Caring for Aquatic Turtles

Although aquatic turtles are clean, quiet, and relatively easy to care for, they require a proper environment to stay healthy. Provide a clean cage, a good diet, and adequate heat and light, and your turtle should be a good companion for 20 to 30 years.

Biological Facts

  • The most common varieties of aquatic turtles are the following:
    • The slider turtle (red-eared or yellow-bellied varieties); genus: Trachemys; native to the southern United States
    • The painted turtle (Western or Eastern varieties); genus: Chrysemys; range: throughout the United States and southern Canada
  • Adult females are generally larger than males, and their vent opening lies near the base of the tail, under the edge of the carapace (upper shell). Adult males have very long toenails, and their vent opening lies closer to the end of the tail, beyond the edge of the carapace.
  • Turtles for sale in pet stores are generally farm raised. Wild-caught turtles may not adapt well to captivity, and keeping native wildlife as pets is usually illegal.
  • Pet turtles that are released into the wild may introduce disease into local waters and compete with or displace native turtle species.
  • Life span: 20 to 30 years or longer with proper care
  • Size: can grow to over 3 lb (1360 g) and to 12 inches (30.5 cm) in length
  • Sexual maturity: 3 to 5 years for males; 5 to 10 years for females
  • Gestation: egg laying occurs about 60 days after breeding
  • Incubation: hatching occurs about 55 to 75 days after laying
  • Clutch size: 2 to 20 eggs


  • Aquatic turtles are most active during the day.
  • In the wild, they forage for water plants and small prey, such as minnows, crayfish, and worms.
  • In the wild, they bask in the sun during the warmest part of the day to aid digestion, immunity, and normal growth.
  • In captivity, they regulate their internal body temperature by moving between warm and cool areas of their enclosure.
  • They prefer to eat in the water.


  • Aquatic turtles are omnivorous (they eat plants and animals), with most of their diet consisting of animal protein when they are young and plant material as they grow older.
  • They eat whole fish (for example, minnows and feeder goldfish), insects, frozen/dried krill, and worms.
  • Floating aquatic turtle pellets are commercially available.
  • Aquatic turtles also eat dark leafy green vegetables (for example, kale, collard greens, dandelion leaves, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce) and broccoli.
  • They should not be fed iceberg lettuce or meat (other than fish) because neither provides balanced nutrition.
  • Young turtles should be fed once a day, while older turtles can be fed every other day.


  • Provide a large enclosure that mimics the aquatic turtle’s natural environment as closely as possible.
  • Provide a pond or aquarium setup with enough room for your turtle to swim the length and width of the cage. The water should be deep enough to allow your turtle to dive.
  • Provide a ledge, limb, or dry area for your turtle to dry off and bask.
  • The water temperature should be 75°F to 82°F (23.9°C to 27.8°C).
  • The basking area should be 90°F to 95°F (32.2°C to 35°C) to provide heat for proper digestion and a strong immune system. The area should also provide ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation for proper growth, with the following requirements:
    • For turtles housed indoors, this requires a heat lamp and an ultraviolet light or a more expensive mercury-vapor light bulb, which provides heat and UVB rays.
    • Place the UVB light within 12 to 18 inches (30.5 to 45.7 cm) of the turtle’s basking area. The light should not be blocked by glass or plastic, which filter out beneficial ultraviolet rays.
  • Check daily to ensure that the heat source and UVB lamp are working. Turtles kept indoors at room temperature often succumb to infection and stunting (stunted growth due to a virus).
  • For turtles housed outdoors, it is important to provide a shaded area.
  • The tank bottom can be bare or covered with sand or gravel. To avoid accidental ingestion, gravel pebbles should be too big for the turtle can swallow.

Preventive Care

  • A complete physical examination should be performed every 6 to 12 months. If you have any questions or concerns about your turtle’s health, consult a veterinarian experienced with treating reptiles.
  • An annual fecal examination should be performed to check for parasites.
  • Blood tests should be performed as recommended by your veterinarian.

Common Medical Disorders

  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Stunting, soft shell, metabolic bone disease
  • Bacterial shell and skin infection
  • Foreign body ingestion
  • Pneumonia