Aquatic turtles: Care and feeding basics

Did you know that the difference between turtles and tortoises is that turtles live at least partially in the water, while tortoises live exclusively on land? Both types make great pets, but they can be time-intensive to care for. If you’re considering buying an aquatic turtle, you should first know how to best take care of one.

The last thing you want is to bring a new turtle home and realize you’re in way over your head. Here are the basics of keeping and caring for aquatic turtles as pets.

Small turtle with a strawberry
Hemant Singh/

Do turtles need an entirely underwater habitat?

Most turtles go on land sometimes — even sea turtles, to lay their eggs! So, no, turtles do not need and should not have enclosures full of water. There are small floating platforms that turtles can climb up onto, and those should suffice for turtles that spend most of their time underwater. However, some aquatic turtles enjoy exploring land more and need more of a dry area. Do research on the particular species of aquatic turtle that you’re interested in buying to find out about how much time they are in the water compared to on land.

What should an aquatic turtle habitat consist of?

First and foremost, you will need a tank of sufficient size to allow your turtle to swim freely. Tanks with volumes of 40 gallons or more are recommended for an individual turtle. Filtered freshwater that is free of chlorine should fill the tank. The water should be kept cooler at one end than the other, an environment that can be created with the help of a basking lamp and a submersible heater. Because turtles eat and defecate in the water they live in, it is important that their water is changed regularly. At least once a week, the tank should be emptied and cleaned with a bleach solution before being refilled.

You can put gravel or stones at the bottom of the tank, so long as they are big enough that your turtle won’t try to eat them. A platform that is at least partially out of the water is probably necessary, preferably with a ramp to make for a shallow area for basking. Exposure to an incandescent and UV lamp or direct sunlight for 10 to 12 hours or more daily is needed for the health of all turtles. Only one turtle species should be kept in any given tank, but most species can coexist with some fish.

What do turtles eat?

Two turtles eating kale

All turtles (but not all tortoises) are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and meat. Aquatic turtles can eat a variety of foods, though they can survive on a diet of commercial turtle pellets and frozen or dried fish food. Alternatively, you can feed fresh foods to a turtle. Foods that are healthy and safe for turtles include insects like grubs and crickets, earthworms, small fish, and dark leafy greens such as kale and collard greens. Adult turtles only need to be fed three to five times per week (baby turtles may need to be fed up to twice a day). A calcium supplement, usually in the form of a powder, should be dusted on food at least once a year.

What else is there to know about aquatic turtle care?

Aquatic turtles do not usually like to be handled and may bite. They can live upward of 20 years, so anticipate having a shelled friend for quite some time! Healthy turtles should be active and alert, eat regularly, have a hard shell and clear skin free of lesions, and have clear eyes and nostrils. Note that turtles shed their scutes (plates that make up their shells) periodically.

Signs of a sick turtle include hyperactivity or lethargy; discharge from the eyes, mouth or nose; discoloration or growths on the shell or skin; sneezing; not eating; an overgrown beak; and abnormal feces. If you notice any of these symptoms in your turtle, take them to the vet as soon as possible. Calcium deficiencies are relatively common in aquatic turtles, hence the recommendation to supplement their diets with calcium. Turtles often carry salmonella bacteria, which can be transmitted to and cause illness in humans. Always wash your hands after handling turtles or parts of their enclosure.

Though it may be tedious to care for, having an aquatic turtle as a pet is still a rewarding experience. The various species of turtles have slightly different behaviors. Be sure to pick one that fits your personality. Soon, you’ll have a reptilian buddy by your side!

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