Hundreds of species of aquatic turtles exist in the world, with red eared sliders being one of the most commonly kept pet turtles. Adult sizes vary with species, and any potential new turtle owner should research their species of interest extensively, as some grow to over a foot in diameter and may require over 100 gallons of swimming space.
Cage – The general set-up for an aquatic turtle includes an area for swimming and an area for basking. A general rule of thumb is that a turtle requires about 10 gallons of swimming space for every inch of shell diameter. Therefore, a 4 inch turtle should have about 40 gallons of swimming space, while a full grown female slider, often 10-12 inches diameter, may require over 100 gallons of swimming space. Because of the large amount of space needed, housing an aquatic turtle can be expensive, and people often become creative with their setups. Some options for housing include glass aquariums, plastic containers (such as Rubbermaid), and indoor pond setups. Websites worth exploring for housing ideas include austinsturtlepage.com and www.waterlandtubs.com. Many turtle owners have posted photos of their setups, including the basking areas, online. A durable submersible heater may be beneficial to keep the water temperature between about 75 and 85 degrees F.
Substrate – The best substrate for a turtle is no substrate. Leaving the bottom of your enclosure empty of rocks, gravel or sand makes cleaning easier and reduces surface area that promotes bacterial growth. Additionally, gravel and sand may be eaten by your pet, leading to intestinal blockage. For decorative purposes, some people use several larger rocks and artificial plants, which can be easily removed and cleaned.
Basking area – Providing an appropriate basking area for your pet is essential to promoting natural behaviors and ensuring its health. Your turtle must be able to get its entire body out of the water in order to dry off. For smaller turtles, commercial products, such as basking docks and islands, are available. For larger turtles, you may have to become creative and design your own basking area. Many turtle owners maximize their pet’s swimming and basking spaces by building “above tank basking areas”. Photos and design ideas are available online.
Your turtle’s basking area should include a heat source (e.g. incandescent bulb, ceramic heat fixture, other heat bulb) and a UVB light source. The UVB bulb must be within 18 inches of your turtle (no glass/plastic in between; metal screening is okay), and should be replaced approximately every 6 months due to a significant reduction in UVB wavelengths over time. The heat and UVB fixtures should be on for approximately 10-12 hours daily. Combination heat and UVB bulbs are available as an alternative. The temperature of the basking area should reach approximately 85-90 degrees F. A digital thermometer with probe is recommended to monitor the temperature in this area. During the warmer months, you may expose your turtle to natural sunlight, however be sure to not leave your pet outside in an enclosed container/tank, as it may overheat. Always supervise due to the risk of predators and escape.
Turtles are generally considered to be very messy/dirty animals. Excess food, waste material, and shedding skin and scales collect in the environment rapidly. Ultimately, keeping your pet turtle’s enclosure clean is the most important step you can take to ensuring its health and preventing disease.
Filtration – The larger and more powerful your filter, the less frequently you will have to clean your turtle’s water. Ideally, a professional grade canister filter would be used (e.g. Eheim, Fluval). Purchase one that is intended for an aquarium several times the size of your turtle’s enclosure, as turtles are much dirtier than fish or other aquatic animals. Even with a large canister filter and an appropriately sized enclosure, you must still clean your pet’s home thoroughly every 2-3 weeks, and 50% water changes are recommended once weekly.
Due to the expense of the larger filtration units, many people ultimately purchase smaller filters. In this situation, more frequent cleaning is essential to ensuring your pet’s health. 50% water changes should be performed twice weekly, and the entire tank changed every 1-2 weeks.
Water changes/cleaning – Water changes may be performed using a siphon system or buckets according to the schedule recommended above. Some people find the Python Siphon to be particularly helpful with frequent water changes. When cleaning out/changing the entire tank, first remove your turtle to a safe location (i.e. small tub, bathtub, etc.). The aquarium and all its contents, including rocks, fake plants, and other cage “furniture”, should be scrubbed with soapy water. Dilute bleach (1:20) can be used to disinfect all surfaces as needed. Everything should be rinsed well with fresh water several times before refilling and replacing your pet.
High quality floating turtle pellets and/or turtle sticks are widely available and can make up a large portion of your pet’s diet. We have had good experiences with Repcal and Mazuri brand turtle pellets, but Reptomin turtle sticks and ZooMed pellets are also good diets. For slider species, in addition to this commercial food, we recommend offering leafy greens, such as romaine lettuce, kale, collards and red and green leaf lettuce. Offer greens several times a week. Be sure to remove any uneaten portions of food that could rot and add to water quality problems. You can also condition your turtle to eat in a separate container of water to help keep the main tank cleaner. Crickets, frozen thawed pinkies and feeder goldfish can be offered as treats. Some wild caught species, such as the African Sideneck turtle and Helmeted turtle, may need to be offered crickets and pinkies while becoming acclimated to captivity, along with offering them a pelleted diet.
PREVENTATIVE HEALTH CARE:
Appropriate husbandry and water quality are the most important factors in keeping your pet aquatic turtle healthy. In addition, we highly recommend an annual physical examination with an experienced reptile veterinarian. Signs of illness in turtles include pink or red skin, lethargy and/or decreased appetite, pitting or the shell or carapace, nasal/eye discharge, bubbling fluid from the mouth when out of water, lumps and bumps, or balance issues when in the water. Female turtles frequently become reproductively active in captivity, whether or not a male is present, and intervention may be required to prevent egg impaction and address associated problems. Valuable diagnostic testing that can be performed on aquatic turtles includes fecal examination, radiography (x-rays), ultrasonography, blood work, etc.