Red-eared sliders (also called red-eared terrapins) have been the most popular and commonly kept pet turtle for decades. They are the original dime-store turtle—until the Federal Government banned the sale of babies and juveniles smaller than 4 inches due to salmonella concerns in 1975, that is.
The red-eared slider is a subspecies of the pond slider, and as such doesn’t have its own recognized subspecies.
Red-Eared Slider Size
While most people may think of red-eared sliders as being small turtles, they can actually grow to almost two feet in length with proper housing and care! Adult males have longer tails than females and display distinct sword-like front claws, but females will grow to a larger size than their male counterparts.
On average, male red-eared sliders grow to be about 7.9 inches (20 cm) and females to about 11 inches (28 cm).
Red-Eared Slider Lifespan
Red-eared sliders can be especially long-lived, enjoying a lifespan of well over twenty years. The oldest recorded captive red-eared slider lived to be forty-one years old! In many cases, pet red-eared sliders are even passed down in families from generation to generation.
Red-Eared Slider Appearance
Red-eared sliders are quite attractive and rather flat turtles, with disc-shaped round carapaces (shells) in bright greens with thin yellow striping or blotches. They have yellowish underbellies and green skin, with yellow stripes or dots on their legs and faces.
Red-eared sliders get their name from the red spot or wide red stripe that’s found behind each eye. There are other types of turtles that look similar to the red-eared slider but which are lacking the red “ear.” The patterning of red-eared sliders begins a bright green but can stretch, darken, and fade as the animal grows and ages.
Another interesting fact about red-eared sliders is that, unlike other turtles, when they withdraw into their shells they are unable to seal off their shell entirely, leaving them vulnerable. So, in order to avoid predators they rely more on diving into deep water.
Red-Eared Slider Care Level
Because of their specific needs, keeping requirements, and long lives, red-eared sliders are recommended for intermediate to advanced herpetoculturists. However, if you’re interested in the animal and dedicated to providing the right kind of care for great lengths of time, beginning herpetoculturists can successfully raise red-eared sliders.
When deciding on a red-eared slider, or any other semi-aquatic or aquatic turtle, you must plan ahead and prepare for your pet before bringing it home. Any water turtle is generally much more difficult to care for since its environment strongly influences its health.
Red-Eared Slider Diet
Red-eared sliders are hearty omnivores, but they have to be nice and warm in order to feed. The ideal water temperature for sliders to feed in is somewhere in the upper 70s (24-26 degrees Celsius). It is important that you vary your red-eared slider’s diet, feeding it a mix of vegetables, insects, meat, fish, and earthworms.
When you purchase your pet slider, ask questions of the seller to familiarize yourself with its usual food items. Oftentimes, turtles’ diets vary according to their local environments.
Always feed your pet slider a nutritionally rich diet and avoid food items that have little to no nutritional value, like iceberg lettuce. Above all, remember to provide variety.Even if an individual turtle shows preference to a certain type of food, don’t allow it to become fixated. It’s the variety of foods that will give your turtle a complete and balanced diet.
Supplementing your red-eared slider’s diet with commercial turtle food and trout chow is a wise idea since it is fortified with the vitamins and minerals required for the turtle’s long-term health.
Be aware that if your turtle is new to commercial turtle food, it may take a period of acclimation before the turtle starts eating it. If you keep multiple red-eared sliders and feed them all together, keep an eye during feeding time and separate them if they nip at each other.
Feed young red-eared sliders daily, but only as much as they will eat in a few minutes. Adult red-eared sliders should not be fed daily; limit feedings to once every second or third day. Overfed red-eared sliders will become fat and unable to lift their head and limbs. Since red-eared sliders are aquatic turtles and feedings can get messy, feed your turtles individually in a separate container to prevent bits of food from clouding up the water if possible. Most hobbyists feed the turtles their dry food on a platform or ledge
Red-Eared Slider Health
Common Health Issues in Red-Eared Sliders
Like all turtles, there is the danger of salmonella when housing red-eared sliders. Proper hygiene and hand washing should always be practiced. Aside from concerns related to salmonella, there are several other health issues common to the red-eared slider. These are outlined below, but we recommend always taking your pet turtle to the herp vet if they show signs of sickness. Though no vaccinations are required, it may be wise to bring your pet turtle to the vet initially for guidance, and yearly for examinations.
Dietary issues are a major source of illness in pet turtles, and in most cases they boil down to the animal becoming fixated on one food item in particular. This is why a varied diet is so important, as well as periodically supplementing your pet’s diet with calcium in the form of a calcium block. Without proper sunlight and a calcium-containing diet, your turtle can easily get metabolic bone disease. Signs include a soft shell, twitching, and bone fractures. Another supplement you’ll need to provide if your turtles are indoor turtles is Vitamin D3, necessary for proper bone development and maintenance.
Infections and Parasites
Incidental infections and parasite infections are the second most prevalent health issue seen in red-eared sliders. The good news is that these can both be almost entirely eliminated with careful monitoring of the turtle and its environment. This includes regular, thorough cleanings of the habitat, regular water changes, quarantining any new animals as they arrive, and weighing the turtle regularly. If you spot any parasites in your turtle’s fecal matter or in the water of the tank, consult your veterinarian for the right prescription treatment. Remember that parasites are usually microscopic, so don’t just assume that they are not present.
Signs of respiratory infections include bubbles from the turtle’s nose, sudden loss of appetite, an inability to swim properly, and difficulty breathing.
Finally, there are injuries related to improper cage design and possible aggressive interactions with other turtles. Examine your turtles regularly for signs of injury. If there is an extensive injury or if you aren’t sure what exactly is ailing your turtle, seek veterinary help at once.
Red-Eared Slider Behavior
Red-eared sliders are friendly—for turtles. They have shown levels of intelligence and owner recognition, and will frequently greet their keeper during feeding time, sometimes even eating out of the palm of their hand. Red-eared sliders aren’t aggressive with people, but they will bite if scared or handled roughly. And don’t forget about their claws, which can easily inflict cuts and scratches. Their nails can be cut, but just as with dogs and cats, be careful of the blood vessel in each nail.
Supplies for the Red-Eared Slider Environment
Most turtle keepers keep their turtles indoors, but if you live in a climate that’s temperate, you can consider housing your slider outdoors for the majority of the year.
Aquarium Tank or Terrarium Setup
Bigger is always better when it comes to the size of your turtle tank, as many turtles will grow if given a larger habitat. Generally, you’ll want to provide a water area that’s at least 4-to 5-times longer than the size of the turtle, 3-4 times wider than the turtle, and at least 1.5 times deeper than the longest dimension of the turtle. If keeping multiple turtles, increase the dimensions by 25% for each additional turtle.
While plastic tanks work well, glass tanks will allow you to enjoy the appearance and mannerisms of your pet turtle(s). For one turtle, a 20-gallon glass aquarium is the absolute minimum size you can use. As far as decorations and furnishings for your red-eared slider’s new home, you really only have to provide an area where the turtle can get completely out of the water to dry off from time to time. Cork wood, driftwood, and smooth flat rocks all work well for this.
You don’t have to worry about substrate or gravel on the bottom of the aquarium, but you may want to include some sort of natural-looking decorations. Just make sure that whatever you put in the tank will not cause your turtle to become trapped underwater, and keep in mind that you’ll have to regularly remove and clean whatever you put in the tank.
Rocks and gravel can easily be ingested so they are not usually recommended.
Aquatic plants like water hyacinth or duckweed can also add a nice touch to your red-eared slider habitat, and if they float they can create a cool little underwater cave for your turtle to hang out in! With proper care and a little love, you’ll be able to enjoy the company of your red-eared slider for years to come.
Heat and Light
When considering where to place your turtle tank, don’t put it in direct sunlight or you may accidentally bake your pet. Also, unless you put the tank in a room with lots of natural light, make sure to provide your turtle with plenty of light if it is kept indoors.
If you have to purchase lighting for your new pet, choose incandescent bulbs and/or fluorescent bulbs, setting one incandescent up over a spot where the turtle can bask on a rock or log. Fluorescent lights are better for overall light, not for basking spots. Full-spectrum ultraviolet lighting should also be provided;make sure to get bulbs that produce UVB.
UVB cannot pass through glass, so when setting up your full-spectrum light, make sure it isn’t blocked by glass, plexi-glass, or plastic. However, make sure the light is high enough that the turtle can’t burn itself on any parts of the setup.
Aside from the lighting requirements, heat is an important part of a good turtle habitat. Most indoor tanks will require supplemental heating to remain within the acceptable range of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Another good option for heating your turtle tank is using a “pig blanket,” an undertank heater often used for reptiles and amphibians that can be purchased online or at a specialty reptile shop.
Red-Eared Slider Habitat and History
Red-eared sliders are native to North America, where they spend their days lounging on the banks of the Mississippi River and other permanent, slow-moving bodies of water. They love to sun on rocks and logs and hide from predators by diving deep into the water. They are also widely distributed in the American southwest and parts of Mexico.
Red-eared sliders are immensely popular, but due to large numbers of them being released into the wild by overwhelmed pet owners, they are considered an invasive species in much of the United States.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.