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Red Eared Slider Turtle Housing

By Edited Mar 20, 2016 0 0

This article is part of a four-part series, each article is stand alone but the four articles represent the full aspect of pet turtle care – General information, Housing, Feeding and Health.

During the late 1970s and during the early 1980s small brightly coloured green turtles with red slashes near the eyes, started to flow out of pet stores. Glassy wide-eyed critters that sat neatly stacked in big black tubs, just waiting for their forever homes. They were sold by the dozens in small plastic tubs with a little tree and bridge with the promise the turtle will not outgrow whatever container you put it into.

When turtles first hit the pet trade there was a lot of mis-information being touted as expert fact by mis-informed well intended souls. You can still find people who believe and promote the mis-information of the 1970′s and 1980′s.

As a pet turtle owner, the onus is on you to be responsible for becoming informed before getting a turtle, you have to be responsible for its care, maintenance and needs. This means using more than one website for information and ensuring the source is reliable. Your turtle with proper care can easily live 50 years, you just might have to bequeath your shelled relic to someone when you die.

I have owned my one turtle Benedict for thirty-two years, my second has been with me for fifteen years and my other two adoptee I named Sam and Ella were in their late twenties when they came to me unfortunately I had to give them to an animal reserve - they were simply to large for any indoor residential set-up (Ella was nearly 15 inches carapace and Sam, her brother, was thirteen inches. Quite large for this species). But they are still alive today, doing well and educating the youngsters about turtles both wild and pet.

Turtles are not interactive like dogs, they do not ever snuggle with you, they rarely sometimes bug for attention and they do not have vocal abilities. It is easy sometimes to forget that they are like any other pet you may have – dog, cat, mouse, hamster or bird – that relies on you for its needs.

Turtles are impossible to find homes for - if you are not prepared for the long haul be responsible and pass-by the long living creature by and get yourself some fish or a hamster.

Turtles make great pets for adults … they really do. If you arm yourself with knowledge first and know what you are getting into to.

Now that my soap box moment is over lets move on to the fun stuff. Setting up their new habitat and enjoying your new pets antics. Just because turtles carry their homes on their backs doesn't mean you don't have to build them a great home.

Need Space

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

The best thing about owning a turtle is the plethora of options and ways you can house them. You are of course limited by minimum amounts such as size of tank and space available in your home but when it comes to housing a turtle, you likely have a goodly number more options available to you than you probably originally thought you did.

But before you can play with the options there are a number of things to consider before making your final decision, such as type and size of tank, basking area, filtration needs, maintenance, the costs of tank or materials to build one, cost to run the tank as well as time available to do all that, and perhaps most importantly, you need to consider space and weight considerations of your dwelling.

Tank Types and Sizes

Tanks come in square, rectangle, octagon, circle and half circle all of varying sizes from 10 gallon to 300 gallons or more. The design or type of tank you get, will largely depend on where in the house you are putting it, your personal tastes and how much weight that floor can take. Rectangle and squarish type tanks are most often used as they fit in every room of the house. The size of the tank some people will say depends on the turtle size, I disagree. The size of the tank will ultimately be the size needed for whatever genetically pre determined size he or she grows too.

As such I strongly recommend you go as large as you can go the first time around, it will save you heaps of money and frustration down the road. The larger you go the first time around, the less it will cost you down the road in upgrades.

Let me explain this logic, you just bought a cute $10 turtle and a twenty or thirty gallon tank with a filter for it, decorations, tank bottom (for me that is usually sand), lighting, basking spots and food. Six months pass and your turtle needs a larger tank cause it had the audacity to outgrow its tank.

Custom Built

So, you the doting owner upgrade to a 60 gallon, you now need a new filter that will adequately filter the new tanks volume and lighting for the larger tank, you'll probably have to upgrade the basking area, add more tank bottom .. you get the idea.

Guess what six months later … that beast did it again ... yes another full upgrade.

And each upgrade will cost you more than the last cause I am 99.3% certain you won't get even a third of the original cost of the tank when you try to sell it - accessories and all. 

Go as big as you can the first time around it will save you money, frustration and time. But remember with turtles there are always options on top of options and this include how you house them.

And remember Red Eared Slider turtles are aquatic and great swimmers, even the little guys. There is no need to put them in a tank with a few inches of water, fill her right up as full as you can.

Glass Tanks

Glass tanks are the most popular for a variety of reasons - price, longevity, ease of maintenance, they are also my personal choice. I use glass tanks because they are so incredibly easy to set–up and maintain, they've become a part of my home decor and centre pieces that are usually either commented on or stared at.

Glass tanks and its accessories are a big business. They have something for every need – stands of all types, designs for all types of personalities, filters designed specifically for glass tank style set ups, covers, lights and bulbs, aerator and bubblers, ornaments, live plants and fake ones … It is very convenient, and I genuinely love that stability and reliability in glass tanks.

Rubbermaid Type Tubs

These by themselves are not good permanent homes. They make great sick tanks and temporary tanks but not as the main tank for life. 

Rubbermaid Tank Example

The whole point of getting a turtle is to have a pet, not hide it in some bin no one can see. I do not like that the turtle can not see out and over a long period of time that will bring out reclusive and aggressive behaviour.

Filters can be tricky if not downright impossible to get attached to the sides and the submerged under gravel type for filters are not efficient enough to maintain a turtle tank without constant maintenance.

And simply, they are not large enough to house an adult turtle for life. These are aquatic turtles that love to swim in water.

They do make great sick tubs though.

When turtles need medicines it is rarely a pill but rather water soaks which are more effective when treated in smaller quantities (not stronger doses). Rubbermaid tubs are easier to fill and handle between cleanings. The privacy works for a sick turtle, they want to be left alone so the plastic side acts like a blind and offers them the privacy.

They also make great adjustment tubs which allow the turtle time to get adjusted to a new home noises and the darkened waters offer a sense of security for the turtle. It also gives you time to finish setting up the new tank if you need it.

The Custom Builds

If you're a great designer, dedicated builder and not one to cut corners, mixing and matching different set ups to create one big one (or small one) is right up your alley. If your like me and go cross-eyed at the sight of putting something together, there are professional companies that can help you build the perfect custom build.

Any custom build or mix'n'match will require detailed planning, time and effort and some money as well. While I have seen some really creative set ups my personal experience with them is that they tend to become space consuming, time hogging and pricey ... even when you five and dime the build.

The designs and methods used to create your build are endless and individual. I have seen plastic kiddie pools turned into planted islands with the middle being built up as the basking spot and the surrounding area is all water, rocks and plants.

Then there are the custom builds that are truly show pieces in their own right. Large one and two hundred gallon tanks, or more, surrounded by wood on a stand or even built into the wall.

Custom Tank

They are often pricey (have to be professionally done) and can be relatively easy to maintain if that was taken into consideration when building (surprising how many do not). Indoor ponds encased in a wooden frame, planted with live plants are a surprising choice of many who choose to do indoor builds

Big builds or small builds, mix and match tubs or even elaborate level designs can all work if you have the space and the time for its maintenance. Not to mention the funds to finish the project without cutting to many corners (remember the flooded room!)

Whatever you decide you should bear in mind the following … RES turtles need a dry area and a wet area, they need lighting and heat in the dry area. They eat, sleep and defecate in their water, good filtration is a must.

Speaking of which … When you poo where you eat, you need REALLY excellent filtration

Filtration Needs

Turtles are incredibly messy creatures and quickly pollute up a tank. They eat, defecate and live in the same water, without proper and adequate filtration, the tank gets dirty and smelly real quickly. You also increase your risk of Salmonella poisoning (you not the turtle), you will likely be cleaning the tank and or the filter more often and you risk his health – vet bills for a turtle are nothing like a cats or a dogs bill.

Adequate filtration means over filtration. When buying filters for a turtle tank, you need to double your gallon per hour at the least. Both of my tanks are over 120 gallons, I run Rena Filstar 4 which has a flow rate of up to 450gph.

I have had ten years of success with the Rena Filstar 3 filter. I find it to be a reliable, efficient and easy filter to use. I absolutely love the way you can disconnect the tubes with little fuss. The only real downside is that it only comes in blue. Both tanks are getting redesigned, and this includes the filtration system. A future DIY article is coming. 

Inside RENA Filters

There are other types of filtration systems depending on tank size a few people I know use pond filters, others use the filter that hangs off the back of the tank. All filters (except those submerged under gravel ones) tend to work.

If you get a smaller filter or one that is for the size of your tank, you may find you need to clean the filter more often (turtles are messy), if your okay with that then it's a filter that is suitable for you.

Personally I don't want to clean my filters monthly or even bi monthly, I like three to six months, it works for me. You will know your filter needs cleaning when the outputs water flow is weaker than normal.

The stronger your filtration is, also means less work in maintaining the tanks water quality. Algae will grow freely in a nutrient rich water with light, and poop is nutrient rich (I use the tank water for my house plants, they love it). No one likes a green tank – whether it is pea soup murky green or has long-haired algae all over the glass.

By over filtering you ensure the water is clean and thus not only a healthy environment for your pet but also an odour free tank, cleaning and maintenance on the filter is less often needed. Even the costs go down in regards to filter inserts and part replacement when over filtering – but that may just be the case with the Rena and my personal experience.

I'll let you know how the new canister filter is working once I finishing building it. 


In the case of hatchling turtles right up to about age four years or so UVB light is a must have for proper development. Almost all hatchlings up to 4 or so years, benefit from the UVB light after that most turtles seem to do all right without it if their diet takes into account their not using one.

Benedict never had a UVB light and I did not even know about UVB lights for turtles till I was older. I got Benedict when I was but a kid in the early 1980s – He had no UVB light and no basking platform for at least eight years - I either got very lucky with him as he grew or he has really good genes.

In the case of Dipstick I used a UVB light due to his being abused and having some shell deformities. Even though he was four years old when I got him, he looked no bigger than baby turtle of maybe a year. His shell had 'pyramided' and deformed due to too small a tank and improper diet, it took years but it slowly corrected itself. He has not had one for years.

Learn and read up on UVB lights and turtles from people who are experienced with it more than I am ... Austins turtle page is a great place to get started, a solid resource for pet turtle care. Arm yourself with knowledge of what is best for the turtle before deciding whether to use a UVB light.

Lighting Design
Heat lights are a must have for any age turtle. 

UVB light mimics the sun and provide vitamin D to your turtle, heat lamps provide heat to your cold-blooded creature. Turtles need heat to warm up and to digest their food, which is why you often see them sunning themselves, even stacked on top of one another if space is limited.

The heat lamp should ideally be above your basking spot, if you find your turtle doesn't use it, it is likely because it is too hot and if he or she is stretching to the light, then it is not hot enough.

When it comes to Dipstick I can't seem to make it hot enough for him, I use those outdoor flood lights for him and he still tries to get closer. Benedict on the other hand likes moderate heat, the kind he can lay in all day. To know what your turtle wants or needs is dependent on you taking the time to watch him and getting to understand his reactions.

A good sign your turtle is happy, is when he stretches out his front and back legs, looking like a yogi master and this leads us to the basking area.

Basking Area

Turtles are mainly aquatic animals eating, sleeping and defecating in the water.

But it does need to come out sometimes and dry off.

Luckily for most of us, turtles don't care where they come out or what they sit on – be it a rock, wood or other turtle – just so long as they are up and out of the water.

Turtles need to not only warm up, but also to dry off either through out the day or just periodically throughout the week. When they are shedding their shells (the scutes on them) they need to dry off to aid this process.

Basking Area

If kept solely in water and given nowhere to dry off, the scutes on the shell will not come off properly and will 'build up' over time these left over pieces, as I find only the sides of the scute comes off and the middle piece stays.

My guys both use driftwood, the downside is I need to buy it at least yearly (it gets waterlogged and never, dries out as good as the first time), as it tends to sink with their weight on it when it's waterlogged. 

A good temperature for basking areas - higher end of 80F and the lower end of 90F.


This is the stuff at the bottom of the tank. It's a hotly contested issue among die-hard turtle owners on the topic of having (or not having) substrate as well as type of substrate.Those in the 'pro' camp of using substrate may disagree with most types of substrate or they may agree that any substrate in a tank is good. It's a complicated issue at times.

Some people, myself included, feel that having substrate in the tank completely covering the bottom is more natural and thus mentally more healthy for the turtle rather than having a bare bottom one. I use only sand and large flattish rocks - it appeals to me aesthetically and I don't have to worry about the turtles choking on a small pebble.

Other people, the con camp, believe that glass bottom is easier to clean and maintain, they can see any poop or left over food and remove it immediately thus creating a healthier environment, whereas substrate hides all that and makes the tank dirty.

These arguments can go around in circles for days, even between two people who are both in the same camp ... I kid you not. I feel that some kind of substrate is needed - the type is not as important to me - whether that is aquarium pebbles, those big glassy sometimes coloured 'rocks' or marbles, sand, real rocks or wood. So long as you are aware of the risks associated with each I don't see the problem. Bare bottom to me is ...cruel.

The main con against sand is the fact that it can get into the filter if you have a turtle kicking it up all the time. The small pebbles or aquarium rocks tend to get 'eaten' or nibbled on by turtles - who suffer the delusion they are always hungry and it can cause health issues. The modern glassy looking rocks are frowned on for being too unnatural a substrate and too much like a glass bottom.

Try different substrates if you want. If your turtle is a nibbler get him sand instead. I had to switch Benedict to sand because he was always digging in the small rocks and when he would try to eat something in the rocks he would sometimes spit out a pebble, so I switched him cause it was cheaper than a veterinarian bill.


Accessories are not a must have like the ones above - tank, light and basking area - but rather additions to the tank that you enjoy as well. Some people love aerators or the 'bubblers'. I love the look but the turtles are not keen on them and always damage them. So no bubblers for me.

Live plants always liven up a tank with their movements in the water, but turtles tend to view anything live in their tank as food and as such most use plastic plants which are not a problem for the turtle. The silk ones may take some damage from a curious turtle, but no harm to the turtle.

Add wood, fish type decorations if you wish, clay pots on their sides or standing up with a broken spot for entering (a underwater cave). Just be aware that your turtle will investigate everything you put in the tank. 

Sometimes setting up a tank is a lot of trial and error, but once you get it set to your preferences AND your turtles preferences, you are on the road to a long, long relationship.

A Dream Turtle Home

Brilliant Ideas; Stunning Tank



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  1. "Red Eared Slider." Austins Turtle Page. 02/10/2014 <Web >
  2. "All About RES." Red Eared Slider. 02/10/2014 <Web >
  3. "RES Care." Tortoise Trust. 01/10/2014 <Web >
  4. "Red Eared Slider." Reptiles Magazine. 03/10/2014 <Web >

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