Since several years ago, we have become accustomed to seeing freshwater turtles as pets. However, there are still people who are not familiar with their basic care, diet, or the species they have at home.
Typically, new owners who acquire such animals usually start with a specimen from the genera Mauremys, Graptemys, Pseudemys, or Trachemys since they are the most “well-known” popularly.
It is important to note that there is strict regulation regarding the possession and trade of exotic animals, and it is the owner’s responsibility to learn about the species that are allowed and those that are not, whether they are native fauna or invasive species. This information can be consulted through the following link: link.
In this publication, we will focus on the basic care that these types of turtles have in common to assist those owners committed to the well-being of their pets.
These are ectothermic animals, meaning they rely on the temperature of their environment to regulate their body temperature. Therefore, it’s essential for us to provide suitable housing where our pets can maintain an optimal body temperature to carry out their daily metabolic activities correctly (respiration, digestion, blood circulation, immune system, etc.).
Although they are capable of hibernating, from a veterinary perspective, it is not recommended for juvenile individuals because they have lower energy reserves and do not yet have a consolidated immune system.
All four genera share the same habitat, water. Since they spend most of their time in the water, it must always be clean and non-saline. However, they also like having a dry area where they can bask in the sun.
Like most reptiles, they are solitary animals with a calm nature, but they tolerate the company of their kind as long as there is enough space for each of them. If providing ample space is not possible at home, it’s better to have just one turtle.
Males can be distinguished because they are usually smaller than females, have extremely long claws on their front limbs, and a much longer and wider tail base than females. There is a greater distance between the plastron and the cloaca in males than in females. However, these characteristics do not appear until the individual reaches sexual maturity, which can vary depending on housing and feeding conditions. In general, males reach maturity before females.
With proper care, these animals can be very long-lived, living up to 25-30 years. This is important because they can grow to be 15-30cm in shell length and weigh 0.4-2.5kg.
Turtles from the mentioned genera have an omnivorous diet, but they have a clear preference for animal-based foods. When in the developmental phase (before reaching adulthood), it is recommended that 80-90% of their diet be of animal origin, with the remaining 10-20% being plant-based. In adulthood, this ratio can decrease to 50-60%. (It is recommended to consult with a specialist veterinarian for specific dietary and management recommendations for each species.)
Feeding frequency also varies depending on the age of the animal and the conditions of maintenance. Under optimal lighting and temperature conditions, young turtles should be fed once a day, seven days a week, while adult animals can be fed four times a week or less, depending on whether they have completed their physical growth.
They need access to water to ingest their food, so some owners prefer to feed them in a separate container to avoid contaminating the water. Whenever tolerated by the animal, this can be a good option to prevent infections due to poor water quality.
A varied diet is essential. Options include live prey (insects, larvae, fish, mollusks, etc.), fresh animal-based food (previously frozen to prevent the transmission of parasitic and bacterial diseases) such as whole fish, mollusks, chicken and turkey offal, chicken meat, etc., and plant-based food (lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, fruits, etc.), avoiding excess fruit as it is very high in energy. Foods should be given at room temperature and in their raw form.
As supplements to a balanced diet, commercial pellets or vitamin and mineral supplements can be used. There is a wide variety available on the market, so it’s important to know which one to choose and how to use it to prevent potential illnesses, such as vitamin A deficiency.
In this section, we will discuss how to provide the best conditions for space, light, water, and temperature for our beloved turtles.
Aquatic Terrarium: This will be the enclosure where our pet lives. The most commonly used materials are plastic and glass, and it can be purchased pre-made or custom-built. The estimated minimum water volume for an adult turtle is 100 liters per animal, with an additional 50 liters per additional specimen. To calculate the exact liters available in your aquatic terrarium, multiply (in centimeters) the length x width x height of the water level, then divide the result by 1000.
In addition, we must have space to create a dry area, which should have a rough surface like rocks, cork, or artificial grass to allow our pet to climb without issues. Some turtles may eat artificial grass, so if yours does, you should replace it with another material to prevent gastrointestinal problems.
Turtles are not as strict about water quality as fish, but it is essential that the water always maintains a constant temperature, is free from feces and food remnants, and does not have a high chlorine content (be careful when using tap water). Therefore, it is highly recommended to have a powerful external filter to help maintain the proper water conditions.
The location is also crucial, and it’s always better for them to spend most of their time outdoors (weather permitting). In this case, the enclosure should be protected from potential predators (rats, cats, dogs, birds, etc.) and provide shaded areas for the hottest months (yes, turtles can also suffer from heatstroke). If it’s kept indoors, it should be placed in a well-lit area (preferably), well-ventilated, and away from drafts, smoke, and noise.
Lastly, we must consider that turtles are good climbers and can harm themselves if the enclosure is not properly adapted.
Water Filter: When they are small and juvenile, they tend to dirty the water less and live in small enclosures where complete water changes are not costly. However, when they become adults, they need a much larger volume of water and tend to dirty it more, making it impractical to perform complete water changes as frequently as desired (not to mention the strain it can put on us or the environment).
Therefore, it is recommended to have a suitable filter for the water volume of your aquatic terrarium to keep the water clean month after month.
Temperature: Don’t forget that we are dealing with ectothermic animals, so it’s essential to provide a source of heat in the aquatic terrarium where your pet can raise its body temperature.
There are many options available on the market with different power levels. It is recommended to consult with a specialist veterinarian for advice on the most suitable option for your case and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Below, we will briefly outline the available options:
Heat bulb: These bulbs emit heat through radiation and are the heat source most similar to sunlight. They are a good choice if placed in the dry area.
Heat mat: These mats emit heat through conduction. They are not the most recommended option for these animals but can be interesting as a supplement to the heat bulb in very cold areas.
Water heater: These devices emit heat through convection. It is interesting to use this type of heater in very young animals, those you don’t want to hibernate, or in colder climates to avoid temperature contrasts between the water and the environment (when using a heat bulb).
It is important to choose the appropriate heat source to prevent thermal burns in our pets. The enclosure or aquatic terrarium should have a point of maximum temperature and another of minimum temperature (18-30ºC).
Lighting: Last but not least, proper lighting is essential because without it, your reptile will not be able to see properly, making it difficult to eat and carry out proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
For indoor housing, you should provide them with ultraviolet (UVB) light, which allows for the proper absorption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D3, as well as normal hormonal development, among other functions.
The appropriate power level should depend on the size of the enclosure and the distance between the animal and the bulb, so it should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
These bulbs lose effectiveness over time and stop producing sufficient radiation, so it is recommended to replace them every 6-12 months according to the manufacturer’s instructions, even if the human eye does not perceive any difference.
Whenever possible, it is beneficial for your turtle to enjoy a few hours of direct or semi-shaded sunlight without the light being filtered by glass or plastic.
Freshwater turtles, when in good hands, will enjoy good health and accompany us for many years.
Despite the lack of vaccination protocols, it is recommended to visit the veterinarian twice a year for a veterinary check-up (physical examination, fecal analysis, diet and weight control, etc.) and deworming.
To keep your turtle healthy and happy, don’t hesitate to contact a specialist veterinarian who can advise and guide you in the process of choosing and caring for your pet.