Animal Care

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Select species from the list at right for tips on how to take care of them.

Turtle Care

Aquatic turtles (live in water): sliders, painted, map, cooter turtles.

Semi-aquatic turtles (live near water): box, wood turtles.

Behavior:

Turtles are intelligent, interesting creatures that come in a variety of species. Among the most common turtles kept domestically are the red-eared slider and the American painted turtle. Turtles generally live in water but must be provided with a dry area, as well. Specific behavioral, environmental, and nutritional requirements for turtles vary, depending on species.

Red Ear Slider Turtle Vet

An exotic animal veterinarian can educate you regarding the requirements of your specific pet. Since turtles’ body temperatures (and as a result, their immune systems, digestion, and behavior) are regulated by the temperature of their surroundings, you must learn the requirements for your turtle species. Regardless of species, all turtles carry Salmonella bacteria; thus, care must taken to wash hands after handling any turtle.

Housing:

For most turtles, an aquarium works well. A young, red-eared slider can be housed in a 20-gallon aquarium, to start. In general, 4”-5” turtles each require 2.5 square feet of space. Turtles 8” or longer need a minimum of double this amount of space.

Water should be at least 1.5 to 2 times the top shell (carapace) length, and tanks should have several inches of air space between the water surface and the tank top to prevent escapes and predation by other pets, such as cats and dogs. Since turtles defecate frequently, a water filtration system should be used to maintain water cleanliness.

Weekly water changes are also required to keep the water clean. Feeding turtles in an enclosure separate from their living enclosure can help minimize water soiling. Heat must be provided by an over-the-tank ceramic heat bulb, an under the tank heater, or a submersible heater.

 An out of the water basking zone should be provided with a bulb focused over this area. Ideally a second haul-out area should be at the cooler end of the tank.  Water temperatures must be maintained within particular ranges specific to given species. Several thermometers should be used to measure temperatures both in and out of the water.

Ideally, a heat gradient, with the warmest temperature in the basking zone (85-90°F for red-eared sliders), and the coolest temperature farthest from this zone, should be offered. For red-eared sliders, water temperature should range approximately 75-85°F, but never fall below 75°F.

Nutrition:

Some turtles are herbivores (eat only plant matter), others are carnivores (eat only animal matter), and some are omnivores (eat both plant and animal matter). An exotic animal veterinarian can educate you as to the specific dietary needs of your particular turtle.

Adult red-eared sliders are omnivores. Their diet should be made up of 50% commercial aquatic pelleted turtle diets and should  include live fish and insects (guppies, goldfish, tubifex worms, and earthworms), appropriate to their size. The other 50% can include plant matter in the form of chopped leafy greens (kale, romaine, red and green leaf lettuce, parsley, dandelion and mustard greens, carrot, squash) and a small amount of fruit.

They are generally fed every 2-3 days. Young, growing red-eared sliders are more carnivorous and eat mainly turtle pellets or live fish on a daily basis. They accept more vegetable matter as they age.

Healthcare:

All turtles should be examined by an exotic animal veterinarian both just after they are acquired, to ensure that husbandry and feeding requirements are being met, and annually to make sure turtles stay healthy. In general, all turtles carry some gastrointestinal parasites.

Thus, their feces should be checked, and they should be de-wormed at least once. Proper preventative medicine, particularly with reptiles, whose health depends so much on their environmental conditions, is essential to helping ensure your turtle’s well being.

Adapted with permission from the Zoological Education Network.

Additional Information on Housing & Diet

Initial Tank Size:
  1. Starter tank of 10-20 gallons acceptable;
  2. Tank size needs to get bigger as turtle grows;
  3. Adult tank size should be 10 times turtle’s body length, 5 times the width, and 5 times the depth.
Substrate:
  1. Aquatic turtles need land for basking out of water;
  2. Semi-aquatic turtles need 75% land and 25% water;
  3. Acceptable substrates: pelleted recycled paper (Yesterday’s News®, Care Fresh®), sphagnum moss, leaf litter, unfertilized potting soil;
  4. If use gravel in water, it must be large enough not to swallow;
  5. When choosing substrate, remember you must remove soiled bedding weekly and change it completely 1-2 times a month.
Temperature:
  1. Air temperature should range from 75°F on one end to 110°F (basking area) on the other end;
  2. Need at least 2 thermometers in tank to monitor temperature;
  3. Water temperature should be between 75°F-80°F;
  4. Can heat water in tanks smaller than 300 gallons with a stainless steel commercial aquarium heater (less likely to beak than glass models).
  5. See www.aquaticecosystems.com for water heaters.
  6. Air may be heated with over-the-tank heat bulbs (halogen and incandescent bulbs which produce heat as infrared light) or under the tank heat mats (be careful not to overheat with mats).
Lighting:
  1. Best light is natural sunlight, unfiltered by window;
  2. Exposure to natural sunlight during warm months, even in colder climates, is ideal;
  3. House outdoors as much as climate permits;
  4. Whether inside or outside, provide a shade area to prevent overheating;
  5. Full-spectrum lighting containing wavelengths in the UVB spectrum (290-320 nm) is essential;
  6. UVB light is essential in making vitamin D in skin, which enables reptile to metabolize calcium properly and maintain healthy bones;
  7. Typically, bulbs are either incandescent or fluorescent;
  8. Incandescent (traditional screw-in) full-spectrum bulbs provide visible (infrared) light and some heat. Most produce some UV light but not in required UVB spectrum. Incandescent bulbs are good for producing heat but not UV light. Will likely need more than one incandescent bulb of varying wattage when using these bulbs for heat;
  9. Mercury vapor bulbs produce UVB and some heat. May need additional incandescent bulb for heat when using mercury vapor bulbs for UV light;
  10. Fluorescent, coiled, screw-in bulbs produce UVB and light, but little heat. Some compact fluorescent bulbs produce excess UVB and can cause “snow blindness” or conjunctivitis. Will likely need additional heat source (incandescent bulb, halogen bulb, or under-tank heater) when using fluorescent bulb;
  11. Combination units have full-spectrum fluorescent and halogen spot light for heat;
  12. Bulbs producing UVB and visible light should be on 12 hours per day;
  13. Change UV bulbs every 6 months.
Water filtration:

Filter required for aquatic turtle’s water; may or may not be used for semi-aquatic species in which water can be drained manually;

The larger the filter, the better;

Large external canister filters (such as the Magnum 385®) containing activated charcoal best;

Clean filter every few weeks;

Vacuum at least 50% of the gravel, if present, in the water every few weeks to help establish normal bacteria in tank;

Change 20-30% of the water in tank every 2 weeks;

Do not need to de-chlorinate water unless fish are present.

Diet
  1. Overall recommendation is 80% commercially prepared diets (i.e. Mazuri® turtle pellets and gel diets, Reptomin®) plus 20% additional foods (fish, earthworms, crickets, shrimp, mealworms, small amounts of vegetables and fruit). For more omnivorous species, give 60% commercially prepared diets plus 40% additional foods (including more vegetables);
  2. Live fish prey are preferable to frozen fish, as fish frozen for longer than 3 months lose nutrients and can cause nutritional deficiencies;
  3. Vegetables to try include dark green leafy plants such as spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce, plus other vegetables such as squash, carrots, zucchini, and others. The more variety, the better.
Supplements:
  1. For carnivorous turtles, if the diet is at least 30% or more commercially prepared products (such as pellets), supplements are not necessary;
  2. For more omnivorous species, especially those consuming a lot of vegetables, supplement with calcium once a week (but make sure it’s phosphorus-free).