Water Turtles

Various species of water turtles are kept as pets in the United States. Most of those purchased by hobbyists originate from the southern and eastern regions of the U.S. By law, imported turtles of most species must be at least 4 inches long. The trade in exotic turtles has been increasing in the recent years, especially in countries with poor animal protection laws and abundant turtle populations.

Turtles inhabit all parts of the world with a temperate to warm climate and are especially abundant in the tropics and subtropics. Water turtles are found in a wide variety of habitats, including ponds, swamps, small pools thick with vegetation, lakes of all sizes, large streams and rivers.

Diet and Feeding: As with most of the reptiles commonly kept as pets, malnutrition associated with poor hygiene and sanitation is the leading cause of illness among captive water turtles. Since they must feed within the water, their artificial environment becomes easily fouled. This contamination is greatly exaggerated by the small amount of water usually provided. Commercial turtle pellets or “logs” plus a variety of dark, leafy greens (seaweed, dandelions, broccoli, mustard, grated carrot & tops, celery leaves) provide a balanced diet and help to prevent disease and parasite contamination. Many water turtle diseases are contracted through contaminated food sources. Feeder guppies, goldfish and other live food (worms) may be diseased or may carry potentially harmful bacteria. Diseases of fish are often readily transmitted to turtles. Rapidly growing juveniles should be offered high-quality food daily whereas adults do very well when feed 2-3 times a week. Do not over feed, as turtles become overweight and excess food fouls water.

Light: Ultraviolet (UV) light helps maintain health because it aids in the absorption and use of dietary calcium. Regular incandescent and florescent light bulbs (including plant lights) do not emit the proper spectrum of UV light. Also, the UV light is filtered from sunlight as it passes through window glass or plastic. If artificial UV light sources are unavailable, turtles should be exposed to direct sunlight for 2-4 hours daily. Most take advantage of the warm sunlight resting on their basking areas. The water in small aquariums can readily become overheated if no shade is provided. Turtles should be monitored and caution should be exercised. An alternative to direct sunlight is an artificial UV light source (such as a Vitalite or ZooMed bulb), that can be used during daylight hours. These should be left on during the day to approximate a natural photo period (12-14 hours daily). Care should be taken when installing any electrical equipment near water. An electrician should be consulted regarding ground-fault protectors and other safely measures.

Temperature: Many species tolerate room temperatures for both air and water. When in doubt, provide the range used for tropical fish (70-80°F). Turtles that originate from tropical climates require a heat source. Aquarium heaters work best for indoor aquariums. Large tanks and outdoor ponds require larger models. An incandescent light bulb or heat lamp can be installed directly above the basking area to provide supplemental heat. Most experts believe turtles remain healthier if they are permitted to seek out heat when they desire it. Great care should be taken to ensure the temperature at the level of the basking surface does not exceed 90°F. Such heat sources may also increase the water temperature in very small aquariums to undesirable levels. A thermometer should be placed in the water and another on or near the basking surface so the temperature of these areas can be continually monitored.

Water Hygiene and Sanitation: The water level provided should be at least as deep as the turtle is long, preferably several times this measure. Tap water is acceptable provided it is allowed to stand undisturbed for at least 48 hours before the turtle is introduced. This is necessary for the water to become free of chlorine and chloramines. Water treatment systems sold at pet shops that are recommended for tropical fish may also be used to remove these chemicals from city water. In the wild, the relatively large bodies of water in which turtles live tend to reduce the concentration of waste products and uneaten foo. So free-living water turtles are rarely affected by the decomposition and bacterial proliferation that inevitably follow. This is not the case with captive turtles. Because of the relatively small water volumes of aquariums and ponds, these limited enclosures tend to concentrate waste material. This represents a potential hazard for the turtles because disease-causing microorganisms that feed in this material also multiply. Water turtles, therefore, live in a “soup” of potentially harmful microbes and disease is an ever-present threat if sanitation is poor. Every effort should be made to prevent soiling of the environment. All fecal matter should be netted or siphoned away as soon as possible. Water turtles should be fed in an environment separate from their living environment to reduce contamination of the water. A small aquarium, hard plastic dishpan, or even a bucket works well in this capacity. A filtration system is necessary to maintain optimum water quality. Outside filters are efficient, provide high flow fates, and are relatively easy to clean. At least once a month the tank should be thoroughly cleaned.

Hibernation: Hibernation allows animals to avoid adverse climate conditions. Unlike regular sleep, hibernation involves a more prolonged period of inactivity accompanied by a substantial decrease in metabolic activity. These changes enable the animal to survive periods during which environmental conditions are harsh and unfavorable. In the wild, water turtles bury themselves in the muddy bottoms of lakes and ponds to hibernate during the winter months. Hibernation is not necessary for the health and well-being of captive water turtles. In fact, captive water turtles should not be allowed to hibernate. “Partial hibernation” may result if warm temperatures are not provided in the winter months. This is undesirable because it tends to promote a state of lowered resistance to disease and inability to properly digest food.

Cage Size: Ideally the cage will be as large as you have space. At a minimum it needs to give the animal several hide areas and room to explore and stretch out. Remember that it is more difficult to maintain the proper temperature gradient in a larger cage.

Cage: The cage needs to be easy to clean, and have good ventilation. Glass aquariums or plastic reptile cages work the best. Wood cages are very difficult to clean.

Cage Furniture: The reptile should have multiple hiding areas, which can be accomplished with many materials. The furniture needs to be easy to remove and clean.

Housing: The type and size of enclosure used depend upon the species, number and size of the turtles to be housed. Hatchlings can be kept indoors in small aquariums. Older or larger specimens require a large tank or an outdoor pond. Careful attention must be paid to filtration systems, cleaning requirements, and ease of draining water from ponds used to house water turtles. Rigid molded plastic swimming pools for children are also suitable for housing water turtles, provided the are adequately equipped with a filtration system and means to replenish the water. Any enclosure should provide adequate room for swimming and a sufficient dry area for resting and sunning. Providing a dry, non submerged are is very important. Water turtle, especially juvenile, can become exhausted and drown when no such dry area is provided. Very small water turtles can be provided with a piece of partially submerged wood or cork bark onto which they can crawl for basking or under which they can hide. Larger and heavier water turtles require a more solid and immovable basking area on which to completely crawl out of the water and rest. A platform of flat rocks or bricks can be fashioned for basking. Driftwood, providing it is well anchored, can also be used for resting and basking, and is a visually appealing addition to an enclosure. If an aquarium is used to house a water turtle, one end can be used for a basking area. A drain can be installed to facilitate cleaning. A pane of glass can be inserted into the aquarium to divide it. About two-thirds of the available area can be allocated for swimming and about one-third for basking. Gravel can be used to fill the basking area. Green plants can also be planted or placed in this area if desired. A small ramp made of wood or plastic can be attached to the dividing pane of glass to allow the turtle easy access to the basking area. The bottom of the enclosure must be kept clear for the ease of cleaning. Small rocks should never be used because they can be swallowed, resulting in impaction or damage to the intestinal tract.