All About Keeping Pet Aquatic Turtles

Turtles need special care to keep them healthy and happy

A red-eared slider turtle swimming in its tank
A red-eared slider turtle swimming in its tank. Ed Reschke/Photodisc/Getty Images

Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are popular as pets. The best-known species is probably the red-eared slider, but it's only one of several species of aquatic turtle that are commonly kept as pets. 

History of Keeping Aquatic Turtles as Pets

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, and in some places still are, often sent home with only a little plastic bowl and a tiny plastic tree.

With no filtration system and no room to grow, these little babies didn't have much of a chance.

In the 1970s, 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 or put them in their mouths.

Sadly, many turtles are still sold to people who have little idea how much care turtles require. What they really need is this: 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, even if a new owner provides ideal care for a turtle, the little guy may be so ill by the time they get it that it will die anyway.

Why? Because it suffered so much stress from overcrowding, neglect during transport between vendors, poor care in stores and at fairs that the turtle became very ill.

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 that the responsibility of 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 other commonly available pet turtle species will grow to 10–12 inches long and therefore require correspondingly large enclosures. All turtles have the potential to enjoy a very long life span that can span 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 should be in all turtle tanks. Without this light, they can suffer from metabolic bone disease (soft shell syndrome).

Aquatic turtles are also messy, so their tanks need regular cleanings and, above all, a good filtration unit to help maintain appropriate water quality. 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 years, they are not recommended as the sole source of food. Most aquatic turtles are omnivores, although their preferences for certain foods might change over the course of their life, and offering a variety of foods is the best way to feed them. Turtles are messy eaters, so as a rule, feeding aquatic turtles in a separate container from their home tank will allow the mess associated with feeding to be contained. It also allows owners to monitor each turtle's food intake when multiple turtles live together.

Do Aquatic Turtles Make Good Pets?

Having said all of this, there are upsides. 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 regarding housing and feeding for the particular species they want 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 more than 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, which means they are not good choices 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 with map turtles. In any case, they are lovely and if properly cared for, they should provide years of enjoyment.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT