SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Caring for terrapin

Every year, thousands of animals of all shapes, sizes and ages come into SPCA Centres around the country; cats, dogs, rabbits, reptiles, birds, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and sometimes even turtles or fish. All of them deserve a second chance at life, but it’s important that the pet you choose to adopt is the right pet for your lifestyle.

SPCA’s Dunedin Centre recently rescued a turtle who was found trapped in a dried up water-way. The team at the SPCA learnt a lot about caring for Myrtle the turtle while she stayed at the Centre. Although the term turtle is commonly used to describe all reptiles with shells, this can be dived into tortoises (which dwell on the land), turtles (which live in the seas and oceans) and terrapins (which live in freshwater).

Did you know most species of terrapins kept as companion animals in New Zealand will grow to a shell length of about 20-30cm and can live over 100 years old if cared for correctly? These are two reasons why turtles make fascinating pets, but it also means they are a lifelong and serious commitment.

So here are things you need to know and consider before adopting one!

A terrapin's enclosure

The very first thing to consider if you are thinking of adopting a terrapin is the aquarium that will be needed. Terrapins should be kept in very large aquariums or outdoor ponds that allow enough space for them to swim, dry areas to rest and appropriate light, heating, and ventilation. A good sized tank is at least 80 litres of water per 5cm of shell length and should allow the terrapin to swim without touching the sides or bottom of the tank, or break the surface of the water.

Terrapins need to be in water to eat, drink, and defecate! They need constant access to clean water to swim in as poor water quality can lead to disease. Therefore, the water must be low in ammonia and nitrite waste products; this can usually be maintained by a good filter and 20% water changes weekly.

Young terrapins should be kept in aquariums inside until they are mature, but adult terrapins can be housed in a large tank either inside or outside. A terrapin’s enclosure should be secure as terrapins can be great escape artists and can injure themselves in the process of escaping! Fish tanks are ideal and easy to keep clean but, for a large terrapin, it is difficult to find a tank that is big enough. Another great option is a specially made terrapin tub, which is a large plastic tub with space for both water and a dry area.

The perfect temperature

Terrapins rely on external heat to maintain their bodies at an optimal temperature. They require a ‘thermogradient’ and providing this is a core part of reptile ownership. This comprises a “basking zone” (a place where your terrapin can absorb warmth), and a dry area cool to allow your terrapin to select the level of heat they desire. To create the basking zone, you will need a reptile heat lamp pointing downwards which creates a zone of heat that is large enough to warm up the whole body, not just the shell. It’s important to make sure terrapins have both a dry basking and a dry, cool zone with a ramp so that they can access the dry areas from the water.

All heat sources should have a guard to prevent burns and must be controlled by a thermostat. Temperatures should be checked daily with a digital thermometer. The temperature should be 30 to 35 Celsius. An aquarium heater with a guard should be used to heat the water of the tank or pond and should be set to about 22 Celsuis for adults.

An outdoor enclosure should have areas that receive sunlight but also areas that are shaded.

Terrapins need UV light to see

Terrapins kept indoors need an appropriate ultraviolet (UV) reptile light, and terrapins outdoors need access to sunlight. One part of UV light is called UVb, which allows terrapins to make vitamin D3, vital for them to store and use calcium. Another part of UV light is UVa, which is important to allow terrapins to see in full colour.

UV light decreases with distance, so the strength of the bulb will depend on the height. A 7 to 12% UVb reptile lamp should be fitted over two-thirds of the tank or tub to create a wide area of UV light, and it must be replaced according to the instructions, since UVb output decreases over time.

Terrapins use the normal light cycle to set their day and night patterns, so all lights should be turned off at night using a simple plug-in timer: 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark.

Keep their environment interesting

Providing opportunities for natural behaviour is vital. Your terrapin should have areas for basking and swimming, but other enrichment should be added too. You can securely place rocks in the water for your terrapin to investigate, and include in the enclosure plants which can provide shade, hiding places or be eaten. A few plants are toxic to terrapins, so research which plants will be safe for your terrapin. Terrapins are secretive animals who need lots of cover, so your terrapin would also enjoy a hiding place like a secure dry box. This will allow him/her to feel more comfortable and come out of hiding over time.

A good diet

A varied diet is important for the health of your terrapin. A quality dried terrapin food should be used alongside thoroughly defrosted freshwater fish, a mixture of invertebrate foods (such as river shrimps, bloodworms, and locusts), and vegetables.

Your terrapin should only be fed once every one-two days and only offered as much as he/she can eat in five minutes. Uneaten food should be removed from the water with a net. The main cause of poor water quality is over-feeding because the uneaten food is left to rot.

Terrapins are opportunistic feeders and so can become overweight if allowed to overeat; it is a good idea to weigh your terrapin regularly to monitor for this problem. Terrapins also love to eat live plants such as pondweed and enjoy chewing on natural cuttlefish bone pieces as a source of calcium.

Some of the most common and serious issues that affect captive terrapins are vitamin or mineral deficiencies. It’s important to provide supplements which give your terrapin the vitamins and minerals that are not available in captivity. Supplements can be over-provided, so it is important to follow the instructions.

Health and welfare

Since they are reptiles, terrapins shed their skin. Their shell plates are shed individually and the skin around the legs are shed in pieces. Both should happen easily and without intervention, but having the option to come out of the water is important for shedding otherwise terrapins can get fungal infections.

A healthy terrapin has clear, bright eyes and a smooth shell. The skin should be smooth and without blisters, which can be a sign of infection. Signs of illness include quietness and lethargy, not moving or swimming normally, change in behaviour, hiding more than normal, discharge, change in size or colour of faeces, weight loss, and any bleeding, swelling or wounds.

Symptoms of illness can be subtle in terrapins, so it is important to take your terrapin for regular examinations with an experienced veterinarian once or twice a year or if you notice any of the above symptoms.

Important things to remember!

Be careful when interacting with your terrapin as they can carry the bacteria Salmonella. Wash your hands before and after handling your terrapin.

Make sure you never house your terrapin with live fish because the terrapin will kill or chase the fish and cause them stress.

Your terrapin’s tank or pond should be set up two weeks before introducing him/her to ensure everything is running correctly.

If keeping more than one terrapin, make sure there is a basking spot for each terrapin, and make sure each terrapin is getting enough food. Terrapins can become aggressive to one another, especially if they feel overcrowded.

A healthy terrapin might outlive you. Make arrangements for your terrapin’s care before the time comes that you can no longer care for your terrapin.

If you can no longer take care of your terrapin, please contact your local SPCA or turtle rescue organisation. Abandoned terrapins, such as Myrtle, can suffer in the wild and damage native flora and fauna. Please report any sightings of terrapins in the wild to your local council or SPCA centre.

Adopting a terrapin should never be undertaken on a whim. They are a species that require a lot of care and equipment to keep them happy and healthy. Before adopting a terrapin, take the time to research the needs and diseases of terrapins.

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