The Care and Feeding of Aquatic Turtles
There are many different species of aquatic turtles, and each of them has their own needs in terms of food, temperature, lighting, and habitat. This page is just an introduction that talks about the needs of aquatic turtles in general, and provides links to care sheets for specific turtle species.
All aquatic turtles share certain needs. The most important things that all aquatic turtles need are:
- The right heat and lighting.
- A large enough habitat that has both a dry area and enough clean water for them to swim.
- The right amount of the right finds of food.
Feeding Your Turtle
The exact feeding requirements for turtles vary by species. But there are several important things you need to know about feeding any aquatic turtle.
The first thing you need to understand is that aquatic turtles have to be in the water to eat because they need the water to wash down their food. Even if they take food from your hand, they'll still run or jump into the water to swallow it.
Many keepers recommend feeding turtles in a separate tank from the one they live in. This is mainly to prevent leftovers, which can foul the tank. I usually don't do this with dry foods because I use reverse-flow undergravel filters that keep most of the leftovers suspended in the water until the filter draws them out, and because I have fish in the tank who usually eat the scraps long before they sink to the bottom. But when I feed my turtles messy foods, I feed them in a separate tank.
What to Feed Your Turtle
The second thing you have to understand is that you can't feed your pet turtle dog food, luncheon meat, pizza, and so forth, and expect your turtle to be happy and healthy. Turtles have very specific dietary needs, and although they'll eat almost anything we put in the tank, only a proper diet will keep them healthy.
The bulk of your turtle's diet should be food specifically made for turtles. Turtle food made by reputable companies like Mazuri, Zoo Med, RepCal, Wardley's, and ReptoMin provide complete, balanced nutrition and should be a big part of your turtle's diet.
But no one -- not even a turtle -- wants to eat the same stuff all of the time, so it's okay to feed your turtle treats from time to time. Depending on your turtle specie and stage of development, they may like to eat animal foods like fish, brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, or bloodworms; or plant foods like romaine lettuce, escarole, apples, carrots, bananas, and melons. Don't go tossing a whole melon in the tank, though! Offer your turtle little bits of new foods at first to see if he or she likes them.
How Much and How Often to Feed Your Turtle
There are a lot of different opinions about this question. Many people believe that juvenile turtles (up to one year of age) should be fed once a day, pre-adult turtles should be fed every other day, and adult turtles should be fed every third day. Others believe it's okay to feed turtles of any age every day, but that you have to feed them small portions. All keepers, however, agree that overfeeding your turtle is one of the worst things you can do.
In fact, one of the things you will have to learn as a turtle hobbyist is how to ignore your turtle's begging for food. This may sound cruel, but turtles are very intelligent animals who quickly learn to beg for food every time they see you walk past the tank. But overeating can cause all kinds of medical problems for turtles, so we have to learn to ignore their begging.
You see, turtles are opportunistic feeders. That means that when they see food, they eat it -- whether they're hungry or not. This is because in the wild, turtles don't know where their next meal is coming from, so they pig out when there's food available just in case it's a long time before they get to eat again.
Pet turtles, of course, have their keepers to feed them; but they still act as if they were in the wild. So it's up to us to feed them only as much as they need. Some people define this as how much food the turtles will eat in 15 or 20 minutes, and others say to feed them as much food as would fit inside their heads if they were hollow. I find that both amounts are about the same, so take your choice. The important thing is not to overfeed your turtles, no matter how much they beg.
A pet turtle living in a well-designed habitat, with proper heat and lighting, and whose diet consists largely of a high-quality turtle food, usually won't need vitamin supplements. Most turtle foods contain all the vitamins and minerals a turtle in a healthy habitat needs.
The most common exception to this rule is calcium, which turtles need in high amounts to build and maintain their skeletal systems and shells. Calcium can be added to a turtle's diet by adding supplements to their food; or it can be added to their environment by placing a cuttle bone or sepia bone in the tank. There are also calcium blocks that can be added to the water and which slowly dissolve, although it's questionable how much of this calcium turtles actually ingest.
Another exception to the rule is Vitamin A. It's actually a little unusual for turtles who are being fed a commercial turtle food to have Vitamin A deficiencies, but it does happen sometimes. Usually the first visible symptom is swollen, puffy eyes. A veterinarian can administer Vitamin A shots in the case of a deficiency, and there are also Vitamin A eye drops.
Care Sheets for Popular Turtle Species
Not being one to re-invent the wheel, I'm just going to provide a link to the Turtle Care Sheets page on the very excellent Austin's Turtle Page. Look for your specie of turtle on the main page, and select it from the drop-down list. You'll be taken to a page that contains specific information about your turtle's care, feeding, and habitat requirements.