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Red Eared Slider Care

By: Dr. Jenni Bass

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The most commonly kept aquatic turtle or terrapin is the red eared terrapin or red eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, from the genus of painted turtles. They can live for 30 years quite easily. Although most individuals are easy to manage, some can be aggressive, which makes them unsuitable pets for young children.

Anyone contemplating the purchase of a red eared slider should seriously consider the long term commitment necessary to provide good care for the entire life of these animals.
These pets will place considerable demands for care and time on their owners. They need large tanks or ponds, which can be difficult and time consuming to clean.

Proper care of a red eared slider requires considerable expenditure of time and money, and should one owner no longer wish to provide care, it can be extremely difficult to find a good home. Release of unwanted pets into the wild is an unacceptable solution. Without a home territory and the necessary environment, most abandoned turtles will die slowly of starvation. In climates which 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 into the environment bacteria, viruses or parasites.


Housing requirements are determined by the size and number of red eared sliders kept. The enclosure can be a glass aquarium, a plastic tub or a pond, and the use of an outdoor pond is restricted to very hot climates. The enclosure must be selected with forethought to cleaning and filtration. Water needs to be drained and replenished, and periodically the enclosure needs to be disinfected. Avoid a gravel or sand substrate as this will make cleaning and filtration more difficult. Turtles also tend to eat gravel, and this can lead to a blocked intestine.

The load on the filter can be lessened by feeding your animals in a separate, smaller, easily cleaned tank. Larger animals require a large enclosure and an especially efficient filter system. As a rule, the combined surface area of all the residents' carapaces (top shell) should not exceed 25 percent of the accessible floor area. The enclosure should not be in direct sunlight, as this can lead to overheating and algae growth.

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). The basking area can be a flat rock atop bricks or a cinder block. It may be built above water level with access provided by a ramp. The dry haul-out must be secure, as it may otherwise topple and trap a turtle, drowning it. A dark cave or a hide, perhaps underneath the basking platform, is often appreciated by turtles, but this must also be accessible to the owner. A screen over the enclosure may also be necessary to prevent escape and the entry of children and predators.

Water Quality

In many cases, water quality is the most important factor affecting a turtle's state of health. Frequent water changes are the best way of ensuring optimal water quality. Partial water changes are not adequate. Tanks of lesser water volumes need to be have the water changed more often, as do tanks with a higher stocking density. For example, three or fewer four inch turtles in a ten gallon aquarium need to have their water changed every two to three days, and a 50 gallon aquarium needs to be changed weekly. If the turtles are fed in their enclosure, the water should be changed within 12 hours.

A small tank can be carried for a water change, while a larger tank must be drained or siphoned. Once empty, the walls of the tank should be scrubbed and rinsed to remove bacteria and any traces of cleaner. De-chlorination of water is not necessary, but it is important to be sure that the turtles do not return to water of a different temperature than that before cleaning. A drastic temperature change could kill the animals, so check this with a thermometer. Water must be at least as deep as the width of the widest turtle's shell. Otherwise, if overturned, the animal will not be able to right itself, and may drown.

Filters 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, as they will usually defecate while feeding. Water quality should be evaluated weekly, or after alterations to the environment. Water can appear clean, but the pH, ammonia, nitrate and nitrite levels may be inappropriate or indeed, dangerous. Test kits are available from aquarium or koi supply centers.

Water pH will vary regionally, to a degree, but should be 7.5 to 8. PH should be checked when any tank parameters are changed, for example a new filter or water change. A sudden pH change can be lethal. 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.

Filter choices vary with tank size and with turtle size and number. Consult a good aquarium shop regarding your specific needs. As a general guide, a filter for a 30 gallon fish tank might be expected to cope with a 10 gallon turtle tank. Check the product guidelines. Mechanical filters include Aquaclear Filter, which rests on the tank rim. The Fluval Cannister Filter sits beside the tank, and is appropriate for larger systems. Biological filters, such as Tetra Brilliant and Rainbow Bio-Sponge, consist of a sponge containing bacteria which process waste in water bubbled through the sponge.

In most cases sponges need cleaning two to three times weekly. This must be done in tank water, in accordance with manufacturers' directions, so as not to disturb the balance of bacteria. Generally speaking, it is time to clean the sponge when the solid waste collected begins to slow the bubbling water. A mechanical and a biological filter can work well in combination.

Under gravel filters must not be used in turtle enclosures, as these can cause the release of fatal toxins from decomposing waste.

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