TURTLE & TORTOISE SOCIETY – WATER TURTLE CARE-SHEET
Turtles are long-lived animals that have special needs that necessitate a commitment by the pet owner to fulfill. The hobbyist needs to learn as much about the species of turtle they are keeping and their special needs in order to assure a long and healthy life for the turtle. This care-sheet provides some basic guidelines for the care and housing of the more common and hardy aquatic turtles available in the pet trade.
Turtles are cold-blooded animals whose activity levels rise and fall with their body temperature. We note this right up front and frequently throughout this care-sheet because common aliments can be attributed to the turtle’s inability to maintain and regulate its body temperature to that which is optimal to the turtle’s health. If a turtle can not regulate its temperature, common easily cured health problems can lead to secondary complications, which will, if not properly diagnosed and treated eventually lead to the untimely death of a one time healthy turtle. Keeping a turtle between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit for prolonged periods of time is a common cause of death. They are too warm to hibernate yet too cool to feed regularly, and their immune system becomes depressed.
One should never rely upon the subjective feel of the ambient temperature, since what feels good or warm to human may not meet the turtles needs. Likewise, the setting on your house’s thermostat is not a true reading of the temperature that the turtle is experiencing. Thermometers are necessary. You will need to know the temperature of the water and of the basking spot.
A turtle’s habitat should always provide the turtle keeper access to monitor the turtle’s activities, particularly during feeding. Generally speaking, a turtle will feel more comfortable if in can live its life with some secrecy, with plenty of things to hide behind and underneath. But elaborate setups prevent the proper monitoring of the turtles activity and health. So a balance needs to be struck between providing secluded space for the turtle and easy viewing for the keeper.
Good water quality will need to be maintained in order to provide the best environment for your turtle. This may be accomplished by a complex filtration system with ultraviolet sterilizer, but systems like this tend to go beyond what most hobbyists feel comfortable spending. Without a filtration system, water quality must be maintained by either full or partial water change out. The frequency of the change out depends on the number of turtles and the volume of water in the habitat. The goal should be to perform change out frequently enough so that the water never gets cloudy from the combination of food and fecal debris. Aeration of the water will help maintain the healthy aerobic bacteria, which aid in maintaining water quality. Aeration can be accomplished by air pumps and bubblers or air stones of by a submersible pump re-circulating the water to an above ground nozzle or water fall for a nice aesthetic effect.
Since water change out is an important part of maintaining water quality the method of water removal should be integral in the design of the habitat. Drains can be mounted in habitats built above ground to aid the water removal process. A siphon can also be used however, this can be a messy operation and is therefore best suited for outdoor setups A small submersible pump maybe added to provide re-circulation, aeration, and some filtration. The flow rate desired will depend on the species of turtles keeping in mind that the less adept swimmers such as mud, musk and spotted turtles, may be uncomfortable with a strong flow rate. A siphon or net may also be used to remove large pieces of fecal matter and leftover food debris, thus delaying the need for water change out.
An aquatic turtle’s water area must be deep enough so that the turtle can right itself if it was to turn over on its carapace. This is typically a depth greater then the shell width of the largest turtle in the pool. If the water is not this deep or if access to this water depth is hindered by obstructions, the turtle won’t be buoyant enough to flip back over if it should end up on its back in the water and will drown. Conversely the water depth must not be so extreme that the turtle struggles to get to the surface. The maximum water depth is highly species specific. Adult pond turtles such as Trachemys scripta elegans (red-eared slider) can be comfortable in depths of one to four feet, which is too deep for less adept aquatic turtles such as the Clemmys guttata (the spotted turtle). Spotted turtles, mud and musk turtles, which are more adept at crawling on the bottom of their habitat than swimming through open water, do well in ponds that never go beyond six inches in depth, and would eventually drown in the deep-water habitant of the pond turtles. It is therefore important to know the natural habitat of the turtle species you are housing. A good field guide to reptiles or a turtle identification guide is helpful in determining your turtles natural habitat.
Turtles in any habitat must be provided the means to self regulate their temperature. Turtles bask in order to raise their body temperature thereby increasing their metabolism, which encourages the turtle to eat, aids in digestion and allows for the effective function of their immune system. Each aquatic habitat must provide a means, such as a ramp, for the turtle to climb out of the water to bask. Basking is encouraged in indoor habitats by suspending a light bulb (40 – 60 watts is usually sufficient) above the turtle’s’ basking spot. The light bulb should be high enough to prevent contact with the turtle’s carapace, keeping in mind that turtles will climb on top of one another. Make sure the light can’t fall into the water and electrocute you or the turtle. The basking area should be between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a thermometer and do not rely on your feel of the temperature. To obtain the appropriate temperature either adjust the distance the bulb is from the basking area or the wattage of the bulb. Have the basking light on for eight to ten hours during the day. Turtles in an outside habitat should have a basking area in a sunny location to encourage basking.
When a turtle is warmed enough from basking, it needs to be able to be able to cool itself by seeking cooler water or shaded areas of an outdoor pen. Indoor water if needed can be heated with a submersible aquarium heater to between 70 – 74 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping in mind to never trust the setting on the heater, but to use a thermometer to check the water temperature. Turtles do occasionally break submersible heaters, therefore for personal safety plug heaters into a ground-fault interrupter and always unplug the heater before putting your hands in the water. This water temperature assumes there is a warmer basking area available for the turtle. A heater may not be necessary for some of the more common North American species if a warm basking area is provided.
It is mandatory that the turtle have a ramp to exit the water in a heated habitat in the event that the heater malfunctions in the energized state, to prevent cooking the turtle. This is not as much concern for outdoor setups as long as there are shaded areas available and the water depth is not too shallow. In-ground pools are much less susceptible to overheating due to conduction to the surrounding dirt, however a dark shallow plastic lined pool may over heat on a hot sunny day. Sun and shade time periods should be considered for all outdoor setups. Also never place an aquarium in a sunny window or outside in the sun for a day. Temperatures in a glass aquarium can rise quickly causing heat stroke in your turtle.
Indoor habitats can be quickly made to accommodate all your turtles needs or made elaborate in order to provide an aesthetic supplement to the décor of your house. The simplest setup is an aquarium, appropriate in size for your turtle with a simple ramp into the water for your turtle to bask on. A 20 gallon long aquarium is an adequate size for 2 small turtles (4 inches or less) or one larger turtle, not exceeding 8 inches in shell length. A good rule of thumb is to add an additional ten gallons per additional turtle. Never use a ramp that blocks a significant portion of the turtle’s access to the surface. Turtles will drown it they can’t reach the surface to breathe.
It is not true that the best outdoor setup duplicates the natural environment of the turtle. One can never really duplicate the natural environment unless one has a natural pond and then your turtle would eventually behave as a wild turtle. A pool made with a pond liner may look like a natural setting, but it prevents the turtle from seeking cover in the soft substrate on bottom that a natural pond would have, and is therefore immediately made not natural. Consideration must be given to how this loss of a natural retreat, hiding place, and potential hibernating location will affect the turtle, and compensating provisions need to be made.
If you opt for an outdoor habitat the turtle will not be able to flee harm from natural predators like it would in its natural environment. All but the largest pond sliders are easy prey for opportunistic predators such as raccoons, and if the outdoor pond is not surrounded on all sides and topped with chicken wire or wire mesh, a raccoon will find a way to make a meal of your pet turtle. Besides raccoons, large birds, such as crows, will find small turtles an irresistible meal unless the pen is constructed to prevent access to the turtles. Even the pet dog finds turtles to be an excellent chew toy. To prevent this the outdoor pond and any land area accessible to the turtle should be completely surrounded. The added requirement of providing physical security for your turtle adds additional expense, which is not incurred for the indoor habitats. However the fun of watching your turtles bask on a sunny day makes this expense well worth it for some turtle keepers.
A healthy turtle should be an eager eater and will come up to the side of its habitat to be fed when food is presented. In these cases, give enough food that it will be eaten in ten-minute period. If too much food is given the uneaten food will lead to water quality problems. Young turtle should be fed daily, while older adults do well being fed every other day.
There are a wide variety of prepackaged turtle foods available today. Most water turtles like a product called Reptomins and grow well eating it. Avoid such things as ground beef and chicken. Many turtles will eat them but they are not a good balanced diet for your turtle. If you have a reluctant feeder offering live foods such as small worms will often get them eating.
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