Turtle Care Guide

Freshwater Turtles are endearing pets but they do require very specific care and a comfortable environment to remain in tip top shape.

Of all the reptiles, turtles are the most beloved. And what’s not to love? These animals have adorable facial expressions, attractive patterns on their shells, and gentle habits. Each species has slightly different requirements, but proper care is within the capabilities of most people. That said, taking in a turtle means you’re into pet-care for the long haul.

Any pet needs consistent care for his or her entire natural lifetime. That might be a couple years for a guppy or thirty years for a horse or eighty years for some of the parrots. Turtles are on the high end. Keeping a turtle as a pet is a long-term commitment. Indeed, a healthy turtle might outlive you. Make arrangements for his care, before the time comes when you are no longer able to keep him.

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

Baby turtles up to 6”/15cm in shell-length are normally kept indoors in glass tanks or enclosures that include ponds. The smallest tank for the tiniest turtles should be at least 4’/120cm long, 18”/45cm wide, and 18”/45cm tall. Older turtles may be kept in large tanks (5’x2’x2’/150cm x 60cm x 60cm minimum) indoors or outside for some or all of the year. In all but the most northern parts of the country, outdoor turtles will need to brumate (hibernate) in the winter or be brought inside the house until warm weather returns.

Turtles need a safe place to swim that they can climb or walk out of, a safe place to bask out of the water, and access to sunlight or appropriate artificial lights. “Appropriate” artificial lighting will include some UVB radiation. In setting up the tank or pond, you will need a substrate of gravel, basking logs or islands, a water filter, and probably a submersible water heater. A siphon and hose or a gravel vacuum-cleaner is worth its weight in chocolate for cleaning a turtle tank. You won’t regret buying one.

For most varieties of turtle, it is a good idea to add a small amount of aquarium salt to the water. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as Fitzroy River turtles (Rheodytes leukops), so check out requirements for your species of turtle before giving him salt.

EXERCISE

The initial impression many people have about freshwater turtles is that they don’t need much exercise. In fact, they do. Wild turtles are surprisingly active animals. Most species are ungainly on land, but you would be surprised at how fast they can run and at how well they can climb. (There’s a turtle near here that walks overland for several kilometres to a different watershed to reach her favourite nesting site every year. Nobody knows why, because there are perfectly good nesting sites on the lake where she lives.) Be sure your turtle has enough room to swim and climb in his tank or pond, or provide a wading pool a few times a week.

FEEDING

The basic rule is that the juvenile turtles are carnivores (they eat meat) and the adults are omnivores (they eat meat and veggies). A variety of foods should be offered, and you ought to have at least six or seven kinds of food on hand for your turtle at any given time. A high-quality turtle pellet may form the base of the diet, to which you may add low-salt cat kibble, strawberries, leafy vegetables, several pondweeds, valisneria, fish, crickets, swatted flies (not poisoned ones!), shrimp, and mosquito larvae.

There is one vital difference between freshwater turtles and their land-loving relatives the tortoises, when it comes to feeding. The freshwater turtles need to be able to submerge themselves in water, in order to eat. If they stay out of water too long, they will dry out and die, but it is open to question whether they will dry out or starve first. Either way, it would be a very painful way to die. Always make sure your turtle has access to water, and a way to climb out of the water to avoid drowning.

GROOMING

Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness, but it is definitely next to healthiness for your turtle. Dirty water can result in any number of diseases, some of which are very difficult to treat. Keep the turtle enclosure clean.

Wash your hands before and after handling your turtle, to help ensure that he doesn’t pick up germs from whatever you might have been holding before him and to ensure that you don’t pick up any germs from him.

HOME ENVIRONMENT

Presuming there is room in your home for a turtle enclosure, turtles can do well in almost any kind of household.

If the turtle will wander around on your floor sometimes, ensure that nobody will accidentally step on him.  Remove any rocking chairs and don’t let him get behind anyone in a wheelchair, because rocking chairs and wheelchairs have been known to crush carapaces and feet of even full-sized turtles. In the case of such an injury, take the turtle to the veterinarian immediately. It is possible that he can still be saved.

TRAINING

There really isn’t much training needed for a turtle. Turtles can learn, but they generally don’t do tricks or use a piddle pad.

REGULATION & LICENSING

A license is required to keep turtles as pets in Australia. Each state and territory has a different set of regulations governing reptile ownership so it’s important that you understand the requirements set down by your local authority:

If you considering a move interstate in the future be sure to check the license restrictions for keeping turtles in your destination state or territory. The classification systems vary significantly between jurisdictions and a turtle that is legal in your home state may not be legal or require a very different license type in another state. The last thing you want is to have to say goodbye to ‘Sheldon’ because you are no longer able to keep him.

WHERE TO NEXT?

What is the next step? Go to the licence site that was mentioned above, and check out the requirements. Then read about the kinds of turtles that are legal with a beginner’s licence. Is one of them right for you? If so, start setting up an enclosure and track down a local vet who treats turtles.

There was a time when pet turtles rarely survived their first year of life. Now that more is known about their requirements, you should be able to keep your turtle healthy and happy for a very long time.