Caring for Your Red-Eared Slider

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.

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:

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


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: