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Should You Get a Pet Turtle?
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Should You Get a Pet Turtle?

Critter Culture Staff



Turtles can be fun and interesting pets, but they require a commitment. They have a long lifespan, so be prepared to keep your reptilian friend through changing life circumstances. Because they spend their entire life in the habitat created for them, their caregiver must make time to clean and maintain that area as well as care for the turtle itself.


Turtle Habitats

Pet turtles depend on their owners to meet their needs. This means creating a space where the turtle is safe, happy, and healthy. While specific requirements can apply to certain species, every turtle habitat must include some general conditions. Turtles are semi-aquatic, meaning they need both land area and water in their tank. An aquarium that is at least 55 gallons allows space for each.


Temperature requirements

Turtle on a basking stone. YKD / Getty Images

Monitor the temperature of both the water and air to ensure your turtle has the conditions needed to survive. Use a heat bulb on the dry portion of the tank to create a basking area and keep the temperature around 80 degrees F during the day and no lower than 70 overnight. The air temperature over the swim portion of the tank can range from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. Control the water temperature with an underwater heater, and maintain a temperature in the mid-70s. Turtles appreciate long days. Add a UVA or UVB bulb to the tank and keep it on for 12 hours during the day to keep them happy and active.


Building a home

Create the turtle's habitat before bringing them home. Cover the floor of the aquarium with gravel. Create a hill using gravel, or use a landing dock to provide the turtle dry land access. Turtles appreciate plants and other decorations to feel protected. A well-fitted screen for the habitat ensures the turtle stays in their home.


Caring for the habitat

Using a vacuum to clean habitat gravel. victorass88 / Getty Images

Turtle habitats can be a challenge to keep clean. Use an aquarium vacuum to clean waste from the gravel substrate, and change the water regularly. The filter needs to be maintained to ensure it is keeping the water healthy for your turtle. Check the condition of the tank daily, and plan on spending time at least once a week thoroughly cleaning it.


Feeding your turtle

Pet turtle eating vegetables. Ploychan / Getty Images

Turtles eat a varied diet of plants and meat. Providing organic leafy green vegetables, chopped apples, and other produce ensures the plants are safe and have not been treated with harmful chemicals. Provide meat in the form of worms, crickets, and other feeder insects. Aquatic turtles enjoy hunting their food and appreciate the regular addition of crayfish, salamanders, and even goldfish to their swimming habitat.


How to Handle a Pet Turtle

Even though a turtle has a protective shell, use care when handling it. Wash your hands and pick them up gently. Be calm when handling the turtle. Swinging them around or making sudden movements is disorienting and stressful. Always hold the turtle by their shell, not their legs or tail. When finished, gently return the turtle to their home and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.


Recognizing a sick turtle

Turtles cannot tell anyone when they are not feeling well, so it is up to their owner to notice. The easiest way to do this is to observe the turtle regularly. Knowing how they behave normally makes it easier to notice when they are feeling under the weather. There are several signs that a turtle is not feeling well. Eating and drinking less frequently, spending more time than usual in their hiding spots, swelling in any of their joints, changes to their skin color, any discharge from the mouth, nose, or eyes, or runny droppings that last more than a few days can all indicate illness.


Health conditions that affect turtles

pet turtles can get sick

Respiratory illness from vitamin A deficiency is a health concern pet turtles often experience. Any discharge from the mouth, nose, or eyes indicates something is wrong. As the infection progresses, the turtle has more difficulty breathing and may begin holding their mouth open and gasping for breath. Offering a varied, well-balanced diet helps the turtle maintain vitamin A levels and reduces their susceptibility to infections. Turtles can also develop parasites, even when their habitat is kept very clean. Parasites may not present any symptoms until the infestation is severe. Weight loss and diarrhea are indicators of this issue.


Shell infections and injuries

Shell rot develops when parasites, fungi, or bacteria attack the turtle's shell. This often happens after the shell is injured from a bite or other trauma. If the infection extends deep into the shell, it can affect the underlying bone. Treatment of a shell fracture by a veterinarian can minimize the risk of infection developing. If the turtle does develop shell rot, the affected area is cultured and cleaned. The veterinarian will use the culture to determine the best treatment plan for the turtle.



Even the most thoughtfully designed tank does not allow the turtle sufficient exercise. Taking the turtle out of his habitat every week or so to explore allows them to keep their limbs strong and healthy. Do not turn the turtle loose without supervision, though. They are vulnerable and need someone to accompany them whenever they are outside their home. Provide toys in the habitat to encourage a healthy mind and body. Shells or pieces of floating wood provide mental stimulation. Offering live insects and fish as part of their diet does the same.




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