How To Tell if an Aquarium Snail is Dead – With 5 Easy Ways

I really enjoy keeping snails in my aquariums, and remember the first time one of them stopped moving for a long time. I was inexperienced and wondered whether the snail was dead or just sleeping. After some research I discovered it’s easy to tell whether a water snail is still alive.

How can you tell if an aquarium water snail is alive or dead?

Briefly take the aquarium snail out of the aquarium and smell the shell. Dead snails start to decay quickly and produce ammonia, which will have a pungent and intense smell. If the snail is alive, it won’t smell like anything specific. Other signs include broken or empty shells.

In theorie it’s really that simple! Dead snails smell a lot, so make sure you know how to handle them. It is important that you learn some of the basics about aquarium water snails, because this could really ease your mind. In the rest of the article I’ll briefly cover everything you need to know to take the best care of your pets!

The 5 ways to tell whether an aquarium snail is dead

It’s important that you do not judge too quickly when it comes to snails. Many snails can sleep for a long time, so it’s easy to get confused. These 5 methods will help you to tell if an aquarium snail is dead.

  1. Smell the shell of the snail. The smell test is definitely the first test you can try when you suspect your snail might have passed away. I just now told you that snails produce a ton of ammonia when they pass away, because they decompose quickly. Just like many other dead things, they start smelling really bad.

    Be careful when handling a dead snail, because (as gross as it is) parts of a diseased snail can detach from the snail. You do not want anything on your hands, because the obnoxious smell is difficult to get rid of.

    If the snail does not smell pungent and dead, you’re fine to put it back in the aquarium because it’s not dead.
  2. Check for obvious causes of death. Although this method is straightforward, you need to make sure you’ve checked for all obvious causes or signs of death. If the shell of the snail is empty, or the snail’s falling out and not responding to you picking up the shell, it’s dead. This also goes for crushed shells.

    When a snail has passed, the body of the aquarium snail will shrink making the shell look dull. Also, the snail will no longer be able to hold on to its shell, which means that the snail could fall out of it. All these signs are indicators the water snail sadly has passed away.
  3. Carefully pull on the trapdoor of a snail. When we’re talking about some bigger snail varieties like mystery or apple snails, there is another way. You can carefully tug at the trapdoor of the snail. If you feel resistance, your snail is still alive.

    If the trapdoor is able to open, your snail has died.
  4. Move the snail to a new environment. An effective way to entice a snail to show itself is to move it to a new environment. Options are another (smaller) aquarium or a plastic container filled with aquarium water. The different water parameters could make the snail curious and make it want to explore.

    The smell test will also do the job in this case.
  5. Check if the snail retracts. Whenever a snail is crawling around, it obviously is not dead. However, when the snail is out of its shell but not moving, it could be dead. Carefully tapping the shell could make it retract, and you can also try to pick the snail up. Really brave snails could still remain outside the snail, in which case you can touch its belly, which should cause a reflex.

    If the snail is dead, the body of the snail will not pull itself in, and it might even fall out of the shell. 

Important aquarium snail behavior

Just like fishkeeping, it’s important to closely monitor the behaviour of our snails. When you’re unaware of some basic snail patterns, it’s easy to be worried. Do not worry, I’ll quickly get you up to speed. The first tip that only needs one sentence: if a water snail is stuck to the glass, an ornament or to something else, it’s still alive. Dead snails are not able to stick to objects.

The interesting sleeping pattern of aquarium snails

Snails have the tendency to sleep for many long hours. Some snails can rest for multiple days. Most of the time, snails will rest after they’ve eaten, and will remain inactive until they are hungry again. There’s research that has shown water snails sleeping in 7 bouts over a 13 hour time span. After this, they’re active again for around 37 hours of activity.

Us humans, as well as many fish in our aquarium hobby, are diurnal. This means they sleep at night and are active during the day. This is not the case for aquarium snails.

The best examples are assassin (Helena) snails. These snails will remain inactive for several days when they’ve eaten their prey. When they’re hungry again they become active and start looking for more food. 

Now that you know this, you don’t have to wonder if one of your snails has passed, because it’s most likely just sleeping.

Are floating snails dead?

When you’ve been keeping snails for a while, you know they can sometimes float. I too wondered whether this was a sign they were dead or sick, but most of the time neither is true. 

Snails that float are using a technique they also use in the wild. In rivers and streams, snails float to use the water current to their advantage. To be honest, I never thought of this when doing research and was impressed. By floating, they are able to travel to a new environment quickly and effortlessly. 

When your snails are floating more often than usual, it could mean that they want the current to take them to a new environment. Obviously that’s not going to happen, but it could mean they are looking for better water parameters or more food. Check your water, do a water change and figure out whether they’ve got enough access to food.

The lifespan of our aquarium snails

When you’ve found yourself with snails dying, it could just be their natural death. If you’ve taken good care of them, you are not to blame. I’ve gathered a list with the lifespan of most popular freshwater aquarium snails.

SnailLifespan in years (roughly)
Ramshorn snails1 year
Assassin (Helena) snails2 years
Apple snails1 to 3 years
Mystery snails1 year
Rabbit/Elephant snails1 to 3 years
Malaysian Trumpet Snail1 year
Nerite snails1 year
Pond snails1 year

What happens when a water snail dies?

By now I’ve explained that a snail that’s died decomposes quickly, causing a lot of ammonia. You probably also know that ammonia is toxic to fish and snails in low concentrations, which is why we have a filter that breaks it down. If your aquarium can not handle the amount of ammonia, we often call it an “ammonia spike”.

If a snail suddenly produces much ammonia, causing a spike, your other snails are at risk. It’s important to quickly remove dead snails, because you can imagine what happens when the death of one snail causes the death of another. It will start a domino effect.

The ammonia level will rise, killing a snail, causing the ammonia level to rise, and so forth. 

What to do with a dead snail and how to dispose of it

It’s critical you don’t get any dead snail parts on your hands or elsewhere. A deceased snail REEKS terribly, and the stench is hard to wash off. When you’ve removed it from your tank it’s recommended to not throw away the dead snail in the garbage due to the stench.

Instead, get a zip lock bag and put the snail in it. Freeze the bagged snail, which will prevent it from smelling as bad. As soon as you’re throwing out the garbage, take the snail from the freezer and throw it away. 

Check up on the aquarium after you’ve found a dead snail. Quickly test your water parameters to see if there’s any dissolved ammonia. If there is, perform a big (40 – 50%) water change to help your tank battle the spike.

How to improve the health of your aquarium snails

Many people who like to keep snails tend to keep more than one. If you’re like me you’re keeping many in an aquarium. Unlike fish, many snails go through quite a bit of dissolved calcium to build their shells. 

To supplement calcium, try adding cuttlebone, which is available in most pet stores. If you add it straight away, it will float like a piece of styrofoam, which is not what we aim for. To make it sink, briefly boil the cuttlebone in boiling water. You’ll see the effect this has, it will sink with ease. Make sure to allow the piece of cuttlebone to cool down after boiling.

Another great way to supplement calcium is by adding goldfish vacation feeder blocks. These blocks are designed to provide food over a longer period of time. This effect is obtained by containing food in calcium. The calcium slowly dissolves, uncovering the food. 

For us snail keepers a great way to add calcium to our tank.

Next to calcium supplements, your snails require clean water, good filtration and access to food. But I assume this is something you’d figured out already.

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

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