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How to Care for Baby Spiny Softshell Turtles

I raised a softshell turtle and learned a lot while doing so!

Softshell Turtle

Softshell Turtle

Baby Softshells Are Challenging Pets

For those of you who are interested or already have obtained a baby softshell turtle, I would like to share my information. For the past 15 months, I have raised an eastern spiny softshell turtle since the day it hatched. I have cross-referenced too many sites to remember and have learned how to take care of such a fragile creature through my experience.

It took a lot of research and diligent care to learn what I know now, and for those of you who are also looking up information, this article will cut your search short. If you are thinking about purchasing or catching one, you need to be prepared and informed of what you are getting yourself into.

The baby softshell turtle is one of the hardest turtles to keep as a pet. A newborn is about the size of a half-dollar (give or take), and a healthy baby grows very gradually. They do not reach sexual maturity until eight years. They hatch between August and November, and they hibernate during the winter (only those with experience or veterinarian aid should attempt artificial hibernation).

Providing a Home for Your Softshell Turtle

Most people naturally put these creatures in aquariums, but a large tub or plastic pool is also acceptable, as long as it is at least 20 gallons in volume. Less than a 20-gallon tank is fine for a temporary solution, but you’ll eventually need to upgrade to a 20-gallon (a 20-gallon breeder is the best choice, something like 30x12x12).

Anything bigger than 20 is fine, or even better depending on how long you keep the turtle. Just remember: Width is more important than depth, although your turtle should be able to swim freely for exercise and exploration.

Reevaluating Your Current Tank

If you already have a fish tank, reevaluate it:

  • What animals live in your current aquarium? If you already have a turtle (different or same species), then you might need to get another tank for your softy. The standard aquarium size for one baby is a 20-gallon tank. So if you have two, then you need to get a 40-gallon. Seems excessive, but turtles sharing the same home need that space. Otherwise, they will turn on each other and fight, or they will feel smothered and their growth rate will decrease. Neither outcome is good for the turtles.
  • If not another turtle, is there a large fish in the tank? This might be the same situation. I had an old plecostomus in my tank, and it hated the turtle. The turtle would want to go into its den, and the fish would jerk and slap the turtle away with its fin. And the turtle would scratch back in defense. I ended up getting rid of the sucker fish.

Safe Places in the Tank

These turtles dry their shells every once in a while for health purposes, so your turtle must have something to climb out of the water. It does not have to crawl completely out of the water, just shallow enough to dry its shell.

They also need a place to stand and breathe while submerged in water (so their heads reach the surface). They will spend most of their time (including sleep) in this shallow area. If a shallow area for them to rest in is not available, the turtle will ultimately drown.

Water Standards

Water must be dechlorinated by leaving tap water out for 24 hours or by using dechlorinating formula to add in the water for instant use. Make sure the water is always crystal-clear and has a good filtration system. The water should never stink, and the temperature should be anywhere from medium to late 70s Fahrenheit. Any lower can prevent the turtle from eating by preparing itself for hibernation.


These turtles are carnivores. But do not think feeding them raw hamburger and cooked ham is okay. These animals need to eat a varied diet mixed with natural foods they would find in the wild and/or healthy alternatives made for their specific needs. The average diet of a baby softshell turtle in the wild consists of:

  • Dead fish (or any other corpse found in water)
  • Insects
  • Very small fish
  • Fish eggs
  • Newborn crawdads
  • Worms

Here are alternative foods in case you cannot provide all or any of the above:

  • Live ghost shrimp
  • Guppies
  • Pellets catered to softshell turtles
  • Frozen blood worms
  • Live or dead crickets

These items can be purchased from any aquarium store.


Baby softshell turtles need vitamin A, calcium and protein in order to thrive. So fish flakes or fish pellets will not satisfy their needs. Turtles can go a long time without food when necessary, so if you are having trouble getting them to eat any of these foods, it’ll just take time. I had to trick my turtle by putting softshell pellets in combination with chicken liver. Soon I took the liver out of the equation and he started eating the pellets alone. Calcium sulfa blocks can also help give your turtle all the calcium it requires without specific foods.


And never give up with insects. My turtle went its first five months of life not eating anything that moved, but every once in a while I’d put a small insect near where he usually sits in the shallow area. After months of rejections, one day he unexpectedly ate the bug, and has been eating grubs and crickets since then (the movement now gets his attention).

A Warning on Overfeeding

And be careful not to overfeed; these animals can die if fed too much. They should have a little blubber on their limbs when retracted. Feel every once in a while to make sure it is not starving either. Watch your turtle; it is up to your judgment when it is time to feed.

UVB Rays

UVB lights cannot be compromised. These turtles have to get 12 hours of natural sunlight or UVB radiation per day. Vitamin D3 is essential for bone growth with the combination of calcium.

Some might think to place the aquarium in front of a window, but the sun will not touch the aquarium for 12 hours. Also, UVB cannot get past most glass, so even if the window is open, it will most likely not penetrate the aquarium. So unless your turtle is kept outdoors during the warm seasons, a UVB bulb is the only option.

Purchasing the Right Bulb

Do not purchase a bulb that says it is meant for plants and assume it has UVB radiation. If the word UVB is nowhere on the box, then it does not have UVB rays. UVA comes with natural sunlight, but again, without the “B,” it cannot make up as a substitute.

Placing the Light Properly

Also be wary of how close the light is placed over the habitat. Seven inches over the basking area (shallow area) may be a good distance, but be your own judge and see how the turtle reacts to it. If it spends less time in the basking area, then the light needs to be moved higher.

If the UVB bulb is a fluorescent tube and is placed in a traditional aquarium overhead, make sure there is no plastic or glass case between the bulb and the habitat, to further ensure the turtle is receiving all the UVB it requires.

Sand for Burrowing and Security

These turtles love sand. Tiny pebble-like rocks are acceptable as long as they are smooth, but you will find newborns constantly trying to bury themselves, only managing to throw a few rocks on their backs. By burying themselves, they not only have a feeling of security (reduced stress), but they typically catch live prey this way, thus preparing them for adulthood. It is also very entertaining to watch them burrow and peek their heads out from the sand.

If the basking area will allow it, sand should be placed here, too. They will spend most of their time buried in the sand with the exception of their noses and eyes above the water’s surface. They may also bury themselves at the bottom of deep water, but they enjoy having their shells buried while breathing normally in the air. They also usually sleep buried mostly or entirely in the sand, but only if it is in shallow water.

Calcium sand can be found in aquarium shops and also pool stores. The sand should be free of chemicals.

Do Not Keep a Pet Softshell if You Can't Meet Its Needs

These are the important necessities of the baby softshell turtle, and anyone who cannot afford or wishes not to provide all these crucial requirements should not keep this animal. If this turtle was bought, it would be best to hand it over to a wildlife sanctuary and they will most likely relocate it to its natural environment. If it was caught nearby, then let the turtle go where it was found (unless of course it is winter, then I advise the wildlife sanctuary). Do not let the turtle go if it is not from the area.

Common Ailments

These animals can easily die due to scratches on their shells, filthy water, and an unhealthy or overfed diet. Stay alert for erratic activity, eye irritation (closing eyes a lot), scratches, weight loss or gain, and strange curves progressing on the edges of their shells. Metabolic bone disease is the result of calcium and vitamin D3 deficiency, causing irregular shell shape.

Maintaining Your Turtle's Health

Provide the turtle shallow water, adequate space, clean water, a healthy diet, 12 hours of UVB, and a sense of security with sand to ensure the health of the baby softshell turtle.

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.


Luke champion on May 11, 2020:

Ok my turtle loves his worms for Peale who where having the same problem

Luke champion on May 10, 2020:

I found a soft shell turtle in a lake I was wondering if a 10 gallon tank would be good for him he is about 4 mounts old, also i was wondering how often do I feed him for some reason he does not like to eat fish I am trying worms but he will eat strawberry’s I don’t Know if that’s ok last thing is my tank is clear and he try’s to swim through the walls Thank you

Olivia Westerfeld on March 17, 2020:

My daughter caught a soft shell turtle on the river bank and its now a pet but it won't eat and hardly moves around i'm very worried my daughter tried to let him swim but the current was to strong. I don't now what is wrong with the poor little guy.

Blanca on August 17, 2019:

My husband found one of therlse and. Where it was was not safe or close to any water so we brought home did our research and set up a little tank for the guy but I noticed a red Dot on the bottom of his belly is that normal my husband thinks it's cuz he found him crawling on concrete and gravel and he was really leathery so he'd be out there for a while what could it be

Parth on January 23, 2018:

Can I give the turtle 'Taiyo' turtle food!!!?

Candice on March 01, 2017:

We have 3 softies and hatched them due to an awful accident. My husband accidently dug them up at work shortly after they were laid. I would love to talk to you about how to better care for our babies if you don't mind? please email me at

mariekbloch (author) on March 21, 2016:

They are aquatic so they should always have access to water they can fully submerge themselves in. I don't know how long they can stay out of the water.

Hfuydrsttiggdfryyu on March 19, 2016:

How long can they stay out of water

mariekbloch (author) on June 29, 2015:

Freezed bloodworms, yes. Dried, I'm not sure about.

Olivia on June 29, 2015:

hey is it ok if I feed the turtle freezes and dried blood worms or no??

mariekbloch (author) on January 05, 2015:

Goldfish produce a lot of waste, like turtles. I'd be sure you have an excellent filtration system and perform partial water changes twice a week. If the temperature is right and you keep up on maintenance, then I think it could work. Thanks for commenting!

EHBailey on January 05, 2015:

I cannot thank you enough for this post! I have been searching for more information since we happened upon a baby softshell while canoeing. He looks about the size of your baby. I had no idea how best to care for him and this is fantastic! I can't wait to get him set up. Do you think he would be okay in a tank with 5 small goldfish? It is a 20 gallon tank that I feel I could modify for him.

mariekbloch (author) on September 04, 2014:

In the wild they have nothing to do with each other, at least until they reach sexual maturity.

cinram on September 04, 2014:

Thankyou for the info, I was wondering if they like to be with other softshells or are they more loneers?

mariekbloch (author) on July 21, 2014:

I don't know what that is.

barkarkjmk on July 20, 2014:

I mean faltjacks

barkarkjmk on July 20, 2014:

Can u feed them fault jack

mariekbloch (author) on March 01, 2014:

I don't understand your question. 10 inches in height? Length? Or are you talking about water depth? Yes, no, and yes, assuming there's a shallow part for him to rest in.

10 gallons is fine for a short while, but they really should be in 20 gallons filled mostly with water. Once they reach 4 inches in width, they need to be upgraded to a longer, bigger tank.

zain on February 28, 2014:

Can I keep my baby eastern spiny softshell turtle in 10 inches tank?

mariekbloch (author) on November 25, 2012:

In the low 50s in the tank or outside? If the tank is in the 50s, then yeah, I'd say they're hibernating if not dead, but they will die if it gets lower than that.

If you want them out of hibernation, I would slowly raise the temperature and see if they awaken. Maybe a few degrees every hour. But I would research this first, because I have never hibernated a turtle before, because it is so dangerous.

By the way, 9 baby turtles in a 10 gallon? They're at least 5 months old. That's overcrowding and their growth have been stunted because of that.

I would start letting them go in the nearest pond once it's spring (if you can bring them out of hibernation safely). Good luck.

MariaFL on November 24, 2012:

I found 9 softshell turtles in my pool about 5 months ago. I've been keeping them in a 10 gallon tank. I am out of town now and my mother just told me they look like they were dead. My friend told me they might be hibernating due to the drop in temperature in FL right now. According to my mother it must have been like in the low to mid 50s last night. They aren't moving but they don't look dead to me either. Any help?

mariekbloch (author) on July 04, 2012:

No, I'm not sure what that is, but it isn't normal.

michael atherton on July 03, 2012:

Is it common for the turtles to have red spots on their stomach area

mariekbloch (author) on June 08, 2012:

There are different shaped 20 gallons, like a 20 gal. long is what I know. Like 3/4 filled with water, maybe. For a baby softshell, look at my other hub about their setup--I have the perfect setup explained.

Filteration is very important for turtles in general. I replace half the water every week and have a filter running at all times. Always keep the water crystal clear.

Nate on June 08, 2012:

How deep should the water level be for a 20 gallon tank?

Also - how often should I change the water? I currently do not have a filter for the tank. Do you recommend a filter?


Joe on June 05, 2012:

Thanks it helps

mariekbloch (author) on June 04, 2012:

They're certainly small enough that you can keep them in small separate tanks for now.

How high to put your water? That depends on the size of the tank. As long as they can swim underwater, it's good. Might look at my other hubs if you want an example of a good baby spiny softshell habitat.

Joe on June 04, 2012:

how high can i put the water

Joe on June 04, 2012:

i have a spiny soft shell bout the size of a half-dollar and a painter the size of a dime can i put them in a 20gallon tank 4 now

Joe Joe on June 04, 2012:

I have a spiny softshell turtle the size of a half dollar and a painter turtle the size of a penny what do I do

mariekbloch (author) on June 02, 2012:

I would keep an eye on them. They may fight over food.

trisha on June 01, 2012:

I have a soft shelled turtle and and hard shell turtle in the same tank that we got from big piney river in missouri is this safe to do? they are babies, im worried!

mariekbloch (author) on May 30, 2012:

By cage you mean aquarium, right? I am assuming you caught a spiny also.

I would argue that if you really loved him, you would let him go eventually. That's what I did with my spiny (it was really hard).

But you can hang on to him for a while. Use those items you've bought and keep him for a bit, as long as you are meeting every one of his needs (as listed above).

Do what you think is best for the turtle.

Alexandra on May 28, 2012:

I just wanted to ask if love can kill like i don't know if he likes where he's at... I have a small cage I keep him in now but what kind of water do I get him??

Alexandra on May 28, 2012:

Hey umm I found my turtle in my creek and I already have paid a lot of money for the cages and all of it.. I know it's right to let him home but I love him and I want to keep him.. Could I be able to keep him??

mariekbloch (author) on April 25, 2012:

I have no idea. Sorry.

Melissa on April 23, 2012:

I have about 20spiny soft shell turtle eggs.I was wondering how long it will take them to hatch.I've had them for about a month and a half,when I take a flashlight and look through the eggs I can see their tiny long do you think it will take them to hatch?I have a light on them during the day also.

mariekbloch (author) on April 13, 2012:

I'm sorry for your loss. We humans make mistakes, but it's our animals that always have to pay for them. I made a mistake once that ended the life of a turtle; it was a really gruesome death and to this day it brings me to tears thinking about it. It happens to all of us at some point. Now you know not to put those two species together.

All the best.

Krista on April 12, 2012:

Thank you!

But it died like 10 minutes later!

I feel so bad for the baby turtle I never thought that my RES was goin to do that!

mariekbloch (author) on April 12, 2012:

Oh god, I hate hearing things like this. I don't know how it could survive with that much damage. I would isolate the baby and put it in clear, decholirnated water. Put freshwater salt (make sure it is right amount) in the water and that will help fight off bacteria in the wound. Take it to an animal shelter or something and see what they can do. Honestly, that's very bad. It may have to be euthanized if it is as bad as I am thinking. That's all I can tell you.

Krista on April 12, 2012:

I have a 3 year RES in a 55galon tank and I just got a baby spiny I put the baby spiny inside the tank and my RES bit half of the baby spiny shell of you think it's goin to survive?

mariekbloch (author) on March 26, 2012:

You're welcome.

Eric on March 26, 2012:

Thank u so much

mariekbloch (author) on March 25, 2012:

Eric Milne,

I only have experience with one baby spiny, but I have seen other people have two or even three babies sharing the same tank, as long as they have enough space. 20 gallons per turtle, and that is while they are juvenile, not yet adult size. So 55 would be good if both turtles are small. Also, make sure they each have their own place to bask; provide a lot of options where they don't have to share the same spot. I would watch them like a hawk for the first few days and see how they do. I would not think one being spiny and the other being soft would make a difference, but again, watch them closely and have a back up plan just in case.

Eric Milne from Pauma Valley, California on March 25, 2012:

I have a Florida soft shell in a 55 gallon tank was wondering if I could put a spiny soft shell in there too?

mariekbloch (author) on March 22, 2012:

Wha? Um, a few questions. I really want to help, but turtles lay eggs in the sand; they don't give birth like animals. Also, I only know how to care for babies, not adults. Did you buy these or did you catch them? If you ever place a turtle in water, make sure the water is dechlorinated. If the water hasn't sat out in 24 hours, then buy dechlorinating formula from any fish store, or I guess walmart since it is late.

I can't help if I don't know all the facts.I suggest emailing me telling me everything that has happened. You should be able to find my address in my info.

amy on March 22, 2012:

i have two eastern spiny softshell turtles and one of them is giving birth i placed her in a tub by herself with the baby attached i do not know how to care for these some guided help will be very helpful please what do i do??

PADDYBOY60 from Centreville Michigan on January 07, 2012:

Very informative hub. Thanks.

mariekbloch (author) on October 02, 2011:

Glad to help.

madison on September 25, 2011:

i thot your pag was fary usfull it helped me with my turtle so thank you fary much

mariekbloch (author) on August 16, 2011:

Thank you. As far as I know, all turtles need UVB and UVA light. My turtle rarely basked, but always give your turtle the option to do so, regardless. Thanks for commenting!

Felicity on August 16, 2011:

Very nice! There is so many opinions and even websites and youtube videos that will say they they do not bask, do not need uvb/uva. Great work man!

mariekbloch (author) on June 28, 2011:

Thanks, I try.

The Logician from then to now on on June 28, 2011:

I'll say - great hub!

mariekbloch (author) on May 29, 2011:

Thank you.

Marie Hurt from New Orleans, LA on May 29, 2011:

What a beautiful turtle and it seems like you are taking such great care of it.