This is where the initial set-up of your turtle gets expensive. Filtration, lighting and temperature are a huge part of this, but also something that most people don't plan ahead for and that is the adult size of their turtle. Contrary to the myth, turtles do NOT grow to meet the size of their enclosures, so keeping your hatchling in a 10 gallon aquarium will not keep him small. It will only serve to make him/her very uncomfortable and eventually very sick.

        Some believe it is easier to upgrade their aquariums as the need permits. This not only gets costly over time, but you tend to stock up on unused aquariums. Most people with 1 or 2 small turtles start out with a 20 gallon aquarium, then upgrade later to a 55 gallon, then alter still to a 75 gallon and so on. This might be financially easier as there are a lot of things to buy at once and a large habitat might not be in the confines of the checkbook. It won't be until later, looking back, that you see the excess money that was spent. Not only upgrading the tank, but also upgrading the lighting and filters because the small lights and filters that work on a 20 gallon, won't even begin to meet the needs of a larger tank like a 55, 75 or even 125 gallon aquarium. If at all financially possible, think adult size and buy for that. And don't let the size of the turtle fool you. Aquatic hatchlings can do just fine in a 200 gallon aquarium filled almost to the top. The only concern with "buying adult size for hatchlings", is the filter. The intake might be too powerful and suck the baby up to it and drown him/her. The opposite applies for the return flow of the filter - it might make it so rough that your turtle can not function properly in the water due to the force of the outlet end of the large, powerful filter. I would still recommend using these items, however, read through the Hatchling Care section of this site for information on how to better baby-proof your set up.

        There are several aspects of housing which are important in keeping your turtles. They are listed below, and you can click the link to be taken to the area of interest.

        Filtration and water quality can be found on HERE.

 
 
 

 

        One of the key things to remember here in making your friends' new home, is to try your best to replicate what they would have in the wild. Granted, there are some things that you won't be able to reproduce, but you can modify things to meet your needs as far as getting it as close as possible. Other times, you may just have to be creative if an exact duplicate is not feasible.

        You are going to need plenty of water for them. They spend most of their time in the water. The only time they are out of the water is to bask. Some like to lie in shallow water and bask that way, so plan accordingly and be watchful of what they tend to prefer. You will have to provide them a dry basking spot, but they might appreciate an area that is partially covered with an inch or two of water. 

        There are 2 commonly used items for creating their habitat. The first and most popular are glass or acrylic aquariums, such as are used for fish. These are an attractive addition to the home and the turtle can be viewed from all areas. RubberMaid containers are also very popular as they are sizable, easy to clean, unbreakable and VERY inexpensive, especially when pitting them against their costly glass counterparts. For more information, please check out "RubberMaid Tub vs Aquariums: Pros and Cons".

"How big of an aquarium should I get and how deep should the water be?"

        Well, the best way to plan for your turtle's swimming area, is to do some math....

1. A general guideline is to find the adult size of your turtle and multiply the turtle's adult length by 5. That's how long the aquarium will need to be and will give your little friend plenty of room for doing laps.

2. Take their adult length and multiply by 2.5 and that'll be how deep your water should be. This gives them plenty of room to move about freely and get some exercise, as well as allow you to place a basking area half way up and prevent your turtle from trying to escape. They are great climbers!

* These are merely my recommendations on what has worked best for me and other keepers.

 
 
 

 

"What the heck is substrate?"

        Substrate is whatever you use to line the bottom of the aquarium (ie;  gravel, rocks, sand, nothing, etc). What is best? Well, there are several angles on this. Yet again there is a wide variety, ranging from nothing all the way to large river rocks and even further to complex and sometimes expensive tiles, as well as everything and every size in between.

Nothing - This is by far the easiest to go with. It allows for easy cleaning and there is no chance of the turtle eating the substrate and developing health issues (See Medical Situations on Prolapse). The bad parts of this are that it shows how dirty the tank is that turtles are messy and with a bare bottom, it is easily seen. There is also nowhere to develop beneficial bacteria other than inside the filter. Some keepers such as myself do not like this way of doing things simply because it loses that natural appearance. If keeping softshells, this is definitely not the way to go as it can cause stress to the turtle since it has nothing to burrow in. Some keepers that go with this method litter the bottom of the tank with plastic plants. This is a great "fix" for the bare bottom appearance, but this unfortunately will not work with larger turtles as they will simply move the artificial plants around.

Sand - A highly sought substrate. It is tricky to clean with a siphon but is very attractive, causes no health risk and very easy on the shells of turtles when they dive in and happen to strike the substrate. The problem is that sand is light and gets easily kicked up and get sucked into the filter. Sand and filter motors do not mix well. A sandy bottom can make short work of a filter in only a few days. Some keepers that have had success with using sand place a sponge pre-filter before the main intake. The problem with this is that you must clean it often and it prevents the filter from cleaning out the larger items. Sand is so-so for having a planted tank, with both artificial and live plants, as they are easily dug up. If you can swing it, this is the ideal substrate for all turtles, especially softshells.

Fine Gravel - This is gravel that is smaller than a BB. This is a great sub for all turtles, including softshells. This type of gravel does well with live plants, too, and it poses no health risk. This gravel is a bit easier to clean than sand, but still has potential problems when using a siphon, as it can easily suck up this small, light-weight gravel.

Standard Gravel - This is the gravel that you see in fish tanks and is most common in pet stores. Gravel of this kind is very attractive, every natural looking and is easily cleaning using a siphon. It is somewhat difficult for small softshells to burrow in, but larger softys don't appear to have an issue. Gravel of this size, however, has the potential for health problems. Gut impaction and especially prolapses (See Medical Situations for more) are possibly. Although these situations are indeed rare, the potential is there and some keepers choose some of the other substrate options to play things on the safe side, as turtles do have the tendency to eat gravel.

River Rock - These are smooth stones that range in from golf ball size to tennis ball size. They are natural looking and have no potential health risks. This type of bottom, however, is extremely difficult the do a good cleaning on with a siphon. These types of rocks can easily - and cheaply - be found at places like Home Depot and Lowe's. Another downside of using the large rocks is plastron injury. When the turtles dive into the water, they sometimes strike the bottom with their plastrons and this CAN cause trauma to the shell, possibly opening the turtle up for medical problems.

Tile - Yet some keepers still continue to be creative! Attractive and sometimes natural looking ceramic or plastic tiles can be used. No health risk and is aesthetically pleasing. It appears to be easy to clean, although oftentimes some of the waste gathers beneath the tiles.

 
 
 

 

        Contrary to some beliefs, turtles do need a place to get out of the water and get completely dry, including Soft Shell Turtles. Without this opportunity, they may develop a fungus and that could prove fatal. See Medical Situations for more. It also has psychological benefits as well. As turtles are ectothermic, they use the basking to warm themselves and, in doing so, raise their metabolisms to a proficient level. Two of these bodily functions that run at optimum while basking are the processing of nutrients and the immune system. Basking is also a way to register your turtle's health. A turtle that basks frequently with its head up high and most times has the legs kicked out is the #1 sign of good health. Basking has several health benefits and besides, they seem to love it!

        So what do you do for it? Well, use your imagination. Trial and error works good too. Experiment and go with what you think looks good and makes the turtles feel at home. You can go with something simple. Or you can go with something elaborate. Totally up to you.

        Most pet stores sell floating islands or plastic stands with platforms that you place in the aquarium with suction cups. This works great for smaller turtles. But once they get larger, this is not only too small, but does not allow you to put the depth of the water that is needed.  An important item to consider - ensure your turtle can not get wedged between the glass and the basking area or in any portion of the basking area. If there is an area where your turtle can fit, you can bet that it will eventually end up there.

       Stacking rocks is a great way to make a natural looking environment. Two things to consider here on rocks. 1. Make sure they are cleaned thoroughly to get rid of any parasites or other nasty things; and 2. Make sure you can make this set up stable. Turtles have a way of shifting things around. And as with anything that you create for them, ensure your turtle can not get wedged between the glass and the basking area or in any portion of the basking area.

 
 

          When turtles get big, it's kinda hard to give them adequate swimming room in addition to a safe basking area that effective. So what we did was we created a basking area above the tank, and filled the tank completely, giving them the entire aquarium for swimming room. It works out great! There are various ways of doing this, and the pic below is unfinished, but you get the idea.

         

        A large piece of driftwood is yet another way to make a natural, effective and easily accessible basking area. Some come with suction cups and can be fixed right to the glass.

        An important aspect in designing any type of basking area, is to make sure that the turtle can easily get out of the water without and make sure they can do so without scratching their plastron. The basking platform - or at least the ramp portion - is the leading cause of plastron problems. Ensure the area is smooth! Rocks and other abrasive items should not be used when providing a basking area for softshells.

For more information on basking spots, check out the article, "Your First Turtle Enclosure".

 
 
 

 

        Here's a double concern. Turtles are going to need a heat lamp for basking and they are also going to need a heater for their water. Cold turtles  =  big trouble. There are a number of avenues to go with here. A floating thermometer is recommended or one that you can stick on the glass. This allows you to be certain of the temperature at a glance. Heat lamps are covered in the lighting section below.

        For heating the water, a submersible heating element is preferred, but anything you use to safely heat the water is acceptable. Do not make the water temperature too hot as turtles need the cooler water to regulate their body temperature from basking. Water that is too warm will also discourage the turtle from getting out to bask and can also lead to excessive shedding. A submersible heater with a temperature setting is preferred. Once the the turtles get hot enough from basking, they cool off by taking a dip in the water. A good water temperature is anywhere between 72 and 80 degrees, depending on the species of turtle you have. It is always a good idea to check the regions from which your turtles live and try to duplicate the temperatures there as best as you can.

But the new, rising star of the heating of aquatic turtle tanks has to be the Guardian, put out by Penn-Pax. This new heater is made of stainless steel and eliminates the worries of turtle breaking the glass of conventional submersible heaters, by biting them or smacking into them.

 

Important Note

          It is an extremely good idea to have any and all aquarium related items plugged into a GFI (Ground Fault  Interuptor) outlet. If something should happen within the habitat (heater breaks, light falls into the water, etc)  the power is briefly grounded (about 2 - 3 seconds actually) and then automatically shuts off to that outlet  only.  The 2 - 3 seconds actually helps because it prevents a jolting shock which can kill your turtles!!

*   *   *   *   W A R N I N G ! !   *   *   *   *

Unplug the submersible heaters BEFORE You remove any water from the tank. Leaving the heaters on and removing the water will cause the heaters to rapidly overheat, causing them to crack and possible electrocution!!

Heat Lamps

            For their basking area, a simple basking lamp that you find at pet stores works fine. Just so long as they aren't too close to it when basking. A basking temperature anywhere between 85 and 90F is good. Anything hotter than that could burn them or just make it so they do not desire to stay under it. We use ZooMed's PowerSun lamps which put out great heat as well as the needed UVB rays. A good indicator that your area is too hot for your turtle's comfort, is if the turtle moves from underneath it after only a few minutes.

        Heat lamps are best used in ceramic-tipped domes rather than the plastic-tipped housings which have the on-off switches. Most times, these bulbs get entirely too hot for the plastic and the on-off switches cease to function. Timers are a great help with these housing which have no on-off switches, as this saves you from having to plug and unplug them. Most of the heat lamp holders come with either a hook for hanging them or a clamp (pictured).

Nighttime Heating

        In addition to heating the turtles during the day, during those chilly and sometimes cold months in the winter time, it becomes important for you to turn your attention to heating your turtle's enclosure at night. There are two forms of doing this, but because of the problems that both other keepers and I have had in the past, we do not recommend the colored heat lamps for night use. Instead, ceramic heat emitters are adequate is most situations. They can be placed into the same heat lamp holders as basking lights and can also be placed on timers. For more information on gearing up your turtle's home for the winter months, please read "Winterizing your Tank".

 

"How do I measure the heat on the basking spot?"

        The easiest way to check the temps is to take a thermometer and a rock about the same height as your turtle. Place the rock on the basking platform under the heat lamp and then place the thermometer on top of the rock. Let it sit for about 30 minutes to get an accurate reading. This will let you know if your light is too close, too far or inadequate.

        Regular house bulbs can be use, provided they produce the basking temperatures in the desired range.

 
 
 

 

         Lighting is not only important to turtles for a daytime photoperiod. They need certain aspects of the sun for certain bodily functions to take place. This is chiefly the synthesizing of a precursor into Vitamin D3 needed for calcium metabolism. Turtles require UVB rays to interact with elements in their skin to allow them to conduct this process. Without it, the turtle's bones do not grow properly and they become weak and disfigured. This is commonly known as MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease) and is most times fatal if not caught early. Usually when signs of MBD show up, it is too late. This also goes back to ensuring that turtles have a proper diet and are supplied with the much needed calcium. The combination of proper diet and proper lighting is an important aspect of their growth and health.

UV stands for Ultra Violet, this light you can't see. There are three different types, all explained below.

UVA . This is the visible wavelength. It is responsible for inducing normal behavior in reptiles such as feeding, climbing, mating etc. In other words, UVA helps with the mental well-being of animals. Zoos have been using UVA bulbs such as the BLB blacklights and have found that exposure to high levels of UVA lighting for 2 hours daily induced mating in many species.
UVB . One of the two non-visible wavelengths of light. This is what gives humans suntans. In reptiles, UVB allows for the synthesis of vitamin D3 which allows reptiles to process calcium in their system, thus preventing or reversing metabolic bone disease.
UVC . This is the wavelength used in ultraviolet sterilizers which kill harmful bacteria. This wavelength is extremely dangerous and can actually damage DNA.

        The absolute best way to ensure your turtles are getting their fair share of needed UVB rays, if possible, is to place them outside in natural sunlight. It is also proven that direct, unfiltered, natural sunlight is also key in not only maintaining good health, but also in the healing process. It is believed that 15 minutes in real sunlight is better than 5 hours under the best artificial UVB source.

        There are numerous manufacturers of UVB lighting. ZooMed is by far the top choice. They offer 3 different types of bulbs: The ReptiSun 2.0, Reptisun 5.0 and the PowerSun. We won't discuss the ReptiSun 2.0 as it does not supply enough UVB for turtles. Full spectrum lighting DOES NOT meet the requirements for use with turtles.

Mega-Ray

A new product that is sweeping the turtle-keeping industry. This bulb, is without doubt THE most amazing UVB/Heat source outside of the natural sunlight. It produces not only heat, but the highest amount of UVB on the market and has a lasting lifespan whereas the other bulbs that follow are rather iffy in their longevity. While still relatively new, it has been tested thoroughly and has passed with flying colors and has proven to be the bulb to have.

 
PowerSun 160w Flood Bulb

This bulb presently produces the 2nd highest amount of UVB on the market. They are guaranteed to produce high amounts of UVB for up to a year. A great source for UVB as well as basking heat temps.

 
T-Rex Active UV Heat Flood Bulb

Similar to that of the PowerSun, T-Rex's Active UV-Heat doesn't have quite the lasting power nor the UVB output of the PowerSun 160w. A good bulb all-in-all, but definitely not the best choice.

   
ReptiSun 5.0 and 10.0 Fluorescent (Compact)

If high UVB output and low or no heat in a confined space without room for 2 fluorescents is your aim, then this is the bulb. While emitting little-to-no heat, ZooMed's ReptiSun 10.0 produces a high amount of UVB and does a fantastic job.

   
PowerSun 100w

While having a similar description as it's larger brother, the 160w PowerSun, the small 100w bulb doesn't pack quick the punch but still does an outstanding job and produces more UVB (and heat) as the lesser fluorescent bulbs.

   
ReptiSun 5.0 and 10.0 Fluorescent

This is currently the top UVB fleuroescent bulb in production. It has been tested and tried against numerous other manufacturers, and has always come out as the top contender. Fleuorescent bulbs only produce UVB for approximately 6 months, so it is important to change them out at regular intervals. These bulbs do not project UVB waves very far (only up to 12") so they must be maintained within a short distance from the turtles. They come in various sizes and fit into most Aquarium Hoods which can be purchased at pet stores. ReptiSun 5.0 bulbs do not produce heat. They are strictly a source for UVB and light.

  

        Keep in mind that glass filters out 95% of all UVB rays. Aluminum screen filters out about 30%. If a screen cover is used between the light source and the animal, be sure the screen has 1/8 inch or larger holes.

 
 
 

 
A cover for their home is highly advised as they may try to escape on you. Turtles are great climbers and they can easily escape if they can reach the rim of the aquarium. And don't forget to take in the old "Stack to Freedom" play where the turtles stack on top of each other and gain the extra boost they need to reach the rim. Most aquariums are maintained at a relative high altitude and a trip over the edge of the aquarium can cause serious injuries, not to mention what might be encountered once your turtle is free to roam your house.  
In addition to escaping, you also have to keep in consideration things that can get in, such as children and other pets such as cats. This picture to the right of a habitat under construction displays something that is not uncommon. cats also enjoy basking and while this is extremely cute and adorable, it has the potential for disaster.  

As with most things, there are a variety of items that can be used to cover your aquarium.    

Aquarium Hood

The Aquarium hood is the most common. This holds a fluorescent bulb. It has a lid that opens and allows minimal access to the interior. They have easily removable areas in the back to allow room for filters or filter tubes.

There are 2 main problems with this design. First, these hoods do not hold heat lamps. The only way to get heat into the habitat via a heat lamp would be to either remove or leave the lid open. Either way, the heat lamp will eventually heat the plastic and melt the plastic. This can also be a fire hazard. The second drawback to these is that they have a glass covering, protecting the light bulb. While this is needed for aquariums with high water levels to prevent splashing, it is not needed for this reason with turtles and the glass filters the much needed UVB rays.

These are best used on habitats where 2 hoods are needed, such as 55 gallon tanks and larger. They can be used nicely on the side of the tank which does not have the basking area.

 

Glass Tops

Glass tops are very attractive and do an excellent job at keeping the heat in.

There are a few bad parts about using glass lids. The first is again a heat lamp issue. A heat lamp can not be placed on top of the glass. The glass would eventually break under the intense heat. They also filter out UVB lighting. There are glass hood which do allow UVB lighting to penetrate, but these are usually quite costly and often difficult to locate.

In addition, they are just what it says - Glass! Should they break, it is nearly impossible to ensure that all particles and pieces are removed from the aquarium.

   

Screen Tops

These are ideal for Turtles. The come in a variety of styles, ranging from 1 piece screens, to screens the have a door in the middle and even to screens that are hinged either opening in the front or opening on either side. This makes for a safe and attractive habitat.

The problems - Filters and filter tubs. You have to cut a hole in the screen to allow the filter tubs to feed through. If using a hang-on the side type filter, you will need to remove a portion of the screen. Removing only enough of the screen to allow the filter to hang will result in you having to remove the filter anytime you wish to remove the lid. Cutting off enough to where the screen can be taken off independently of the screen, leaves you with a flimsy screen cover.

These screens also work great for RubberMaid containers.

        For decoration, a great addition is background art. Most pet stores carry a wide variety of schemes to suit your needs. We like the natural look and usually go with that on all of our turtle's homes. Artificial plants are another way of adding some extra flare. Real plants often get eaten or dug up. Although real plants do great things for helping water quality and that 'natural look', they are usually more of a mess than they are worth. But if live plants are something you would like to try out, you can learn more by reading "Planted Turtle Tanks".

 
 
 

 
        This is where it gets difficult and where the RubberMaid users have the largest advantage. Cleaning the aquarium, especially with gravel, is a chore at times, depending on the frequency which you change the water. The tool of choice is the siphon. Namely, the Python System. This is a hose that attaches to your sink with the same type of connectors as waterbeds. The valve allows for filling as well as siphoning. This is a blessing for those who have large tanks!

        A small net is also a great idea. It makes scooping out left over food (if you feed in the tank) easier as well as pulling out other debris and poop.

 
        Every 2-3 weeks, it is a good idea to do a 20-30% water change. I use this time to vacuum the gravel substrate.