Turtles are a popular and hardy pet, which makes them a great starter pet for someone who has never before owned a reptile. They can live up to 40 years if taken care of properly, so it is important that you are ready to commit to a long-term responsibility as a turtle’s owner. They are fun for adults and children alike, and they tend to be gentle and interactive. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between a turtle and a tortoise; they live in different types of habitats. Here is what you need to know about how to take care of a turtle.
How to Set Up for Your Turtle
- Purchase a large enough aquarium. Even though your turtle might be small when you get him, he will grow and will need a large tank. Figure that he will need 10 gallons of water for every inch of shell length. Look into the type of turtle you are getting to find out how large he will be as an adult, then add about 10 gallons to what you think he will need. This is important because you won’t want to fill the tank all the way to the top, since he will need space to be on land.
- Buy a UV overhead lamp and two thermometers. You’ll also need an underwater heater. Turtles do best when their dry “land” is about 90 degrees and their water is about 78 degrees. In addition, at night, the tank needs to cool off to between 70 and 75 degrees. You can to use your heater to keep the water the right temperature. Use the overhead lamp to keep the land area warm during the day, and turn it off at night, mimicking the hours of the sun. The land area should stay at about 70 or 75 degrees overnight.
- Purchase a water filter. A canister or power filter is the best type, and the stronger the filter, the better. Keep in mind that a small turtle will have trouble swimming against the current of a strong filter, however, so if you get your turtle when he is small, you might need to use a less powerful filter at first.
- Create a dry area in the tank. This can be a floating turtle platform or you can build up gravel to make an island. Put it toward one side of the tank, since you will want that side to stay warm. Make sure it has a sloped side so your turtle can climb onto it easily
- Provide a hiding space. Turtles don’t need a lot of decorations, but having a hiding space or two under the water and on the dry area will make him happier. Some people use plants, but they can make it harder to keep the tank clean. Don’t choose something that is like an enclosure, because your turtle might swim into it and then be unable to turn around and get out again. Place all decorations along the perimeter of the tank so they don’t hinder the turtle’s ability to swim freely.
- Put something in the bottom of the tank. You can put rocks in the bottom, but they must be larger than 1/2″ so your turtle doesn’t eat them. Sand is another option; your turtle will like to dig in it but it is harder to keep clean.
How to Feed Your Turtle
- Feed your turtle crickets or mealworms several days per week. Put insects on the land part of the aquarium; don’t drop them into the water.
- Give her commercial turtle food each day. This can be canned, freeze-dried, or pellet food. You will need to experiment to see how much to give her per day. You might start with 1/8 to 1/4 cup and see how quickly she eats it. If she eats it all, you can give her more. If there is food left over after a few hours, remove it.
- Add leafy greens every other day. Start with a tablespoon or two of kale, mustard greens, or collard greens and remove any that is left after four hours.
- Add calcium powder twice per week. Mix a small amount of calcium powder with your turtle’s food before you feed her.
How to Pick Up Your Turtle
- Use two hands to pick up your turtle, with one hand on the left side of his body and one on the right side of his body. Hold onto the shell between the front and back legs and lift him slowly up.
- Never turn your turtle over quickly. You should take a full two seconds, at minimum, to turn your turtle if you need to looks at his underside. Don’t turn him from side-to-side; instead, turn him head over tail. When you turn him back over, reverse what you did, raising his head and slowly turning him onto his feet. Turning him quickly or from side-to-side puts stress on his organs and can lead to twisted intestines which can be fatal.
- Do not turn over your turtle if you don’t need to and don’t keep him on his back unnecessarily. This stresses out the turtle.
- Let your turtle walk on your hands. Be sure you are close to the ground or some other surface so he can’t fall.
- Don’t make any sudden movements with your hands while holding your turtle. All movements should be slow and steady.
- Place your pet back down carefully and slowly. Make sure he is put down on his feet only, never on his back.
- Never tap on his shell. This can stress your turtle and can even cause injury.
- Wash your hands with soap. Turtles carry salmonella and you need to be careful to wash your hands immediately after handling him.
How to Clean Your Turtle
- Only bathe your turtle if you notice algae on her shell or if she is shedding dead skin. These are both normal occurrences, but she will be more comfortable if you bathe her. When she is not shedding or growing algae on her shell, she will keep herself clean enough by swimming around in her tank.
- Use a plastic washtub that is used only for washing your turtle. Turtles carry salmonella, so you should not wash her in your kitchen or bathroom sink or in any container that you use for anything else. Instead, purchase a dedicated dish pan or bucket.
- Fill the washtub with a few inches of lukewarm water that has had the chlorine removed. You can remove the chlorine by filling a pitcher with tap water and letting it sit uncovered for 24 hours. Another method is to boil tap water for 20 minutes, then let it cool until it is lukewarm.
- Use a new, soft toothbrush to carefully scrub your turtle’s shell, arms, legs, tail, and plastron (belly). Remember that the shell is sensitive, so use a gentle touch and a soft brush. The rest of your turtle’s body is even more sensitive. Remove the algae in between the scales. Don’t use any type of soap unless your veterinarian has given you a prescription soap for a specific medical condition.
- Rinse your turtle with clean de-chlorinated water. You can pour it over her with a pitcher.
- Throw away the toothbrush. You can buy another one the next time you have to bathe your turtle.
- Pour the water into the toilet and flush the toilet. Do not pour the water into the sink. Rinse the tub out and pour that water into the toilet, as well. Store the tub somewhere safe and wash your hands with soap.
How to Clean Your Turtle’s Habitat
- Scoop out old food every day. Don’t allow the turtle pellets, insects, or greens to decay in the water, as that will create chemicals that are harmful to your turtle.
- Scoop out solid waste every day. If you see feces in the water, use a net to scoop it out.
- Once per month, take everything out of the tank to clean it well. Place your turtle in another receptacle with a few inches of water that you use only for this purpose. A small turtle can go into their washtub; just make sure they can’t climb out.
- Remove all of the accessories. Take out any plants, tank decorations, and the dry part of your turtle’s tank. Also, throw away the sand, if that’s what you are using at the bottom of the tank. You can soak the rocks in hot, soapy water or throw them away and replace them. Remove the heater and filter, too.
- Use a very diluted solution of tap water with a small amount of bleach. Fill the tank with this solution and soak the tank decorations, as well. Let it sit for 10 minutes to kill bacteria.
- Rinse everything very well. Make sure no trace of bleach remains in the tank or on any of the decorations. Rinse the rocks, too, if applicable. Run fresh water over them several times to be sure that there is no soap left.
- Rinse the heater and the filter system with fresh water. Change the filter if it’s time to do so.
- Refill the tank with dechlorinated water and put everything back where it was. Make sure the water is the correct temperature before returning your turtle to his habitat.
How to Tell If Your Turtle Is Happy and Healthy
- Read a book about turtles and their care. There are many different species of turtles and they all have slightly different needs. Learn more about the type you have by reading a book about the species you have.
- Talk to a veterinarian who is experienced in the care of turtles. Ask any veterinarian that you consider if they regularly treat turtles. If they don’t, ask for a referral to one who does. You might need a different vet for your turtle than the one you use for your dog or cat, if applicable.
- Examine your turtle’s shell regularly. A turtle’s shell is made up of bony plates called scutes. The shell is often the site of any health problems she might have. Look for ulcers, soft scutes, scutes that look as though they are pyramid-shaped, and other deformities. These issues should be brought to the prompt attention of your veterinarian.
- Check your turtle’s skin. If you see a lot of flaking or any mites or parasites on her skin, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
- Check her eyes, nose, and mouth. If her eyelids are swollen or her nose is running, she may have a vitamin A deficiency. This is serious in turtles and warrants a prompt visit to the veterinarian. If she is breathing through her mouth or wheezing, this can be indicative of a respiratory infection.
- Watch her activity. Turtles vary in how active they are, but get to know what is normal for your pet. If she isn’t eating as well or is not swimming around as much as she usually does, there could be something wrong. Check with your veterinarian.
Turtles make wonderful pets for those prepared for the commitment. Follow these steps to ensure that your turtle will be a healthy and happy companion for many years to come.