chinese softshell turtle caresheet, pelodiscus sinensis, trionyx sinensis

Keeping Chinese Softshell Turtles
(Pelodiscus sinensis)

Also known as:Trionyx sinensis”, “Chinese snapping turtle”, "Chinese soft shell terrapin"; "Asiatic softshell"

Suitability as an exotic pet: Not advised as a beginner species. Softshells, as their name implies, lack the strong protective safety of a regular turtle shell, instead posessing a leathery skin. This not only makes them more delicate, prone to injury and internal damage from overfeeding, but also means that they are easily threatened and panicked by handling, resorting immediately to scratching and biting. Their large adult size makes them unsuitable for most keepers.

Native habitat: East Asia
Adult Size: 10-13 inches
Enclosure size: 80+ gallons
Water Temperature: 24-29°C
Basking Temperature: 32°C



The Chinese Softshell Turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) is one of several softshell species commonly kept in captivity, and is a very perculiar exotic animal. With their streamlined, flexible shell, fleshy lips and snorkel-like nose, they are a truly bizarre creature to see pottering around an aquarium.

This species is widely bred as a food animal in Asia, and has since found its way into the pet trade. Unfortunately, Chinese Softshells are not the easiest animals to care for, and are not as forgiving as their hard-shelled relatives. The leathery shell which gives them their name is lightweight and flexible compared to the rigid shell of a slider, and allows greater mobility, making Softshells extremely fast swimmers. This shell evolution however, sacrifices the protection that the shell is renowned for, which is the main reason for their difficult captive husbandry.

Like any turtle, Softshells are clumsy from time to time, and when rough or sharp tank decorations are available they can quite easily injure themselves, where a hard-shelled turtle wouldn't even have a scratch. This makes the species particularly vulnerable to funal infections and requires all tank decoration to be checked over for sharp corners before use.

The other problem caused by not having a protective shell is that it makes this species very nervous. They are extremely shy, and will very rarelybe seem basking outside the water. When handled, a situation where a hard-shelled turtle would simply retract into it's protective casing, this Softshell species becomes highly defensive, and will launch into an assault of bites and scratches, which makes them impossible to hold without a thick protective glove. Chinese Softshells have a neck almost the length of their body, meaning that while holding the back of the shell sounds like a safe option, you can still have your fingers chomped on.

It is worth noting that while nips from juvenile can be unpleasant, adult specimens can do serious damage and even half-grown individuals can draw blood. Their beak-like mouth is very sharp and used in the wild for crushing snails and molluscs, so bites are very painful.

Natural behaviours

Softshells are born swimmers, and are rarely seen outside the water. While it may be possible to keep this species without a basking area, offering such a facility is always best, and helps prefent fungal infections, which this species is prone to.

One of the unusual behaviours exhibited by softshells is the use of sand as camoflage. Softshells burrow into the sandy bottoms of lakes and rivers and stay completely buried when threatened. Young softshells do this frequently, although may before more confident as they grow. In captivity, this should be replicated by using a 2" thick layer of playsand. Avoid gravel or building sand as it can be abrasive and cause injury.

chinese softshell turtle, pelodiscus trionyx sinensis, asian softshell terrapin chinese softshell turtle, pelodiscus trionyx sinensis, asian softshell terrapin

Housing in captivity

Chinese Softshells grow large, and are more aquatic than many other freshwater turtle species, so require a large swimming space. A large amount of water is also necessary to dilute the waste which the turtles produce. The recommended amount of water for a Softshell is 10 US Gallons (40 litres) of water for ever inch of turtle, so ponds may be required for larger specimens

Chinese Softshells are territorial creatures, and need to be kept alone. A single bite from an aggressive tankmate can easily puncture an internal organ in a softshell, and it is simply not worth the risk.

The water should be kept between 24-29°C (75-84°F), which can be achieved using a submersible aquarium heater available for tropical fish. An aquarium filter should also be used to help keep the water clean and provide a water current. It is recommended to choose a filter which is rated for a tank twice as big as your turtle aquarium, as Softshells are very messy animals and produce a lot of waste.

Basking areas can be provided using a whole range of methods, but it must be an area where the turtle can climb completely out of the water and dry off (to prevent respiratory and fungal infections). Easy, natural looking basking areas can be made from corkbark or driftwood. Rocks can be used, but Softshells are strong animals and will dislodge rock piles, and can be trapped underwater by falling rocks. Commercially available basking areas can be used, which can be attached to the glass of an aquarium by suction cups, although many are not large enough for an adult Softshell.

Above the basking area, a household spotlight can be suspended to warm the basking area to 32°C (90°F). It is important that the basking area is warmer than the water temperature, otherwise the turtle may not bask. Many keepers recommend the use of a specialist reptile light, which emits 5% or more UVB. In the wild, many reptiles use UVB (ultraviolet-B) in sunlight to create their own VitaminD3, which they need to absorb calcium. Young Softshells in particular will benefit from the addition of a UVB lamp, although it is possible to just use the household spotlight and provide VitaminD3 in the diet.

Captive diet

These turtles are primarily carnivorous, feeding on insects, fish, carrion and crustaceans in the wild. In captivity, they do well on a high-protein diet of bloodworm, frozen prawns and mussels, fresh fish, earthworms and snails. A high quality pellet such as Reptomin can be used to make sure essential vitamins and minerals are not missed out. "Turtle pudding" can be made to incorporate everything they require in the diet into easy-to-feed gelatine cubes.

Plant matter, either as food or decoration in the tank, does not seem to last long with Chinese Softshells. They usually don't eat it, but simply seem to enjoy tearing it up.

Avoid keeping live fish with Softshells. They are capable of hunting fish from an early age, and are able to prey on fish larger than themselves. If you do try to keep fish with them, they are likely to become food for the Softshell, and this also carries the risk of parasite transmission, and thiaminase poisoning.

Cuttlefish bone (with hard backing removed) can be floated in the tank as a source of calcium.

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