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Deciding to get a turtle can be a big decision.  At AVC, we know that all pets are family and deserve the best care available.  Turtles make wonderful pets and are a popular choice for people who want to be different, those with allergies, and for children (know your child and research turtles first, a turtle is not always a good fit for children).  Turtles require a moderate amount of care and need a specific environment with numerous components, which can be expensive to set up.  To help you determine if a turtle is right for you and your family, here are some veterinary guidelines to consider before you get your pet:

RESEARCH –Before getting a turtle, do the research.  Turtles and tortoises are not the same.  Turtles are aquatic or semi-aquatic and must have enough water to swim and submerge themselves.  Many turtles will only eat while they are in the water.  The most common turtle sold in pet stores is the Red-Eared Slider (RES), but Painted, Box, and Map turtles are also popular pets.  After you determine which species of turtle is best for you, decide where you will keep the turtle and whether you can afford the initial set up and continuing care.  If you have children, especially young ones, make sure they understand how and when to interact with the animal.  Remember to wash your hands after handling the turtle.  If you have other pets, ensure the turtle is safe from predatory dogs or cats.  Even though a turtle can retreat into its shell, it is still important to protect them from large, curious animals.  Remember to take your time before getting a new pet.  Many owners are enthusiastic when they first get their pet and quickly lose interest.  Remember that turtles can live from twenty to fifty plus years.  If you get a turtle and do lose interest, rehome it through the proper channels and do not release it in the local pond.  There are turtle and tortoise rescue organizations out there to help with the rehoming process.

SELECTION – Turtles can be bought at pet stores, through private parties, and may sometimes be adopted through rescue organizations.  Once you determine which species is right for you, find a reputable seller.  Your turtle should be alert, responsive, and should withdraw quickly into its shell when it feels threatened.  Make sure the turtle’s eyes, nose, and mouth are clean and clear.  Check the carapace (shell) for chips, cracks, or peeling.  Ensure there is no fungus on the face, limbs, or shell.  Watch your prospective turtle swim and move on land.  A healthy turtle is a strong, powerful swimmer and can move surprisingly fast on land.  If the first or second place you go to does not have the turtle you want, keep looking.  The right turtle for you is out there.  (Note: As the RES is the most popular pet turtle in the world, this article will focus on the RES).  If you do not want a RES, do not be discouraged.  Our veterinarians and staff at AVC will be happy to answer any questions you may have about other turtle species.

HABITAT – While the initial cost of a turtle may be relatively low, turtles require specific habitats with components that can be costly and add up quickly.  Set up your turtle’s habitat several days prior to bringing your new pet home.  An adult turtle requires a minimum of a 50 gallon tank with excellent filtration.  Turtles are extremely messy, so experts recommend a filter that cycles three times the capacity of the tank.  For example, for a 50 gallon tank, you should get a 150 gallon filter.  A secure outdoor pond with filtration is an excellent choice for turtles in a mild climate.  The water depth for a turtle should be at least twice the length of its carapace and the water level should be approximately 8 to 10 inches below the top of the enclosure, so your turtle does not escape.  The water will need to be treated to remove the chemicals found in tap water.  Keep the water temperature between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure your turtle has an area outside of the water for basking.  Make sure your basking area has adequate UVA and UVB lighting to simulate sunlight and provide heat.  Even with the best filtration, your turtle’s tank will need frequent partial water changes and vigorous regular cleaning.  Some experts recommend feeding turtles in a separate habitat to reduce waste and keep the environment cleaner.

DIET – Feed your turtle every day.  Most turtles are omnivores and will eat a combination of pellets, small feeder animals, and fruits or vegetables.  Pet stores are a great place to buy pellets and treats, as well as mealworms, night crawlers, crickets, minnows, and feeder goldfish.  The fruits and vegetables offered should be high in calcium and other vitamins, and low in phosphorus and sugars.  Dark, leafy greens such as kale, romaine lettuce, and collard greens are excellent choices and squash, peppers, and non-citrus fruits may be offered as well. Consult the AVC staff for specific dietary needs and more recommendations.  A dietary necessity, especially with young animals, is a calcium supplement. Animals housed indoors under artificial lighting should receive a calcium supplement complete with vitamin D3. Animals housed outdoors should be able to bask in direct sunlight and bio-synthesize vitamin D3 naturally.  In addition to a calcium supplement, a reptile multivitamin is highly recommended and will aid in ensuring that no nutritional deficiencies occur over time.

HEALTH ISSUES – Turtles are relatively hardy pets.  You can help keep your pet healthy by being a responsible and attentive owner.  A clean, well-filtered enclosure with proper lighting and heat, combined with a well-balanced diet will help to keep your pet from getting sick.  Even with proper animal husbandry, some animals do get sick.  In the case of aquatic turtles, especially babies, deficiencies of calcium and vitamin A are the most prevalent issues.  Calcium deficiencies stem from inadequate dietary calcium, coupled with a lack of exposure to full spectrum lighting or appropriate vitamin D3 supplementation.  Symptoms of calcium deficiency include soft or misshapen shells, protruding eyes, lethargy, and anorexia. Vitamin A deficiency symptoms include swollen eyelids (both eyes are typically affected equally), nasal discharge, lethargy, and little interest in food.  Fungus is also a common problem for turtles and is often the result of poor water quality.  Should any of these symptoms present themselves, bring your turtle to AVC as soon as possible.  When caught early, most conditions are reversible, but if untreated, the prognosis becomes more guarded.  If you have any concerns about your pet’s health, or just want to bring them in for a wellness exam, the doctors and staff at AVC would love to meet you and your pet.  Congratulations on your new turtle.