors, as the moving water and large environment that they live in means that they can easily wash.

However, they may smell bad if you don’t take proper care of them. To avoid this, you need to maintain hygiene.

Here are some of the most common causes of a stinky turtle:

Unhygienic Conditions In Their Environment

As with any pet, one of the key responsibilities of taking care of a turtle is ensuring that you keep them clean. This includes dirty tanks or areas where they spend time.

If you don’t spend time ensuring that your turtle is kept clean, then bacteria will gather and breed, causing a repulsive smell.

Poor Diet

You should feed your turtle a balanced diet, including vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods.

Avoid feeding your pet turtle too much (or too much in one go), as it can cause your turtle to gain weight, put strain on their bodies, or lose interest in food.

Leftover food is a huge issue for turtle hygiene – as it can cause an overgrowth of algae or bacteria as it rots. Spoiled food creates a foul smell.

In addition to this, rotting tank plants can cause a bad smell in your tank, as there isn’t the naturally flowing water in their environment that they are used to.

Turtle’s Waste Product

Turtles grow a lot in a short space of time when they are young – and with this rapid growth comes a lot of waste products. If this waste isn’t cleaned up rapidly, then it can cause a really awful smell.

Molted Skin

Like all kinds of reptiles, turtles shed the skin on their scrute or their shell.

If not cleaned up, this extra shed skin can end up clogging the filter of the tank (which works to keep the tank clean) or just sitting and rotting in the stagnant water. This can produce a disgusting smell if it is not cleaned up fast enough.

Unclean Tank

Just generally, if your turtle’s tank isn’t clean, it can produce an off-putting smell. Ensure that you clean it regularly, thoroughly, and safely. Even uncleaned substrate has the potential to reek.

What Does A Stinky Turtle Smell Like?

Turtle on a green leaf

All turtles may not smell the same. Their smell depends on what has gotten stuck on them and the smell of their surroundings. So, if there is rotting vegetation in your turtle’s tank, it will likely smell of rotting vegetation.

As we have said, turtles don’t usually have an odor, but they do have glands that emit a bad smell when they feel threatened. Snapping turtles smell the worst among all species. They have a distinct foul smell when upset.

Overall though, you can keep your turtles from smelling by keeping them clean and in a stress-free environment where it doesn’t feel threatened.

Help! My Turtle Is Smelly! What Do I Do?

If you have noticed your turtle is smelly, here are some ways for you to fix the issue

Give Him Or Her A Wash!

Turtles generally don’t smell bad. But if they’re dirty, they’ll stink. Cleaning your turtle thoroughly is important to avoid an unpleasant smell. Use a brand-new soft toothbrush to scrub your turtle gently.

Get Your Turtle A Bigger Tank

Your turtle might be smelly because his tank is too small. A larger tank will allow more room for your turtle to move around freely and also means he can breathe better.

It will also mean a lower level of algae build-up, which could lead to a stinky smell. A smaller tank becomes more unhygienic more quickly and requires cleaning more frequently.

Change Out The Filter

Filters need to be changed every 3 months to 6 months, depending on how often you clean your tank. Make sure you change the filter before adding any new animals or plants into your tank.

The filter needs to be changed so that the whole system is working – we recommend that you purchase a powerful aquarium filter, as turtles produce a lot of urine and feces, and they need a strong water filter to accommodate them.

Clean The Tanks

Debris must be removed daily, and Food particles must be removed every day, as both rot, cause bacteria growth, and generally cause a bad stink.

That being said, cleaning products should be avoided because they are toxic to turtles. Air fresheners should also be avoided since they could kill the turtle.

During a tank cleaning, you should only use disinfectant products that have been certified as safe for reptiles.

You should maintain the tank of your pet turtles by using a water conditioner regularly.

Also, you should make sure that there is no dead plant matter or food that has been trapped in the filter. A dirty filter may cause the smell to come back again.

How To Get Rid Of Turtle Tank Odors In The Long Term

Turtle floating in a tank

1. Clean Your Tank Regularly

Turtles produce an unpleasant odor when they eat or drink anything that isn’t clean. To avoid this problem, you need to clean the tank regularly.

When cleaning the tank, make sure to remove the leftover food and debris. These things can cause blockages in the filter, which can result in poor water flow, causing foul odors.

To clean the tank, use a dirt scoop or sand to remove any leftover food or feces. Turtles need clean water to survive.

2. Maintain The Tank At A Suitable Temperature

Turtles need warm temperatures to stay healthy. A turtle should be kept between 70 and 80 degrees F (which is around 21 C to 26 C).

Also, they need a basking spot to dry off their shell and prevent any rotting, which, as we know, can cause a massive stink. Water quality should be maintained to avoid bad smells.

Both poor temperature management and water quality can cause a smell (as well as long-term health issues for your pet).

The water can become stagnant and cloudy, with smelly bacterial growth if it is too hot or too cold. A cloudy tank will never smell nice. Complete water changes should be done every 1-2 weeks to ensure good water quality.

Turtles are usually aquatic creatures that need water to survive. Poor water management in your turtle or terrapin tank can amount to animal neglect.

That being said, if you have a terrestrial pet turtle who lives in a dry tank, you should know that this also needs frequent cleaning.

We suggest that you use a dirt scoop (like the one used to scoop cat litter) or reptile sand to get rid of any food that has been left uneaten or any of your turtle’s waste product.

3. Clean Your Pet’s Molted Shell Skin

Cleaning your pet’s shell often helps remove dirt, trapped skin, waste, or food debris. This is to prevent it from clogging up the filter and causing a bad smell. Do this periodically to keep everything spick and span.

4. Maintain The Water Quality

The water quality in your tank has to be maintained to prevent any awful smells from developing in your turtle’s environment. You should periodically change the water in your tank to keep it fresh.

We suggest that you do a partial water change once a week if you have a large volume of water in your tank. You should also do a complete water change once or twice a month to retain its quality.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does A Turtle Smell Foul?

Turtles do not smell foul if they are clean.

What Causes A Turtle To Smell Bad?

Bacteria growth can spiral out of control because the unhygienic conditions will cause the turtle to smell bad.

How To Clean My Turtle?

Use a soft, bacteria and chemical-free toothbrush to brush debris and algae away from your turtle’s shell and skin folds.

Final Thoughts

A turtle can make a great pet, so long as you take care of them properly and always strive to put the time and effort in.

Turtles will smell bad if they are not cleaned often enough and can release a foul smell from their glands if they are feeling stressed or threatened.

There are a lot of ways to keep your turtle from becoming smelly, though, which we have described in-depth above.

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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.