Aquatic Turtle Care Guide, Tank Setup, Food & More

Aquatic turtles are famous for their colorful shells and cute faces.

Their charm, active nature and tiny size make them some of the most popular pet reptiles.

There are over 300 aquatic turtle species and many of them are kept as pets. Some of the most popular species includes red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders, map, mud and painted turtles.

More unique pet species include musk, African pond and snapping turtles.

These reptiles make wonderful pets if given the right tank setup and care. If you want an aquatic turtle then continue reading. You will learn which species is best for you and how to keep, feed, handle, and house your new pet.

What Is An Aquatic Turtle?

Aquatic turtle

Aquatic turtles are different from terrestrial species because of their flattened shells, webbed feet, and flexible necks. These adaptations help them swim, burrow, and find food underwater.

Turtles in general are a highly diverse group of animals.

Species grow to different sizes and weights, with some like the snapping turtle growing to over 200 pounds. Others like the mud turtle are much smaller at less than one pound in weight.

Many species also live different lifestyles. There are some which prefer to spend their time buried at the bottom of a lake or stream, while others prefer staying in shallower waters or basking on logs.

Despite their differences all aquatic turtles share a very long lifespan.

These reptiles can live for several decades from 20 years up to 70.

There are only 330 species of turtle worldwide and they are one of the most endangered groups of vertebrates in the world. Over half of all species are listed as endangered.

Luckily there are many non-endangered aquatic turtles make popular and fascinating pets and are loved by reptile owners across the globe.

If you are interested in buying an aquatic turtle then make sure you know what you are signing up for.

Turtles need a large tank with plenty of swimming and diving room. For each inch of their shell you should provide at least 10 gallons of clean, dechlorinated water. This water should be filtered and circulated with an aquarium pump and heated with an underwater heater to around 78°F.

They should also have access to a UVB bulb and basking light, along with a dry portion of the enclosure for resting and basking.

Though fun to watch and care for aquatic turtles are not a hands-on pet.

Many of them can and will bite if they feel stressed when they are handled. In general handling causes unneeded stress so it is best to avoid it unless you are transporting it or assessing it for injuries.

For experienced reptile owners they make a wonderful pet. But those who have less experience may want to try another species of reptile such as lizards. Lizards will help you to get more familiar with this group of animals before taking on this pet.

Unfortunately many species in captivity do not live out their full lives because their owners are unprepared for caring for these sensitive animals. They create a lot of waste so a tank that is not regularly cleaned will cause them to quickly become sick due to high amounts of ammonia.

Types of Pet Aquatic Water Turtles

Painted turtle basking on a log

Many people enjoy keeping turtles because of their cute colors and very long lifespan.

Aquatic turtles are especially entertaining and interesting to watch as they swim, dive, and bask in their tank.

All aquatic turtles have a smooth, flattened shell that streamlines them in the water. Terrestrial species like pet tortoise have a more rounded, dome-like shell. Aquatic species also have webbed feet, a sharp beak, and large claws.

In general sliders (red-eared and yellow-bellied), painted, spotted and map turtles are the best species for beginners.

These types of aquatic turtles are often colorful, especially as juveniles, which adds to their appeal as pets:

  • Sliders have dark green or brown shells with bright yellow underbellies with black circles. Their skin is blackish green with wavy yellow lines down their necks and legs. Red-eared species are different from the yellow-bellied because of the bright red patch just behind their eyes.
  • Painted have black shells with red splotches around the outer edge, and an orange and yellow belly. They also have red, orange, bright green, and even purple stripes along their legs and heads. Their skin is normally a very dark green.
  • Spotted are slate gray and speckled with bright yellow and white spots. They have rusty reddish orange skin that fades into black towards the shell.

Many first time owners may not realize just how big their young turtle can get.

The most common pet species are the red-eared and yellow-bellied slider which can grow up to 14 inches long as females and 8 inches as males.

Mud and musk species are considered tiny turtles as they max out at five inches.

Less commonly kept species like the snapping turtle can grow to double the size of a large slider and weigh up to 200 pounds!

Aquatic Turtle Care Sheet

Softshell turtle

Aquatic turtles are a fun and engaging pet that are best suited for experienced owners.

They need a clean tank, varied diet, and a good eye for changes in behavior that could indicate illness.

Sometimes beginners struggle with their care as often they don’t show any signs of sickness until the illness has progressed.

When owning a pet turtle keeping the tank clean is one of the most effective things you can do to ensure it lives a long, happy life. Most species can live to be over 40 years old so any potential owner should be prepared to have their new pet for several decades.

Tank Setup

Diamondback terrapin

Aquatic turtles like water! In the wild they are never found far away from a pond, lake, marsh, or stream.

The exact type of habitat will vary between species as some prefer fast-moving rivers and others like stagnant swamps.

Painted, snapping, musk and mud turtles prefer slow-moving waters like lakes, ponds, swamps, and small streams. Sliders and map turtles prefer flowing bodies of water like rivers, creeks, and canals.

Below we have listed tanks, setup ideas, lighting and filtration systems that will work well for most species. But to help your pet feel most at home you should always try to copy its natural habitat.

Tank Type

  • Bigger tanks are always better for aquatic turtles. You should use a tank that has 10-gallons of space for every inch your turtle is long. For example musk species max out at 4.5 inches so a 40-gallon tank is a good choice. For larger species you may need to purchase a 100-gallon or larger aquarium.

Lighting

  • Aquatic turtles bask in the sun to synthesize vitamin D from calcium. Unless your turtle is housed outside year-round then provide them with a UVB lightbulb to simulate the effects of the sun. Also use a 50 to 100-watt basking bulb to create a basking spot and heat gradient.

Heating

  • The exact temperature of the tank will be determined by the species. Painted turtles and sliders prefer warm water around 80-82°F, air temperatures of 75°F, and basking temperatures of 88-95°F. Depending on their native habitat some species prefer cooler temperatures.

Substrate

  • The two most popular substrates for aquatic turtles are gravel or nothing at all. Gravel is more natural looking and cleaner than mud or sand, but comes with a risk that your turtle may eat it. Keeping the bottom of the tank bare makes it simple to clean and comes with no risk. It also lets you see bits of food or waste that need to be removed.

Equipment

  • You must include a water heater, pump and filter in your turtle’s tank. A filtration system will cycle the water, keeping it clean and circulating it around the tank. Most pumps allow you to adjust the intensity of the water’s flow based on what your turtle prefers. If you use a gravel substrate then you will also need a gravel vacuum to siphon food and debris from the bottom of the tank when cleaning.

Food

All aquatic turtles are either omnivores or carnivores.

Carnivorous like snapping and softshell species eat small fish and invertebrates. Omnivorous species need dark, leafy greens, some fruit and meat.

Most aquatic turtles are omnivores. This means they will eat other animals as well as plants. They need a variety of food for a complete and healthy diet.

Sliders, painted, mud, spotted and musk species all regularly eat plants like duckweed and elodea, along with small animals ranging from earthworms to minnows.

The diet of aquatic turtles also changes as they grow.

Juveniles normally eat more meat than adults, who gradually add more plants to their diet over time. This is true for other reptiles too. A bearded dragon’s diet goes from heavily meat based to heavily plant based as the age.

It can be challenging at first to feed the right diet because of the variety of foods a turtle needs.

For the most common pet water turtles plant matter should make up 50% of an adult’s diet.

Suitable plants for turtles include kale, beet greens, bok choy, spinach, green beans, carrots, squash and broccoli. Fruits like blueberries, bananas and melon can be given once a week as a treat.

The other 50% of a turtle’s diet should be an even mix of commercial pellet food and other animals. Earthworms, crickets, mealworms, and small fish are excellent protein sources.

Younger individuals that are growing will need to eat daily whereas medium-sized adults will only need to eat every two days. Very large species like snapping turtles are fine with weekly feedings.

Health

Map turtle

Signs your aquatic turtle is happy and healthy include being eager to eat, able to get in and out of the water quickly and a hard, clean shell.

Aquatic turtles are normally long-lived reptiles, especially when they are fed a good diet, receive proper care and have their tank cleaned regularly.

Most species live well into their 30s, 40s, and beyond. Some snapping species can live to be 70!

Despite their potentially long lifespan aquatic turtles can be tricky to care for.

They are prone to several health issues which are usually the result of improper care or diet. Turtles take longer to show symptoms of illness and usually don’t appear sick until the problem has progressed. This means it is especially important to have excellent husbandry to keep these illnesses from happening.

Signs your aquatic turtle may be sick include a sudden loss of appetite, discolored patches on the shell, swollen eyes and floating up to the top or tilting to one side in the water.

Shell rot is a common illness that usually occurs after a turtle receives an injury like a scrape or bite. If kept in dirty water, these minor injuries can become infected and move deeper into the shell. White or red patches on the shell, missing scutes, or a soft patch on the shell are common symptoms.

Vitamin A deficiency is an illness exclusive to omnivorous species. This deficiency is the result of eating too much meat, too few greens, or low-quality greens like iceberg lettuce and celery.

Behavior

Snapping turtle
Snapping turtles are rarely found out of water and are generally left alone by predators because of their powerful bite.

Aquatic turtles spend most of their time basking out of the water, with the exception of some nocturnal species like snapping and musk turtles.

Species like sliders and painted are often found basking in groups on logs. Most aquatic turtles are solitary and will only congregate to bask or breed. They are rarely aggressive or territorial with other members of their species as long as there is enough space and food.

In the wild they do not venture far from water. This helps them to maintain a quick and easy escape route from most predators like alligators and crocodiles.

If startled they will dash into the nearest source of water to submerge out of sight. Most are skilled swimmers that will dive away from predators.

Mud and musk turtles prefer to burrow into the lakebed for protection. They are also able to secrete a strong-smelling musk when disturbed, a trait unique to these two species.

Pet turtles are less likely to use this tactic, but if it suddenly stinks this is probably the reason.

Handling

Aquatic turtles are known for being fairly skittish, they are not suited for regular handling.

Only Sliders and Reeve’s turtle will generally tolerate being held.

Pet turtles do best when kept alone and left alone. They generally should not be held, but are just as entertaining to watch swimming and diving in their tanks. Sliders, map, painted, mud and snapping turtles are all good divers and enjoy deeper water.

We recommend only holding them if necessary to move it, take it to the vet, or inspect it for health problems.

To hold your turtle, wrap one hand (for smaller species) or both hands (for larger ones) around the belly and top of the shell, in the same way that you would hold a hamburger.

Are Aquatic Turtles Illegal?

Baby turtle swimming

The sale of turtles under four inches is banned in most states in the U.S. This is because of the risk of salmonella transmission.

Many types of water turtles are sold as pets at a very young age, sometimes when they are smaller than four inches long. Both juvenile and adults are sold regularly at pet stores, online, and at reptile shows.

You should be careful and know that the legal size limit for an aquatic turtle to be sold is four inches.

It is hard to resist a quarter-sized, cute baby turtle, but you should not buy them. They are illegal to buy.

If you are interested in owning an aquatic turtle then always check your state laws. Make sure it is over four inches and the species is legal to own.

Aquatic turtles are popular pets and many species are not hard to find.

Species like red-eared sliders, yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles are the most commonly available and are best for beginners. Map and spotted species are close behind.

There are also more exotic species like the Reeve’s, snapping and African sideneck turtles, but they are harder to find.

Baby sliders generally cost $30 to $50 which is the average range for most aquatic turtle hatchlings. Adults are more expensive at $50 to $100. Rare and morph species will be more expensive.

The exact price of your turtle will vary widely depending on their species, age and morph.

Summary

Aquatic turtles are interesting, cute and unique reptiles. They are very popular with many herpetologists and with proper care can live for over 50 years.

Potential owners should know that many aquatic turtles have a good chance of outliving them!

To keep your turtle healthy you will need to provide a spacious tank and keep a strict cleaning regimen to prevent a build-up of toxic ammonia.

Their care needs and complex diet make them best suited for people with more experience keeping reptiles. Most are either omnivores or carnivores that like a variety of fresh, whole foods every other day.

Some of the best and most popular beginner species include the red-eared slider, yellow-bellied slider and painted turtle.

Are you ready to care for an aquatic turtle? Leave us a comment below.

About Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert Nigel is a lifelong reptile lover and has kept pet lizards since childhood. His first was a pet Leo which was shortly followed by a Beardie named, Rocky. For the last 10 years he has kept over 20 different species but his favorite is his Banana Ball Python, Monty.

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