Your First Terrapin

Snapping, biting, shy and a bit smelly - everyone had a friend who owned a terrapin just like this. But what are terrapins and do they actually make good pets?

What are they?

Terrapins are a branch of small, freshwater turtles and of the 350 species of turtle that exist in the world, only one of those is the terrapin, which in turn has only seven sub-species. As a cold-blooded reptile the terrapin spends most of its time in the water, coming out only to lay eggs and bask and just like tortoises, they can hibernate in winter. Wild populations of terrapins can be found on the Atlantic coast of the USA, Asia and even here in the UK. Terrapins were native to the UK about 8000 years ago, and following the craze for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late 1980s many people dumped unwanted pets in the nation's waterways, and the species seems to be enjoying a renaissance.

Do they make good pets?

Many experts agree that terrapins make an excellent 'starter' pet. They live for a relatively long time compared to dogs and cats (10-20 years), they do not need to eat every day and they don't need training. They are small and don't require a lot of space, although because they can be difficult to handle they are not recommended for small children. It is also worth checking on the breed before you buy - some grow to just four inches in length, while others may reach two feet!

Where to buy

There are lots of specialist reptile stores that sell hatchling terrapins. When you visit make sure the water the terrapins are kept in is clean and the terrapinarium is not overcrowded. Hatchlings can also be bought from breeders - if you find a reputable one they will offer you ongoing support and guidance when it comes to taking your new friend home. You can view all our terrapins for sale on the Pets4Homes website.

Where will it live?

The most important purchase for your new terrapin will be his home - the terrapinarium. This should be a clear glass or plastic tank designed to hold water. A good size for a pair of baby terrapins is 18" x 12" x 14" - but please be careful - terrapins grow quickly! REMEMBER: If you are buying more than one terrapin please make sure you take home males OR females. The terrapinarium should be fitted with a water heater as terrapins don't like cold water - a temperature of around 75 - 80 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended and it would be worth investing in two heaters in case one breaks down. A water filter should also be fitted - this is a crucial piece of kit as terrapins can be messy. The water should also be replaced regularly and any solid waste must be removed frequently to prevent infection and odour. A flat stone or rock must also be provided which stands out of the water. This will provide your terrapin with an area in which to bask. If you can position the terrapinarium so that this area gets some sunshine you will have a very happy terrapin! It's also worth investing in a reptile fluorescent lamp - providing some UVA/UVB light for your pet can help prevent blindness and shell deformities.

What do terrapins eat?

As omnivores, terrapins will take a variety of foods, from water snails and earthworms to fruit and vegetables. They also enjoy many types of meat such as chicken, pork or beef and fish including prawns and trout. Any meat or fish should be offered raw and in chunks small enough to be eaten whole, or nibbled on if preferred. Terrapins also love oily fish such as tuna, sardines and mackerel and the Vitamin D these foods provide will keep your pet healthy. Your pet will also devour plant material and will eat lettuce, watercress and other leafy vegetables as well as fruit such as apples, pears, strawberries and raspberries. Commercial terrapin foods are also available and can help ensure your pet has a balanced diet. Supplements can also be offered to help with shell maintenance - cuttlefish and eggshells (finely ground!) are an excellent sources of calcium, while shop-bought supplements can deliver calcium and other trace elements and are convenient to feed.

Keeping your terrapin healthy

As we have already seen, terrapins can be messy, so it's important to regularly check your pet for any signs of ill-health. His eyes should be clean and bright and his shell should also be bright and free from cracks. He should move freely with no restriction to his head or limbs. The mouth should also be clean and the beak should close symmetrically. No sores or lesions should be present and the mouth should be free of odour. Any signs of discharge from the eyes, nose or mouth should be investigated by a vet. Regularly changing the water and cleaning the terrapinarium will help keep it free of bacteria which can cause a range of conditions such as paralysis, shell rot, sores, missing digits, shedding shell and the growth of slimy membranes. If an illness is suspected it's important to isolate the affected animal immediately and veterinary advice must be sought.

Handling your terrapin

Terrapins have a reputation for being aggressive, and being bitten by one hurts! They are one of the oldest surviving creatures on earth and are designed to be afraid of anything larger than them, which is why many people find themselves on the wrong side of that sharp beak. Firstly, it's essential that your pet has everything he needs to stay healthy and happy, once the correct care is in place, you can begin to earn his trust. Terrapins are instinctively shy and will disappear or attack if handled incorrectly. Hand feeding is a great way of earning your pet's trust. Once it has begun to associate you with food it may actively make its way to you when you arrive at the terrapinarium and you can try and pick him up. Do this briefly at first, and put him back after a few seconds. Also, remember to handle your terrapin gently - he's a very delicate creature. After picking him up remember to reward him with his favourite treat - after all, that's what he was expecting! After you have handled your terrapin please remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

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