Caring for terrapins
Terrapins, also known as sliders, include red-eared sliders, yellow-bellied sliders and Cumberland sliders. They are a species of freshwater turtle that can grow to approximately 25cm long and have a lifespan of around 30 years in captivity!
A varied diet is important for the health of your terrapin. Terrapins should be fed a base diet of a high quality commercial dried terrapin food, along with thoroughly defrosted freshwater fish, a mixture of invertebrate foods (such as river shrimps, bloodworms, and locusts) vegetables (such as carrots, squash and green beans) and dark leafy greens (dandelion, kale and collard greens).
Feed juvenile terrapins every day and adults every second day, unless recommend otherwise by your reptile veterinarian. Turtles must be fed in water and any uneaten food should be removed from the water with a net to maintain healthy water conditions. In addition, fresh, clean drinking water should be available at all times.
Some of the most common and serious issues that affect captive terrapins are vitamin or mineral deficiencies. It is important to provide supplements which give your terrapin the vitamins and minerals that are not available in captivity.
Enrichment ideas: Adding non-toxic aquatic plants to your turtle’s enclosure (such as anacharis or waterweed and water lettuce) can facilitate normal feeding behaviour, help maintain water quality and adds complexity to their environment.
Terrapins should be kept in very large aquariums or outdoor ponds that allow enough space to swim, dry areas to rest and appropriate light, heating, shade, shelter and ventilation.
The bigger the enclosure the better! Terrapins need enough water to be able to swim without breaking the surface of the water and without touching the sides or bottom of their tank. A good rule of thumb is approximately 80 litres of water per 5cm of shell length. Terrapins will swim, eat and defecate in the water provided and therefore a good quality filtration system is essential and partial, e.g. 25%, water changes should be performed weekly. Weekly water testing for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH and hardness is recommended. It is important to make sure ammonia and nitrate levels (waste products) are kept low.
A terrapin’s enclosure should be secure as terrapins can be great escape artists and can injure themselves in the process of escaping! A large aquarium tank are often used as they are easy to clean. Another option is a specially made terrapin tub, which is a large plastic tub with space for both water and dry areas.
Note: To protect your companion turtle’s welfare and our New Zealand ecosystems, never release a turtle into the wild. Releasing a companion turtle into the wild is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act and, may also breach Regional Pest Management Plans.
You should line your terrapin’s enclosure with substrate. Do not use small stones or gravel as substrate, as turtles can eat the stones, which will cause a blockage in their bellies and make them sick. It is best to use a small layer of fine sand. For the land section of the enclosure, you can use a natural coconut fibre/soil/sand mix for substrate. You should also provide hiding areas, such as a secure dry box, large rocks and drift wood, in their enclosures so they feel safe and comfortable.
Terrapins rely on external heat to maintain their bodies at an optimal temperature. An aquarium heater can be used in both tanks and ponds. Temperature should be kept at about 22oC for adults and be checked daily using a thermometer.
You should provide your terrapin with a basking zone, i.e. a warm, dry area on land, where turtles can rest and absorb heat. This zone needs a downwards pointing reptile heat lamp that is large enough to heat the whole body, not just the shell. This light should be 30-35oC and monitored daily with a digital thermometer. You should also provide a dry, cooler area to allow your terrapin to select the level of heat they desire. A ramp should be provided so terrapins can access the dry areas from the water.
If you’re keeping your turtle inside, they will require a UV reptile light since they won’t be getting UVA and UVB from natural sunlight. Turtles require these lights to stay healthy. Appropriate UVB lighting allows reptiles to produce vitamin D3, which is needed for calcium metabolism. UVA helps in the stimulation of normal behaviours, such as foraging and feeding. UV light decreases with distance, so the strength of the bulb will depend on the height. These lights will lose effectiveness over time and must be replaced according to the instructions.
Turtles need 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness to replicate a normal day and night so be sure to turn off the light at night, this can be made easier using a plug-in timer.
If your terrapin is living in an outdoor enclosure be sure that they have access to sunlight and areas of shade and shelter from all weather conditions.
Like other reptiles, terrapins will shed their skin. Shedding of skin and shell plates is a natural process in order for terrapins to grow. This should occur without the need for human assistance. Your terrapin will need a dry place out of the water to shed, otherwise they are at risk of getting fungal infections.
Signs your terrapin is healthy are clear, bright eyes and a smooth shell/skin. If you notice blisters or sores on your turtle, take them to a reptile veterinarian immediately.
Other signs of illness can include: quietness and lethargy, not moving or swimming normally, change in regular behaviour, hiding more than normal, discharge, change in size or colour of faeces, decrease in appetite or not eating and any bleeding, swelling or wounds.
It is important to take your terrapin to have check-ups once or twice a year with a veterinarian who has experience with reptiles.
Note: Terrapins are potential carriers of infectious bacteria such as salmonella. Always wash your hands before and after handling your turtle or enclosure contents and equipment to help prevent the potential transfer of the bacteria.
Turtles in the wild are mostly solitary and can be territorial and aggressive towards each other. It is not recommended to house terrapins together or with other turtle and aquatic species.
Turtles are active and curious animals. They need a large, stimulating environment to express their normal behaviours, such as exercising, exploring, swimming, resting and foraging. Examples of how your turtle’s environment can encourage behaviours include:
- Appropriate areas out of the water for basking
- Adequate water volume and area for swimming
- Securely placed rocks in the water for hiding and exploring
- Turtle safe plants in the water for foraging
- Floating plants so your turtle feels safe and has shade
Note: Only handle your terrapin when necessary, as handling can be a stressful experience for turtles. Proper handling is important to reduce the risk of accident/injury. The best way to pick up a turtle is using both hands, one on each side of their shell in the middle of their body.
Visit the SPCA Kids’ Education Portal (www.spca.nz/kids) for more information on caring for your companion turtles, including enrichment tips and helpful videos!