Richard Lunsford

Disclaimer: this article targets people who bought before they researched & need to know what to do now. It condenses info. from the ATP but is no substitute for more extended reading of their content.

Common Scenario: You’re sold a $15 ‘plastic lagoon’ bowl with a little palm tree, a little green turtle with red patches behind the eyes, & perhaps a little so-called ‘turtle food’ & told the turtle will grow to fit the bowl & live out its life there.

For starters you've been grossly misinformed by a man who probably broke a Federal law by selling a turtle whose carapace (top part of the shell) was under 4 inches (the 4” Law) for purposes other than research or education.

Do not worry that the FBI or even the Dept. of Natural Resources are about to kick in your door. The latter might get him, but it's highly unlikely anyone will bother you.

Many of us advise you do not buy from such people because it encourages the ignorant to remain in business, harming uncounted turtles. What this guy did is comparable to selling people St. Bernard puppies claiming you can keep them for life in a small pet carrier feeding nothing but beanie-weenies.

The small plastic cage is garbage; you may be able to use it to hold live insects and what-not you're going to feed the turtle. That's about it.

Now: clear your mind. It is time to learn from scratch. I wish you’d researched before buying, but let’s get you started.

Questions You Must Answer:

1.) What Kind of Turtle is it? Likely a red-eared slider (RES for short). This is a bright green turtle with a red ‘jelly bean’ shape behind each eye. Hatchlings are about 50 cent piece sized, adults somewhere between a milk saucer and a dinner plate. Keeping it in a small container will not limit its size; only malnutrition and poor health will do that, and not reliably or predictably. The turtle may live over 20 years. Note: Only follow the following advice if you have a red-eared slider, yellow-belly slider, cooter or painted turtle! A map turtle is also cared for this way but cleanliness is even more critical. Box turtles, snappers, soft shells, mud & musk turtles, tortoises & foreign turtles are less commonly sold by the ignorant. Make sure you don’t have a box turtle or tortoise, since they drown in an enclosure like I’m teaching you to make.

2.) What Size Enclosure can I afford? RES are basking turtles; they spend a lot of time sitting on logs taking in the sun, and a lot of time in the water. A hatchling RES deserves at an absolute minimum a 10 gallon aquarium, and preferably at least a 20 gallon long. An adult male RES needs at last a 55 gallon tank or larger for indoor housing, & a large female at least a 75 gallon. You should consider a 125 gallon aquarium for a female or over 2 male adult RES. Read: Setting Up Your First Enclosure.

3.) How much Water & what Heater? For a hatchling, fill that tank about ½ to 2/3’rd full. You need a submersible aquarium heater with a thermostat (so you can set a specific temperature) and set the temp. about 80 degrees. See that most of the tank is covered so the tank air stays fairly warm, especially at night when the light’s off. Put some driftwood & synthetic rocks (not abrasive concrete or lava rock!) & artificial plants (plastic, not silk) in the tank so the turtle can sit resting near the surface without having to choose between deep water & basking. This makes the deeper water workable. Read about Submersible Heaters (Ebo-Jager is well-recommended; Tronic’s okay, too).

4.) What Basking Spot? You will need a piece of driftwood that juts out of the water enough for the turtle to easily crawl out of the water and bask. You do not want to just pile up rocks because that takes away from the turtle’s swimming room. Read about basking options at: The Basking Spot.

5.) What Lighting? You need a basking light to shine onto the basking spot & keep its temperature around 85 degrees. A regular incandescent bulb (60 or 75 watt bulb) in an inexpensive lamp from Wal-mart should do fine. Ideally you should get a special kind of fluorescent light bulb that produces UV-B, a type of radiation that helps turtles metabolize vitamin D3 so their bodies can process calcium. The one most use is the ReptiSun 5.0. It costs about $40 (cheaper online), and after 6 months should be replaced. Note: UV-B light can’t penetrate glass. Note #2: the basking & UV-B lights should be turned off at night, providing a regular day/night cycle. Cheap timers from Wal-mart are wonderfully convenient. Read about Lighting (Basking/Heat and UV-B) and UV-B light Products.

6.) What Filter? A good filter is critically important. Consider a Filstar XP3, for instance (it needs FilStar Bio-Chem Stars, sold separately; the Fluval 304 & 404 are okay but can be harder to prime), and go online (Pet Warehouse, Big Al’s Online or That Pet Place) to get the best prices. You should aim for about 3 times plus the filtration power you’d use for a fish (so a filter rated for 60 gallons if you’ve got a 20). It will take the filter about 4 to 6 weeks to ‘cycle’ with bacteria, & then it breaks down ammonia to nitrite to nitrate (a less toxic waste product). Read about Filtration, Water Quality & Filter Options.

7.) What Food & How Do I Feed? A nutritious diet is also critical. Of the commercial foods, Mazuri & ReptoMin are the ‘standards.’ Many turtles take right to commercial food but not all do. Unlike the ReptoMin can says, you do not feed 2-3 times per day. You feed once daily the first few months and every other day thereafter. RES become progressively herbivorous as they age, and high protein diets in high volume are suspected of causing kidney failure and shortened lifespan. ReptoMin is an okay staple, but supplement by offering Romaine (not iceberg) lettuce, the fresh water plant Anacharis (available at PetsMart pretty cheap), gut-loaded feeder crickets (if not gut loaded, their phosphorous to calcium ratio is bad; pet shops often sell gut-loaded), occasionally small earth worms or maybe once every couple of weeks small guppies. Do not make fish the mainstay of the diet; this is unnatural & unhealthy. Read more about What To Feed A Turtle and How Much & How Often.

8.) When Do I Clean The Tank? Plan to change most of the water in the tank every 2 weeks once the filter’s cycled. For the 1’rst month change most of the tank water at least weekly, & preferably twice. You may eventually want a Python system, for siphoning and refilling your tank directly from your sink without buckets. In the meantime, a gravel vacuum and buckets will do. Most people do not need to break down the tank, take everything out and scrub it off.

9.) What Substrate? You don’t need gravel in the tank. It’s usually okay to have it, but the tank’s easier to clean without it. Some synthetic wood and rock tank ‘furniture’ is appreciated, though. The turtle will want to explore. You want an intellectually stimulating enclosure, not a prison cell.

10.) How Will I Secure the Tank? Escape-proof the tank – they climb better than you think. A screen top is best, but failing that, some netting material from Wal-mart’s sewing department and some duct tape can do the job. Remember UV-B light can’t penetrate glass.

11.) How Will I Prevent Night Chills? If your home is air-conditioned, for night-time use consider setting up a small lamp with a black heat bulb from the pet store to keep the air in the tank warm enough the little guy doesn’t get his lungs chilled. This may not be critical, but it would be a nice thing…

12.) Where Do I Go From Here? LEARN – READ – QUESTION – you made a start here. Read care sheets & other information at:

Austin’s Turtle Page – Many care sheets covering varied sliders (including RES), cooters, painted turtles, map turtles & others.

Once you’ve read up a bit, join us at: The Turtle Forum!

If you have turtles, these 2 books belong on your bookshelf. I’ve linked these books to places you can read about them.


            a.) Turtles of the United States and Canada (Hardcover)

Turtles of the United States and Canada (Softcover)

            Outstanding book depicting the natural history of our native turtles. Divided into section by species. Includes research study information on such matters as stomach contents, how long the turtle can survive underwater, chromosome number, homing ability if removed from original site and activity cycle by time of day and year. If you want to ‘know’ your turtle from his wild origins, this is the book.


b.) Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (Softcover) by A. C. Highfield.

            The title is definitive. If you want an ‘owners guide’ to turtles, buy it. Highfield speaks from extensive husbandry experience with a large variety of both tortoises and turtles. His section on nutrition includes a breakdown by nutrient of symptoms of deficiency & how to prevent it. Many color photo.s of disease conditions. Many species profiles giving an overall synopsis and often such tidbits as incubation info. and what incubation temp.s produce males or females. Both native and exotic turtles are discussed. If you only buy one of my recommended references, make it this one (if you can get it). At this writing 1-12-03, it’s hard to fine. Let’s hope for a new edition.