I wanted to add a contribution to the website and type up a turtle primer. While my number of posts is low, I am not new to turtles and other reptiles. I have kept different sliders and musk turtles for over 25 years, with a 5 year break or so. I grew up in South America and, where I lived, the climate was warm and consistent (no winters, summer 365 days a year). I had a large garden growing up and had a very large pond with aquatic turtles, as well as enclosed areas with Red-Foot Tortoises. Coming back to turtles after a 5 year hiatus I was looking for breeders online and came across many articles and many sources of information that are not particularly accurate, as well as posts (not necessarily on this website) where people describe their turtle set ups which, unfortunately, are not always adequate. So, with that in mind, I would like to give you a primer on turtles for anyone who might be researching them. Please keep in mind this is a primer only, you will need to research your particular species in depth.
First, you will need to determine if turtles are for you and, if so, what species suits you. With this aim, let’s review some common misconceptions that I have seen online:
Myth #1: Turtles grow according to their tank.
This is not true. While you may stun a turtle’s growth in an inadequate diet, lack of calcium and UV lights, the size of the enclosure itself will not limit the turtle’s growth. I have seen some people say that they have a turtle in a 55 gallon tank and it only grew 5 inches while they had the same species in a larger tank and it grew to 10 inches. While this could very well be truth, keep in mind that the discrepancy in size has to do with sex. With most species of aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles the female is twice the size of the male.
Myth #2: Turtles don’t breath under water, therefore the nitrogen cycle is irrelevant.
While turtles don’t breath under water, their eyes are in the water. Additionally, most aquatic turtles eat exclusively in water and swallow some of it. Excess ammonia can affect their eyes and cause skin/shell infections. You do not have to have the tank fully cycled before adding most turtles (keyword: MOST) but you should not add too many at once either.
Myth #3: Turtles need company
They don’t, most reptiles are loners. They can be “social” and co-exist, but they are equally content by themselves. Some turtles, however, are NOT social and will kill any tank mate.
Off the top of my head, these are the most common myths (and grave mistakes) I have read of some people making, now let’s move on to the turtles themselves.
“But my friend kept turtles in a Tupperware and they did fine.” While some people may have been lucky, this is not the best set up for a turtle. Please remember that there is a huge difference between thriving and surviving.
Which turtle should I choose?
There are lots of species available for sale, and each has individual requirements. A BIG factor in deciding which turtle to get is its full grown size. Red-Eared Sliders, for example, are often marketed as “beginner turtles.” While the sliders are often cheap and hardy, they grow large (males 5-6”, Females 8-12”). Other species are much smaller, like Texas Map Turtles or Razorback Musk Turtles, topping off at 5” for females. Then you have Spotted Turtles, which top at 4” for females and 2.5-3” for males. Which one you get depends on what kind of environment you can provide.
How big a tank should I get?
This depends on the species, how big it gets, how much water (depth) it needs. The general rule for most turtles is 10 gallons per inch of turtle. So, if you have ONE female red eared slider the minimum size she will eventually need is 100 gallons (for ONE)
Now, fish tanks are expensive, but there is an alternative. A lot of turtle keepers use stock tanks, you can find these at farm supply stores. The last one I bought was about 100 bucks for 300 gallon size. A pond is the best, but not everyone can have a pond.
What filter should I use?
This depends on the turtle you have, simply because water depth affect which filter you should use. A canister filter is your best bet, but if you have turtles that require deep water you can get away with using HOB filters. Internal filters are good too, but they tend to be used in smaller hatchling tanks.
I have to admit my experience with HOB filters is limited, canisters (and pond filter before that) being the bulk.
You can also make your own filter with 5 gallon buckets (or LARGE trash cans for outdoor ponds). This is a cheap and efficient option.
What should I feed my turtle, and how often?
What you should feed depends on the species. Some are carnivorous, some a vegetarians, and some are everything in between. The most important thing to know is that your turtle should get a variety of foods besides pellets, raising a turtle on pellets alone is not the best option.
Hatchlings, up to 6 months of age or so, should be fed every day. Juveniles about every other day. Adults should eat 3-4 times per week. Overfeeding can cause kidney problems, obesity, and death.
How about water parameters?
Again, depends on your species. Some can tolerate a wide range of temps and PH, while others are sensitive. As far as ammonia, you will always have some, but you should aim at 0ppm.
How often should I change the water or clean the tank?
The general rule is a 25-50% weekly change and a full water change once a month. Decorations should be rinsed in tank water and the walls of the tank scrubbed every few changes. Use tank water to avoid killing your good bacteria.
Then, again, a good water testing kit will help you tweak your water changing schedule.
What tank mates can I have with my turtles?
Generally speaking, other turtles. Turtles eat smaller fish, frogs, and invertebrates. If you must have fish in with the turtles you should be willing to replace them as needed. Also, turtles sometimes do not get along with other tank mates and will fight, causing serious injuries to the weaker turtle. You can have more than one turtle in one tank (provided they have enough space) but should also be prepared to separate them. Also, please keep in mind that not every turtle should be housed with other turtles, some species are naturally aggressive.
What do I need besides filters?
• A basking spot (size depends on turtle)
• UVB Lamp (unless kept in a pond). Some people say you can have them by a window. While I don’t want to argue this, I would not do this myself. I’m not sure about UV light filtered thru glass. Remember, inadequate lighting can cause bone and shell disease.
• Basking light (basking temperature depends on turtle species)
• Water conditioner
• Calcium supplement (at least), and other vitamin supplements depending on species and conditions.
• Tank water heaters
• General aquarium supplies (nets, vacuums, glass scrubbers, etc.)
Things to keep in mind:
• Just like with fish, adding a bunch of chemicals to your tank is not always best. Natural solutions are best.
• DO NOT RELEASE YOUR TURTLES IN THE WILD. Many turtles, like Red Eared Sliders, are invasive and out-compete native populations. This is bad for your local wild life, bad for the turtle, and bad for the hobby. In some U.S. states, for instance, Red Eared Sliders are now illegal to posses. Simply put, if you can’t make the commitment then don’t screw it up for everyone else.
• Turtles, like most reptiles, carry salmonella. Always wash your hands after handling your turtles or cleaning the tank.
Common species available in the pet trade
Sliders (red eared sliders and yellow belly sliders)
African Sideneck Turtles
Then there are others that are commonly available online. Please check your local laws before buying a turtle.
A word on Snapping Turtles
Snapping turtles are cool, no doubt. They are not hard to keep IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO!
Snapping turtles are one of the biggest turtles in North America for a reason: they get HUGE. Before getting a snapping turtle please learn how to safely and properly handle an adult as they can inflict a serious bite and sever fingers.
This is only basic information; I can’t possibly cover everything there is to know about turtles. Whatever you do, please research thoroughly before acquiring a turtle and choose your turtle based on the conditions you can comfortably provide.
P.S. There are tons of tutorials online that can help you set up a tank, a stock tank, make your own filter, etc. It's all easier than it sounds.
Nice Write up! Thanks for taking the time to write it.
Do as I say. Not as I do.