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How to Care for Aquatic Turtles (Such as Red-Eared Sliders)

Are you ready for a years-long commitment? Here’s how to care for aquatic turtles — including instructions for creating the perfect turtle habitat.

Make sure you’re aware of what it actually takes to care for aquatic turtles. Pictured is a baby Red-Eared Slider. Photo: cinder6

If you’re wondering how to care for aquatic turtles such as the Red-Eared Slider, this article will be a good place to start your research.

Aquatic turtles emerge from their eggs as quarter-sized miniatures, usually more colorful than adults.

But these reptiles quickly start putting on size within months and will outgrow any accommodations meant for babies.

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In the slider family of turtles, adults can reach sizes big enough to fit on a large dinner plate:

  • Male slider turtles typically reach 7–8 inches in straight carapace length
  • Female slider turtles can reach 12 inches. In person, this is quite an impressive bulk.

Housing adult aquatic turtles is the primary issue that leads people to give them up or outright abandon the pet turtles.

A lot of people buy a baby turtle sold in a tiny critter-keeper, never thinking that these turtles will grow to need a much larger tank or even an outdoor pond.

It’s extremely important to research any animal before bringing them home so you know you can handle the responsibility.

How to Care for Aquatic Turtles
The Red-Eared Slider is one of the most common pet turtles. Photo: Filio

Know Your Aquatic Turtle

These reptiles come in many sizes, shapes and colors, and many are fast swimmers.

Turtles are cold-blooded creatures that are very sensitive to temperature changes, so it’s important to keep them in their habitat. In other words, leave show-and-tell to the furry pets.

Aquatic turtles spend most of their time underwater. In fact, turtle habitats are usually 75% water (semi-aquatic turtles need only 50% water).

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Turtles may be slow on land, but their webbed feet allow them to swim fast. Aquatic turtles usually go onto land to bask in the sun or lay eggs, while semi-aquatics spend more time on land and may not be the best swimmers.

Common Aquatic Turtle: The Red-Eared Slider

Perhaps the most commonly kept turtle in captivity and the most notorious for its hardiness is the Red-Eared Slider.

Thanks in large part to both the pet trade and irresponsible caretakers, this species has established populations on every continent — except Antarctica.

The Red-Eared Slider can outbreed and outcompete most native turtles living in waterways all over the world. Also, they will breed with closely related species, such as the Yellow-Bellied Slider.

What Happens When People Abandon Pet Turtles?

People who no longer want to care for their pet turtles will release them into local waterways, believing that they will lead free, happy lives.

This is anything but the truth.

  • Most “released” pet turtles will die of starvation without knowing where to find food.
  • Or a predator will catch them.
  • Very cold temperatures during winter will also kill abandoned pet turtles.
  • Released pet turtles may introduce disease or infection to wild turtles, which could have potentially devastating effects on local populations.

The sellers are as much to blame for this as careless buyers.

Unscrupulous people out to make quick money will conveniently leave out vital information that people need in order to properly care for aquatic turtles. Telling them the truth would drive more customers away, costing them their sales.

In fact, when most people are made aware of what it actually takes to care for aquatic turtles, they realize they don’t really want one anymore.

Only the most dedicated people will strive to keep their turtles healthy and happy — and that’s for the best.

It’s important to know how big your pet aquatic turtle will get so you can provide appropriate housing for them. Photo: zoosnow

How to Care for Aquatic Turtles

Although you can certainly spend a small fortune on turtle housing and accessories, you can also create an aquatic turtle habitat on your own if you have DIY skills. Outdoor ponds will be much more of an investment, but well worth it if planned well.

Planning ahead means you can keep your pet turtle for years to come.

The difference in size between the sexes can help you figure out the habitat size you’ll need to set up when the turtle is fully grown.

Determining sex can be tricky in the first few years, but once you know, you can plan out what they’ll need in the long run. Male turtles are known for fighting, so it’s best to house only one male with females or only females together.

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Housing Aquatic Turtles in an Outdoor Pond

Outdoor homes are not common for turtles, but they are suitable environments in the right climates. A pond is the most natural setting for aquatic turtles, and the sun provides heat and light for free.

  • Build an outdoor pond that’s secure from predators. Raccoons, birds and other animals may try to eat your turtles. Overhead netting may deter predators.
  • You will also need to keep your turtles from escaping your yard should they decide to climb out of the pond. Building a wall or fence around the pond that is high enough to keep them in should do the trick.

You can build the pond as big as you like. Add plants and fish, too.

Pond building, as well as maintenance, is more complicated than keeping turtles in an indoor aquarium. Outdoor ponds are a lot to invest in, and they require the right planning if they’re going to work long term. The rules of filtration and water quality are no different outdoors, and factors such as rain and leaf litter can make things difficult.

With all that said, though, a pond can be a wonderful feature of your property for years to come.

Some of the most beautiful ponds I’ve ever seen have been those constructed in backyards — having one with personable turtles is a nice bonus.

Housing Aquatic Turtles in an Aquarium

The most common indoor habitat for a turtle is an aquarium.

You will need to factor in the adult size of your turtle when deciding what size tank they need.

Aquarium size for larger aquatic turtles, such as the Red-Eared Slider:

  • Males can do well in a 75-gallon aquarium if they get no larger than 6 inches in length. If they continue to grow or if you want them to have more room, 100 gallons is a better option.
  • For females, 125–150 gallons is the minimum aquarium size you’ll need.

Aquarium size for smaller species, such as Mud, Musk and some Map turtles:

  • These smaller turtle species will remain small enough to live in a 40- to 55-gallon tank.

De-chlorinated water is best for the tank. Larger aquatics need 75% water habitats, while smaller Mud and Musk turtles like shallow water.

Housing Aquatic Turtles in a Stock Tank

You can use these tanks indoors or outdoors. They are a bit cheaper than glass aquariums and offer plenty of swimming room for turtles.

Multiple sizes are available:

  • Some stock tanks have a drain plug for letting out water. This can help with water changes if used outdoors.
  • Indoors, the drain plugs need to be sealed with “aquarium safe” silicone to prevent leaking.

Turtles need a basking area when they climb out of the water to fully dry and heat their bodies to proper temperatures. You can add a floating log of cork bark, rocks at the edge of the pond or a platform you build yourself for this purpose.

There are several commercially available products that will offer your turtle a small area to bask on. They vary in size, and you’ll need to decide which can support the weight of your turtle.

Larger turtles will cause some ramps to sink, and you may need to make your own basking platform in order to support their bulk. Larger pieces of driftwood might work, too, but you’ll need to secure them in place in a tank.

Bringing a turtle into your home means doing your homework on their needs. Photo: raymondhal

Heating and Lighting for Aquatic Turtle Aquariums

If you’re housing the aquatic turtles indoors, you’ll need to provide heating and lighting.

  • Floodlight clamp fixtures are excellent heat sources. These fixtures have a clamp to attach them above the basking area. Always make sure the lights are secured so they don’t fall in the water — or on your turtle.
  • You can use regular incandescent bulbs, or those sold for reptiles, for this fixture.

The basking range for slider turtles is 86–93 F. Check the water temperature using a floating thermometer.

Depending on the climate in your area, you may also need a tank heater:

  • Maintain the water temperature in the range of 72–76 F for adult aquatic turtles.
  • The temperature should be 78–80 F for hatchlings and small juveniles.

Generally, water temperatures in the mid-70s are appropriate for most species, however, do research to make sure what your turtle’s tolerance range is. Water that is either too cold or too warm can potentially cause health issues.

  • Submersible heaters can be programmed to warm the water to specific temperatures, and they are especially helpful if you live in a cold climate.
  • Several brands of these tank heaters are available, and all are rated according to the size of aquariums.

Because turtles can be inquisitive with objects in their environment, you may want to have a guard covering the heater so that the turtle doesn’t burn themselves.

  • Drill holes into a piece of PVC pipe more than the width of the heater, and slide this over the heater for protection.
  • The holes will allow heat to escape while the pipe itself creates a barrier from the turtle.

Also, know that UVB lighting is of the highest importance in maintaining reptile health.

This light, normally received by the animals from sunlight, allows the turtles’ bodies to metabolize Vitamin D. Without it, a turtle’s shell can deform, and their bones weaken.

  • You can buy UVB bulbs as florescent tubes made for different lengths of enclosure. The goal is to cover the basking area. Place the UVB bulbs in a shop-light fixture from a hardware store.
  • You’ll need to replace these bulbs every 6 months because the UVB output degrades over time. This can get expensive, but in the long run it will save your turtle unpleasant health issues — and save you money on vet bills.
  • Using a timer to regulate when these lights go on and off is helpful in creating a daily routine for your pet. Timers are reasonably cheap, and you can buy one at just about any hardware store.
Learn how to create a turtle habitat correctly. Photo: Yavanessa

Filtration for Aquatic Turtle Aquariums

The bigger the filter, the better:

  • A rule of thumb with aquatic turtles is to have a filter that can turn over the volume of the tank 2–3 times per hour.
  • This will ensure that you’re getting strong filtration throughout the day. Aquatic turtles can create a lot of waste, and the bigger they are, the better the filter needs to be.

I strongly recommend canister filters for their efficiency and ample space for various types of media.

The Rena Filstar series of filters are great, and they have several sizes according to tank sizes. They have compartments for bio-media, activated carbon and sponges.

Be sure to review the size of the openings and intake area to ensure your turtle can’t be harmed or get part of their body wedged in the filter. Of course, this goes for everything in the tank — make sure there’s nothing that can cause the turtle to become stuck or restrict navigation in water.

Water Changes

One of the most important things you will need to do is weekly water changes for your turtle’s tank.

This is to maintain water quality since the waste builds up over time. An aquarium siphon and a 5-gallon bucket are essential parts of your turtle-keeping supplies.

Try to change out about 20% of the tank’s total volume each week. Turtles are tough animals, but if their water quality is allowed to deteriorate over the long term they will develop health problems.

Test the water occasionally to keep an eye on water chemistry:

  • I use API’s 5-in-1 Test Strips to give me the rundown of my turtle’s water quality.
  • An ammonia test is another thing you should have on hand, because ammonia is the most harmful byproduct of waste in an aquarium. Ammonia can actually burn the eyes and skin of turtles, so don’t let your water quality nosedive.

These testing kits are worth having around to save you some peace of mind.

care-for-pet-turtle
The species of the turtle is important for their care. Photo: Clara S.

Plants

Add live or plastic vegetation to enhance your turtle’s home.

Clean all plastic versions and make sure they have no loose parts (the turtle may try to eat parts of the fake plant).

Live plants are great additions to your turtle’s diet, but make sure the plants you choose are not poisonous to your pet turtle.

  • Most sliders will devour any vegetation in the tank — they are notorious for their voracious appetites.
  • If you want a tank with live plants, Painted, Musk and Mud turtles are better options.

Tank Placement

Place the tank in an area of the home that doesn’t experience extreme temperature or light changes.

Placing a turtle’s tank in direct sunlight from a nearby window or near an air-conditioning vent is a bad idea because of temperature sensitivity. Direct sunlight can overheat the tank and contribute to algae growth, and an A/C vent will drop the air temperature of the basking area.

Check out this awesome pet turtle habitat for a Red-Eared Slider:

What to Feed Your Pet Turtle

You’ll want to offer a good-quality pellet as a staple of the diet.

Mazuri, Reptomin and Zoo Med all make great options for pellets.

Baby aquatic turtles will start out carnivorous, and later into adulthood they become omnivores. As they reach about 1 year old, start offering more plant matter into their diet. Overfeeding protein can lead to kidney issues and obesity in these animals, so avoid doing so.

Great vegetables to offer your pet turtle:

  • Spring mix
  • Endive
  • Escarole
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Zucchini
  • Most varieties of squash (Make sure to cook the squash.)

I like to have greens like the spring mix always floating in the tank so my turtle has something to munch on if I don’t feed him on some days during the week.

Give fruits as treats in very small amounts.

The following fruits are safe to feed a pet turtle every once in a while:

  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Strawberry
  • Blueberry
  • Blackberry
  • Raspberry
  • Papaya

Insect feeders of any kind are almost always accepted by aquatic turtles. Don’t be surprised if your turtle accidentally bites you trying to get them.

The following critters make exciting treats for turtles:

  • Crickets
  • Mealworms
  • Superworms
  • Phoenix worms
  • Hornworms
  • Roaches

Just as with the pellets, don’t overfeed these items.

How Long Do Aquatic Turtles Live as Pets?

Thanks to their perseverance and tough bodies, these reptiles can push on for decades, sometimes outliving their people.

There are turtles still alive today that were bought as hatchlings in the 1960s!

That should give any potential buyer a moment of pause.

  • Are you ready to care for aquatic turtles that long?
  • Do you know where you will take them if you can no longer care for them?
  • Are you prepared to put them in your will should they outlive you? (Seriously.)

Some turtles make it into their 20s, 40s and even 60s if well cared for. It all depends on the care they are given and underlying health problems. Sometimes genetics can play a part in longevity, but it’s hard to say.

The main point here? Please be prepared and plan ahead.

Personable Reptiles

Many people think of reptiles as emotionless machines, but this attitude is slowly beginning to change.

With education and the experience of caring for aquatic turtles, you’ll realize that these little dinosaurs are more clever than they let on.

Do Pet Turtles Recognize Their Owners?

Yes, they are very aware of who gives them food and can even recognize your face. Pet turtles will learn to trust the strange 2-legged beings who clean their tanks or ponds and will even follow them around.

If your tank is in a high traffic area, your turtles may become professional beggars — but don’t overfeed them. Other turtle species can be shy or stressed by human activity, so keep their disposition in mind when you’re deciding where to place their tank.

How Smart Are Pet Turtles?

If you give them toys, turtles may be curious and investigate the objects. Some pet turtles even allow their people to give them neck rubs or scratch an itchy shell.

Can My Pet Turtle Make Me Sick?

Turtles can carry salmonella. Maintain proper hand-washing protocol to lower your risk of exposure to salmonella.

Clorox wipes are great for wiping down any surfaces that may have been contaminated. I’ve had turtles for about 7 years and haven’t had any issues.

If you have young children or elderly residents in your home or anyone with a suppressed immune system, be vigilant about hygiene practices:

  • Because turtles aren’t usually handled, there should be no risks posed as long as you clean all surfaces after tank maintenance.
  • Supervise young children around the tank so they don’t try to touch anything and then put their fingers in their mouths.

You are more likely to get salmonella poisoning from raw eggs or meat than you are from a pet turtle. Just maintain cleaning and hand-washing, and you should be fine.

Baby red-eared slider turtle
Know what it takes to care for your Red-Eared Slider. Photo: fixersphoto

Safety and Health Concerns With Pet Turtles

There are several items you should avoid adding to your turtle habitat:

  • Gravel — turtles can eat gravel, causing impactions.
  • Large rocks are safe if they are far larger than your turtle’s head. A bare bottom tank is also an option.

Signs of illness in a pet turtle can include:

  • Soft shells
  • Cloudy skin patches
  • Milky eyes

These symptoms indicate poor nutrition or illness. If you recognize these signs, take your turtle to an experienced reptile veterinarian.

Hibernation

Outdoor turtles are more likely to hibernate in the fall.

Ponds should be at least 2 feet in depth to allow turtles to safely hibernate. Some species may still need to be brought indoors during winter because they have lower tolerances for cold weather.

Another concern for hibernating turtles is their overall health. If a turtle has an underlying health problem, it is possible that this can kill them as they hibernate.

For all hibernating turtles, it’s a good idea to have them checked over by a vet to make sure it’s safe for them to bed down for the winter months. Many people have lost turtles this way, so catch any issues early.

Indoor turtles may never reach a period of hibernation, and we don’t recommend placing turtles in cold areas (such as a refrigerator) to promote hibernation. Indoor turtles will be fine even if they don’t hibernate — continue to care for them just as you would during the rest of the year.

Do’s and Don’ts With Pet Turtles

  • Do read everything you can about the species of turtle you decide to bring home. Plenty of resources cover the proper habitat, diet and health aspects of care for each species.
  • Do make sure you’re prepared to care for the animal for the duration of their life, which could be 20 years or more.
  • Don’t buy any turtle on impulse. Set up the tank and test the temperatures at least a few days before getting turtles. You want them to be comfortable and safe.
  • Do have a vet experienced in caring for turtles lined up in case you need them. If your turtle becomes ill, someone who has experience treating turtles is vital. There are online directories of recommended vets. You can also ask a local reptile club.

Final Thoughts on How to Care for Aquatic Turtles

Aquatic turtles can be incredibly rewarding pets for the right people. If you have the time to provide food and clean the tank once a week, you will have a happy pet that might live as long as you do.

But please do your research before bringing one home. Learn as much as you can.

If you’re ready to make a turtle part of your family, please consider adopting an aquatic turtle rather than buying one from a pet store, where the animals are sometimes mistreated or neglected.

Just as with cats and dogs, there are many pet turtles out there in need of new, loving homes.

* * *

Petful editor in chief Kristine Lacoste contributed to this article.

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Angela DeRiso

View posts by Angela DeRiso
Angela DeRiso is passionate about exotic animals, especially reptiles — she has hands-on experience caring for a number of them over the years. Angela works to educate the public on proper care and husbandry of reptiles through local public outreach events and in her writing. Her articles have been published by HealthyPets, Tampa Bay House Rabbit Rescue, Animal Bliss, the Suncoast Herpetological Society and Reptiles magazine. Angela also works as an artist creating colored pencil illustrations featuring reptiles and amphibians in fantasy settings to spread the love for these underrated animals, and she runs a YouTube channel in which she shares her artistic process and her love for her own reptiles.

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