Walt Disney and Aesop alike propagated the idea that turtles are slow, drowsy creatures whose long life spans yield an indifferent attitude toward present conditions. In reality, turtles are cold-blooded reptiles with distinct, important requirements for habitat, feeding and handling that must be met for their health and well-being.
Establishing a Habitat
Things You'll Need
- 30- to 50-gallon glass aquarium
- Sand or soil substrate
- Nonchlorinated water
- Water pan for land turtles
Aquarium filter for aquatic turtles
- Natural stone basking rocks
- Heating lamp
- Full-spectrum reptile light that emits UVB
- Terrarium thermometers
Hollowed-out half log
Select an aquarium relative to the size your turtle will be when full-grown. A 30- to 50-gallon aquarium is sufficient for a single turtle of most species. Aquatic turtles such as the red-eared slider require habitats that are half dry land and half water. Land turtles, such as the Eastern box turtle, do not require a water side to their enclosure.
Layer the bottom of the aquarium with several inches of substrate such as sand or soil. Don't use wooden shavings as bedding -- these are unhealthy for the turtle and difficult to maintain. If you have an aquatic turtle, slope the sand to create a ramp for your turtles to enter and leave the water. Make the slope gradual so they have a place to sit if they'd rather be partially submerged but make sure they can completely swim around in the deep end. If you have a land turtle, you don't need as much water. Instead, place a water pan into the substrate just deep enough for the turtle to completely submerge and soak her shell.
Fill the water pan or the water side of the tank with nonchlorinated water. In an aquatic tank, place a low-power aquarium filter rated for the amount of water in the tank into the water to keep it clean and aerated.
Temperature Control and Lighting
On the dry side, place a large, natural stone basking rock that the turtle can fit on, and place a heating lamp directly above this, following the manufacturer's directions for the distance from bulb to basking surface, usually 18 inches. Basking temperature depends largely on the individual species. The rest of the enclosure should be maintained at 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for most turtles. Use terrarium thermometers placed at several points around the enclosure to monitor the temperature. Use full-spectrum reptile lighting for the rest of the enclosure. Turtles need 12 hours of UV light per day.
Consult a herpetologist -- a reptile scientist -- for exact temperature requirements for your specific breed of turtle.
Turtles require a place on the dry side of their enclosure to hide and sleep. Known as hides in the reptile trade, such hideaways can be store-bought or made by hand. A low-cost turtle favorite is the hollowed-out half log. Make sure it's tall enough for the turtle to pass through and turn around without catching her shell.
Keeping Other Animals with Turtles
Because most turtles are omnivorous and indiscriminate eaters, special care should be taken when choosing tank mates. Generally speaking, the larger your tank is and the more often you feed your turtle, the less likely she is to try and eat one of your fish or snails. Red-eared sliders and koi are commonly kept harmoniously, for instance, but there is no guarantee your turtle won't be feeling especially hungry one day. Avoiding overcrowding and hunger is your best bet for keeping different animals together.
Change the water every other week and the substrate every month. Remove uneaten food at the end of feeding. Aquatic turtles may prefer to be fed in water, so use a wide, shallow water dish to keep the main swimming area clean.
Feeding Your Turtle
As with the habitat, dietary requirements vary by turtle. True turtles are omnivorous -- they eat both plant matter and meat. Tortoises, on the other hand, are mostly vegetarians or herbivores. Small, growing turtles should be fed daily. Larger turtles require feeding every other day.
The box turtle is the most commonly kept pet land turtle. They can eat:
- Tubifex worms
- Chopped-up nightcrawlers and earthworms
- Green lettuce, tomatoes or beans as vegetables
- Melon, apricot or banana as a special treat
A sufficiently healthy, commercially prepared turtle diet has not yet been made widely available for the box turtle. Use a mixture of these food types and allow the turtle to choose freely so that she can get the nutrients that she instinctively knows she needs.
A commercial diet for the red-eared slider, on the other hand, is available and making these turtle pellets the primary staple of your slider's diet a wise choice. Since the pellets are protein heavy, their diet should be supplemented with:
- Dandelion leaves
- Green lettuce
- Aquatic plants such as water lily, Anarcharis, duckweed, water fern and water hyacinth, which can be grown in the tank with the turtles
- Apple snails and pond snails as a treat
- Guppies, rarely
- Earthworms, silkworms and mealworms as additional protein
Whereas the preceding turtles were both omnivores, tortoises like the red-foot are mainly herbivores. Vegetables and grasses should be offered every other day; fruits should be offered every three feedings. Their diet should contain a healthy mix of:
- Dandelion leaves
- Grape leaves
- Hibiscus blooms and leaves
- Collared greens
- Strawberry, cantaloupe, plum, peach, pineapple and prickly pear cactus as fruits
The red-foot still needs her protein, however. Offering hard-boiled egg whites, small pieces of chicken or insects like mealworms every other week to once a month is sufficient. Overfeeding with protein can cause "pyramiding" of the turtle's shell.
Handling and Care
Turtles do not like to be touched or held. Avoid holding your turtle when you don't have to. Not only do turtles often carry disease that can make you very sick, but picking up a turtle will scare her and cause her stress than can impact her health. Some turtles, like the snapping turtle, have a highly dangerous bite and do not distinguish between friend and potential predator. Use heavy gloves and grab smaller turtles by the sides and larger turtles on the shell behind the head and tail to move them, if necessary.
Turtles who are native to seasonal environments such as North America undergo a type of hibernation during the winter in the wild. If your turtles are kept outdoors, providing them with a suitable place to dig in and wait out the winter is essential. Turtles less than 5 years old and any sick or injured turtles should be brought inside. Hibernation is not essential in the early years and so should be avoided where possible to maximize the chance of survival.
Turtles normally kept indoors can be hibernated if necessary. Contact a herpetologist for exact hibernation dates and advice specific to your species of turtle before beginning this process. Gradually stop feeding your turtles approximately two weeks before hibernation is set to begin and move their tank to a cooler room, like the garage. Discontinue heat lamp use and provide a soft, moist area of substrate for the turtle to dig into. Allow them full access to their tank, as they will not sleep the whole time.
Hibernation is a delicate and dangerous process. If you have the space and resources to maintain the turtle's habitat indoors during the winter months, do so and do not allow the turtle to hibernate. Contact a veterinarian with questions.