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Juvenile Aquatic Turtles (Red-eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, etc.)

Introduction: In the early 1970's tens of thousands of baby red-eared sliders were sold as pets in the United States with a little kidney-shaped plastic container and a palm tree. Now it is illegal to buy or sell aquatic turtles in the United States that have a shell length of under 4 inches (10 cm) because there is a greater risk of children getting salmonella from turtles that can fit inside their mouth. It isn't illegal to keep a turtle that has a shell length of under 4 inches (10 cm) in the United States, they just can't be bought or sold. Aquatic turtles can make great pets if given the proper care, but their care is a lot more demanding than providing them with a fake palm tree in a plastic bowl. The care outlined in this article can be applied to most of the common semi-aquatic basking species of turtles (red-eared sliders, painted turtles, map turtles, cooters, etc.).

Before taking on the responsibility of owning a baby aquatic turtle make sure you will be able to accommodate the adult turtle as well. A small, quarter sized baby turtle will grow quickly, and it's not uncommon for many species to grow to 4 inches (10 cm) in the first year. Adult sliders and other basking turtles need an enclosure that’s at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) long when adult, such as a standard 75 gallon aquarium. A tank of this size can be difficult for many to provide, not to mention do water changes and maintenance on. Most turtle species also live for a very long time. It isn't uncommon for properly cared for aquatic turtles to live for 30 or 40 years in captivity. Aquatic turtles do not make good pets for children. They do not tolerate handling well and some species will scratch and even bite. Aquatic turtles are display animals that should be cared for by an adult, or with the help and supervision of an adult. Do not acquire a baby turtle if you will not be able to care for it when it is full grown. They can make very good pets when in the care of a dedicated, responsible keeper, but can also easily be neglected and become a burden for those looking for an easy-to-maintain pet.

Cage: For turtles that have a shell length under 3 inches (7.6 cm) a standard 15 gallon aquarium that measures 24 inches long by 12 inches wide by 12 inches high (61 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm) or larger is suitable for housing. Plastic storage containers of a similar size also work well. The smaller amount of space that is provided for the turtle and the more turtles in the space the more often the water will need to be changed. A cover is not always required, but is recommended to prevent heat lamps and other required light fixtures from accidentally falling in the water below.

The water depth in the aquarium should be as deep as the length of the turtle's shell or more. The water area can be filtered with a small submersible power filter. The filter media should be changed regularly, as often as every three or four weeks. A layer of medium to large gravel can be used on the bottom of the aquarium, but it’s often easier to perform water changes if no gravel is used. Instead of gravel, a few large, stable river rocks or heavy pieces of driftwood can be placed in the water to create different water depths. Artificial plants can be used as hiding spots and décor provided that they do not contain any sharp points and can not easily be broken or pulled apart.

A basking spot should be provided on a small land area. This can be accomplished by positioning a large rock or piece of wood in the cage so that it slowly slopes up and out of the water. Pieces of slate or other flat rocks can be glued together with aquarium-safe silicone sealant to create stable a basking platform. If gravel is used, it can be shaped to slope up out of the water so that on one end of the cage there is a land area made from gravel that can be used as a basking spot.

A majority of the water should be changed very one to three weeks. Smaller water changes can be carried out more often, during which excess food and waste are siphoned out of the aquarium. How often the water is changed depends on how large the cage is, how much water is in it, and how many turtles are being kept. If there is a large volume of water, a good filter is being used, and only one turtle is being kept, the water won't have to be changed as often as it will in a small aquarium with no filtration and multiple turtles. Most of the waste that is produced by aquatic turtles is excess food. To combat this, some people choose to feed aquatic turtles messy foods (earthworms, turtle pellets, crickets, etc.) in a separate container outside of the cage to reduce the amount of excess food in the tank.

Lighting: Aquatic turtles require two different types of lighting. A fluorescent light bulb that produces "5%" or more UVB radiation (Exo Terra's Repti-glo 5.0 and Zoo Med's Iguana Light 5.0 are common brands) is required when turtles are kept indoors. Power compact bulbs that produce UVB radiation have recently become available as well, and can be used instead of a fluorescent light bulb. The UVB-producing light bulb should be placed within 12 inches (30 cm) of the water level and basking area. It should also be positioned over a screen cover or open area rather than a glass or plastic aquarium cover. The amount of UVB radiation that a bulb produces slowly dies off over time so they need to be replaced every five to seven months.

One of the most common reasons that baby turtles die is because their shell gets "soft". Aquatic turtles and many other diurnal species of reptiles need UVB rays in order to process calcium in their diet. Without the correct amount and type of UV (ultraviolet) radiation and the correct diet, the calcium level in the blood will fall too low. When this happens, turtles start to take calcium from other parts of the body (the shell for example) in order to keep the calcium in the blood at a safe level, eventually leading to death.

The second type of lighting that aquatic turtles need is an incandescent spot light to create heat for a basking area in the cage. Standard light bulbs can be used for this purpose, otherwise special tight-beam reptile light bulbs can be purchased at most pet stores and work well. The wattage that is needed to create a basking spot at the correct temperature will depend on how high the light bulb is from the basking platform, what the ambient temperature is in the room the turtle is kept in, and what species of turtle is being kept.

Temperature: Different species of turtles may have different temperature requirements. Most species will do fine with a water temperature that ranges from 75-80°F (24-27°C), though this may need to be adjusted for some. A submersible aquarium heater can be used to heat the water. Care should be taken to position the heater in such a way that rocks aren't likely to fall or be pushed onto it and possibly cause the glass to break. Using a submersible heater made from titanium or plastic even safer. The basking area on land should stay between 90°F (32°C) and 100°F (38°C). I used a 50 watt light bulb roughly 6 inches (15cm) away from the basking spot to accomplish this in my painted turtle's cage. If the water temperature or basking spot are not warm enough, juvenile turtles may refuse to feed or seem lethargic. Use an accurate thermometer to measure the temperature in both the water and on land.

Food: Offering aquatic turtles a varied and nutritious diet is the key to long-term success. Contrary to what many recommend, it's best if turtle pellets do not make up the entire diet of aquatic turtles. Juvenile turtles are generally more carnivorous than adults, although some species such as painted turtles will still consume a reasonable amount of vegetation while young. Small sized aquatic turtle pellets (Repto-min and Serra Raffy are good brands to use), small earth worms, crickets, chopped night crawlers, black worms, tubifex worms, small freeze dried krill, wax worms, and feeder guppies can all be offered to meet their carnivorous dietary requirements. Collard greens, turnip greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, red lettuce, kale, aquatic plants like Elodea, and other greens should be offered daily. Occasionally shredded carrot or sweet potato can also be offered. Ice berg lettuce, spinach, and rhubarb leaves should not be offered often or at all. It's not uncommon for very young turtles to ignore plants and other vegetables, but they should still be offered regularly to ensure that they are available when the turtle starts to eat them.

If your turtle isn't eating first check the temperatures in the aquarium with an accurate thermometer. If the temperatures are in a suitable range, try offerring live blackworms or chopped earth worms which few turtles can resist. Some turtles may not feed while you're watching until they become used to their surroundings.

Proper calcium and vitamin supplementation is critical, and is a part of aquatic turtle care that is often overlooked. The best way I've found to provide supplements to my turtles is to roll an earth worm or chopped night crawler in a powdered reptile supplement and then offer it to the turtle with tweezers to prevent the calcium or vitamins from washing off in the water. Use a supplement that contains calcium with vitamin D3 along with a high quality multivitamin supplement.

Young turtles can be fed three to eight turtle pellets once or twice a day, along with a large piece of a dark lettuce or other leafy green vegetable. Other food items can be substituted for turtle pellets one to three times a week. Aquatic turtles usually need to be underwater in order swallow, so do not place the food on land, just throw it in the water and remove anything that isn't eaten within a couple hours.

Last updated 06.12.05

Online Resources
The Four Inch Regulations
Aquatic Turtle Care from
Basking Turtle Care
Nutrient Analysis of Replacement Turtle and Tortoise Foods
Raising Baby Water Turtles
Starting Out With Aquatic Turtles
Turtle Death Bowls
Water Turtle Care Sheet