Aquatic turtles emerge from their eggs as quarter-sized miniatures, usually more colorful than adults. However, these reptiles quickly start putting on size within months and will outgrow any accommodations meant for babies.
In the “slider” family of turtles, adults can reach sizes big enough to fit on a large dinner plate. Males typically reach 7–8 inches in straight carapace length, while females can reach 12 inches. In person, this is quite an impressive bulk.
Housing adult turtles is the primary issue that often leads to them being given up or outright abandoned. Most people may buy a baby turtle sold in a tiny critter-keeper, never thinking that these turtles will grow to need a much larger tank or even an outdoor pond.
It’s extremely important to research any animal before bringing it home so you know you can handle the responsibility.
The Red-Eared Slider
Perhaps the most commonly kept turtle in captivity and the most notorious for its hardiness is the Red-Eared Slider, or RES for short. Due in great part to both the pet trade and irresponsible people, this species has established populations on every continent — except Antarctica.
The RES can outbreed and outcompete most native turtles living in waterways all over the world. Also, they will breed with closely related species, like the Yellow-Bellied Slider.
People who no longer want to care for their pet turtles will release them into local waterways, believing that they will lead free, happy lives. This is anything but the truth.
Most “released” turtles will die of starvation without knowing where to find food, or a predator will catch them. Very cold temperatures during winter will also kill these turtles.
Another factor to consider is that pet turtles may introduce disease or infection to wild turtles, which could have potentially devastating effects on local populations.
The sellers are as much to blame for this as careless buyers. Unscrupulous people out to make money will conveniently leave out any vital information that people need to properly care for these turtles. Telling them the truth would drive more customers away, costing them their sales.
In fact, when most people are informed about what a pet turtle requires, they realize they don’t really want one anymore. Only the most dedicated people will strive to keep their turtles healthy and happy, and that’s for the best.
Planning ahead means you can keep your turtle for years to come.
The difference in size between the sexes can help you figure out the habitat size you’ll need to set up when the turtle is fully grown. Determining sex can be tricky in the first few years, but once you know, you can plan out what they’ll need in the long run.
Males can do well in a 75-gallon aquarium if they get no larger than 6 inches in length. If they continue to grow or if you want them to have more room, 100 gallons is a better option.
For females, 125 gallons is the minimum aquarium size you’ll need.
Building an outdoor pond that’s secure from predators and potential escape points is ideal. It’s the most natural setting for aquatic turtles, and the sun provides heat and light for free. You can build a pond as big as you like and can also add plants and fish.
These can be used indoors or outdoors. They are a bit cheaper than glass aquariums and offer plenty of swimming room for turtles.
There are multiple sizes available, and some have a drain plug for letting out water. This can help with water changes if used outdoors. Indoors, the drain plugs needs to be sealed with “aquarium safe” silicone to prevent leaking.
Turtles need a basking area when they climb out of the water to fully dry. You can add a floating log of cork bark, rocks at the edge of the pond or a platform you build yourself for this purpose.
Heating and Lighting
If housing turtles indoors, you must provide heating and lighting.
Floodlight clamp fixtures are excellent heat sources. These fixtures have a clamp to attach them above the basking area. Always make sure the lights are secured so they don’t fall in the water — or on your turtle.
You can use regular incandescent bulbs, or those sold for reptiles, for this fixture. The basking range for slider turtles is 86–93 degrees F.
Check the water temperature with a floating thermometer. Depending on the climate in your area, you may need a tank heater. Maintain the water temperature in the range of 72–76 degrees F for adults and 78–80 degrees F for hatchlings and small juveniles.
UVB lighting is of the highest importance in maintaining reptile health. This light, normally received from sunlight, allows their bodies to metabolize Vitamin D. Without it, a turtle’s shell can deform, and their bones weaken.
UVB bulbs can be purchased as florescent tubes made for different lengths of enclosure. The goal is to cover the basking area. Place the UVB bulbs in a shop-light fixture from a hardware store.
These bulbs need replacing every 6 months due to UVB output degrading over time. This can get expensive, but in the long run, it will save your turtle unpleasant health issues — and save you money on vet bills.
Thanks to their persevering attitudes and tough bodies, these reptiles can push on for decades, sometimes outliving their people. There are turtles still alive today that were bought as hatchlings back in the 1960s.
That should give any potential buyer a moment of pause. Are you ready to care for a turtle that long? Do you know where you will take them if you can no longer care for them? Are you prepared to put them in your will should they outlive you?
Some turtles make it into their 20s, 40s and even 60s if well cared for. It all depends on the care they are given and underlying health issues. Sometimes genetics can play a part in longevity, but it’s hard to say. The main point here is to be prepared and plan ahead.
Wow! Check out this DIY turtle habitat:
Many people are guilty of thinking of reptiles as emotionless machines, but this is slowly beginning to change. With education and the experience of caring for turtles, one realizes that these little dinosaurs are more clever than they let on.
They are very aware of who gives them food and can even recognize their caretakers’ faces. They learn to trust the strange 2-legged beings that clean their tanks or ponds and will even follow them around.
If provided toys, turtles may be curious and investigate the objects. Some even allow their people to give them neck rubs or scratch an itchy shell.
Turtles can be incredibly rewarding pets for the right people. But please do your research before bringing one home. Learn as much as you can.
If you’re ready to make a turtle part of your family, please consider adopting. Just as with cats and dogs, there are far too many who are in need of good, loving homes.
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Angela DeRiso is a freelance writer passionate about the proper education, care and rescue of all animals we share our lives with. Her articles have been published on HealthyPets, Tampa Bay House Rabbit Rescue, the Suncoast Herpetological Society newsletter and more.