Freshwater turtles are a diverse group of reptiles which make interesting, long-lived pets and are relatively easy to keep. However, they are frequently inadequately maintained and many die in their first couple of years due to inadequate captive care. It is therefore important that careful consideration is given to correct husbandry of these species before they are purchased. Of all the species commonly offered for sale not all are suitable as pets. Among the most suitable species to be kept as pets are the Red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans), the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) and the mud turtle (Kinosternon sp.). Other species not recommended as captive pets include the Common Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the Softshell Turtles (Trionychidae), due to their large adult size and aggressive temperament!
Reptiles, and in particular turtles, are often implicated in the passing of Salmonella to humans but with appropriate handling and sensible hygiene the risk is very small and no greater than catching a disease from a dog or cat. However, you should always wash your hands with soap after carrying out maintenance tasks on terrapin tanks or after handling any terrapin (or indeed any animal).
Terrapins and turtles may be housed in a variety of aquaria or plastic containers. However the most important requirement is space, clean water at the correct temperature and depth for the species being kept. You should also provide a land area and heat source under which they can bask. This set-up can be achieved cheaply using a large plastic container or all-glass aquarium, a piece of cork bark or rock as a basking area and a spot light for heating. Without a filtration system the water will need to be changed every week. However, many good aquarium filters are available which minimise water changes without compromising water quality. External canister filters such as those manufactured by Eheim or Fluval are the most effective, but are expensive. Undergravel biological filters are cheaper and can also be used to good effect with small specimens. When using these filters it is a good idea to attach a power head to the airlift tube in order to improve water flow through the gravel.
Whichever filtration method is used the water can be further purified by connecting an aquarium (not a pond) UV steriliser to the filter outlet, which utilises UV-C to kill bacteria and algae. With any filtration system it is still necessary to periodically change the water, monitor water quality and clean filters, gravel etc.
Heating, if necessary for the species concerned, may be achieved using an aquarium heater with combined thermostat. The heater needs to be protected f rom damage by the turtles. As well as the spotlight over the basking area it is also important to provide full-spectrum lighting such as the ZooMed Reptisun 5.0. Such lights should be on for 12 hours each day and replaced every year.
All terrapins will benefit from an outdoor summer enclosure. Enclosed shallow ponds with basking areas (and preferably no fish) make excellent summer holiday homes for these animals, and give them the opportunity to eat the odd wild insect of grub.
Hatchlings should be offered food daily; adults can be fed every two to three days. Many freshwater turtles are omnivorous in the wild, eating a large variety of plant, animal and insect food, and it is important that their captive diet has similar variety. Many commercial turtle foods (e.g. Pretty Pets Aquatic Turtle Diet) make an excellent staple diet, and can be supplemented with insects (crickets, mealworns etc) which should be gut loaded, i.e. fed a high calcium nutritious food before they are offered as food. Earthworms and small frozen fish may also be fed as occasional treats. Many terrapin and turtle species accept green leafy vegetables which should be regularly offered.
Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans). This species is native to the USA. Adults can reach a carapace length of 10-12” (30cm) and are omnivorous. Water temperature can be kept at 25-29oC (78-85oF).
Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta sp.) are North American turtles that have a black or olive carapace with red/orange markings on the edge of the shell. The head, neck, legs and tail are striped with yellow and red. These turtles grow up to 10” (25cm) long and are omnivorous.
Mud turtles (Kinosternon sp.) are small, unremarkably coloured predominantly aquatic turtles. Adults are omnivorous, aggressive and are likely to bite. There are at least 20 species recognised and their husbandry requirements vary, so a more detailed reference should be consulted for details on individual species.
With appropriate care and feeding, terrapins and turtles are remarkably resistant to disease. Vitamin A deficiencies caused by too little vegetable material in the diet can cause eye problems, and high protein meat diets can cause renal and liver problems. Occasionally females suffer from egg retention and may need surgery.
More information on care
For further information, we recommend the ‘Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles’ by A.C. Highfield (published by Carapace Press).