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Caring for your new baby turtle: Do’s and don’ts

Your baby turtle will add a small and (relatively) easy pet to your household. While no animal should be adopted without careful consideration, turtles can be fun, affectionate, and engaging with their human owners. Even though they don’t take as much daily commitment as a dog or cat, you’ll need to learn how to care for a baby turtle so he thrives in his new home.

Boy looks at baby turtle on counter

Find a space for your baby turtle

Before you bring your turtle home, you need to prep his home. Your first key decision when buying a new turtle is whether to get a terrestrial animal or an aquatic one. They require slightly different habitats, but both will need access to water and land, which means you need to fully equip your terrarium for them to enjoy both environments. Turtles like space, so you’ll need to find a large designated area in your home. Even small turtles get bigger, so be sure his new home will provide enough room for him when he grows up. You may also decide to use a starter habitat and upgrade as he grows. 

Pet turtle swims in his tank
Sandy Karreman/

Set up his habitat

When designing baby turtle habitats, it’s important to get the water-to-land ratio just right. You’ll base many of your calculations on your turtle’s size, which means it will vary with the type and age of the turtle. Start with a greater land mass so that you can increase the volume of water as your new pet grows. Plan to have at least 50% land (for a terrestrial turtle) or a large basking area (for an aquatic turtle) when he’s full grown. For a hatchling, you should ensure that the depth of the water is greater than the width of his shell, but not so deep that he has trouble getting out. You can measure this with a ruler in advance, but you should be able to see if he’s having an easy time swimming around. Install a ramp if it looks like he’s struggling to get in and out of the water.

Don’t use a fishbowl, too-small housing, or any tank without a lid. Once you have the water situation set, you get to the fun part: decorating your turtle’s new home. Add a mix of rocks, plants, and structures to your design for him to explore. Think about where you will leave extra food like plants for him to nibble on during the day, and keep those away from the water. Turtles need to stay warm, and you will need to install a heating lamp in the enclosure to keep the temperature around 85 degrees. Lastly, keep the tank clean with a filtration system and poop scoop but still change the water every couple of days.

Pet turtle eating lettuce

Plan his feeding schedule

Feeding your turtle can be one of the most fun parts of interacting with him on a daily basis. In the wild, turtles eat a diet of worms, snails, and plants along with a few other things you might find around their waterholes. Food from the pet store will keep his diet balanced and is designed to mimic the vitamins and nutrients he would seek out if he were free to roam. Keep in mind that aquatic turtles need to be given their food in the water, and plan accordingly. Many pet owners choose to feed their turtles in a separate tank if mealtimes get particularly messy to avoid daily cleaning. Baby turtles need a feeding every day, but you may taper that as he gets older. 

Even though you might not enjoy watching it, turtles like to catch their food. Give him the opportunity to try it out as a baby by feeding him live prey and see if he takes to it. For a terrestrial reptile, this means crickets or worms on land, and for an aquatic species, it will be fish in the water.

Turtle exploring a yard
Marcus Dietachmair/

Keep him engaged

Turtles don’t like to be handled much and can carry diseases that are bad for humans. Use proper hand washing whenever you come into contact with him. In addition to playing at mealtimes, your turtle may enjoy exploring the outside world. Be mindful of predators and escape routes, and take him out (weather permitting) to walk around in the yard and bask in the sunshine. Inside his home, turtles will play with toys like shells or plants and love to dig in the gravel.

Your baby turtle might be little when you bring him home, but he’ll get bigger. We all know turtles also famously live a long time. When you bring home a baby turtle, you’re signing up to take care of him for possibly 40 to 50 years. Ensure you know who will take him when your kid moves out or moves on from caring for him. With the right plan in place, though, you’ll have a fun and not too demanding pet for your home for years to come.

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