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Getting Crabby

By Kim Everson, DVM
Quick. When I say “family pet” what do you think of?
A friendly, floppy-tongued dog? A sleek, sly-eyed cat? Maybe if you live rurally, the image of a handsome horse or frisky goat pops into your head. A Google image search for “family pet” returns a plethora of photos of people with their dogs; however, photos of kids with a duck, chicken and a giant boa constrictor also dot the first webpage.
My family currently shares our home with two dogs and two cats, wonderful but common mammals. Last spring we got a little adventurous and invited a lovely juvenile corn snake into our midst. Having successfully adjusted to reptile care, we recently branched out to hermit crabs. Our first hermit crab was a Christmas present for our preschooler. At the time, I thought that was a strange, potentially painful gift for a 3-year-old.
I was wrong.
Hermit crabs are not slimy, stinky or especially dangerous. They have distinct personalities and are surprisingly social. When we visited the pet store to pick out our first crab (named Gooby by our son), we handled numerous crabs in order to find the perfect pet. Most were shy and pulled into their shells with their large claw effectively “blocking the door”. Gooby, however, poked out his legs and began climbing around my hand. He (we later learned) was cautious as we took turns looking at and petting him, but his retreats into his shell were momentary. The one and only pinch the kids or I have yet received was at the pet store on my thumb. It was more surprising than painful!
Hermit Crab races
Gooby has since been joined by a similarly-sized hermit crab named Crab (also named by the preschooler). When selecting Crab, we were more concerned with size than temperament, trying to reduce the chance of one of the crabs killing the other for its shell. Crab was initially somewhat timid, but has begun to “come out of its shell” with gentle handling. Crab’s sex is undetermined at this time. While Gooby is a bit of an exhibitionist, stretching far out of his shell to reveal his lack of gonopores (the sign of maleness), Crab is still a bit more reserved.
Our curiosity will remain unsatisfied for as long Crab decides to stay close to home. There is no pulling a hermit crab from its shell against its will. Apparently it would rather die first. We are still waiting for the first shell upgrade which might allow us to glimpse Crab or Gooby’s full hermit crab body in all its glory. In anticipation of The Move, we have provided several empty shells with openings just slightly larger than our crabs’ largest claw.
In their natural environment, hermit crabs are primarily land dwellers. In fact, their primary requirement for salt water is to breed. Breeding in captivity is unlikely, so it doesn’t actually matter if Crab is a boy or girl!
In addition to being relatively easy to care for—our inexpensive all-inclusive pet store crabitat will keep our duo going for a while—hermit crabs are not known to transmit zoonotic diseases to people. This is in contrast to aquatic pet turtles and many reptiles which can transmit Salmonellabacteria to their handlers. Even so, we all practice thorough hand-washing after playing with our hermit crabs just to be on the safe side.
The hermit crab is a crustacean in the phylum Arthropoda to which insects and arachnids such as spiders also belong. This relationship information is important to me because while I admire spiders from afar I do not think I would like to cuddle a Tarantula. Yet I have found I absolutely adore playing with our spider-like hermit crabs. The firm, cool grip of their exoskeletal limbs, their cute beady on-stalk eyes and wiggly antennae, and their funny, friendly antics have made me a crab convert!

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