Care of Aquatic & Semi-Aquatic Turtles

So, you have decided that a turtle is the right pet for you?

Congratulations from the Four Seasons Animal Hospital! While aquatic turtles are personable, popular pets, their up keep can be labor intensive so here is some information to get you started.

• Semi-aquatic turtles split their time between land and water. Popular semi-aquatic turtles kept in the US include sliders (Trachemys spp.), painted turtle (Chrysemys), pond turtles (Emydidae), mud and musk turtles (Kinosternidae), and map turtles (Graptemys spp.).

• Aquatic turtles, like softshell turtles (Apalone spp.) and mata-matas (Che

So, you have decided that a turtle is the right pet for you?

Congratulations from the Four Seasons Animal Hospital! While aquatic turtles are personable, popular pets, their up keep can be labor intensive so here is some information to get you started.

lus fimbriata), prefer to spend most, if not all, of their time in the water.

This handout is intended to provide only general guidelines. Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are a diverse group, and each species has its own specific husbandry requirements that must be met.


Many semi-aquatic turtles, like sliders and pond turtles, are omnivores that eat both animal protein and vegetables (Table 1). Many sliders and pond turtles eat more plant material as they age; juveniles require a higher proportion of animal protein. Feed your turtle a wide variety of foods.

Table 1: Recommended Diet for the adult, omnivorous semi-aquatic turtle

       Plant Material: > 50% of adult diet


  • Dark, leafy greens like kale, romaine, Swiss chard, watercress, endive, bok choy, escarole, spinach, duckweed, collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, beet greens

  • Mix greens with coarsely chopped yellow or dark orange vegetables (e.g. shredded carrots, squash), green beans, or broccoli of appropriate size.

  • Fruit, like apples, melons, grapes, oranges, bananas, and berries, can also be offered occasionally.

       Commercial diet : < 25% of adult diet


  • Aquatic turtle formula, Fluker Farms

  • Freshwater Turtle Diet, Mazuri

  • Reptimin Sticks, Tetra

  • Reptile Sticks, Wardley

      Animal Protein: < 25% of adult diet


  • Whole small fish (goldfish, guppies, bait minnows, smelt)

  • Snails in the shell

  • Small frogs

  • Insects (mealworms, waxworms, earthworms, bee moth larvae) as an occasional treat

  • Chopped mice or whole pinky mice as an occasional treat

Calcium supplement

Lightly sprinkle a calcium supplement (free of phosphorus and vitamin D) on the adult diet two to three times weekly.

Aquatic turtles

A number of aquatic turtles are considered true carnivores with fish making up the bulk of the diet in many species.

Feeding frequency

Prevent obesity in your turtle by feeding adults two to four times weekly. Large specimens can be fed weekly. Hatchlings should be fed daily or every other day.

Aquatic turtles are messy eaters

Food can make it more difficult to keep the tank clean. As a result, some owners feed their aquatic turtle in a separate tank in which water can be discarded after each meal. Although some individuals are hesitant to eat in this separate container at first, their reluctance generally fades over time.


Table 2: To house your aquatic or semi-aquatic turtle, you will need…

Leak-proof enclosure

• Glass aquaria are most commonly selected, but plastic containers and stock watering tanks can also be used.

• Cage size will vary with the turtle size and the number kept. At minimum, a single adult slider should be maintained in a 50-gallon (189 L) tank.

• Always strive to select the largest enclosure possible as turtles need ample space for exercise, an appropriate temperature gradient, and of course growth.

• Cage size should be large enough that the turtle can swim at least four to five body lengths before it has to turn around. Water depth should be at least 1.5 to 2 times total turtle total length. That way if the turtle is overturned, it will be able to right itself and avoid drowning.

• If multiple turtles are kept in the same tank, provide five times each turtle’s surface area.

Submersible aquarium heater

• Specific requirements will vary, but most species do well at water temperatures between 72-82°F (22.2-27.8°C).

• Provide barriers around heaters to prevent contact burns.

Heat lamp

• Maintain air temperature in the “turtle room” between 75-85°F (23.9-29.4°C). If air temperature falls below this range, then water temperature falls well below 70°F (21°C).

• The temperature of the basking area (see “dry dock” below) should range from 85-95°F (23.9-35°C).

• Bulb wattage will vary with enclosure size, but 50 to 150-watt

• Incandescent light bulbs, 250-watt infrared bulb, or porcelain heating elements can all be used.

• Be sure to provide a 5-10°F decrease in temperature at night.


• Monitor all temperatures with the use of thermometers. Select at least two thermometers at the “cool” end of the pool and beneath the basking spot.

Dry dock

• Semi-aquatic turtles need a place to “haul out”, dry off, and bask.

• Place lamps above dry land to provide the turtle with heat and ultraviolet light exposure.

• Build an area on one side of the tank, that projects out of the water like an island, using flat, smooth rocks or non-toxic wood resting on submerged bricks or cinder block. Floating pieces of cork, driftwood, or plastic platforms can also be used, however the material must be secure enough that it won’t topple and trap turtle underneath water. More elaborate platforms can also be built.

• The area should be large enough that ALL turtles in the enclosure can completely emerge.

• Make sure there are no sharp corners that can cut your turtle.

• Create enough of an incline so that the turtle can easily climb out of the water

Screen top

Some species are agile climbers. Prevent escape by providing a screen top as well as several inches of air space between the water’s surface and the top of the tank.


• Optional in semi-aquatic turtles: Although it is not absolutely necessary to line the bottom of the pool and this makes cleaning more difficult, some owners find substrate more visually appealing. Your turtle will eat small stones, so select larger pieces of gravel.

• Recommended for aquatic turtles, which can develop pressure sores on their feet without substrate. Clean water is crucial for the good health of your turtle. Even if the water appears to be clean, there can still be a lot of nitrogenous waste from feces in the water. Frequent full water changes ensure clean water.

• The smaller the volume of water, the more frequent the water changes. For example, a 10-gallon (38 L) aquarium used to house a 4-inch (10 cm) turtle should be changed 2-3 times per week. A 50-gallon aquarium is typically changed once weekly.

• The more turtles in the cage, the more frequent the water changes.

• If turtles are fed in the cage, water should be changed within 12 hours of feeding.

• When performing a full water change, be sure to scrub and rinse the cage well to remove residual bacterial growth from all sides.

• Abrupt changes in water temperature can be fatal so make sure water temperature after cleaning is similar to what it was prior to cleaning

Optional: Submersible pump For smaller setups (10 gallon or less), it’s easy to carry the entire setup to a sink or tub for rinsing, however larger setups must be drained. Portable, electric submersible pumps can quickly drain large volumes quickly, making the cleaning process much easier.

Optional: Water filter

• Water filters decrease the frequency of water changes but do not eliminate them.

• Most aquarium supply stores sell filters designed for fish waste. Turtles produce considerably more solid fecal waste, so be sure to select a filter designed for large fish or high stocking densities.

• Recommended options include gravity or rapid sand filters, propeller-washed bead filters, and external canister filters.

• Live plants can be added to the tank and will help to remove some nitrogenous wastes, however select the plants carefully as some turtles will eat the plants. To house a semi-aquatic turtle you will need to provide a large pool of warm water and a warm, dry area for the turtle to crawl out and keep dry (Table 2).

Caution: Never place an aquarium in direct sunlight as this as can dangerously overheat the tank.


Give your new pet at least a few days to acclimate to its new environment before attempting to handle it. Use two hands, supporting the turtle—including its legs—from underneath. Most aquatic turtles are more resistant to being handled than their land-dwelling turtles. Some individuals will bite. Take care not to drop your turtle or allow them to wander off a table. Although turtle shells are tough can crack if all from even a short height

Common health problems

Common problems in aquatic turtles are often the result of poor husbandry and include ear abscess, eye infection, metabolic bone disease, and intestinal parasites. Diseases can be transmitted from turtles and reptiles as they are often asymptomatic carriers of Salmonella.

• DO thoroughly wash your hands after contact with your turtle or your turtle’s enclosure.

• DO NOT clean turtle cages in the kitchen or bathtub. As a general rule of thumb, turtles should not be owned by young children, especially those likely to put items in their mouths OR unlikely to wash their hands.


Bartlett PB, Griswold B, Bartlett RD. Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates: An Identification and Care Guide, 2nd ed. Hauppage, NY: Barron’s Educational Series; 2010. Boyer TH, Boyer DM. Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. In: Mader DR (ed). Reptile Medicine and Surgery, 2nd ed. St. Louis; Saunders Elsevier; 2006. Pp. 696-704. Boyer TH. Aquatic turtle care. ARAV 2(2):13-18, 1992. Keat S. Client education: Husbandry, Red Eared Sliders. Veterinary Clinical Advisor: Birds and Exotic Pets website. Available at Accessed on July 15, 2013. Kirchgessner M, Mitchell MA. Chelonians. In: MA Mitchell, TN Tully (eds). Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. St. Louis: Saunders Elsevier; 2009. Pp. 214-218. Maas A. Red-eared slider turtle care sheet. The Center for Bird & Exotic Animal Medicine website. Available at Accessed on July 15, 2013.

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