How to Keep Your Aquatic Turtle’s Tank Clean

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

aquatic turtle tank

Story at-a-glance -

  • Poor water quality is a leading cause of illness in aquatic turtles, including shell infections and erosion, dermatitis, anemia, sepsis and death
  • A water turtle tank with clean water will not smell, nor will it appear dirty or cloudy
  • The first step to good water quality is choosing the proper tank size; a larger tank will be easier to keep clean, and with aquatic turtles, skip the substrate
  • Choose a high-quality water filter for the tank, scoop out leftover food and feces daily and replace some of the tank’s water (one-quarter to one-third) at least once a week
  • If you’re having trouble maintaining your turtle’s habitat, an exotic animal veterinarian should be able to provide more specific details on how to optimize the tank for your turtle’s safety, health and well-being

Proper water quality is essential to the health of your aquatic turtle, and here’s a hint: if your turtle’s tank smells, it’s already too dirty. A turtle tank with clean water will not smell, nor will it appear dirty or cloudy. These are surefire signs that you’ve waited too long to change the water, but even water that appears clean can harbor dangerous waste products like ammonia.

Remember, aquatic turtles not only swim and eat in the water, they also go to the bathroom there. Leftover, uneaten food can quickly contribute to the build-up of ammonia in the water, as can feces. Poor water quality is a leading cause of illness in turtles, including shell infections and erosion, dermatitis, anemia, sepsis and death1 — and keeping your turtle’s water clean is an essential part of being a good turtle parent.

Turtle Tank Water Quality 101

The first step to good water quality is choosing the proper tank size. A larger tank will be easier to keep clean, while one that’s too small will quickly accumulate harmful levels of toxins in the water. The Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital recommends a minimum cage size such that the combined carapace (shell) size of all turtles in the tank does not exceed 25 percent of the enclosures’ floor surface area.2 Of course, the bigger, the better.

Next, skip the substrate (for aquatic turtles only), as it will make the water harder to keep clean (plus, turtles sometimes eat gravel from the bottom of tank, leading to health issues). Choose a high-quality water filter for the tank — a canister or over-the-side filter that’s appropriate for the size of your tank and the number of turtles is suggested.

Even with a filter, you’ll need to change the water frequently — before it develops any type of smell or dirty appearance. In addition, start with highly purified water (not tap water) and if needed, use a dechlorinator that can tackle chloramines as well. If you’re not sure whether the water needs to be changed, you can purchase ammonia test strips that tell you the level of ammonia in the water.

Also be sure to scoop out any leftover food that’s not eaten and use a small net to remove droppings from the water as well. This should be done on a daily basis. When changing the water, some turtle owners use a suction-hose device that allows you to easily drain the water as well as refill it.3 You should replace some of the tank’s water (one-quarter to one-third) at least once a week.

Every two to three weeks, aim to clean out the entire tank, including refreshing your filter. You should scrub the walls and rinse the tank on occasion as well, but you needn’t worry about scrubbing off every speck of algae, as it plays a role in helping to balance bacterial levels. Beneficial bacteria solutions can also be added to the water to help break down waste.

Do not use soap, bleach or detergent in the tank; instead, choose specially made cleaners for turtle tanks. It’s also important to do your research on salinity levels, as some aquatic turtles require higher and lower levels at different stages of development. A hydrometer can be used to measure the salinity of the tank’s water and adjust as necessary using sea salt for saltwater fish tanks.4 Water temperature is also important, as noted by Chicago Exotics:5

“The water temperature should remain constant. A good range is 75 [to] 80 degrees [F]. This is best accomplished with the use of a submersible aquarium heater. Use a heater protector over the heater to prevent burns if the turtle were to touch the heater when the heating element was on. Also, use a thermometer to help regulate the water temperature.”

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Water Turtles Are Not ‘Easy’ Pets

All turtles, including aquatic species, are often regarded as simple pets suitable for children or people who don’t want the commitment of having a furry pet like a dog or cat. Yet, all turtles are quite complex to care for and require just as much commitment as any other pet. In fact, turtles can live to be upward of 25 years old, with some species living to be 50 or more, so choosing to have a pet turtle is a longtime commitment.

There are more than 300 different species of turtles, each with its own unique needs for diet and habitat. Be sure to research your specific species so you know what type of habitat they require.

Most importantly, many wild turtle populations are plummeting, so never take any turtle from the wild. Additionally, the vast majority of turtles bred for the pet trade are kept in heinously abusive environments and sold as “disposable” pets. There are hundreds of turtles available for adoption nationwide, so please contact your local shelters for a reptile rescue referral in your area.

In the case of aquatic turtles, keeping the tank’s water clean is an ongoing effort, one that will require daily maintenance (scooping out feces and food) as well as regular attention to pH level. Every few days, you should test the water’s pH level, with a general goal of keeping it between seven and eight. Plan to replace some water at least once a week, and do a full-tank cleaning one to two times a month.

One caveat: turtles can shed salmonella in their feces, and the bacteria can easily contaminate their shell, skin or habitat and make family members sick. When cleaning your turtle’s tank, be sure to dispose of the water safely (do not dump it in a bathtub or kitchen sink, for instance, instead flush down the toilet), and wash your hands thoroughly after doing so.

If you’re having trouble maintaining your turtle’s habitat, an exotic animal veterinarian should be able to provide more specific details on how to optimize the tank for your turtle’s safety, health and well-being.

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