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1. Water Turtle Basics

  • For box turtles, refer to the box turtle care sheet
  • For mud turtles, see the mud turtle notes below. 
  • For softshells, see the notes on softshells below.
The setups described here will work for most water turtles. 
However, you must know the species of animal you have (if you send me a picture or a good description,
I'll be happy to help with identification) so that you can take into account the special needs for each species.


Is a Turtle the Right Pet for You?

Of course, if you pick up a turtle from the road, or a friend drops
off a turtle at your house, or you end up with a turtle unexpectedly 
for some other reason, this question is almost futile. But only
almost. If you have been blessed with a turtle, and you decide you
cannot fulfill all its needs for whatever reasons, you may want to
consider adopting out. Many reptile societies have adoption programs and are a better choice than dropping the animal off at a local dog&cat shelter. Read more...

Here are some things you might consider before getting a turtle. 
Also, take the test to find out what's involved in keeping a turtle happy and healthy. Read more...

Turtles are not Ninja Turtles. They will not perform tricks, talk, or perform heroic deeds. 
They don't eat pizza either. 

Some turtles like to have their head or shells stroked, but many of them don't like to be held or touched. Water turtles are primarily a look-at pet. They will learn to recognize you, though; they will lose their fear; and they will eat from your fingers (sometimes including your fingers :-) if you are patient and consistent in your care.

Turtles live 40 and more years. Are you willing to take on a long-term commitment? Or if you think you will only have the turtle for some time, are you willing to look for a good new home for it when you cannot keep it any longer? It is very difficult to find a home for a turtle that has become too large, especially for red-eared sliders. Do not get a turtle if you are not willing to accomodate it throughout its life. 

Turtles grow throughout their life. Do you have space available?  A slider needs at least a 20 gallon tank to be happy at a younger age and a bigger tank as an adult. Expect to invest in a 40 gallon tank for most turtles, and some females get too big to keep indoors. Outdoor setups can be constructed easily, as simply as a children's wading pool, but they need to be in a safe place, secure from predators. Do you have a room where you can keep such a tank or an outdoor setup?

Do you have time to take proper care of your turtle? It takes about 1 hour a week to thoroughly clean the enclosure, and about 10 minutes a day to feed and observe your animal. This is not counting the occasional visit to the vet. Also, I would hope you'd like to spend more time than this with your chosen companion animal.

Are you willing to afford a turtle? In the United States of America, food will cost 10-20 dollars a month, depending on what you are feeding. An initial setup will cost you at least 50.-, but probably more. (For an indoor setup most of this money goes for the fluorescent reptile light - the rest can be improvised).

Budget about 2 dollars a day for one animal. This budget includes food, housing, veterinary bills, and miscellaneous expenses. You will find that often you will incur extra expenses when you want to make life even better for your animals. On the other hand, you can save considerably in the long run by providing a healthy setup and balanced diet.

Are you willing to pay vet bills for the animal when it gets sick? Even though most turtles are cheap to buy, when they get sick, they can cost as much as a cat or dog to heal.Though turtles suffer mostly silently, they feel pain just as other creatures. Once you take an animal and it becomes a pet, you are fully responsible for it. To give you an idea of cost: An annual checkup which includes an exam, evaluation of husbandry, and a fecal exam will cost between $50-100. If your animal gets sick beacuse of a dietary problem or an infection (most common causes), the bills can quickly run up to several hundred dollars for vet visits and medications. If you can't afford at least one vet visit a year, consider a different reptile that is easier to keep, as for example a corn snake, which is available in many stunning color varieties.
 
What about diseases? Wild caught turtles usually carry parasites. Captive bread turtles often do, too. Many of these organisms are harmless to the turtle and most do not transmit people. (However, if the parasite load in a turtle is high, or if a turtle carries parasites than can harm it, then it has to be treated.) Many reptiles, including turtles, carry salmonella (in the same way that most people carry E.coli in their digestive system--it never harms them). Salmonella can be dormant and a negative test is no guarantee that there is no salmonella. However, it is a good idea to take any new turtle to a veterinarian and have it checked for parasites.

Can I get Salmonella from turtles? You are much, much more likely to get salmonella from chicken and eggs than from reptiles. However, since all it takes is basic hygene to prevent potential contamination, ALWAYS wash your hands with soap after handling turtles, the water they are in, or any of the cage accessories. Clean turtle enclosures and prepare turtle foods away from places that are used for human food preparation. Strictly enforce hand-washing for children. If you have young children, don't let them handle the turtles, and especially don't let them stick turtles into their mouth. Don't kiss your turtles, either! (Note that dogs, cats, other animals, and humans also carry diseases and parasites. It's a good idea to wash your hands after playing with a dog or cat, or after shaking hands with a stranger who has a runny nose!)

Before You Get a Turtle

Read about your potential pet, talk to people who keep turtles, and  join one of several mailing lists about turtles. Read more....

Prepare a species-appropriate setup for your animal, buy some food, and decide where the enclosure will be place. I know, most of the time we get the animal first and then we need to set it up. If you have the luxury to do the setup first, don't hesitate.

Join or at least visit one of the reptile societies in your area. Not only is it fun to meet people with the same interests, they will also become a valuable source of information when the questions come. And questions there will be; no two turtles are the same, and a FAQ or a book can only provide for the general cases. You may want to consider subscribing a reptile-oriented magazine. Check Facebook or Google+ for communities. Read more...

Decide where you want to get the animal from. Adopt first! Considering that turtles in the wild are declining, it is recommended that you not catch an animal from the wild. If you have access to captive bred turtles, get a captive bred turtle. They also tend to be healthier and happier in captivity. Adopt a turtle from a local shelter or check Craigslist and other sites for adoption requests. There are many unwanted turtles that need new homes. 

Common Water Turtle Species 

There is no way this FAQ can describe all species available  in the pet trade or in the wild. These are some of the species that are kept more commonly, and that I have experience with.

Red-eared slider (Chrysemys scripta elegans and related species)

The common green turtle with the red cheeks (and some similar slider turtles that don't have the cheek markings).
Slider turtles are native to the United States and common in the South-east.There are many related species that can be kept in the same way as red eared sliders, for example Cooters and Chicken turtles. Sliders are mostly carnivorous when young and become more and more vegetarian as they grow older. If they are kept under proper conditions, they make hardy pets. While sliders get rather tame, they also have a good bite! Adult male sliders may have to get separated during breeding season. Females get much bigger than males. Sliders can be kept outside all summer in temperate climate. Since females get large, be prepared to build a pond or acquire a large tank in the future.
The little 1-dollar turtles sold on the street are usually sliders. 

Reeves turtle (Chinemys reevesi)

This species is known in Southern China, southern Korea, and Japan. It is a small species and reaches maturity at around 5-8 inches. The carapace is parallel-sided, moderately domed, with three strong keels. The carapace scutes are usually brown.The plastron is generally yellow with brown blotches which can cover almost the whole belly. The head often has yellow or olive stripes which can fade in older specimens
Reeves turtles are susceptible to shell disease. They must be kept in very clean water. When you buy an animal, thoroughly check it for rot. Many imported specimens have the problem. Because of the depletion of Asian turtles, and the big parasite loads many of these turtles carry, look for a captive-bred Reeves turtle. 
Reeves turtles mostly are carnivorous, but they do take pellet food.
Because of the susceptibility to shell problems, it is imperative that a good basking place with plenty of UV light is provided.
This is a marvelous turtle, but I wouldn't recommend it for beginners.

Softshell turtles

Softshells spend their whole live in the water. There are many species, some native to the United States, some to Asia. Primarly, they all get pretty large and they need a lot of room to swim.They like to bury in gravel or sand. Softshells are carnivorous. They don't get very tame but are beautiful to watch swimming! Their water needs to be kept very clean. I don't think they make good beginner's turtles. Look for a detailed care sheet before you acquire a softshell turtle.

Mud turtles

Many mud turtles make excellent pets. They can be kept similarly to sliders, but depending on the species more land and shallower water should be provided.
They are hardy fellows that become quite tame. They are mostly meat-eaters.
Depending on their climate of origin, they can be kept outside in summer.
They don't get very big, which is a plus for most people who just would like to "have a turtle". There are many species of mud turtles. Before you acquire one, look up detailed care information on the species you are getting.

Snapping turtles

In some states snapping turtles are illegal to keep. They are very hardy and interesting animals, and they do well in captivity and they can get quite tame. Alligator snappers reacho 60 and more pounds. Don't get one, unless you are ready to build a pond.

Diamond Back Terrapins

These beautiful turtles are not for beginners. They have very specific water and dietary requirements.

Basic Indoor Setup for Slider Turtles (and Other Water Turtles)

Note: This is a basic setup. Please, find out what the latin name of your turtle is and do some research on their specific needs.
Every species of turtle has somewhat different requirements, and taking them into account will keep your turtle happier and healthier.

Every turtle tank should have a swim area and a land area. 
"Swim area" is water deep enough for the turtle to swim; that is, the water must be at least as deep as the turtle's shell is wide, and the area must be big enough for the turtle to swim comfortably. For most water turtles, if kept indoors, the water must be heated (temperature varies with species).
For strong swimmers, like sliders, the water can be much deeper. For mud turtles, the turtle should be able to reach the surface while standing on its hind legs. As for how much water? Use common sense. If it looks crowded and tight, then the turtle will probably feel that way, too.
"Land area" refers to an area above water line, at the minimum big enough for the turtle to sit on. Some of the land area should be heated to about 85-90F (using a lamp, for example) for basking. Turtles that are very aquatic do fine with a piece of wood or a rock under a heat lamp; while semi-aquatic turtles do better with a larger land area that allows them to move around and choose a variety of temperatures.

A minimum indoor setup for a small turtle consists of:
  • 20 gallon aquarium or similar container (a 10 gallon tank is too small    for anything but a baby turtle!!)
  • Some kind of filtration that is strong enough for a tank that size. 
  • An aquarium heater to heat water to about 78-82F, depending on turtle.
  • A lamp, with a 40-60W incandescent light bulb, installed to warm basking/land area to 85-90 degrees (or a ceramic bulb for a larger basking area and tank) at the warmest spot.
  • A UVA/UVB producing fluorescent light (recommended) or vitamin D3 supplementation.
  • Land area, built from bricks, rocks, wooden boards, rocks, where turtle can easily climb out.
  • A floating aquarium thermometer (not those digital strips; they are not accurate)  to verify all the temperatures.
  • A place to set up the tank away from direct sunlight.
Substrate
I use no substrate at all in the swim area, just the bare glass bottom of the aquarium. It makes maintenance easier, keeps the turtles from swallowing anything, and the turtles don't mind. (Many turtles will eat rock or sand which can cause constipation/impaction.) Note that softshell turtles do need sandy substrate to bury.
Keeping the bottom of the tank bare will not only help cleaning, it will also prevent turtles from swallowing sand and rocks, which can lead to problems.

However, there is some controversy about this subject. No substrate seems to be the best solution. While it may not look as nice as a gravel bottom, it prevents some trouble. It also makes cleaning efficient.

From: bytemare@lmn.pub.ro: About the substrate in tank. I want to say that I put some thin green plastic mesh, the kind I used to put in the windows at summer to prevent mosquitos from entering the room. It is green, so the turtles see it as vegetation I think, except they can't eat it :-) .It helps a lot cleaning the aquarium (I simply lift the mesh with all the stuff that fell on it). Also, it has sometimes to be kept down with some small rocks, but not too heavy, because my sliders have the habit of "digging" sometimes, and care should be taken so they cannot possibly get stuck under the mesh. I have successfully used the same type of mesh on the interior of the back of the aquarium (where the background picture is). I have found that the turtles won't try to go thru the glass anymore, instead they will see the mesh and even use it to climb to the  surface, like mountain climbers :-). It is hard to keep the mesh sticked to the glass (if not, the turtles will find that they can go beyond it and will screw everything up). 

Rock ingestion. Some turtles ingest rocks, from sand grain size to whatever will fit into their mouth. Some turtles get intestinal blockage because of it. Even sand can accumulate and eventually turn into a plug that may need to be surgically removed. Turtles that do not have the opportunity to ingest sand and rocks live happily. No-one is sure why turtles ingest substrate. It does not seem essential to their digestion. They could even do it, because they are bored.
Turtles with blockages are a lot of trouble (ever tried to give Castor Oil to a turtle?) 
If you are worried about the slipperiness of the glass bottom for turtles that "walk" on the bottom, you could try a piece of shower mat (the version with the suction cups). This works well, but debris tends to accumulate under the mat (and gets not washed through the filter, so you need more water changes). Or you could use gravel that is so big, that there is no chance it will fit into a turtle's mouth (like river pebbles; looks very pretty!)

Land
I use a wooden bord or bricks as land areas. That way, the land area can be cleaned easily and dries off fast. It is important that the land area is dry. Make sure the turtle can climb out.

Keep it Clean!
It is important to keep a turtle tank clean, and a functional setup helps dramatically. You can use natural rocks and real branches instead of a bricks for a basking area. That looks very nice and is still easy to clean. 

Plants
You can add plastic plants for the turtles to hide (reduces stress and makes the tank look much prittier). Real plants are nice but get eaten within days; so unless you have lots of money or pond where you grow plants.

Decorations
Don't add too many decorations that will impede swimming. A few round river rocks make nice, safe decorations.

Water and Water Quality
Without a filter, change the water at least once a week completely; more often if it looks cloudy, dirty. You should use a net to remove feces that float around. 
Scrub the tank with a 10% bleach solution a few times a year. Adding a strong aquarium filter reduces the frequency of cleaning. Clean water is one of the biggest factor in keeping healthy water turtles. 
You may want to add one teaspoon of salt per gallon of water to help prevent diseases. 
I use untreated tap water, and have never had a problem with it; if you are concerned, use a water conditioner for aquariums.

Filters
A Fluval4(tm) submersible filter will keep a 30 gallon tank with  2 turtles clean for about 14 days. If you want more filter power, or your tank is larger, consider getting a canister filter. Your local fish store will be able to help you. Get a filter 2-3 times as strong as for a fish tank of the same size. (More on filters below.)
While filters are expensive, what you gain in water quality and work reduction is well worth it.
(Marvellouse Idea Contributed by The Nevilles) 
I was reading your page on water turtle setups and wanted to add that I have  30 gallon "turtle tank" from all glass aquariums that has one end cut to 1/2 height and fits a power filter without having the water all the way to the top of the tank.

Water Quality, Waste Management, and Filters

Water quality is the number one challenge when keeping water turtles.
The ideal to strive for, is a lot of very clean water.

Change the water as often as you can.  Imagine, you had to swim in and drink the water!

Tap water is fine. If you are concerned about chlorine, let the water sit  for 24 hours before using it or use a water conditioner for aquariums.

How often do you need to change the water? Well, it depends on the gallons of water per turtle, and whether you are using a filter. I change the water in the large outdoor tubs once a week, independent of how many turtles there are in it (never that many). Indoors every 10 to 14 days, with a strong filter, depending on how much I have been feeding. Some foods soil the water more than others. While I use a filter on the indoor tank, I simply change the water often outdoors. (It is much easier to dump a tub full of water onto the grass than to pump it into the bathroom sink.)

Give your turtle as much space as you can possibly afford. In this case, larger is always better. Custom made glass tanks are affordable. (Negotiate price and features, when you talk to a sales rep. Often extra features like screen tops, which you don't need for turtles, will make things a lot more expensive.) Plexiglass tanks are nice but a lot more expensive.

Turtles produce two kinds of waste: visible and invisible. 
The visible solids can (and should) be removed with a net (available at aquarium stores - don't use the same net for your fish!), especially larger pieces, before they fall apart. Invisible waste, must be dealt with by frequent water changes and filtration.

Disintegrating waste produces ammonia. Ammonia (the stuff that is in Ajax!) is bad for people, and it is bad for turtles. It makes them sick, and it can make their skin and shell root. It can be difficult to have no ammonia (it is possible), but you can minimize it. Use an aquarium testing kit to measure levels of ammonia. 
Note, that letting feeder fish swim (and eliminate) in the turtle tank, raises ammonia level. Also, some dechlorinators also increase ammonia levels unless they include chemicals to break down the ammonia.

Filters also need to be cleaned. A filter that has settled in, i.e. has been running for 4-6 weeks will eventually harbor enough bacteria that like ammonia and the levels will go down. Unfortunately, most filters are dirty and beyond use, and therefore in need of replacement, before that equilibrium is ever reached.

Filtering over carbon and other specialized filter media also helps. I use a Fluval 4 submersible with carbon cartridges for about 20 gallons of water. (Rinse your filter with cold water only to preserve as much beneficial bacteria as possible.)

If you are using a large cannister filter get one about 3-4 times as powerful as you would for an aquarium the same size.You will still have to clean/rinse the media more often than for a fish tank.

Feeding your turtles outside the tank also reduces waste. Many turtles will eliminate shortly after eating. If you leave them in their feeding tub for a while after feeding, they will eliminate, and you get less waste in the tank.

 Not overfeeding will keep the waste down. 

Adding a teaspoon of salt per gallon of water will reduce the level of "bad" bacteria and protect the turtles better from shell and skin diseases.

A filter will not only reduce the frequency of water changes, it keeps the muck from floating around and being reingested by the animals.

So, what filter should you use?
1) as powerful as possible
2) filter over mixed media (including carbon)
3) Filter media must not be accessible to turtles
  (they *will* eventually eat it).
  
Here is a non-exhaustive, biased list of filters. (I don't get any kickbacks; these are just filters I've used.) 
For more information, check out manufacturer's websites. 

Fluval submersible filters come in several sizes. The largest size is big enough for about 35 gallons of water with three turtles.
Water changes every 7-14 days. Use the carbon cartridges.The Fluval 3 is ok for one turtle. (It's not many years later, and the Fluvals are still the basic filters I keep around and have the most of.)

Fluval Cannister filters. Get the largest size you can afford. Filter over ceramic, carbon, and sponge and rinse frequently.

Several brands of Power Filters. They are good, and easy to clean, but often they require a water level that is higher than you have in your turtle tank. They may also not have enough filtration media (but they do a good job at agitating the water).

Undergravel filters. Not recommended as I don't recommend fine gravel, and messy when frequently changing the water completely.

There is no need to dechlorinate the water. Anything suitable for human drinking is also suitable for turtles. Turtles are quite different from amphibians or fish in this regard.

Make it easy to change the water! It is a good idea to set things up in a way that water changes become quick and simple. Invsting in some hoses and a pump is worth it. I use a powerhead with a hose to pump the water into the bathroom sink or the garden. When I was in an apartment, I pumped it over the balcony into the shrubs. (While the other shrubs dried out during the  drought, the one under my balcony grew like crazy.) 
Then I use a hose with a special adapter to run water from the tab into tank. Adapters are available at hardware of plumming stores. You can then connect a regular garden hose to the tab. 
Make sure you empty the hose after use and store it in a place where it can dry out at least partially. Otherwise you get a lot of gunk growing in it, if you only use it occasionally.
There is a hose system called "Python" that you connect to a sink, then suck off the water and fill in the water, all no trouble. I love it!

Heaters and Temperature

You can either heat the tank from inside the water or outside the tank.

Heating pads. They are available at drug stores. Put under the tank and adjust level. They don't usually have a thermostat, so check the water temperature daily, and turn the pad on or off, depending on the weather. A timer is a great help, here. Best for smaller tanks where you can't put a heater. Make sure there is enough room under the tank and some airflow, otherwise the mat can be damaged, or your furniture will get burn marks!!!

Heating Strips/heat tape: a variation on pads. Usually not powerful enough for a turtle tank.

Basking lamp. If your apartment is always warm, and you have just one small turtle in a small tank, the basking lamp, usually a 60W bulb, can suffice to keep the water warm. (Well, these days, incandescent bulbs are hard to get, but cermic heating elements have become cheaper. Be careful and use a thermometer; they get pretty hot!)

Submersible heaters. They are very efficient and come with a thermostat. But, the are made of glass and a turtle can break it. So, you need to protect the heater, for example behind some bricks or in a slotted plastic tube. (You can buy heaters with plastic covers now. And also unbreakable heaters.) If the glass heater breaks, both you and your turtle can get electrocuted. You can make a protective corner for the heater using bricks or tiles.

Check the literature for the correct temperature for your turtleLower 80is is a good general range. The warmer the water  the more active the turtles, but also the more bacteria in the water.

Be sure the temperature is not too low, because it will put the turtle into a state, where it is too warm for hibernation and too cold to eat and move, and it will die. It is OK for the temperature to drop during the night, but you don't want it go go below about 65F.

Lighting

The basking light should be on about 12 hours a day. If you can vary it with the seasons, that's great. Turning it off at night provides a bit of cooling (the water heating still keeps the water warm). You can use a regular incandescent bulb or a ceramic heat bulb for a basking light. Make sure you use appropriate fixtures for the wattage.

The fluorescent UVA/UVB Reptile light should be on about 12-14 hours a day. Put the lights on timers. The fluorescent light should ideally be only a few inches away from the turtles when they are basking, and do not put the plastic cover on the hood! (It will filter the light.) Turtles need UVA and UVB light to make Vitamin D3; they are also more active if provided with fluorescent light. (So supplementing D3 isn't quite equivalent.)


Basic Outdoor Setup

A children's wading pool in a yard or on a balcony makes a great home for a water turtle. Make sure it gets cleaned often enough  and has sun and shade throughout the day. Put some rocks or logs into the pool, so the animal can climb out and bask. This is a summer setup only. In winter, this pool is not deep enough for proper hibernation, and without hibernation, it's too cold in most areas for the turtles to stay outside. 
Make sure, the pool is high enough, so your turtle cannot escape. If  you provide a land area outside the pool, fence it properly. Most turtles climb surprisingly well, and they can dig, too!
If there are any cats and raccoons in the area, cover the pool, or your pet will get eaten. Insect screen is good. Make a frame that fits the tub from 1x2s, then put screen on it. Then clamp it down. Racoons are very clever at getting to turtles.

 A pond of any size. Read more at Pond basics.


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