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!
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.