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Do Turtles Smell Bad? 7 Vet Reviewed Tips to Reduce of Their Odor

Chantelle Fowler

By Chantelle Fowler

Pet turtle in a man's hands

Vet approved

Dr. Amanda Charles Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Amanda Charles

Veterinarian, BVSc GPCert (Derm) MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Everyone knows that some degree of odor comes with the territory when you have pets. Cats have litter boxes that occasionally get stinky, and dogs can get awfully malodorous after an outing in the rain. What about reptiles, though? They’re kept in tanks and enclosures, so their odors must be minimal at best, right?

The truth is that turtles can smell, though the scent is typically attributed to their habitats if they aren’t kept clean. Read on to learn how to eliminate any lingering reptile smells in your home.

Why Do Turtles Smell Bad?

Turtles generally don’t smell, but the enclosure is typically to blame if they do. This isn’t always the case, though. While turtles don’t have a strong natural scent, they can gather dirt particles on their skin or shells, making them smelly.

The bottom line is if your turtle smells, there’s a high chance it needs to be washed or its tank needs a thorough cleaning.

red eared turtle in aquarium
Image Credit: Mark Leung, Shutterstock

The 7 Tips on How to Get Rid of Turtle Odors

1. Wash Your Turtle

Even though many pet turtles live in water, it sometimes isn’t enough to eliminate any foul odors on their shells. If your pet is quite smelly, you can give them a bath in a small plastic wash tub. However, because turtles can carry salmonella, we do not recommend bathing your turtle in the same tub you bathe yourself in.

Gently scrub your turtle’s shell using a soft-bristled toothbrush and dechlorinated water. Ensure you’ve removed any algae build-up between its scutes. This is also a good time to inspect your pet for any injuries that may have developed into infections, which could add to its scent.

If you have a tortoise, bathing it regularly will keep it clean and hydrated. This is a very important part of your tortoise husbandry. A soak of 15 to 20 minutes in lukewarm water should be sufficient. Young tortoises should be soaked daily, decreasing this frequency to every second day as they grow older. By the time they’re adults, they need a soak at least once a week.

sea turtle having a bath
Image Credit: pukpui228, Shutterstock

2. Consider Upgrading Your Tank Size

Your turtle’s tank may be to blame for the scent simply because it’s not big enough. The tank should accommodate ten gallons of water for every inch of your turtle’s shell length. If you’re keeping more than one turtle in a tank, add five gallons for every inch of additional turtle.

3. Replace or Clean the Filter

A high-quality filter is absolutely necessary to keep your pet’s tank clean and safe for it to inhabit. A dirty filter will need to be changed regularly, and a poor-quality filter should be swapped out for a bigger, more efficient one to help control smells.

Canister filters, which we highly recommend for your turtle’s tank, come with baskets you can fill with any filter media you prefer. You should put as much media in the filter as possible without obstructing the water flow. These filters house good bacteria that work hard to break down waste. The bigger your filter, the better good bacteria can grow, but the greater the flow rate will need to be. However, you can’t rely on your filter alone to clean your pet’s tank. Nitrates will eventually build up and clog the filter.

turtle in a tank
Image Credit: Megan Czarnocki, Shutterstock

4. Remove Food Particles

Use a small net daily to remove any droppings or uneaten food particles. Turtles are very messy eaters, and any food particles left floating in their tank can dirty the tank and cloud the water.

Some turtle keepers prefer to feed their pets in a different container to keep their main habitat cleaner and food debris-free.

5. Replace Some of the Water

Replace some of your turtle’s tank water with clean water at least once weekly. Even if the swimming water looks fine, it could still be high in ammonia or nitrates. Aim to replace between 20% and 50% of the water weekly. When debris starts building up, or the filter flow is reduced, you’ll know it’s time to perform a complete water change and filter clean.

Red-eared slider turtles in aquarium tank with UV light and filter
Image credit: TIPAKORN MAKORNSEN, Shutterstock

6. Do a Full Tank Clean

If the above tactics don’t help remove the smell, it may be time to clean the tank fully. This should happen as often as every two to three weeks, depending on your turtle(s).

First, put on a pair of gloves. Then, remove everything from inside the tank, starting with your turtle. Once empty, clean it with a warm water solution with a turtle-safe cleaner. PetMD recommends using a very dilute solution of warm water and bleach. Don’t miss the tank top and get into all the corners. Wash off the cleaning solution and leave the tank to dry thoroughly.

Next, toss your old substrate and replace it with all-new material. Soak all toys and rocks in warm water. Thoroughly rinse these items after they’ve soaked for a while to ensure all remaining suds are gone.

Replace the water entirely. Place the new substrate and put the clean accessories back in the tank.

7. Avoid Commercial Cleaners

While it’s tempting to mask pet-related smells with commercial cleaners or deodorizers, this can be lethal to your turtles. Do not use chemical cleaners or air fresheners in the same room as your turtle tank. If you must use a cleanser, opt for a reptile-safe pick like this option from Flukers, and make sure you’ve rinsed the area thoroughly after.

washing cleaning fish tank
Image Credit: MARVIK, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

While turtles generally don’t smell, a poorly kept tank or dirty turtle can emit a strong odor. If bathing your pet or doing a full tank clean doesn’t take care of the smells, we recommend visiting your exotic vet to see if an underlying health condition is causing your turtle’s malodor.


Featured Image Credit: Ivan Smuk, Shutterstock

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