If your child has been clamoring for a pet, you may think that a turtle is an easy choice. You may think it’s more exotic than a goldfish and less upkeep than a cat or dog. In reality, pet turtles require a good amount of responsibility and maintenance and their long lifespan makes them less like a pet and more like a long-term investment. So, before you adopt your own little Myrtle, here is an overview of everything you need to know to keep pet turtles healthy and happy.
Choosing Your Breed of Pet Turtle
There are many different species of turtle, but the types that are most commonly brought home as pets (and the easiest to care for) are box turtles and red-eared slider turtles. Box turtles have dark skin with yellowish markings and tall, dome-shaped shells, which is where they get their name. Adults typically grow to about 6 inches in length. Red-eared slider turtles (also known as sliders) are the most common species of a pet turtle. These are the kind that you find swimming around in tanks at your local pet store. While the baby turtles are often 4 inches in size or smaller, adults can grow up to 11 inches long, which means you might have to upgrade the size of your tank in the near future.
Creating Your Turtle’s Home
Turtles can be divided into two categories based on their habitat: terrestrial and aquatic turtles. Box turtles are land-dwelling, or terrestrial, turtles. They are found in damp areas, such as the mossy parts of forests, all over the world. If you live in a temperate area (with an average temperature between 75-85 degrees), an ideal habitat for a box turtle is an outdoor pen with high walls and a top to ward off predators.
If you live in a colder or warmer climate, set up an indoor area for your box turtle. Box turtles love to dig, so make sure they have lots of dirt, potting soil, shredded newspaper, or scraps of carpet to satisfy them. Box turtles also require a certain amount of moisture to survive, try to include plenty of rotting dry leaves and moist soil in your turtle’s pen, as well as a cozy shoebox or flower pot that the turtle can crawl under to hide or sleep. Never place your outdoor turtle in a glass tank. The glass will heat up like a greenhouse and end up cooking your poor pet!
In their natural habitat, aquatic turtles, like the red-eared slider, live in swampy, muddy areas with thick vegetation, such as lakes and ponds. They require a habitat with plenty of clean water for swimming as well as dry land where they can rest, hide and bask in the sun. A tank that can hold at least 40 gallons should give your pet turtle an adequate amount of room to move around in. Line the bottom of your turtle’s tank with lots of small rocks so it can have fun digging around. You can also put a large rock or floating log in the middle of the water to give your turtle its own private island for sunbathing.
In the terrestrial part of the tank, create a snug shelter out of wood or rocks where your pet turtle can go when it wants to get out in the open. You can dress the tank up with plants as well, as long as they are not poisonous to your pet(it is bound to take a nibble at them). Plant species such as Amazon swords, anarchist, water hyacinth, and water lettuce are good choices that can double as part of your pet turtle’s healthy diet.
Apart from a swimming area, aquatic turtles need an additional area for their drinking water. Be sure to use natural spring water for both your pet turtle’s swimming area and drinking water. Tap water contains chlorine and fluorine, which can throw off the water’s pH balance and harm the turtle.
Both terrestrial and aquatic turtles need to bask. If you keep your turtle indoors in an area without regular access to large amounts of natural light, you will need to purchase a basking lamp (also called a sun lamp) that simulates the sun’s Ultraviolet rays. Sunlight gives turtles adequate amounts of vitamin D and calcium they need to stay happy and healthy. You can keep the sun lamp on a timer that gives off 12 hours of light and then shuts off for 12 hours of darkness or you can regulate the lamp by hand. Just make sure that the lamp is placed high enough that it doesn’t burn your turtle.
Different species of pet turtles require different temperatures for their habitat. Land turtles can retain more body heat for a longer amount of time than aquatic turtles. You will need to find out exactly the right temperature for your species; however, a general rule is to keep the tank or pen around 80 degrees during the day and about 70 degrees at night.
Feeding Your Pet Turtle
Most turtles are omnivores, which means they eat both meat and plants. Box turtles can eat a wide variety of foods, such as slugs, worms, crickets, apples, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and leafy green vegetables. Dandelion leaves are also a good choice for a pet turtle’s diet because they are high in vitamin A and calcium. A box turtle’s absolute favorite food, however, is snails – as long as they are pesticide-free. Baby box turtles eat meat when they are young and adopt a more vegetarian diet as they grow older.
Aquatic turtles must be fed in the water so that they can swallow their food. Sliders like (de-clawed) crayfish, snails, and salamanders. They can also eat bits of meat, fruits, and vegetables (never iceberg lettuce or spinach) along with their regular diet. Unlike box turtles, sliders continue to eat meat as adults. Turtle experts recommend feeding your aquatic turtle live goldfish at least once a week. Turtles love to chase their prey, so capturing their dinner will give them a nice bit of fun and exercise!
Many pet stores also carry food sticks – specially created sticks that contain all the vitamins, minerals, and protein your pet turtle will need for a healthy diet. Food sticks can supplement the diet for both lands- and water-based turtles. Some good brands of food sticks include Tetra Reptomin and Purina Trout Chow. Apart from occasional snacks, young turtles should be fed twice a day. Adult turtles can be fed every other day (they prefer to take their meals in the early morning). Keep in mind that one of a turtle’s most adorable characteristics is that it loves to beg for food! If it sees you coming, it will swim up to the glass near the surface of the water and open and close its mouth in a chewing motion.
General Upkeep of Your Pet Turtle
Because turtles are exotic pets, you may be hard-pressed to find a pet store that carries your species’ specific type of food. Feeder fish can be expensive and they can make a mess of the tank; turtles are generally sloppy eaters, and you may find yourself having to pick decomposing fish particles out from under tiny rocks.
A turtle’s habitat also requires lots of attention. Your turtle will defecate in its swimming and/or drinking water, so changing its water regularly is a must. In addition, you must be sure to regularly filter the water in your aquatic turtle’s tank or clean out and remove any moldy plant debris from your terrestrial turtle’s pen.
In the 1970s, a salmonella scare among families with young children who kept pet turtles caused the United States to ban the commercial sale of any turtle less than four inches long. The problem was, small children were putting their tiny turtle pets in their mouths, thus contracting the dangerous bacteria. There is no way to know which turtles carry salmonella and which do not, so it is very important to wash your hands with antibacterial soap after handling your pet.
For more information on care for your pet turtles, check out helpful websites like PetTurtle.com and AllTurtles.com.
It’s true that turtles don’t require the same everyday maintenance of walking, grooming, and petting as cats and dogs, but they still need a good amount of attention. Many pet turtles end up dying because their owners neglect them or don’t understand how much care turtles really need. Turtles naturally have a very long lifespan, which means you could be investing in a pet that will stay with your family for several generations. Make sure that you and your children understand the responsibilities required for keeping turtles as pets before you take a trip to the pet store.