Tips on Keeping Turtles

I’m a college student who is considering acquiring a pet turtle. According to the web, box turtles are both a good pet for beginners as well as a really bad one. I’ve also heard good things about musk and mud turtles. In particular, mud turtles. Could anyone give me information on what kind of turtle would be good for a beginner, and any experiences, that sort of thing.


Can you still get pet turtles legally? I thought they were all outlawed because they carry Salmonella.

Maybe that was just certain breeds. But I thought it was a general ban.

We have a ceramic turtle, a ten+ pounder! He’s easy to maintain and he’s a good house sitter when we’re out. I know that because we have a sign posted that says: BEWARE OF ATTACK TURTLE

Our western box turtle, Sparky, has been with us for three years now. She didn’t want to move to Japan with her previous owner…

She lives in a 3.5’ tupperware bin in the living room. The very few key things to consider are:
Clean fresh water always. She requires a (1’ plastic tupperdish) water change every two days…uses it as a toilet which is very thoughtful of her, keeps the bark changes down to every few months. I use a few cups of water which has been left out for a few days (for the fish) and contains some de-chlorinator (from the fishstore) and a little (1spoon/three gallons) aquarium salt - the cat drinks this as well.

Light - reptiles need both UVa and UVb light to approximate sunlight so that means a spotlight for the A and a blacklight (reptilight) for the B - on a timer so I don’t have to deal with it.

Food - weell you find out that turtles can be picky eaters - she is…mostly goes in for live food (1-4 crickets every day or mealworms or the bigger superworms. She likes bananas, peaches…sometimes other fruits…catfood better than store-turtlefood…I watched her eat 10 cicadas one spring…fish from the tank (if they died without disease)

They hibernate when it gets cold and require a place to hide and you to check on them but not worry too much.

I find a piece of roof slate under her bark helps keep her nails short and a cuttlebone (look in the bird section of the petstore) for extra calcium and to keep beak growth down.

They like to explore, we take her out to the park in spring and let her roam but you gotta watch out for dogs…also turtles are faster than you might think.

My friend at work has had a box turtle for years that roams around her house and eats from a bowl in the kitchen - they can live to be 100 years old if you take good care of them.
The wild ones can carry disease and many are protected, the local stores in VA sometimes have Russian Boxes, Do some more internet research, Good Luck!

If you MUST have a turtle, a box turtle is a good choice. Petcat has some good advice there. However, from personal experience I will tell you that turtle poop REALLY stinks and they do like to use their water bowls as potties - thus we were changing turtle water four times a day.

I recommend getting rats. Ours have proven to be marvelous pets.

Only red eared sliders, the kind you used to get in Woolworths with a little bowl.

I bought two when I was in junior high. They grew to 10 inches each, and I kept them in an aquarium. When I went to college, my parents finally donated them to a zoo. (That was their story, at least.)

Turtles are cool. I would recommend them as pets, provided that you realize what you are getting yourself into. While it may seem like they are simple to care for, they can get a bit involved. They don’t need too much space, so that is one plus, but they do need a tank at least about 4 feet by 2 - 3 feet.

Lighting is also a must. They will need at least one spotlight (heat), plus a fluorescing bulb that provides UVa and UVb rays. This is very important, because these wavelengths, like in humans, are used to produce vitamin D. You have to be very careful what exactly you get when buying a bulb. I would stick with fluorescent lights, rather than filament lights, as the filament lights don’t provide the full required spectrum (only UVa as petcat said). UVb is vitally important. You can use two separate bulbs for UVa and UVb, but I find it is easier to combine the two into one, and have a separate heat lamp. The floresencent bulbs last for ever, but need to be replaced every six months as their UV production drops off. Also, with the fluorescents, you can by bulbs with different levels of UV production, so you can tailor them to your turtles needs.

Food can also be tricky. A truly balanced diet consists of a protein source, and fresh veggies. When they are younger, they require more protein, and the older they get, the more veggies that they will eat. For protein, I would stick with live crickets, freshly shed mealworms, or feeder fish. All of these should be available at any good local pet store, and for cheap as well. With the insects, make sure to gut load them for 24 hours prior to feeding. This means, essentially lots of fresh food and calcium dust. Calcium dust can also be put on their veggies, and shaken on the outside of the insects prior to feeding. I would avoid canned dog and cat foods, as fresh protein sources are cheap, easily available, and generally healthier. I’m not saying that dog food will dramatically shorten their lives, or impact their health in any detrimentally fashion, but for my lizard, and the turtles that I cared for at the local museum, I prefer foods that are more “natural” as opposed to processed, much as I prefer “natural” foods rather than processed for myself. This point really is a judgment call, and for every six herp owners you talk to, you will get seven different answers.

Hmmm, what else….

First, a caveat. For the record, I am not a vet, but I was in charge of animal care at my local museum for two years, plus I own several reptiles of my own. Also, since our local herp vet left, and has yet to be replaced, I have filled in as an emergency care expert for some local. So, while I feel that I have a pretty decent idea of what I have written about, do take it all with a grain of salt and do some research on your own as well. These links may provide some help with your decision: is a superb site. Has information on everything about anything scaly and cold-blooded. Of particular interest to you is the bit on box turtles

For lighting info:

If you do get a turtle, this book is a must have.

Philippe De Vosjoli is the expert when it comes to retiles. His books are very well written, and contain very good information.

And, in closing, if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me.

I meant to add this. The ban is actually on small turtles that young kids can potentially place in their mouths, there by transmitting the salmonella. All retiles, and amphibians, can potentially be salmonella vectors, due to the fact that they spent time exposed to their feces. No matter how clean you are, you can never get the tank clean right away, and it’s a pain to get the little buggers to wear diapers.

Another potential reason for the ban is that turtles, especially red eared sliders, were often bought on the cheap, and were quite tiny. Perfect pet for a kid right? Well, that turtle gets big fast, and lives long, and many kids lost interest fast. Not willing to kill them, people often released the turtles into local ponds. Well, it turns out the turtles did quite well in those local ponds, often out competing local species. This map shown native and non-native ranges. A similar thing has happened here in BC with the bullfrog. It was originally farmed (!!) for its legs, to sell to restaurants. Eventually, some escaped (actually, a lot) and they bred like wildfire. They are now eating local frog species, and are bringing down local populations. Now, I don’t know if this was directly behind the ban, but it is a very good reason to either outright ban their sale, or at least limit them to licensed pet shops.