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A Basic Guide to Healthy, Happy Turtles

Geek!This is Mark Adkins’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

Most commonly-kept water turtles, like the Red-ear Slider or the Painted Turtle, have three basic things they need to be happy and healthy.

The first basic necessity is good water. Turtles want and need a lot of warm, clean water. By ‘a lot’, we mean that they need enough space to exercise in, move in, hunt in, hide in, and feel safe in. The recommended guide is about ten gallons of water for every inch of shell length, with 10 gallons being the absolute minimum. If you have more than one turtle, just add the lengths of the shells. This contradicts what many pet shops or other resources say, but in the wild these turtles have large home territories and do not like to share them with other turtles (with basking and mating being the main exceptions). Remember to take the adult size and growth rate of your turtle into account when planning the tank size- most water turtles will hit about 4″ within four years.

The water should be warm, about 75-80F. For most of us, this means a good submersible heater with a thermostat. It is often smarter and safer to use two or more of these in bigger tanks. They will heat more evenly and can provide back up to each other if one goes out. Be sure to put some sort of guard or barrier around yours to protect curious turtles from burning themselves on it. Adjust the temperatures based on behavior. If they are hiding in warm areas, boost the temps a little. If they are cowering from the heat, cool it down a bit.

Clean water not only controls the smell that turtles are famous for, it is a key element in keeping any animal healthy when they routinely soil it. Some people think that since they come from dirty lagoons, the water can be dirty- but that ignores the natural processes that help control bacteria and disease but that are not happening in the indoor tank. Some people do frequent water changes, but this stresses the turtles and is a lot of work, besides, the water is getting soiled between each change. Your best bet is to invest in a good quality external cannister filter that is rated for a tank about twice the size of what you are using (to make up for how much waste a turtle creates compared to a fish). make sure the filter offers mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration.

Even with good filtration you should use a suction cleaner to clean off the bottom of the tank and change out about 1/4th of the water weekly. Be sure the water you add back is warmed a little.

One of the big discussions about turtle water is chlorine. For the most part, any water you can drink, turtles can live in. If your water is hard, that is actually good for the turtles- but can be tough on filters and builds up on the tank walls. If your water is questionable, use a decent filter or any bottled water you wish.

The second basic necessity is good sun. Most of the common pet turtles need to be able to bask in a safe, dry, warm, sunny place. A well-designed basking site is made from materials that are safe to be immersed in the water and safe for the turtle to eat if it tries (or any parts get knocked off). The material should not grow or harbor germs, and should be safe for contact with the turtle. Rock is a common basking site that is harmfully abrasive to the plastron or belly shell. Properly prepared wood and plastic is a lot better.

A turtle needs to get totally dry when it is basking, and wants a basking site tha