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Land Hermit Crabs as Pets

Mary is a hermit crab owner advocating proper care for these often misunderstood creatures.

One of our hermits, Chewbacca, hanging out on some foliage above the salt water pool

One of our hermits, Chewbacca, hanging out on some foliage above the salt water pool

My Crabby History

Like a lot of people, I had land hermit crabs when I was a young teenager in the 1980s and again as a young adult in my 20s. They were marketed as easy pets requiring little care and inexpensive setups. I thought I was taking care of them properly. I did what the pet stores and a couple of small care booklets told me to do and didn't question why they only lived a couple of years. I thought it was normal.

After a discussion on pets with my grandson last year, I decided that I wanted to have them again but wanted to brush up on how to take care of them. Thanks to the internet and a lot of research, I found out that much of what I thought I knew about them was wrong and that I hadn't taken proper care of my hermit crabs at all. They required so much more than I ever knew about and should have lived much longer than a couple of years. With the right care, land hermit crabs can live for decades.

After doing our best to determine what information was good and what was outdated or just plain bad, we set up our crabitat and welcomed three hermit crabs into our family. Shortly after that, I was fortunate enough to come across The Land Hermit Crab Owners Society's website, The Crab Street Journal. I have found them to be an invaluable resource for care and information.

While hermit crabs are fascinating and rewarding pets, there are some things to consider before bringing them into your home. Read on for more information so you can decide if hermit crabs are a good fit for your family.

Proper Habitat or Crabitat!

Many pet stores and beach shops market plastic critter carriers and wire cages as inexpensive, suitable homes for land hermit crabs. Unfortunately, that just isn't the case. Neither of them can hold in heat and humidity or hold enough substrate for molting. Wire cages have added dangers as well. Hermit crabs can break legs trying to climb the wire and metal rusts, which is toxic to crabs.

While a proper setup is considerably more expensive, you'll have happier and healthier hermit crabs. This isn't a comprehensive list, but a good crabitat will include:

  • Glass fish tank with secured lid, glass lid preferable, 10 gallons of tank space per crab (15 per crab for jumbo size)
  • Substrate, a mix of play sand and coco fiber is ideal, minimum of 6 inches
  • Heat source
  • Light source
  • Deep water pools, one fresh and one ocean salt with ladders or vines to climb in and out
  • Food dishes
  • Climbing and hiding decor
  • Humidity and temperature gauges
  • Extra shells, 3–5 per crab

Anything with paint or metal should be avoided. As mentioned earlier, metal can quickly rust in a humid environment, and rust is toxic. Paint is also toxic to crabs and should not be on anything in the crabitat. This includes painted shells. While painted shells are fun and cute, sticking with natural shells is healthier for your crabs.

Note that I did not include sponges on that list. Sponges have long been considered a staple in hermit crab care, but in reality, they are not needed and can harbor harmful bacteria if they aren't properly maintained. They do not drink from them as has been traditionally taught, and there are better ways to help hermit crabs in and out of their water pools.

Handling Hermit Crabs

Many people get hermit crabs expecting to be able to handle them frequently, play with them, and let them run about. Hermit crabs, in reality, should be viewed as a "hands-off" pet.

Land hermit crabs breathe through modified gills that need to remain moist. Taking them out of a warm, humid environment makes it difficult for them to breathe properly and can damage their gills. Unless you live in a naturally humid climate, it's much safer for them to remain in their crabitat.

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Even if you do live somewhere humid, it's still best to limit handling. Frequently holding them can be very stressful for your crabs. To them we are giants, and that cute behavior of running all over your hands is more likely a flight response.

Stressed crabs can also give you a nice pinch when they're frightened—not a fun experience for you or your crab. While it is necessary to hold them occasionally in the course of their care, it's much better for your crabs if you keep handling to a minimum.

Luke Skywalker heading for a drink!

Luke Skywalker heading for a drink!

Hermit Crab Behaviors

There are some behaviors to consider if you are thinking about land hermit crabs as pets. One is the fact that hermit crabs are mainly nocturnal. While many do come out during the day, much of their activity occurs at night. It can be a bit disappointing if you're expecting a pet that will be active during the day.

Another normal behavior is digging. Hermit crabs will dig into the substrate sometimes for fun, or sometimes to bury themselves to molt or de-stress. They can go under for long periods of time if they're molting, anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. This can be shocking and worrying if you aren't prepared for them to disappear for months at a time.

At the time of this writing, all three of our crabs are buried, presumably molting since they've been under for some time. Hermit crab owners have to get used to periods of "pet sand" while the crabs do their thing. It's completely normal, and if everything goes as it should, they'll come back up when they're ready.

Darth Vader checking me out through the aquarium glass.

Darth Vader checking me out through the aquarium glass.

Life Span

Like a lot of people, I used to think hermit crabs lived only for a few years at most. Sadly, many people look at them as disposable pets. The truth is that they can and do live for decades with proper care, and no pet should be considered disposable. It pains me when I think about the fact that had I known then what I know now, the hermit crabs I had in my 20s could possibly be living today. Here's a fun fact, the oldest known crab in captivity as of 2017 is over 40 years old!

It should be pointed out that many hermit crabs come from sub-standard conditions in pet stores, beach shops, and owners who don't have access to better information. This can play a role in how long a hermit crab will live, even after it's given proper conditions. It can take months or even a couple of years for a crab to succumb to the effects of bad crabitat conditions. However, many crabs can and do recover with good care.

Land Hermit Crab Owners Society Adoption Program

Land Hermit Crab Adoptions

If you've decided that hermit crabs are a good fit for you and your family, I highly recommend considering adoption through a hermit crab adoption group rather than purchasing hermit crabs.

No matter what anyone tells you, there is currently no commercial breeding of hermit crabs. All hermit crabs in the pet industry are crabs that have been taken from the wild. While there are people out there working hard to breed them, it is a difficult process that is rarely successful at this point in time.

It's much better for the species as a whole to adopt a hermit crab that has already been taken from the wild and now needs a home. Another advantage to adoption through a group is that the crabs are more likely to be put into foster homes that have been vetted to make sure they have proper setups. This means that you're more likely to get healthier, longer-lived hermit crabs. If you already have hermit crabs but have found that they aren't really the right pet for you, please consider putting them up for adoption through a reputable group.

I admit that I never knew that there were adoption groups out there for hermit crabs until fairly recently. We got ours through a pet store, but I would have gladly adopted through a group if I had realized they were out there. We eventually plan to grow our colony and will be going the adoption route when we are ready.

I hope you've found this article helpful and that I've given you some things to consider before getting hermit crabs. While they aren't the easy, short-lived pet that they're often marketed as, they aren't the most difficult pet, either. They do make great pets for anyone who is prepared to give them what they need!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2017 Mary Camley


Mary Camley (author) on September 28, 2017:

Thank you, Linda!

Linda L Paquette from New Hampshire/ Massachusettes on September 28, 2017:

Great informational article!

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