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Care of the Water Turtle


A turtle is a cheloid that usually lives in an aquatic environment.  There are over 230 species of turtles in the world.  In contrast a tortoise lives on land, usually a desert type of environment.  Box turtles are land turtles, and should not be kept in water.  In contrast the similar looking “stink turtle” lives in water; each species is different.  It is illegal to keep wildlife in captivity in our state.  The Red-eared Slider Turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) is a commonly sold water turtle in pet stores.    

The most common medical problems we see with turtles are diseases related to improper nutrition and environment.  The best diet for a water turtle is a commercial diet labeled for water turtles.  Soak these pellets before giving to the turtle.  We recommend you feed this as 3/4, or more, of their diet.  Broccoli, grated carrots and their leaves, mustard greens, spinach, seaweed should also be offered to water turtles.  Bok-choy, duck weed, endive, kale and other dark leafy vegetables can also be provided.  Even a low fat canned dog food can be provided as a treat and part of their diet.  A few species, such as the Mata Mata (Malaysian Snail Eater), will eat only live food and/or snails.  To teach a reptile to eat commercial diets we recommend you start to feed them insects in a bowl.  Later add the commercial diet on top of the worms, larvae, fish, crickets and other prey.  Gradually reduce the prey amount.  Insects such as crickets, mealworms and wax worms, can be fed along with other invertebrates such as earthworms.  Small feeder fish are also recommended.  We used to feed raw meats, such as hamburger, to reptiles but we do not recommend this anymore because of the possibility of bacterial and parasite problems from raw meats.  Liver and other organ meats can be adequate and fed in small amounts.  Baby turtles should be taught how to eat commercial pelleted diets.  Feeding live and frozen prey can transmit diseases and parasites to turtles, while feeding pelleted foods one does not have this problem.  Vitamin and mineral imbalances can also occur with overfeeding fish.  It is best to feed adult turtles 2-3x a week what they can eat in 1/2-1 hour, and turtles under a year of age should be fed daily.  When feeding a complete pelleted diet, the daily ration can be as high as 2% of the hatchling’s weight, to less than 0.5% of an adult’s body weight a day.  Food conversion can range from 1.2 to 6.5:1.  We recommend a vitamin-mineral supplement for all reptiles.  If you feed your turtle in their habitat, use a flat rock or low profile plate, to avoid sand and other substrate ingestion.  This also helps to keep the water cleaner.  We feel it is best to feed water turtles in a different aquarium, if possible, which will also help keep their water and environment clean.  Some turtles, such as the Mata Mata and Snapping Turtle swallow their food whole, and can be fed in their habitat.  Feed juveniles daily, while adults can be fed once every two days. 

     Housing is an important consideration.  Aquariums can make ideal homes for small turtles, but we recommend that the “air tight” hoods are not to be used.  Too much humidity can be harmful.  Water condensation or a fungus growth indicates too much humidity is in the air.  Screens on the top are the best remedy for too much moisture.  A fungus growth on the skin of a reptile indicates a veterinary exam is required.  For larger turtles outdoor ponds, baby pools and other habitats are indicated.  Feces should be removed daily, if possible.  Water needs to be changed periodically in a closed environment of at least 10%/week, or up to 3/4 of the water weekly if you feed the turtle in their habitat.  The smaller the container the more often the water needs to be changed.  We recommend when removing the water that you suction off the water and organic materials that is on the bottom of the habitat.  Turtles do not need bio-filters and the use of gravel is not needed; gravel actually makes it more difficult to keep the habitat clean.  If you should use gravel or a similar substrate then an under gravel water filters for aquariums is recommended.  If/when cleaning the habitat use a 1/30 chlorine bleach solution, water rinse twice, wipe down with a dry towel and then allow to air dry; replace the aquarium water with chlorine free water.   If one lets tap water sit for 2 days, then no chlorine treatments are needed for their drinking and swimming water.  The depth of the water should be 2-3x+ the length of the turtle.  An area to get out of the water is needed for all turtles, such as 1/4 to 1/3 of their habitat, and this can also be a sunning area.  Some smaller turtles may also like a partially submerged platform, rock or floating log.  It is important to have a variety of safe items within a closed habitat, to enrich the life of any animal.  For indoor water turtles we recommend the water temperature to be 75-85 degrees, which should be checked periodically with a thermometer.  An aquarium heater can be used to keep the water warm.  The habitat’s air temperature should be at 65-85 degrees.  The “hot rocks” are not recommended to be used around water.  Light bulbs can be used but occasionally they may overheat the reptile’s home.  If utilized, place the heating lamp at one end of the habitat and allow a cooler area at the other end.  Use a 75 to 150 watt maximum size bulb, depending upon the size of the habitat.  Periodically test the air temperatures in various parts of the habitat.  Placing an aquarium near a window can result in overheating.  A temperature over 85 degrees can cause some turtles to become hostile.  The best method is to install an aquarium water heater, set at 75 degrees; this may be the only heat required in the cooler months of the year.  The UV lights are not needed as much for turtles as compared for the other reptiles.  It does not hurt to have a UV light with a UVB rating of 3+% for turtles (which is a 6% UV light rating).  If used we recommend these full spectrum light bulbs to be located 18″ or less above the habitat, and to change these bulbs every 12 months.  Light should be provided for 10-12 hours a day.  Sand or wood for the basking area is adequate.  Some soft shelled turtles (Trionychidae) need the fine sand to burrow in.  If the turtle is observed to eat the sand while eating, this may lead to an impaction.  Eating gravel may be even more harmful and may require surgery to remove.  Carpet is ideal and if you use a carpet it should be taken out and washed regularly; any loose nylon fibers are not to be ingested by any animal.  Any aromatic wood shavings, such as cedar or redwood, are to be avoided in any pocket pets or reptiles.  

     If the water turtle’s habitat is outside, a chicken wire fence 2’ down, 2’ back and 1.5’ up should be on the inside of the fence to keep turtles in, and the same outside the fence to prevent predators outside from digging in (besides a high fence).   We have another handout on outdoor pond and fish care.         

     In turtles the female has a shorter, narrower, tapered tail.  The plastrome curvature and color of the eye can sex land turtles but not always water turtles.  The vent of a female is usually farther back.  Most water turtles have longer claws on the front feet, especially the males.  We have more information about breeding reptiles if you are serious.  If you do not plan to breed reptiles we recommend you keep only one to a habitat to reduce fighting wounds.  We do not recommend that water turtles be allowed to hibernate indoors.  If housed outdoors they should have a muddy bottom pond to bury into, although turtles allowed to hibernate outdoors have more infections and live shorter lives.  It is best to bring the outdoor turtles inside during the winter. 

     The red-ear slider turtle adult can be 6-12″ in length, and live 20 to even 50 years with proper care. 

     All species of animals can have Salmonella bacteria found within their digestive system.  To prevent this problem we recommend that you do not give warm water baths to your reptile in the kitchen sink or bathtub.  If you are concerned we can run a fecal culture on your reptile pet and provide more information on salmonella.  Unfortunately the treated patient will again become infected with the salmonella, and does not usually cause a problem in reptiles.  The live animals, fresh meat and other foods fed to reptiles will usually reinfect the turtle with salmonella.  Salmonella can be a “normal bacteria” living in reptiles.  Diarrhea is a sign of the Salmonella infection.  To prevent this zoonotic disease, in the 70’s laws were enacted to prevent the sale of the turtles under 4”, as these younger turtles harbor a higher percentage of salmonella. WE ADVISE THAT YOU WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER HANDLING ALL REPTILES, especially their feces. 

     This is only a general guide for water turtles and we highly recommend the individual species books available for the wide variety of exotic water turtles and their individual needs.  There are also salt and brackish water turtles.  We have more information within our library that you may read at the clinic. Signs of sickness in reptiles can be trouble breathing, constipation or egg binding, mouth rot, shell/skin rot, a softer shell, swollen eyes and in general not eating for a week or longer.  We advise that you bring in a stool exam of all animals, including reptiles, so that we may run a fecal test for internal parasites.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic