How to Take Care of Pet Aquatic Turtles

Sean Perry, DVM
By Sean Perry, DVM on Jul. 29, 2022
Aquatic turtle

Aquatic turtles are a popular choice for first-time reptile pet parents. Aquatic turtles require special care with a semi-aquatic habitat and each species has its own unique set of husbandry requirements that should be considered before bringing home your new turtle.  

This article serves as a general guideline for keeping and maintaining an aquatic turtle. However, it is vital to determine the correct temperatures and environmental conditions for each individual species to maximize success with your new aquatic pet. Be sure to partner will a veterinarian who has expertise in reptile pets.

Turtle Housing 

Aquatic Turtle Cage Size Requirements

Enclosure size for aquatic turtles depends on the age, size, and sex of your pet turtle. Hatchlings and small turtles can be kept in a 20–30-gallon enclosure while larger and mature turtles often require larger spaces (60-120 gallon habitats).

Turtles are skilled climbers, so they require a tall enclosure to prevent escapes. Additionally, a screen top can be used to help contain turtles within their enclosure. It’s a good rule to have at least one body length from the surface of the water to the top edge of the enclosure to prevent escape.

Aquatic turtles require at least 2/3 of the enclosure dedicated to water. Approximately 1/3 of the space should offer dry land where turtles can haul themselves out. The dry portion of the enclosure is a good area for basking. Water depth should be about twice the length of your turtle’s shell; This will allow them to dive easily and allow them to right themselves if they happen to flip over in the water.

Water Filtration for Aquatic Turtles

There are multiple different types of filtrations available for turtles. Good water filtration should be provided for all stages of your aquatic turtle’s life. The best filtered water will use a combination of biological and mechanical filtration. A water quality test kit for fresh water can ensure that your filtration is working so toxins such as ammonia do not build up within the water. Filtration should match or exceed the amount of water your habitat is holding. Partial and full water changes can be used in conjunction with filtration to provide good water quality. Make sure to dechlorinate any water prior to adding it to a turtle enclosure.

Feeding Aquatic Turtles in Water

Food items can be offered in the water (some turtles will eat floating objects) or on the land portion of the habitat. To minimize how often the water needs to be changed and to prevent the tank water from becoming dirty, pet parents can feed their turtle in a separate tank from the main habitat. Turtles dirty the water frequently and will need water changes to keep their space clean and sanitized.

Aquatic turtles do not need an individual water bowl since most of their environment is water they can drink water from the habitat in addition to absorbing it through their skin and cloaca.

Aquatic Turtle Cage Enrichment

Aquatic environments allow for numerous enrichment opportunities, which include building islands for aquatic turtles to hide underneath and/or haul out on top of. Aquatic plants can also be used within the environment; however, ensure these plants are safe to eat as many aquatic turtles may try to consume them. Safe plants include:

  • Duckweed

  • Water lily

  • Water lettuce

  • Water fern

  • Water hyacinth

Tunnels and logs can also be provided for enrichment. Ensure your turtle cannot become stuck or trapped from underwater enrichment before placing in environment.

Temperature and Basking for Aquatic Turtles

Basking lights should be provided for aquatic turtles in the dry areas of the enclosure. This area can provide ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB) and temperature support. Basking should be made available for about 12-14 hours during the spring/summer months and 10-12 hours during the fall/winter months.

Temperatures in basking areas should range from 89-95 degrees F. Additionally, the water temperature should range between 75-86 degrees F. Temperature regulation in water can be provided with a submersible aquarium heater. These heaters should be protected so the turtle cannot interact with the heating element. 

Aquatic Turtle Substrates

In the dry area of the enclosure, suitable substrates include reptile mulch, soil, coconut husk, and bark. These are all biodegradable and should be changed monthly. Within the aquatic portion of the habitat, river rocks can be used as substrate. Make sure the rocks are larger than the head of your turtle to prevent them from trying to ingest any rocks.

Foods for Turtles 

Diets for aquatic turtles should be based on the amount of protein they typically eat. Some aquatic turtle species are omnivores (plant and meat eaters) while other species are more carnivorous (meat eaters). Some aquatic turtles will change their diet strategy as they mature, they even may become more herbivorous (plant only eaters).

A high protein diet should be offered for juvenile turtles. Commercial aquatic pellets can provide a complete diet that has a high amount of protein (70%). Chopped leafy greens and mixed vegetables can be offered to make up a small portion of a turtle’s diet (30%). Adult turtles should have a lower amount of protein in the diet (30-50%) while the remaining portion of the diet can consist of vegetables.

Vegetables and fruit can be offered to adult turtles as part of a complete diet. Plant items that can be offered include:

  • Romaine, green, and red leaf lettuce

  • Parsley

  • Dandelion

  • Squash

  • Zucchini

  • Sweet potato

  • Carrot

All foods should all be chopped into bite-sized pieces for easy consumption. Live aquatic plants can be offered including duckweed, water lily, and water hyacinth. Fruit should be offered on rare occasions and as treats. Strawberries always are a favorite for turtles!

Feeding Schedule

Hatchlings and small turtles should be fed daily. Clean out any uneaten food after 15 minutes to limit water contamination. Adult animals can be fed every 2-3 days in a similar fashion. It is easy to overfeed adult turtles, and obesity can become a problem.

Vitamin supplements should be added to your turtle’s diet to provide a complete nutritious diet. The amount of vitamins added should be discussed with your veterinarian as some vitamins can be toxic when used in excessive amounts. A complete diet should be developed in partnership with your veterinarian.

Turtle Medical Needs 

Turtles can get numerous diseases, and many of these can be caused by poor husbandry. Diseases include:

  • Metabolic bone diseases

  • Vitamin A deficiencies

  • Shell pyramiding or abnormal growth

  • Septicemic Cutaneous Ulcerative Disease (SCUD) or shell rot

  • Ear abscesses

  • Buoyancy disorders

  • Cloacal prolapse

  • Respiratory infections

  • Egg binding or dystocias

  • Diarrhea

  • Retained scutes

  • Foreign body ingestion

Signs of illness in aquatic turtles include:

  • Lethargy

  • Nasal discharge

  • Eye and ear swellings

  • Poor muscling

  • Red skin

  • Shell discolorations

  • Soft shell

  • Changes in buoyancy

Turtles typically do not contract diseases from humans however there are some diseases that turtles can transmit to humans such as salmonellosis.

Always wash your hands before and after handling your pet turtle to prevent the transmission of any bacteria such as salmonella or other infectious diseases from your turtle. All aquatic turtles should be assumed to be positive for salmonella. Salmonella exists naturally within turtle intestines and is shed within their feces. They are not born with this bacterium, but they often contract it due to environmental conditions. This makes it important to always practice good hygiene with aquatic turtles. It is thought that poor husbandry is one of the contributing factors that allows for salmonella to persist in aquatic turtles. Very young children and adults that have compromised immune systems should not handle or have aquatic turtles as pets for their own safety.

Turtle Cleaning Needs 

Water changes should be based on water filtration and water quality. Water without any filtration should be changed daily. If water filtration is in place, partial to full water changes can be performed weekly to bi-monthly. Substrate on the dry end of the enclosure should be spot-cleaned weekly and completely cleaned out monthly.

Turtle Handling 

Small turtles require strict husbandry requirements including heating, lighting, and filtration as they can are more sensitive compared to larger animals. Handling should be limited and only when absolutely necessary for small turtles.

How to Pick Up Your Aquatic Turtle

Hatchlings can be picked up with one hand using the thumb and index finger. Once picked up their full body should be supported. Larger turtles should be picked up with two hands, holding them by their shell. Some turtle species may try to bite so ensure that you keep your hands away from the head to prevent being bitten. Sales of small turtles are prohibited by law except for educational purposes when they are under 4 inches in length.

Many considerations must be studied before getting a pet turtle. Be sure you have all the necessary supplies before bringing a turtle home, and always partner with an experienced exotic veterinarian.


  1. Asseso L, Strunk A. North American Veterinary Community Companion Reptile Care Series. How to keep you red eared slider healthy, happy and safe. 2016.

  2. Vander Schouw P. Reptiles Magazine January. The five most important things to do when keeping aquatic turtles. 2012.

Featured Image:


Sean Perry, DVM


Sean Perry, DVM


Dr. Sean Perry completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, earning a Bachelor of Science in...

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