Whether you're looking for tips for caring for your very first turtle, or you just want to brush up on some basic information, the amount of research you can do on the correct husbandry practices for the particular species in your care is endless. You will run across many varying opinions, and as time goes on we are constantly learning more about the best ways to care for all species of turtles and tortoises, both those common and rare to the pet trade. Everything from the quality of water your turtle lives in or drinks to the diet of your new reptile friend is a complex matter specific to each species group.
While the "tips" and "tricks" below aren't species-specific, they will answer many of the "how do I do that..." questions you'll have as you learn about all the things that go into making your turtle or tortoise's quality of life as optimal as possible. We hope that these husbandry tips provided below can answer many of your questions.
Tinted water does not mean dirty water – transparent water does not mean clean water. Water quality is mostly about chemicals. Make sure your filter has a biological filtration component as well as a mechanical filtration component. Keep in mind that water is your turtles‘ environment, they live in it, they eat in it, they mate in it, and they could also breathe in it. To provide a good living environment for your shelled animals, it is therefore necessary to ensure a good water quality. Water temperature, pH, oxygen level and bacteria are parameters – all of an equal importance – that you should be careful with. Here are a few tips that will help you providing a good water quality.
Decrease pH Tip 1
Decrease pH Tip 2
Peat moss will decrease your pH and give a nice natural brown color to the water for species that prefer dark water.
Decrease pH Tip 3
Catappa leaves will soften your water, decrease your pH, and color your water as well. They are believed to be natural health aid and will help preventing diseases as they have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Increase pH Tip 1
Adding crushed coral to the water will raise the pH level.
Increase pH Tip 2
Dolomite mineral rich in calcium and magnesium will increase the pH.
Increase pH Tip 3
Calcerous rock like Aragonite, Tuffa, Oolite, Travertine, and Limestone are rich in calcium carbonate. As a result they will increase the pH in the water.
Increase pH Tip 4
Macroalgae are not only attractive, but they also absorb carbon dioxide which results in increased pH level.
Increase/Decrease Oxygen Level Tip 1
Cold water will increase the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water while warm water will decrease the amount of dissolve oxygen in the water.
Increase Oxygen Level Tip 2
Photosynthesis performed by plants will increase the amount of dissolve oxygen in the water.
Increase Oxygen Level Tip 3
Surface agitation will increase the amount of dissolve oxygen in the water.
Increase Oxygen level Tip 4
Water/air contact will increase the amount of dissolve oxygen in the water.
Oxygen and Bacteria
Nitrifying bacteria are responsible for turning ammonia (food waste/fecal matter) into nitrite and nitrite into nitrate, which cleans the water in a biological sense. These bacteria are aerobic (grow in the presence of oxygen). Thus, increasing the oxygen in your water (dissolved oxygen) will help maintain biologically cleaner water.
Hibernation in Pond
Building a pond deep enough to be below the frost line in your region will prevent it from ever freezing solid. Water is at its most dense at 40°F (approximately 4°C), and as a result, the water in the lowest part of the pond will never drop below that temperature. This allows aquatic species to hibernate safely without risk of freezing on the bottom of the pond.
The purpose of bedding or substrate in the enclosure is to provide a firm footing for the tortoise to be able to walk around on and gain strength. Also the substrate needs to be able to retain moisture to help hold humidity. When keeping turtles and tortoises it is important to keep in mind that the environment we provide will play a role on their health and well-being. It is generally good practice to try to imitate the environment the turtle/tortoise comes from. Moisture, temperature and decoration are parameters that you should monitor to provide your turtles and tortoises an environment which is as close as their natural environment as possible.
Freeze the substrate before adding it into an enclosure. This will kill any bugs or eggs that might be in the bedding and will increase the life or decease how often you will have to change the substrate.
Decreasing Temperature with Substrate
Mulching & Rock Mulching – By adding mulch around the base of shrubs or trees will help retain water and, in turn, lower the ground temperature.
Increasing Temperature with Substrate
Piling rocks into a mound will create an area inside the enclosure that will retain heat longer. Once cooler temps set in, the rock mound will radiate out heat for a period of time.
By further placing rocks or sticks into an enclosure, this will help the tortoise gain strength but also brake up their “line of sight”. This helps when housing multiple tortoises together.
Adding misters to an outdoor enclosure will help lower the ambient temperature by a minimum of 10 degrees.
Saturating the soil of an outdoor enclosure before the start of a hot day will release humidity into the enclosure through the day.
What should they eat? What food is safe/not safe to give? How often should I feed my turtles/tortoises? These are questions that you might have asked yourself when it comes to feeding your shelled animals. Unfortunately, there are no general answer as it really depends on the species. Yet, there are a few tips that are good to know if you want to improve your turtles/tortoises diet. What they ingurgitate will have a direct effect on their health and growth. It is therefore important to make sure that what we give them is safe to swallow. Here are a few tips that will help you improve your turtles/tortoises diet.
Calcium Source Tip 1
Cuttle bones placed in the enclosure at all times will allow the tortoises or turtles to self-regulate their calcium intake.
Calcium Source Tip 2
Make sure to provide Vitamin D3 either in the food or by having a basking area with a UV/IR source. Without Vitamin D3, the calcium cannot be used by the body. Mammals can convert Vitamin D2 from plants into Vitamin D3 but reptiles do not have this ability. Carnivorous reptile can find vitamin D3 in any prey’s liver. Insects and plants do not contain vitamin D3, so vegetarian reptile won’t benefit from it. Their only way to get vitamin D3 is to synthesize it themselves from Pro-vitamin D3 found in their skin. Pro-vitamin D3 will be converted into Pre-vitamin D3 thanks to UV-B. Pre-vitamin D3 will be converted into vitamin D3 thanks to IR. Vitamin D3 is responsible for maintaining a stable amount of calcium in the blood. If a lack of calcium in the blood is shown, the system will get it from the muscles, then from the bones. Hence, a lack of calcium can cause serious damage to your turtle.
Soaking a tortoise in a shallow dish of water will allow the tortoise to drink. Tortoises are not only able to take in moisture by drinking, but they are also able to absorb it through there shell, skin and cloaca.
Remove Algae from Water
Adding a few drops of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar into a tortoise’s full water dish will remove any algae build up.
Health and Medical
Turtles and Tortoises need to be proactively monitored, as they rarely show symptoms near the onset of illness. Several health tips are below. Remember, it is always wise to consult an experienced veterinarian before making assumptions and proceeding ahead with treatments. Recently imported animals and those kept outdoors should be treated for worms and other parasites with this same proactive mindset. Veterinarian and over the counter medications such as Panacur work really well for a tortoise that already has a buildup of such organisms. However, Panacur and these other medications do lower the tortoise’s white blood cell count. To prevent a buildup and not have to use such potentially harmful medications, tortoise keepers are able to offer different varieties of foods to their tortoises throughout the year which are natural dewormers. These can be found below in the "Deworming" section.
Parasites and Papaya
The seeds inside a papaya contain carpaine, benzylisothiocyanate, benzylglucosinolate, glucotropacolin, benzylthiourea, hentriacontane, sitosterol, caricin and an enzyme called myrosin, all of which help kill parasites. They also help the intestines to contract and reduce inflammation caused by worms.
Help Digestion with Bananas
Bananas act like a natural laxative, which helps to remove worms. The oligosaccharides present in the bananas stimulate the intestine to contract also.
Deworming with Pumpkin Seeds
By feeding pumpkin, tortoises will eat the seeds that contain a compound called ascucurbitacins which paralyse the worms by attacking their nervous system. This causes them to stop growing and eventually die. These seeds also contain several other worm-killing nutrients like flavonoids, palmitic, oleic and linoleic acids.
Fight Parasites with Flowers
Echinacea, such as coneflower, works to rid the body of microorganisms that can cause harm by fueling the immune system cells that can then target and kill unwanted parasites. It does this by promoting the creation of more white blood cells, which help fight parasites and other infections.
Shell Rot Prevention – Turtle
It is possible to limit the growth of fungus or some types of bacteria in your water by adding 1 tablespoon of non-iodized salt for every 10 gallons of water.
Shell Rot – Turtle
Shell rot is a commonly seen problem in many species of aquatic turtles, and is the result of damage to the shell that has been open to bacteria or fungal build-up. It can be fatal if left untreated. Causes include: unclean water, improper diet or heating, or lack of UVB lighting.
Signs of shell rot in aquatic turtles include soft areas on the shell, discharge build-up underneath scutes, loss of scutes and exposure of tissue underneath and a foul smell from the area of concern. Shell rot can become contagious to other turtles, so if you house multiple turtles together it is important to remove the infected turtle as soon as you notice that it may have shell rot.
Treatment begins with removing any infected parts carefully with a clean, blunt tool. Remember to be extremely gentle, as your turtle can feel everything on their shell. (We strongly recommend consulting a experienced veterinarian about this step, as you could potentially harm the turtle during this process). After the infected tissue is removed, clean the area with either betadine, Chlorhexidine and/or Gentian Violet. Follow with a routine of “dry docking” – which means removing the turtle from the water completely and keeping it in a dry, warm and secure place for at least 12 hours a day until you begin to see drastic improvement. This can take a few weeks.
While your turtle is healing and not dry-docked they should be kept in very clean water. To avoid getting food or waste in the infected area, feed the turtle outside their regular enclosure in a bin of warm water, and try to wait until they go to the bathroom before putting them back into their clean enclosure. In extreme cases, an injection of Baytril or Cefotaxime may be administered for infection by a veterinarian. The lost scute will regenerate over time, and making sure to keep the turtle’s shell and the water/enclosure clean works well as a preventative measure post-recovery.
Shell Rot – Tortoise
Tortoise shells are susceptible to getting bacteria or fungal build ups due to living on the ground and residing in moist areas. Signs of typical shell rot will be a white powdery substance on the plaston. A two-step process of cleaning the shell with Hibiclens followed by keeping it clean with Betadine should be repeated for a few weeks. This process should be done daily until signs of fungus are gone. In extreme cases, the shell will need to be scraped or dremeled to remove the buildup (we highly recommend consulting an experienced veterinarian before proceeding this far). The tortoise shell will regenerate over time and proactively cleaning the tortoise’s shell, works as a good preventive.
Fecal Tip 1
Fecal testing is the number one way to tell if a tortoise has a build up of worms, Flagyls or Emebia. At home testing is able to be accomplished and a microscope is needed. Under the microscope, pin worms and hook worms will be visible and will have the shape and movement of a normal worm. Worm eggs can also visibly be seen, these will be a see through circles with two other perimeter rings. Normal de-worming methods will remove these build ups.
Fecal Tip 2
Flagyls and Emebia are the two of the most common parasites and bacteria that are looked for in fecal testing. Flagyls will have an up and down movement under the microscope while Emebia will be white oval shaped bacteria that crawl in a sideways motion. For both of these, normal de-worming methods will not remove the buildup. A few rounds of medication called Flagyl Suspension or Metronidazole is needed.
Turtles get UV through their skin while they get IR through their shell. UV-B does not go through the turtle’s shell. This is one reason why turtles expand their limbs while basking
A sloping temperature variant inside an enclosure will allow the tortoises to self-regulate their body temperatures
Disclaimer: Husbandry Tips section is an educational resource. It does not cover all "tips of the trade", nor can we guarantee all information in this section. While theTurtleRoom's staff and contributors have significant experience, these "tips of the trade" are just that – "tips" or "suggestions". We strongly suggest you take your turtle or tortoise to see an experienced vet for an health-related issues.
This work by theTurtleRoom.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.