Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are popular as pets. The most well known species is probably the red eared slider although there are several species which are commonly kept as pets.
Pet Aquatic Turtle History
Pet turtles have been popular for a long time. Baby red eared sliders were readily available and inexpensive many years ago which unfortunately resulted in a lot of neglected turtles since they were often sent home with only a tiny plastic bowl and a little plastic tree (unfortunately these are still sold with turtles in some places).
With no filtration system and no room to grow, these little babies didn't have much of a chance. In the 1970's, the US government made the connection between turtles and Salmonella infections, especially in children, and banned the sale of turtles less than four inches long. The reasoning behind this ban was not that baby turtles carry more Salmonella than the larger ones but that children are more likely to handle smaller turtles (and/or put them in their mouths).
Sadly, many turtles are still sold to people who have little idea how much care turtles require - large tanks, special lighting, good filtration, and regular cleaning. Even worse, they are sometimes given out as prizes at fairs and other events. All too often aquatic turtles die due to stress and neglect. Sometimes they suffer so much stress from overcrowding, neglect during transport between vendors, and in stores and at fairs that even if a new owner provides ideal care the turtles may be so ill upon receipt that they die anyway.
Aquatic Turtles and Children
Aquatic turtles are not ideal pets for children. They are not easy to care for, not great as a pet to handle, and they often harbor Salmonella bacteria (which can be passed on to children who don't understand the need for good hygiene). Many children do not have the interest or ability to provide the amount of care and cleaning that an aquatic turtle requires so parents must realize the responsibility for caring for the pet ultimately falls on them when their kids lose interest.
Size and Life Span of Aquatic Turtles
Many people do not realize how big aquatic turtles can get. Red eared sliders and a couple of the other commonly available pet turtle species will grow to be at least 10-12 inches long and therefore require correspondingly large enclosures. All turtles have the potential to enjoy a very long life span (i.e. several decades) if cared for properly.
Housing Aquatic Turtles
Aquatic turtles require fairly elaborate housing. They need regular exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, so special light bulbs designed for reptiles that produce both UVA and UVB light are needed for all turtle tanks. Without this light, metabolic bone disease (soft shell syndrome) can result.
Aquatic turtles are also messy so a good filtration unit will be necessary to help maintain appropriate water quality as well as regular cleanings. They should have deep enough water to allow for swimming, along with a place to get out of the water to bask under a heat light. Appropriate water and ambient temperatures should be maintained at all times.
Feeding Aquatic Turtles
Although aquatic turtle foods have changed for the better over the year they are not recommended as a sole source of food.
Most aquatic turtles are omnivores (but preferences for different foods might change at different points in their life) and offering a variety of types foods is the best way to feed most turtles. As a rule, feeding aquatic turtles in a separate container from their home tank will allow the mess associated with feeding to be contained (turtles are messy eaters and this will reduce the need for tank cleaning) and allow monitoring of food intake of each turtle if multiple turtles are kept together.
Do Aquatic Turtles Make Good Pets?
Having said all of this,given the right person and the right commitment turtles make beautiful, fascinating, and enjoyable pets. The first steps to good aquatic turtle ownership are to research the species available and the care required of each species. While the basics of aquatic turtle care are similar for all species, potential owners need to review the specific details on housing and feeding for the particular species in which they are interested prior to purchase.
For beginners, the hardier species of aquatic turtles are recommended, such as red eared sliders, cooters, mud and musk turtles. Keep in mind that sliders and cooters will reach a mature length of over 12 inches while mud and musk turtles are about half that size. Map and painted turtles, as well as some of the less common species are a bit less hardy as pets. Softshell and snapping turtles have a reputation for being large, aggressive, and generally more difficult to care for so they are not good for beginners.
Beyond providing a proper environment and diet for aquatic turtles, they do not need a lot of attention, although regular interaction may result in a tame and sociable turtle (especially map turtles). In any case, they are lovely and if properly cared for should provide years of enjoyment.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT