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Reptile & Amphibian Center

Turtles 101: How to Clean and Care for Your Turtle's Tank

By Teresa Traverse



As a turtle owner, setting up your turtle’s habitat is key to keeping them healthy. This is where your pet will spend most of their time, and it needs to be just right. Here are general guidelines to help make your turtle’s home a good one.


How to Choose a Turtle Tank

The first thing you’ll want to consider is your turtle’s size. Many start off weighing a few grams but can grow to be as big as 100 pounds. You’ll want to research the type of turtle you’re getting so that you can buy a habitat that will suit your individual species. You could also start small and then build a bigger one as your turtle grows.


“You need to know what type of turtle or tortoise that you have and make sure you’re providing an appropriate environment for it,” said Jay Johnson, DVM and owner of Arizona Exotic Animal Practice and consultant for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service on tortoise-related health issues.


For instance, some turtles hibernate, while others don’t. If you don’t allow your turtle to hibernate, it could lead to health problems down the road, Johnson said. Likewise, if your turtle is from a tropical environment, you’ll want to ensure the temperature is consistently warm year-round. In general, you’ll want to buy a bigger habitat than what you think you’ll need.


“Most people provide way too small of enclosures,” says Johnson. “Most turtles and tortoises in the wild occupy half-to-one mile areas, so when you put them in a little cage, you’re taking an animal that [normally] has a half-to-one square mile and keeping it in a studio apartment that they can never leave.”


If you can, it’s also a good idea to provide turtles with outdoor space to roam around. “Most turtles and tortoise don’t do well long term indoors, unless the care is very, very good,” Johnson said. Consider placing your turtle’s habitat outside if the weather permits and if it’s properly outfitted for the outdoors.


Materials You’ll Need For the Tank

You’ll want to consider purchasing the following for your turtle’s tank:

  • A habitat: there are plenty of different materials you can use for this, but Johnson recommends Christmas tree boxes, kiddie pools and plastic tubs or troughs. A fish tank is only a good idea if you have an aquatic turtle. Johnson recommends plastic bins over aquariums, as they’re easier to clean and weigh less than glass aquariums.
  • Rocks to lie on: many turtles like to sunbathe. However, you’ll want to ensure the rocks are bigger than the size of your turtle’s head as many turtles will consume those rocks if they’re too small, said Laurie Hess, DVM and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York.
  •  A thermometer or temperature gun: use these to check the temperature of the water
  • Food: both fresh and pelleted
  • UV Light and a heat lamp: UV Light mimics the natural light of the sun, and Johnson recommends you set this on a timer so it mirrors the patterns of the sun. “All turtles and tortoises need a UV light specific to reptiles. If they don’t have UV light, they usually get sick and start having problems,” says Johnson. “Many reptiles internal body functions are temperature dependent. So they need to be able move through different temperatures to do things internally."


You’ll want to replace the bulbs a few times a year to keep the temperature at the right level. The sun is very important since the Vitamin-D helps them absorb calcium from the food they’re eating, says Hess.


Contrary to what you may have read, Johnson says that you don’t need to use a nightlight. The temperatures can drop into the 60s or 70s at night, and the turtle will be just fine.


Since many turtles, like the Russian tortoise, spend time under ground, you’ll also want to build habitats for them to “hide” under, like they do in the wild. Try using a dome-shape, hallowed wooden log and wet it periodically to keep the environment humid, Johnson said. If you own an aquatic turtle, you’ll want to check the water frequently (like with wish), monitor the ammonia levels and de-chlorinate the water, Hess said.


How to Set Up a Turtle Tank

You’ll want to position the heat lamp on one side and the UV light on the other. This give the turtle’s the chance to spend time in the hot and in the cool areas. As far as placement of the tank goes, to avoid putting it in a place with radical temperature shifts. You should also keep the tank away from the kitchen, as turtles can carry Salmonella bacteria, which can spread to your food, Hess said.


How to Clean a Turtle Tank

When you start cleaning your turtle tank, first remove everything from inside of it. Once you’ve taken it out, clean the tank with a very dilute warm water bleach solution to kill any bacteria, let the tank to sit for ten minutes, then wash off the cleaning solution with water and let it dry for a few hours. Replace all of the substrate (either peat moss, aspen, wood shavings, coconut shells or crushed walnut shells) with fresh materials. Soak rocks in soapy water, trim back plants and remove any algae. Anytime you are handling turtles or the tank, you should either use gloves or wash your hands immediately afterwards. Turtles can carry bacteria like Salmonella so always be careful.


How often you clean depends on the kind of turtle you have and how messy they are. Johnson recommends cleaning a moist tank once or twice a month and a dry tank every few months. You’ll want to spot clean by picking up feces on a regular basis. Deep cleanings should happen periodically.


Image:  / Shutterstock

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