by Joe Cortez
Novice turtle owners are filled with excitement when they bring home a new, shelled friend. But taking care of a turtle is a big responsibility that requires both diligence and commitment. Without proper care, a turtle may experience serious long-term complications.
Here are seven things to avoid in order to keep your pet turtle happy and healthy.
Many common turtle breeds—such as red eared sliders, box turtles, and terrapins—require plenty of water in their habitats to ensure a long, fruitful life. However, many new turtle owners don’t know how much effort goes into maintaining safe and healthy water.
“Consistent water changes are very necessary,” explains Saul Bauer, reptile keeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “Otherwise, their water parameters can get out of balance, contributing to shell rot or skin issues.”
Veterinary experts recommend installing a water filtration system in a turtle’s habitat and changing a third to half of their standing water at least once a week.
Keep in mind that it is not necessary to replace all of the water and scrub the tank down, even if there is a little “slime” on the walls. Dr. Laurie Hess, owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Westchester County, N.Y., suggests leaving some of the water behind to maintain normal bacteria levels.
Proper full-spectrum lighting is a requirement for turtles. All pet turtles require both UVA and UVB lighting in order to maintain good health.
When you purchase a bulb online or from a pet supply store, make sure it is appropriate for reptiles. Commonly, pet stores will carry both inferior and good quality reptile bulbs.
“The UVB spectrum of light is needed for turtles to make Vitamin D,” says Dr. Melissa Ferry, an exotic pet veterinarian from MedVet Hilliard in Hilliard, Ohio. “It is not enough for the light to be labeled as ‘full spectrum’; it should say UVB.”
Having appropriate levels of Vitamin D allows for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract. Calcium is the most important mineral in a reptile’s body.
Turtle parents should keep in mind that full-spectrum lights do not have the same life span as normal light bulbs. Light bulbs in a turtle’s habitat should be changed regularly—every six to nine months, ideally. Also remember that UV rays will not go through glass, plexi-glass, or plastic, so the bulbs must have direct contact with the turtle’s environment (but not so close as to touch the turtle) or shine through a screen.
Even with the right type of light, turtles need to maintain proper heat in their environments. Without proper temperature regulation, turtles could go into hibernation, which may result in major health complications.
The environment should not get cold or change dramatically. All reptiles have a preferred optimal temperature zone (POTZ) that allows for a mild gradient in temperatures.
Experts recommend using a heating element that can maintain a temperature between 70 and 90 degrees. Instead of using a warming lamp, a ceramic heating element plugs into a normal lamp dome and emits infrared heat for your turtle.
Ceramic heating elements are available at most pet stores and can last in excess of 20,000 operating hours.
One critical step to setting up a turtle environment is to provide a place for the turtle to rest outside of the water. This is called a basking spot, which turtles use to dry out and recharge.
“If they can’t get out of the water, then they can’t shed their old shell,” Bauer says. “They need to be able to dry out their shell under a full-spectrum light.”
A basking spot can be as simple as a rock outside of the water, a driftwood platform, or a commercially made basking platform, which can be found at most pet stores.
In addition to setting up a turtle’s environment just right, these reptiles also need to be fed a variety of foods to stay happy and healthy. While commercial feeds are a good place to start, turtle parents should also strive to maintain a balanced diet consisting of additional protein sources and vegetables.
“For turtles, variety is key,” says Bauer. “It is important to match what the turtle would naturally eat.”
Experts recommend matching what your breed of turtle would eat in its natural habitat. Red eared sliders are omnivores. They can benefit from eating a balanced diet, which includes red bell peppers, freeze-dried shrimp, and leafy greens such as romaine. While some turtles are herbivorous, many common pet turtles will not eat fruits and would rather have frozen fish as a treat.
"Look up what your turtle would naturally eat," Bauer recommends. From there, pet owners can develop a balanced diet plan for their turtle based on dietary needs as well as the turtle’s preferences.
In addition, your turtle should never eat dog or cat food—not even as a treat. These foods do not address a turtle’s unique dietary needs and can create health complications.
Although every animal looks forward to feeding time, there is a fine line between offering an appropriate amount of food and giving too much food. If turtles are overfed, they can develop weight problems that can decrease their longevity and quality of life. Instead, offer a balanced amount of food and save treats for special occasions.
If a turtle’s legs appear to tuck into its shell, it may be a sign the turtle is eating too much.
“Only feed the amount they can consume in two minutes or less,” Bauer says. “That is the perfect way to avoid overfeeding.”
Because turtles are built to be durable, they do not show illness in the same way dogs and cats do. Therefore, it is important to monitor your turtle’s overall health.
If your turtle does not want to eat, appears to have swollen or weepy eyes, or appears to be breathing out of its mouth, it is time to call your veterinarian for an examination. In addition, veterinarians recommend turtles receive yearly checkups—even if they appear to be healthy.
“Turtles often hide signs of illness,” Dr. Hess explains. “It is important to bring your turtle in every year for an annual exam to check for current or developing problems.”
There are many different breeds of turtles available as pets, each requiring a different level of care and investment. Before deciding on a turtle, make sure you understand the unique needs of that particular breed and are prepared for the time it takes to properly care for it.
“It's not the kind of pet where you can go away on vacation for two weeks,” Dr. Hess explains. “There's a lot that goes on with these animals and you need to make sure you’re okay with the responsibility.”
In addition, experts recommend talking to your veterinarian before deciding on a turtle. When you have decided which turtle breed is right for you, schedule a new pet examination with a doctor who specializes in reptiles.
“I recommend everyone take their new turtle to a good reptile vet for not only a health check, but to go over the care, diet, and set-up at home,” Dr. Ferry says. “Good care at home is the best defense against disease, especially for reptiles.”