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Housing Your Red-Eared Slider

By: Dr. Jenni Bass

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Chances are if you own a turtle, it is a red-eared slider. It is the most commonly kept aquatic turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans, from the genus of painted turtles. Native to the United States, these turtles are dark green with yellow lines and distinctive red patches at both sides of the head. Sliders can also be identified by their rounded lower jaw and the webbed toes on the rear legs. Although most sliders are well-mannered, some can be aggressive.

Red-eared sliders are not suitable pets for young children. They place considerable demands on their owners, requiring a lot of time and money, and can easily live up to 30 years. If you are contemplating the purchase of a red-eared slider, consider the long term commitment necessary to provide good care for the entire life of these animals.

When owners no longer wish to provide care, it's difficult to find a good home. You cannot release your unwanted pet into the wild; without a home territory and the necessary environment, most abandoned turtles die slowly of starvation. Also, in climates that do allow the turtles to survive, the introduction of a non-native species can seriously upset the balance of native species. There is always a risk that the abandoned animal will carry and release bacteria, viruses or parasites into the environment. The consequences can be devastating to native animals that may have no immunity.

Housing

Housing requirements are determined by the size and number of red-eared sliders you keep. A standard glass aquarium is most convenient, although the use of an outdoor pond works well in hot climates. Sliders grow fast during the first years, and an adult can measure up to 10 inches, so the bigger the tank, the better it will be for your turtle. For a 5-inch turtle, the minimum size should be a 30-gallon tank. You should also place a screen over the enclosure to prevent escape and the entry of children and predators. Avoid a gravel or sand substrate as this will make cleaning and filtration more difficult. Turtles also tend to eat gravel, which can lead to a blocked intestine.

Turtles require a "dry haul-out" area. This must be large enough to accommodate all the tank residents and to permit them to dry off completely. This is an important aspect of thermoregulation (temperature control of the turtle's body). If the dry haul-out isn't secure, it might topple and your turtle might be trapped and drown. The basking area can be a flat rock atop bricks or a cinder block. Or it can be built above water level with access provided by a ramp. Your turtle might also appreciate a dark cave or a hide, perhaps underneath the basking platform, but this must be accessible to you, too.

Temperature and Light

You will want to provide a microenvironment for your slider: a replication of the temperature, lighting and humidity conditions in the wild. Turtles have evolved in conditions very different to those usually found in captivity; their natural habitat is sluggish rivers, shallow streams, swamps, ponds and lakes with soft bottoms and dense vegetation. Ideally, to allow for thermoregulation, you should provide an atmosphere that allows your slider to choose between temperatures within an appropriate range. Otherwise, your pet will be sluggish and unable to digest food. In addition, your slider's immunity will be impaired and he will not thrive.

Turtles not kept within their preferred optimum temperature zone (POTZ) usually have poor appetites and are more susceptible to disease. You should aim for a temperature of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (24 to 29 degrees Celsius), as long as you also provide a basking hot spot. The easiest way is to supply a ceramic heater or infrared bulb at one end of the dry haul-out and leave it on 24 hours a day. This will provide secondary, background or constant heat, with a gradient.

Your turtle must bask in the sun and get perfectly dry. This is important because warmth stimulates the immune system. You can supply an incandescent 50 to 150 watt light bulb (left on only during daylight hours) above the basking area to provide a hot spot. This should reach 90 to 95 F (33-35 C).

You will have to provide ultraviolet light for your slider for 10 to 12 hours to allow normal calcium metabolism. Sunshine through a window does not provide an adequate source of UV light because glass and plastic filter ultraviolet (UV) rays. A timer is recommended for this. Lights may be marketed as "full spectrum," but they do not necessarily emit the correct wavelengths of light. Lights suggested include: Dura-test Vita-lite and Vita-lite Plus, Reptisun and Iguana light (Zoomed Laboratories).

While black lights do emit the appropriate UVB rays, they do not emit "natural looking" light; they should be used cautiously because they are not safe for every species and long term or close exposure can lead to eye damage for reptiles and their keepers.

Fix the UV light 18 to 24 inches from your pet's basking spot for the turtle to receive maximum benefit. Although they will continue to emit visible light, most lights will eventually cease to produce the UVB component of the spectrum and should be replaced every 6 to 12 months. Keep in mind: None of these lights approaches natural sunlight, in terms of UVB output and the psychological importance of proper lighting. Therefore, you should provide a combination of lights. As long as UV requirements are met, lights may be added to improve color, appetite and behavior.

Sunlight is tremendously beneficial, but only when the animal is within the preferred optimum temperature zone. When the temperature outside is warm enough, expose your turtle to natural sunlight, either through a screened window or outside in a secure enclosure. Be aware that when exposed to natural sunlight reptiles often undergo dramatic behavior changes, and they can become very active and sometimes aggressive.

Turtles placed outside for fresh air and exposure to natural sunlight should have access to water and shelter to permit them to control body temperature. Two to three hours, several times weekly will be beneficial. However, unless your pet is securely confined and protected, you must provide close supervision.

You will also need to provide a submersible aquarium heater to maintain water temperature at 75 to 85 F (24 to 29 C). Place these heaters behind porous plastic sealed across the tank corner (be sure the sealant is safe for use in an aquarium) to protect them from your turtle. Check water and ambient temperatures with a thermometer; gauging with one's hand is not accurate.

For more information on how to care for your red eared slider,please see the following: Caring for Your Red-Eared Slider.

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