Common Names: Baby red-eared and other sliders, painted turtles, map turtles, pond turtles, etc.
Considerations: Baby turtles are about as cute as they get, but before taking one home as a pet it is important to carefully consider their captive care requirements and to understand that they are long-lived animals, often reaching 50 years or more of age. Unfortunately, most often people find themselves with a baby turtle that was irresponsibly sold or given to them, without thought for the animal’s long-term well-being or what it needs and will need to live a healthy life in captivity.
Note that it is illegal to buy or sell aquatic turtles in the United States that have a shell length of under 4 inches (10 cm) because it is thought there is a greater risk of children getting salmonella from turtles that can fit inside their mouth. It is not illegal to keep a baby turtle; they just can’t be bought or sold.
Housing: A standard 15 gallon aquarium that measures 24 inches long by 12 inches wide by 12 inches high (61 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm) or larger is enough space until a turtle reaches a shell length of around 3 inches (8 cm). Larger aquariums are better and with a larger volume of water the aquarium will need less maintenance as well.
The water depth in the aquarium should be as deep as the length of the turtle’s shell or more. The water area can be filtered with a small submersible power filter. The filter media should be changed regularly, as often as every three weeks and if it contains a sponge the sponge should be rinsed every week.
A layer of medium to large gravel can be used on the bottom of the aquarium, but it is easier to perform water changes if no gravel is used. Instead of gravel, a few large, stable river rocks or heavy pieces of driftwood can be placed in the water to create different water depths. Artificial plants can be provided as hiding spots and décor provided that they do not contain any sharp points and cannot easily be broken or pulled apart.
Over a small land area that gradually slopes out of the water, suspend a heat lamp to provide a basking site. This can be accomplished by positioning a large rock or piece of wood in the cage so that it gradually rises out of the water. Pieces of slate or other flat rocks can be glued together with aquarium-safe silicone sealant to create stable a basking platform as well.
Change between half and two thirds of the water every one to three weeks. Smaller water changes can be carried out more often, during which excess food and waste are siphoned out of the aquarium with an aquarium vacuum. You can also spot clean with a turkey baster after feeding to help keep the water clean.
How often the water is changed depends on how large the aquarium is, how much water is in it, and how many turtles are being kept. If there is a large volume of water, a good filter is being used, and only one turtle is being kept, the water won’t have to be changed as often as it will in a small aquarium with no filtration and multiple turtles, which might need daily water changes.
Most of the waste that is produced by aquatic turtles is excess food. To combat this, some people choose to feed aquatic turtles messy foods (earthworms, turtle pellets, crickets, etc.) in a separate container outside of the cage to reduce the amount of excess food in the tank.
Lighting: Aquatic turtles require two different types of lighting. A fluorescent light bulb or other lighting that produces “5%” or more UVB radiation is required when turtles are kept indoors. The UVB-producing light bulb should be placed over and within 12 inches (30 cm) of the basking area. It should also be positioned over a screen cover or open area rather than a glass or plastic aquarium cover. The amount of UVB radiation that a bulb produces slowly dies off over time so they need to be replaced once or twice per year.
One of the most common reasons that baby turtles die is because their shell gets “soft”. Aquatic turtles and many other diurnal species of reptiles need UVB rays in order to process calcium in their diet. Without the correct amount and type of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and the correct diet, the calcium level in the blood will fall too low. When this happens, turtles start to take calcium from other parts of the body (the shell for example) in order to keep the calcium level in the blood high enough to keep going, but eventually this leads to death.
The second type of lighting that aquatic turtles need is an incandescent spot light to create heat for a basking area in the cage. Standard light bulbs can be used for this purpose, otherwise special tight-beam reptile light bulbs can be purchased at most pet stores and work well. The wattage that is needed to create a basking spot at the correct temperature will depend on how high the light bulb is from the basking platform, what the ambient temperature is in the room the turtle is kept in, and what species of turtle is being kept.
Temperature: Different species of turtles may have different temperature requirements. Most will do fine with a water temperature that ranges from 75-80°F (24-27°C), though this may need to be adjusted for some. A submersible aquarium heater can be used to heat the water. Care should be taken to position the heater in such a way that rocks aren’t likely to fall or be pushed onto it and possibly cause the glass to break. Using a submersible heater made from titanium or plastic even safer.
The basking area on land should stay between 90°F (32°C) and 100°F (38°C). I used a 50 watt light bulb positioned about 6 inches (15 cm) above the basking spot to accomplish this, but it may differ in other situations. If the water temperature or basking spot are not warm enough, juvenile turtles may refuse to feed or seem lethargic and inactive. Use an accurate thermometer to measure the temperature in both the water and on land.
Food: Offering aquatic turtles a varied and nutritious diet is the key to long-term success. Contrary to what many recommend, it is best if turtle pellets do not make up the entire diet of aquatic turtles.
Juvenile turtles are generally more carnivorous than adults, although some species such as painted turtles will still consume a reasonable amount of vegetation while young. Small sized aquatic turtle pellets, live earth worms, crickets, chopped night crawlers, black worms, tubifex worms, small freeze dried krill, wax worms, and feeder guppies can all be offered to meet their carnivorous dietary requirements. Collard greens, turnip greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, red lettuce, kale, aquatic plants like Elodea, and other greens should be offered daily. Occasionally shredded carrot or sweet potato can also be offered. Ice berg lettuce, spinach, and rhubarb leaves should not be fed to turtles.
It is not uncommon for young turtles to ignore plants and other vegetables, but they should still be offered regularly to ensure that they are available when the turtle starts to eat them.
If your turtle isn’t eating first check the temperatures in the aquarium with an accurate thermometer. If the temperatures are in a suitable range, try offering live blackworms or chopped earth worms, which few turtles can resist. Some turtles may not feed while they are being watched, especially if they are new, and it may take some time until they become used to their surroundings.
Proper calcium and vitamin supplementation is critical and is a part of aquatic turtle care that is often overlooked. A good way to provide supplements to turtles is to roll an earth worm or chopped night crawler in a powdered reptile supplement and then offer it to the turtle with tweezers to prevent the calcium or vitamins from washing off in the water. Use a supplement that contains calcium with vitamin D3 along with a high quality multivitamin supplement.
Young turtles can be fed three to eight turtle pellets once or twice a day, along with a large piece of a dark lettuce or other leafy green vegetable floated in the water. Other food items can be substituted for turtle pellets several times per week. Do not place the food on land, just throw it in the water and remove anything that isn’t eaten within a couple hours.