basic care for aquatic turtles

Terrapin by William WarbyAquatic turtles are very popular pets in Hong Kong – but unfortunately, most have short and unhealthy lives as a result of non-existent or incorrect care information. This article summarizes the basic facts you need to know to maintain these species in good health.


Feeding aquatic turtles

Most terrapins and freshwater aquatic turtles are omnivorous rather than exclusively carnivorous, consuming both animal prey and plant material in the wild. This pattern should be encouraged in captivity. Red Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) – the most common turtle kept in Hong Kong – are mostly carnivores as juveniles and mostly herbivores as adults. In all cases, however, it is certainly not adequate to feed only on commercial turtle flakes which are often of very poor nutritional value and severely lacking in dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals.

The main thing to avoid with diets for any captive turtle is over-reliance upon one single item; this is a very easy mistake to make, but a balanced and varied diet is infinitely superior. Twice a week food items should be dusted with a reptile calcium/vitamin powder before feeding to balance the diet. Meat (such as pork & beef) is a very poor food as it is low in calcium, vitamins and fibre and will lead to disease and should not be given.

Vary the diet as much as possible with foods such as whole little fish, prawns, earthworms, slugs, snails, crabs, tadpoles and insects (mealworms, crickets and beetles). “Whole” means with the shell and skin, do not remove any parts. You can chop them up before feeding to make them smaller, but make sure all the bits are eaten. This is important to “balance” the diet, especially with regards to calcium levels. Vegetables such as frozen mixed vegetables, carrots and green leaves are excellent if the terrapin will take them. In an emergency tinned cat food can be occasionally offered, but is too high in fat for routine use.


Most of these turtles are well suited to a vivarium environment, although in some cases outdoor accommodation can be utilised. Because these are all relatively small species, it is possible to base the vivarium around standard tropical fish tanks – however, only large ones are usually suitable. The minimum normally considered satisfactory for a fully grown adult pair of Red-eared sliders for example is 2m (6 feet) long x 500mm (24 inches) wide. This should be 50/50 to 75/25 water and land in most cases. These terrapins should have the choice between water and land. A tank containing water deep enough for them to swim around with a choice of rocks to rest on is perfect. The tank should be in a reasonably quiet place, and it should be dark at night. Water must be changed regularly or an effective filtration system put in place. Turtles produce far more waste than fish.


All indoor terrapin tanks will require some form of artificial lighting. For the main light source the best system by far are UV-B lamps. These lamps are important as they emit Ultra-Violet radiation which contributes to the natural production of Vitamin D3 (essential to healthy bone development). UV-B is blocked by glass, so even if a tank is placed in a brightly lit window position this is not by itself adequate. Lack of exposure to UV light in reptiles can lead to severe metabolic disease.


Environmental temperature in summertime is fine for most species. Most Hong Kong flats are too cold (with strong air conditioning). With air con or in winter heating is advised. A special light bulb over one rock will provide a “hot spot” for basking. It is good to have a “temperature gradient” across the cage to allow the terrapin to choose the temperature they want.