Turtles are a unique species of reptile who have special requirements in captivity which must be met to ensure they are happy and healthy. Turtles can live for many years, with some pet turtles having been reported to live over 50 years. It is important to consider this when choosing a turtle for a pet as it is a long-term commitment to ensure their health and wellbeing is maintained. Considerations include space available in their housing, special diet, environmental requirements including water quality and access to natural light.
Species of Turtles
The most common turtles kept as pets in Australia are the Eastern Long Neck Turtle and the Murray River Turtle . In many states and territories, you may need a reptile keeper licence to keep a pet turtle. It is illegal to take a turtle out of the wild, so if you are considering bringing a new turtle into your home, you must obtain them from a licenced breeder or reptile keeper .
Turtles are an air-breathing aquatic species and so will need a pond or an aquarium for housing. Regardless of what you choose, all turtles require an area out of water where they can bask. Young turtles are relatively small, but will significantly increase in size as they grow, with some reaching up to 34cm in shell length . Therefore, ensuring sufficient space during their captivity over time also needs to be considered. You should ideally provide the biggest water body which is optimal for your turtle’s health. This will allow plenty of room for natural behaviours such as swimming and diving. Turtles require access to basking spots and sunlight is required to produce Vitamin D, similar to humans. This can be provided by use of a ramp or a turtle dock (platform) to a basking spot out of the water with a basking globe and a UVB globe angled towards the ground [1,2]. UVB bulbs will need to be changed every three to six months to provide adequate UV rays. Where an aquarium is housed inside, it is beneficial to take your turtle outside to give them access to natural sunlight a few times a week for around 30 minutes at a time. It is best to have a UVB globe in addition to natural sunlight so that if your turtle’s access to natural sunlight is inconsistent or reduced, they are still getting adequate UVB rays for optimal health. For turtles housed in outdoor ponds, positioning in an area with at least 8 hours of natural sunlight daily can ensure they receive adequate sunlight. If this positioning is not possible, they will also need a UVB globe in a basking area protected from the weather. Care must also be taken to maintain temperature outside (between 20 to 28 degrees Celsius for most Australian turtles) and they may still require a basking globe for heat depending on the weather [2,3,4].
Wild turtles respond to colder weather by going into hibernation, allowing them to minimise their activity level and, therefore, feed intake at a time when food availability may be reduced. It is generally advised to maintain warm temperatures to avoid hibernation of captive turtles (particularly those in outdoor ponds) as hibernating turtles often hide under rocks and leaves, and can hibernate for several months. This makes it difficult to monitor the main indicators of optimal health which are feeding habits and activity levels, as well as skin and shell condition. Even if the location of a hibernating turtle is known, they should not be disturbed or handled. By maintaining their optimum temperature, you can avoid hibernation.
Both indoor and outdoor set ups for your turtle have their benefits and you need to take into consideration the different requirements for each. If your turtle is housed indoors, you may be able to better maintain the required temperatures. However, they will need to be taken outdoors regularly for natural sunlight and UVB bulbs need to be changed frequently [2,3,4]. If your turtle is outdoors, they will have unlimited access to natural sunlight, and you may be able to create an environment more similar to their natural environment. However, it can be harder to maintain temperatures and care must be taken to prevent access from predators or wild turtles . Turtles are also excellent climbers so outdoor ponds will require high fencing to stop them from escaping . Substrate is the layer of material that covers the bottom of a pond or aquarium. It is useful to help beneficial bacteria to grow and can provide somewhere for you to plant live plants if you wish to use these in your tank or pond. Substrate is not an absolute requirement but does provide a more natural environment for your turtle as they like to dig. Keep in mind that turtles may eat aquatic plants so make sure any plants are safe before putting them in with your turtle. When deciding on the substrate to use in your aquarium or pond, you should ensure that it is not a size that a turtle can consume; for example, sand can cause impactions which can lead to constipation . Rocks or large pebbles are better options and are also easier to clean than fine gravel or sand.
A good quality filter and aquarium/pond heater is imperative for turtles as water quality and temperature directly affects their general health. Ensure that the chosen filter and heater are designed for the size (volume measured in litres) of your pond or aquarium. Large canister filters are recommended as turtles produce larger amounts of waste compared to fish, so you may find internal filters are not able to keep up with the filtration required . Turtles need to be maintained in their Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ) to thrive in their environment and be able to digest food effectively. For Australian turtles, this is between 20 and 28 degrees Celsius. You should also use multiple thermometers, with one on the opposite end of the aquarium or pond, and one directly adjacent to the heater. This will ensure the temperature is being maintained across the pond or aquarium. This should be checked daily, especially when the ambient room temperature is below their optimum temperature, as even short fluctuations in temperature can affect the health of your turtle. Daily checks will ensure you are aware if the water heater malfunctions, and it is ideal to have a backup heater so that faulty heaters can be replaced as soon as possible. Glass heaters should be stored in a cage to prevent your turtle breaking the heater .
Water quality is critical for all aquatic species and testing should be carried out weekly to ensure the water parameters are ideal for your turtle. Generally, the most important parameters for both indoor aquariums and outdoor ponds are temperature, pH (between 7-8.4) and nitrites (from turtle waste). It is important to recognise the difference between nitrates and nitrites as both indicate ammonia levels – either or both may be included in commercial water quality testing kits. Nitrates are generally not toxic to turtles and are utilised by aquarium plants. In high levels they can be dangerous but generally remain low in most well managed tanks. Nitrites may rise more quickly and are an indicator that a water change is required as this type of ammonia can be harmful to your turtle. A 25% water change weekly will help to keep the pH and level of nitrites and nitrates within required limits .
You will need to use a water conditioner to ensure the tap water is safe for your turtle. Tap water usually contains chlorine and/or chloramine which are common disinfectants used to make drinking water safe for human consumption. There may also be trace heavy metal contamination from plumbing or waterways. These can all be harmful to turtles. To neutralise these, a water conditioner can be added to aquarium or pond water. Alternatively, letting water sit in a bucket/container for around 48 hours will allow chlorine to naturally dissipate but it will not remove other potential contaminants. Bottled water may contain disinfectants, and bore water often contains heavy metals, so use of a water conditioner is still recommended. You should avoid replacing large volumes of water at one time, as sudden changes in water parameters can cause your turtle to become ill .
Water oxygenation is also important for turtles. Adequate water oxygenation can be achieved by using an air pump with an air stone placed in the bottom of the aquarium. Running water such as a waterfall produced from a filter or water pump can also help to increase the oxygenation in your turtle’s pond or aquarium. Good oxygenation is important for maintaining beneficial bacteria, which contributes to water quality. An added benefit of running water in outdoor ponds is the water agitation prevents mosquitoes using the pond for breeding.
Turtles need to be submerged in water when they eat. Long neck turtles are known as ‘ambush predators’ and in the wild eat a varied diet including insects, crayfish, prawns, freshwater mussels, fish and, in some cases, animal carcasses. Short neck turtles are ‘opportunistic omnivores’ and eat a wider variety of food including vegetables, fruits, insects, crayfish, fish, prawns and mussels. There are a variety of commercial turtle pellets available which can be used as a basic diet, but it must be supplemented with food items similar to their natural diet. A general rule for how much to feed is a meal roughly the size of your turtle’s head twice a week for adults and every two days for younger turtles. Remove any uneaten food as this can affect water quality. You may also choose to feed your turtle in a separate aquarium for easier cleaning .
Environment and enrichment
Ideally, you should avoid making any major changes to your turtle’s habitat quickly as this can affect their wellbeing as demonstrated in a recent study where reptiles displayed more signs of anxiety when placed in unfamiliar areas . To reduce stress, their habitat should mimic their wild habitat as much as possible . Signs of stress include aggression, overactivity or reduced activity, reduce appetite and sudden defecation during handling .
Turtles are inquisitive and active animals. Hiding fresh fish, shrimp or insects in the substrate can so that your turtle can dig and search for their food can provide enrichment for your turtle. Natural branches and plants can provide areas for your turtles to hide and climb and rocks can be used for basking . Turtles are generally very solitary animals in the wild, and they are perfectly happy living on their own. If you decided to house more than one turtle, they may fight or breed, so it is not recommended.
General health care
If their habitat and diet is well managed, generally turtles will remain healthy. There are no yearly vaccinations or worming treatments required for turtles like there are for cats and dogs, so the main form of health care is managing their husbandry well at home. Not all veterinarians have experience with turtles, so it is important to look for a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about exotic species, to seek advice should your turtle develop signs of ill health. Turtles do not generally show signs of illness until they are quite sick, so it is important to monitor them closely for any subtle changes in behaviour such as reduced feed and activity or weight loss. You may also notice a change in shell or skin colouration or texture if they are unwell, such as a softening of the shell or discolouration which can indicate water quality issues and/or bacterial or fungal infections. When acquiring a new turtle as a pet, it is recommended that they have a full health check with a veterinarian with experience treating turtles to ensure your new turtle has no signs of ill health or parasitism.
If your turtle is housed outdoors, it is important to ensure that predators and wild turtles are not able to access your turtle, as this could lead to injuries or transmission of disease. A high fence will keep out predators and wild turtles and ensure your turtle cannot escape. Escaped turtles are at risk from other animals (including dogs and cats) but they may also be injured by a car if they cross a road. Motor vehicle injuries in turtles are not uncommon and can be serious as they are not easy to treat with wounds taking a long time to heal.
Disease risk to humans
Turtles can transmit diseases to humans (known as zoonotic diseases), such as Salmonella. When handling your turtle or maintaining their habitat, hand hygiene is very important to prevent transmission of disease between you and your turtle .
The initial cost to set up a suitable habitat for your turtle can range from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars when you consider the cost of an aquarium, filters, substrate, food, heating, lighting, enrichment, air pumps, water quality and temperature monitors and water conditioning treatments. You may also need to consider the cost of a reptile keeper licence which varies across states. The cost of caring for turtles over time can add up quickly. UVB globes may need to be changed as frequently as 3 months and the average approximate cost in Australia is $30. Basking globes will also require changing and cost an average of approximately $15 to $20. A thermostat to ensure you are maintaining the correct basking spot temperature can cost up to approximately $200. Aquarium/pond heaters can cost up to approximately $100. You will also need to consider the cost of electricity in running these devices; they can use quite a bit of electricity with basking globes on during the day and water heaters on continuously. A good filter can cost a few hundred dollars, and you will need to replace the filter media and parts such as impellers regularly to keep the filter in good condition. The cost of food can vary but as a minimum expect to spend between approximately $5 to $20 a week, with younger turtles requiring more frequent feeding and provision of weekly live feeder fish or fresh seafood/insects being more expensive than turtle pellets. Live and varied feed will provide the most optimal nutrition for your turtle . The cost of veterinary care must also be considered, and turtles will often require specialist care due to their unique requirements and the average approximate cost of a consultation is between approximately $90 and $200 depending on the individual clinic. Medications, treatments and hospitalisation are additional .
Before bringing a turtle into your home, you should carefully consider your ability to manage their environment and afford their ongoing costs. Turtles are complex pets to keep, and the majority of cases of ill health in turtles are due to problems with water quality and feeding. Turtles have been known to live to over 50 years and can be lifelong pets. If you cannot commit to providing optimal care over their natural lifespan, consider if a turtle is the right pet for you.
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