Shannon RW Brandl, CVT and Susan Horton, DVM
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
Pictured above, 2 normal Red-Eared Sliders, Chrysemys
scripta elegans, shedding scutes.
: Aquatic turtles are very common as pets.
Unfortunately they are also more difficult to care for than most
people realize. Often times, inadequate care results in various
health problems for turtles. The
most common turtles currently seen in the pet trade are: sliders,
painted turtles, soft shell turtles, snappers, mud and musk
turtles and map turtles. Keep
in mind that many other species are available, and one should
always research the natural history of a particular species of
turtle to properly care for it.
Housing:This varies according to size, number and species of
turtle being kept. A good rule of thumb for minimum cage
size is that the combined carapace (shell) size of all turtles
should not exceed 25% of the enclosures’ floor surface
above is a Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin terrapin.
Quality: This is absolutely one of the most important
aspects of an aquatic turtles’ health. Poor water quality can
quickly cause shell infections or even death.
recommend a bare bottom tank. A gravel bottom is harder to keep
clean and turtles will often eat smaller pieces of gravel, which
can cause serious problems.
good filtration system is necessary. The kind of filter you get
depends on the size of the tank and number of turtles in the tank.
Canisters filters or over the side filters are recommended.
Remember to change the filter media frequently.
Frequent water changes are necessary even if a good filtration
system is in place. If the tank water begins to have an odor- it
is overdue for a water change. Use a dechorinator (and
potentially one that handles chloramines as well).
Periodically scrub and rinse the enclosure well to help remove
residual bacterial growth buildup.
After a water change, be sure to allow water temperature to return
to normal rage before returning the turtle to its tank. Rapid
water temperature changes can harm turtles.
Salinity. Research your turtle's salt requirements.
Some species require a higher or lower salinity at different
stages of development. Use a hydrometer to measure your
water salinity and adjust as necessary. I use the sea salt
made for salt water aquarium fish when creating a brackish
Unclean water conditions will cause severe shell erosion
and ulceration, dermatitis, anemia, sepsis, and death.
Compare the healthy slider on the left to the poor fellow on the
right. Notice the differences in the skin and shell
condition. The fellow on the right became ill because of
being kept inappropriately. He will take months to heal and
will be permanently scared.
Temperature:The water temperature should remain constant. A good range is
75-80 degrees. This is best accomplished with the use of a
submersible aquarium heater. Use a heater protector over the
heater to prevent burns if the turtle were to touch the heater
when the heating element was on. Also, use a thermometer to help
regulate the water temperature.
area: A dry
area is necessary for the turtle to crawl out of the water, dry
off and bask. The area can be made of a variety of materials but
should allow the turtle to be completely out of the water and
sturdy enough that is won’t collapse or tip over and trap a
turtle under water. There
are some great acrylic ramps being made that are perfect for this
purpose. The air
over this area should be slightly warmer than the surrounding air
temperature. (80-85 degrees) This can be accomplished using a
light bulb and reflector hood directed at the site.
A low wattage mercury vapor bulb works well.
The bulb wattage will need to be adjusted according to the
tanks’ environmental conditions. Remember to always use a
Pictured above is a sweet baby Australian
Carnivorous- Offer a mix of commercial turtle pellets (combine 4-5
different kinds). Also offer live food. This includes: earthworms,
slugs, snails, guppies, and freshwater smelt. (Wild caught
sticklebacks and mosquito fish should not be fed because they can
carry serious parasites)
Herbivorous- Offer commercial pellet mix and a variety of greens
including: kale, mustard greens, collard greens, and dandelion
greens. Also, some aquatic plants such as hornwort and anacharis
can be offered.
Omnivorous- Offer a variety of foods from both lists.
turtles are carnivorous as juveniles and become more herbivorous
as they mature. Adjust
their diet accordingly.
Pictured above is a Common Snapping
Turtle (juv): Chelydra serpentina sp..
A full spectrum fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb providing
UVB light should be provided over the tank. Fluorescent bulbs
should be no more than 12” from the basking site and should be
placed on a timer to provide 12 hour light and dark cycles.
The fluorescent bulbs need to be replaced every 6-12
months, mercury vapor, every 3 years. There also should not be any
plastic or glass between the bulb and the animal. A screen to is
sign of illness, the turtle should be checked by a veterinarian
familiar with reptiles.
The most common household hazard for turtles is dogs. A dog
can easily puncture the shell causing serious and life threatening
damage. A turtle bitten by a dog should immediately be taken to a
If you have any questions, feel free to call us at