A Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Turtles


Keeping Turtles: An Introduction

A decade ago or more, except for a handful of pioneering enthusiasts, genuine breeders were virtually non-existent. Their patience, improved husbandry techniques and record keeping has paid off. Many of the commonly encountered problems are rarely seen today, and captive breeding is a regular event on the calendar. Today we are able to enjoy the determination and achievements of past and present enthusiasts, with freshwater turtles being one of the more commonly encountered reptiles maintained in private collections throughout Australia. Given a few simple requirements, freshwater turtles are easy to maintain in captivity and require less time and space than other animals such as cats and dogs. Because turtles are less demanding than other companion animals, parents find them a great learning tool for children. Kids love turtles, and the responsibility of owning a turtle prepares them for life’s greater responsibilities.

Keeping turtles in captivity is an exciting, and sometimes contagious experience for both children and adults. Kids even get enjoyment out of feeding “Dads” turtles. The responsive, and sometimes comical, interaction with the keeper has its own rewards that can only be shared by other enthusiasts. The benefits of owning such an animal are many and varied, in fact some of Australia’s finest herpetologists began their interest in reptiles with a pet turtle. The information gained through captive husbandry greatly improves our understanding of biodiversity, and knowledge of the biology and conservation of the species. But you don’t have to be a budding young herpetologist to own a turtle, for some people the therapeutic value of relaxing in front of the aquarium is enough. Turtle enthusiasts, regardless of the size of their collection, find their hobby as equally rewarding as those people who rock climb, race cars, listen to music, paint pictures or collect stamps. The value of their hobby is important to themselves

This beginners guide should answer many of the common questions asked by novices, and thus improve husbandry standards for keeping turtles. This guide should not replace a good book on keeping turtles, or be a substitute for advice from experienced turtle enthusiasts and veterinarians. We all have our own techniques, however the basics are very similar. This guide is based on 25 years of intensive turtle husbandry and research by the author.

Keeping Turtles: Outdoor Ponds

Outdoor ponds provide turtles with access to natural sunlight and foods that may wander into the enclosure. An outdoor enclosure also gives the turtle more space than can generally be provided in an indoor enclosure. The strongest type of pond, and most permanent, is the concrete pond. Alternatively pre-made fibreglass or plastic come in a range of sizes, shapes and prices. These can be buried to ground level.

Ponds should be a minimum of 500mm deep to reduce overheating in summer or freezing in winter, and as large as possible. The pond should be constructed in such a way that the turtle can easily get out of the water and bask on the surrounding land area. A plank may be beneficial for the turtles to bask on, or act as a ramp out of the water. The turtles should have access to both sunlight and shade at any time of the day.

Enclosure walls are typically made from corrugated iron, tin, cement sheet, smooth walled brick, or wire netting, with a wire mesh roof. This obviously prevents your turtle from escaping, but also keeps unwanted predatory animals out. Ensure that rocks, logs, branches, grasses and small shrubs are not used as a ladder to escape over the walls, as most turtles are good climbers despite their somewhat cumbersome appearance.

Keeping Turtles: Indoor Enclosures

Glass aquariums are one of the most common enclosures in which to house turtles indoors. They should be of adequate size so that overcrowding does not occur, ensuring that individuals don’t bump into each other as they swim. As an alternative, fibreglass or plastic containers of an appropriate size, also make good enclosures. Farm feeder troughs are ideal as they are much larger than the smaller tubs found in some stores. If you use decorations, like rocks or timber, be sure that the turtle cannot dislodge the furnishings or wedge itself, which may result in drowning.

A land area such as a platform or similar shelf must also be provided for the turtle to leave the water and bask, and thereby dry itself completely. The size of the platform depends on the turtle and as a general rule all the turtles in the enclosure should be able to sit comfortably on the platform. The platform may be siliconed or sat in position, then covered with carpet grass for a more natural appearance, a small ramp may also be fastened in place with silicone to make an exit from the water much easier for the turtle. Carpet grass, or some other type of plastic mat, may extend down the ramp, alternatively, beads of silicone may be used as a ladder for turtles to exit the water. An advantage of the shelf is that turtles can swim underneath, thus maximising the amount of space in an aquarium/tub.

Keeping Turtles: Lighting and Heating

Turtles that are maintained indoors will need an artificial light and heat source to provide a day/night cycle. One cannot underestimate the importance in quality of light for turtles, especially those which are housed indoors. Lighting which is specially manufactured for reptiles is generally termed full spectrum lighting and provides reptiles with beneficial light waves, similar to that of the sun. The lights should not be too high in UV output as this can be detrimental to the turtle’s health, such as burning the eyes. A light bulb over the land platform will help raise the air temperature and when placed above the land area it doubles as a basking light which helps stimulate natural behaviour patterns. The water temperature should be maintained between 22 to 28oC, with the air temperature a few degrees higher, depending on the species. The temperature can be dropped a few degrees over winter.

Keeping Turtles: Water Quality

When it comes to water quality, whether it be a pond or an aquarium, the primary concern for most turtle keepers is keeping the water clean, odourless and clear. This may be done using a good filtration system, weekly water changes and regular monitoring of water quality. If the water is unable to support fish then it is also unsatisfactory for turtles, therefore, the basic aquarium principles that apply to keeping fish are relevant to keeping turtles. This means monitoring pH, hardness, ammonia, nitrates and keeping the water oxygenated. Turtles tend to produce more waste material than other aquatic animals such as fish, so regular water changes will be needed. The water will also need to have a good quality filtration system, one that can handle the damage incurred by turtles.

Keeping Turtles: Feeding

The amount of food offered to turtles can be difficult to judge, as most are opportunistic feeders and will gorge themselves in anticipation of the lean times ahead. Turtles should not be over fed as this may lead to obesity or other diet related disorders. Most turtles often swim frantically towards you when you walk into the room, this is often interpreted as the turtle begging for food or being hungry, and as tempting as it may be, do not offer food unless it is feeding time. Feeding time should be done two to three times a week, depending on how active your turtle is. As a guide, offer the turtle a portion of food about the size of its head at each feeding.

The best foods to offer turtles should consist of plant material such as algae, Vallisneria, Elodea, water cress, duckweed, alfalfa, swiss chard, non-fibrous greens, celery tops, cabbage, spinach, kale, lettuce (darkly coloured), squash, tomato, sweetpotato, pumpkin, zucchini, corn, dried (dehydrated) or fresh fruits (eg. figs, melons, apples, peaches). Likewise, turtles will readily eat beetles, bugs, crickets, daphnia, dragonflies, earwigs, fish, flies, grasshoppers, mice, moths, mussels, nymphs and larvae, shrimps, slaters, snails, spiders, water boatmen, worms, yabbies, non-fatty meats and organ meats (eg. chicken or ox heart and liver), tinned dog or cat foods, dry dog or cat food (soaked or un-soaked), fish flakes, trout pellets, yabby pellets and commercial reptile foods.

It will be necessary to supplement foods like meat with vitamins and minerals, particularly for turtles kept indoors. Multivitamins can be sprinkled over, or packed into the food and are available pre-packed (eg. ZooMed Reptivite®, Herptivite®, Nekton-Rep®). Varying the diet as much as possible will help to provide a broader range of vitamins and minerals to your turtle and reduce the risk of nutritional disorders.

Keeping Turtles: Ailments and Disorders

The majority of ailments and disorders affecting captive turtles usually result from improper husbandry. Some examples include insufficient heat and light, being fed in cold conditions, dirty enclosures and putrefied water (eg. faeces, rotten food, etc), contact with other sick animals, and injuries. Early stages of ailments can be determined by careful observation. If your turtle is routinely inspected then you will recognise changes from normal behaviour. Treatment needs to be provided as soon as a problem is noticed, before it becomes too advanced. As with any ailment or disorder, a veterinarian should always be consulted for positive identification.

An experienced reptile veterinarian will usually discuss your husbandry before embarking on any course of treatment, especially with keeping turtles.