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Turtles - Aquatic - Owning

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Zoonosis & Human Health, Pet Services

Aquatic turtles are referred to as turtles, terrapins or chelonians. For the purpose of this discussion, the common and popular Red-eared Slider (RES) will be used.

turtles_-_aquatic_-_owning-1General Information

The Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is probably the most popular pet aquatic turtle. They are semi-aquatic turtles (they like to leave the water to bask in the sun), native to the warmer southern United States. They are found in calm, quiet, warm fresh water, like ponds, lakes and creeks or streams, where they have access to large flat rocks or logs that they use for basking for hours in the sun. They are excellent swimmers and shy away from predators and humans by quickly sliding back into the water (hence the name Red-eared Slider). In captivity they usually accommodate to their humans and will come to the top of the water or side of the tank inquisitively. Wild Red-eared Sliders often bask in groups, but are fine on their own in captivity. If you keep more than one, they should have plenty of swimming room and should be of similar size to avoid bullying. Monitor for fighting or injuries.

In the wild they do hibernate at the bottom of ponds and shallow lakes in the cool winter months.

"In the wild they do hibernate at the bottom of ponds and shallow lakes in the cool winter months."

RES are omnivorous, eating both animal protein and vegetable matter.

RES can make great pets if cared for properly. Unfortunately, RES are often one of the most neglected captive reptiles since many people simply do not know how to take care of them properly. Please do your "homework" and research as much as possible about this type of pet before bringing it into your life.

"Often one of the most neglected captive reptiles since many people simply do not know how to take care of them properly."

Due to concerns regarding Salmonella (see the Turtles-Aquatic-Problems handout), it is illegal in every state in the United States to sell turtles under 4 inches long. Check your local laws regarding turtle ownership. Salmonella is a bacterium often implicated in human "food poisoning". While the disease rarely causes anything more serious than mild vomiting and diarrhea in adults, young children, the elderly and people with lowered immune systems can easily develop a fatal form of disease. Turtles are certainly not the only pet or reptile that can carry Salmonella. Since RES's are a common family pet, the danger of infection is very real. Most turtles carry the infection asymptomatically, which means that they are not sick. You can imagine how easily the disease, which involves contact with infected feces, could be spread if young children were placing soiled hands or the turtles itself in their mouths! Common sense and good hygiene are essential in preventing this disease. After handling any pet, its excrement or its bedding and toys, THOROUGHLY WASH YOUR HANDS.

How do turtles differ anatomically from other animals?

Compared to other animals, the muscling is different in turtles, and their protective shell replaces many of their bones (like the ribs). The top or dorsal shell is called the carapace and the bottom or ventral shell is called the plastron. The shell is covered with bony plates called scutes. The scutes are usually shed in large patches, unlike snakes, which usually shed their skin in one piece. The numbers of scutes or the "rings" on the scutes have nothing to do with the turtle's age.

In general, males have a more concave plastron than females. This concavity allows for easier mounting and mating. Males are also smaller than females and adult males have long front toenails. Having a male and female next to each other makes the comparison easier. Adult males average 7-9 inches in length (17.8 cm - 22.8 cm) while adult females average between 10-12 inches (25 cm - 30.5 cm) from the front to the back of the shell. Males also usually have a longer and thicker tail, which once again facilitates easier maneuvering during mating. Finally, the distance between the vent (common opening for the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts) and the turtle's body is greater in males.

The pectoral or chest muscles are well developed for swimming. Despite the obvious differences in the anatomy of muscle and bone, turtles are extremely strong. The strength, manifested by the turtle retracting into its shell when disturbed, is one of the signs of a healthy turtle, and you should check for this strength when purchasing a turtle.

Turtles lack teeth but have a strong "beak" and turtles can and do bite!

"Turtles can and do bite."

Turtles have no diaphragm; they draw air into and out of their lungs, or breathe, by movements of membranes enclosing their internal organs and by movements of their legs and head.

Turtles have a three-chambered heart, whereas dogs, cats, and people have a four-chambered heart.

Turtles have a renal portal blood system, meaning that the kidneys filter all blood returning from the hind limbs before the blood enters the general circulation. This means that toxins from the rear limbs (as could occur from wounds on the legs) as well as drugs injected into the rear legs would probably be filtered by the kidneys before entering the general circulation.

Although they are reptiles, aquatic turtles excrete the majority of their nitrogenous wastes as urea or ammonia, and only excrete a small amount of uric acid. In contrast, terrestrial or land turtles are more like other reptiles and excrete uric acid as the main waste byproduct of protein metabolism, allowing them to adapt to desert environments where water supply might be restricted.

Turtles have a cloaca, which is the common "receptacle" or receiving compartment for the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems; material that accumulates in the cloaca is voided externally through the vent, found on the ventral or under surface of the tail.

How do I select a Red-eared Slider?

Most owners buy turtles from a local pet store or breeder. Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older, imported animals may harbor internal parasites and often suffer from the stress of captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals.

Start out right with a healthy pet. Avoid turtles that have sunken or closed eyes, have any type of discharge coming from the nostrils or eyes, or appear inactive or lethargic. Eyes that are sunken into the head or swollen shut often indicate dehydration, emaciation, starvation, and/or Vitamin A deficiency. A healthy turtle is usually active and alert, feels "heavy" and retracts its head and limbs into its shell when handled. Make sure the shell is clean and isn't cracked, missing scutes (plates) or has any signs of infection (often seen as shell discoloration or moldy growth). The shell should be hard; a soft shell is a sign of disease. The vent should be clean and free of wetness or accumulated stool. If you can GENTLY open the mouth (which is difficult or impossible in most turtles), there should be a small amount of clear saliva present and the lining of the mouth should be pink. Mucus that is cloudy, bloody or purulent (looks like "cottage cheese" in appearance) is a sign of mouth rot, as are redness or pinpoint hemorrhages on the mucous membranes. When purchasing a turtle, always inquire about the guarantee in case the turtle is found to be unhealthy.

My Red-eared Slider looks healthy. Does he need to see the veterinarian?

Within 48 hours of your purchase, your turtle should be examined by a veterinarian familiar with reptiles. The visit includes a thorough physical examination, including measuring the animal's weight. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and malnutrition. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. Many veterinarians consider all turtles (even those bred in captivity) to have internal parasites, so your turtle may be routinely dewormed for parasites. The oral cavity will be examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). Your veterinarian may recommend blood tests, cultures, or radiographs (X-rays) to check for other diseases No vaccines are required for turtles.

"Within 48 hours of your purchase, your turtle should be examined by a veterinarian familiar with reptiles."

Like all pets, aquatic turtles should be examined at least annually, and should have their feces tested for parasites at every examination. In captivity, the toenails of red-eared sliders may need to be clipped periodically; your veterinarian can show you how during one of your routine visits.

THOROUGHLY WASH YOUR HANDS after feeding, cleaning or handling any turtle.

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