Water Turtle Diet & Care Sheet

Introduction

The purpose of this care sheet is to provide the information needed to give basic care for many freshwater turtles. Each species of turtle has specific habitat and dietary requirements, even if there are similarities. In all cases, additional detailed information about a particular species that you are caring for should be researched and obtained. The general rule is always to duplicate the natural habitat for the species as closely as possible.

Housing

If kept captive, it is important to try to duplicate the water turtle's natural habitat and diet to the greatest extent possible. Water turtles require a fairly large swimming area with good water quality, a basking area that allows them to get completely out of the water to dry off, secure hiding places, proper lighting, temperature, and food.

The best conditions can be most easily obtained in a properly setup outdoor enclosure. While this is ideal, occasionally it is advisable to house turtles temporarily indoors. During cooler months, newly acquired turtles, convalescing turtles, and non-native species should not be allowed to hibernate outdoors and should be kept at warm temperatures in an indoor setup.

If a water turtle is to be kept in an aquarium, the water should be maintained at around 80-82 degrees, depending on the species. Convalescing turtles need a higher temperature of 85-88 degrees. A good aquarium heater and thermometer should be used.

Afterwards, in the spring, the turtle should be moved to an outdoor setup.

Turtles are heavy feeders and an overloaded container will be very difficult to keep clean. Water turtles will shred food as they eat, contributing to the waste load of the tank. Remember that aquatic turtles must be in water to be able to swallow. Cleanliness of the tank is critical to the health of the turtles.

If the tank is not overloaded, a well established under gravel filter, driven by a power head (the standard air lift just doesn't provide enough water flow) and 2"-4" of gravel bed above it, will maintain excellent water quality. Aquarium type gravel or sand can be ingested and cause impaction. Large power canister filters, although expensive, work well.

Lighting and Basking Area

The water turtle must be able to dry it's shell to prevent fungus and bacterial attacks. This is one reason they bask in natural sunlight in the wild. The basking area in an aquarium can be a large branch that extends out of the water or a secure pile of rocks large enough to afford a high and dry area. Floating plastic islands and lily pads are available but may not support the turtle sufficiently to allow it to get completely out of the water and dry out. A solid basking area is preferred. If kept indoors, a light with sufficient UV energy, such as Repti-Sun 5, is helpful. This light cannot pass through glass, as the glass will remove most of the beneficial UV. The light should be within 6" of the basking site.

At this time, it is not known if any of the UVB type lights are adequate for turtles. These types of fluorescent lights loose their ability to maintain UVB production and should be replaced yearly. In addition a regular 40 - 60 Watt incandescent light should be positioned above the basking site for extra warmth. Inexpensive clamp on light fixtures can be found at places like Home Depot. Extreme care must be taken that the incandescent light does not cause the water to overheat, and the water must be sufficiently deep to prevent the water from overheating.

There is another alternative to the fluorescent UBV and incandescent basking light pairing. There is a type of bulb called a UV-B Heat Lamp or Self-Ballasted Mercury Vapor light. Several companies are now marketing these and they produce higher levels of UVB than the reptile fluorescent lights. These bulbs continue to produce significant levels of UVB much longer than any fluorescent bulb.

NOTE: EXTREME CAUTION must be used with these bulbs. They also produce heat and also take the place of the basking bulb. UV-B Heat Lamps or Self-Ballasted Mercury Vapor lights at this time usually come in 100W and 160W so they must be used in a reflector socket that can withstand higher heat. These bulbs need to be placed higher than other bulbs due to their heat output. These bulbs are not for small tanks! They produce too much heat! Follow the manufacturer instructions exactly or you may endanger your turtle!

If you would like to read about lighting for turtles/tortoises, see this link: UNDERSTANDING REPTILE LIGHTING SYSTEMS

Please read the conclusion carefully.

In spite of UVB bulb improvements NO artificial light is an equal substitute for unfiltered sunlight. We do not condone housing any turtle or tortoise indoors on a permanent basis. Any native species living in a climate like their native climate should be housed outside permanently. Some non-native species or turtles that have been ill may need housing inside during cool/cold months.

Lights should be on approximately 12 hours each day on a regular cycle.

Healthy water turtles should be housed outdoors in ponds or pools. Natural in-ground ponds make the best habitat and should be used with large turtles and adult females.

The females must have easy access to land to lay eggs. Without land access, they may retain eggs and become seriously ill. Even if not kept with a male, females may try to lay eggs.

Pond

For a pond, choose an area on high ground to avoid flooding. Plastic liners or concrete may be used. Treat and allow concrete to cure before introducing your turtles. Preformed ponds and small containers (including aquariums) may be too shallow, allowing overheating or harmful water temperature fluctuation. The minimum depth should be 18 inches, except see the warning about mud and musk turtles. The pond area must be fenced to prevent escapes. Keep the habitat safe from dogs, small children, lawn mowers and chemicals. Bury hardware cloth along the fence line to prevent digging out. The top of the fence should be treated with a inward lip so that turtles cannot climb out.

NOTE: Turtles in the Southern U.S. or where winters are mild may be hibernated in ponds at the depth described above. In colder or more northern climates, ponds may need to be deeper. In some areas, turtles must be wintered over inside because ponds will freeze solid.

Mud, Chinese, Malaysian and other semi-aquatic turtles may drown in deep water and should be housed in a habitat similar to a box turtle setup, with a shallow pond area that has gently sloping sides so that they can easily exit the water.

A collection of stones or gravel at one end can make a easy to use exit ramp.

Deep stock tanks allowing a water depth of at least 18" deep may be used as above ground pools for small turtles and sub-adult females. Drill small holes 1'-2' from the top to keep water from overflowing and allowing turtles to escape over the top. Both in ground and above ground ponds must include basking sites, plants, secure hiding places, and be located in the shade to prevent overheating.

Separate ponds may be needed for problems with aggression or over mating. A ratio of at least twice as many females as males for each species and numerous hiding places will help prevent over mating.

See our page on Building Ponds for examples and details.

Feeding

The best diet for a water turtle is one that duplicates its natural food as closely as possible. Live foods are particularly enjoyed and beneficial.

The key to success is to provide a wide variety of foods. Turtles enjoy earthworms, snails, insects, tadpoles, feeder fish (killed if necessary), scrambled eggs (including the shells), and carrion, such as dead, thawed, fuzzy or hopper mice. Trout chow, catfish chow, Reptomin, etc. can be fed but only as a part of a varied diet. They should not be used exclusively. Note that earthworms and insects are usually low in calcium so should not be used exclusively either. Avoid pinkie mice. They are too high in fat and too low in calcium.

Plants taken in include most vegetation found in tropical fish tanks and local ponds. Hornwort or Coontail and Anacharis are common water plants that can be used. Although most water turtles are primarily carnivorous, greens such as dandelion, chard, kale, collard and other loose leaf greens should be offered regularly (No iceberg type lettuce).

To avoid problems, offer a wide variety of foods. Each species of turtle has different dietary requirements. Softshells, snappers, mud and musk are mainly carnivores, cooters prefer more vegetation, while others are omnivores. Clean meat (meat without bone or organs), and commercial pet foods (dog and cat) should be avoided. To avoid over feeding, offer food every 2 to 3 days. On average, hatchlings should be fed every 2 days and adults twice a week. They will need to be fed more heavily prior to and directly after hibernation. Many wild turtles will not eat if placed in a separate feeding area and may need some privacy at feeding time.

Health

When properly cared for, turtles are remarkably free of disease. Turtles, unlike mammals, often do not display signs of illness until the problem is advanced. Their slow metabolism allows symptoms of poor husbandry to develop slowly, often going unnoticed.

Persons keeping captive turtles must be able to recognize when their turtle is in need of treatment. Some conditions require immediate veterinary care. Be sure to seek out a vet who is familiar with treatment of turtles. Turtles should be checked frequently for signs of disease. These include but are not limited to, swollen, runny, or sticky eyes, nasal discharge, basking after dark, ear lumps, labored or rattle type breathing, pale mouths, open wounds, loose stools, loss of appetite (except for a short period prior to egg laying), cheesy substance in mouth, lumps on any part of the skin, and listing to one side in the water. White, brown, soft or flaky areas on the shell or skin (other than normal shed) indicate fungus or bacterial invasion. Pink or reddish areas on the shell indicate systemic infection. Misshapen or pyramided (lumpy) shells are the result of dietary inadequacies of which lack of sunlight can be a factor. Most wild caught turtles, and many in mixed collections, have internal parasites. They should be checked for these and treated by a reptile veterinarian, and not with over the counter wormers. Home remedies for obvious symptoms can cause problems to worsen as the systemic or parasitic problems weakening the turtle may not be addressed.

Swollen eyes are common in captive turtles and reflect a poor diet and possible upper respiratory infection. If advanced, a qualified vet should be consulted at once.

Many diseases are spread through fecal contamination and are contagious to other turtles. The best way to avoid spread of disease is to keep newly acquired turtles in an isolation area until good health is evident (three months is advised), allow adequate space for each turtle, and keep water conditions clean.

One of the leading causes of illness in turtles is stress.

Releasing

Non-native species should NEVER be released as they will compete with endemic species for food, may interbreed with native populations, and introduce disease, even if healthy.  

When properly fed and housed, water turtles are hardy and long lived. Those that view them as wild animals in captivity rather than as "pet" turtles, are much more likely to have unstressed and healthy turtles.

Please contact us if you have questions regarding husbandry of water turtles.

Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.