Turtles are now quite a common pet, having increased in popularity over the last ten years or so. Having reluctantly been handed the responsibility of caring for one tiny turtle a few years ago, I have now become quite attached to the ugly, dinner plate sized reptile swimming around in an $800 fish tank in my family room.
Turtles can be bought from most pet shops now. They are not cheap, about $50 to $100 each here in Australia, but they are incredibly hardy and will live for many years. They are usually about 2.5 cm or about an inch across the shell when first sold. Both Long and Short Neck Murray River Turtles are sold here.
They spend most of their time submerged, swimming around, but it is essential to have a ramp, or dock, for them to climb up onto and ‘sun’ themselves. Of course in a tank, the ‘sun’ will be a fluorescent light, but the light is required for the development of their shell.
If possible, purchase a large tank from the start. The little turtle will cope quite well in the large tank, as long as they have access to the dock so they can get out of the water. This will negate the need of having to upgrade your tank when your turtle grows.
A quality filter is essential and will save you a lot of work in the long run. Turtles are quite dirty creatures really, so a filter will keep the water nice and clean. A nice thick layer of gravel on the bottom of the tank looks nice and makes cleaning the tank easier. Also for the sake of appearance, plants should be included, but be aware that the turtle will taste test everything you put in the tank, so be prepared to lose a few plants.
A heater will be required. An ideal water temperature is around 26 degrees Centigrade. Make sure it’s a heater that can be settled somewhere in the tank securely. The type with the rubber suction cups on are fine when the turtle is small, but as he grows, he will become extremely good at removing this sort of heater from the tank wall.
A cover over the top of the tank, preferably mesh and a quality UV light on top will just about finish the tank set up. There is no need to fill the tank completely with water. Just to the bottom of the ramp or dock will suffice, as long as the turtle has enough in there to swim around.
Once you have filled the tank and it’s all set to receive your turtle, it doesn’t hurt to add some water conditioner to help reduce the effects of the treated water from your tap. I use two. One specifically for water in turtle tanks and the other to alleviate the effects of the water on the reptile’s skin. Only a few drops of each are required each time I drain and fill the tank. I don’t know how effective either of them is, but the turtle appears to be very healthy.
Once the water has reached the correct temperature, or close to it, your turtle can be introduced to his new home.
There a few things you’ll need to keep the new home nice and clean. An old toothbrush is handy to scrub hard to reach spots in the tank to remove algae. A long-handled brush (brush one side, sponge the other) helps to rid the inside of the glass tank of any algae growth. A manual pump or syphoning tube is essential to remove the old water from the tank. This should be done about once a week, depending on the state of the tank. Don’t remove all of the water. Leave a small amount of the old water and refill with the fresh. This will condition the new water and leave it more suitable for your turtle. Occasionally though you will have to drain all the water from the tank and refill.
When buying a tank, the cleaning utensils generally come as a package with the tank. Make sure you obtain a syphoning hose with the attachment on the end that allows you partially suck up the gravel from the bottom. This gravel will sit in in this attachment and be flushed as the water is syphoned out of the tank. This will remove most of the rubbish from the gravel and keep the bottom of the tank clean.
Freshwater snails are a good idea too. They love to crawl over the glass and eat the microscopic bits of algae. They will also act as vacuum cleaners as they move across the bottom of the tank. The only drawback here is that as your turtle gets older, he’ll probably eat, or try to eat, the snails.
When very young it is recommended to feed your turtle once every couple of days. However, I found once a day to be suitable but please be careful of over feeding. Turtles have a very slow metabolism.
Now out turtle is fully grown, he is fed daily. They are voracious predators and will eat virtually anything. Cubes of ‘turtle food’ can be bought from the pet shops. It comes in separate servings, all individually packaged in blister packs. Store them in the freezer and pop one out each morning. When the turtle was young, we would thaw the block of food out. Now though, it goes into the tank frozen. It thaws quickly, but the turtle usually gulps it straight down.
Live crickets, which can also be bought from pet shops, are excellent turtle food. You will see just how aggressive turtles are when watching them go after the crickets. Make sure the turtle sees the cricket hit the water otherwise the cricket will swim over to the dock and will then be able to avoid the turtle.
Live shrimps (a small freshwater prawn) are right at the top of the list as the turtle’s favourite food. If on a camping or fishing trip to the river, I always return with a supply of live shrimp for the turtle. I will put about half a dozen shrimp in the tank where they will live for ages if the turtle doesn’t find them, and I’ll freeze the rest. The turtle will actively pursue the shrimp in the tank; if he can find them. This is natural behaviour for him and you will be amazed at how fast he’ll strike out at the shrimp. The frozen shrimp can be thawed and fed to your turtle as part of his daily meal.
Bloodworms, commercially made turtle pellets (which float on the surface of the water) and small fish are also favourite foods. Small live fish, specifically sold as food for turtles, are also available and the turtles love them. The only trouble is, because they are not hidden on the bottom like the shrimp, the fish fall victim to the turtle quite quickly. So don’t put too many fish in the tank at any one time otherwise the turtle will overfeed.
Once your turtle ahs reached maturity, it is possible to keep them in an enclosure in the yard. A pond is essential and so is a place to hibernate. The turtle will want to hide away in the cooler months, so you might not see much of him.
Turtles are relatively easy to keep and are quite interesting to watch. I was very surprised at their aggression, especially as they mature. They are very hardy, so it is unlikely you’ll be spending any time at the vet. An almost perfect pet really, although not very cuddly.