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Home > Turtles > Can a Turtle Live Without Its Shell? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQs

Can a Turtle Live Without Its Shell? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQs

red eared slider turtle basks on a rock in a turtle pond

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

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

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Turtles are quiet and unassuming creatures with shells covering their body that’s made of bone and part of the spine. The United States is home to more than 50 species of freshwater and terrestrial turtles. Most of these species are found in the southern portion of the country that has a warmer climate.

If you’re wondering if a turtle can live without its shell, the answer is no, and we’ll tell you why. A turtle’s shell serves as its armored protection from predators. You’ve probably seen a pet turtle tuck its head, legs, and tail into its shell when it feels threatened and that’s exactly what these reptiles do in the wild.

We’ve put together answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about turtles and their shells to help you learn more.


What Does a Turtle Look Like Without a Shell?

Mississippi map turtle
Image By: Ken Schulze, Shutterstock

There’s a good reason why you never see a turtle without its shell. Turtles simply cannot live without their shells because they’re an intricate part of the animal’s body. If you were to see a turtle without a shell, you probably wouldn’t even know it was a turtle by what’s left, which would be a red mushy mess of their lungs, which sit directly below their shell. Underneath the lungs, you would see the rest of their organs and innards. The odds of such a turtle being alive are practically zero, so please note that this explanation is purely theoretical.

What Happens If a Turtle’s Shell is Damaged?

A turtle may lose a portion of their shell as a result of an accident or when attacked by a predator. Depending on the extent of the loss, the turtle may quickly die if the damage is extensive. Partial cracks or smaller areas of damage may be able to heal or repaired surgically by a veterinarian.

How Do Turtles Damage Their Shells?

As mentioned previously, turtles can sustain damage on their shells when involved in accidents and when attacked by predators. For example, if a turtle crossing a busy road gets hit by a car, the shell of the turtle can come off, at least partially. If a turtle is attacked by a predator like a fox, the predator may remove the turtle’s shell in search of the edible flesh that’s hidden beneath it.


Can Turtles Take Off Their Shells?

Box turtle on a tree stump
Image By: Luiza Kleina, Shutterstock

Turtles cannot take off their shells no matter what! A shell is not something a turtle can shimmy in and out of because the shell is fused to the reptile’s bones. Unlike a hermit crab that can slip out of a shell when it outgrows it and crawl into a new, bigger shell, a turtle is stuck with the same shell all its life.

Do Turtles Feel Pain in Their Shell?

Many people think that turtles are tough and don’t feel anything through their shells. However, that’s just not true. Turtles can feel their shells being petted, scratched, tapped, or otherwise touched because their protective shells contain nerve endings that make them sensitive enough to feel pain.

Because a turtle can feel pain through its shell, it’s important to handle a turtle with care. If you have a pet turtle, always handle your pet carefully so you don’t cause it any pain.

Do All Turtles Have Shells?

A turtle is any reptile with a shell including tortoises that live primarily on land. Semi-aquatic turtles with webbing between their toes have shells as do aquatic turtles with flippers instead of feet. So yes, all turtles have shells with some species having softer shells than others like the Spiny Softshell Turtle that lives in bodies of water throughout most of America.

What Color is a Turtle Shell?

The color of a turtle’s shell depends on the species. There are many colors of turtle shells including brown, black, and various shades of green and gray. Some species of turtles have colored markings on their shells that can be red, orange, gray, or yellow. So, it all depends on what type of turtle you’re talking about when it comes to the color of its shell!


What are the Parts of a Turtle Shell?

Spotted Turtle_ Jay Ondreicka_Shutterstock
Image By: Jay Ondreicka, Shutterstock

A turtle shell is made up of two parts which are the carapace on top and the pastron on the bottom. The carapace and plastron are fused together on each side. The carapace is covered by an outer layer of individual pieces called scutes that are made up of keratin, which is the same stuff you have in your fingernails and hair.

The inside of a turtle shell is fused with the animal’s internal bony structures including the spine and ribs. A turtle’s neck and tail vertebrae are small, allowing for flexibility but the central part of the vertebral column is long and inflexible and fused with the bony layer of the shell to act as a support for the carapace.

Can a Turtle’s Shell Heal and Grow Back if Damaged?

A turtle’s shell is made up of living materials like keratin, allowing the shell to mend itself and heal if it’s damaged. However, a cracked or damaged shell is a potentially serious health issue for a turtle, depending on how deep and big the crack is.

When a turtle suffers a cracked or damaged shell, the turtle’s health is at risk while the shell is healing. Because the shell protects a turtle’s internal organs and bones, a crack can lead to an infection caused by bacteria.

If you have a pet turtle that suffers shell damage like a crack, you should visit your veterinarian right away. Your vet will examine the turtle to determine what course of action to take if any. If you’re lucky, the crack will heal on its own with time. At other times, your vet may decide that supportive care alone isn’t enough. They may have to disinfect and surgically repair your turtle’s shell.

Is It OK to Paint a Turtle’s Shell?

No, it is not OK to paint on a turtle’s shell. The shell of a turtle is a living and growing part of the reptile’s body. Painting a turtle’s shell exposes the turtle to toxic materials that can seep into the bloodstream that can make the turtle sick or even prove fatal.

Painting the shell of a turtle can also hinder the reptile’s ability to absorb the vitamins it needs from the sun. If you want to channel your inner artist, paint something like a pet rock and not your turtle! In a nutshell, it’s cruel and dangerous to paint a turtle’s shell so don’t do it!



We hope you enjoyed these shell-shocking facts about turtles. Even though a turtle’s shell looks as tough as nails, it’s a vital part of the reptile’s body that can be injured and damaged.

If you find a turtle in the wild with a damaged shell, contact the nearest wildlife rescue organization for help. And don’t forget that a turtle can feel pain through its shell so always handle these shelled creatures with tender loving care!

Featured Image Credit: Gerald A. DeBoer, Shutterstock

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