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Commonly Asked Questions About Freshwater Turtles


Q: How big will a turtle get?

A: Turtles grow to the size of their environments. If you keep a turtle in a small tank, it will stay small. If you keep several turtles in a larger environment, they will stay small. If you put a single turtle in a large enclosure, such as a 10-gallon tank or a pond, it will grow large. Most sliders, cooters, etc., will reach a maximum diameter of 11” - 16” if you allow them to grow. Painted turtles, mud turtles, and musk turtles will only reach about 4” in diameter. Softshells and snapping turtles can get up to 4 FEET long.

Q: How do I take care of a turtle?

A: Feed your turtle every day, and change its water twice every week (if using a small tank).

Q: How do I clean its tank?

A: If your turtle is in a small (½ gallon - 3 gallon) tank, set it somewhere safe, and dump the dirty water and gravel into a kitchen strainer. Rinse out the gravel for 20-30 seconds, until the water runs clean. Place it back in the empty tank, and refill it with a few inches of room-temperature water. If you are using a larger tank, we recommend using a ShopVac to empty the tank. Simply cover the hose with a fish net to keep from sucking up gravel, and drain the water out, then dump it outside or (if your ShopVac has a hose outlet) drain the water into a sink, toilet, etc.

Q: What kind of water should I use?

A: If you have well water, or pre-filtered water such as a Brita System or Rainsoft, you can use water right out of the tap. If you have city water, leave it sit uncovered (for example, in a clean milk carton) overnight. You can also use bottled spring water or distilled water, or add anti-chlorine drops such as Aqua Plus, DeChlor, StressCoat, etc., to your water before pouring it into the turtle’s tank.

Q: How much water should I use in my tank?

A: Turtles love to dive and swim, so the deeper the water, the happier they are. However, they will drown if they can’t climb out and rest. Be sure to provide a log, a rock, a dock, a piece of bark, or even a soapless floating sponge so your turtle can climb out and rest.

Q: What do turtles eat?

A: In the wild, turtles eat a variety of foods, including baby fish, tadpoles, mealworms, earthworms, tadpoles, and some types of vegetation. They also enjoy bits of lean raw hamburger, dried shrimp tidbits, dried krill, raw or cooked fish, and cooked pork or chicken.

Q: Are pelleted foods healthy for my turtle?

A: Fresh live prey is always the healthiest food for your turtle, but providing fresh live prey isn’t always convenient or economical. There are many different varieties of pelleted food available, and they can be found at most pet stores. Look for ones that are high in meat protein, and low in vegetable/fruit content. Tetra’s ReptoMin and ZooMed’s Aquatic Turtle foods are the two highest-rated foods currently on the market.

Q: Is it true that I can teach my turtle to recognize its name, and come when I call it?

A: Yes! Turtles are very intelligent. Simply feed your turtle a treat (lean raw hamburger, shrimp, chicken, etc.) and say its name every time. Eventually it will learn to come whenever it hears you say its name. (Be sure to reward it with a treat!)

Q: How can I tell the difference between a male turtle and a female turtle?

A: Baby turtles are hard to tell apart. Male turtles have very long, thin tails, whereas female turtles have shorter, thicker tails. If you allow them to grow large, the difference becomes more pronounced. Also, if you allow them to grow, your male turtle’s claws will become very long and sharp. They are used for mating, not for fighting. Freshwater turtles differ from sea turtles and tortoises in that they mate facing each other, belly-to-belly. The male will wrap his longer claws and longer tail around the female’s body and tail to hold her in place.

Q: If I have two turtles, will they breed?

A: Turtles reach sexual maturity at about 5 years old. If you have a male and female, and if you allow them to grow large, they may try to mate. If you keep them small, they will never mate.

Q: How long do turtles live?

A: With proper care, turtles can live at least 10-15 years. Many people have reported life spans of 35-45 years, and longer.

Q: Why do turtles live so long?

A: When a human ages, their body breaks down internally. Turtles don’t seem to do that. Scientists theorize that it’s because they hibernate in the winter. Wild turtles can live hundreds of years.

Q: Will handling turtles make me sick?

A: No.

Q: Why not? Don’t turtles carry salmonella?

A: Yes. But so do cats, dogs, horses, birds, reptiles, and nearly every other living animal… including humans (the e-coli bacteria, which is a close cousin of the salmonella bacteria, is a normal healthy part of our G.I. Tract)! So we have a natural immunity to salmonella. You’d have to let a turtle’s water get so filthy that it’s black and stinking, and then drink it...and assuming you could keep the water down, you might stand a very minor chance of getting sick. People play with their cats and dogs every day, and don’t wash their hands afterwards…and no one ever gets sick. Handling a turtle will not make you sick.

Q: Why were turtles outlawed for so long?

A: Contrary to what the media likes to claim, turtles were not outlawed because they carry salmonella. (The salmonella bacteria does not magically disappear once the turtle reaches 4” long!) A Senator’s son put a baby turtle in his mouth, and nearly choked on it, so he passed a Bill in Congress making them illegal throughout most of the country.

Q: Where do turtles come from?

A: Leopard-belly sliders, red-eared sliders, yellow-belly sliders, and many cooters are native all the way from Florida to southern Canada, and west all the way to the eastern Rocky Mountains. Map turtles primarily live in the Louisiana and Mississippi delta areas. Western painted turtles live west of the Rocky Mountains. Softshells are primarily southern turtles, but snapping turtles live throughout the entire United States.

Q: Can I take my turtle outside?

A: Absolutely! Turtles love basking in the sun. But always make sure your turtle has a shady place where it can escape from the heat. (This also applies to placing your turtle’s tank in front of a window...if the water gets too hot, and the turtle can’t retreat to a cooler area, it will die.) Also, make sure your turtle is protected from predators like cats, dogs, raccoons, hawks, etc.

Q: Is my turtle getting enough UVA/UVB light?

A: UVA/UVB are important for a turtle’s health. However, UV bulbs nearly always produce excessive heat, so they are not recommended for use with anything smaller than a 40 gallon tank. High-quality pelleted foods contain Vitamins A, C, and D. An inexpensive addition is to take your turtle outside for a few hours every week. But remember that UVA/UVB rays will not pass through glass or plastic. Put your turtle in a high-sided kiddy pool and let it splash around...but always provide a shady spot so it won’t get overheated.

Q: Do I need to have more than one turtle?

A: Turtles are very social animals, and seem to enjoy each other’s company. Most people buy two turtles “because one looks so lonely by itself.” Turtles thrive well in pairs or groups… but single turtles don’t seem to suffer from loneliness or depression.

Q: Why do turtles pile on top of each other?

A: Turtles climb out of the water to bask. This dries out their shell, and helps keep them healthy. When the basking area is small, turtles will often climb on each other.

Q: Do different species get along together?

A: If two turtles are about the same size, they should get along fine. But remember that turtles have distinct personalities. Never put an aggressive turtle with other turtles, even if their sizes are equal.

Q: Can I put a baby turtle with a larger turtle?

A: In general, no. Larger turtles are often more aggressive than small turtles, and may decide that a baby turtle looks like a delicious lunch. If you choose to house a baby turtle with a larger one, make sure that the larger one is not aggressive in any way.

Q: How large should a turtle be before I put it in a pond?

A: Baby turtles are easy prey for predators such as hawks, raccoons, large fish, alligators, feral cats, etc. Larger turtles are harder to carry away, and can dive deeper into the water, so they stay safer. A good rule of thumb is to make sure the turtle is at least fist-sized before you introduce it into your pond.

Q: I have my turtle in a small tank, but it’s starting to grow.

A: If your turtle starts to grow even in a small tank, and you want to keep it small, don’t give in and move it to a larger tank. Even though it seems like it’s running out of room, keep it in the small tank. It will stop growing. Keep it in the small tank for another 6-9 months after it stops growing. Then you can move it into a larger tank...and it should not grow again.

Q: My turtle grew big even though I kept it in a small tank. Why?

A: Most people think of a 10-gallon tank as a “small tank.” It’s not. To a turtle, it’s huge. So of course the turtle will grow huge in it. Turtles kept in tanks ranging from ½ gallon to 2 gallons will stay small.

Q: I don’t live in Florida. Where can I buy turtles in my own state?

A: Sorry, but you can’t. You’re allowed to own turtles anywhere...but you can only buy them in Florida. However, they can be shipped via overnight or two-day air anywhere in the continental United States.

Q: Can I take a turtle on a plane?

A: That depends upon the airline. They either will not allow a turtle onboard at all, or they’ll charge a full-freight pet ticket (usually about $100) to allow the turtle to ride in your lap. However, many people “sneak” the turtle onboard by putting them in small traveling cups, then declaring them to the TSA agents when they pass through security. The TSA agents will have you hold the turtle as you walk through the scanner, to make sure you haven’t embedded a tiny bomb in its belly. After they clear you through (and they will, because they don’t care whether you have a pet ticket or not) simply put the turtle cup in your purse or carry-on luggage, and proceed onto the plane as usual. Interestingly, turtles do not seem to mind flying in pressurized cabins, and actually handle the trip better than most people.

Q: Why won’t my turtle eat?

A: Turtles sometimes stop eating if they’ve been recently moved to a new tank, if the temperature is too low, or if they aren’t feeling well. If your turtle seems to be healthy, but it has little or no appetite, check the temperature in its area. Turtles prefer the low 80s. If the temperature is lower than about 75 degrees, place a reading lamp over the turtle’s tank to provide a little extra warmth. If the turtle still doesn’t eat, turn up the heat a little. Turtles will eat, even if they’re sick, when the temps are above 86 degrees.

Q: Why are my turtle’s eyes puffy?

A: Turtles can actually catch human colds. If your turtle’s eyes are puffy, it’s sick...and if left untreated, it may die. Turtle eye drops (available at many pet stores) are specially made to reduce inflammation and eliminate bacteria from your turtle’s eyes. Apply this medicine as soon as you notice a problem, and continue using it until your turtle’s eyes are clear and bright again.

Q: If I find a turtle roaming free, can I keep it?

A: Legally, no. The Florida Wildlife Department frowns on taking any animal out of the wild, and will issue severe fines if they catch you. These fines can range anywhere from $500 to $500,000 per turtle, depending on the species. Most other states have similar laws.

Q: I have a big turtle I want to release into the wild. Can I do that?

A: If you own the land where you want to release the turtle, or the land is privately owned by someone you know, you can release it there. You can not release any living animal, even a turtle, on publicly owned or government-owned property. You could face fines of up to $50,000 for each turtle you release, if you are caught by Federal or local law enforcement officials.

Softshell Turtles

Snapping Turtles

Snappers Softshells

Cooters, Sliders, Maps, etc.

Click Here To Learn More About:

Pretty cumberland turtle swimming underwater
Cumberland Turtle
(aka “Leopard-Belly Slider”)
Pretty red-eared slider turtle sitting on a rock
Red-Eared Slider
Lovely newborn map turtle sitting on a leaf
Map Turtle
Gorgeous baby cooter turtle sitting on a leaf
Cooter Turtle
Gorgeous high-color western painted turtle
Painted Turtle
Baby Softshell Turtle
baby softshelled turtle basking on a rock Adult soft-shelled turtle looking around on beach Baby soft-shelled turtle basking on rock Baby leucistic soft-shelled turtle resting on sand
Baby Florida Snapper
Baby florida snapping turtle Cute baby florida snapping turtle basking on dirt
Baby Florida Snapper
Badly abused adult alligator snapping turtle covered in moss
Adult Alligator Snapper
Closeup of an adult alligator snapper's face with an injured jaw
Adult Alligator Snapper
Adult alligator snapper covered with sea grass basking on sand
Adult Alligator Snapper
Adult Softshell Turtle
Baby Softshell Turtle
Baby Leucistic Softshell Turtle
Sliders