Turtles as Pets: What You Need to Know to Keep Them Healthy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

turtle pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you adopt a turtle as a pet without understanding all its needs, your little friend in a shell can develop serious, long-term health complications
  • While scrubbing the “slime” off the walls of your turtle tank isn’t necessary (as it helps maintain optimal bacteria levels), changing out the water at correct intervals and amounts is critical
  • Turtles need water, but also a dry basking spot to shed their old shell, a process best done under full-spectrum light
  • Maintaining your turtle’s habitat includes temperatures that don’t fluctuate too drastically, and the proper amount of a varied, species-appropriate diet so they don’t eat too much and get sick

One pet many kids and adults alike view as fun and fairly easy to care for are turtles. While they may seem low maintenance, experts emphasize a few points that potential owners may not have thought of upon first meeting their cute little friend-in-a-shell. One consideration is that turtles can live a very long time — decades, in fact — but another point to ponder is that without knowledge of a turtle's needs as a pet as opposed to life in the wild, turtles can develop serious, long-term health complications.

They are fascinating creatures, but buying a turtle from a pet store or anywhere else is a very unwise proposition, and you shouldn't decide to keep and "take care of" a turtle found in the wild. They thrive best in their own natural habitat, so you're not doing them any favors by bringing them inside. Further, turtles are declining in the wild in some areas.

Be aware that turtles can make people sick, so they're not recommended as pets in households that include children under age 5, the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. In fact, keeping a turtle in captivity is outlawed in some states.

Organizations such as American Tortoise Rescue1 specialize in turtle rescues, such as those recently found suffering from hypothermia on Cape Cod.2 If you are thinking about taking on a turtle as a pet, below are several ways to keep your pet turtle healthy, and your family, too.

Turtles Need Plenty of Clean Water

Red-eared sliders, box turtles and terrapins are three common turtle species that require access to both water and "land" to keep them healthy and thriving. However, new turtle owners may be unaware that water is even necessary, not to mention how to keep it clean and the work it takes to keep it that way. Semi-aquatic turtles need large tanks, as water quality and cleanliness are easier to maintain.

As Pet MD3 explains, water quality can get out of balance, so consistent water changes for turtle habitats are very necessary; otherwise, it can contribute to shell rot or skin issues.And according to The Spruce Pets:

"Of course, turtles also defecate in their water, so maintaining good water quality can be a challenge. Cloudy and smelly water in a turtle tank is a common problem, but even water that looks clean can harbor waste products such as ammonia and nitrites that can build up to harmful levels."4

Turtles also shed salmonella in their feces, and the incidence has risen over the last decade, one study reveals.5 It's important to know that the bacteria can easily contaminate a turtle's shell, skin or habitat and make people sick.

Scrubbing every speck of algae off the walls of your turtle tank isn't necessary, as it helps maintain optimal bacteria levels.6 Experts also advise changing out a third or half of the standing water in your pet turtle's habitat at least once or twice a week to help maintain water quality and proper pH levels.

Let There Be Plenty of Light

In the wild, turtles get full-spectrum light, which is what they require inside, as well. To remain in good health, your turtle needs both UVA and UVB light. When purchasing bulbs for this purpose, avoid inferior knock-offs. Make sure you get good-quality bulbs that are also reptile-appropriate.

Here's why: The UVB spectrum of light is necessary for turtles to make vitamin D, but more than being labeled "full spectrum," it should say UVB. Full-spectrum lights don't have the same lifespan as other light bulbs, so the bulbs should be changed every six to nine months. In addition:

"Having appropriate levels of vitamin D allows for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract. Calcium is the most important mineral in a reptile's body … Also remember that UV rays will not go through glass, plexi-glass, or plastic, so the bulbs must have direct contact with the turtle's environment (but not so close as to touch the turtle) or shine through a screen."7

Temperature Maintenance Is Important

Maintaining turtle habitat temperatures means the environment shouldn't fluctuate too drastically. Even if the light is set correctly, temperature regulation is important to maintain optimal habitats for these reptiles. Otherwise, turtles may decide to go into hibernation, which could seriously compromise their health.

The preferred optimal temperature zone, or POTZ, allows for a gradual temperature change. Experts recommend using a heating element to maintain 70 to 90 degrees F. A ceramic heating element, which can last more than 20,000 hours, plugs into a normal lamp dome and emits infrared heat, may be preferable to a warming lamp.

Turtles Require a Proper Basking Spot

Turtles enjoy their time in the water, but they also need a comfortable spot outside of it to rest and dry off. It's an important part of a turtle's habitat, and even has the specific designation of "basking spot." Saul Bauer, reptile keeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, explains in PetMD that if turtles can't get out of the water, they won't be able to shed their old shell. Further, they need full-spectrum light to dry out their shell.

A basking spot not only makes up part of the picturesque turtle environment, it can be created by simply placing a rock or driftwood platform outside near the water, although you'll find commercially made basking platforms at most pet stores.

Like Everybody Else, Turtles Need a Diverse, Species-Appropriate Diet

To set up the right environment, turtles need to be fed an array of foods to stay healthy. Commercial feeds may provide a foundation, but to provide the balanced diet they need, additional protein sources and vegetables are a must.

One of the best ways to do that is to give your turtle species the foods they would eat if they lived in their natural habitat. Bauer recommends looking up your turtle type to see what they nosh on in the wild, then expand on it to ensure their diet is both enjoyable and good for them.

Being omnivores, red-eared sliders, for example, would benefit from eating a balanced diet of red bell peppers, freeze-dried shrimp and leafy greens, as many turtle varieties won't eat fruits and opt for frozen fish as a treat. One note of caution is to never offer dog or cat food to your turtle, as doing so will likely be inadequate for the turtle's unique dietary needs and cause health complications.

Avoid Overfeeding Your Turtle

Like most other critters in the animal kingdom, turtles, too, appreciate food, but as the one responsible for making it available, it's important that you know what constitutes an appropriate amount. Bauer shares a helpful gauge to avoid this blunder: Give turtles only what they can consume in two minutes.

"If turtles are overfed, they can develop weight problems that can decrease their longevity and quality of life. Instead, offer a balanced amount of food and save treats for special occasions. If a turtle's legs appear to tuck into its shell, it may be a sign the turtle is eating too much."8

Watch for Warning Signs

Keeping telltale signs of trouble on your radar is important with pet turtles. Even if they appear to be healthy, veterinarians recommend yearly checkups because it's difficult to tell if they're really OK. Shells on turtles indicate their durability, but they don't reveal illness the way dogs' and cats' coats do.

In addition, if your turtle has no interest in eating, has swollen or weepy eyes, or appears to be breathing from its mouth, a trip to your veterinarian is advised. There are many different species of turtles, but each requires different levels of care and investment. Before making a decision, be sure you understand the unique needs of each and, again, make sure you have the time it takes to properly care for it.

A list of turtle rescues and more information can be found at Tortoise.com,9 but as one veterinarian observes, turtles aren't the kind of pet that allows you to go on vacation for two weeks without providing for their care. Talk to your veterinarian before deciding, then schedule a new pet examination with a provider who specializes in reptiles. While a health check for the turtle is recommended, keep your own health and that of your family's health in mind, as well.

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