Painted Turtle Care Guide, Diet, Size, Habitat and More

Painted turtles are named after the bright red and orange markings on their bodies and the underside of their shells. They are a beautiful species of reptile.

Between their unique colors and fun personalities they make great pets for first-time keepers.

They do not grow to be very big, have simple care needs and an easy diet. Also they generally do not have many health problems. But you need to do your research before getting one. Their enclosure can be difficult and expensive to set up.

In this article we cover how to set up their habitat, diet, and care for a painted turtle.

Keep reading to discover our best care and husbandry tips…

Painted Turtles As Pets

Painted Turtle Social

Painted turtles (Chrisemys picta) belong to the Emydidae family. This family is home to over 60 different types of pond turtles from all around the world.

There are four subspecies of painted turtles:

  1. Eastern
  2. Midland
  3. Western
  4. Southern

All four subspecies are native to the US and are named after the yellow and orange markings on their bodies. These markings are also visible on the underside of their shells.

The western painted turtle is usually the largest of the four, and the southern species is usually the smallest.

This species was originally discovered in 1783 by Johann Gottlob Schneider, who named them Testudo picta. Their scientific name was later changed by John Edward Gray in 1855 to Chrisemys picta. This is the turtle name we still use today.

Turtles became wildly popular pets in the 1950s and 1960s when they could be purchased in dime stores or by mail order for as cheap as $1. This unfortunately led to a lot dying from lack of proper care.

Today people are much more educated about how to properly care for turtles.

When properly cared for painted turtles usually live to be between 20-30 years, with some reports of individuals that lived to be about 50 years old.

Their long lifespan is only one of the reasons why beginners choose to adopt this species.

Painted turtles usually have fantastic temperaments which makes them a great pet. They also do not grow very large with most individuals between 4-10 inches long and 0.5-1 lb. This means they won’t take up too much space in your home.

Unfortunately many beginners do not know that all turtles frequently carry salmonella, which could make you very ill.

This is more dangerous for children because they may not know to not put their hands in their mouths after handling their turtle. For this reason they are a pet that should be frequently handled.

Color and Appearance

Eastern painted turtle

Painted turtles get their name from the beautiful colors on their bodies and shells. They are very nice to look at!

Their dark bodies look like an artist painted yellow stripes on them. The undersides of their shells also have gorgeous red or orange markings. These bright markings make them stand out from other pond turtles, who usually have dark bodies and dark shells.

All four subspecies look very similar, except for the southern painted turtle.

Southern species are one of the easiest to spot. They have a dark green top shell (carapace) with a thin red, orange, or yellow line down their spine. The other three subspecies do not have this dorsal stripe.

To tell the other three subspecies apart you have to look at the underside of their shell (plastron).

Western species have bright red colors along the edge of their plastron. The underside of the shell also has a pattern similar to the pattern on their skin. Eastern and midland subspecies do not have this pattern and instead have a tan-colored plastron.

Midland and eastern species are usually both around seven inches which makes them harder to identify based on size alone.

Eastern and midland painted turtles look virtually identical. The best way to tell them apart is to look for a faint dark coloration in the center of the plastron, which only the midland has.

Male and female species are very similar in appearance.

There are only minor differences to clue you in on their gender.

Males will typically have a wider tail, longer front claws, and a cloacal opening that is farther down the tail. Females have cloacal openings closer to the body. Males may also have a portion of the plastron that caves in a little bit.

It is hard for beginners who are not as familiar with these subtle differences to know the gender of their turtle without being told.

Painted Turtle Size

Painted turtle size

Painted turtles vary in size from three to ten inches depending on their subspecies and gender, with females being larger than males. There are four recognized subspecies, in order from the largest to the smallest they include:

  • Western (6-10 inches).
  • Midland (5-8 inches).
  • Eastern (5-7 inches).
  • Southern (4-6 inches).

Newly hatched turtles are incredibly small and are about the size of a quarter, or even smaller.

Most hatchlings weigh only about 25 to 40 grams. Their tiny size means many hatchlings will never reach adulthood because they make such easy prey.

Juveniles rapidly grow to be about 1.5 to 3 inches and weigh about 113 to 225 grams.

Males will reach their full size of 3 to 6 inches and 300 grams after 4 to 6 years. Females will reach their full size of 4 to 10 inches and 500 grams after 6 to 10 years.

Painted Turtle Care

Three turtles sitting on a log

Painted turtles do not need lots of intensive care beyond regular water changes. They have a simple diet with calcium supplements supplied a few times a week.

Once you have set up their tank with heating, lighting, and filtration systems most of the hard work is done.

The painted turtle would make a good pet for anyone who has the time and money to buy and maintain a 40-gallon tank. If this doesn’t sound like you, you can always look for pet lizards.

Diet

Painted turtles are omnivorous which means they eat both plants and animals.

In the wild these turtles hunt by swimming into clumps of aquatic plants to scare out any hiding fish into the open. They will then chase down and eat these small fish.

It is common to find them eating fish, crayfish, mussels, tadpoles, aquatic insects and snails.

They will also spend time foraging for aquatic plants along the bottoms of ponds and lakes. These plants include duckweed, elodea, water lettuce and water hyacinth.

This species uses a lot of energy catching fish. They need to eat daily to stay in good physical health to continue being able to hunt.

As pets they do not need to be fed quite as frequently because they don’t have to hunt.

Baby painted turtles should be fed daily and adults should be fed every two days. Overfeeding adults can lead to obesity which can cause a variety of health problems over time.

It is simple and easy to replicate a painted turtle’s diet.

Painted turtles should be fed a large handful of greens along with 1-2 feeder fish each meal.

You can buy small feeder fish such as minnows, guppies and goldfish in most pet stores as well as commercial turtle pellets. Goldfish should only be offered occasionally as they are very fatty and are better suited to use as a treat.

For the plant portion of their diet aquatic plants such as duckweed, water lettuce and water hyacinth are ideal. You can also offer dark, leafy greens such as dandelion greens, mustard greens and kale.

Also keep in mind that turtles feed only underwater and need a calcium supplement twice a week.

Some good foods to feed include:

  • Goldfish (occasionally as a treat)
  • Guppies
  • Minnows
  • Crickets
  • Worms
  • Water hyacinth
  • Water lettuce
  • Elodea
  • Duckweed
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Commercial turtle pellets
  • Bell pepper
  • Carrots
  • Squash
  • Apples (occasionally as a treat)

Tank and Habitat

Midland painted turtle basking on a log

In the wild you will usually find them basking or swimming in ponds or lakes. They prefer slow-moving or still water that they can easily swim in. They also enjoy having access to warmer water and logs or rocks which they can bask on.

Ponds and lakes also usually have more plants along their beds than rivers. Aquatic plants make up a good portion of a painted turtle’s diet which makes still water a much better habitat.

When it comes to painted turtle habitats the most affordable and best choice is a 30 or 40-gallon tank.

The water in the tank should be at least twice as deep as the width of your turtle’s shell.

Aquatic species do not spend 100% of their time in the water so they also need space to get out of the water and bask. The best way to do this is to create an artificial shoreline or land area. To do this place a slope covering about a third of the tank’s length, creating a ramp.

Then pick a substrate like coconut fiber to create the land area of the tank on the ramp. Just keep in mind that they need at least 20 gallons of water, so you would need a 40-gallon tank to do this.

You could also look to get a floating “turtle dock.” These are usually sold in pet shops and are made of plastic or some other material that will float.

You are also going to want to buy a filtration system, heat lamp and a UVB light from a pet shop.

A filtration system is important to keep the water clean and reduces the amount of water cycles you will need to do. Dirty water is very unsanitary and could eventually make them sick.

Turtles will also need a hot basking spot in order to heat their bodies to a good temperature. Remember they are a type of reptile, not amphibian. The basking spot in your turtle’s tank should be about 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ideally use rocks or logs to create a basking area on the land portion of your tank.

The water in the tank should be about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are having difficulties with keeping the water warm you can purchase a tank heater. Betta fish tank heaters work perfectly well for painted turtles.

Painted turtles will also need a UVB bulb as they are not exposed to direct sunlight. Reptiles in the wild are able to bask under the sun which gives off UV rays and helps them to produce vitamin D3, which helps them absorb calcium from their food.

You can use dual light domes that will allow you to screw in two lightbulbs. You can have the heat bulb and the UVB bulb together on the top of the tank in a dome. Just make sure the domes are not close enough for the turtle to be able to touch them.

After you have the tank, filter, heat and lighting systems you will also need to think about substrate.

Turtles are known for getting into everything they can in their tanks. The substrate should be either made of particles small enough to pass through their system, or something large enough they cannot swallow.

A layer of sand is a pretty good substrate choice and allows you to plant some aquatic plants within the tank. If you are worried about your turtle swallowing the sand then add a layer of river rocks on top of it.

Finally your turtle is going to need some plants and decorations in the tank which they will use to hide in. Some keepers also add underwater caves.

Handling

Painted turtles are a pet that you probably should not handle quite as often as pets like snakes.

This species is docile and is not likely to be aggressive towards you, but excessive handling can stress them. This is especially true if you adopt an adult who was not raised by someone who frequently handled it.

When it comes to handling a painted turtle you need to understand that they can become easily stressed.

If your pet is scared or stressed they will retreat into their shells to hide.

To avoid this it is best to keep your turtle in a quiet part of your house. The claw waving behavior that we discuss below as a sign of dominance in the wild may be used to say they want to be left alone. If your turtle is claw waving or squirming and trying to get away from you it probably wants to be put down.

If you adopt a baby painted turtle and handle it multiple times a week then it will not be as stressed as others might be.

When you are handling your turtle make sure you are holding it firmly with both hands. Hold it as you would a hamburger. Place three fingers of each hand on the carapace and your thumbs on the plastron.

It is best to handle with your turtle on a flat surface that it cannot fall off of. Accidentally dropping one can cause a seriously injury.

Health and Lifespan

Painted turtles are generally pretty healthy pets that usually live to be 20 to 25 years old. There are even some records of individuals living to 50 years in captivity, but this is rare.

You will be able to tell if your turtle is healthy as it will be very active, with a good appetite and normal stool. When holding them you should also notice a hard, smooth shell with no obvious deformities or soft spots.

If your turtle is lethargic, not interested in eating, has runny stool or problems with buoyancy they are likely sick.

One of the biggest health problems for painted turtles is metabolic bone disease.

Metabolic bone disease happens when they are not getting enough calcium. The body begins to take calcium from the bones which can result in skeletal deformities, weakened bones, seizures, and if left untreated for long enough death.

Individuals who have metabolic bone disease often have malformed or misshapen shells. This can cause difficulties with swimming and moving around normally.

The simplest way to avoid this is by providing a calcium supplement twice a week as well as UVB light.

Another health issue in painted turtles is shell rot, which is a generic term for any infection in the shell. It can be caused by many different things including an injury, improper temperatures or dirty water.

Be sure to check your pet regularly for any injuries to the shell.

Parasites in feeder fish are also a common health problem.

As long as your turtle is active and is spending most of its time swimming in the water, it is likely very happy and healthy.

Behavior

Painted turtle waving its claws
They are an aquatic species which means they spend most of their time in the water.

Painted turtles in the wild are very territorial. Bigger turtles are usually the more dominant.

Males will display dominance over other individuals by shaking or waving their claws or biting. Turtles generally fight when there is limited space, basking spots or food. Males will occasionally fight females, but the fighting is usually between males.

Painted turtles are not usually territorial towards their owners.

As pets they are generally pretty calm as long as there is enough space in the tank for each individual to bask away from the others. You will need to add 10 gallons of extra water per additional turtle.

Another common behavior you may see your turtle doing is begging.

Many have learned to beg for more food by swimming alongside their humans as they walk past the tank. Some may even poke their heads out of the water and watching the lid of the tank, waiting for you to open it and toss them a couple of treats.

These behaviors are adorable, but you have to take care not to give in too frequently. They can easily become obese through overfeeding.

Can You Keep a Painted Turtle as a Pet?

Painted turtle close-up
You can absolutely keep one as a pet.

Painted turtles actually make fantastic beginner pets! They are easy to feed, sturdy, docile and generally are healthy.

The question you should be asking yourself is if you can afford to keep one.

Painted turtles can be pretty expensive, especially if you are getting more than one.

You need a tank that can handle at least 40-gallons of water, heat lamps, UVB lights and filtration systems.

As long as you have made sure you can afford to care for one and set up all of its habitat requirements, there are no laws preventing you from keeping one. They are not endangered or threatened.

Just make sure you purchase a turtle from a pet store or a breeder with a shell at least four inches.

How Much Does A Painted Turtle Cost?

The price of a painted turtle will vary depending on which subspecies you want and the breeder you purchase it from. You can generally expect to pay around $30 to $70 for the turtle.

You will then need to buy a 30-gallon tank, filtration system, heat and UVB lamp, turtle dock, decor, plants and a substrate like sand and river rocks. In total you should budget around $300 to $1,000 for their setup.

Painted turtles are easily found at reptile expos and from breeders online. They are less common in pet shops, but you may still sometimes find one.

Many breeders will provide their turtles with large handfuls of greens to munch on throughout the duration of the expo. An aquatic turtle that is eating and swimming around is usually healthy. Signs of a healthy species includes bright eyes, a bright color pattern and high activity levels.

When you are looking at painted turtles for sale the first thing to check is the shell size. It must be more than four inches long.

You should also check that your hatchling was captive-bred. Taking species from the wild depletes wild populations.

Are They Dangerous?

When you read this question you will probably think of course a turtle is not dangerous! They are really too small to do much damage from biting and they don’t have powerful claws like a monitor lizard.

But painted turtles can be dangerous for another reason.

They can carry salmonella which is a common disease associated with all reptiles. Keepers can get salmonella by coming into contact with reptile feces, saliva, or other bodily fluids, and then touching they mouth or eyes.

Turtles are commonly associated with the disease because we can come into contact with their feces by just sticking our hand into tank water. For this reason you should always wash your hands immediately after handling a reptile.

Salmonella causes an estimated 420 deaths in the United States every year.

You should not adopt a painted turtle if you have children in the house who are too young to remember not to touch their faces after handling a turtle until they wash their hands.

Summary

Painted turtles are an excellent turtle for beginners. Beginners often love the yellow and orange markings on their bodies and shells.

This species has a fun, very easy-going temperament and its diet is very simple. They mostly eat dark leafy greens, aquatic plants and feeder fish every few days and the odd cuttlebone for calcium.

Once their tank is set up and maintained they have relatively few special needs.

Painted turtles need at least a 30-gallon tank. They will also need a basking lamp, UVB light, water heater and a filter system.

If properly taken care of they can live very long lives of up to 25 years.

This species is a great way to start learning how to take care of reptiles, so consider picking up a painted turtle as your next pet.

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.

Leave a Comment