How do I care for a turtle?
June 19, 2008 6:50 PM   Subscribe

What equipment do I need to care for a pet turtle? What are some good practices for making sure that the turtle thrives?

Any and all words of advice would be welcome, including the type of turtle that would be most hardy, as well as child friendly. The turtle is for a 6 year old, and I want to make sure that it won't die in a few weeks, and that the child will derive enjoyment from the turtle.
posted by jujube to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, I can't give you any help on the specifics of turtle ownership, as I never was allowed to have one as a kid. BUT! Your six-year-old should also be given the Roald Dahl book Esio Trot. It is one of the cutest books ever, and is what really made me want some form of turtle when I was that age. I think it will definitely up the enjoyment factor. Powers that be: please don't remove this doesn't answer the question of "turtle care", but I firmly believe it is a crucial part of a child's turtle ownership. :)
posted by phunniemee at 7:13 PM on June 19, 2008

Is it an aquatic species or a land species (what I would call a tortoise, in my Brit English )?
posted by anadem at 7:36 PM on June 19, 2008

You will need a good-sized tank, bigger than you actually think you need. (Most) turtles will need a heat lamp and a place where they can sun themselves, as well as plenty of deep water to swim in. Sunning rocks should be smooth and the bottom of the tank should be sand or very fine gravel so they don't scrape the bottom of their carapaces.

Turtles need lots of FRESH food, not just turtle pellets. The red-eared slider a roommate of mine had ate lettuce and grated carrot and apple--what your turtle eats is going to depend on the type of turtle you own. I do not recommend a red-eared slider, by the way, because they are an invasive species in America and technically illegal to sell as pets. Also, you do NOT need to feed turtles once a day (at least this is the case with red-eared sliders). That will make them fat and sick. They eat once every couple of days. Do check on this with whatever species you plan to get.

Also be prepared to get the equipment to clean the tank regularly. You will need to change the water on a semi-regular basis and clean the whole tank at least once a month. If you manage to set up an ecosystem in there, with snails and fish and proper aquarium plants that keep things clean and balanced, more power to you, but you will probably need to clean the tank.

Turtles are WORK. The aforementioned red-eared slider was owned by my roommate and he did not take care of it. The tank would get stuck up with algae very quickly and smelled pretty bad. His turtle was also extremely sad-looking (if you can call a turtle sad-looking). Don't think this is something you can have the kid look at once in a while and ignore most of the time. Be prepared to do a lot of work yourself in taking care of this pet, because it, like most pets, requires care and attention a kid is not able to give.
posted by Anonymous at 7:42 PM on June 19, 2008

Turtles are not especially eager to be handled by anyone, certainly not by a child.

Turtles poop a lot. You need to get a big tank and the best filtration system they sell at the store. (I had this one). Be prepared that you will have to clean this tank pretty often. Until recently I had a Red Eared Slider that was large enough so that I had to clean her tank once a week. Or else.
posted by popechunk at 7:57 PM on June 19, 2008

I have two sliders and I clean their large tank once a week. Turtles are grotty!

Also I don't handle mine because their claws are long and they bite. Mine are big now though - one of them bigger than my hand now.

On the positive side though I was surprised by how amusing they are. They splash when they want my attention and get excited when anyone go near the tank. They also like to be hand fed.

One thing to be careful of with sliders at least - they are pigs and will beg constantly for food.
posted by gomichild at 8:44 PM on June 19, 2008

Turtles are not recommended as pets for small children due to the risk of salmonella. Turtles carry it, children handle them, children get infected, children are very sick with diarrhea and possibly complications.

An older child or adult can keep a pet turtle if scrupulous hand-washing is practiced, but a turtle is still a lot of work. And, you know, they aren't.... cuddly... or affectionate... or intelligent.

There are better choices for pets. Visit a pet store and wander around. Maybe something will catch your fancy (and your child's).
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:19 PM on June 19, 2008

Turtles carry salmonella and the CDC cautions against allowing children to handle them. Another article on kid-turtle compatibility.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:20 PM on June 19, 2008

(oops - no preview)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:21 PM on June 19, 2008

Turtle care basics for different types.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:25 PM on June 19, 2008


They are a lot of work, (should) have very long lifespans, and grow to be much larger than you'd think. Tortoises might be easier than aquatic turtles as far as cleaning goes.
posted by egg drop at 12:52 AM on June 20, 2008

Also, besides a big tank, make sure you get good UV lights for them to bask under so their shell stays healthy.
posted by egg drop at 12:54 AM on June 20, 2008

Also on preview, gravel is bad because if ingested it can rip apart their intestines. If they're aquatic then plain glass bottom are best, they're not going to scrape their shells on anything. I don't agree that feeding them once a day will make them fat, although they can go a long time without food. They just need a tank big enough to really swim in.

Think about buying from a breeder or adopting. Lots of turtles get given up for adoption because they need so much care or because their lifespan is much longer than people think at first (I had to do this and it was sad).
posted by egg drop at 1:05 AM on June 20, 2008

It sounds like you are not looking for a really long term pet.

So if I were you, and you live in a temperate, turtle friendly environment, I'd do exactly what I did as a kid. Take your kid out to a nature preserve (maybe not an actual nature preserve, they might object to turtle removal), bring a net, and go turtle gathering. Get a bucket and a net of some sort and catch yourselves a turtle or two. This seems much more stimulating than buying one at the store.

My summer turtles were usually kept (along with frogs, and crayfish) in a largish plastic kiddy pool in our backyard. Add a lamp or something in a corner, water, and some turtle accessible rocks, and you should be all set. You get the fun of determining what sort of turtle you have too, and what sort of food is appropriate. I'd be lying if I said there weren't occasionally mortalities in my kiddy pool, but generally things survived and were released after awhile.

When I see "the CDC cautions against allowing children to handle them" it depresses me greatly. Good grief. Infants yes, and six might be a bit young for unsupervised turtle handling, but kids should not be discouraged from mucking about in the woods investigating the wildlife.
posted by pseudonick at 2:08 AM on June 20, 2008

As a child my mother kept two subsequent turtles, one land turtle and one semi-aquatic turtle so I might as well give the rundown on them to give an idea of the differences and the care involved.

The semi-aquatic turtle needed a huge plastic storage box full of shallow water. No idea what species it was, but my mother called it a Chinese swamp turtle and it liked to be in water almost all the time but couldn't actually swim all that well. There was a filtration system for it, but the tank still needed to be cleaned pretty regularly and it was quite a hassle to do so. We did just fine without anything on the bottom of the tank for its shell. We kept goldfish in there as well for turtle food, but it turned out that it couldn't actually catch them because it was a scavenger by nature, so the goldfish had to be stunned or killed before they could become food. Not quite as traumatic for a young child as you might imagine, but it's something to consider if you're looking at getting a turtle for a 6 year old. This turtle wasn't handled at all, was not very good company, and was given back to the pet store when we moved because it was a ton of work.

The land turtle was somewhat easier to deal with and made a better pet. Again, not sure of the species but it was some kind of tropical tortoise that needed a steady diet of fresh fruit and a fairly humid enclosure. We had woodchips on the bottom of the box, a sun lamp of course, plus a shallow pool of water, a calcium chew, and a small enclosure for it to sleep in. It was fed every other day I believe, and needed a small amount of meat or seafood as well as the fruit (Blasted turtle ate better than I did, it was picky and particularly favored shrimp and mango). It had trouble chewing so its food had to be prepped for it. The turtle box needed to be misted every morning, and the turtle itself needed to be given a bath ever two or three days to keep it clean and hydrated. This turtle couldn't swim at all so it needed to be supervised when it got a bath to make sure the water wasn't too deep for it to breathe.

This turtle was pretty hardy and liked to wander around the house and yard endlessly. My father ended up building a turtle enclosure for it in the backyard for summers so it could be out there without being watched the whole time, but it still needed to be taken inside in the evenings. It could be picked up without worry, but it frightened easily and scratched with its claws so not exactly a cuddly pet. The other thing to mention is it pooped all the time, everywhere! In its food dish, in its water bowl, where it slept, wherever.

Turtles can be great pets with kids around, but make sure YOU want a turtle as much as your kid does, because they require a whole lot of work to make sure they have fresh food, clean water, enough exercise, and a cage free from poop. Way more work and setup than just getting a puppy for instance. Did I mention they live a long time? Unless you intend to take it back to the pet store, this is not a temporary pet. All that being said, the land turtle is probably the better choice since it can wander around a bit, be handled and enjoyed. Also they're hilariously and endearingly awkward at times. Your local pet store will a better source of information than this thread most likely and they will be happy to walk you through their selection of turtles, as well as the specific care requirements for each one which can vary tremendously from species to species.
posted by CheshireCat at 3:54 AM on June 20, 2008

You might be interested in Owen and Mzee - a lovely story of a friendship between a baby hippo and an enormous land turtle. It's a picture book intended for youngsters.

CheshireCat, your land turtle sounds a lot like a pet rabbit.
posted by amtho at 5:24 AM on June 20, 2008

Except rabbits only live about five years, and turtles can live decades.
posted by amtho at 5:25 AM on June 20, 2008

As everyone else said, turtles are a lot of work.

I have 3 sliders, and I *love* them, but they are way more work than I ever imagined they would be when I first got them. Their water *must* be cleaned at least once a week, and this is time consuming - it takes at least an hour for us to replace all the water in the aquarium. Also remember to clean the filter (which gets nasty!).

There are two lights on their aquarium - a sunning lamp and a UV light. If you leave the lights on all day as we do, expect your power bill to go up. lol

We have a floaty island under the sunning lamp for them. The rest of the aquarium is deep water for them to swim in.

We feed our turtles a small amount everyday. They do like being hand fed with the turtle pellets. But they also *love* crickets, earthworms, and feeder fish. They're not so keen on plants as food, but I've read they tend to switch from live food to plant food the more they mature.

You will also need to keep an eye on their shells to make sure they are doing well. If they gets holes or divots in their shells, you may want to take them to a vet to have them checked out.

Know that turtles can live a very long time.... we're talking 20 or 30 years. So plan long term.

And as others have said, they can carry salmonella. Wash your hands well after touching them! And don't leave a 6 year old to handle the turtles unsupervised.
posted by at 6:04 AM on June 20, 2008

Yeah, I love my red-eared slider, but he's not as low maintenance as you would think. As everyone said, big tank, strong filter, and regular water changes. They poop a lot, and if you put off changing the water, the stink is pretty bad.

I think a turtle could be a good pet for a little kid as long as you are committed to doing the necessary upkeep yourself. And supervised handling is a must, although there's really no reason to handle the turtle too often, and I know mine really doesn't like it.

And gomichild is right that they're more entertaining than you'd think.
posted by Mavri at 6:58 AM on June 20, 2008

Yeah, as someone who used to manage a pet store, I would not recommend turtles as a begginer herp. It's a pretty big investment of time, money and space. Little ones also tend to have a hard time with the handling of reptiles. Especially the not doing it part.
posted by piedmont at 1:49 PM on June 20, 2008

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