Animal Care/Turtle

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Turtles are popular pets, but their needs are complex. While the turtles themselves may often be inexpensive and sold at an appealing small size, providing even basic quarters is expensive and most species of turtles grow to relatively large sizes. The popular red-eared slider Trachemys scripta elegans for example reaches a shell length of up to 30 cm.[1]

Note that while the term turtles is used in the United States for both terrestrial and aquatic species alike, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere terrestrial species are usually called tortoises and aquatic species terrapins.[2]

Environment in captivity for terrestrial turtles (tortoises)[edit | edit source]

It is common for terrestrial species to be kept outdoors where the climate allows this. In temperate parts of the world where winter temperatures are too low for them to be left outdoors, it is usual to have both summer quarters in the garden and winter quarters in the house.[3]

Summer quarters[edit | edit source]

Your box turtles will flourish in a large outdoor enclosure where they are allowed to hibernate through the winter. Build the biggest enclosure possible, and locate it in the east so that your turtles can warm up in the morning sun enough to eat their breakfast. A south exposure is a good second choice if east is not available. Your enclosure should have sunny spots, shady spots, and as many water dishes,food dishes, and hiding places as you have turtles.

Don't place anything like a flowerpot or trellis close enough to your turtle enclosure walls that could allow your turtle can use it to climb out. Turtles are great climbers, and will also scale vines, tomato plants, and cyclone fencing to escape. Your turtles will love edible landscaping, hills of loose dirt, holes to investigate, logs to clamber over, and other features that make their habitat an adventure playground. A lid on their enclosure is also a good idea to protect them from dogs and small children, and offer any hatchlings increased safety against birds and cats.[4].

At a minimum, build your enclosure 100 cm x 200 cm (3' x 6') in size for one turtle, allowing proportionally more space for any additional turtles. To build the wall use smooth wood planking that extends 20-30 cm (8" to 12") below ground level to prevent digging their way out, and 30-35 cm (12"-14") above the ground to keep them from standing on their hind legs and hoisting themselves over the wall. It is a good idea to lay a row of bricks or paving stones around the inside perimeter of your enclosure flush with the ground; this also prevents digging. Never lay chicken-wire or other mesh down as flooring because broken wires can cut up your turtles. Fasten a triangular piece of wood in your corners as a corner-brace: this will improve your structure's stability and further prevent your turtles from climbing out. [5].

Indoor quarters and quarantining[edit | edit source]

Most terrestrial turtles come from warm parts of the world and require an air temperature around 20-30°C (68-86°F), most easily provided by using infrared heating lamps.[6] Electric heat-rocks are not recommended because turtles are slow-moving and can end up burning themselves on them. In addition the vivarium needs a water dish for drinking, but this should not be so deep the turtle cannot climb out if it falls in. A hiding place of some sort is also important. Hollow bark "caves" and other suitable structures are widely sold in pet stores.

Box turtles (Terrapene spp.) should not be kept inside unless you need to quarantine them temporarily for health problems. Box turtles should not be kept indoors for longer than four to six months. They need the biggest container possible: ideally made from plastic (for ease in cleaning) or wood (for ease in construction) and not less than 100 cm x 200 cm (3' x 6') for one turtle. It is important that the container not be see-through because then your turtle will batter himself obsessively against the walls, trying to get out.[7]

Feeding terrestrial turtles[edit | edit source]

Turtles look for food that has bright colors (especially red), that moves enticingly (like an earthworm or beetle), and that smells good. Turtles can even smell water over long distances. To coax a timid pet turtle to eat, work with its sense of vision and smell. Provide red foods like strawberries, tomatoes, cherries, and plums. Tempt it with some night-crawlers from the bait shop that will wiggle and stimulate your turtle's hunting instinct. Bring it some snails from your backyard (but only if you don't use pesticides). You can also offer your turtle dog-food. Two things to remember: turtles sometimes feel like fasting for a few weeks. Also, turtles sometimes will eagerly feed on a type of food, only to refuse to eat it after awhile. This is because turtles in the wild are used to gorging on certain plants and bugs that become plentiful through the season, and then switching to other things as their previous food sources dwindle. Make sure your turtle can see the food. Turtles can actually eat fish food if you want.

Environment in captivity for aquatic turtles (terrapins)[edit | edit source]

Aquatic turtles such as the red-eared slider Trachemys scripta elegans generally need a vivarium that contains both clean water for swimming plus dry land underneath a UVB lamp.[8] Only a few of the turtles offered for sale as pets are so aquatic that they never crawl out onto the land (except, in the case of the females, to lay eggs). The most notable of these is the Fly River turtle, Carettochelys insculpta.

Indoor quarters[edit | edit source]

Aquatic turtles are commonly kept indoors, but it should always be borne in mind that despite their small size at purchase, most species grow rather large. For one or two red-eared sliders, the smallest aquarium that could be used safely will be around 200 litres (52 US gallons) in size. This will need to be divided into a dry land area, typically formed by building up a pile of rocks and gravel at one end, and a suitable depth of water for swimming.[8] As should be obvious, setting up a vivarium for these animals requires considerable effort and expense, and so buying red-eared sliders on a whim or as a miniature pet for a child is not recommended.

Outdoor quarters[edit | edit source]

In the warmer parts of the world, red-eared sliders and other aquatic turtles can be kept outdoors for all or part of the year. Aquatic turtle enclosures are similar to those for terrestrial turtles described above, except with the addition of a shallow pond for swimming. Ensure that there are suitable places for the turtle to be able to climb in and out of the water. Aquatic turtles generally do not hibernate, and cannot be left outdoors where the winters are cold (for example, in Southern England). When the weather turns cold, they should be brought indoors are looked after in a suitable vivarium. Turtles and fish should not be kept together in the same pond.

Diet[edit | edit source]

Aquatic turtles tend to be omnivores. Some species are confirmed predators, notably soft-shell turtles (Trionyx spp.) and snapping turtles (Macrochelys and Chelydra), but the more commonly kept things like red-eared sliders feed principally on aquatic vegetation, organic detritus, carrion, and small invertebrates.Terrestrial turtles tend to be more herbivorous than aquatic turtles,[9] but this is often misunderstood by turtle keepers to imagine that aquatic turtles need meaty foods. While there are some carnivorous aquatic turtles traded, most are omnivores. The red-eared slider for example becomes increasingly herbivorous as its matures and should be given a primarily vegetarian diet once adult, with up to 75% of its food being things like aquatic plants, dandelion leaves, and green leaf lettuce .[10]. Outdoors, terrestrial turtles will generally forage for plants such as clover and alfalfa, but they can also be provided with things like dandelion leaves, cress, and parsley.[9] Cabbage is best avoided because it depresses thyroid activity in reptiles, and while lettuce is happily taken, it is nutrient poor so shouldn't be except as a treat.[9] Soft fruits are often an important part of the natural diet of these reptiles, so things like plums and ripe tomatoes can be used as well.[9] Even though they are largely herbivorous, these animals to take some meat, particularly as carrion. In captivity, small amounts of cat food can be used as a supplement.[9] European tortoises in particular appreciate cooked chicken bones which they grind up with their jaws very effectively.

Nutrient supplements[edit | edit source]

It is important to add vitamins and minerals to their food. Calcium powder and reptile vitamin supplements can be obtained from pet stores and added to whatever food being provided.

Live feeder fish[edit | edit source]

Live feeder fish should only be used in moderation unless a turtle's specific diet requirements mandate more of a certain food.[11][12] The previous poster only listed sources pertaining to Red Eared Sliders. For other turtles, such as Map turtles or Diamondback terrapins, you should research specifically on your genus and epithet on the necessary dietary requirements. Goldfish are very bony, oily, and fatty and do not provide a good nutritional value. When feeding live fish, rosy-red minnows (a brightly coloured variety of the fathead minnow) is among the top choices. They are sold as cheap feeder fish and some turtle owners that purchase from large chain stores or an unknown/untrusted store should quarantine the live feeder fish and treat for bacteria and possibly parasites depending on the location of purchase. The previous poster also mentioned that "feeder fish contain a lot of thiaminase, a substance that destroys Vitamin B1 and causes major health problems as a result." This should be taken lightly; thiaminase is an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, otherwise known as vitamin B1 (an vitamin involved in metabolism). This enzyme will likely be denatured in the digestion process by the pH change in the turtle's digestive tract. It is important to feed a balanced diet to a turtle consisting of proteins, such as rosy-red minnows, snails (apple snails seem to be the most popular choice), and crickets, greens, and a quality turtle pellet or stick.

Filtration[edit | edit source]

The water must be filtered. Ammonia is produced by the turtle as a waste product, and this accumulates in the water over time. Unless removed by a biological filter similar to that used in an aquarium, the ammonia causes health problems such as eye infections and skin irritations. As well as filtering the water, it is important to do large water changes weekly, at least 50% per week, ideally 75% or more. It is important is that a suitable dechlorinator is added to each bucket of fresh water.

Water chemistry[edit | edit source]

Water chemistry can be very important to a turtle, especially to hatchlings. The most common thing to look for in water is the presence of chlorine and chloramine. This is easily treated using products bought from a store that sells fish products. Other concerns include nitrates, nitrates, ammonia, and sometimes pH and, more rarely, water hardness. The nitrogen cycle is regulated through the use of nitrifying bacteria and frequent water changes of 25%-75%, depending on the time between changes. Water changes should be performed no later than two weeks and no sooner than three days unless a sick turtle is present. Some species may have special needs that should be researched before the turtle is acquired; the diamondback terrapin Malaclemys terrapin for example can have salt added to the water because it is known to live some of its life in brackish water in the wild. When kept without salt in the water, it may be to be prone to fungal infections.[13]. Many diamondback terrapins are now being kept in freshwater. This is not harmful, but it is important to then keep the water very clean through biological, chemical, and mechanical filtration. Aim for a specific gravity of around 1.005-1.010 (around 9-15 grammes of marine salt mix per litre of water).

Water level[edit | edit source]

The water area, which should be about 1/3 to 1/2 of their space,[1] must be deep enough for the turtles to submerge themselves completely and to be able to swim freely. A land basking area is also required. Easy access to the land area must be possible. A sloping ramp is usually the best approach.

Temperature[edit | edit source]

For the North American turtles most often kept as pets, water temperature should be maintained within the range 20-30°C (68-86°F).[6] Excessively high (over 32°C; 90°F) or low temperatures (below 20°C; 68°F) for long periods are dangerous.[2]

Most aquatic turtles (but not all) will spend periods of time on land basking in the sunlight; in captivity they will need a dry land area underneath a suitable UVB lamp.[8] The UVB light is essential for their health, allowing them to synthesise Vitamin D3 and utilise calcium from their diet properly. Without UVB, they develop bone deformities and soft shell problems. Because UVB cannot pass through glass, there should not be any glass between the lamp and the turtle.[3]

Turtles also need UVA light witch is provided in most UVB lights

Aquatic plants[edit | edit source]

Floating plants are important for two reasons. Firstly, they are used as food. Canadian pondweed (Elodea) in particular is a very useful food source for aquatic turtles. In addition, the turtles use it for cover and as a resting place.

Malnutrition and disease[edit | edit source]

If a turtle seems lethargic and has cloudy skin patches, or milky eyes, it may be because of poor nutrition or disease. A veterinarian who knows about reptiles can determine whether the animal's diet is to blame, or if there are other factors involved.[4]

Salmonella and pet turtles[edit | edit source]

Salmonella bacteria naturally exist in the intestinal tracts of turtles (and almost all other reptiles) and generally cause them no particular problems. But Salmonella bacteria can cause health problems in humans, especially if your immune system is weak due to age or chronic health problems. The prime mode of transference is from turtle droppings to your body via your mouth, eyes, or through an open wound.

The following tips minimise the risk of Salmonella problems:[14]

  • Keep your pet turtles outside in the backyard if weather permits it. Remember, temperature and predation are key concerns when keeping turtles outside.
  • Keep a separate set of dishes or cleaning materials like sponges for your turtles.
  • Never eat, drink, or smoke while handling your turtle.
  • Always wash your hands carefully after handling your turtles (ideally with an antibacterial soap)
  • Wear disposable gloves when handling your turtle.
  • Don't let small children handle your turtle.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 64. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  2. David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 63. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  3. David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 34-35. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  4. "Create an Outdoor Habitat For Your Box Turtle". the Ornate Bird Garden. 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-08-31. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. "Create an Outdoor Habitat For Your Box Turtle". the Ornate Bird Garden. 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-08-31. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. a b David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 24-25. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  7. "Post-Hibernation Turtle Care". the Ornate Bird Garden. 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-08-31. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. a b c David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 21. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  9. a b c d e David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 36-41. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  10. "Fresh Plant Matter". 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-09-16. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. "Animal, Insect, Fish Based Foods". 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-09-16. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  12. "Red Eared Slider Care". Wet Web Media. 2007-08-18. Retrieved 2007-09-16. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  13. David Alderton (1986). An Interpet Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, p. 70. Salamander Books Ltd., London & New York.
  14. "Practice Turtle Hygiene to Prevent Salmonella Infection". the Ornate Bird Garden. 2007-09-1. Retrieved 2007-09-3. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |accessdate= and |date= (help)