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Aquatic Turtle Care Sheet


Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

This care sheet covers a variety of aquatic turtle species, including: 

Overview 

Aquatic turtles can be found in or near water. Most aquatic turtles will leave the water to bask on dry land but spend most of their time in the water. They require both water and dry land for basking in their habitats, as well as the appropriate temperature ranges and light to stay healthy. Because they require a fairly complicated habitat set up and commonly carry salmonella bacteria, they are not ideal pets for very young children. When cared for properly, these animals can live several decades. 

Table of Contents

Typical aquatic turtle appearance and behavior 

  • All red-eared sliders have green heads, legs and necks, with bright yellow stripes and a red stripe over both ears, just behind both eyes; their plastron (bottom shell) is yellow, and their carapace (top shell) is yellow
  • Map turtles have dark green to brown skin with yellow-green stripes; their carapace is dark green to brown and forms a pointed ridge at the midline, and their plastron is yellow
  • Painted turtles look similar to red-eared sliders but have a few differences: They lack the red stripe behind their eyes that red-eared sliders have, and their plastron also is reddish-orange and not yellow
  • In general, turtles do not like frequent handling and may bite when frightened
  • They can learn to recognize the people who feed them regularly and will swim in the direction of these people when they enter the room
  • Aquatic turtles are excellent swimmers
  • They can be very messy, as they pass droppings in the water as they eat
  • Males typically have longer claws on their front feet and longer tails than females. They also have a curved plastron, while females’ shells are flat on the bottom; this is so males can mount females for mating. It may be difficult to tell males from females until they are sexually mature, which can take 2–5 years, depending on species
  • Unlike mammals, which grow quickly, turtles are reptiles, which grow slowly. Aquatic turtles do not reach adult size until 5–8 years of age, depending on species
  • Their shells are covered in plate-like scales called scutes that are made of keratin protein, like human fingernails; as a turtle grows, new, larger scutes grow beneath the old ones and push out the old ones on top so the shell can get larger

 

Characteristics

Care difficulty Intermediate
Average Life Span 20 to 40+ years with proper care, depending on species
Average Adult Size 5 to 12 inches long, depending on species
Diet Juveniles are carnivorous; adults are omnivorous
Minimum habitat size 40+ gallon breeder tank for juveniles

 

Habitat

Habitat size

Use an appropriately sized habitat (at least a 40-gallon breeder tank for juveniles) with a screened lid so your turtle can't escape. A good rule of thumb is 10 gallons per inch of turtle; adult turtles will require more room as they grow.

Building your pet’s habitat

  • Water: Use dechlorinated water deep enough for a turtle to swim in and easily right themself if they get flipped over. Water should be filtered and partially changed weekly; a submersible heater should be used to maintain water temperature
  • Substrate and basking area: Slate, rock or gravel that is too large to eat is optional;  aquatic turtles generally like a shallow area where they can rest in the water with their head sticking out and a dry area where they can climb out of the water to bask. Basking areas should be easy to access from the water. A pile of rocks or floating wood or cork bark can be used for basking
  • Temperature: Establish a temperature gradient (90–95°F for the warm end/basking area and 75°F for the cool end and water); use a basking bulb or ceramic heat emitter to heat the basking area and submersible heater to provide heat to the water. At night, tank temperature should not fall below the low 70s°F, so supplemental heat (either a ceramic heat bulb or a red basking light) may be required 
  • Lighting: Turtles require ultraviolet (UV) B rays for 10–12 hours a day to make vitamin D in their skin, which enables them to absorb the dietary calcium they need for healthy bones; mercury vapor bulbs can be used in the basking area to provide both heat and UV light
  • Live or artificial plants: Plants, such as water lettuce, hyacinth, duckweed or even artificial plants, can provide hiding areas for turtles, which may make them feel more secure

Cleaning your pet’s habitat

  • Uneaten food and feces should be scooped out daily
  • A high-quality water filter is ideal to help keep the water clean
  • Aquatic turtles drink the water they swim in, so it needs to be changed frequently
  • Partial water changes (10-20% of total water) should be performed weekly; add dechlorinated water at the same temperature as the remaining water in the habitat
  • Every 2–3 weeks, thoroughly clean and disinfect the habitat:
    • Place turtle(s) in a separate secure habitat 
    • Unplug all electrical equipment (lights, heaters, filters, etc.) 
    • Empty out all the water
    • If there is substrate in the tank, add a small amount of water back into the tank and stir up the substrate to free any debris trapped under the substrate
    • Add more water back to rinse the substrate, then drain it back off to remove the dirty water
    • Scrub the tank and furnishings (including the filter) with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution and a disposable sponge or rag; move the substrate around to scrub around it and underneath it
    • Rinse both the inside of the habitat and the décor thoroughly with water, removing all traces of habitat cleaner or bleach smell
    • When the inside of the tank and the furnishings are dry, return items to tank and fill it with dechlorinated water at the same temperature (approximately 75°F) that the water was previously; water may need to be heated or cooled as appropriate
    • When all furnishings are replaced and the water has come to the right temperature, the turtle(s) may be added gently returned to the tank
    • Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling your turtle(s), tank or any tank furnishings

Feeding  

A well-balanced aquatic turtle diet consists of: 

  • A high-quality commercially available pelleted turtle food as a source of protein and calcium (up to 25% of total diet) 
  • Occasional live crickets, earthworms, bloodworms and rosy reds, comet goldfish or freeze-dried krill as a treat; be sure that any rosy reds or common goldfish offered are from a reliable source, as they can carry parasites that can infect turtles 
  • Dark, leafy green veggies (like collard, mustard and dandelion greens, kale, bok choy, deep green lettuces or parsley) and finely chopped vegetables (like bell peppers, carrots, squash or green beans); these are excellent sources of vitamin A, which is crucial to turtles’ health 
  • Small amounts of fruit (like apples and berries), which can be offered as occasional treats

Aquatic turtles should receive a calcium supplement without vitamin D 2–3 times per week (either lightly dusted on their food or provided as a cuttlebone in the tank), plus a multivitamin supplement once a week.

Things to remember when feeding your aquatic turtle: 

  • Aquatic turtles must be fed in the water in order to consume their food 
  • Generally, aquatic turtles require both animal and plant material to stay healthy 
  • Young aquatic turtles are growing and, therefore, require more animal protein, so their diet tends to be more carnivorous than omnivorous 
  • Young turtles should still be offered some vegetables so they are familiar with them and more willing to eat them as they get older 
  • Turtles should be fed daily and prefer to eat food floating in water or clipped to the tank in the water 
  • Consider a separate feeding tank, as aquatic turtles are messy eaters 
  • While pellets may make up a significant part of your turtle’s diet, offering them a variety of different foods in addition to pellets can help keep them interested and provides a wider range of nutrients 
  • Avoid overfeeding rosy reds and common goldfish, as they are high in fat and can lead to obesity 
  • Do not feed frozen fish, as freezing can affect vitamin levels 
  • Avoid feeding raw or cooked chicken or beef, as these foods do not contain the appropriate balance of calcium and phosphorus for a turtle 

Aquatic turtle care

Proper water quality is critical to your aquatic turtle’s health. Be sure to provide them with the largest habitat possible; even though turtles are social, you’ll want to avoid overcrowding, which can negatively affect water quality and cause aggressive behaviors.

Where to buy an aquatic turtle

Aquatic turtles are available for purchase at your local Petco location. Please call ahead to check availability.

Habitat mates 

Male turtles should not be housed together, as they are likely to fight. Two females usually can be housed together. Males and females housed together will breed. Do not house different turtle species together.

Health 

Signs of a healthy turtle

  • Active and alert
  • Eats and passes stool regularly
  • Smooth, hard shell with no lesions, pitting or soft spots
  • Clear, bright eyes with no swelling or discharge
  • Supple skin with no sores, lesions, swellings or discoloration
  • Clear nose and vent

Red flags (if you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian)

  • Eye, nose or mouth discharge
  • Discoloration, bumps, soft spots or pitting on shell 
  • Lesions, swellings or discoloration of skin
  • Lethargy
  • Frantic swimming or swimming sideways
  • Abnormal feces
  • Sneezing, runny nose or difficulty breathing 
  • Swollen eyes
  • Bubbles from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Overgrown beak
  • Swelling on the sides of the face, near the ears

 

Common aquatic turtle health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health Issue GI tract parasites Poor appetite, listlessness, weight loss; possible diarrhea and rectal prolapse Suggested Action Consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Health Issue Respiratory infection Open-mouth breathing, eye, nose and/or mouth discharge or bubbles, sneezing, decreased appetite, lethargy; can be caused by inappropriate temperature or lighting in habitat Consult your veterinarian and ensure habitat is the correct temperature and has correct lighting
Health Issue Shell rot/infection Discolored, soft, or foul-smelling patches or pits on the shell; may be caused by an unclean habitat, inappropriate habitat temperature or lighting, or imbalanced diet Consult your veterinarian; ensure your turtle has a balanced diet and maintain proper habitat cleaning, temperature and lighting
Health IssueEye, ear or respiratory infection Swollen eyes and sides of head where ears sit; commonly caused by vitamin A deficiency, dietary imbalance and inappropriate habitat temperature and lighting Consult your veterinarian for proper treatment

 

FAQs

  • What do water turtles eat? Aquatic turtles eat commercially available pelleted food, leafy greens and chopped vegetables, plus occasional insects, worms, rosy reds, common goldfish, fruits and freeze-dried shrimp as treats. 
  • What is the best turtle for a pet? Red-eared sliders, painted turtles and mud turtles can all make great aquatic turtle pets when cared for and fed properly. 
  • How long do aquatic turtles live? They can live 20–40+ years when given proper care and nutrition. 
  • How do I take care of a water turtle? Water turtles need an appropriately sized tank with water to swim and eat in, a basking area, floating food (including turtle pellets, leafy greens and chopped vegetables), cool and warm zones in their habitat (heated with incandescent bulbs or ceramic heat emitters and submersible heaters and monitored with several thermometers), UV light and calcium and multivitamin supplements. Their tank must be spot cleaned daily, have partial water changes weekly and be cleaned thoroughly every 2–3 weeks. Tank size must be increased as your turtle grows. 
  • How big do aquatic turtles get? Aquatic turtles do not reach adult size (approximately 10–12 inches long) until 5–8 years of age, depending on species. 

Additional care sheets

Notes and resources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as Salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physician before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider not having a reptile as a pet.

Go to cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about reptiles and disease.

The information on this care sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.

Reviewed by Petco’s Animal Care, Education and Compliance (ACE) Team

Petco’s ACE team is a passionate group of experienced pet care experts dedicated to supporting the overall health & wellness of pets. The ACE team works to develop animal care operations and standards across the organization and promote proper animal care and education for Pet Care Center partners and pet parents, while also ensuring regulatory compliance.