Soft shell or Metabolic Bone Disease is a term used that applies to a range of health issues, common in captive red-eared slider turtles. This condition is caused by a number of factors from dietary issues to low calcium levels. Metabolic bone disease can be fatal to your pet if ignored, which is why it's important to know what it is, the causes, the signs, and how to treat and prevent it moving forward.
What is Red-Eared Slider Soft Shell
Red-eared sliders need a certain amount of calcium in order to stay healthy and alive. Not enough calcium and their bodies take it from the bones in order to maintain the ratio that they need. This results in the bones weakening and the shell softening.
When the shell softens, the bone structures holding the outer shell in place are compromised. This means the shell feels soft to the touch.
Soft shell and shell rot are usually a result of poor husbandry, which means it’s not uncommon for a red-eared slider to have both diseases at the same time.
There are a wide number of symptoms your red-eared slider may have that could mean it’s suffering from soft shell. These include:
- Muscle twitching for tremors
- Swollen limbs
- Shell softening
- Difficulty walking
- Curved limbs
- Beak distortion
- Bone fractures
- Crooked nails
- Cloacal prolapse
- Shell curves upwards
- Hinged shells
Metabolic bone disease can be caused by a number of factors, these include:
UVB is natural sun exposure, which your pet needs to make Vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption.
You may be offering the wrong percentage of UVB, your light may be at the wrong distance or you may have something between the light and your pet, which is reducing how much UVB they can absorb.
Algae or Mineral Build Up on Shell
Algae will naturally grow on your red-eared sliders shell. The problem is that it can stop your pet’s ability to absorb UVB, it can also hide injuries and infections. It can also reduce how much heat your pet is able to absorb when basking.
Low Basking Temperatures
When your temperatures are not at optimum in the tank, your pet’s system will slow. Red-eared sliders are cold-blooded, which means they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature. When temperatures are too low, it impacts the turtle digestion, making it hard to absorb the essential minerals and vitamins your pet needs to stay healthy.
Living in a captive environment, your pet isn't getting the amount of calcium it needs to keep its shell and bones strong. If you are not already giving your red-eared slider calcium supplements, then your pet may be suffering from a deficiency, which can result in metabolic bone disease if not rectified quickly.
An incorrect diet will result in your pet not getting the vitamins and minerals it needs. This can be a result of not giving enough greens and providing a protein-only diet.
If you think your red-eared slider may have soft shell (metabolic bone disease), then you will want to book an appointment with the vet as soon as possible, as it is much easier to treat this condition in the early stages without permanent consequences.
UVB lighting is essential for your red-eared slider. You need a good quality UVB bulb, such as the Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 T5-Ho UVB bulb. These are high output bulbs which can help your red-eared slider by encouraging Vitamin D3 synthesis.
Check your UVB bulbs regularly as they lose their strength over time, an old bulb will not provide the rays your pet needs. Bulbs should be changed every 12 months.
You can also try taking your red-eared slider outside during the hottest times on a hot day, choose between 10 am and 2 pm when the sun is strong. This will help your pet absorb natural UVB.
Remember to only leave your pet out for about an hour and the tank must have some shade if it gets too hot.
You will want to carefully monitor your red-eared slider’s habitat temperatures on a regular basis, ensuring that you provide optimum temperatures at all times, helping with digestion and overall health.
The ideal basking temperatures should be between 90ºF and 95ºF. Use a digital thermometer with remote waterproof probe, which can provide fast and accurate readings, helping you monitor the enclosure with ease.
If the vet has prescribed any medication to treat the soft shell, you must follow the instructions to the letter.
Bear in mind that metabolic bone disease cannot be reversed, but you can help your pet heal with UVB and calcium therapy. Of course, the best course of treatment is prevention.
It is imperative that you keep the habitat clean. It should have a dry basking area, swimming area. If your pet is struggling with metabolic bone disease already, then offer shallow water, as it may be in pain when moving for a while.
Use a water heater to ensure you keep the tank water at optimum, which should range between 75ºF and 78ºF.
Ensure you keep the enclosure clean. Water should be checked and topped up once a week with fresh and clean water. Ensure you provide clean filtered drinking water on a daily basis. Carry out daily spot cleaning, removing any leftover food, dirt, and poop.
Once every two to three weeks, do a thorough tank clean, where you remove, wash, and disinfect everything before returning it to the tank.
Red-eared sliders need a diet that incorporates animal and plant materials. Juveniles eat more animal protein, which means you want to start a baby on a carnivorous diet. As they get older, you can offer more plant matter. The commercial pellets you purchase today are nutritious and incorporate the vitamins and minerals your pet needs. Though you will still want to add some variety with fresh foods.
Variety is more stimulating for your pet. They love live prey, encouraging them to hunt naturally. You can offer a varied diet with 25% of the diet being made up of pellets and the rest incorporating prey, leafy greens, aquatic plants and other vegetables.
Your red-eared sliders diet can incorporate earthworms, crickets, silkworms, aquatic snails, bloodworms, shrimp, mealworms, and krill.
When feeding leafy greens, choose mustard greens, collard greens, dandelion greens, bok choy, and kale. Stay away from iceberg lettuce, which has no nutrition.
You can also feed your pet squash, green beans, and carrots. Shredding the vegetables makes it easier to eat.
Insufficient calcium is a major cause of soft shell. Ensure you find a good calcium supplement for your pet, such as Zoo Med Calcium With Vitamin D3 Reptile Food.
You can add the powder to your pet’s food a few times a week to assist with boosting Vitamin D3 and calcium levels as a way to reduce metabolic bone disease.
In addition to this, you can purchase a slow-release calcium block, specifically designed for turtles. These are easy to use, simply put it in your pet’s water supply.
Metabolic bone disease is irreversible, you cannot fix the damaged bones and shell, which is why prevention is the safest method. Ensure you provide adequate UVB lighting and basking temperatures to encourage natural calcium absorption. Feed a varied diet and use supplements to provide your pet with all the calcium it needs to reduce the risk of metabolic bone disease moving forward.