are painted shells safe for hermit crabs?

Are Painted Shells Bad for Hermit Crabs?

If you vacation in a beachfront resort, you will usually find hermit crabs for sale in gift shops. These hermit crabs will typically have been forced into painted shells. These decorative shells are undeniably cute, but such aesthetic splendor comes at a cost.

Painted shells are dangerous to hermit crabs. When wild hermit crabs source shells before capture, they are undecorated. Paint is applied as a sales tactic to appeal to children. This paint will often contain toxins. If the paint flakes and hermit crabs eat the chips, they can be killed. Hermit crabs also get stuck inside shells if the paint is wet.

Where possible, avoid purchasing hermit crabs in painted shells. If you wish to rescue hermit crabs from inappropriate living conditions, offer them new, undecorated shells as an alternative. The sooner you get your hermit crabs into unpainted shells, the better.

Do Hermit Crabs Prefer Painted or Unpainted Shells?

All hermit crabs start life in the wild. Breeding in captivity is extremely rare among hermit crabs. This means that your pets will not have encountered painted shells before being captured and sold. This, alone, should be enough to lean toward unpainted vessels.

Behavioral Processes confirms that hermit crabs can determine differences in light and contrast. This does not factor into a hermit crab’s selection of shell, though.

The truth is, hermit crabs are unlikely to tell the difference between painted or unpainted shells by aesthetics alone. Place two shells in front of them – one painted, one unpainted – and the selection will be based on scent, shape, and sturdiness.

It is when hermit crabs physically enter painted shells that the differences become clear. As we will discuss, painted shells can be harmful to hermit crabs. This means that, regardless of their preferences, unpainted shells are always recommended.

Are Painted Shells Safe for Hermit Crabs?

Painted shells should be avoided at all costs. There is nothing to gain by forcing hermit crabs into such a vessel. It’s the opposite of safe. Painted shells should be deemed harmful as far as hermit crabs are concerned.

There are two main reasons why painted shells are considered risky for hermit crabs are:

We will discuss how and why these issues arise. First, though, we will address why painted shells are such common practice, despite the well-publicized risks that they pose to hermit crabs.

are painted shells toxic to hermit crabs?

Why are Hermit Crabs Forced into Painted Shells?

In the interests of balance, we should probably say this – not all hermit crabs are forced into a pre-painted shell. The vessel may have been painted after the hermit crab was captured. This does not make the practice any safer for hermit crabs, though.

Why does any retailer do something they perhaps shouldn’t? The short answer is, to make money. Squeezing hermit crabs into painted shells is usually to boost the number of sales. Colorful hermit crabs are likelier to catch the eye of passers-by and generate interest.

If you are taking a vacation at a seaside resort, you will find hermit crabs for sale in many seafront gift stores. Everybody loves a souvenir. A living, breathing pet seems like a great way to remember a wonderful holiday.

The issue is, hermit crabs are not considered cute by many people. Here at Hermit Crab Answers, we think they are beautiful animals. We are probably biased, though. To some, the appearance of a hermit crab resembled an insect, which unsettles them.

Painting a shell, in theory, overcomes this. Painted shells will appeal to children and young people. They will pester their parents to buy a pet that looks like a butterfly or their favorite cartoon character. Even adults are not immune to the striking appearance of painted shells.

Should I Buy Hermit Crabs Forced into Painted Shells?

This is between you and your conscience. We have already explained that painted shells are dangerous for hermit crabs. It could be argued that purchasing hermit crabs clad in such protection is encouraging nefarious sales practices.

On the other hand, buying hermit crabs in painted shells could be viewed as a mission of mercy. You are liberating the animals from an unsuitable environment. That’s noble, but you could be purchasing a hermit crab that is not destined to survive long.

Look out for the following in hermit crabs clad in painted shells:

  • Lethargy and refusal to move
  • Aggression toward other hermit crabs in an enclosure
  • Missing limbs, including the claws
  • Pale, gray skin

These are warning signs of stressed and sick hermit crabs. If the animals are housed in an open enclosure, this is even likelier. Hermit crabs need an enclosed aquarium to provide adequate humidity to breathe. An open-air habitat may be leading to slow suffocation.

This, again, leads us back to the first paragraph of this segment. It’s potentially cruel to leave the hermit crabs in such a location. The further stress inflicted by relocating the hermit crabs to alternative captivity may just finish them off, though.  

Why are Painted Shells Toxic to Hermit Crabs?

We have established that painted shells are a sales gimmick, designed to maximize profits. With this in mind, do you think the paints selected have been tested for hermit crab safety? Most paint is toxic to hermit crabs due to the presence of heavy metals.

Hermit crabs breathe in toxic fumes generated by painted shells, leading to suffocation. This is a slow – and painful – way for hermit crabs to die. It’s made even worse by the fact that’s completely avoidable and unnecessary.

Even if the fumes are somehow avoided, the paint will invariably flake. In an appropriate hermit crab environment, high in temperature and humidity alike, it flakes even faster. This means that paint will end up in the substrate, water, and everywhere else in the aquarium.

As hermit crabs are natural scavengers, they are not fussy about food. Your hermit crabs will invariably end up swallowing these toxic flakes of paint. This will, of course, prove fatal in short order.

Why Do Hermit Crabs Get Trapped in Painted Shells?

We also mentioned that hermit crabs can become trapped in painted shells. This occurs when they are forced into painted shells that have not yet dried inside. The exoskeleton of the hermit crabs becomes ‘glued’ to the shell.

This will be problematic for any hermit crab. The animal will be restricted in its ability to enter and exit the shell at will. There is also the danger of the head becoming stuck, rendering hermit crabs unable to eat.

Hermit crabs also grow in size. This is why they need to molt periodically. If a hermit crab is unable to leave its shell, the molting process can be delayed. This will be detrimental to the health of the hermit crab. It should be removed from the shell ASAP.

Releasing Trapped Hermit Crabs from Painted Shells

Releasing hermit crabs that are trapped in a painted shell is a delicate art. You must be careful not to hurt your pets. As per Animal Behavior, hermit crabs remember painful experiences. This will harm your bond with your hermit crabs.

Encourage your hermit crabs into the water as much as possible. Any aquarium should contain at least two pools of water. The more time your hermit crabs spend submerged, the looser the shell will become. Eventually, the hermit crabs will come unstuck.

In such an instance, the hermit crabs will leave their shells to celebrate their new freedom. Ensure there is a replacement shell waiting for them. The moment your hermit crabs vacate the painted shell, dispose of it. Another hermit crab may climb inside otherwise.

Convincing Hermit Crabs to Change Shells

If you decide to purchase hermit crabs in painted shells, you should look into getting them to change vessel ASAP. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as explaining the benefits of a new shell to hermit crabs.

Even though painted shells are dangerous to hermit crabs, they will still cling to existing domiciles. You can never evict a hermit crab from a shell by force. If you try to yank the crab out by force, it will shed limbs and claws to stay put.

Instead, you need to be patient and make the idea of a new shell irresistible. Hermit crabs have a range of criteria when choosing shells, as per Marine Biology. These include:

  • Previous occupancy – hermit crabs like shells that smell like conspecifics
  • Size – an ideal fit more is important to hermit crabs than sheer mass
  • Strength – the shell must be sturdy enough to offer protection from predators
  • Condition – hermit crabs will avoid damaged shells

Locate new shells throughout the enclosure that houses your hermit crabs. Eventually, your pets will discover these new shells and wish to investigate. Once they are aware that new shells are available, play the waiting game. Your hermit crabs will switch when ready.

Where Can I Find Unpainted Shells for Hermit Crabs?

Any colony of captive hermit crabs should have a range of shells. Even if these are initially ignored, they will eventually become necessary. Hermit crabs like to change shell when they molt, as they have likely outgrown their previous vessel.

As per the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, some species of hermit crabs change shells more often than others. There is a range of factors that go into this decision. All hermit crabs feel more comfortable doing so if they have alternatives, though.

hermit crabs forced into painted shells

Gathering from the Beach

If you plan to bring hermit crabs home from a beachside holiday, gather some spare shells before returning home. As discussed, hermit crabs appreciate a selection of shells. The more you have, the happier your hermit crabs will be.

Stroll along the beach and pick up a range of shells, with different shapes and sizes. Just be certain the shells are not already occupied. Wild hermit crabs can be shy. Follow these steps to confirm a shell is empty.

  1. Stretch the skin of your dominant hand tightly
  2. Pick up the shell and place it in your palm
  3. Wait a few moments for a curious hermit crab to investigate what is happening
  4. If you receive no reaction, blow gently inside the shell
  5. If still nothing, the shell is likely empty – though you may still have accidentally adopted a new pet

Do not poke your finger inside the shell. If there is a hermit crab inside, it is sleeping or hiding. Either way, it will not appreciate being disturbed and likely pinch you. Equally, do not shake the shell. This will cause stress to a potential incumbent.

Supplying shells from the beach is ideal for pet hermit crabs. These shells will carry appropriate and familiar scents. This will make the hermit crabs in your care more comfortable. You have taken a small step to replicate their natural habitat.

Purchasing Shells

If you do not have access to the beach, you can purchase hermit crab shells. A pet store that specializes in aquatic animals will likely have these for sale.

By now, it should go without saying that these shells must be unpainted. If you spot a vendor selling painted shells, do not give them your custom. They are prioritizing potential profits over safety. Never shop with a supposed animal-loving business with such practices.

Hermit crab shells are usually cheap to buy and sold in multi-packs. This means that you will receive a variety of shapes and sizes. Some sellers will bunch up large, medium, or small shells for sale, though. In this instance, ensure you mix-and-match.

Expect to pay around $5 for a selection of different shells. Anybody charging more is selling snake oil. The shells made available for sale have just been gathered from a beach. They are no better or worse than those you’d pick yourself. You are simply paying for convenience.  

Painted shells are a clear and present danger to hermit crabs. Placing these animals in decorative vessels is cruel and unnecessary. If you are lucky enough to keep hermit crabs, ensure their shells are clean and unvarnished.