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 that allows it to quickly slide into the water if threatened (that is where the name ‘slider’ comes from)! Floating basking sites are often wet on top, and other basking sites are rarely nice and dry. Basking sites that are positioned at an angle allows water to drain off.

One reason turtles bask is to get warm – that is why you see them basking in the middle of the day. The basking site should be about 90F, and it is great if the basking site can absorb heat when there is no turtle on it so it gently warms the turtle from the bottom. This warmth also helps the turtle fight diseases and digest their food.

One reason they bask in sunlight is that sunlight puts out natural levels of UVB radiation, which turtles (and humans) use to make vitamin D3 in their cells- critical for overall health and metabolizing calcium. Other benefits of sunshine include warmth and disinfecting properties. Unfortunately, the most useful rays of the sun do not penetrate regular glass or plastic, so does not go through windows or tank walls. We want to use a bulb or combination of bulbs to offer warmth, light, and UVB rays for about 12-14 hours a day to simulate the sun. The UVB/vitamin D3 element can be provided by diet if necessary, which leads to…

The third basic necessity is good food. A proper diet for any animal should be nutritionally complete, interesting, properly portioned, and easy to do.

As you research your pet’s needs, you will discover such a variety of diet recommendations that it can overwhelm you. Here is a simple diet to get you started:

  • 1/2 good name-brand turtle pellets (not flakes or freeze-dried stuff). Use sizes appropriate for your turtle, or break up large pellets for small turtles.
  • 1/2 live or frozen/thawed (but not freeze-dried) ‘fish foods’, like shrimp, krill, worms of almost any kind, small fish (guppies, goldfish, and rosies are the most common), crayfish, insects, snails, and most other small animals commonly found in or near water. Older turtles add plants to their diet, such as many water plants, dark leafy greens, and small bits of fruit or carrots.

Using live foods occasionally has a lot of benefits. They give the turtle something to hunt and something to do. They add variety and interest, and many kinds of live food, like snails and ghost shrimp, can actually help clean the tank.

Overfeeding a turtle makes for fat turtles, especially in smaller tanks without a lot of exercise. The two main ways to control portions are: – Timed feedings- remove all uneaten non-living food after about 15 minutes. – Portion sizes- give the turtle a daily amount of food about as large as the turtle’s head (just the head, not the long neck)! Make sure live food is not much larger than that.

When we are keeping pets, we rarely have a lot of spare time and money to prepare elaborate meals for them so we look for things that are fairly cheap and easy to do. Using pellets for part of the diet is a key factor in making this plan simple and cheap. Good quality pellets are also nutritionally complete. You could use them alone but the live food component adds interest and variety. Oh, and good pelleted food and many live animals contain vitamin D3, reducing the need for UVB lighting.

People are usually surprised by the costs of keeping turtles healthy- over $100 for a big tank, almost as much for a good filter. UVB bulbs run about $30 by themselves and only give off UVB for about six months. We can save money by using a simplified habitat along these guidelines:

  • Use a plastic tub, starting with about a 50 gallon. While a small tub can be translucent, larger tubs need to have thicker, stronger walls and may need external bracing. Put the tub on an insulating pad on the floor, or on sturdy furniture. Fill it up about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the way.
  • Use a clamp-on metal reflector fixture with a ceramic socket to position a heating bulb over the basking site. Use another light bulb over the water to illuminate the habitat- but make sure to leave shadows to hide in. Plug the bulbs in a simple timer set for 12-14 hours of light.
  • Install a submersible heater or two, set for about 77F – Don’t bother with a substrate- it just catches crud that makes about 70% of the dread ‘turtle tank stench’.
  • Set up the filter a little apart from the tank so vibration is not transmitted to the water.
  • Make a basking site out of driftwood or a non-resinous wood like oak. A simple plank set up as a ramp along one long wall is all you really need. It can be held in place with some bent coat hanger wires or it can be designed as a triangular structure weighted down with a rock inside.
  • For decoration and a better habitat, place some potted water plants in the water. They will help condition the water and provide a habitat for food animals. You can try some duckweed, which the turtles will usually eat, but it often grows so fast that it can be a nuisance and can clog the filter. Some snails and ghost shrimp serve as cleaners and food, while an armored catfish will help remove uneaten food and is somewhat protected from being eaten.