Basic Care for Semi-Aquatic Turtles
Part 1: Housing
The tank. A 20 gallon aquarium is the minimum size for a single 4"-6" specimen, but keep in mind that most commonly sold turtles will grow to 8"-10" and will require larger quarters; a 30 to 40 gallon tank will provide more room for swimming and basking and will require less cleaning. For several turtles, an even larger tank is highly recommended. The tank should have as big a "footprint" as possible, and be deep enough to allow for at least 6 inches of water plus an elevated basking area. The All Glass Aquariumtm; company now makes a line of special "Turtle Tanks" with an excellent feature: one end of the tank has an opening to allow for easy mounting of a hang on power filter.
Layout. Semi-aquatic turtles require plenty of water to swim in and a basking area large enough for each turtle to get completely out of the water. This elevated basking area can be created by piling a large quantity of aquarium gravel or smooth rocks on one end of the tank, leaving the other end as the swimming hole. Other alternatives are to use a floating cork, Styrofoamtm; or plastic raft or a manufactured bridge, however, some turtles attempt to eat plastic, making a mess and destroying the basking area. In any case, the basking area should be smooth so as not to damage the turtles' undershell, slightly inclined to allow easy access, and large enough to readily accommodate all the turtles in the tank simultaneously. Any other decor is unnecessary, and will tend to accumulate debris, and turtles appreciate plenty of swimming room.
Filtration. Turtles and their foods produce an abundance of waste, so filtration is necessary unless the hobbyist has the time and ambition to perform water changes every day or two. As with selecting the tank itself, it is wise to err on the side of oversize, rather than risk purchasing something that is inadequate for your needs. A canister filter would be ideal, since it can operate at lowered water levels, pushes a fairly high volume of water, and contains a lot of filter media that can go for an extended period of time between cleanings. A submersible power filter (or hang on power filter if you're using a special "Turtle Tank") is the next best choice. Smaller, less powerful, box and sponge filters are better than no filter at all, but will require frequent cleanings and still may not keep up with the turtles' waste output.
Heating. Like many reptiles, turtles maintain and adjust their own body temperature by moving in and out of the sunlight. In captivity, a "basking lamp" should be utilized for this purpose. In addition, turtle water temperature should remain somewhere between 68-80 degrees F. year round. Lower temperatures may cause turtles to cease feeding in preparation for hibernation; however, since the temperature won't get low enough to actually cause hibernation, the turtle continues to burn calories, even though it isn't taking any more in. A submersible aquarium heater is the best bet; it can be laid horizontally in the swimming area and, once set, will maintain a stable temperature without further adjustment.
Lighting. In turtle-keeping, lighting is a lot more than just illumination, and special reptile lamps are highly recommended. These lamps provide UVA and UVB irradiation, which turtles use to manufacture vitamin D, which is in turn used to utilize calcium for healthy bones and shells. UVA and UVB do not pass through ordinary glass, so the lighting should not be placed over a glass cover as it typically is for an aquarium. Lighting should be left on for 8 to 12 hours per day, preferably controlled by a timer for consistency. Tankmates. Turtles are natural born predators; this is especially at younger ages when protein consumption is more important for early growth. This means that any fish or other creature is at risk of being eaten sooner or later. The most consistently safe tankmates for turtles are other turtles, and even then size, breed and gender need to be taken into account.
Part 2: Maintenance
Feeding. Turtles should receive a varied diet, starting with a good quality commercial balanced food like ReptoMintm, and including occasional supplements of fish, insects, worms, and aquatic plants. Some turtles change their dietary habits as they mature; for example, they may refuse plant matter while young, then accept it enthusiastically some time down the road. Avoid foods that rapidly decompose in water, and be sure the size is appropriate for the size of your turtles. Some turtlekeepers place their turtles in a separate container to eat and defecate, then return them to their real home.
Turtles often become very social and even friendly with their owners; they quickly learn to beg for their next meal, and then gulp it down as if it were their last. However, just as in humans, this behavior doesn't automatically mean the turtle is in need of more food, and overfeeding/overeating can be a very real concern. Uneaten food serves only to foul the water, making more work for the hobbyist and leading to unhealthy living conditions for the turtle. Overeating can cause obesity, water fouling and abnormally rapid growth. A good rule of thumb is to feed a portion roughly the size of the turtle's head once per day for juveniles, and every other day for adults.
Cleaning. Filters should be cleaned or rinsed whenever they begin to become clogged and slow down - before the water in the tank starts to turn cloudy or smelly. In addition, a third or more of the water should be drained regularly, and replaced with fresh, dechlorinated water of the same temperature. Some hobbyists prefer to change 100% of the water at a time, and unlike a fish aquarium, there is little concern over removing beneficial bacteria. The tank, basking area, and any other items can be scrubbed and rinsed (no soaps or detergents, please) whenever grunge begins to accumulate. The frequency of cleaning chores will vary greatly from tank to tank, depending on the number of turtles, feeding habits, temperature and type of filtration, but will likely be in the weekly to monthly range.
Problems. Most turtle illness can be traced back to one of three factors: poor nutrition, poor temperature or poor water quality. Following the above guidelines will help maintain your turtle in good condition, and is far more trouble-free and cost effective than using medications to attempt to cure an unhealthy specimen.
Commitment. Turtles can live a very long time in captivity: 40 years is not uncommon for the red eared slider. Be sure to consider their long term welfare and have a plan in mind should you no longer be able to care for them. Pets of any sort, including turtles, should never be released into the wild, so the hobbyist should either make "adoption" arrangements with another caretaker or see if a local pet store has facilities to accept it.
Part 3: A word about Salmonella
Salmonella is a bacteria that causes diarrhea and flu-like symptoms in humans and can cause serious problems and even death in very young children or in adults with impaired immune systems. Many cases of Salmonella poisoning are caused by eating or handling undercooked meats or poultry, but some have been the result of eating or preparing food after handling a turtle or other reptile. Baby turtles were considered a health threat because of the likelihood that small children might handle them without washing up afterwards, and for this reason it has been illegal to sell turtles with a shell length of less than four inches since the early 1970's. Even perfectly healthy turtles can have Salmonella bacteria in their feces, and care must be taken that turtle waste is not somehow ingested by humans. Hands should be washed with warm, soapy water immediately after a turtle is handled or a turtle tank or filter is cleaned, and small children should not be permitted to handle turtles without supervision.
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