13 Steps for Creating an Awesome Pet Turtle Habitat

Setting up the perfect home for your shelled friend doesn’t have to difficult. This article takes the guesswork out of it.

I don’t need much, I promise!

We’re all animal lovers here, but some people don’t want a snuggly type of pet or have really busy schedules that don’t allow for dog walks. If this sounds like you, might we suggest a pet turtle?

Much like finches, turtles prefer to be left alone and admired instead of handled. Turtles can be low maintenance and easy to care for, but the key to their health and happiness is a proper habitat. Although you can certainly spend a small fortune on turtle housing and accessories, you can also create a turtle habitat on your own.

Turtles in History

Turtles have been around for millions of years, and the oldest ones have lived to just under 200 years. They have an ancient history dating before some dinosaurs and have been part of mythology and folklore. These reptiles come in many sizes, shapes and colors and 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. Show and tell should be left to the furry guys!

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

Tortoises spend most of their time on land and only use water for bathing and drinking. They are not good swimmers and are prone to drowning, so it is important to know exactly what type of turtle you have or are looking to adopt. This will ensure you provide the correct habitat for your new pet.

Tanks for the Turtles

The most common indoor habitat for a turtle is an aquarium. There are several key requirements for the tank:

  1. Water is the key requirement. Non-chlorinated water is best for the tank and should be added according to your turtle’s specific needs (aquatics need 75% water habitats, semi-aquatic 50%, and tortoises 25% or less and very shallow). Natural spring water should be available for drinking at all times and changed daily.
  2. Fresh air screen cover for ventilation
  3. UV heat and light with timer, if available, to mimic natural light patterns (UVA and UVB bulbs). UV rays help the turtle get vitamin D3 to stay healthy.
  4. Thermometers for air and water temperatures (air should be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, water mid-70s).
  5. Filter — the bigger the better. Review the size of the openings and intake area to ensure the turtle cannot be harmed or get part of his body wedged in the filter.
  6. Tanning beds are for turtles too! Your turtle needs a basking area; make sure the land area is not too high or close to the top of the aquarium or near the bulb, where the turtle might accidentally burn himself. Use a 60-watt basking lamp to produce temperatures of 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. You can reduce the air temperature by 10 degrees at night.
  7. A heater is necessary to keep the water warm. Use a heating pad under the tank or a submersible heater in the water to maintain water temperatures in the mid-70s.
  8. ReptoGuard is a slow release water conditioner that helps control disease-causing organisms.
  9. Ramps or altered terrain for the turtle to climb when it needs to get out of the water.
  10. Items within the tank should not allow the turtle to become stuck or restrict navigation in water or on land.
  11. Place the tank in a low-traffic area of the home that does not experience extreme temperature or light changes.
  12. Bigger is better when it comes to size. Small baby turtles can grow quite a lot in their average life span of 30 years, so start with a minimum tank size of 40 gallons. This will ensure your turtle has plenty of space and you won’t have to buy another tank as it grows.
  13. Regulate the men! Male turtles are known for fighting, so it is best to house only one male with females or only females together.

You can add live or plastic vegetation to enhance your turtle’s home. Plastic versions should be cleaned and free from loose parts (the turtle may attempt 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.

Medical Concerns (For You and the Turtle)

Which way to the spa?

Turtles can carry salmonella. If you are expecting a family, have young children, have elderly residents in your home or anyone with a suppressed immune system, a turtle may not be the best addition to your family. Remember to wash your hands after handling your turtle.

There are several items you should avoid adding to the habitat. Gravel, glass, tree bark and wood chips can be consumed by your turtle. There is also a risk that your turtle could ingest these items, they can become contaminated or cause choking. You can use gravel if the individual pieces are at least two times the size of your turtle’s head.

Signs of illness can include soft shells, cloudy skin patches or milky eyes; these symptoms indicate poor nutrition or illness. If you recognize these signs, take your turtle to an experienced reptile veterinarian.

Turtles can die from living in a dirty tank full of waste, so clean the tank once per week, first placing your turtle in a safe, ventilated container away from other pets. Make sure the container is not kept in an area too different from the habitat temperature. Clean the tank with bleach diluted in water and allow to fully dry before adding water and contents back into the tank.

Improper temperatures can cause a lack of appetite, illness and even premature death in turtles. Check the temperature often to ensure the water and air are at accurate levels and your heating elements are working. Change the UV bulbs every six months to ensure effectiveness.

Expert Tim Cole discusses some illnesses and warning signs:


Outdoor turtles are more likely to hibernate in the fall. Indoor turtles may never reach a period of hibernation, and it is not recommended to place turtles in cold areas (such as a refrigerator) to promote hibernation. A stable level of cold will be impossible to maintain for a long period of time and a simple power outage can cause a drastic change in temperature. Remember that turtles can’t handle temperature change well and can be susceptible to illness or death.

What to Feed Your Turtle

Turtles have specific dietary needs. Land turtles tend to be strictly vegan, but most indoor turtles are aquatic. Aside from any live plants you add to the habitat, you’ll need to stock their habitats with nutritious food.

Turtles like to hunt! Adding a few small live fish once per week will provide nutrition and promote exercise. Turtle sticks are popular, and you can also feed your turtle snails, earthworms, bugs and leafy vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, alfalfa, clover and many more). Tortoises prefer carrots, berries and leafy greens.

Outdoor Habitats

Outdoor homes are not common for turtles, but they are suitable environments in the right climates. Check out Tortoise Trust’s Amazing Outdoor Habitat Guide for specific information on creating an outdoor oasis for your turtle.

Turtles can be beautiful and relaxing creatures to watch, and their maintenance is minimal. If you have the time to provide food, change the drinking water each day and clean the tank once a week, you will have a happy pet that might live as long as you do!

Video Instructions

Additional Resources

Photos: delta407 (top), David Spreekmeester/Flickr

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, has been researching dog and cat breeds for nearly a decade and has observed the animals up close at dog shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has researched and written about pet behaviors and care for many years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, another bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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