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Caring For Your Pet Aquatic Turtle

Exotic Animals

Basic Husbandry

General Information

Vital Statistics

  • Body Weight: varies by species and sex; males are often smaller than females.

  • Life Span:

    • Sliders: 15-30 years

    • Mud turtles: 10-15 years

    • Spiny softshell: up to 50 years

  • Sexual Maturity: 3-8 years of age

Common Species

  • Semi-aquatic turtles split their time between land and water. Popular semi-aquatic turtles kept in the US include sliders (Trachemys spp.), painted turtles (Chrysemys), pond turtles (Emydidae), mud and musk turtles (Kinosternidae), and map turtles (Graptemys spp.).

  • Aquatic turtles, like softshell turtles (Apalone spp.) and mata-matas (Chelus fimbriata), prefer to spend most, if not all, of their time in the water.

  • This handout will mainly discuss husbandry of semi-aquatic turtles and is intended as a general guide. This group is diverse, and each species has specific husbandry requirements. Consult with your veterinarian for specifics.

Behavior and Handling

  • When picking up your turtle be sure to support it with both hands from underneath, including its legs. Be sure not to drop your turtle or allow it to wander off the table as serious injury can result even from a short fall.

  • Many aquatic turtles are less amenable to handling than land-dwelling turtles and may bite if mishandled.

  • **IMPORTANT**: All reptiles, even animals that are perfectly healthy, may potentially be carrying salmonella.

    • It is safest to assume that your turtle is always shedding salmonella and take the appropriate precautions.

    • Children and immunosuppressed individuals are more at risk of serious illness resulting from salmonella exposure.

    • Be sure to wash your hands after handling your turtle.

Housing

  • Enclosure size will vary greatly by turtle species. A single adult slider requires at minimum a 50-gallon tank.

  • Hatchlings may be housed in a 20-gallon tank but will outgrow it in 2 years.

  • Cage size should be at least 4-5 body lengths of the turtle with plenty of space to turn around. If multiple turtles are kept, provide five times each animal’s body length.

  • A leak-proof glass aquarium is preferred, though plastic containers and stock watering tanks may also be used.

  • Semi-aquatic turtles require a place to emerge from the water, dry off, and bask. Make sure there are no sharp corners on the basking area and that there is enough of an incline for the turtle to easily climb out. There should also be enough space for all turtles in the enclosure to emerge at once.

Substrate and Water

  • Substrate is optional in semi-aquatic turtles: It is not necessary to line the bottom of the pool, and substrate can make cleaning more difficult. If you would like to include substrate to be more visually appealing, larger stones are recommended as turtles may eat smaller stones or gravel.

  • Substrate is recommended for aquatic turtles, to minimize the risk of pressure sores on the bottoms of their feet.

  • Sand has been shown to cause impaction in some turtles. If you are using sand as the substrate, you must be certain that your turtle is fed in a separate area to avoid consumption of the sand while hunting.

  • Clean water is crucial for the health of your turtle. Even if the water appears to be clean, there can still be a lot of nitrogenous waste from feces in the water. Partial to full water changes should be performed at minimum weekly.

  • The use of water filters may reduce but will not eliminate the need for water changes. You can also reduce waste in the primary enclosure by feeding turtles in a separate container.

  • The use of nontoxic live plants in the enclosure may also help reduce waste, though the turtles may eat the plants as well.

Lighting and Heating

  • Appropriate environmental temperature is essential for the survival of your turtle, since they do not produce their own body heat.

  • Species requirements may vary, but most do well with water temperatures between 72-82°F (22.2-27.8°C).

    • Provide barriers around submersible water heaters to prevent burns

  • Heat rocks tend to become too hot for most reptiles and should be avoided due to the risk of burns.

  • The following POTZ (Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone)is very important for semi-aquatic turtles:

    • Basking area: 85-90°F

    • Water: 72-82°F is adequate for most species, though 82-85°F recommended for sliders

    • Night time temperatures should drop by no more than 5-10°F

    • Ambient air temperature of the room should be above 75°F

  • An infrared thermometer with a laser pointer is a great tool to assess the temperature gradient of different areas of the enclosure.

  • UVA/UVB light is strongly recommended. Mercury vapor bulbs are a great way to provide both basking heat and UV spectrum lighting.

    • The lighting should be on during normal daylight hours all year long.

    • UV bulbs will stop emitting UV light after 6-12 months of use. It is recommended that the bulb be changed generally every 6 months for strip/tube lights and 12 months for coil lights.

    • UV light is invisible, so just because your light is producing visible light does not mean that there is UV light being produced by the bulb.

    • UV lights alone DO NOT produce heat and must be used in addition to a heat source.

    • Natural sunlight, when available, is also beneficial. You can place the cage or aquarium with a screen top by an opened window for a portion of the day during warm weather only. There should always be a shaded area available.

    • Glass is filters most of the UV light out, but the light will pass through the mesh top of the cage.

Cleaning

  • Regular cleaning is very important. The enclosure should be scrubbed with each full water change

  • Uneaten food should be removed daily.

  • The cage and all items in the cage should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected at least every 2-3 months.

    • A mild soap solution can be used as well as disinfection with 1 capful of Clorox bleach to 1 gallon of water.

    • Cage cleaning solutions may also be available at the local pet store (Betadine and Nolvasan are also acceptable)

    • Make sure to rinse the habitat well and dry it thoroughly before returning the turtle.

Diet

  • Many semi-aquatic turtles are omnivores and eat both insects and vegetables. Juveniles tend to eat more animal protein but should be offered more vegetation as they age. Adults should be fed no more than 2-4 times weekly.

  • Diet should consist of about 50% plant material, about 25% commercial aquatic turtle diet (usually pellets), and about 25% animal/insect protein

  • Vegetables (> 50%):

    • Dark leafy greens are an important source of calcium, vitamins, and fiber. Examples include kale, romaine, Swiss chard, watercress, endive, bok choy, escarole, spinach, duckweed, collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, beet greens.

    • Yellow or dark orange vegetables (ie carrots, squash, sweet potato) are an excellent source of vitamin A and should be mixed in with greens. Broccoli or green beans may also be offered.

    • Fruits like apples, melons, grapes, oranges, bananas, or berries may be offered occasionally as treats.

  • Commercial diet (< 25%):

    • Many adequate commercial diets are formulated for freshwater turtles. Examples include Aquatic Turtle Formula, Fluker Farms, Mazuri, Reptamin sticks.

  • Animal Protein (< 25%):

    • Small fish (goldfish, guppies, bait minnows, smelt), small frogs, or snails may be offered. You may wish to keep them in a separate feeding enclosure to prevent overeating and for ease of cleaning.

    • Insects (mealworms, waxworms, earthworms) or small pinky mice may be offered as an occasional treat.

  • A number of aquatic turtle species are true carnivores with fish making up a majority of their diet.

Dietary Supplements

  • Calcium must be regularly supplemented 2-3 times weekly for your turtle’s health. It cam be sprinkled onto vegetables or pellets.

    • If you are using a UVB source, this calcium should NOT contain Vitamin D3 as this will mess with the calcium and phosphorus balance.

  • Multivitamins may be supplemented weekly but are not necessary in a diet full of vitamin-rich vegetables.

Common Medical Conditions

Conditions Requiring Veterinary Attention

Anorexia (not eating for a prolonged period of time)

  • Anorexia is NOT specific to any one disease process and it is a symptom of many diseases. Some common diseases that may cause anorexia in aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles include intestinal parasites, substrate impactions, reproductive development/disease, and inadequate setup/husbandry among others.

  • Overgrowth or trauma to the beak can also cause difficulty eating.

Bacterial Infections (“shell rot”, “mouth rot”, abscesses)

  • If the temperature is not appropriate, reptile metabolic processes are interrupted, leading to a delayed or impaired response to infection.

  • Please notify your veterinarian if you notice any discolored spots, swelling, bleeding, or discharge.

  • Vitamin A deficiency is common in many captive reptiles and may lead to secondary infection in your turtle. Abscesses/pus may develop in the turtle’s ears and cause visible swelling. Notify your veterinarian if you notice any swelling of the eyes, ears, or head.

  • If untreated, these infections can become systemic and life threatening.

Metabolic Bone Disease

  • Insufficient calcium supplementation causes a deficiency in calcium in many reptile species. When calcium is insufficient, some animals mobilize calcium from bone to replenish what is lost.

  • This causes the bone to become brittle and prone to fractures. These bone changes may not be reversible once identified.

  • Young reptiles have a higher demand for calcium and are more vulnerable to this condition.

Trauma

  • Trauma, including bite wounds from dogs and cats, or getting stuck/scratched on sharp areas in the enclosure, are common and may lead to serious bleeding or infection.

  • Turtles can also be injured through handling, falling from heights, or being stepped on. Remember, the shell is part of the skeleton, so a shell fracture is just as serious or more so than a broken bone.

Reproductive Disease

  • Females

    • Egg binding/dystocia - the egg is too large or misshapen and is unable to be delivered appropriately

    • Coelomitis - a ruptured egg releases yolk into the body cavity resulting in a severe bacterial infection

    • Follicular stasis - the egg development stops and follicles take up space in the body cavity

Prolapse

  • This is the everting of the cloacal, GI, or reproductive structures through the cloacal opening.

  • Some of the many causes of prolapse include GI parasites, reproductive disease, and tumors.

  • If noticed, we recommend applying a dilute sugar solution to help reduce swelling, and contacting your veterinarian right away.

  • If untreated, this can cause damage to the exposed tissue where surgical intervention or quality of life may need to be assessed.

Obesity

  • Obesity is common in many captive turtles fed a diet too high in fat or those not provided sufficient space for exercise.

  • Obesity can lead to diseases of the heart, liver and joints.

  • Treatment consists of increasing exercise and change in diet.

Emergency / Critical Care

  • There are few true emergencies in reptiles, however reptiles often hide illness until it may be too late.

  • Any increased respiratory effort, active bleeding that cannot be stopped, or fracture should be addressed immediately.

  • All emergencies require veterinary assistance. If you are unsure whether this may be an emergency, we recommend contacting your veterinarian to get the best recommendations on when to have your pet examined.

Health Recommendations

Annual Physical

  • Always have an initial physical exam performed on any newly acquired turtle. During the exam, the doctor will check the mouth, eyes, ears, heart, breathing, and body cavity (coelom). The doctor will also check the skin for shedding problems or evidence of infection.

  • You should have your pet’s fecal sample checked for internal parasites.

  • Your turtle should have an annual physical done by a veterinarian every year.

Over-the-Counter Medication

  • Over-the-counter topical triple antibiotic ointments or any other types of over-the-counter medications are not recommended without first consulting your veterinarian.

  • Productions such as triple antibiotic ointment (for the use of minor skin injuries) can cause digestive problems if ingested and can cause digestive problems if ingested and can potentially become toxic over time.