The Delightful Horror of Aquatic Turtle Care

Six years ago, two aquatic turtle hatchlings were given to myself and my mother as a birthday present. A couple of weeks prior to being given this gift, I had warned the person who was considering giving them to us, to let me do research on how to take care of aquatic turtles. This person agreed, then promptly went back on that agreement and bought them anyway.

Needless to say, while I thought my new red eared sliders were adorable, I was horrified and stressed out about how much care they needed. They require almost as much care as tropical fish, and if you know anything about tropical fish, you should be automatically turned off to aquatic turtles. No matter how much research, time and money I spent on my turtles I never felt like I was doing a good enough job. I still don’t have the ideal aquariums I’d like to have, though my turtles are healthy and comfortable.

Red eared sliders, and all other types of sliders, do not stay small. Females in particular grow larger than males, but males still max out at a shell length of 9 inches. Relative to other aquatic turtle species, sliders are among the biggest. Females can reach a shell length of 12 inches, and at that size they cannot have a tank smaller than 100 gallons. It should be understood that all animals get bigger as they grow up, but reptiles in general get very big and are not compact like a cat. Honestly, cats seem to be the only pets I’ve ever encountered that do not require an enormous amount of roaming space. Even dogs require more space than cats. Do yourself a favor and get a cat…

Anyway, red eared sliders grow between 4 to 6 inches in their first year. After that, they annually grow about one inch. Tank upgrades are inevitable, due to their growth rate, but putting a hatchling (smaller than 4 inches) in a 75+ gallon tank is out of the question, since that much open space is stressful for them (Stress kills reptiles). The general rule is 10 gallons per inch of turtle. In other words, a turtle that is six inches long, should have a 60 gallon tank. Over time, you should be able to calculate your turtle’s unique growth rate. For example, one of my turtles grows based on how much food she is given each day, and another one of my turtles sheds at the beginning of every season, but doesn’t always get bigger when she sheds. My third turtle, who is the oldest, grows during the midsummer. Turtles do not grow to fit the size of their tank. They outgrow their tanks quite often. After a turtle reaches four inches, it can be in any size tank larger than 50 gallons. So, if your turtle is a calm one and confident, plus 4 inches long, it can be in a 75 to 90 gallon tank.

Turtles eat daily, and need a diet as complex as humans. They are omnivorous and in the wild will eat aquatic plants, insects, frogs and small fish. In captivity, they can be fed these things. You can also feed Wardley or Reptomin pellets, as a vitamin staple. I feed mine a variety of earth worms, blueberries and strawberries, romaine lettuce, carrots (the peels, not chunks), occasional bananas and rarely cooked chicken. Portions should NEVER be larger than the turtle’s head. Turtles don’t feel hungry or have growling stomachs like humans, so they never feel satiated. They literally eat every time food is offered to them. Turtles will vomit up their food if they’ve eaten more than they can handle. In uncommon circumstances, a turtle’s stomach can tear or burst from eating too much food. (How to turtles survive in the wild if they don’t stop eating? Food in the wild is scarce in comparison to captivity).

Turtles are aggressive as they get older. Many people think males are more aggressive than females, but my oldest turtle, Sadie, defies that rule, and my other two are beginning to defy it also. Turtles are solitary by nature and do not want to live with other turtles, or other aquatic animals. They will attack and/or eat just about any living thing that crosses their path. I’ve encountered people who have put musk turtles with their red eared sliders, and their sliders tried to eat the musk turtles. Male sliders kill and eat baby sliders. Yes, two of my turtles share a tank, yes they have shown aggression toward each other, yes they will be separated soon.

Females, like chickens, lay unfertilized eggs. And they lay quite a few of them, too. A few years ago, Sadie became gravid for likely the first time in her life. I tried getting her to lay her eggs outside, and she would dig holes and abandon them. I made her multiple nesting boxes, which she always escaped from. Finally, we took her to the vet to be induced. The first shot was an interesting process… My mom held her back end, I let her chomp down on a popsicle stick and the vet quickly gave her the shot in her shoulder. At some point during this she also bit the vet. We brought her home, and she laid one egg. So, the next day, we brought her back to be induced again. We didn’t go in the room with her, but after about 10 minutes, the vet tech returned with Sadie and a look on her face of complete horror. Over the course of the next week, Sadie laid 11 more eggs behind her basking dock. Since this experience we cannot put our hands in her tank, otherwise she will bite us and she doesn’t like to let go. Sadie also launches herself out of the water like a crocodile whenever she sees that we are about to feed her.

So that being said… there’s no such thing as holding your turtle. Sadie will stay in my mom’s lap, but if I pick her up, her hisses and scratches me. Hurricane, the smallest of the pair we received as gifts, will kick and scratch and is impossible to hold. Typhoon, the second of the pair, is tolerant of being held for a little while, but will eventually start kicking, scratching and snapping, too.

So this is the delightful horror of taking car of turtles. While I am fascinated by them, and their habits and personalities, I am also exhausted by them, and I do not recommend them as pets. I actually don’t recommend any animals as pets, but especially not turtles. Unless you want to put yourself through this, and that’s on you.

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