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Reptile & Amphibian Center

Seven Things Not to Do To Your Turtle

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Turtles: Quiet Companions, But They Still Need Attention

by David F. Kramer


So, you’re looking for a new companion pet and you’ve decided that a Testudine could be the right fit for you. Whether turtle, tortoise or terrapin, a pet with four legs and a shell can make for a fine companion. Turtles are fun to watch swim around in an aquarium, lazily walk their way across the terrain (e.g., your carpet), or even just chill out on a warm and comfortable rock. Turtles have been kicking around the earth for about 60 million years, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon.


As with any other pet, caring for turtles requires no small amount of research. While there are plenty of sources that can offer information on what you should do for your turtle, here are some things that you shouldn’t.

Don’t Skimp on Your Turtle’s Enclosure

If you’re buying a turtle as a baby or hatchling, it’s imperative to consider the approximate size your turtle will be when it’s fully grown. Your turtle certainly won’t grow to adulthood overnight, but it’s bound to be faster than you would think. A baby slider, for example, might double or triple its size in the first year, grow about half of that length in the second year, and slow down to about 10% growth per year after that. In most turtle species, females will grow quite a bit larger than males, so this is also important to consider.


A good guide is 10 gallons of tank space for each inch of turtle. So, even a very small turtle that maxes out at a few inches is going to require a pretty sizable aquarium. Throw another turtle into the mix and you might be looking at a 40 or 50 gallon tank. As with any pet, it’s best to opt for a larger enclosure than to find yourself stuck with one that’s too small.


Don’t Use a Glass Top on Your Turtle Tank

Turtles need both Ultraviolet A and B light to survive. UV lighting plays a major role in the production of Vitamin D3, which is needed for the absorption and metabolism of calcium and other important nutrients and minerals. A lack of this can cause stunted shell growth, bone disorders, and generally shorten the life of your turtle.


While sunlight will provide this in the wild, it’s not enough to simply have your enclosure near a sunlit window. You will need to supplement ambient light with a quality UV bulb and light source placed over the tank. UVB rays cannot penetrate glass, however, so glass tank tops will negate the benefits of any sort of overhead lighting. The same is true for light shining through the sides of a glass tank Even if you opt for a screen top for your tank, it’s still best if the cells of that screen are as wide as possible to allow ample UVB light to reach the turtle.


If you intend to swap out a former fish tank for your new turtle, it’s best to invest in a new and more appropriate aquarium lid than the type that comes with fish tanks. Turtles aren’t likely to escape a well-managed enclosure, so if you can rig things up properly, you might not need a lid at all.


Perhaps most importantly, just because a UV bulb is lit doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s outputting sufficient UV rays. So, it’s best to replace your bulbs every 9 to 12 months, even if they’re still operational. 

Don’t Fail at Filtration

Simply put, turtles are dirty. A turtle’s life is an endless circle of food going in and coming out—often at the same time. So, it’s important that your turtle’s environment be kept clean. When it comes to filtration, it is recommended that you opt for a filter system that is strong enough to filter a tank twice the size of yours. Also, it’s a good idea to invest in a vacuum, or even just a simple siphon device made for tanks, which can help keep things clean and offers a simple way to make a partial water change each time you use it—which should be at least once a week. A bubbler can help to aerate the tank and stem the growth of anaerobic bacteria that can sicken turtles.


While turtles aren’t quite as susceptible to chemical changes in water as fish can be, you will still need to keep a tab on all of the usual aquatic suspects. That means a periodic check of pH, ammonia, and nitrate/nitrite levels. All of these precautions will help to make your turtle’s life a happy and healthy one.


Of course, water changes and cleaning should be done on a regular basis. The needed frequency of this will depend on the size of your tank and the behavior of your turtles, but it’s a good rule of thumb to change the water BEFORE it becomes dirty or foul smelling. A good general rule is to siphon about 1/2 of the dirty water out once a week, replacing it with clean water. Just as with fish tanks, leaving some of the old water in the tank is an important part of maintaining the bacterial balance.

Don’t Forget Reptiles Can Transmit Salmonella

All reptiles can carry Salmonella, a bacterial infection that is capable of being spread from reptiles to humans. Symptoms of Salmonellosis include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. While generally not too serious, people have been hospitalized due to dehydration. The young and the elderly are more at risk for complications.


According to Dr. Adam Denish, of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania, thinking that a turtle should “look sick” for it to be a threat is a mistake.


“Some reptiles can harbor the bacteria as a carrier but not be actively sick with an infection. Just as important, any vet can test an animal for Salmonella. However, these tests only show an active infection if they are shedding the bacteria in their stool. Reptiles don't require annual vaccinations like dogs and cats, but I strongly recommend a yearly exam to evaluate a turtle’s overall health.”


It’s always best to wash your hands thoroughly after handling your turtle or cleaning its enclosure. Small children handling turtles should be supervised to ensure they don’t place them near their eyes or mouths, as well as wash their hands afterwards. All of this shouldn’t talk you out of getting a turtle, after all, any pet has the potential to transmit disease, but these simple precautions are your best protection against getting sick. 



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Don’t Mix Turtles and Other Pets Without Close Supervision

It goes without saying that pets of different types might need to be kept apart as well as watched closely when they’re in the same proximity. While pet ownership has turned many unlikely combinations of animals into lifelong friends (and cute internet memes), it only takes a moment for instinct to take over and turn a friend into food. A dog or cat may view your new turtle with curiosity at first, but a simple exploratory scratch or bite can easily cause serious, and potentially lethal, harm. And there is the same threat of Salmonella infection from turtles to other pets as there is to humans (see the previous slide).


While a cat is probably more likely to have the skill to get up and into your turtle’s enclosure, never underestimate the brute force of an eager and leaping dog, no matter the size. There is also the risk of one or both animals being injured, or possibly killed, by a falling aquarium.


Keep any enclosure back from the edges of shelves, tables, or bureaus, and secure cords going to and from lights, heaters, and filters to avoid both tripping and curious mouths.



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Don’t Overfeed Your Turtle

Like many other animals, turtles are opportunistic feeders and will continue to eat with a full belly as long as food is available. Turtles will also “beg” for food when you pass by their enclosure or venture near that coveted food shelf. While it’s often hard to resist, overfeeding a turtle can lead to serious consequences, such as fatty liver disease and obesity.


While growing, juvenile turtles need to be fed fairly often, adult turtles can be fed a few times per week. Give your turtle a healthy combination of store bought pellets, fresh leafy greens, and finely chopped fruits and vegetables. Because they are also carnivorous, many turtles will also enjoy small fish, shrimp, and insects as a special treat. Any of these foods can be dusted with calcium powder to provide an extra boost of this vital nutrient.


On the flip side, many species of turtles observe a hibernation period and may refuse food for long periods of time. If your turtle does stop eating and you are concerned that it may be ill, be sure to schedule a checkup with your veterinarian.


It’s always best to remove any uneaten food from a turtle’s enclosure to avoid a mess from cast-off and decaying matter, which can make the tank water get very nasty. Some owners feed their turtles in a separate area to avoid this from happening.

Don’t Release Your Turtle into the Wild

Any animal lover would recoil at the prospect of leaving a cat or dog in the wild to its own devices. However, someone who owns a turtle and can no longer care for it might think that there’s a perfect spot in a nearby pond or forest that would be just the place for a turtle. After all, some say, there are probably other turtles there, and an abundance of food, water, and sunlight. But no, this is never a good idea.


While the natural instincts of turtles would probably kick in, a turtle that has been a captive most or all of its life will not have the keen hunting skills of a wild one. Also, any manageable diseases, viruses, or pathogens a turtle can pick up in captivity can run rampant and unchecked if it’s released into the wild. So, between the natural competition for food, the uncertainty of the weather, and disease, your pet will have little chance of survival, not to mention the damage it might cause to native animals.


Perhaps most importantly, any type of turtle can be an invasive species in some circumstances and could potentially play havoc in a local ecosystem. If you need to rehab a turtle, there are any number of internet groups and organizations that might be able to help find a suitable home for it (see related links below). While your local pet store is unlikely to accept your turtle, they might be able to steer you in the right direction or allow you to post on their communinty boards.


In all circumstances, the decision to own a pet, turtle or otherwise, is not something that should be taken lightly. Do your research so that you can be sure that you are prepared to care for any animal companion you choose to own.



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