Basking water turtles

Rescued pond sliders basking beside their pond.
Photo by Michael J. Connor


Turtles can make interesting pets but they can require a great deal of care to keep them healthy. This care sheet provides some basic guidelines to help ensure that your water turtles live long and healthy lives. The outdoor guidelines are for the care of hardy water turtles such as sliders, cooters and painted turtles in the mild southern California climate. Turtles not native to the U.S. or kept in areas with more severe climates may have special needs.

Outdoor Housing

Keeping your turtle outdoors is more likely to duplicate its natural environment, and is the only practical way to provide a large swimming space for adult turtles. Turtles can be kept outdoors in a pen containing a pond (this can be as simple as a child's plastic wading pool) with rock or cinder block islands, or floating logs or cork boards that the turtles can bask on. Many water turtles actually spend a lot of time out of the water basking, and females must be able to climb out onto land to lay their eggs, so provide a land area around the pool with vegetation in which they can hide and burrow.

Pens for hatchlings or small turtles should be covered with screening to prevent them from being eaten or injured by birds, cats, dogs and other animals. The pond should have shady areas so that the turtles do not have to stay in direct sunlight during the heat of the day. A board placed over a portion of the pool, or a few clumps of water hyacinth or water lettuce will provide needed shade. NEVER put turtles outside in a glass aquarium, it will heat up like a greenhouse making the water dangerously hot.

Be aware that raccoons live in many urban neighborhoods, and that turtles are one of their favorite foods. It may be necessary to fence off the pond and enclosure to protect your turtles from these marauding predators.

Indoor Housing

A large heated aquarium with a swimming area at least as deep as the width of the turtle, and a rock, shelf, or similar structure where the turtle can get completely out of the water provides suitable indoor quarters. Some baby turtles are best reared in very shallow water, allowing them to feed in slightly deeper water. The setup must be completely dismantled and scrubbed with bleach from time to time to reduce the risks of disease.

A calcium block made from plaster of Paris, or one purchased from a pet store, should be placed in the water. The water temperature should be maintained at 75-85° F, so provide a heat source such as an aquarium heater in the water or an overhead light placed over the basking area.

Natural sunlight provides the ultraviolet light that is essential for turtles to properly utilize calcium and to properly assimilate their food. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight are also beneficial for curing sundry minor scratches or skin ailments. Because sunlight is deprived of its value when filtered through glass, turtles housed indoors need to be given regular sun exposure or an artificial substitute such as light from a Vitalite, or a similar full-spectrum lamp. These full-spectrum lamps are fluorescent lights that emit small amounts of beneficial ultraviolet light. The amount of ultraviolet light emitted diminishes with use and these tubes should be replaced at least every six months; more frequently is often recommended. The Vitalite should be turned on for at least 12 hours a day and turned off at night to simulate natural day/night conditions.


Most water turtles must be fed directly in the water, otherwise they cannot swallow. Potential food items include lean beef, fish, earthworms (nightcrawlers), meal worms, and feeder goldfish and guppies. Many hobbyists feed their water turtles entirely on prepared balanced foods such as Tetra ReptoMin or Purina Trout Chow, which can be bought at animal feed stores.

Do not use so-called "ant eggs." Some hatchling and baby turtles will only eat live foods. They can be offered brown or black worms (available at tropical fish stores) and brine shrimp. Live food may carry infectious bacteria, so be certain to rinse the worms well and obtain worms and live fish from a clean and healthy source. Water turtles will often take leafy vegetables and even fruit such as banana or papaya.