Avoid Painted Shells

Why to never buy painted shells for your hermit crabs, and why to never buy a hermit crab already in a painted shell

Written by Shadoe Haffner AKA GodzillaHermitCrab on deviantart AKA wolfnipplechips on hermitcrabassociation

Yes, this crab is GLUED into this toy car. Photo (c) ceo1282 of the hermitcrabassociation

If you have pet hermit crabs, you have probably realized that they are wearing a gastropod shell. Hermit crabs are always on the hunt for a better shell than the one they are currently in. When they find one they are interested in, they will turn it around, feeling the outside and inside for a minute up to an hour before taking it for a test drive. They also need to find larger shells after they molt (the process by which they grow). For these reasons, it is important to offer your hermit crabs gastropod shells that they can move into. A good rule to follow is to have at least three proper fitting shells per crab, plus a couple the next size up. But in reality, the more, the better. You can never have too many shells for these shell mongers.

The type of shells you need will depend on the species of crab(s) you have. Please see the “information center” on this site for a guide on what kind of shells you will need. If your species is not represented, please go to the HCA Preferred Shell Guide for a more thorough guide.

Some people (kids, mostly) like the idea of painting a hermit crabs shell, or otherwise having a hermit crab with a painted/unnatural shell. There are many reasons to avoid painted shells, and the crabs that come in them.

Animal Abuse

Workers forcing crabs from their shells so they can be stuffed into painted ones.

Crabs that come in painted shells have been forced from their previous homes and shoved into a shell they didn’t choose. This is a big stresser for them because a hermit crab will never give up its shell easily. There is a video on youtube showing this process. The methods used to get the hermit crabs out of their original shells include heating them, electrocuting them, and breaking their shells. But do not blame the workers in developing countries, as they are just doing what they can to make some money. Blame the pet industry in countries like ours that encourage this.

The crabs in the pet store that are in painted or polished shells have gone through this torture in addition to being shipped to the pet store, where they are in less than ideal conditions. After the pet store, they are then transported to your home. All this stress makes them much more likely to die within just a few hours to weeks after you take them home. Even in the best conditions, a crab in a painted shell is much more likely to die than a crab in a natural shell.

Many people deny this saying that if a pet store has them for sale, it cannot be a bad thing, as pet stores would never jeopardize the health of their animals. This is false. As with all companies, pet stores are obligated and required BY LAW to make money. They (with the exception of a few small pet stores) will never put the animal’s welfare over a sale. If it makes money, they will sell it. If your crabs die, you may come back to buy more, so they get more of your money. Hermit crabs are not the only example of this. The pet industry is notorious for keeping animals in bad conditions, buying inbred animals, having them shipped in cramped containers in any weather, and selling products than can harm or kill them.

Don’t feel the need to “rescue” these painted shell crabs. I know it’s hard, but you will just be part of the huge number of people contributing to the demand of painted crabs. If all your pet store has is painted crabs, try to look for alternatives like online ordering from good sites like “The Hermit Crab Patch”. The Hermit Crab Patch is a more expensive place to buy crabs than your average pet store, but you are guaranteed a healthy crab acclimated to captivity, as they have gone through one or more molts at the owner’s home. You may also wish to talk to your pet store and¬† ask if they can order you some crabs in natural shells.

Piccolo almost free of his nightmare. Photo (c) Stacy of the crab street journal

Problems with growth, mobility, energy and stress

The shells can have decorations on them that are heavy or stick out a lot, making movement hard and awkward. This can stunt their growth or even prevent them from doing things they need to live. If your hermit crabs cannot move around, or spend most of their energy doing things that otherwise would not take as much, they may become stressed and die. As with painted shells, these decorated shells were not chosen by the hermit crabs. They were forced into them.

Crabs can be glued to their shells by paint

The crabs can actually be painted INTO the shell, actually stuck in there because the paint didn’t dry all the way before they got shoved in. 99% of the time, this means a long, slow, painful death because the crab cannot move or eat. Here is a story about a crab who survived.


Crabs may eat paint which peels or is picked from its shell

“No-peel paint” seems to be peeling off this shell pretty well. Let’s just hope this crab hasn’t eaten any of it.

The paint MAY be labeled non-toxic, but that is just for humans. Nobody knows if it’s toxic to crabs or not. Either way, your pets should not be eating paint chips. If it flakes or peels, they will eat it, as they are scavengers, and try everything they can get their claws on. If they have glue or other decorations, they may eat those, too. It could make the crabs sick and kill them, as their bodies are so much smaller than ours. It could be toxic for them, or be indigestible and get lodged in their digestive tract.

Some paints and varnishes are also labeled as “non-peel” but the sand, dirt, and high humidity in your crab tank will eventually break apart the paint, and it will peel.

Animals are not toys!

These are animals being marketed as toys. Making them “fun” and colorful on the outside is doing a lot of harm in that people buy them because their shells are cute, and not because they want a hermit crab. These are ANIMALS that require very specific care, not toys or art projects for kids. They are living, breathing creatures taken from the wild, who should be treated with some respect if they are to be our pets. They can live for over 40 years in the wild, but with the average misinformed crab owner, they barely ever last a year. Buy a hermit crab because you want to keep these interesting and complicated creatures as pets, not because you want a cute shell to anthropomorphize and display in your room.

Are these animals or toys? What do they look like to you? To your kids?

Dear parents: Even though these animals are marketed to kids with their “ooohh! pretty!!” shells, they make horrible kids pets for the average kid. Here are some reasons they make bad kids pets:

  • They have claws. Yes, they PINCH! And it HURTS.
  • They are nocturnal. Your kid will lose interest since they don’t come out in the daylight. Be prepared to inherit some pets from your kids.
  • They require very specific and complicated care. Set aside about $300-500 start up costs for a decent habitat, and be prepared to do most of the work.
  • You need more than one. They are social.
  • They are escape artists. They will literally climb the silicone holding the tank together and pry open the lid if they can.
  • When they die, they stink to high heaven.
  • They molt. The crabs will disappear under the substrate for weeks on end every few months. Yay a pet you won’t see very often. That’s sure to keep a kid’s attention.
  • These animals can live for 40 years. Is your CHILD ready for a 40 YEAR commitment? Are you?

Some kids may be ready for a pet with such specific requirements. Please talk to your kids before buying them any pet. Make sure they understand or at least have some idea of the responsibilities that come with it. Some kids may make excellent crabbers, but on average, hermit crabs are not a good children’s pet.

Children are not the only culprits for interpreting these animals as toys. Adults also will treat them as objects. In fact sometimes adults are far worse than kids and openly promote their abuse of hermit crabs as a point of pride and to make a name for themselves.

Christopher Chiappa glued these 25 hermit crabs together in the name of art. Even the average child realizes this is wrong.

Excessive demand stems from ignorance and a perspective that these animals are just toys and novelty, throw-away items

Wild Coenobita rugosus or “ruggie” using the top of a glass bottle to cover his soft abdomen because he could not find a shell.

A decrease in painted shells is a decrease in demand on hermit crabs, and an increase in ecosystem health. Being in painted shells and being sold as novelty pets produces a lot of impulse buys in tourists, kids, and gullible parents. If people started to realize the dangers and stupidity of painted shells, and stopped buying them, we could greatly decrease the demand for these wild animals. In certain parts of the world where they are being overharvested for the pet trade in the U.S. and other countries, the environment is suffering. Hermit crabs play a very important role in the environment by eating seedlings and debris on the forest floor. Without these miniature gardeners at work, whole ecosystems are changing.

There is also a shell shortage in many parts of the world, and with ocean acidification as well, gastropods shells are getting harder and harder to come by. Vice versa, if we can decrease the demand for hermit crabs as pets, we can decrease the demand for shells. This will give the hermit crabs still remaining in the wild more choices.

Many shells are naturally more beautifully colored and elegantly formed than hand-painted and altered shells

A polished African turbo shell. Photo (c) Naples seashell company

Evolution has given gastropods unique and colorful patterns that, in my opinion, are much more beautiful than any painted shell you will come across. There are also alternatives to painting like carving, non-chemical polishing, and dying with natural berry juices. If you need shells for your hermit crabs, please opt for the natural ones. And if you’re buying hermit crabs, please only buy the ones in natural shells. If you’re feeling adventurous, feel free to tell the pet stores about the dangers of these painted shells, or why you will never buy a crab in a painted shell.

Here are some places to buy natural shells:

Please see my care sheet, a tutorial on how to dye shells safely, and other helpful links.