Various species of water turtles are kept as pets in the United States.
Most of those purchased by hobbyists originate from the southern and
eastern regions of the U.S. By law, imported turtles of most species
must be at lest 4 inches long. The trade in exotic turtles has been
increasing in recent years, especially in countries with poor animal
protection laws and abundant turtle populations.
Turtles inhabit all parts of the world with a temperate to warm climate
and are especially abundant in the tropics and subtropics. Water
turtles are found in a wide variety of habitats, including ponds,
swamps, small pools thick with vegetation, lakes of all sizes, large
streams and rivers.
All water turtles
share some obvious physical characteristics, such as a top and bottom
shell and webbed feet. Many, have developed specific adaptations to
cope with specific environmental conditions. The Diamondback Terrapin,
for example, is confined in its geographic distribution to the brackish
water of the coastal eastern U.S. (brackish water has a salt content
between that of fresh and sea water). The Malaysian Snail Eating turtle
survives well in its environment on a diet of mainly snails.
The Mata Mata is an unusual looking turtle that resembles the rotting
vegetation found on the bottoms of the relatively shallow lakes and
rivers in which it lives. It is a poor swimmer and rarely leaves its
aquatic habitat, except to lay eggs. The Mata Mata rests motionless on
the bottom, well camouflaged among the decomposing vegetation, and lies
in wait for its prey. The turtle can breathe during these long
intervals through a long, narrow nose (similar to a snorkel), the end
of which just breaks the surface of the water. When a small fish or
other prey animal swims by, the Mata Mata opens its mouth and sucks its
prey in, all in a split second.
juvenile Alligator Snapping Turtle's olive green brown color
camouflages it well against the bottoms of rivers in which it lives. To
attract prey within striking distance, it opens its mouth and wiggles
its unique bright pink, slender tongue. As a small fish moves in for a
closer look, it is quickly trapped in the turtle's jaws. The adult
Alligator Snapping Turtle, the largest freshwater turtle in the world,
can reach 200 Ibs. or more, and can eat an entire duck in one gulp!
Hobbyists should study and thoroughly familiarize themselves with the
natural history and habits of any turtle species they intend to acquire
before they select their new pet. This "homework" helps ensure the
turtle will thrive in captivity.
The type and size of enclosure used depend upon the species, number and size of the water turtles to be housed. Hatchlings can be kept indoors in small aquariums. Older or
larger specimens require a large aquarium or an outdoor pond (cement or
plastic lined). Careful attention must be paid to filtration systems, cleaning
requirements and ease of draining water from ponds used to house water
turtles. Rigid molded plastic swimming pools for children are also
suitable for housing water turtles, provided they are adequately
equipped with a filtration system and means to replenish the water.
Any enclosure should provide adequate room for swimming and sufficient
dry area for resting and sunning. Providing a dry, non-submerged area is
very important. Water turtles, especially juveniles, can become
exhausted and drown when no such dry area is provided. Very small water
turtles can be provided with a piece of partially submerged wood or
cork bark onto which they can crawl for basking or under which they can
hide. Larger and heavier water turtles require a more solid and
immovable basking area on which to completely crawl out of the water
A platform of flat rocks or
bricks can be fashioned or a ribbed wooden platform, the surface of
which rests just above the water's surface, can be provided for
basking. Any wooden platform must have a substantially weighted base so
it does not topple over. Driftwood, provided it is well anchored, can
also be used for resting and basking, and is a visually appealing
addition to an enclosure.
aquarium is used to house a water turtle, one end can be used for a
basking area. A pane of glass can be inserted into the aquarium to
divide it. About two thirds of the available area can be allocated for
swimming and about one third of the area for basking.
Gravel can be
used to fill the basking side. Green plants can also be planted or
placed in this area if desired. A small ramp made of wood or plastic
can be attached to the dividing pane of glass to allow the turtle easy
access to the basking area. This area is also advantageous for breeding
female turtles because it gives them a suitable area for laying their
The bottom covering for the
enclosure must be carefully selected for the species being housed and
must be nontoxic and nonabrasive. Soft shelled turtles like to burrow and require very fine sand at a depth that
allows near total covering of the upper shell. Small rocks should never
be used because they can be swallowed, resulting in damage or impaction
to the intestinal tract.
The water level provided should be at least as deep as the turtle is
long, preferably several times this measure. Tap water is acceptable
provided it is allowed to stand undisturbed for at least 48 hours
before the turtle is introduced. This is necessary for the water to
become free of chlorine and chloramines. Water conditioners, such as
Novaqua ™ (Novalek, Inc, Hayward, CA), can be used with each water
change to improve the quality of city water.
Sometimes unfavorable local conditions can make tap water unusable. The
high iron content or fluoridation procedures of certain water supplies
can be harmful to water turtles. Bottled water is probably safest for
delicate water turtles and for species whose actual aquatic
requirements are unknown. Brackish water can be approximated for
species that require it (such as the Diamondback Terrapin) by adding 1
Tablespoon of non iodized salt to each gallon of water.
In the wild, the relatively large bodies of water in which turtles live
tend to reduce the concentration of waste products and uneaten food.
Consequently, free living water turtles are rarely affected by the
decomposition and bacterial proliferation that inevitably follow. This
is not the case with captive water turtles. Because of the relatively
small water volumes of aquariums and ponds, these limited enclosures
tend to concentrate waste material. This represents a potential hazard
for the turtles because disease causing microorganisms that feed on
this material also multiply. There-fore, turtles live in a "soup" of
potentially harmful microbes and disease is an ever present threat if
sanitation is poor.
Every effort should
be made to prevent soiling of the environment. All fecal matter should
be netted or siphoned away as soon as possible. Water turtles should be
fed in an environment separate from their living environment to reduce
contamination of the water. A small aquarium, hard plastic dishpan, or
even a bucket works well in this capacity.
A filtration system is necessary to maintain optimum water quality.
Undergravel filters work best, except when soft shelled turtles are
housed in an enclosure. These turtles tend to continually stir up the
bottom material. Outside filters are efficient, provide high flow
rates, and are relatively easy to clean. Corner filters routinely used
with tropical fish are not as effective or useful when used with water
Adding small amounts of vinegar to
maintain a water pH of 6.0 6.5 (slightly acidic) may help keep
bacterial counts low. One teaspoon of non iodized (aquarium or rock)
salt added per gallon of aquarium water may also help in lower pH.
At least once monthly, the water turtle's enclosure should be entirely
dismantled (including the filtration system) and thoroughly cleaned. It
is not practical to maintain this cleaning schedule with ponds and
other large enclosures. These should be cleaned at least every 3-6
Hobbyists should attempt to duplicate the air and water temperatures
experienced by water turtles in their natural environment. When
temperatures drop, turtles become sluggish and stop eating. Food
already within the digestive tract may ferment or putrefy, allowing
bacteria to multiply and perhaps cause disease.
Many species tolerate room temperatures for both air and water. When in
doubt, provide the range of temperatures used for tropical fish (70°-80°F). Water turtles that originate from tropical climates require a
heat source. Aquarium heaters work best for indoor aquariums. Large
ranks and outdoor ponds require a specially designed water heater that
maintains a constant temperature.
An incandescent light bulb or
heat lamp can be installed directly above the basking area to provide
supple-mental heat. Most experts believe turtles remain healthier if
they are permitted to seek out heat when they desire it. Great care
should be taken to ensure the temperature at the level of the basking
surface does not exceed 90º F. Such heat sources may also increase the
water temperature in very small aquariums to undesirable levels.
A thermometer should be placed in the water and another on or near the
basking surface so the temperature of these areas can be continually
Ultraviolet (UV) light helps maintain health because it aids in the
absorption and use of dietary calcium. Regular incandescent and
fluorescent light bulbs do not emit UV light. Also, the UV light is
filtered from sunlight as it passes through window glass or plastic.
Consequently, none of these sources is suitable for captive reptiles,
including water turtles. If artificial UV light sources are
unavailable, captive water turtles should be exposed to direct sunlight
for 24 hours daily. Most turtles take advantage of the warm sunlight by
resting on their basking areas. The water in very small aquariums can
readily become overheated if this sunlight exposure schedule is rigidly
followed. Therefore, caution should be exercised.
An alternative to direct sunlight is an artificial UV light source,
such as a Vita-Lite or other full spectrum light, that can be used
during daylight hours Such a light source should be left on during
daylight hours to approximate a natural photo period. It is best to
supply 10-12 hours of daylight and 12-14 hours of darkness each day,
with a gradual increase in the number of hours of light supplied in the
spring and a gradual decrease in light provided in the fall and winter
As with most of the reptiles commonly kept as pets, malnutrition
associated with poor hygiene and sanitation is the leading cause of
illness among captive water turtles. Water turtles are, for the most
part, carnivorous (meat-eaters). Malnutrition results when these pets
are fed primarily a vegetarian diet or inadequate sources of animal
Water turtles must feed within
the water, and in so doing, the most important part of their artificial
environment becomes easily fouled. This contamination is greatly
exaggerated by the small amount of water usually provided for captive
water turtles as compared with the almost unlimited aquatic habitat
enjoyed by wild water turtles.
mentioned before, captive water turtles should be fed in a place
separate from the living environment in an effort to control
contamination. This is especially necessary in feeding water turtles
that prey on live food and tear at it, creating particulate waste.
However, species that gulp and swallow prey items whole (Snapping
Turtle, Mata Mata) are usually allowed to feed in their artificial
aquatic habitats because they are generally considered "clean feeders".
Small amounts of commercial diets mixed with vegetables, fruit and prey
animals are preferred for captive water turtles. These include
commericial turtle foods, adult maintenance, Purina Trout Chow™, monkey
biscuits, or balanced tropical fish food. These foods should first be
offered to water turtles when they are very young so they become
accustomed to such a diet. In general, 50% of the diet should be
commercial foods, slugs, mealworms, earthworms, crickets, wax worms,
sardines, guppies, goldfish (in general animal protein sources). The
other 50% of the diet is plants with 75% of that component being
vegetables and 25% fruit items.
Plants to feed include:
greens (collar, mustard, dandelion, kale)
thawed frozen mixed vegetables
red leaf or romaine lettuce
Spinach can be fed in small
Commercial diets are
substantially fortified with vitamins and minerals, are convenient and
easy to feed, create minimal water contamination, and are
bacteriologically clean. The last point is important because many water
turtle diseases are contracted through contaminated food sources.
If live or killed fish (guppies, bait minnows, goldfish) are offered to
water turtles, they must be offered whole. Feeding just flesh leads to
vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The same problems result when they
are fed only small chunks of meat or hamburger, and no other items.
Though adult water turtles are considered carnivorous (meat eating),
many juveniles are, in fact, omnivorous - (vegetable eating and meat
Water turtles usually change from a mixed vegetable meat diet
to an all meat diet after the first year of life. Consequently, the
diet of young water turtles should include a lot of vegetable matter
(seaweed, spinach, broccoli tops and leaves, mustard greens, grated
carrot and carrot tops, celery leaves). Addition of carrots (high in
vitamin A) to the diet helps prevent "swollen eye syndrome". Pet Cal™
tablets (Pfizer animal health), a meat flavored mineral (calcium and
phosphorus primarily) and vitamin D3 supplement for dogs, are readily
accepted by water turtles. Care must be taken to break these tablets
into pieces that can be easily swallowed by the turtle. These supplements can be offered on
feeding days or on alternate days.
water turtle species, such as the Mata Mata, feed on live food or only
specific prey items (Malaysian Snail Eater). These prey items should be
as healthy as possible. With persistence and patience, many of these
turtle species in captivity can be converted to commercial diets.
Water turtles can be fed daily or 2-3 times weekly, depending upon
their age and size. Rapidly growing juveniles should be offered high
quality food daily, whereas adult water turtles do very well when fed 2-3 times weekly. Under no circumstances should water turtles be overfed.
In the wild, the only opportunity for water turtles to overindulge is
when they feed on the submerged carcass of a dead animal. Overfeeding
captive water turtles causes them to become overweight and fouls the
Hibernation allows animals to avoid adverse climatic conditions. Unlike
regular sleep, hibernation involves a more prolonged period of
inactivity accompanied by a substantial decrease in metabolic activity.
These changes enable the animal to survive periods during which
environmental conditions are harsh and unfavorable. In the wild, water
turtles bury themselves in the muddy bottoms of lakes and ponds to
hibernate during the winter months.
Hibernation is not necessary for the health and well being of captive
water turtles. In fact, captive water turtles should not be allowed to
hibernate. In regions with freezing temperatures, water turtles
inhabiting outdoor ponds should be moved indoors before the first
freeze. This prevents hibernation, especially if they are encouraged to
feed regularly throughout the winter months. In warmer regions of the
country where freezing temperatures are rare, captive water turtles
should be kept relatively warm and encouraged to feed regularly. The
water of outdoor ponds could be heated or, preferably, the turtles
could be brought indoors for the winter months. "Partial hibernation"
may result if warm temperatures are not provided in the winter months.
This is undesirable because it tends to promote a state of lowered
resistance to disease.
Sick water turtles may exhibit a wide variety of signs. The signs noted
by the turtle owner depend on the specific organs affected.
Listlessness, lethargy and inappetence are common in sick water
turtles. Weakness is often manifested by reluctance to enter the water.
A runny nose, swollen eyes, coughing, gasping and open mouth breathing
are common with respiratory disease. Swollen eyes may also be noted
with vitamin A deficiency. Water turtles that tend to tilt or tip to
one side may have pneumonia or air sac disease. A soft shell is most
often the result of a serious mineral imbalance. Defects involving the
shell constitute "shell rot". Excessive straining may indicate bowel
obstruction or egg binding. Redness of the skin, often accompanied by
bleeding, is usually the result of overwhelming internal infection. It
represents an ominous sign.
the case of slow moving or easily frightened of defensive species,
healthy water turtles usually make strong swimming motions when held
out of water. Healthy water turtles have bright, wide open eyes, clear,
dry nostrils, and no abnormalities of the skin and shell.
Swollen Eyes: This condition often results from vitamin A deficiency
and complications from bacterial disease. The immune defenses of the
eye membranes often become weakened by vitamin A deficiency, making the
eyes susceptible to bacterial invasion. Treatment of this condition
involves injections of vitamin A and an appropriate antibiotic.
Prevention involves feeding a balanced diet.
Soft shell: Water turtles must receive essential minerals (especially
calcium), vitamin D3 and unfiltered sunlight. An abnormally soft shell
results if any of these 3 items is insufficient or absent. An
adequately balanced diet and sufficient
periods of exposure to unfiltered sunlight or a substitute should be provided to prevent and treat this condition. Treatment also
involves dietary supplementation and periodic injections of calcium and
Shell Deformity: General malnutrition, especially protein deficiency
and mineral imbalances or deficiencies, in young, growing water turtles
results in a number of problems. These may include deformity, mounding
of the carapace (top shell), incomplete shell growth, and scoliosis
(curvature of the spine).
Egg Binding: Another disorder
resulting, in part, from mineral imbalance or outright mineral
depletion is egg binding. This condition results when a female water
turtle cannot pass one or more eggs without assistance. Signs include
straining and restlessness, or profound lethargy. Calcium is necessary
for the proper contraction of muscles, including those of the uterus.
Egg binding is likely if calcium is deficient in a pregnant female.
Malnutrition, lack of exposure to unfiltered sunlight, and pre-existing
disease can contribute to this serious, often life threatening
condition. When egg binding is suspected, the affected female should be
taken to a veterinarian at once. Calcium and hormone injections, as
well as manipulation of the egg, are usually employed to relieve this
condition. Sometimes, a needle can be inserted into the egg to aspirate
its contents and collapse it, making it easier to pass from the female.
Captive water turtles are prone to bacterial infections because
malnutrition and poor hygiene are common. Further, injuries of water
turtles tend to become readily infected because of the frequently high
bacterial counts in their aquatic environments.
Respiratory Infections: Upper respiratory disease and pneumonia are
common among water turtles. Signs may include nasal discharge, swollen
eyes, sneezing, coughing, gasping, open mouth breathing, lethargy,
weakness and tilting to one side. Antibiotic therapy and supportive
care are required in these serious cases.
Swollen Ears: Infection of one or both external ear canals may
accompany chronic respiratory disease in turtles. Minor surgery is
necessary to open up the infected canal and manually remove the pus
that accumulates within it. Injectable antibiotics are given to ensure
that the underlying respiratory problem completely resolves.
Septicemia (Blood Poisoning): A host of bacteria can cause severe body
wide infections in water turtles. Minor infections, such as those
caused by wounds, often become worse as bacteria travel throughout the
body by way of the bloodstream. Malnourishment weakens the turtle's
resistance and the infection spreads. As vital organs become involved,
the turtle's condition deteriorates and other signs appear. Extreme
redness of the skin and bleeding into the skin are often noted in water
turtles with septicemia. Aggressive antibiotic therapy and supportive
care are required to treat these serious cases.
Shell Rot: Defects of the shell may result from direct injury or as a
consequence of malnutrition, generalized deterioration and infection.
Bacteria or fungi may cause infections of the shell. Shell rot may also
occur from eating shellfish containing disease causing bacteria. Algae
may grow in shell rot defects or can themselves cause shell rot. Algae
may also grow on the carapace (top shell) of normal, healthy water
turtles. This usually indicates poor water quality in the turtle's
enclosure. Treatment usually involves restricting the turtle's access
to the water, giving appropriate supportive care, and use of topical
and injectable medication (antibiotics, vitamin A). The amount of time
required for recovery depends on the number and severity of shell rot
defects requiring treatment.
rot: Bacterial infection of the mouth lining (mouth rot or infectious
stomatitis) is usually associated with malnutrition or body wide
illness. Excessive salivation and redness of the mouth lining are early
signs of mouth rot. As the disease progresses, cheese like pus
accumulates within the mouth. An objectionable odor from the mouth may
be detected as well. Injectable antibiotics, vitamins and appropriate
supportive care, including periodic cleaning of the mouth, are
necessary in the treatment of this serious condition.
Salmonellosis: Before water turtles became common pets, they were
frequently housed in ponds and septic tanks contaminated with human
sewage and other types of waste. Continual exposure of these turtles to
potentially harmful intestinal bacteria allowed the turtles to carry
the infection without becoming ill. The human handlers (frequently
children) of these turtles usually do not have the same degree of
resistance. Salmonella and other harmful intestinal bacteria,
transferred through handling, resulted in numerous cases of human
Salmonellosis, a severe, often life threatening disease of the
Public health laws now
require that water turtles with a carapace (upper shell) diameter of
less than 4 inches cannot be shipped into or sold in the US, with
certain exceptions. The risk of a person's contracting Salmonellosis
from a pet water turtle is low. However, you should always wash your
hands after handling a water turtle or cleaning its enclosure. Samples
from your water turtle can be cultured by your veterinarian to see if
it carries Salmonella, or related bacteria, if you are especially
Parasites: A wide variety of intestinal parasites are found in water
turtles, including roundworms, tapeworms and flukes. Stool analysis and
white blood cell counts are useful in diagnosing parasite problems.
Microscopic examination of stools reveals what type of parasite is
present, thereby determining the precise treatment necessary to
successfully eliminate them from the turtle. All newly acquired water
turtles should be checked for intestinal parasites. All turtles in a
collection should be similarly checked and dewormed as needed at least
once yearly. Intestinal parasites are especially harmful if the turtle
is already weakened from malnutrition or other disease.
Blood Parasites: Parasites similar to those that cause malaria in
people can be found in red blood cells of water turtles. Owners of such
turtles need not be concerned because this type of parasitism is not
transmissible to people. It can be diagnosed by microscopic examination
of blood smears by an experienced veterinarian or laboratory
technician. Treatment is difficult and not always undertaken. Blood
parasites are much more likely to be harmful to water turtles weakened
by malnutrition or other disease.
External Parasites: Recently captured water turtles are often
parasitized by leeches. These should be carefully removed by a
veterinarian. The turtle is then given injectable antibiotics for a few
Most injuries to water turtles result from aggressive encounters with
other turtles or household pets. Many water turtles are territorial,
and fighting between them (especially between individuals of the same
species) often results in serious wounds. Water turtles of widely
varying sizes should not be housed together. Housing similarly sized
turtles together helps reduce the number of injuries from fighting.
Injuries may also occur during mating. Males may become overly
aggressive during copulation and inflict bite wounds on the female.
especially dogs, can also inflict serious wounds to the shells or soft
tissues of water turtles. An injured turtle should be examined by an
experienced veterinarian as soon as possible. Prompt attention to the
wounds and early antibiotic therapy are vital to the favorable outcome
of these cases. Usually, these injured turtles must be kept out of
water or allowed only limited access to the water so that wound healing
is not delayed. Veterinarians often employ epoxy resins or acrylic
glues to repair shell injuries.
Water turtles may eat a variety of foreign objects, such as fish hooks,
gravel and aquarium parts. Only rarely does the turtle owner see the
turtle swallowing the foreign body. Usually these turtles are presented
to a veterinarian because of poor appetite, weight loss or emaciation.
Radiography (x rays) is usually necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
Sometimes the foreign body does not show up on the radiograph and a
barium study is necessary to make the diagnosis. Most often, surgery
must be employed to remove the foreign body.
Hobbyists frequently house small or juvenile water turtles within
enclosures containing water that is too deep or within enclosures that
are in some other way hazardous. All water turtles should be provided
with a resting and basking area. Otherwise, exhaustion and drowning may
result. Juvenile water turtles often become trapped under plants and
rocks or behind filters, and drown. All such environmental hazards must
be removed or corrected. Emergency measures may save some drowning
victims because a turtle's heart will continue to beat for many hours
after the animal appears to have died. Treatment for drowning involves
holding the turtle with its head toward the ground and its back legs
elevated, and moving its legs to force water from its lungs. Mouth to
nose artificial respiration may also be used. If the turtle can be
successfully revived, antibiotic and appropriate supportive care are
necessary until the turtle has recovered.
Turtles and tortoises, like birds, have "beaks''. These horny coverings
of both the upper and lower jaws tend to grow continuously for life. In
the wild, the upper and lower beaks wear down as fast as they grow. In
captivity, however, they overgrow, and periodically must be trimmed by
an experienced veterinarian or veterinary technician.
A prolapse occurs when a particular organ "turns inside out" and
protrudes through Its usual external opening. In contrast to this
situation with land turtles, prolapses of the uterus or intestine are
rare in water turtles. If you suspect a prolapse, keep the involved
organ moist and protected, and seek veterinary attention immediately.
Please call the Merrick Veterinary Group at 516-379-6200 to schedule your turtle for an examination with Dr. Marder or Dr. May today.