For anyone looking at potentially caring for a new reptile buddy, keeping turtles can be a fantastic first choice! Most turtle species are not overly demanding, once fully set up they are not too expensive to keep, and they’re not all that quick, so you could probably outrun one if you made it angry. Though, fortunately, they’re relatively docile creatures.
However, you should always remember that they are living breathing creatures and that they require the same respect and care as a dog or cat would receive. This means not letting children handle them, being gentle whenever you need to move them around, feeding them well, rewarding good behavior, and treating them occasionally. So if you’ve ever wondered how to take care of a pet turtle, or if you already have one but want to refresh your turtle parenting skills, consider this your turtle tutorial.
How To Care For A Pet Turtle
It’s not just a case of food and shelter with a pet turtle. You need to take into account how the habitat needs to be put together, and the best way to maintain it. You also need to keep in mind the specific dietary requirements of your turtle and what kind of exercise they might need. Last but not least, they should be properly insured, just in case they develop any health problems. And if this hasn’t scared you off, then we hope to be a big help in preparing you for the life of a turtle owner.
Building a Turtle Habitat
The most important thing for turtles is having a proper environment. Turtles are reptiles much like lizards and snakes. All reptiles need supplemental heat to keep them warm. Turtles need a place to swim as well as an island on an island in the sun where they can hang out on the land anytime they wish. The goal is to create and maintain an environment as closest as possible to the environment your turtle would live in if in the natural habitat in the great outdoors.
NOTE: Aquatic turtles rely on lots of water to be happy. Other turtle breeds may not be as fussed about having as much water. Be sure to check the requirements for each specific breed to see where you may need to adapt your turtle’s habitat.
Ensure The Water is Just Right
Turtles live most of their life underwater, and so it is imperative that you ensure their habitat has enough water in it for them to enjoy. There are a few rules here that can help you to select the right sized tank for your turtle. Make sure you pick your preferred breed first, then look up how large they will grow to be. Once you know their measurement use the following rules to pick the right tank:
- Water levels must be at least three times the depth of the turtle.
- The water floor must be four to five times the length and three to four times the width of the turtle.
Not only do the water levels need to be adequate, but your turtle will need to have a landing space for if they fancy basking under the heat lamp or simply fancy a sit on dry land for a while.
Pick a Tank
Terrariums offer the ultimate habitats for turtles and the bigger the better always applies to turtle and tortoise terrariums. Terrariums are glass on three sides, which allows your turtle a good view of its surroundings, as well as providing you with plenty of visibility to keep an eye on them properly. Be sure to line the bottom of the new enclosure with soil that is formed by peat moss before adding the water, for a real natural feel.
Provide A Basking Area
A basking area must always be available so as to help your new reptilian buddy soak up the heat. This could be a basking rock, bridge, or island lined with soil or wood chips to imitate the outdoors. Many turtles use basking time to regulate their temperature when coming in and out of the water.
Set Up Lights and Heating
Turtles also need the invisible rayons produced by the sun in order to help them to metabolize key vitamins such as calcium. A special light, a water heater, and a ceramic heat emitter might be required for you to support your species of turtle if they live in an enclosed environment.
- UV Light: A UV tube light should be installed to provide the appropriate UV exposure.
- Water heater: A hard plastic water heater would be ideal for keeping the terrarium’s water temperature just right for your new pet.
- Heat lamp: Seeing as turtles are cold-blooded creatures, it is important to also provide a heat lamp over the enclosure to keep the entire space appropriately warm and keep your turtle comfortable.
Keeping the terrarium at the wrong temperature can cause many health issues, so ensuring the proper air temperature is paramount. Turtles prefer to stay warm during the day, with a typical temperature between 60 and 90 degrees. Some turtles are quite happy that the temperature drops below 50 degrees in the evening. Anything lower than this can cause them to go into false hibernation or get sick.
Young turtles are particularly sensitive to temperatures whilst their shells develop, so if you want a healthy turtle from a young age, keep their environment just right.
Caring for the Habitat
The enclosure should be properly cleaned regularly, even if there are filtration systems for the water in it. There is an ideal order in which you can clean a turtle habitat:
- Carefully remove the turtle and place it into a temporary holding space with water, substrate, and a platform to sit on. A baby turtle can be quite sneaky, so ensure the area is totally secure before leaving them alone. A bucket with enough space for them to turn around is a good idea.
- Remove all heaters and lighting and place the heat lamp over your turtle’s temporary habitat.
- Remove any bulky items and place them aside to be cleaned separately.
- Empty out the water carefully – this may require an extra person to help.
- Any gravelly substrate can be left in the tank as it will be cleaned whilst you clean the sides. If you are using an organic substrate such as nut shells or peat be sure to empty it out.
- Rinse out the tank 4-5 times ideally with a hose, or a bucket. rinsing the sides thoroughly and empty the gathered water each time.
- Use a mild turtle habitat cleaning solution with tap water which can often be found at most pet stores to thoroughly scrub the tank.
- Use the same solution to thoroughly clean the decorative pieces and bulky items.
- Thoroughly rinse the filter by running it under the tap until clean – the filter bag should be replaced monthly.
- Replace everything in the tank, return it to its usual position, refill the tank and use dechlorinating treatment to remove harmful chemicals, and be sure to test the chemical levels post-treatment.
- Heat the habitat back to standard levels.
- Return the turtle to it’s enclosure and thoroughly clean the temporary holding tank ready for next time.
Turtles are usually easy to care for when well trained. Turtles also tend to be low-maintenance pets, though they are generally the opposite of snuggly and cuddly in character. Fortunately, there’s not too much you need to know about a turtle’s temperament coming into it. But you’ll get to know a turtle’s personality the longer you care for it, which is quite different.
Turtles are generally easygoing creatures. They’re docile and generally spend their time watching the world go by without demanding your attention. However, it’s worth noting that whilst they may be docile, that does not mean they are always friendly. When you approach a turtle it needs to be treated with respect and approached slowly and gently to prevent them from feeling threatened. If a turtle feels threatened it can snap at your fingers. And whilst they may have little round heads, they have very sharp beaks capable of breaking down their food and hunting, so you don’t want to get your fingers caught in there.
Turtle Fun Facts:
- Depending on the breed, turtles can love from 15 to over 100 years of age.
- Turtles are part of one of the oldest reptile groups in the world – dating back 200 million years.
- A turtle’s shell is part of its skeleton and grows with them. It is made up of fifty bones.
- Turtles are ‘amniotes’ which means many turtle species live in or around water but they all lay their eggs on land and breathe air.
- They’re cold-blooded.
- The oldest turtle ever to have lived was 188 years old.
- 129 species are either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
How do I Handle a Turtle?
Your turtle wants its midsection lifted not the legs. Keep close watch over your pet turtle and wash your hands when handling it.
Wash Your Hands
First and foremost, before proceeding with handling your turtle you need to be aware of the risks. Most turtles carry salmonella bacteria and handling your turtle could transmit the bacteria onto you. Handling your turtle can cause salmonella poisoning if proper precautions are not made. You much always be sure to thoroughly wash your hands immediately after handling your pet turtle. Additionally, the turtle tank and your turtle’s water can also carry the bacteria, so the same caution should be used when cleaning the habitat.
Approach With Caution
Turtles should always be approached from the front, so as not to startle them unless you feel like getting bitten – and turtles have a nasty bite. Whichever surface you place your turtle onto also needs to be flat enough for all four of their feet to touch the ground. This is for the sake of helping them to feel more secure and at ease in an unusual environment.
Use Both Hands
A turtle should never be picked up with one hand. Always use both hands on either side of its body. This is much safer, as turtles are very good at establishing ways to wiggle free of something. Therefore you run the risk of dropping them if you pick them up in one hand.
Keep Them Away From Young Children
Any children should be taught how to take care of turtles properly before being allowed to deal with one on their own. The danger of passing on salmonella bacteria as well as the risk of the child getting bitten by mishandling them makes it well worth keeping the turtle out of reach of young children until they know better.
Know Your Turtle’s Diet
Turtles benefit from a much more varied healthy diet than you might think, including both fresh vegetables and protein. To feed your pet turtles properly you need to ensure you speak with the pet store or breeder about which type of food they have been eating so far, and then expand upon it gradually once they’re in your care.
For example, considering fresh water aquatic breeds spend a lot of their time in a freshwater swimming area, it should come as no surprise that feeding them live fish as their main source of protein is highly beneficial and natural for them. Whereas Saltwater Turtle food tends to include more shellfish and algae.
NOTE: Some turtle breeds are strictly vegetarian. Be sure to carefully research the dietary requirements for the breed you are looking to own, to ensure you provide them with the appropriate diet from the off. Feeding your turtle the wrong diet could cause digestive complications.
What Do Pet Turtles Eat?
Here are some examples of the types of vegetables and proteins you could give your turtle in order to ensure you are providing the proper pet turtle care.
Vegetables and Plants:
- Rocket Leaves
- Mint, Fennel & Basil
- Bell Peppers
- Pansy Flowers (occasionally)
- Blueberries (occasionally)
- Boiled Egg Yolks
- Cooked Chicken
- Cooked Liver
- Feeder Fish
- Meal Worms
Turtles need plenty of calcium and vitamins in their diet in order to maintain their overall health and prevent turtle diseases by strengthening their immune system. There are some water-soluble supplements that can be dropped into your turtle’s water supply to order to ensure they get the additional vitamins they need. However, be mindful that water-soluble supplements may be easier, as many pet turtles can be difficult when it comes to ingesting vitamins, but they can also cause buildup on the walls of the tank and in the water filtration system. Therefore using these types of vitamins may mean more frequent cleanouts are needed.
How Often Should a Pet Turtle Be Fed?
Juvenile turtles require a higher amount of protein as they grow and tend to need more regular meals. You can also offer them fruit as a treat and vegetables mixed with their protein to encourage a more balanced diet and make the transition to an adult turtles diet a little bit smoother.
In comparison to many other animals, adult turtles don’t need much food to survive. In the wild food would be limited, and so adult turtles typically only need feeding 4-5 times a week, with the occasional insect or fruit treat in between. They’re a low-maintenance animal that metabolizes its food quite slowly owing to the general lack of movement. Just be sure to stick to a routine so they can know when to expect their next meal.
Types of Turtles
We have compiled a short list of the most common turtle breeds often bought as pets:
Red-Eared Sliders: The Red-eared slider is the most commonly encountered pet species of turtle. It is a semi-aquatic breed that lives for around 20-30 years and grows to be around 6-8 inches long. It is so named because of the distinctive red stripes that run down either side of its head.
Central American wood turtle: Also known as the Ornate Wood Turtle, they are generally carnivorous, though they can benefit from a balanced diet including vegetables and leafy greens. They have highly distinctive shells covered with a bright swirling pattern. It is also considered to be the most intelligent turtle species.
Caspian pond turtle: Also known as striped-neck terrapins. This breed is semi-aquatic and needs a balanced aquatic and dry habitat. The Caspian pond turtle grows to be around 9-10 inches. They are easily recognized by the clear black and white stripes that run down the length of their head and neck.
Greek tortoise: A tortoise also known as the spur-thighed tortoise. In the wild, they typically inhabit multiple regions areas around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Thanks to their easygoing nature and stunning shells, they have become quite popular as pets.
Painted turtle: Painted turtles actually consist of multiple breeds, the Eastern painted turtle, Midland painted turtle, Western painted turtle, and southern painted turtle.
Box turtles: The box turtle breed is a North American freshwater breed. However, they can often be found in the sea in large numbers, especially as hatchlings. They’re an especially long-living breed with an average lifespan of 50 years.
Aquatic turtle: The aquatic turtle is not a single breed, but a different species that includes a series of breeds that rely heavily on the presence of water in order to live a proper life, as they spend the majority of their time underwater, only surfacing occasionally to regulate their temperature.
How do I Keep my Turtle Healthy?
Give your turtle a chance to settle in for the first time after you bring her home. Turtles can act somewhat peculiarly, to begin with, as they are in an unfamiliar environment and have been taken away from everything they knew. Both the air and the water will feel different to them. As a general rule of thumb, turtles are pretty healthy pets provided you’ve given them a proper diet and they have been given a large enough clean space to thrive in. However, if any of these symptoms occur it would be a good idea to take your turtle to your local reptile specialist veterinarian for a checkup:
- Lack of appetite
- Sunken eyes
- Sticky or unclear eyes
- Shell rot
- Prolonged diarrhea
- Skin ulcers
- Soft shell
- White fungus on the shell or skin
Turtles can be prone to a metabolic bone disease that affects their shell severely causing soft shell disease and shell rot. This is often due to a lack of calcium in their diet, which is why calcium supplements are so important.
Is a Turtle Right for you?
It’s not as difficult to take care of pet animals like turtles as you might think. Turtles need special care and frequent cleaning, which can be tricky and potentially need a second person to help with heavy lifting. Furthermore, turtles are not typically very friendly to children. Before you choose a turtle consider what resources and places you have available. Turtles can bite incredibly easily if not properly trained and don’t enjoy being handled. Though they are fantastic pets to observe.
If you’d prefer a pet that is great for watching and studying, then generally speaking reptiles are a great way to go. It’s worth consider turtles to be like fish – once they’re in the tank leave them be. They’re not fuzzy and friendly, and their boundaries should be respected. Turtles are not for everyone, but if you’re a reptile lover and simply want to own a turtle for the love of the species then it sounds like you’d make a great turtle owner! Just remember that when you take on a turtle you are committing to a long life with them. They are not a spur-of-the-moment purchase, but a full commitment.