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Keeping Aquatic Turtles as Pets

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 26 Aug 2019 | comments*Discuss
Pet Turtles Aquatic Turtles Keeping

Turtles are endlessly fascinating and are often popular choices as pets, although most people do not realise the amount of work and effort needed to care for them properly, including large tanks special lighting, good filtration and lots and lots of cleaning!

Which Turtle?

For beginners, the best choice is an abundant local species, bred from captivity. These not only do not have to adjust to different climates and seasons, they will also be used to a captive environment and adapt more easily to the presence of people. They are also less likely to be harbouring diseases and parasites. Another option is to adopt a turtle that needs a new home. Never take a turtle from the wild if possible as wild populations are already being threatened by human encroachment into their habitat.

Good species for beginners include the red-eared sliders, the most well-known pet turtle, and the cooters, mud and musk turtles. Remember, though, that many of these, if healthy and properly-cared for, grow to 12 inches or more and will require a significantly large enclosure. In addition, turtles will live for decades and as such are a long-term commitment.

Housing Your Turtle

The biggest problem people don't realise is that these little reptiles have fairly sophisticated housing requirements. For younger, smaller specimens, a 10-gallon tank is the minimum; as the turtles grow and mature, a twenty-gallon tank or even larger is highly recommended. Don't forget that a larger tank will provide more room for swimming and basking and will therefore need less cleaning.

The tank needs to contain at least 6 inches of water (deep enough for the turtle to flip over if necessary) and also have an elevated area when the turtle can bask, completely dry from the water. This can be as simple as a pile of aquarium gravel or smooth rocks at one end of the tank, although pet stores will sell other manufactured alternatives. If you have more than one turtle, make sure that the basking area is large enough to accommodate them all simultaneously.

Filtration is an extremely important requirement as turtles are very messy creatures and produce a copious amount of waste. Canister filters are ideal and it is always better to go for something slightly larger than your needs than something which may turn out to be inadequate.

Regular cleaning of the tank is vital to keeping the turtle healthy (and this is the area most people fall down on); by the time the water in the tank turns cloudy or starts to smell, it is too late! It is also important to drain a third of the tank water regularly and replace it with fresh, de-chlorinated water of the same temperature. In addition, keep an eye on the tank itself, the basking area and any other objects inside the tank as these need to be thoroughly scrubbed whenever grime begins to accumulate.

Heating and Lighting

Like all reptiles, turtles need to be provided with an artificial heat source and ideally should be kept at a constant ambient temperature of between 68-80 degrees F all year round. As turtles hibernate, any temperature lower than this range may cause it to stop feeding and prepare for hibernation. The best choice is a submersible water heater (with a thermometer installed in the water to monitor temperature). Further basking heat can be provided by installing a heat lamp above the elevated area.

Aside from heat, turtles need to have regular exposure to UV light in order to manufacture Vitamin D and prevent metabolic bone diseases. If you cannot provide enough strong, direct sunlight, this may need to come via special fluorescent bulbs.

Feeding Your Turtle

Most turtles are omnivores and thrive on a varied diet. Thus commercial turtle foods on their own may be insufficient. It should be supplemented with raw fish, insects, worms and aquatic plants although try to avoid foods which rapidly decompose in water and always remove uneaten food promptly. It is recommended that turtles be fed in a separate plastic container (e.g. cat litter tray filled with water) as they are extremely messy eaters and this will help to contain the mess as well as reduce the need for frequent tank cleaning. This also allows you to monitor your turtle's food intake. Turtles like routine and so should be fed according to a schedule. Also, unlike many other reptiles, turtles can become obese if given too much food and thus need to be monitored for their own health.

Turtles and Children

Despite their traditional popularity as pets for children, turtles are not actually a good choice of pet for kids. Not only do most children not have the ability or inclination to provide the necessary level of care and cleaning a turtle needs, they also do not understand the need for careful hygiene. This is an important issue as turtles, even healthy specimens, can harbour the Salmonella bacteria which is easily transmitted to children through handling and can cause serious illness, even death in very young children. While the risk is easily minimised with good hygiene practices, such as washing hands with warm, soapy water immediately after any contact with a turtle or turtle tank, it is still not advisable for children to keep turtles without adult supervision.

While it may all seem like a lot of work and hassle, turtles can make wonderful, rewarding pets in the right hands.

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[Add a Comment]
Hello! I’m writing since I’m probably moving to the UK the upcoming months because of work and I have a turtle as a pet since its only 5 years old. I cannot find any information on how to bring it to the UK with me Can you please help me get information about it? Any links or emails to ask about how to bring my turtle from Spain to the UK? Hope you can help me with this information!
Jacobz - 26-Aug-19 @ 8:07 PM
Hi..I'm looking for advice..I have two turtles that were rehomedto me because their owner had no time for them.one is male a yellow bellied one and very calm ..he is about a year and a half old ..he loves getting attention ..the other one is about 8 months old ..she is small and very dark in colour.. She is really aggressive ..she bites us when we try and pick her up ..she attacks the bigger turtle.. Biting him ... It's gone to the stage where the kids don't want anything to do with her .. Any advice.. They are in a very large well maintained tank..
C - 23-Aug-18 @ 8:12 AM
@VictorMonahan -Don't order it online, unless you want to reinforce cruelty. These animals should be left in the habitat they come from. It's unfair and they are a massive amount of responsibility and it will get lonely. If you love animals - be less selfish and let them be free.
Jo - 19-Jun-18 @ 2:27 PM
I’m planning on getting a baby musk turtle. I’m going to get a water heater, a filter, a basking spot, lamps with UVB and heat, clean water, I’m gonna start with feeding it pellets and then I’ll start giving it cut up fish and earth worms. He’s going in a 20 gallon 3 foot tank. And I’m going to do more research but I’m really scared I’m ordering it online from Underground reptiles and I hope it doesn’t arrive dead. Any other things I should know or do with the musk turtle?
VictorMonahan - 17-Jun-18 @ 10:50 PM
rob - Your Question:
I have three freshwater turtles I want to set free and want the best for them was should I do take them to a vet or set them free in was kind of water is depth important?Please respond quickly !Thank you

Our Response:
Your turtle will surely die if you release it into any pond or lake as they are non-native to this climate and as they have been reared in captivity they cannot fend for themselves. I would contact your vet to see what other options you may have.
ReptileExpert - 25-Apr-16 @ 3:05 PM
I have three freshwater turtles I want to set free and want the best for them was should i dotake them to a vet or set them free in was kind of water is depth important?Please respond quickly !Thank you
rob - 23-Apr-16 @ 6:27 PM
Mandy1965 - Your Question:
I have three musk turtles, the are around 6 years old, one of them has become swollen under her shell, eating ok but spends lot af time out of water basking. The water is clean. Any advise why this could be ???

Our Response:
You would really need to visit your vet as it could be a number of problems including a kidney or bacterial infection, but it would need a proper diagnosis.
ReptileExpert - 1-Apr-16 @ 1:49 PM
I have three musk turtles, the are around 6 years old, one of them has become swollen under her shell, eating ok but spends lot af time out of water basking. The water is clean. Any advise why this could be ???
Mandy1965 - 1-Apr-16 @ 1:26 AM
joe - Your Question:
I've got 145l storage box is 2 and half foot long by 2 which I keep my yellow belly slider in its over half full with water has a above tank basking area which is half 5he size so she has all the room under it to swim, external canister filter, I was just wanting to know if it is enough for as she is just under 1 and 1/2ys and is 8 inch already will I need to get a bigger one

Our Response:
A 'minimum' of a 36 inch (91+cm) aquarium is required. .As you may know they can grow from 8-10" long. It also requires enough water to turn around easily and a depth of (41- 46 cm) is recommended. The larger space it has, the better.
ReptileExpert - 10-Dec-15 @ 12:17 PM
I've got 145l storage box is 2 and half foot long by 2 which I keep my yellow belly slider in its over half full with water has a above tank basking area which is half 5he size so she has all the room under it to swim, external canister filter, I was just wanting to know if it is enoughfor as she is just under 1 and 1/2ys and is 8 inch already will I need to get a bigger one
joe - 9-Dec-15 @ 1:01 PM
Hi! Could anybody tell me wich injectable multy-vitamins can be used by hypovitamibosis A for red-eared slider turtle? Please help! My friend`s little boy is ill((( In Russia my other friends use Eleovit, Helthyvit, Multivet 0,6 ml/kg.....But I can`t find these products here in Finland...There are no herpetologists in my town(((
marina - 18-Nov-15 @ 7:06 AM
I have two musk turtles that I bought about a year ago.I was totally missed these.The aquarium owner said that they did not grow bigger than they were when I bought them (about 1.5 inches), needed one piece of shrimp a day and the water only had to be changed every six months.This, as I've found out through experience, was all wrong.My question is: how much should I feed them?The turtle food box says as much as they can eat 3-4 times a day so I've been feeding them about three times a day (but not as much as they can eat).They have grown quite a lot (they're about 1.5 times bigger than they were when I got them), swim around, bask and seem happy.A friend also bought two musk turtles at the same time from the same shop.She has continued to take the aquarium owner's advice i.e. giving each turtle one about one piece of shrimp a day and other tiddly titbits.Her turtles haven't grown at all and seem to spend a lot of time hiding away.She thinks I'm over-feeding mine, I think she's starving hers.Help!Who's right??
Jacq - 3-Nov-15 @ 11:44 PM
@Steve - they were based on the Red-eared Slider Turtle and when the series first came out people were buying them, but began releasing them into local ponds when they grew too large. Please be warned that as specified in the article they can grow to 12 inches or more and will require a significantly large enclosure as they are strong and active swimmers. In addition, they can live for decades and as such are a long-term commitment. I can't recommend specific retailers, you would have to conduct your own research there, but good luck finding the pet you want.
ReptileExpert - 20-Apr-15 @ 9:59 AM
Hi I'm a noob to keeping turtles and im thinking about getting two baby turtles I can't remember what type they are but they look like the tmnt turtles anyway I'm thinking 2 things number 1:how much will it cost to set it up 2:does anyone know a reliable source for the turtles I want food and all the other stuff thank you for your time reading this and someone please reply soon
Steve - 16-Apr-15 @ 11:46 AM
Hi I bought a turtle yesterday he seems ok eating well although he's not basking he's pretty much staying in the water but the problem I have is controlling the temprature the water is currently 81f iv had to turn off the water heater and the basking lamp as I think it's providing too much heat for him I have the uv bulb on any help would be greatly appreciated
Coxy - 6-Aug-14 @ 4:27 PM
Hi, I am a first timer. I want a small turtle so I can give it a good quality of life. I want to consider the conservation of turtles as I am looking for a pet turtle. I don't want to endorse wild caught or captive farmed turtles. The problem is I am from Ireland and don't know where to go to source a captive bred turtle as a pet. Any advise or contacts?
Maia - 2-Aug-14 @ 12:38 PM
Hi there, I was wondering if you could help me. I have just got two lovely musk turtles and they are doing well (growing very fast). I was wondering what is the quickest and easiest way to clean the sand in their tank?The canister filter is doing fine but there is a slight build up of 'stuff' on parts of the sand. I have a gravel siphon which I have used for my fish, but wouldn't this just suck up all the sand as well?Do I need to take out all the sand and clean it? If so how often should this be done? Thanks for your time and expertise. Jo
Jo - 11-Aug-13 @ 7:20 PM
I go away for few days, but my turtles needed to be feed, what can I do? Please let me know, many thanks.
lai - 4-Aug-13 @ 9:12 PM
LIVY - 7-Oct-12 @ 12:40 PM
I have just set up my tank as home to two Emerald Musk turtles. I am keeping the water at a temperature of 26 F but the tank keeps steaming up. How can I stop this? Mant thanks Livy
Livy - 24-Aug-12 @ 12:53 AM
hi i have started to set up a 2ft tank for two baby yellow belly slider turtles. i have a submersable heater and im not sure what temp it should be set on can anyone help please ? thanks
kel - 25-May-12 @ 9:07 PM
I am thinking of getting a mississipi map turtle and I wanted to get two males I am not sure weather or not you can keep two males together. also we were wondering if it was at allpolible to eel some fish with them. at the bottom of the tank am planing to put sand do I need special sand or can I clean bilkers sand and use that? thank you
ponypud - 9-Apr-12 @ 4:31 PM
I have 2 musk turtles (1 male 1 female) have had them for years. Someone is needing to sell their 2 ridgeback turtles (1 male 1 female) can you tell me if I got a bigger tank would the two different types be ok together?
KJ87 - 12-Feb-12 @ 8:46 PM
Hi there ive just turned 18 and im thinking about getting a turtle, i also have two tortoises, could you tell me how much im looking at for a starting pack + the turtle itself?
Wakey118 - 19-Jan-12 @ 10:05 PM
My musk turtle doesn't seem to go on his basking area! Would there be any reasons for this? I have all the necessary lighting equipment! He is a baby and I've only had him for a few days! Any help would be great thanks.
madmurdoch - 2-Jun-11 @ 5:51 PM
I have a 2ft tank can you advise how many turtles I can keep. Many thanks
louise - 7-Apr-11 @ 11:02 PM
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