We’re committed to keeping clients and staff safe during COVID-19 with NEW admittance and check-out processes. Learn more.

Turtles - Aquatic - Housing

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

For the purpose of this discussion, the common and popular Red-eared Slider will be used.

An improper environment is the second most common cause of health problems encountered in reptiles(number one is nutrition). Properly housed and fed turtles grow rapidly, are healthier and happier.

" An improper environment is the second most common cause of health problems."

turtles_-_aquatic_-_housing-1What type of cage does my Red-eared Slider require?

Aquatic turtles should be kept in as large an aquarium as possible. As your turtle grows, so does the need for a larger enclosure. It is more cost efficient to spend a little extra money on a larger aquarium at the beginning, rather than spending more money at a later date to buy an entirely new aquarium. The aquarium environment should consist of an appropriate quantity of water, a dry area on which the turtle can escape the water to bask, a source of heat, and a source of UV light.

Aquatic turtles require enough water to allow them to swim fully submerged. Some minimum guidelines suggest the depth of the water should be at least 1.5 - 2 times the shell length of your turtle and the length of the swimming area should be 4-6 times the shell length. Another minimum recommendation is 10 gallons of water per inch of shell length, plus 15%-25% of the surface area for a basking or dry area. A dry landing place must allow the turtle to climb completely out of the water; either a large rock or a secure stack of smaller rocks (with a flatter top on which to easily sit) works well in meeting this requirement. The landing place should be easily accessible to the turtle and should be at the same end of the tank where the basking lamp is located. An unbreakable electric fish tank heater should be used to heat the water to a temperature of 75º-82º F (24º-29ºC). An aquatic thermometer can be used to regularly monitor water temperature changes.

"Clean water is crucial to optimal health."

Clean water is crucial to optimal health. Since turtles eat, sleep and eliminate in the same water, it is important that the water be changed at least once weekly or more frequently if it becomes dirty. Many turtle owners will change 50% of the water every week; on the third or fourth week the entire aquarium is emptied and cleaned thoroughly. Other people do not recommend partial water changes. Ensure the water temperature is correct before reintroducing the turtle to a newly cleaned tank, as abrupt water temperature changes can kill your pet turtle. A good quality water filter can be used to help keep the water clean in between cleanings. Some of the better, more powerful filters pump the water out of the tank, process it and return it to the tank. Feeding your Red-eared Slider in a separate "feeding tank" will reduce the mess in the "home" aquarium.

What else do I need in the aquarium?

Turtles are cold-blooded or ectothermic, meaning they assume the temperature of their environment. Environmental temperature determines the activity of your Red-eared Slider. They slow down in cooler temperatures. A heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Besides the water temperature (described above), it is important to manage the basking area temperature. An inexpensive way to do this is to supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood; you can purchase other types of heat lamps or ceramic heating elements at specialty pet stores. Use these heat sources as directed. Your heat source should be placed OUTSIDE and above one end of the aquarium over the basking or dry area such that there is no direct contact to the water and more importantly, to the animal, thus avoiding any risk of accidental burning. The basking area temperature (as determined by a thermometer) should be 75º-88º F (24º-31º C). The basking area should have a gradient of temperature such that the turtle can choose a suitable temperature. At night, when sleeping, extra heat and light are not necessary as long as the temperature remains around 65 o - 70 o F (18 o -24 o C). You must provide your Red-eared Slider with a "night time". In the wild the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually. Sustained lower temperatures may cause the turtle to stop feeding, and will predispose it to illness or infections.

"Plastic plants can be dangerous if the turtle attempts to eat them."

Plants can be used for decoration as long as they are safe to eat. Plastic plants can be dangerous if the turtle attempts to eat them. Speak to a knowledgeable pet store employee about safe plants; if you are not sure, do not use them. Stones may line the bottom of the aquarium, but must be smooth and too big to be eaten; eating stones has caused serious intestinal problems or blockages. Avoid sand or gravel. Some people feel it is safer not to use stones at all. Stones accumulate algae, feces and complicate a thorough cleaning process.

What about UV light?

A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultra-violet (UV) light. These wavelengths of light are essential for the body to manufacture the vitamin D3 it needs for proper calcium absorption from the intestines. Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to nutritional metabolic bone disease, an overly common condition of pet reptiles which is fatal if not recognized and treated. A UV light source should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320 - 400nm), although important in terms of behavior, does not aid in the manufacture of vitamin D3. Most bulbs sold for use with reptiles provide both UV-A and UV-B. Examples of commercially available UV-B emitting lights are the RetisunTM, Iguana LightTM, Power SunTM (by Zoo Med) and Repti GloTM lamp by Exo Terra. The UV output of these lights decreases with age so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer. For UV light to be effective, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. Also, the light should be within 6-12 inches from the animal in order for the pet to receive any benefit. Although these bulbs are expensive, they are worth the extra cost, and often mean the difference between a healthy turtle and a sick or dying turtle. Regular exposure to natural DIRECT sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) is encouraged and recommended whenever possible. When outdoors care must be taken to provide a shaded area or water for the turtle to escape the sun if it chooses. Always supervise your pet turtle if taken outside to bask in the sun, both to prevent escape and to prevent attack from other animals roaming in the neighborhood.

"The UV output of these lights decreases with age so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer."

Consult a veterinarian familiar with reptiles if you have any questions or concerns regarding proper lighting or housing for your red-eared slider.

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

Find a Local VCA

We're here for you and your pet in 43 states. 
Free shipping on prescription refills, pet food and more!
Shop Now
Loading... Please wait