How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (crab, crayfish, hermit crabs, dwarf shrimp)

In recent years, interest in pet crustaceans (crabs, hermit crabs, crayfish, and dwarf shrimp) has increased considerably around the world. However, as with any pet, a few things should be considered before committing to care for these animals and one of them is handling.

Unlike conventional pets, such as dogs and cats, exotic animals are not for everyone because in most cases, they do not like to be handled. I need to repeat it once again – crustaceans are not pets you can cuddle with.   

In this article, I will be talking about how to handle crabs, crayfish, and dwarf shrimp in the least stressful way possible for them.

Why Pet Crustaceans Don’t Like to Be Handled?

The main reason why interaction with these animals should be minimal is that their nervous system is too simple to learn and remember that this is safe.

Crustaceans and not very smart creatures and, generally, operate on their instinctual nature.

In the wild, they spend their days mostly hiding and foraging. In most species, there is no even courtship behavior and, definitely, they do not play with each other.

Because of this, they also prefer nocturnal activity as it allows them to avoid visual predators whilst feeding.

As we can see, in crustacean’s world, being invisible is the best they can with for. If they are picked up, it usually triggers aggressive (try to pinch) or defensive reactions (they try to run or swim away). Handling for them is associated with danger.

Why do Crustaceans Pull Their Legs and Claws Off?

Many species have the unique ability to autotomize (self-amputate) their limbs or other appendages. This is another defensive reaction. Basically, they are sacrificing one part of the body to make a quick getaway.

Luckily, crustaceans can rapidly regrow lost appendages and limbs (except eyes) after molting.

Interesting fact: Scientists use these animals as model organisms in their experiments to study regeneration for its potential uses in medicine.

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When Can I Hold Crustaceans in My Hand?

Although they do not like handling, there are can be situations when we need to handle them. For example, in such cases as:

  • visual inspection for parasites and illness,
  • transferring from one tank to another,
  • separating them if they are fighting, etc.

Therefore, we need to know and understand how we can handle them safely.

How to Hold Crustaceans in Your Hand?

Beginners may need time to practice it several times but actually, it is pretty simple and can be done with one hand.

1. Holding Crabs in Your Hand

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (side holding crab)Sides holding:

  • Pick the crab only from behind so the claws are facing forward.
  • If the crab is trying to turn around or run away put a finger on top of the crab to prevent it.
  • Next, use your thumb and one finger to put on either side of the crab’s shell.
  • Now you can lift the crab up so it will never be able to pinch you.

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (holding crab with two fingers)Back and bottom holding:

  • Pick the crab only from behind so the claws are facing forward.
  • If the crab is trying to turn around or run away put your index finger on top of the crab to prevent it.
  • While you are holding the crab with your index finger, slip your thumb underneath the back end of the crab and place it on the abdomen.
  • Now you lift the crab up. Their claws cannot reach the back, so they will never be able to pinch you.

Important: Do not squeeze your fingers, it can harm the crab. In addition, I would not recommend holding ovigerous females this way. In crabs, an egg mass develops beneath the female’s apron (abdomen). Even if you hold her gently, the pressure can crush the eggs.  

Using a pair of tongs or gloves:

If you are afraid to get pinched, you can use a pair of tongs to pick up a crab. However, be very careful with that. Do not squeeze them too tightly.

Using gloves will let you hold the rear part of the crab along with some rear legs. 

2. Holding Crayfish in Your Hand

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (holding crayfish behind claws)

  • Pick the crayfish only from behind so the claws are facing forward.
  • Hold it with your thumb and forefinger just behind its claws to avoid getting pinched.

Unlike crabs, crayfish are more mobile in the water. They use their tails to quickly propel themselves (backward) through the water. So, it can be really hard to do the same trick (put your finger on top of their carapace) to prevent escapes. 

3. Holding Hermit Crab in Your Hand

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (holding hermirt crabs in your hand)

  • Hold the hermit crab by the back of its shell.
  • Adjust your grip so that its claws cannot reach you.

The problem with hermit crabs is that different species prefer different types of shells. Obviously, it is not possible to have the same grip for all shells.

Important: It is not recommended to place hermit crabs on your palm. First of all, it is not safe, they can easily fall. Second, if you think that they won’t be able to pinch flat palm, you are wrong.

4. Holding Dwarf Shrimp in Your Hand

Actually, I would strongly recommend avoiding any attempt to catch dwarf shrimp with your bare hands.

Dwarf shrimp are very small creatures and their carapace can be easily crushed even with a gentle touch.

Therefore, if you need to catch and/or remove them from the tank – take a net and carefully scoop them out.

What do you do if aquatic crab or crayfish pinches you?

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (crab is pinching finger)OK, let’s say you got distracted and the crab or crayfish pinched you. Unfortunately, it can happen to the most careful of us. So, do you get them to let go?

  1. Do not panic and do not flicker the wrist.
  2. If it is an aquatic crab or a crayfish, the best way will be to immediately put your hand into the water (aquarium). It is really hard to say why but in the water they will let you go almost at once.

What do you do if terrestrial crab or hermit crab pinches you?

The best way to get terrestrial crabs or hermit crabs off you is to put your hand in their enclosure and wait for them to walk away.

If it does not work or it is getting too painful, in this case, you can:

  • Put the hand under running tap water or spray them with water.
  • Start slightly tapping their pinching claw with your other hand until they release you.

Can I Bond with Crabs and Crayfish?

I have seen some articles which are supposedly telling how to bond with crabs and crayfish, or even how to play with them! Those authors recommend starting by learning the proper handling techniques, then move on to playing games and bonding later.

Well, this is not scientifically proven.

For example, it is true that some crayfish species (Cherax destructor), according to the experiments, showed that they are capable of visual recognition of individuals. However, the extent to which they remember visual features is unknown.

In most cases, this ‘recognition’ is nothing more but unconscious reflex responses that assist in withdrawing from tissue-damaging stimuli. In other words, this is an instinctive reaction.

Playing presumes the existence of the long-term recognition memory. Memory and reflexes are not the same. Unfortunately, those authors do not mention it.

Therefore, crabs, crayfish, and shrimp do not bond with the owner. They may recognize you as a low threat but they will never play. It is just beyond their abilities.

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Summary of Rules and Tips: How to Handle Crabs, Crayfish, and Shrimp:

How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans (wrong and good examples)

  • Crustaceans are not pets you can play with. DO NOT take them out just because you want to.
  • Before picking up any crustaceans, wash your hands. This will help to remove any potentially harmful elements that may harm them.
  • Crabs and crayfish should never be lifted up by their legs or claws! Their legs are in rotational sockets, so they can lose a limb by autotomy.
  • Do not lift crayfish by their tails.
  • Pick the crab and crayfish only from behind so it will never be able to pinch you. Have a good grip on the rear part of their carapace, so that they cannot move around but do not squeeze them.
  • When you are handling crustaceans, don’t make a sudden movement of your hand. It may stress them even more.
  • Never scratch the shell when you are handling them. It can result in fungus or cause other pathogens on the shell.
  • Remember that their pinches may hurt a bit but they won’t break your skin. Be ready, otherwise, you can flick your hand instinctively and your pet will go flying somewhere. They can get hurt easily, even with their hard shells.
  • If you got pinched – put your hand into the water (for aquatic animals); spay with water or wait for them to walk away (for terrestrial species).

As you can see, it is not that difficult and with the proper steps and precautions, you can handle crustaceans pretty easily.

In Conclusion

Crustaceans should never be held unless it is absolutely necessary. Therefore, if you want a pet for handling, then these animals are not for you.

Crustaceans get stressed easily when handled.

However, if you have to pick it up, the easiest and safest way will be to grab them from the

top. Pick them up by its carapace or shell (for hermit crabs)

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2 thoughts on “How to Handle your Pet Crustaceans

  1. Hi, I’m no scientist but I thought that you might like this information. I had a hermit crab named Shelly that would come to me when I called her name. Also in the tank was a hermit crab named Jewel. Jewel didn’t like me, despite me being the only person who interacted with the hermit crab tank. She also was the least active of all the crabs, mainly just sat in the little lighthouse all the time. Her owner was my Aunt, who spent most of her time away at college. Yet there was one time when my aunt was in the same room as the hermit crabs and happened to talk to someone. When Jewel heard my aunts voice she immediately crawled out of the lighthouse and over to the part of the tank that was closest to where my aunt was. I’d never seen her so active before! I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I thought you’d like to know.

    1. Hi Cordelia,
      Thank you!
      It seems like the sound/voice vibration of your Aunt attracts her attention.
      Best regards,

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