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The Care of Hermit Crabs

Hermit Crabs in their native environment live near the ocean, and they scavenge for their meals, which consist mainly of leaf litter, seaweed and algae, fruits and other vegetation. There are many commercial food items available for hermit crabs, however, I personally do not care for the commercial mixes alone, as the mainly are composed of animal matter. One such food I purchased was whole dried shrimp with no other supplementation; another was a hard pellet that they would have a lot of difficulty eating. If you feed such foods, then they must be ground to a fine powder so that they may eat it without difficulty. I feed my hermits cactus pear, cherimoya fruit, carrots, peas, apples, the list goes on. Chop the veggies and fruits very small, and fresh is always better than canned or frozen. Many of the nutrients are lost through the preserving process. The commercial foods I crush very fine, and offer them equal amounts so that they have a wide variety. Algae pellets, such as made by Wardley™ for bottom feeding fish, are a good food also. Remember that calcium is just as important to hermit crabs as it is to other herps. For this, I scatter small pieces of cuttlebone around the enclosure, which they play with and chew on at leisure.  Land hermit crabs eat very slowly and very little so all uneaten food should be removed each day to avoid spoilage. 

Fresh drinking water must be kept in a non-metal container for the crabs at all times.   The best, least expensive food or water dish for any herp is simply a glazed terra cotta flowerpot bottom. It is also important that they have access to sea water, such as Instant Ocean™. Humidity is very important to hermit crabs, for without enough moisture their lungs will not work properly and they will suffocate. A great way to raise the humidity is to place the water dish directly over an under-tank heater. A fish tank aerator also will release moisture into the air. The water in the dish should be shallow (preferably non-chlorinated and low in iron, such as natural spring water -- use a dechlorinator such as Repti-Safe,) so the crabs can climb out of the water -- they will drown if submerged for more than a few minutes. Placing a small amount of fish tank gravel in the bottom of the dish is wise. Place a natural sea sponge in both the fresh and salt water dishes, and the crabs will drink from the sponge, and seem to prefer doing this. Relative humidity in the tank, measured by a hygrometer, should be between 50% and 70%. Crabs can enjoy an occasional bath, but I personally let them do it themselves. I do occasionally mist the tank to simulate natural rainfall (lightly once a day, more heavily once a week.) If you do this, watch for mold in your substrate. Sand will mold quite quickly if kept wet, and any bits of food that the crabs drag out of the food dish will mold quickly also. 

If the presence of mites is detected, bathe your crabs in Stress Coat (for fish) and wash the tank and all contents thoroughly with vinegar and water. Replace old substrate with new, and rinse everything very well.

Hermit crabs should be kept in an aquarium (NOT a screen or wire cage, as this allows all of the humidity to escape) with either a screen lid for circulation, or if you are having trouble maintaining the proper humidity, use Plexiglas, but make sure there is an opening for circulation. A 2 to 3-inch base of substrate is recommended, for the crabs love to bury themselves. Many people use sand or natural coconut fiber. The substrate I prefer is an all natural fiber that comes in a brick. After soaking it in water, it expands, and it holds moisture very well and resists mold. Fine gravel in spots is okay, but the crabs need to burrow. 

The temperature should be above 80 degrees and no higher than 90 degrees. This is easy to do if you use a heater under your aquarium, also known as a UTH. They come in various brands and sizes, for 5 gallon tanks up to 55. For very large tanks, use more than one, but allow for warm spots and cooler spots, so the crabs can choose where they are most comfortable. Stay away from heat rocks, please, as they can burn the crabs, and remember that they do not thrive well in an overly wet, hot, sloppy home.

I DO NOT recommend using a heat lamp. This can dry the crab out. The best type of lighting would be a UV fluorescent. This will help with Vitamin D3 production, and fluorescents are cool and do not produce as much heat. Also do not use corncob, cedar shavings, or gravel instead of the other substrates I have listed. They can harbor bacteria, mold, and also tend to dry out the hermit crabs.

NEVER attempt to remove a crab from its seashell because it will allow itself to be torn apart rather than give up its protective home.

Hermit crabs are not aggressive like many of the sea crabs and can be handled (they can climb on the outstretched palm of your hand without difficulty), but it is well to avoid the large pincher claw, which is used for defense and for holding on when climbing and for balancing. The smaller claw is used to pass food and water to the mouth.

The name "HERMIT" is misapplied for in the wild state, hermit crabs live and travel in colonies of a few dozen to more than 100. It is vital that in captivity they be kept in the company of other crabs for their own contentment and quality of life.

They communicate by sound and it is not uncommon to hear them "talking" to each other. They seldom fight except occasionally over a shell dispute. They are clean and odorless and may be released in the home, supervised, for exercise and for observation of their comical antics if desired. They are good climbers and will enjoy coral or any type of non-resinous wood placed in their aquarium to exercise on.

Like most other creatures, they respond to gentle care and learn to trust their keeper. It is known that some crabs have been kept in the home as pets for longer than 15 years. Many in the wild can live to be 25-35 years old, but sadly the typical lifespan for a captive hermit is 1 to 4 years.

Land hermit crabs cannot reproduce in captivity. Their eggs must hatch in the sea. Like other crabs they grow by shedding their outer ex-skeleton. This is the most important step toward growth a small crab will make. During this time they shed all their skin (which looks like an empty skeleton of a crab.) DO NOT REMOVE the shedded exoskeleton from the tank. The crab will consume it in order to regain lost calcium and nutrients. They need to be kept extra moist and in a medium into which they can burrow themselves, preferably with six inches of depth. It is also necessary to isolate the crab for a couple of days because they are very soft, vulnerable and inactive. Provide an "iso-unit" with 70%-80% humidity, food, water, and warmth. You can also cut the bottom off of a two-liter bottle and place over the crab, cap off for air, making sure to provide food and water. This is an important stage of development for it is in this period that any missing legs, etc., are regenerated by the crabs. Older crabs molt less frequently but require the same care. 

As the crabs grow they will need spare shells to grow into and they also seem to enjoy moving into empty shells to select the home that feels best. Shell changes will sometimes take place in the water dish, keeping the crabs moisture level consistent. If the humidity level of the tank is proper, the crabs will not be so finicky about where they change. Keep various shell sizes on hand, at least three per crab. Different species prefer different shaped shell openings, so it is important that you research this and purchase the proper shells. Do also make sure that they are clean, sanitary, and free from holes.

This is a compilation of basic care, for more detailed info please visit The Crab Street Journal.