A vet’s guide to good pet turtle care

pet turtle care
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With good pet turtle care, some can live for up to 80 years! Obviously, these pets require quite a high level of commitment. However, in addition to their longevity, turtles also require a considerable commitment in terms of daily care. There is more involved in optimal turtle care than you might think at first glance. Providing this level of care, including the best turtle aquariums and ideal nutrition, are essential if you want your turtle to have a long and healthy life.

What type of turtle do you have?

In order to determine the best way to care for your turtle, you first need to understand what type of  you have. There are over 300 different species of turtles and tortoises, but only a few turtle species are commonly kept as pets. Pet species include both land-based (or semi-aquatic) and aquatic turtles. 

Common aquatic pet turtles include

  • Red-eared Slider 
  • African Sideneck Turtle
  • Western Painted Turtle
  • Common Musk Turtle
  • Spotted Turtle
  • Yellow-Bellied Slider

Common land-based pet turtles include:

  • Eastern Box Turtle
  • Painted Wood Turtle

Knowing whether your pet turtle is an aquatic turtle or a land turtle is essential in order to determine the best housing and diet for your turtle. As you might expect, an aquatic turtle has very different needs to a land-based turtle.

Never underestimate the importance of good husbandry

When it comes to turtles and other pet reptiles, husbandry is everything. Animal husbandry refers to the basic fundamentals of animal care, including the food and shelter that you provide for your pet turtle. A large percentage of the diseases seen in turtles and other reptiles are caused by poor husbandry. Caring for your turtle properly is not only the ethical thing to do, increasing your turtle’s quality of life; it will also maximize the likelihood of your turtle living a long and healthy life. 

Housing your pet turtle

Aquatic turtles live, as their name implies, almost entirely in water. Depending on where you live, you may choose to house your aquatic turtle in a large indoor aquarium or an outdoor pond. An aquatic turtle enclosure needs areas for swimming and diving, as well as a dry area for basking (sitting out of the water). The water should be maintained at a temperature of 75-82°F (24-28°C), although a heat lamp should be used over the basking area to provide a temperature of 90-95°F (32-35°C). Aquatic turtles also require good water filtration, as well as a UV light (if housed indoors). 

Land-base or semi-aquatic turtles also require water, but they spend much of their time on land. The ideal enclosure for a land-based turtle is a large outdoor enclosure, although some people create an indoor enclosure (such as a large plastic kiddie pool) for their pet turtle. The ideal temperature for turtles is 70-90°F (21-32°C) with a basking area heated to 85-90°F (29-32°C). Like aquatic turtles, indoor land-based turtles also require UV light. 

pet turtle care

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Feeding your pet turtle 

Different turtle species have different nutritional requirements. Some species are herbivores. These  turtles require a diet consisting solely of plants and vegetables. However, this vegetable-based diet can make it challenging to meet the vitamin and mineral requirements of these herbivorous turtles. While the specific plants and vegetables a herbivorous turtle eats depends on its species, it’s best to feed a variety of plants or vegetables. Even with this, variety in food, vitamin, and mineral supplementation is almost always required.

Other turtle species are carnivores, including many aquatic turtles. These carnivorous turtles can be fed small fresh or frozen fish. Many turtle owners feed them goldfish, because they are easily available. However, it’s important to note that goldfish are relatively high in fat, and can cause obesity and fatty liver disease in turtles. Frozen fish are a good alternative, but carnivorous turtles eating frozen fish will require Vitamin B supplementation.

Finally, some turtle species are omnivorous, eating a combination of plants and animals. Many omnivorous turtles tend to eat mostly plants and vegetables when they are young, then shift to eating more insects and animals with age. It can be challenging to achieve the correct calcium/phosphorus balance in omnivorous turtles. Therefore, a commercial diet is often recommended for omnivorous semi-aquatic turtles.

Common infectious diseases in turtles 

Turtles are susceptible to a number of infections, including bacterial infections, fungal infections, protozoal infections, and intestinal worms. There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of infections on your turtles: 

Common non-infectious diseases in turtles

Many common non-infectious diseases in turtles are nutritional in nature. Hypovitaminosis A (vitamin A deficiency) causes swelling of the eyes, nasal discharge, and abscesses within the ears. Hypervitaminosis A (vitamin A excess) causes sloughing of the skin and secondary skin infections. Metabolic bone disease (caused by calcium deficiency) can lead to unexplained fractures and other bony abnormalities. Feeding a diet that is well-balanced for your specific turtle species is essential to preventing metabolic disease. 

Your turtle’s housing can also play a role in disease prevention. Poor water quality and/or a lack of basking areas on which to 'dry out' can both contribute to the development of a condition known as shell rot. Additionally, a dirty environment can increase the risk of other infectious illnesses. 

It’s important to educate yourself  

While a turtle may seem like a simple and straightforward pet, pet turtle care requires educating yourself on the requirements and preferences of your particular turtle species. This article is designed to act as a helpful overview, but it’s also important to work with your veterinarian to learn the specific requirements of your pet turtle species in order to ensure that you are meeting your turtle’s requirements as effectively as possible. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.