Is Hermit Crab Dead or Molting?

Pet, Care, Hermit Crab Dead or Molting

Molting is a dangerous undertaking for hermit crabs and most other invertebrates. According to the statistics, in nature, almost 90 % of their deaths are related to unsuccessful molting. To make it even worse, sometimes people get confused and unable to tell if your hermit crab is molting or dead, and simply get rid of them!

So, how to tell if your hermit crab is dead? To put it in a nutshell, dead crabs smell awful, especially after a few days. They fall out of their shells and do not have a normal color.

In this article, you will find out the difference between dead and molting hermit crabs. As well as, other ways to recognize the current situation of your crab.   

Molting

Hermit crab molting is a process by which the crab grows. This involves the shedding of the old exoskeleton and the hardening of the new one. The crabs are vulnerable during the molting period, therefore they tend to bury themselves underground for protection.  They are very inactive during this time.

It can be very difficult to tell if the crab is dead or surface molting. This is because when a hermit crab dies it usually presents a similar scenario. Actually, we can say the same thing about underground molting. The difference is that we do not see it.

Molting and “Dead” Signs

During the initial stages of molting, the pincer becomes semi-paralyzed as it is preparing to pull out of the old exoskeleton. The gland on the base of the crab’s antenna gives it the ability to stand, walk and balance. However, during the initial stages of exoskeleton shedding, the crab may lose balance and lose the ability to walk or even stand up straight. The crab is stiff, can barely move, and is also shedding its exoskeleton.

Now you can see why the molting process could be easily confused with the death of the crab. These two instances could be harder to distinguish if you’re a new hermit crab owner. A lot of owners have tossed out their molting crabs as they misunderstood it to be dead.

Now, as a hermit crab owner, I would also strongly advise you to read my article “Everything About Hermit Crab Molting”. It will give you a better understanding of the molting process as it can determine the life and death of your pet.

Prior to molting, you might notice your crab becoming more and more anti-social and will begin to isolate itself from the other crabs. You will notice a clear decline in their interest in other crabs as well as feeding. This decline in activity levels will last until they are done with the entire molting process.

Let’s look at a few distinguishable positions your crab can take up during the molting process.

Molting Positions

A molting crab will often lie on its side with dull, cloudy eyes and a chalky-looking exoskeleton. In this position, you’ll also notice their body is mostly out of the shell, with only their tail tip still within its shell. Its antenna would be tucked in a downward position under the eyestalks. The legs will be slightly curled and will appear paralyzed. You will notice that the crab seems dead as it appears lifeless. However, if you watch close and long enough, you will notice slight jerky movements as it tries to wear out of its old exoskeleton into the new. The gill area is another body part you must pay close attention to. There will be an occasional movement here too as they will be still breathing while molting. 

In the latter stages, when the crab has detached from the old exoskeleton, you will notice an excretion of brown/orange fluid. This indicates the removal of the old exoskeleton from the crab’s body.

Another molting crab position is of the “Hunched hermit crab”. Instead of lying back straight, or on its side; they’re in an upright position inside the shell. Apart from the crab’s body position, other noticeable details remain the same such as fluid excretion and breathing movements at the gill. They will still appear lifeless and dead.

Rarely, you will also notice your crab molting in a sitting-up position inside its shell. The shell opening is facing outwards, with the crab’s head, legs, and pincers hanging out of the shell. The other details are similar as mentioned in the first position.

A crab’s molting position is not strictly jotted down, you might sometimes experience a position that’s completely different from anything explained above. One of the crab owner’s has reported the molting of its crab in an upside-down position. Unusual, but possible. He explained the process, and all he could see was her legs partially out of the shell and the brown, bubble-like discharge as it molted.

Important: Crab positions might not always be a great way to determine if your pet is molting or dead. Always assume that your crab is molting before you consider the chances that it has actually died. This is because if you disturb a molting crab, you may endanger its life. If your crab has safely isolated itself from the rest, let it be and pay close attention to all details. Finally, below are some signs to determine if your crab is dead.

Smell

The easiest way to identify a dead hermit crab is the smell it releases as it decomposes. If your hermit crab has actually died, you will begin to notice a rotten, fishy, salty smell around it. To be completely sure, bring the crab closer to get a good whiff.

A crab might bury itself during the molting process, however, if it stays in the same buried position for more than a few weeks, you know something is wrong and it might actually be dead (however the smell is the key, as a molting crab could keep itself buried for about 3 months).

Tip: Do not forget to leave food when your hermit crab is molting. They can come up from the molt during nighttime, eat and hide again. Give them something that is rich in calcium, like Cuttlefish bones (link to check the price on Amazon), etc. They definitely need calcium after the molt.

Color

The color of the crab can also be used as an indication of death. For example, a healthy Caribbean hermit crab (Coenobita clypeatus) is usually red or pink/orange; a healthy Ecuadorian hermit crab (Coenobita compressus) is usually green or bluish-gray.

In a molting crab, you will notice a white exoskeleton. But if your hermit crab appears to be gray in color, it could be a sign that it’s dead. To confirm, check for smell or movement. 

Movements

Your last resort at checking the death of the hermit crab could be to use the “shaking method”. A molting crab will be stuck to its shell. Whereas, a dead hermit crab will be rigid and loose. So if you shake the shell and the crab falls out easy, it’s a pretty good sign that your hermit crab is dead.

However, I would still recommend smelling your hermit crab. The point is that sometimes they can become very stressed, weak, and sick. As a result hermit crabs cannot hold on the shells or leave it voluntarily. Of course, this is not a good sign and if it is your case, you can read about it here.

Loss of Legs

This sign works only in combination with others.

In most cases, the loss of legs in hermit crabs may be a result of stress caused by various factors, including tank conditions, fighting, etc. Its condition can get better if you address the issues that caused the stress.

Hermit Crabs can autotomize (drop) and regenerate (regrow) their lost limbs. But if it is losing more than one leg or claw in a 24-hour period, this can mean it is in big trouble.

In Conclusion

Hermit crabs are one of the most unusual pets to own, but they’re also amongst the most interesting and fun; if treated right. They’re inquisitive, and caring in nature and make great pets for adults and young ones too. Hermit crabs are small and adorable, however, they do require a good amount of care, maintenance, and knowledge so you will not confuse a molting hermit crab with a dead one.

Always keep in mind that, they are wild animals and need to be kept in a suitable environment that is as closest as it can be to their natural habitat. Only by doing so you will avoid mistakes so your Hermit crabs can thrive in their crabitats.    

Related Posts:

Hermit Crabs – Detailed Guide: Care, Diet, and Breeding
Hermit Crab Tank Setup 
My Hermit Crab Has Left Its Shell
Hermit Crab Diet
Hermit Crab Shells: What You Need to Know
Everything About Hermit Crab Molting

42 thoughts on “Is Hermit Crab Dead or Molting?

  1. Hi! My crab is completely out of his shell and has not moved for over a day. Is he dead? I don’t want to assume wrong!

      1. *÷~
        Hi I’m slightly worried about 2 of my Carribean Hermit Crabs.

        I got 6 of them back in early spring, 3 biggies and 3 mediumish smaller guys.

        I haven’t had hermit crabs since I was a kid and I wanted to take care of these ones right and have them for a long time. They seem very happy so far. One of the big ones would harrass one of the other big ones and actually make it chirp, I thought it was trying to take its shell but I found out it was rocking it back and forth as a mating thing maybe.

        Well she got sick of that shit and buried herself and now I haven’t seen her in 3 months. I saw movement maybe 3 weeks ago she was moving around on the bottom of the tank and I could actually see her a little through the side.

        2 of my other ones buried around the same time, one of the smaller medium guys, the most active one, and the big guy who came with 2 legs missing.

        The guy with 2 legs missing just recently re emerged with ALL of his legs, and they’re all HUGE and thick, I’ve never seen such thick legs on a hermit crab before its insane. Then he clung upside down to the underside of the tank lid for like 6 hours straight. He’s a beast (Probably a she actually cause she’s huge!)

        I thought for sure he’d die or something because I’m horribly pessimistic but he looks healthier than ever after his molt.

        Its the medium one I’m worried about. He should’ve finished molting long before the huge one with 2 missing legs right? Whats the deal? Could it have tragically passed during its molt, did the big girl eat him while she was down there? Could he just be a slow molter?

        Its been about almost 3 months maybe actually only 2 but the big guy already came back up, and with all of his legs fully regrown.

        They get super duper spoiled they have fresh and salt water, and they get 2 food dishes 1 with pellets (Imma get more stuff to mix into that dish but for now its just hermit crab pellets.) and the other dish is whatever fruit and veggies I can find. They’ve had everything.

        Grapes, Strawberries, Bananas, Apples, Tomatoes, Eggs, Potatoes, Carrots, Lettuce, Broccoli, and crushed peanut crumbles.

        I usually won’t give them meat but every once and while I’ll share a small piece of something because they have really good whisker smell and my roomates grilled food always smells so good theres no way they wouldn’t wanna try it and its a good source of protein and stuff. I heard they’ll eat just about anything as long as its fresh, and my grandmas pets always got so fat from her giving them bits of table food so I’m trying to get some big juicy crab friends and so far its working that one grew back 2 whole legs in 1 molt and his legs are all MASSIVELY thick! 🙂

        I worry about that little guy who hasn’t come back up yet though. I think the big girl thats still down there ate him or something.

        1. Hi Jessy,
          >Its the medium one I’m worried about. He should’ve finished molting long before the huge one with 2 missing legs right? Whats the deal? Could it have tragically passed during its molt, did the big girl eat him while she was down there? Could he just be a slow molter?
          All options can be valid.
          Sometimes hermit crabs can disappear even for longer periods. Although 3 months is a lot, I would wait for at least one more month before starting digging. Well, if something happened you can’t do anything right now.
          You can read the article “How to Dig up Molting Hermit Crab the Right Way
          Best regards,
          Michael

  2. My crabs hardly ever come out of substrate. We have had two crabs since September. Any ideas how to get them to play so we can watch ? Everything looks good in tank .

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Although I understand your desire to play with Hermit crabs, it will be a bad idea to trick them to come out.
      If they stay burrowed – this is the way they want to be!
      DO NOT get them out!
      Best regards,
      Michael

  3. I have a hermit crab who has not appeared out of his shell in some time. He has not lost his coloration and doesn’t smell. I don’t know if he is molting above ground but he has plenty of substrate available for molting. I have also tried the “fall out of shell” test.

    1. Hi Kadence McMahan,
      I would not touch him, in case, he is preparing to molt.
      Cover the tank and take some time.
      Do not bother him more than it is necessary, additional stress can kill him during this period of time.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  4. Hi Michael, My crab has just molted but he/she had done it above ground and has not come out of his/her shell since. Is it ok? Or is it just resting. Also how do I tell if its male or female?

    1. Hi Zane,
      Do not disturb your crab, provide it with food and cover the tank.
      Molting is a super stressful time, they need time to restore the energy and harden the new exoskeleton.
      To tell the gender, you need to look for gonopores. They are located on the first segment of their back legs.
      Check out my article, you will see the picture there.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  5. I have two crabs. They both haven’t been active in a while. They do not respond to stimuli but their color is still very vibrant. One has a noticeably “fishy” smell that is noticeable from a distance.

    1. Hi Michelle,
      “Fishy” smell is a very bad sign.
      I am really sorry.
      There is a small hope that they can smell because they are way too dirty but still …
      Take photos from the same point (today and tomorrow) and compare them.
      Best regards,
      Michael

    2. My hermit crab is surface molting, I did not notice and was in the process of taking him out the tank, when picking him up and shaking his shell, to see if he was in there, a claw fell out and I notice he was in there and his exoskeleton was in the tank. I placed him in same spot and covered him. Some how his friend came along and took him out of shell and completely stole it. He has been outside of his shell with slight movement and covered, as of the last 2 days no movement and now his exoskeleton is gone. Do not know if the other crabs ate it, he did or is he dead?

      1. Hi Crystal,
        Like all crustaceans, hermit crabs will eat old shells to recover the calcium. As for the surface molting and losing limbs, these are very bad signs. Sorry.
        Best regards,
        Michael

  6. Hi Michael,
    I noticed my crab seems to be molting since a day ago. It doesn’t smell yet so I don’t know if it is dead or not. I have had a larger shell in his cage for months and he hasn’t gone into it but it is still there. I don’t know if it’s dead or molting but I picked up the shell with the limp crab to see. It doesn’t seem stuck to the shell. I know not to disturb it further. I guess my questions are will having picked it up hurt it? And if it doesn’t like the other shell what will it do?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Stacey,
      Very gentle handling should harm it, however, as you already know, it is better not to disturb them during molting and after that.
      You need more shells! One shell is not enough, hermit crabs can be very picky sometimes.
      That is why it is recommended to give them at least 4-5 shells to choose from.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  7. Help!!! I’m starting to get concerned. There is a fishy smell which I assume is coming from my largest crab. He hasn’t moved for almost a week. He is in a hid but not buried and mostly out of his shell. He still seems pretty colorful but this is the first time I’ve seen any like this and he just melted about 2-3 months ago

    1. Hi Tristan,
      Try to pick him up very gently. Is he falling out of the shell?
      I’d like to help but … I think he is gone.
      One week without any movement is way too much and smell only confirms that.
      Sorry.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  8. Hey I have a hermit crab that has been in the same position for months I assume it’s molting but I’m not quite sure. I picked him up to see if he was loose but he seems pretty tight into the shell

    1. Hi Heaven,
      How old and how big is your hermit crab?
      Surface molt?
      Best regards,
      Michael

  9. My hermit crab Sebastian died today he was limp and out of his shell fishy odor and less red color

    1. Hi Kate Grimes,
      I am really sorry to hear that.
      It is really sad. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t do much to save them.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  10. Hello, my step daughter decided to get a hermit crab from a store on the Jeresy Shore boardwalk. Now it has lost four of its limbs he hasn’t lost any color. I don’t know how old it is but I am worried.

    1. Hi Christina Rogers,
      Sorry to hear that.
      You are right to be worried about, it is a clear sign that your hermit crab is under huge stress!
      Cover the tank with a blanket, and try not to disturb it. Do not forget to give it some food if it decides to eat.
      If you need more information, ask me and I’ll try to help. You can also find articles about hermit crabs on my blog.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  11. Hello! I recently got several hermit crabs for my daughter. When we got home we had them in a large tank (100 gal) with two 3 gal tanks, one for salt water and another for fresh with ways in and out as well as about 7 inches of substrate ( a 5-1 mix of play sand to eco earth.) one all crabs were visibly eating and happily crawling around the tank at all times of day and night. Two days ago one of our large crabs crawled into the moss pit and dug to the bottom and the. Stopped coming out. All crabs stopped eating and then this morning I thought I smelled a fishy smell so I went to investigate and found two legs and a claw in the moss and the crab was slightly limp in his shell his colors don’t seem dull and his eyes are pitch black instead of the hazy look before molting. Then when I smelled him I couldn’t smell the fishy smell anymore… I don’t know what to think.. please help

    1. Hi Jay,
      Could you clarify some things?
      Are you talking about the hermit crab who burrowed into the substrate? Whose legs?
      What about other crabs? How are they behaving?
      Are they eating or not? What did you give them?
      Best regards,
      Michael

  12. hello!! Okay so I am a very new owner to a hermit crab named Henry.. He hasn’t moved in a couple days and has stayed in the same positions for a couple nights. He doesn’t smell, but the morning my mom went to pick up Henry and one of his limbs fell. I don’t know if he is molting or in stress, any suggestions? :((

    1. Hi Emma Huber,
      I hope that I am wrong but they often die after that.
      There are not many cases when hermit crabs could recover from that kind of stress.
      Let me know how it goes, please.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  13. Hi. We have had many hermit crabs and have had many successfully milt. We have had one of our crabs, Chuckie, for ten years. About 6 weeks ago he was molting and I caught his tank mate on top of him. I removed the tank mate and Chuckie finished his molt, but was missing two legs and his big claw. He survived and I tended to him carefully to make sure he could access his food, as it was hard for him to move around with missing limbs. I noticed little clear bumps and signs he was trying to dig. I dug a hole in his sand substrate and covered the hole with an old empty water dish so I could check on him. I found him out of his shell yesterday and he had new legs, but was not moving much. I gave him a spritz of water and covered him again. Today, he is still out of his shell and not moving as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen our crabs molt and stay out of their shells for more than a few hours. I’m worried this is the end. There is no odor at all. Is it possible he’s still molting and just needs to be left alone?

    1. Hi Christine,
      First of all, you are an experienced crab keeper. 10 years!
      There are not many people who can do this.
      What species is this? Maybe it is just getting too old.
      In any case, you have done the right things – isolate from other crabs, cover, and provide food.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  14. Hello! I got a hermit crab a month or so ago and he quickly started showing signs of molting. I only have an inch or two of substrate so I could monitor him the first few weeks while I acclimated him to proper heat and humidity. He never got very active but was using his water bowls often, especially the salt water one. Two mornings ago I checked on him and he was out of his shell, laying on the surface. He is still there and has not moved. His tail appears to be getting dry and shriveled. I’ve been trying to keep the tank moist with out directly spraying him. When I put my nose over the tank, there is a smell. Is he dead? I read that molting can also cause a smell but I have no idea how long they can survive out of their shell

    1. Hi Jada,
      Nobody can tell you for sure, how long hermit crabs can survive without their shells. For example, it depends on the health status (how weak they are), temperature and humidity.
      It is not possible to confuse a rotten, fishy smell with anything else.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  15. Hi! I can’t tell if my crab is dead or not. I’m used to having them, but this is my biggest one I’ve ever had. He’s buried himself and is just laying at the bottom of the tank. He’s not out of his shell but I’m afraid to move him if he’s molting. He was burying a few weeks before this, so I was just thinking he was about to molt but I’ve never had a crab molt outside of its shell and not move. Any ideas? Thanks!

    1. Hi Parker,
      It may be dead but, sorry. However, I would not do anything right now anyway.
      Large hermit crabs may spend months before they start molting. So, there is also a chance that your crab is resting.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  16. We just bought our 1st 2 hermit crabs and with a day or two they both have buried themselves and we haven’t seen them since…no fishy smelly but also know they haven’t been eating…should we check in them…we don’t even know where they are in the tank…

    1. Hi Patrice,
      Do not panic, this is normal.
      Hermit crabs burrow to chill, rest and hide. They do that very often.
      Thus, do not dig them out!
      Best regards,
      Michael

  17. Hi my one hermit crab lost his big claw, and then when I went to water them before I went to bed he was active it night for me rn, but my other one is active. When I picked up my hermit crab it lost all of its legs, and has a brown coloring to him, I am unsure if he is dead or not. His limds do have a bit of color yet.

    1. Hi Misty Johnson,
      Unfortunately, when a hermit crab loses a limb it is sign of severe stress.
      They may recover and regenerate them after molt.
      Nonetheless, if it is still alive (sniff it), you need to isolete the crab from others, provide food and hiding places.
      Best regards,
      Michael

  18. First time hermit crab owner here, we got our little guy from a friend who kept him in a fish bowl with fish rocks and a little plastic plant. As soon as we got him we got him into a 10 gallon tank with substrate, a climbing branch, etc. He usually stays buried 75% of the time and was friendly when handled. Because he buried himself so much I would lift the water bowl every couple of days to pick him up and check on him, but about a week ago I did this and noticed that he was very tight in his shell and a nude-pinky color. It also looked like he lost a leg or two and so I put him back where I had picked him up from and left him alone. There’s been no rotten/fishy smell but also no signs of life. When I lift the water bowl to get a look at him I see no movement. He’s a very small crab so I would assume that if he’s molting he wouldn’t take long at all, but he never brought a shell with him and he hasn’t left his current shell. Is he dead or dying?

    1. Hi Cassie Lenehan,
      Sorry to hear that. These are all bad signs.
      Have you tried to touch him or slightly shake him?
      Best regards,
      Michael

  19. My hermit crab is completely out of his shell when I first noticed this he was in the corner of his tank and the shell in the opposite corner, my sister moved him trying to see what was wrong as there was no signs of movement or anything and he’s been in the same stiff position for about a week now. Is it safe to assume he’s dead? There is no smell coming from him

    1. Hi Danielle,
      Unfortunately, I would say, yes.
      What is the temperature and humidity in your place?
      It seems like your hermit crabs dried out which is why there is no smell.
      Best regards,
      Michael

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