How to Tell if a Hermit Crab is Dead

Hermit crabs

Our hermit crabs seemed happy and healthy enough. Little did we know, it was just a cruel illusion.

We lost Turbo the first night. I found it in the morning dangling half out of its green, racing-striped shell. There were no signs of life. Molting, I hoped. Dead, I feared. We separated Turbo from its cage mates and waited a day.

Let me just say this: The saltwater-stench of a dead hermit crab will gag you unless you’ve spent your life on the docks. Even then, I wouldn’t advise sticking your nose all up on a dead hermit crab and inhaling. It’s like all the bait on every ramshackle pier on every sea-lashed coast swam into your nostrils and broke wind. It’s not pleasant.

We lost Stephen Hopkins a week later. This was troubling. On their first day in our home, Stephen Hopkins had been the one to lead the exploration of the cage. We found it at one point clinging to the wire mesh while it attempted to unlatch the little round door with its free claw.

Hermit crabs are escape artists, you know.

Dead is Dead

We held out hope for a day that molting was the cause of Stephen Hopkins’ listless, unresponsive, dead look. Turned out that hermit crab looked dead because it was dead. Ugh, that smell. Shiver. Farewell, Stephen Hopkins.

And then there was one.

Happier times.

Happier times.

Master Mysterious, with a black pirate Jolly Roger paint job on its shell, was Jay’s very own. Turbo had belonged to Chris, and Stephen Hopkins was mine. That’s how the boys divided them when we went to the pet store, anyway. We all got to name our own hermit crab, and we would share the responsibility of caring for them.

I must interject here that I always considered myself something of an authority on hermit crabs. I bought my first one in 1978 during a visit with my grandma in South Florida. I named it Hermie and bought it a little cage with toothpick-like wood bars. Hermie clawed through five of those toothpick bars the first night and escaped into the South Florida humidity. Hermit crabs like it moist.

Over the years, I owned maybe a dozen hermit crabs. It was a thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was just a bit older than our sons are now. We would race them in cardboard boxes-turned-super speedways. We would let them crawl up our arms and squeal like idiots when they pinched our fingers.

Dad, Can I Have a Hermit Crab? How About Now? Can I Have One Now? Now? Dad. Dad. Daddy. I Want a Hermit Crab. Please? Hey, Dad. I. Want. A. Hermit. Crab!

Jay, our older son, began to ask for a pet hermit crab even before the summer began in earnest. It got to the point where we had to ban the word “hermit crab” around the house. There is no nag quite like the nag of a 7-year-old boy with his heart set on a new pet.

We promised him a hermit crab when we returned from our annual vacation to Cape Cod, where the hermit crabs are plentiful and tiny and are entirely unsuited for domestication. He accepted the compromise and waited, taking solace from the Hermit Crabs for Dummies guide book we bought to keep him occupied and help him prepare for the responsibility of pet ownership.

On the day we returned from Cape Cod, I figured, why wait? So, we headed to the local giant chain pet store and bought everything we’d need.

I’ll not delve too deeply into the details of our preparations. I’ll simply say this: We did everything right. We followed the instructions to the letter, and – remember – I have had more than passing experience with hermit crabs as pets.

And yet …

Master Mysterious is gone now, too. We hoped – again – it was molting. It had been the least active of the three from the beginning, yet each night it had moved to a new location in the cage and had eaten some of the apple pieces and hermit crab food we laid out. It also drank water and dug holes to nest in. As hermit crabs do.

Dignity in the Face of Death

Hermit crabs also die. That much I remember from the old days. Fortunately, I had given the boys fair warning: These shelled creatures are delicate. We have to be very conscious of making them as comfortable as possible, and even then they might not make it.

The boys were sad, but not despondent, as the hermit crabs died off for no apparent reason. They met each demise with dignity and, when Master Mysterious was gone, the 7-year-old quietly made this moving memorial.

The boys were sad, but not despondent, as the hermit crabs died off for no apparent reason. They met each demise with dignity and, when Master Mysterious was gone, the 7-year-old quietly made this moving memorial.

I hate that I was right to be cautious, to tamp down their enthusiasm for the first pets that were “theirs.” Yet, I’m proud of them for taking the deaths as well as they have. I expected tears, or at least a show of despondency. There was, instead, a dignified memorial marker once the overwhelmingly horrendous stench of the crab corpse of Master Mysterious had convinced us that we no longer owned hermit crabs.

So … failure? I suppose. These hermit crabs were supposed to live at least a few months. Maybe we got defective crabs, crabs that had become so inured to the cramped pet store life of five dozen hermits crammed into one aquarium that the shock of moving into their own space was too much to take. Maybe they were diseased.

(Maybe they were molting. God, I hope not. Because that would make me a crab killer, and I … I just couldn’t live with myself.)

It’s hard to call this a failure, though, after seeing how the boys dealt with the grand experiment and its gruesome outcome.

The cage is a melancholy site now, a still-smelly reminder of dashed expectations and disappointment. I’ll clean it out tomorrow morning. I need to get it out of there, because we’re going to need someplace to put the hamster cage.

By the way, do hamsters molt? Seems like we’re going to want to know that.

Author’s note: This post has begun to show up in a lot of Internet searches for terms like [dead hermit crab]. If you have come here looking for actual information about whether a hermit crab is molting or dead, I apologize for the lack of data in the entertainment piece above. This link to hermit-crabs.com might be of more assistance. Thank you for reading.

33 thoughts on “How to Tell if a Hermit Crab is Dead

  1. It kind of seems like after killing three hermit crabs, maybe “graduating” to hamsters is moving in the wrong direction. Perhaps moving down to ferns or yeast and seeing how things go would be more appropriate?

  2. We have two hermit crabs and learned that they need a lot more space than most places sell. Most will sell them in very small containers making you think that you can leave them there…not the case. What we were told was that they will die very quickly if they are kept in such a small habitat and not allowed to burrow down underneath terraearth or other soil substitute that you use…. thus our $30 investment in a pet turned into over $200 for all the supplies. So far they have lived over a year… but I have to say that they are the most boring pets!

    • Yeah, we probably could’ve gone a bit bigger on the habitat, and a bit deeper on the substrate. But they came out of a tank with about 60 other crabs and it was only about twice as big as the one we went with. No, we did things right. Just not our bag. Lesson learned! I’m just glad the kids weren’t traumatized. They’re sad, but sort of resigned to it.

  3. Carter, We embarked on the hermit crab journey this summer after a trip out East. I said to my wife repeatedly in those early days, “Come on, they can’t be as fragile as everyone makes them out to be, can they?” The first three are gone and our next three are holding on. The phrase, “Is it dead or just molting?” is commonly heard at our house. For my son’s summer essay, he wrote about getting hermit crabs but misspelled it hermit craps. I think it was a Freudian slip. Great article, going to print it out for my wife, she’s going to get a kick out of it.

    • Thank you, Kelly. For us, the stench and the mold growing on the last crab’s body were dead giveaways after a couple of days. I thought the boys would be devastated. They took it as well as I could have hoped. Good luck with your craps!

      • Just got hermits for my daughter and I dished out $72 for that same cage, 2 crabs, substrate, food, and water conditioner. The cage looked great but when I went home and read that it wouldn’t keep the humidity in I took it back and upgraded to a basic desert kit with a screened lid and lights. One buried itseld has hasn’t come up since (4 days ago), the other one does nothing all day. I found a large tank at a thrift store but I don’t know if its worth upgrading if these things do nothing but sit in one corner.

  4. Yes, I did come looking for information “is our hermit crab dead or molting.” But please know that I will not click on another link. After all, we have 4 boys. The hermit crabs in question are numbers 3, 4, and 5 for our crew. That’s if you don’t count #6 we got the visiting nephew. I knew the others had died. But these…we thought we’d learned something cause they lived awhile. Sadly, I knew we were close to the end when we were given a large crab to the son for being polite in the store. Within minutes, he was attacking his new roommate. By the way, one of the crabs in question was named Hermie.

    So, parent-to-parent, this blog was EXACTLY what I was looking for. Now I’m going to go read the part about how to do the sniff test wisely.

      • I too have raised crabs for years and a large part of your problem may be the habitat they’re kept in. They need himidity and it seems you kept them in a cage? I wonder myself though in the earlier years of crabbing if ive thrown a few out thinking they died. You had a nasty odor though so yours definitely died. Pet store crabs are not the way to go either. They’re pretty clueless as to what they’re doing. I’m am terribly sorry for you and your children’s loss.

  5. The reason everyones crabs are dying is because they are not being housed as Hermit Crabs should. If you come here looking for information on how to take care of your hermit crabs, please check out this facebook page http://www.facebook.com/groups/SCPHermitCrabEducation . The pet stores unfortunately know nothing about these critters that lie upwards of 30 years if cared for properly. And they are a lot more interactive when taken care of properly too. Hamsters, are in fact, easier.

  6. Came to this thinking this was information on identifying a dead or molting hermit crab because mine, Walter appears to be very limp. as I read from the beginning i thought to myself, “well this isn’t what I wanted but it’s an interesting story” LOL

    Sorry for your tiny losses, but if mine is dead Ill follow your kids footsteps in reacting to it.

    • I hope you were able to find the info you needed at the link I added at the bottom. A lot of people find this post looking for legit info, and it’s just our little anecdote. So, I added the link in case anyone wanted to check there.

  7. Hi, I am sorry for your crab losses. My 10-year old daughter has been fascinated with these creatures for the past year and a half. We’ve lost one and we are wondering if we’ve lost #2. He is half way out of his shell and has been for a few days. He isn’t buried but he is hiding in the big dark cave. There isn’t a smell so we are still wondering (the first one was very obvious-it was out of her shell and had that wonderful smell you speak of), so I told her we’d give him a day to see what is really going on. I will try putting him in another container to see what happens and if he takes on a funky smell…Sadly the daughter is going camping so if the crab is in fact dead, I will have to bury it for her, with Gigi (the first deceased).

  8. I am kind of saddened for your hermit crab’s loss. I know how you felt because once before I had lost my one and only beloved hermit crab which I had with for almost a year and a half. And the thing is, I was the one who killed my little George (the name of my pet) unintentionally. It took me weeks before I recovered from the loss (sounds funny, but I was too attached with my pet). Now I am planning to have another one and I will take care of it very well.

  9. It looks to me like the Hermit Crabs have no chance of survival in the set up you describe and show pictures of, even an hours worth of internet research could have saved these poor defenseless creature a slow and painful death through suffocation. I personally am very very saddened to have read about this continued punishment of my favourite creatures. A hermit crabs is never supposed to live a few months, even a penny sized crab is already a year old, ~Wild crabs live up to 20 years and you slowly killed them in 30 days, makes me sick to my stomach. Great lessons for the kids right there.

  10. You did not get defective crabs, they got defective caretakers. Unfortunately, you were not taking proper care of them and neither was the pet store you received them from. So after a while of not being able to breath they suffocated to death. Before people decide to just buy a hermit crab they should do lots of investigation and see what they really need. Sadly these are the most mistreated pet becuase the pet stores are clueless. Or maybe they just give lots of misinformation that is sure to make you buy another one or two because they die so quickly with unproper care. If you need information and have facebook then you should consider joining this group. Ask questions, and get the needed information! A hermit crab is a 30+ year pet!!! (if taken care of properly) https://www.facebook.com/groups/SCPHermitCrabEducation/

  11. A hermit crab needs about 5 gallons of space. I have 5 small hermit crabs in a 29 gallon tank. They can live for years if taken care of properly. Their heat and moisture must be maintained and monitored. Their substrate (mixture of play sand and eco earth) should be 6 inches deep (minimum). You can find out more at: http://www.hermitcrabassociation.com/ They are not disposable pets and actually require a lot of care. I wouldn’t have known this either if I hadn’t done a lot of research.

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