Soft shell Turtles in captivity By Marc of Lil RES Q 15

Soft Shell Turtles

Authored by Marc Ouellette

So you’re thinking of adding a Chinese soft shell turtle to your collection.

You’ve seen them in stores and at reptile expos, majestically swimming about in their aquariums. They are unique looking and you decided it’s time to bring one home.

Well if there was ever one species of aquatic turtle besides the snapper to do your research on *before* you buy one, it’s the soft shell turtle.

The Chinese soft shell turtle is native to various water bodies in China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and areas of Japan. Feral populations that have escaped/been introduced have been recorded in areas of Thailand, Hawaii and Florida.  Many of these turtles were sold as decorative turtles to live in tropical fish tanks, and many of them have now ended up in rescues after growing up and eating all of the fish.

As a rescuer by trade I’m an advocate of adopting adult animals but in this case I actually recommend starting with a baby. Why? So you can get him or her used to human touch at infancy. These turtles have a nasty bite and with their long necks, can reach around and get you even if you’re holding them at the rear.

They will reach and bite while they’re young; it’s programmed in their DNA to be offensive rather than defensive like most turtles. However if you fight through the first year of life with your turtle and handle them often, they will get used to it and will be less likely to attack when it’s time to maintain their aquarium.

Now here in Canada there’s two main species of soft shell turtles common to the pet trade. The Chinese and Florida soft shell turtles. I’ll touch on both but for the purposes of this article we’ll stick mainly with the Chinese species.So what do they need you ask? Unlike most of their hard-shelled counterparts, soft shell turtles require a sandy substrate.  This species of turtle is very shy and prefers to hide under aquatic hides or dig into a soft substrate underwater and leave just the nose exposed. Fine sand is the best substrate for this, as it does not cloud the water too much. I don’t advise to use gravel, as it is too sharp and abrasive for this delicate turtle.  I barely saw my soft shell turtle for the first six months I had him unless I took him out myself. Beyond the substrate, their requirements are similar to other turtles.

Good filtration: This is important to reduce foul smells and to keep the water clean. I’d suggest buying either a large external filter. Be warned if the filter is not secured well enough these turtles will pull them off their fittings and break them, hide wires well.   Soft shell turtles tend to redecorate their homes more than hard shell turtles do.

Warm water: The water temperature should be maintained at between 24 and 25C (75 and 77F). All of your heating supplies can be found in our online affiliate store

Ultraviolet lighting: This species of turtle spends 90% of its time in the water, but they do occasionally come out to bask so it is best to provide a UV5.0 light. This should be positioned no more than a foot away from the turtle when it is basking for optimum exposure. This should be left on for 8 to 12 hours a day.

R.A.G. Store

A good basking spot: Two land areas should be available to your turtle. One area should be for basking and have a heat source above it and the UV light. The other area should be away from the heat source, to allow the turtle to regulate its body temperature. Underwater hides can be built under the land areas. You won’t see them basking much. I can attest to that one. My turtles’ bark wood basking spot goes largely unused. Their skin tends to dry out fairly quickly and it’s in their nature to stay close to the security of the water. A great book on turtles is

A large aquarium: An enclosure measuring at least 150cm by 60cm by 45cm (5ft by 2ft by 18 inches) should be provided to allow adequate swimming space. Three sides of the aquarium should be blacked out in order to prevent the turtle from becoming stressed. Indoor pools are also a good enclosure for this inquisitive species of turtle.

For food, soft shells tend to be more carnivorous in nature and might not always eat store-bought turtle food.
In the wild this species of turtle feeds on a wide variety of fresh fishes, crustaceans, insects and rodents. Therefore in captivity it is essential to feed a varied diet. For example youngsters can be fed waxworms, crickets, pink mice, prawns and pieces of fish. Adults however can eat crabsticks, prawns (With shells on), small rodents, crickets, waxworms, snails, trout, salmon, earthworms, etc.  You can enrich the turtles’ environment by hiding the food under stones and logs, to make it search for them. In order to further enrich the environment and add vitamins to the diet I have found that bobbing an apple or hard fruit on the water’s surface can keep them occupied for hours, while providing invaluable exercise for their jaws.

Remember I said before that this is one creature you should research before buying? Here’s why: they get big. Florida soft shells especially. We’re talking 18 inches at adult size before you account for the tail and neck. You need a BIG tank for them at that size to live properly. The rule of thumb I’ve lived by is 10 gallons per inch of turtle shell for 1 turtle. I don’t recommend putting more than one soft shell turtle in a tank. I know of only one instance where two turtles got along together in one aquarium.

Chinese soft shells are better for apartment life due to the fact that they only get to 9-10 inches in length. In fact they are the smallest breed of soft shell, and thus, more manageable in condos and such where the tank can be a 90 gallon.

I don’t recommend putting a soft shell turtle in with hard shell turtles. It’s risky for both species. The soft shell turtle could get stepped on or bit, tearing their delicate skin, and/or the soft shell could attack the others thinking it’s under treat and would need to be separated anyways. It’s just safer for your soft shell to be housed separately.

Make sure the top of the aquarium is as escape proof as possible. It sounds silly, but with their wide hands, thick strong finger nails, and long muscular necks they are quite amazing escape artists. My own turtle can and will climb vertically up the side of my couch to sit with me when I let him out. It freaks the dog out I must admit.

Soft shell turtles can be a great addition to a home where you want something fun to watch other than fish but not something as high maintenance as a hard-shelled turtle. They’re lively and clean and if you give them a proper setup, they’ll last for many years to come. This species of turtle can live for 25 to 30 years.

15 thoughts on “Soft shell Turtles in captivity By Marc of Lil RES Q

  • Rithika

    Thank You so much for the advice.. I tried raising water temperature, and also bought medicine…its working and my turtle is reacting better now. Thank you Marc.

  • Eduardo

    Hello there, I have a spiny softshell turtle about 4 years old. I feed her commercial pellets, dried and live shrimp, and the occasional fish and crustaceans.
    I was wondering if I could add fruits and vegetables to her diet and if so which ones?
    Thank you, love the site.

  • Marc Ouellette

    Hi Rithika,

    It sounds like a respiratory infection to me. I would raise the water temperature right away to about 85-88F or 30C or so which will help loosen up the infection. Ask the vet for oral Bayril doses which is a turtle safe antibiotic that will cure the issue.

    I would not waste time on this since you say the turtle is weak. This means that the infection is getting bad and its already struggling to breath.

    I hope this helps


  • John F Taylor Post author

    Rithika, thanks for dropping in and commenting I have contacted Marc Ouellette the author of this particular piece and would also suggest dropping by and using the contact button there where we have an Ask the Vet section as well. Marc will be responding soon. Thanks again for dropping by!

  • Rithika

    Hi.. I have a small soft shell turtle which is just 1 yr old,suddenly one day it started swimming one sided and later after that it has stopped eating, its been 2 weeks it is not eating anything, it has become so dull and weak. I took it to a veterinary hospital near by but here none of them don’t know how to treat it. Please help me I am worried what happened to it so suddenly, and please reply me if there is any way to treat it or cure its problem.

  • David

    Thanks for all the great info! We live in south Florida and my wife discovered 7 Florida Soft Shell babies on a busy road during rush hour today (it was by a shopping mall). She was able to rescue 6. They’re just a bit bigger than a quarter. I stopped by the pet store and picked up some baby turtle food. I have them in a plastic tub with water, a light (not uv, it’s a plant grow light I happen to have and gives off some decent heat. I also have the tub on a heating pad to try and keep the water warm.

    I live on some water and I’ve seen other soft shells around. I think I’ll let them go tomorrow or Saturday. I was just afraid to do that becuase they’re so little and thought they’d get eaten. However, I think they might be better off trying to make it on their own. What do you think?

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Hey Rachael, that is one I can answer actually, I would never recommend feeding any wild caught food items as those may have been in contact with a pesticide unbeknownst to yourself and could potentially harm the turtle. Also, Marc will be in later to comment more thoroughly. Thanks again for commenting and being such a great companion to your turtle! We would love to see pics if you have one to share.

  • rachael

    hi, thank you :), i see in the information that they can eat snails and was wondering if they can eat the snails from the garden or if they have to be shop braught snails??

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Rachael, I myself while keeping soft shell turtles in a store setting would not feel comfortable speaking to this so, what I have done is contacted the author Marc and I will have him comment on this directly. Thanks for commenting!

  • rachael

    hi, i have a florida soft shell, when i baught him the shop didnt give me much info on him at all infact i dont even no if its a boy or girl?? ive had him about a year now and hes shells about the size of your hand, do u no what age it is by the size? hes been living on shop braught food and i now want to try some new things for him was just wondering if hes allowed to eat garden snails ?? thanks

  • Keith

    Hello great information ! I was wondering if you could ship me a baby softy to Vancouver ! Please get back to me
    Thank you Keith

  • kate wilkinson

    i have 2 florida soft shells,my large female lives in the garden,she has her own pond and enclosure and is very happy out there basking in the sun (when its out) she hibernates when the cold comes,youre right they are lovely to look at but unless you have the room for them dont purchase one as mine was 7yrs when i got her,barely handled and had lived in a 5ft tank until we had her,she a big girl so needed alot more smaller male is in a 4ft tank indoors and will be going into a pond in the summer so that he can aclimatise without getting the shock from the cold,i love them both very much and they are great to keep as part of the family but can live for a long time so anybody reading this and planning on a purchase please bear that in mind xx

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