A Guide to Keeping Turtles and Terrapins

Turtles and terrapins make great pets, but require very specific care. Make sure you're ready by reading our guide to the key aspects of turtle keeping.

Turtles and terrapins are fascinating aquatic pets that bridge the gap between fishkeepers and reptile keepers. They are closely related to the terrestrial tortoise that lives on land, but their habits and care requirements are very different.

The common names of ‘turtle’ and ‘terrapin’ are often interchangeable depending upon where you live. In this guide, both refer to aquatic and semi-aquatic chelonia and should not be confused with their marine cousins, the sea turtle.

There are many different species of turtle and terrapin, and all have slightly different environmental, nutritional and behavioural needs. This guide gives an broad overview of things to consider before buying a turtle. Further research will be needed to ensure you have a good knowledge of how to look after your chosen species of turtle.

Housing Turtles

It’s important to know the adult size of your turtle. This will influence the style and size of your turtle’s home. Many turtles and terrapins are sold as babies at around the size of a large coin, some however have the potential to grow to over 60cm (24 inches)!

You generally have three options of housing for turtles and terrapins:

Turtle Tank

Glass tanks are great for displaying aquatic animals. They provide the opportunity to view turtles below the water line which is fascinating. However, many species grow relatively large, especially when compared to fish, so you do need a lot of space.

Smaller species of turtle, such as musk turtles (Sternotherus spp.) are better suited to tank life. But at 13cm (5 inches) long, even a single adult will require a turtle tank with minimum dimensions of 90cm (36 inches) x 15cm (6 inches).

Plus, you need to remember that unlike a fish tank, turtle tanks aren’t filled to the brim with water. So, you’ll need a tank capable of holding a greater volume than your turtle needs.

For a comprehensive guide to setting up a turtle tank, check out our how-to guide.

Turtle Tub

Often more robust and lightweight than glass aquariums are plastic tubs. These are available at most required sizes and may even have a land area built in.

Although not as aesthetically pleasing as glass aquariums they are a great solution for larger species or groups of smaller turtles.

Turtle Pond

Sometimes the size of your turtle or number turtles may mean a tank or a tub isn’t the best option, in which case you may want to consider a turtle pond. Some snapping turtles (Chelydridae) can reach over 60cm (24 inch) in length, while a group of sliders (Trachemys spp.) will also need a large space to be able to live happily together.

Designing and building a turtle pond requires a lot of research and skill, so it’s not recommended for beginners. You may also wish to seek advice from a turtle keeper experienced in turtle ponds before embarking on such a project.

The other thing you will need to consider is where to put your pond. An outdoor pond is more common, but you need to consider the climate. But if you have the space you could design an indoor pond, which will allow you to maintain consistent climate conditions.

Land Area

At some point all turtles and terrapins will need to venture onto land. The size of a land area varies depending upon the species. The land area is predominantly used as a place to bask in the sun’s rays but is also used for laying eggs.

Soft-shelled turtles (Trionychidae) spend most of their time submerged in the water so require little more than a platform to leave the water occasionally to bask (unless breeding).

Turtles like the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) spend a lot of time basking so should have a land area large enough to comfortably bask for long periods of time. Wood turtles ( Glyptemys insculpta) spend most of their time on land. In fact, they need more land than water in their habitat.

With such diversity in the requirements if different turtles, it is important to conduct species-specific research before designing an enclosure or bringing a turtle home.

Land areas can be created using logs, rocks, soils, sands and barks. Care should be taken to ensure that anything leached back into the water isn’t harmful to your turtle. We suggest sourcing these items from turtle specialist.

Heating and Lighting

A basking light or lights should be positioned above the land area of the enclosure. These lights are doing the job of the sun and provides important services; heat, UVA rays and UVB rays.

The temperature of the basking area varies depending upon species and can be controlled by distance, bulb wattage or by using a suitable thermostat.

UVB rays are essential for turtlesas it enables their bodies to manufacture vitamin D3. This in turn enables turtles to absorb calcium, which they need to maintain healthy bones and shell.

With an outdoor pond and the correct climate, electrically creating basking area may not be necessary. If the temperature of the water area does not reach the required temperature, it can easily be raised by using aquarium water heaters available from fish shops.

Diet

Most turtles and terrapins can be classified as omnivores. Although the age and species of your turtle will influence the ratio of meat to vegetation. Diamondback terrapins for example are mostly carnivorous, but will eat some vegetation, while others, like wood turtles, can be more omnivorous and will also eat vegetation.

As with most reptiles, it’s a beneficial to offer a varied diet. A good idea is to use a commercially available complete food like King British Turtle & Terrapin Food Sticks or King British Turtle & Terrapin Complete Food (which also contains freeze dried crustacea) and then build upon it with other foods to add variety, including:

While a balanced diet should provide your turtle with all the nutrition they need, you can also use a supplement such as King British Turtle & Terrapin MultiVit. This can be easily added onto food or into swimming water, and contains nine different vitamins, including Vitamin D.

Find out more about turtle nutrition and why it is so important here.

Water Quality

It’s important to maintain good water quality to preserve the health of the enclosure and in your turtles.

Turtle water can be kept clean and healthy by using fish aquarium filtration units. Turtles and terrapins are messy feeders and produce a lot of waste so it’s important to use filters that are over-rated for the volume of water. They should be cleaned out regularly to prevent them from clogging up. Remember to use water from the tank for cleaning to ensure none of the ‘good bacteria’ is removed.

As well as removing solid waste from the water, the filter will also work biologically to remove ammonia and nitrite from the water by converting it to nitrate. This biological process is significantly boosted by regular use of King British Turtle & Terrapin Water Freshener. Nitrate is removed by performing regular water changes. The frequency of these water changes is dependent upon the turtle to water ratio.

King British 6 in 1 Water Test Strips help monitor water quality in all aquatic setups.

Decoration

Turtles and terrapins are generally unfussy about how their home is decorated. In fact, they often seem to enjoy destroying displays. There are however a few things to consider when furnishing your turtles’ habitat.

Substrate

Some species of turtle like to bury themselves in sand. For these turtles it is essential to use a soft sand as a base in the aquatic area of their enclosure. Others have been known to eat stone form the substrate, so this should be avoided for certain species.

Some turtle keepers prefer not to use a substrate. This can help keep your water cleaner, as debris from uneaten food and organic waste cannot accumulate as easily. But, this isn’t suitable for all turtles, so speak to your turtle specialist first.

Ramps

All turtles and terrapins need to be able to easily transition between water and land. This ramp should not be too steep or too smooth so your turtle is able to grip on and climb in and out easily.

Hides

Sometimes turtles like to hide. It is better to use a tunnel style hide as opposed to a cave which will eliminate the risk of a turtle getting trapped underwater. Despite needing water to survive, turtles are still at risk from drowning.

Turtles and terrapins are incredibly rewarding pets. They have great characters and are easy to care for when their conditions are met. The key to being a successful turtle keeper is to heavily research the individual species you wish to keep and then meet their needs in terms of habitat and diet.

Do this and you’ll have a healthy, happy, long-lived family pet for many years to come.