Water Turtle Care

Aquatic turtles spend their lives in and around water sources and are recognized by their webbed feet. Many have long necks that allow their head to reach half way around their body. The upper shell is called the carapace, the lower shell the plastron and the sections of the shell are called scutes. Various aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are kept in captivity as pets, the most common being the Red-eared or Yellow-eared Sliders. Environmental and dietary needs should always be researched prior to buying any species of turtle.

Red-eared sliders can be long-lived and are strong under-water swimmers. Males are identified by long, tapered nails on the front feet and by a long, thick tail whose vent opening is half to two thirds the way down the tail. The dark purple phallus (sex organ) can sometimes be seen protruding from the vent opening. Females have shorter nails and a shorter, thinner tail with the vent opening near the base of the tail. Females lay eggs and can do so even without a male present. A turtle should always be handled gently, right side up. Too sudden a shift in position can cause the internal organs to twist and rapid movements can stress and disorient the turtle.


Reptile enclosures should recreate the climate of the natural environment of the species. Enclosures should be easy to clean, properly lighted and heated, and escape proof. For most aquatic turtles, glass aquariums are preferred. Size guidelines suggest the tank be 4-5 times the carapace length (CL) in length, 2-3 x CL in width, and 1.5-2 x CL deep. There should be enough tank height above the water surface to prevent the turtle from escaping. A haul out area should be provided to allow the turtle a basking and rest area. Haul out areas should be fixed in place. Stacking rocks are unstable and should be avoided. Any substrate on the floor or the aquarium must be large enough to prevent ingestion or small enough to be safely passed through the digestive tract.


Clean water is crucial to good health and is achieved with a good filtration system and frequent water changes. Filters must be securely anchored to prevent the turtle from becoming entangled and drowning. Typically, replacing 25-50% of the water weekly with complete cleans every 4 weeks is adequate, but this depends on both the size of the tank and the size of the turtle. Water being added to the tank should be the same temperature as is already in the tank as abrupt temperature changes can be harmful. De-chlorination of the water is not always necessary; however, if the turtle shows signs of eye irritation, de-chlorinate the water before adding it to the tank. Every effort should be made to prevent contamination of the environment. Fecal matter and left over food should be siphoned away as soon as possible and using a separate feeding tank helps prevent contamination of the living space.


The ideal water temperature for most aquatic turtles is 75–82°F/24–27°C. A thermometer is essential to help ensure optimum temperatures are being maintained. The ambient air temperature over the haul out area should be regulated with a heat source (red or ceramic heat light) to provide the turtle with a warmer place in which to bask. Basking areas should be maintained at 85-90°F/29-32°C and it is important to ensure the heat from the basking area does not inadvertently increase the water temperature to above tolerable levels. If an aquarium heater is being used to maintain water temperature, it must be securely anchored to ensure the turtle does not become entangled and drown. If too cold, turtles will have trouble digesting, growing, fighting disease and will often try to hibernate.


Natural sunlight makes Vitamin D when the UVB rays hit the skin and Vitamin D works with calcium and phosphorus in the body to produce healthy skin, a strong shell, and helps stimulate the appetite and the immune system. Captive turtles should be provided with a UVB light source and in summer, when possible, taken outside for natural sunlight. Because both glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, placing the tank near a window does not achieve Vitamin D production and often leads to an overgrowth of undesirable algae in the tank.


Most water turtles are omnivores and in general, younger water turtles will need more protein in their diet than adult turtles. Adult water turtles should be fed, on average, three times a week, and juveniles and hatchlings fed daily.

Water turtles must be fed within the water. Commercial diets are available and include various pellets, sticks and flakes. While adult turtles are primarily carnivorous (meat eaters), younger turtles are more omnivorous and will eat a variety of shredded vegetables (dark leafy greens such as kale, romaine, endive, dandelion greens, grated carrot, etc.) as well as meat products and pellets.

Live whole prey, such as feeder goldfish, pet store raised insects such as earthworms, grasshoppers, flies and crickets, and cut up whole smelt should be added to the diet. Small amounts of cooked lean beef or chicken can be fed. Avoid hamburger (high in fat, low in calcium), deli meats, shellfish and raw chicken (potential disease carriers).

Vitamin and mineral supplements should be used infrequently as most commercial formulations include supplements in adequate amounts; however, a calcium block or cuttlebone should be offered to growing or reproducing turtles. Water turtles are notorious for developing ‘selective’ appetites so offer a wide variety of balanced food items to promote good health.


Sick water turtles demonstrate illness a number of ways. Listlessness, limp limbs, swollen eyes, swollen ears, bubbling from the nostrils, inappetence, lack of balance in the water and redness of the skin or shell are indicators of a problem. Any of these warrants a visit to a veterinarian experienced in reptile care.

Swollen eyes: This condition can indicate a lack of Vitamin A in the diet that can lead to secondary bacterial infections and pneumonia. Both sight and smell are affected and the turtle often stops eating. The vitamin deficiency needs to be corrected by injection and the infections treated with antibiotics.

Soft shell: This is common in young, growing turtles that do not receive adequate calcium or Vitamin D. The shell pits easily and is prone to infection and deformities. Medical and nutritional intervention is needed.

Egg binding: Females can lay eggs without a male. These eggs are infertile, but their development still takes a heavy toll. Turtles suffering from an inadequate diet, insufficient UVB lighting or heat, or an underlying disease may be unable to successfully lay their eggs and this is defined as ‘egg binding’. This situation is life threatening and requires immediate veterinary intervention.

Bacterial infections: Poor nutrition, inadequate heating and poor sanitation will compromise the immune system and make a turtle susceptible to bacterial infections. Correction of the environmental deficiencies and medical intervention are required.

Respiratory infections: Pneumonia is common in water turtles. Signs include nasal and ocular discharge, open mouth breathing, inappetence, lethargy, and tilting when swimming. Veterinary intervention is required.

Swollen ears: Infection of the external ear canal is common and the swelling may appear on one or both sides of the turtle’s head. This is a painful infection and will affect the turtle’s desire to eat. Medical and surgical intervention is required.

Shell rot/trauma: The shell is a living organ and susceptible to infection. Shell injuries and defects can lead to internal infections. If the shell changes colour, texture, or strength, call a veterinarian.

Prolapsed phallus: The male’s sex organ will often protrude from the vent opening in the tail. Injury can occur, especially when more than one turtle is in the tank. Injury to or an inability to retract the phallus requires veterinary attention.

Drowning: Hazards in the environment or aquariums lacking haul out areas can cause drowning accidents in turtles. Emergency measures must be taken to try and resuscitate the pet.

Parasites: Many turtles are infected by internal parasites. Consult a veterinarian to determine a deworming protocol.

Salmonella: All pet reptiles may carry the bacteria Salmonella, which can also cause disease in humans. We recommend reading our handout on Salmonella for a list of precautions.

It is recommended that all turtles receive an annual health examination by a veterinarian experienced in reptile care. Yearly exams allow early detection of disease and allow a chance to update owners on the latest in care and husbandry.


Avian & Exotic Pet Clinic