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Caring for Your Red-Eared Slider

By: Dr. Jenni Bass

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The red-eared slider is one of the most commonly kept aquatic turtles. They are native to the United States and their natural habitat are sluggish rivers, shallow streams, swamps, ponds, and lakes with soft bottoms and dense vegetation. Along with providing adequate housing for your pet, you must also provide a nutritious diet and fresh, clean water that is the proper temperature.

Diet and Nutrition

The exact nutritional requirements of turtles are not known, so you will have to provide a variety of foods and monitor what your turtle actually eats (as opposed to what he is offered). It may take weeks for your turtle to accept a new food, but if he is warm and healthy, he will eventually try it. If your turtle is ill, or if his environment is not appropriate, he will be less likely to have a good appetite or to try new foods.

  • Protein source: Water turtles are primarily carnivorous and will benefit from a varied diet. Feed your slider goldfish, guppies, minnows, trout and smelt in small quantities. Live fish should be well fed before being killed and fed to the turtle. Do not feed wild-caught fish because they may carry parasites transmissible to the turtle. You can also feed your pet chopped or whole baby mice or skinned, chopped whole adults. Pinkies (furless young mice) cannot be fed exclusively because a calcium deficiency will develop. Whole adult mice are nutritious, but they must be pre-killed.

    Insects, earthworms and mealworms are calcium deficient, but also can be fed in moderation. Earthworms should be cultivated in a wormery, since wild worms may carry parasites or bacteria harmful to sliders. Feed very little, if any, raw meat, liver, chicken gizzard, mince or heart because they have an extremely low calcium content. Do not feed crayfish, shrimp, wild-caught insects or spiders; these may carry harmful bacteria.

  • Commercial diets: Feed your slider commercial diets only in moderation, and feed only those not composed primarily of insects. Small amounts of cat and dog food (not more than 5 percent) are valuable supplements. Trout chow and rabbit pellets can form part of the diet, but do not offer medicated feeds. Bone meal or calcium carbonate can be used as sources of calcium to supplement the diet. These can be included if the diet is prepared in bulk. For large collections, food can be prepared in advance, bound in plain gelatin, cut into portions and frozen.

  • Fruits and vegetables: As they age, turtles may be more willing to consume fruits and vegetables. You can offer your slider dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, chard, romaine lettuce, spinach, and bok choy. You can also offer fruit in small quantities (not more than 5 percent of the diet) but only very occasionally. If necessary, you can add greens to a gelatin mixture to force the consumption of vegetables.

    Water Quality

    The health of your turtle depends on the quality of the water. Sliders are aquatic animals and they release their waste into the water, so the enclosure must be cleaned and disinfected often and the water drained and replenished. If the water is not clean, it harbors more bacteria and the chances of your turtle getting sick increase. Water quality should be evaluated weekly because, although the water may appear clean, the pH, ammonia nitrate, and nitrite levels may be inappropriate or even dangerous. Keep a test kit handy, available at aquarium supply stores.

    Partial water changes are not adequate. Keep in mind that tanks with lower water volumes need to be changed more often than tanks with higher water volumes. For example, a 10-gallon tank housing three or fewer 4-inch turtles should have the water changed every 2 to 3 days. A 50-gallon tank will need to be changed weekly. If the turtles are fed in the same enclosure, the water should be changed within 12 hours.
    A small tank can be carried to a sink for a water change, but if your tank is large, you will have to siphon or drain it. When it is empty, scrub and rinse the walls to remove bacteria and any traces of cleaner. Dechlorination of the water is not necessary, but a drastic change in water temperature can kill the animals, so be certain that the temperature remains the same. Check it with a thermometer. The water should be at least as deep as the width of the widest turtles shell. Otherwise, if the animal overturns, he will not be able to right himself and may drown.

    A sudden pH change can be lethal, so you should check it each time you change the water. The pH may vary somewhat, but it should be around 7.5 to 8. Nitrite, nitrate, phosphate and ammonia levels should be 0, although ammonia may rise to 0.05 mg/L and nitrate to 0.3 mg/L.

    A good filter system will minimize your own work. Filter choices vary with tank size and turtle size and number. Consult a good aquarium shop for help. As a general guide, however, a filter for a 30-gallon fish tank might be expected to meet the needs of a 10-gallon turtle tank.

    Filters will improve water quality, but they are not a substitute for water changes. Aquarium filters are designed for fish, which produce significantly less solid waste than turtles. Feeding turtles in a separate tank or feeding area with its own drainage helps because turtles usually defecate while feeding. Filters can be either mechanical or biological and they work well in combination:

  • Mechanical filters include Aquaclear Filter, which rests on the tank rim and the Fluvial Canister Filter that sits beside the tank. The Fluvial filter is appropriate for larger systems.

  • Biological filters include the Tetra Brilliant and Rainbow Bio-sponge. These filters consist of a sponge containing bacteria that process waste in the water bubbled through the sponge. In most cases, sponges need cleaning two to three times a week. This must be done in tank water, in accordance with manufacturers' directions so it doesn't disturb the balance of bacteria. Generally, it is time to clean the sponge when the solid waste collected begins to slow the bubbling water.

    Note: Under gravel filters must not be used in turtle enclosures; they can cause the release of fatal toxins from decomposing waste.

    Sexing

    How can you tell the sex of your slider? Female red-eared sliders are generally larger than males. A mature female can have a carapace (shell) length up to 11 inches (280 mm), while males seldom exceed 8 inches (200 mm). Females can weigh in excess of 4 pounds (2 kg). Males possess relatively longer front claws and longer tails than females.

    Female turtles, even without the presence of a male, will occasionally lay eggs. Your slider may exhibit a decrease in appetite, and a heightened activity level such as digging. Ideally you should provide a nesting area that is available all year, since your turtle is more likely to lay in familiar surroundings than in a temporary box. The nesting area can be constructed from an appropriately sized plastic container (four to five times larger than the carapace of the female) and filled with slightly moist potting soil or peat moss. Many turtles will lay their eggs in the water. Should the eggs be fertile, hatching and raising turtles is a challenge and requires hiding areas and particular attention to nutrition.

    Signs of Illness

    With proper care and feeding, your turtle should stay healthy. However, your pet should have a yearly physical. If you notice any of the following symptoms, call your veterinarian:

  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in appetite or anorexia
  • Eye or nose discharge
  • Swellings on the head, limbs or shell
  • Depressions or soft spots on the shell
  • Sores on the head, limbs or shell
  • Reluctance to swim or swimming crookedly
  • Weight loss (it is recommended that turtles be weighed monthly)
  • Swollen or itchy eyes
  • Difficulty breathing, gasping, respiratory wheezing, open mouth breathing

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