Facts About Baby Turtles

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There's no denying that baby turtles are cute, and characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have made them even more popular than ever with kids. But baby turtles grow up to be adult turtles, and potential pet owners need to be aware of the facts and lifetime spectrum of specialized care requirements before deciding to get a baby turtle.

About Turtles

Turtles are reptiles who have inhabited our planet for 215 million years. They are cold-blooded like other reptiles, but uniquely have a hard, protective upper shell called a carapace and a lower shell called a plastron. Many species of turtles can pull their heads inside their shells when startled or attacked.

Turtles lay eggs, and some species simply leave the eggs in sand so the hatchlings need to fend for themselves and find water when they emerge. Some turtles become their final gender depending on the temperature where the eggs develop. If it's colder the babies will be male, and if it's warmer they'll be female.

Types of Turtles

People often confuse turtles and tortoises, but the differences are simple. Turtles are omnivores, usually have webbed feet and spend a lot of time in the water -- aquatic turtles need water more often than semi-aquatic turtles. Tortoises are herbivores who live on the land and have stubby feet.

Aquatic turtles such as the painted turtle and red ear slider are colorful and quite popular pets. While they are water turtles, they still need some land areas to bask in. The painted turtle grows to about 7 inches long while the red ear slider reaches lengths up to 11 inches long.

Semi-aquatic turtles such as the ornate wood turtle and Caspian pond turtle need access to large areas of dry land in addition to shallow swimming areas. These turtles grow to 9 inches long and eat plants as well as worms and insects.

Housing Requirements

Once upon a time, people would keep baby turtles in small glass bowls with a rock, or other little simulated pond settings. This is now considered to be completely inadequate and a common cause of death for baby turtles.

Depending on the species, adult turtles can grow to be a foot long and live for decades. This isn't just a cute little pet you can keep for a few years, and it's both cruel and illegal in many places to release a captive turtle into the wild. Pet shelters are inundated with adult turtles that pet owners got tired of looking after. Before you get a baby turtle make sure you are committed to being a responsible caretaker for the long haul.

If your baby turtle is up to 6 inches long, keep him in a glass tank or other enclosure that's at least 4 feet long, 18 inches wide and 18 inches tall. Older turtles will need a tank that's at least 5 feet long and 2 feet wide and tall. The enclosure must include a place to swim and submerge himself, which he can enter and exit safely at will, and a dry place to bask. Believe it or not, your turtle needs exercise, so make sure there's enough water to move around in and plenty of dry areas to climb and walk. Otherwise provide a wading pool for him to "work out" in several times a week.

A submersible water heater keeps the water at an optimum temperature. Species of turtle do better with a small amount of aquarium salt in their water. Use gravel at the bottom of the tank, and some logs or islands that your turtle can climb on to. A gravel vacuum cleaner or siphon and hose will help you clean the tank easily. Appropriate lighting for your turtle can be natural indirect sunlight or an artificial lighting system with some UVB radiation.

Dietary Requirements

You need to research the specific diet of your turtle species, since food requirements can be highly specialized. While adult turtles are omnivores, the babies tend to be carnivores, feasting on meat almost exclusively.

Offer your baby turtle a variety of foods including:

  • Quality turtle pellet
  • Low-salt cat kibble
  • Fish
  • Crickets
  • Shrimp

As he gets older, start adding the following fruits and vegetables to his diet:

  • Leafy greens
  • Carrots
  • Melons
  • Strawberries

Warning

  • Never feed your turtle citrus fruits since they are hard on his digestive system.

Tip

  • If your turtle won't eat, it might be because you haven't given him enough water to completely submerge himself -- this is a requirement for an aquatic turtle to survive. If he's not given access to enough water he will start to dehydrate, stop eating and eventually die.

Safety Caution

Reptiles and amphibians naturally carry salmonella, an infectious bacteria that's more dangerous to kids than adults. Symptoms of salmonella infection include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever 
  • Headache.

The Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale of baby turtles with shells smaller than 4 inches long to prevent young kids from putting infected turtles in their mouths. Other safety tips include:

  • Kids need to wash their hands thoroughly after touching a turtle, his home or equipment, or anything the turtle uses.
  • Turtles should not live in a home with children younger than 5 since they are especially susceptible to salmonella poisoning and it's easy to transmit the bacteria throughout the household. 
  • Never wash your turtle's tank or other housing elements in the kitchen sink, since this can cross-contaminate food preparation areas. 
  • Don't let your turtle roam freely around the house or crawl on tabletops or counters.

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