By purchasing a turtle, you are making a commitment to their care — and doing so for the long haul.
Turtles are fascinating to watch, and many have attractive colors and markings, and interesting personalities. They can make great interactive pets. They are known for recognizing their owners and endlessly begging for food. It’s all part of their charm.
However, a lot of work is involved in keeping a turtle. They are not like dogs and cats. Turtles don’t enjoy being handled. They can easily live up to 20 or 30 years, and providing them with the proper enclosure as they grow can be a larger investment than you initially expected. By purchasing a turtle, you are making a commitment to their care — and doing so for the long haul.
As far as housing goes, bigger is better. Many aquatic turtles are active swimmers, so choose the largest size enclosure possible. Glass aquaria are a popular choice. A 30-gallon tank is the absolute minimum size for smaller species measuring between 4 and 6 inches. For turtles between 6 and 8 inches, a 55-gallon tank is appropriate. And for turtles measuring more than 8 inches, tanks in the 75- to 125-gallon range are a better choice. If you start with a younger, smaller turtle, a smaller tank is acceptable as long as the enclosure size increases as your turtle grows.
Other turtle housing choices include plastic tubs available at most home or hardware stores. Some tubs with both a water and land area are even designed specifically for turtles. If you have the room, another great option is an indoor or outdoor pond.
One secret to successful turtlekeeping is clean water. A good filtration system goes a long way in accomplishing this. Two excellent choices for turtle tanks are an internal aquarium filter or a canister filter. Whichever you choose, make sure you regularly maintain the filter. Turtles are really messy.
Keep tank decorations to a minimum. Most turtles destroy any attempts at aquascaping. Substrate in a turtle tank only accumulates uneaten food and waste, which quickly fouls the water, yet some turtle species, such as soft-shell turtles, which need a soft sand bottom, require it. However, for most turtles I don’t use any substrate or gravel, making cleaning much easier. On the other hand, if a bare-looking tank is not aesthetically appealing to you, feel free to decorate it, but be prepared for more difficult and more frequent cleaning.
One piece of décor is essential to most turtle habitats: a basking spot. This can be a carefully placed rock, a piece of driftwood or one of the ready-made basking platforms available at local pet stores. I highly recommend above-tank basking platforms for most aquatic turtles. Whatever type of basking spot you pick, select one large enough to allow the turtle to climb out of the water completely, and place it securely under the basking light.
Turtle Lighting Requirements
An important aspect of turtle care often neglected or misunderstood is lighting. Turtles reap two primary benefits from light: ultraviolet light and heat.
Two types of ultraviolet light, UVA and UVB, are essential for your turtle’s health. UVA light seems to encourage natural behavior such as feeding and reproduction. Turtles require UVB for the synthesis of vitamin D3, which in turn allows calcium absorption and metabolism. Correct UVB exposure is also necessary for a turtle’s growth. Without it, there is potential for serious health issues such as poor shell growth, secondary hyperparathyroidism and a shorter life span.
Turtles also get heat from light. Like all reptiles, turtles are ectotherms, so they need different temperature zones to regulate body temperature. A good general rule is to maintain a basking spot within the range of 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The water temperature should average about 10 to 15 degrees lower than the basking spot, and you can attain it with a submersible aquarium heater.
Many styles of bulbs and light systems are available. Whichever you choose, make sure it takes care of your turtle’s UV and heat requirements. Not all turtles have the same needs, so research the specific needs of any turtles you wish to keep.
Turtle Do’s and Don’ts
* Whenever possible, buy captive-bred turtles. They are already adapted to captivity, there is less of a chance for disease or parasites, and they are accustomed to commercial turtle foods. Whether purchasing your turtle from a local pet store, breeder or online, ask whether they are captive bred or wild caught. Another option is to adopt from a local turtle rescue organization. They might have a turtle just right for you.
* Please don’t collect animals from the wild. Many states restrict wild collections, and many turtle species are threatened or endangered, making them illegal to collect.
* Please don’t release unwanted turtles into the wild. Doing so could cause major environmental problems. In addition, your turtle may not be equipped to handle the local environmental conditions, so you could be sending it to its death.
Nutritional Needs For Your Pet Turtle
When it comes to raising a healthy turtle, prevention is the best medicine. A well-balanced diet is a key to success. Offer as many different foods as possible with a quality turtle food as the diet staple. Keep in mind a turtle’s dietary needs change as it matures. Although many are primarily carnivorous as hatchlings, they consume more plant matter as they reach adulthood. For some adult turtles, plant matter may even make up the majority of their diet.
In addition to turtle pellets, many frozen and freeze-dried foods are available, including krill, crickets, grasshoppers and snails. Turtles also readily accept live foods such as insects, worms, snails and small fish. These can be gut-loaded or dusted with calcium for added benefit. I also encourage the use of cuttlebone as an additional source of calcium for your turtle.
For greens, turtles enjoy dandelion leaves, and green- and red-leaf lettuce. Aquatic plants available at the local pet store such as anacharis, water lettuce and water hyacinth are also good additions. Avoid iceberg lettuce, however, because it doesn’t have any real nutritional value. Other foods to avoid are spinach, mushrooms and cabbage. In general, I would not recommend fruits either.
Great Beginner Turtles
Not all turtles are appropriate for beginners. Some have special needs, such as dietary restrictions or large habitat requirements. However, many turtles make great first pets.
Painted Turtles: As is indicated by their namesake, painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) are very attractive. There are four recognized subspecies: eastern painted turtles (C. p. picta), southern painted turtles (C. p. dorsalis), western painted turtles (C. p. bellii) and midland painted turtles (C. p. marginata). With the exception of C. p. marginata, which can grow up to 10 inches, these turtles remain between 5 to 7 inches, making them an excellent choice for novice turtlekeepers.
Painted turtles are big baskers, so a basking spot is a must. Most are fairly active swimmers, so provide a water area large and deep enough for them to swim. In my experience they have always proven to be robust eaters. Like many other turtles, they are omnivorous with their diet consisting of more plant matter as they mature.
These turtles truly have everything you could ask for in a turtle: a relatively small size, beautiful colors, a hearty appetite, ease of care and a rather pleasant nature.
Sliders and Cooters: One could make the argument that sliders (Trachemys scripta) and cooters (Pseudemys spp.) don’t make good beginner turtles. The main reason is their adult size; some females can measure 16 to 18 inches. For this reason alone, you might be better off selecting a different family of turtles unless, of course, you can provide a large enough enclosure. A 75-gallon tank is considered the minimum size to house one of the smaller turtles in this family. A 125-gallon tank or larger is required for some of the bigger species.
Yet sliders and cooters can make great pets. Hardy, they adapt well to captivity, eagerly accept all foods and have attractive markings and colors. These turtles are big baskers and appreciate deeper water, especially as they grow. Primarily carnivorous as hatchlings, many adults shift their diets to more plant matter.
One personal favorite is the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta). They tend to range between 5 and 12 inches, and they have attractive yellow coloring.
Avoid These Turtles
Regardless of whether they make a good pet, any turtle that grows too large for the housing you are able to provide is a turtle you should avoid.
A classic example is the snapping turtle. All too often available as cute little hatchlings, they just grow too large and bulky for the average turtlekeeper. They are relatively easy to maintain, but their rapid growth and rather nasty disposition make them better fare for zoos and aquariums.
Soft-shell turtles also are not recommend for most turtlekeepers. These aggressive turtles can grow very large, and they can inflict a serious bite. They also require specialized care. Close attention must be paid to water quality, and the turtles require a soft sand substrate for hiding. If not properly cared for, this substrate can make it harder to maintain the pristine water conditions required. Health problems, including infection, can set in if conditions are not met for this primarily aquatic turtle.
Of course, I can’t discuss sliders without mentioning the most popular pet turtle: the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). This beautiful turtle is known for the red markings near its eyes. What most people fail to realize, however, is that these turtles can eventually measure a foot long. Due to this fact, red-eared sliders have been the most neglected and abandoned turtle. This even led to Florida placing a ban on them as pets in 2007, but certain color morphs, such as albinos and pastels, are still legal to own and sell. Turtle rescue organizations are swamped with these turtles, and many can’t accept any more because it is just too difficult to find them homes. Please be absolutely sure you can properly house an adult if you’re considering a slider, cooter or any turtle for that matter.
Mud and Musk Turtles: Perhaps not as beautiful as some other popular turtles, mud turtles (Kinosternon spp.) and musk turtles (Sternotherus spp.) are certainly high on my easy-to-keep-turtle list. Between these two types of turtles there are many to choose from, and most make great starter turtles. Some examples are eastern mud turtles (Kinosternon s. subrubrum), Mississippi mud turtles (K. s. hippocrepis), striped mud turtles (K. baurii), common musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) and striped-neck musk turtles (S. minor peltifer).
Many mud and musk turtles remain rather small. Some only grow to 4 or 5 inches, allowing you to house them in a smaller tank. Unlike some other aquatic turtles, mud and musk turtles are not big baskers, but you still must provide a basking spot. They might not use it as frequently as other turtles, but they still need it. Although some believe that mud and musk turtles don’t absolutely need UVB lighting because they are not really a basking turtle, there is certainly no harm in providing it. These turtles prefer to crawl along the bottom rather than swim, so deep water is not required.
Mud and musk turtles are carnivorous, but they will attempt to eat just about anything you put in front of them. This includes your fingers, so be careful when feeding them. They can be a little nippy.
Map Turtles: In my opinion, map turtles (Graptemys spp.) have some of the most distinct patterns and shells of any turtle. I hesitate, however, in recommending them for novice turtle hobbyists. They’re better off left to intermediate or advanced turtlekeepers, but if you follow some basic guidelines, you can be successful with these turtles.
In general, their care is similar to that of sliders and painted turtles. Excellent water quality and a proper diet are the secrets to success with these turtles. Map turtles require clean water, and they seem to be less tolerant of poor water conditions than some other turtles. They also tend to be more prone to infections. Map turtles are omnivorous, but each species’ diet varies slightly.
I have also found that map turtles tend to be shy, so take care in choosing their habitat’s location. A high-traffic area may stress them; but if they’re given time, they tend to become less nervous around you.