9 Common Mistakes Made by Turtle Parents and How To Avoid Them

Angelina Childree, LVT
By Angelina Childree, LVT. Reviewed by Sean Perry, DVM on Mar. 26, 2024
Red eared slider

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Pet turtles are fun and unique companions. Some turtles kept as pets are red-eared sliders, painted, and map turtles.

Turtles have a relatively long lifetime compared to a cat or dog, and it’s important to keep your turtle’s care at the highest level possible so they can reach such an advanced age. Here are some common mistakes turtle parents make—and how to properly care for them instead.

1. Providing an Enclosure That’s Too Small

Pet turtles often end up in habitats that are too small for their needs. One adult turtle needs a minimum of a 50-gallon tank to have enough room to swim and get out of the water. If you have more than one turtle, you’ll need a larger tank.

Most of your turtle's enclosure should be filled with water, allowing them to swim at least four to five times their body length across and twice their length deep. Pet turtles also need land to exit the water so they can rest and bask in their UV light.

2. Using Incorrect Lighting

Pet turtles require a heat lamp to help regulate their temperature. Different species require different temperatures, but on average, turtles prefer 82–86 degrees F during the day and 74–80 F at night.

To ensure the temperature in your turtle's enclosure doesn't drop too low, you may also need to use an infrared heat lamp at night. Infrared bulbs provide heat with a minimal level of visible light. Heating rocks and pads should not be used, as these can cause thermal burns. 

In addition to lighting for heat support, turtles also need lights that produce UV rays. Sunlight from windows is not a sufficient source of UV rays. Your pet turtle needs multiple types of UV rays:

  • UVA rays help mimic the sun’s natural behavior. They can help regulate your turtle’s natural behaviors.

  • UVB rays help a turtle absorb calcium and vitamin D3. Turtles need 8–10 hours of UVB ray exposure a day. 

3. Failing Filtration Needs

Turtles are messy! A filtration system that can filter twice the recommended amount for your tank can help keep your turtle's water clean. So because an adult pet turtle needs a minimum of a 50-gallon enclosure, they should have a filtration system for at least 100 gallons.

At least 20% of the water should be changed weekly to help remove nitrates, but no more than 50% should be removed to keep healthy microbes in the environment. Tank filters should be checked and changed regularly as directed by the manufacturer.

You can also help keep your turtle's water clean by creating a separate area for feeding.

4. Overfeeding Your Turtle

Pet turtles are commonly overfed, leading to health issues. Most turtles are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and meat, and they can become overweight if their diet consists of too much animal protein.

Follow these tips to keep your turtle’s diet on track:

  • Half of your turtle’s diet should be fresh, dark, leafy greens such as collards, dandelions, and kale. Animal protein should not exceed 25% of your turtle’s diet.

  • Live feeder fish are a source of nutrition for turtles and can help stimulate your turtle’s natural behaviors.

  • Turtles can also eat insects such as mealworms and waxworms.

  • A high-quality commercial feed should make up the rest of your turtle’s diet.

  • Adult turtles should have a calcium supplement added to their diet once or twice a week. Calcium is essential for healthy bones (and shells!).

5. Forgetting About Salmonella

Turtles can spread diseases to humans, most commonly Salmonella. Turtles infected with Salmonella rarely display symptoms, so your turtle could carry it without you realizing it!

Always practice proper hygiene and disinfect any surfaces that may come in contact with your turtle or water from their enclosure.

Turtles may not be the best companion choice for immunocompromised individuals. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends not allowing children under age five to handle turtles and other animals that may carry Salmonella; therefore, they are unsuitable pets for young children.

6. Housing Your Turtle with Other Species

It can be OK to house multiple turtles in the proper space, but turtles as a species should live alone and not interact with other pets.

Your other pets can risk contracting Salmonella and other diseases from turtles, so they should not be allowed to interact. Additionally, other animals can accidentally hurt your turtle. Fish can help enrich your turtle’s environment, but sometimes turtles may try to eat the fish in the enclosure. Pet parents should expect this when housing turtles and fish together.

7. Only Bringing Sick Turtles to The Vet

Turtles require annual veterinary care for routine wellness visits, just like other pets. It can be difficult to notice symptoms when your turtle is sick, and an illness may have progressed by the time you start to see any signs. When they do, turtles should be seen promptly by a veterinarian who works with reptiles.

8. Forgetting About Enrichment

Enrichment can benefit your pet turtle's health and give you a way to bond with them! Turtles need mental stimulation to be able to display their natural behaviors.

  • Swimming after live prey can be fun for turtles when it is time for a meal.

  • For visual variety, change up what your pet turtle can see from inside their tank.

  • Your turtle may even enjoy supervised time playing with safe, floating items such as rubber ducks or ping-pong balls. If you suspect foreign material may have been ingested from a toy, immediately take your turtle to an emergency veterinarian.

9. Releasing Pet Turtles Into the Wild

Unfortunately, people attempt to release fully grown turtles into the wild when they do not have room for the turtle anymore. Typically, pet turtles do not survive in the wild and can spread disease to local wildlife. If you cannot care for your turtle further, contact a local shelter, rescue, or wildlife rehabilitation center.

References

1.Johnson J. Husbandry and medicine of aquatic reptiles. Seminars in Avian an Exotic Pet Medicine. 2004;13(4):223–228.

2. Salmonella Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019.

3.Casalino G, Bellati A, Pugliese N, et al. Salmonella Infection in Turtles: A Risk for Staff Involved in Wildlife Management? Animals: an open access journal from MDPI. 2021;11(6):1529.

4.Sirois M. Laboratory Animal and Exotic Pet Medicine – E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2022.

References


Angelina Childree, LVT

WRITTEN BY

Angelina Childree, LVT

Veterinarian Technician


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