Everyone knows someone who’s had a terrapin as a pet. These semi aquatic creatures that seem to do nothing much except bite and create slime and smells. But did you know that keeping other types of turtle is becoming more and more popular?
The most common types of turtles are the aquatic varieties such as the red-eared slider, the mud turtle, the musk turtle and the cooter. Keeping a turtle as a pet is a large undertaking; they can live for decades and require very specific housing whether you opt for a land-based or aquatic type. Having said that, a turtle can be a fascinating and attractive pet that will provide you with hours of pleasure.
The variety of turtle you choose depends entirely on whether you want to care for an aquatic or terrestrial animal. Both have very different needs that will need to be catered for in order to prevent illness and stress in the animal.
Whichever you opt for, it’s far better to buy a captive-bred animal direct from a breeder rather than a turtle that’s been caught in the wild that may be stressed by captivity and carrying disease. It’s important to remember that terrestrial or ‘box’ turtles and aquatic turtles can both harbour salmonella so thorough hygiene is essential when handling these animals.
Box turtles hibernate, so it would be wise to make your purchase in the spring or summer so that you have the chance to get to know your new addition before he disappears for the winter. Terrestrial turtles can live up to 100 years and have quite definite housing needs, whereas the semi-aquatic varieties have slightly simpler housing needs.
When preparing a tank for the arrival of a semi-aquatic turtle, a size of between 20-30 gallons would be acceptable – particularly if you’re planning on keeping more than one. It should have a large footprint rather than being too deep as about six inches of water will be more than adequate. It will also need a basking area that’s raised above the level of the water, where your pet can absorb much-needed heat.
Any tank should have a robust filtration system in order to keep the environment clean and healthy. Turtles produce lots of waste material which means a good filter and lots of water changes will be needed. A specialist high-volume filter may be a good idea.
A source of heat will also be necessary as, like all reptiles, the turtle is cold-blooded and needs a heat source to warm him up and give him energy. They also love to swim under lights and a UVA/UVB source should also be provided to help him absorb Vitamin D. Water should be kept at 25-27 degrees Celsius and it should be remembered that the heat in the tank will encourage algae, so this will need to be monitored carefully.
Box turtles have slightly different needs, naturally. While juvenile examples may adapt well to life in an indoor enclosure, adult terrestrials need to be kept outdoors. Adult box turtles can develop serious metabolic disorders which could cause kidney failure if the correct temperature and humidity levels are not provided and this is extremely difficult to achieve indoors. Box turtles originate in areas that have mild, temperate climates and many people make the mistake of assuming that turtles only thrive in warm, dry conditions. This is not true and in most areas of the UK, given the right substrate, humidity levels, access to fresh water and protection from predation, a box turtle will live perfectly happily outside. In the colder, northern areas of the country a waterproof heater may be provided to give extra warmth.
Humidity is the most crucial element of any turtle housing scheme. If they are allowed to dry out, even for the briefest period, they can develop ear abscesses, skin conditions and swollen eyes. Spraying the enclosure regularly with a mister, or watering the ground (this will have the added benefit of encouraging the appearance of worms and slugs that the turtle can eat) will help keep the climate damp and comfortable for your turtle. Carefully selected substrate that can retain water, such as sphagnum moss, will also help keep the atmosphere moist. It would be wise to also provide a pool deep enough for a swim, and a covered area where the turtles can shelter from bad weather. Box turtles particularly, need the company of others so the housing should be big enough to cope with more than one animal. It should also be secure enough to prevent escape and discourage predators.
Only a turtle in robust health should be allowed to hibernate. An animal with any health issues may die if given the opportunity to sleep through winter. In preparation for hibernation you may notice your turtle begins to slow down, eating less and disappearing for extended periods of time. They may bury themselves in deep holes under roots or under the soil. If the environment is appropriate he may be able to get on with hibernation on his own.
You may wish to provide extra covering for your turtle such as old carpet or grass clippings, or you may prefer to move him to a hibernation box. If you opt for a box, it’s essential it contains a layer of damp material such as moss, leaves or soil to keep the humidity at the right levels for your pet. Ideal temperatures for a hibernation area are between 3-7 degrees Celsius. If the temperature drops below 2 degrees the box will need moving to a warmer place.
When young, most turtles are carnivorous, feeding on larvae, crickets, slugs and earthworms. When they get older they become omnivorous and will begin to eat vegetables and fruit. They particularly seem to enjoy mushrooms, apples, strawberries, green, leafy vegetables, bananas and pears. For the older turtle, low-fat tinned dog food may also be fed once a week. Vitamin and calcium deficiencies are common, so feeding a supplement may help prevent any problems related to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
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