Basic Care for Semi-Aquatic Turtles

Part 1: Housing

The tank. A ten gallon aquarium is the minimum size for a single 4″-6″ specimen, but keep in mind that most commonly sold turtles will grow to 8″-10″ and will require larger quarters; a fifteen to twenty gallon tank will provide more room for swimming and basking and will require less cleaning. For several turtles, a thirty gallon or larger tank is highly recommended. The tank should have as big a “footprint” as possible, and be deep enough to allow for at least 6 inches of water plus an elevated basking area. The All Glass Aquariumtm; company now makes a line of special “Turtle Tanks” with an excellent feature: one end of the tank has an opening to allow for easy mounting of a hang on power filter.
turtles.gif – 5.86 K The layout. Semi-aquatic turtles require plenty of water to swim in and a basking area large enough for each turtle to get completely out of the water. This elevated basking area can be created by piling a large quantity of aquarium gravel or smooth rocks on one end of the tank, leaving the other end as the swimming hole. Other alternatives are to use a floating cork, Styrofoamtm; or plastic raft or a manufactured bridge. In any case, the basking area should be smooth so as not to damage the turtles’ undershell, slightly inclined to allow easy access, and large enough to readily accommodate all the turtles in the tank simultaneously. Any other decor is unnecessary, and will tend to accumulate debris.

Filtration. Turtles and their foods produce an abundance of waste, so filtration is necessary unless the hobbyist has the time and ambition to perform water changes every day or two. As with selecting the tank itself, it is wise to err on the side of oversize, rather than risk purchasing something that is inadequate for your needs. A canister filter would be ideal, since it can operate at lowered water levels, pushes a fairly high volume of water, and contains a lot of filter media that can go for an extended period of time between cleanings. A submersible power filter (or hang on power filter if you’re using a special “Turtle Tank”) is the next best choice. Smaller, less powerful, box and sponge filters are better than no filter at all, but will require frequent cleanings and still may not keep up with the turtles’ waste output.

Heating. Turtles should be kept at a constant temperature somewhere between 68-80 degrees F. year round. Lower temperatures may cause turtles to cease feeding in preparation for hibernation; however, since the temperature won’t get low enough to actually cause hibernation, the turtle continues to burn calories, even though it isn’t taking any more in. A submersible aquarium heater is the best bet; it can be laid horizontally in the swimming area and, once set, will maintain a stable temperature without further adjustment. Heat can also be provided via warm overhead lighting, but this method is hard to regulate and promotes algae growth in the water.

Lighting. Anyone who has seen turtles in nature can attest to how much they seem to enjoy “sunning” themselves. In addition to whatever psychological benefits strong lighting might provide, turtles also utilize ultraviolet light from either sunlight or special fluorescent bulbs (for example, “VitaLitetm;” bulbs from DuroTesttm;) to help manufacture Vitamin D.

Part 2: Maintenance

Feeding. Turtles should receive a varied diet, starting with a good quality commercial balanced food like ReptoMintm;, and including occasional treats of raw fish, insects, worms, and aquatic plants. Avoid foods that rapidly decompose in water, and be sure the size is appropriate for the size of your turtles. Uneaten food serves only to foul the water, making more work for the hobbyist.

Cleaning. Filters should be cleaned or rinsed whenever they begin to become clogged and slow down – before the water in the tank starts to turn cloudy or smelly. In addition, a third of the water should be drained regularly, and replaced with fresh, dechlorinated water of the same temperature. The tank, basking area, and any other items should be scrubbed and rinsed (No soaps or detergents, please) whenever grunge begins to accumulate. The frequency of cleaning chores will vary greatly from tank to tank, depending on the number of turtles, feeding habits, temperature and type of filtration, but will likely be in the weekly to monthly range.

Problems. Most turtle illness can be traced back to one of three factors: poor nutrition, poor temperature or poor water quality. Following the above guidelines will help maintain your turtle in good condition, and is far more trouble-free and cost effective than using medications to attempt to cure an unhealthy specimen.

Part 3: A word about Salmonella

Salmonella is a bacteria that causes diarrhea and flu-like symptoms in humans and can cause serious problems and even death in very young children or in adults with impaired immune systems. Most cases of Salmonella poisoning are caused by eating undercooked meats or poultry, but some have been the result of eating or preparing food after handling a turtle or other reptile. Baby turtles were considered a health threat because of the likelihood that small children might handle them without washing up afterwards, and for this reason it has been illegal to sell turtles with a shell length of less than four inches since the early 1970’s. Even perfectly healthy turtles can have Salmonella bacteria in their feces, and care must be taken that turtle waste is not somehow ingested by humans. Hands should be washed with warm, soapy water immediately after a turtle is handled or a turtle tank or filter is cleaned, and small children should not be permitted to handle turtles without supervision.

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