Turtles and You: Its More Than a Shell Thing

My Eastern Box Turtle 'Hope'
My Eastern Box Turtle 'Hope'

So you're ready to have a turtle as a pet...

Spring is here and you may have noticed a few new "slower" additions to the local critter population outside...

Parents want to see their children happy. Puppies and kitties sometimes are not a viable pet choice, allergies and space in the home etc can determine what you can have as a pet. Turtles are an alternative to a goldfish, but please make sure you can handle one first.

To the parents that want to get their child a turtle as a pet, consider the following.

-Turtles do make awesome pets! But you have to be able to commit to their care. I'm not trying to scare you off, but knowledge is half the battle. Never get any type of pet without knowing basic care. Also, be able to provide that basic care.

-Make sure your child is old enough to understand about washing hands after playing with the turtle, and to never kiss the turtle. Turtles are known carriers of salmonella and e-coli. They could also bite.

-I have not met anyone that is allergic to a turtle. If there are people out there allergic to turtles I have never heard of them. But its always something to keep in the back of your mind. I will (as of now) safely say turtles are hypo-allergenic. They do not have dander or fur...

-I will say, out of Box turtles/Tortoises, and aquatic turtles, Box/tortoise are much easier to take care of than an aquatic. In my personal opinion. You'll see why farther down when I get more specific.

-Turtles do not need to be handled as much as other animals. They do not need walks, they do not need brushed, and they do not need house breaking.

-Turtles are also pretty forgiving if you forget to feed them one day. I would not make it a habit to forget though.

So You're still with me? Great! Now, Where to get a turtle...

Congratulations! You survived the first steps to make sure you're ready to get a turtle...

If at all possible, try not to take a turtle from the wild. It messes up the local ecosystem and takes a potential mommy or daddy turtle out of the mix. If you can't help it... I won't judge.

Quick rule of thumb though. Check your local laws about keeping reptiles from the wild, in Kentucky, the turtle has to be at least 4 inches from front to back of the top shell.

Also some places do not allow reptiles at all in a suburban setup.. I've seen an episode of Animal cops where they went to this guy's house and took his box turtle and fined him for having it cause his township had a reptile ban.

If all is a go, and you're legally able to have one, just remember if you do take one out of the wild, and you decide you can't care for it... (If its been more than a few days (not a week, literally a few days)), letting the turtle back out in the wild will spell its doom. They learn very quickly that "hey, here's a bowl of food, I don't have to forage anymore yay!" then you let them go into the wild again and they sit there and starve to death waiting for that bowl of food. Its very cruel.

Either give the turtle to someone you trust to take care of it or take it to a rescue. Heck, send it to me.

Where else can I get one, You ask?

Try reptile rescues, I ran one till I moved to Kentucky and I'm thinking about starting it up again. Those critters cannot usually be released back into the wild so they have nowhere to go.

I do not promote mega pet stores because most of them get their supply from breeders that breed their animals to death literally, to make a buck. I only go to those types of stores to get tanks, substrate (bedding) and tank decorations etc. Maybe some food...

Mom & Pop shops might be a better option, but make sure the animals do not look sick. this goes for where ever you pick one up. They should be alert, bright eyed an looking at you as much as you're looking at them. If you luck out and show up to a pet store at feeding time, make sure you pick the animal with a healthy appetite (the one that is avidly eating). Also, a pet store should smell like bedding at most, not animal yuck... if it does smell turn yourself right back around and go to a different store.

Reptile shows are pretty Nifty. You can find some pretty unique critters there. There is usually some sort of education table or display set up to educate new owners on reptiles. Usually there are freebies too! It's a very enriching experience for children as well.

The shows I've been to, there were local herpetological societies running them and as a guest they have had local zoo or reptile conservationists there talking about the animals and educating people about the environment. You can run into over breeders there also. But I have found the best prices for tanks and accessories there though.. so pick your battles.

Male Eastern Box Turtle

My Male Eastern Box Turtle 'Tasuki'
My Male Eastern Box Turtle 'Tasuki'

Now some small basic knowledge of how to tell what you have or what you're getting.

To the top right of this article you will see my Box turtle her name is Hope. She is an ornate Eastern Box Turtle. You can tell because of the yellow patterns on her shell. You can also tell she is female by looking at the bottom pastern (her under shell) its flat-ish.

Male turtles in general have bright colors on their faces and front legs, (I know.. Her legs are yellow, but its muted. Look over to Tasuki. Hes flashy orange and his eyes are very bright colored. you can see how bright they get.) if you have a species that does not have color at all, then a common fail safe is to look at the bottom shell. It will have a dip in it. There's no guessing.. its either flat ish or dipped. Any doubts email me a picture of it and I'll tell you.

Also looking at tails help. Males have thick huge tails with their little butt towards the end of their tail, females have thinner tails with their butt more towards the shell. (its called a cloaca, but I didn't want to scare you with huge words)

Young Snapping Turtle Notice its' beak?  Stay away from anything that looks like this.
Young Snapping Turtle Notice its' beak? Stay away from anything that looks like this.
Another way a Snapping Turtle can look
Another way a Snapping Turtle can look
Red Eared Slider
Red Eared Slider

What species is it?

If you've already picked up a turtle, I can't help you too much, not being able to see what exactly you have. However, I can help you as much as I can with some generalizations.

If you got the turtle at a lake, creek or other body of water, and it has webbed feet, you have yourself an aquatic or semi-aquatic turtle. Those you Have to be careful with. If its shell is ridged and lots of not quite spikey protrusions on the shell, and if it has a big pointy beak (its nose under its mouth) and its coming after you with it.... put it back immediately you have yourself a snapping turtle. They will hurt your children. I would only ever suggest those to adults with no kids. Also they have to know what they are doing. Snappers can get up to 75 pounds.

If it has a smooth shell and webbed feet, but its more concerned trying to stay away from you when you are holding it. You should have a normal aquatic turtle. The most common are the red eared sliders (like they sell at the store for pretty cheap) can't miss 'em, bright red patches where you could imagine their ears being. When in doubt either email me a picture, or google pictures of aquatic turtles.

If there are no webbed feet, and it looks similar at least in body to either 'Hope' or 'Tasuki' then you have yourself a box turtle. I suggest those over all.

The aquatic turtles can get hard to care for. They are more prone to salmonella than box turtles, and they require live fish that stink up your house. Also, they mess their water. A lot. You need strong filtration, change water, and clean their tank often. They are more work than a new turtle owner needs. Only get one of those after you get the box turtle under your belt.

If they look like a box turtle but a little more symmetrical shell, and stumpy trunky feet (like an elephant) you have a tortoise. Their care isn't any different than the box turtle. They just look neater and sometimes cost way more if you go to buy one.

Also, Tortoises grow huge! Unless it's a species that doesn't. Turtles cap off after a certain size, Tortoises keep growing! Keep that in mind, you'll have to keep getting bigger enclosures for it. Think through first and plan to dedicate a bit of space.

Handling Turtles and Common sense...

Do Not flip a turtle upside down!! Even to see what gender it is. Hold it up in the air right side up and look underneath it. Upside down turtles can die.

Turtles suffocate on their backs. I also advise no huge decorations in their enclosure for them to possibly climb up on and fall off, landing on their backs.

'Hope' is able to right herself, Tasuki is not. I don't risk their safety. So I decorate by getting a backdrop on their tanks, pretty substrate, and a few plants.

Do not let your kids kiss the turtle! If you have other pets i.e. Dogs or cats, do not let them play with the turtle either.

For one, they are natural predators to turtles and that's cruel to stress the bejesus out of the turtle, and if your dog gets the turtle the turtle in its mouth, then licks your kids, both the dog and the kids can become ill.

Wash your hands after every handling, even just the dishes out of the tank.

If the turtle touched it, you're touching the turtle indirectly.

Play it safe, Wash your hands.

I have a huge sam's club sized bottle of hand sanitizer in my reptile area. I may be particular... but I've never had an illness incident.

I got my first turtle when I was 2 years old. I've learned a lot in those years. I've had many reptiles and I still have my turtles. (the one from when I was 2 lived until I was 19. She was 60ish when I got her so that's a pretty fair age for a turtle)

The perfect set up for box/tortoise. 20 Gallon Tank. Light on one end (put the water/food on the opposite end so it doesn't evaporate/wilt) add some decor and an aquarium scene on the back of the tank if you want to add more depth
The perfect set up for box/tortoise. 20 Gallon Tank. Light on one end (put the water/food on the opposite end so it doesn't evaporate/wilt) add some d├ęcor and an aquarium scene on the back of the tank if you want to add more depth
Under The Bed Storage Container from Walmart
Under The Bed Storage Container from Walmart

How to house your Turtle...

Depending on what kind of turtle you acquired (aquatic or land), you'll need a few things.

Its pretty dang easy...

Reading those fancy turtle books is great, but remember most places are giving you suggestions based on how much money they, or their affiliates can get out of you. Its not as hard as it is made to look.

Honestly. If you're just getting one turtle and you have a good bit of money you can drop into it, get the glass aquarium. I would get it from the fish section. Trust me. Look at the price tag. A 10 Gallon tank in the reptile section of Petsmart is $40.00 and from the fish section its $13.00, then go get the screen lid for $10.00 in the reptile section (price vary by location and actual store but you get the idea) its the same tank, just a little picture of a fish or reptile determines the price.

Ok, how big is your turtle? measure from the front to back, of its top shell.

Make sure the turtle is no more than a 1/4 of the size of the tank (eyeballit). For 'Hope' in a standard 10 gallon she is pushing the 1/4 size rule...

You want to make sure you have room to put a few decorations, and their food dish, water and then the turtle itself. Still being able to have the turtle move around.

I have found the best type of container (this is going to sound crazy). One of those under the bed clear storage bins. Its dirt cheap too compared to the glass tanks. Just make sure the sides are taller than your turtle is long... they are climbers. Also getting the lid that goes with it and cutting the center of it out leaving about 3-5 inches around the frame is perfect too.

Do not get lulled into Petsmart's heat lamps. You can buy the exact same lamp from Lowes or Home Depot (or whoever your local home improvement store is) and get one cheaper than at the pet store. Try to get one with a clamp thing on it.

As for light bulbs I cheat and get plant lights from walmart. Not bug lights, Plant lights. it has to have the UV spectrum. If you have the money to spare go ahead and get the real reptile light from a pet store they run $7-$40. but I'm working from a budget.

I have dealt with a lot of substrate over the years. I have found a few I liked, and a few that I would like to ship to the sun to burn if I could..

I am a fan of the tank carpet. It looks like sheets of felt. Keep enough heavy decorations around the tank to keep the turtle from climbing up under it, and it will be the easiest substrate.

When it gets soiled you can simply pick the poo out with tongs, then twice or more a month (up to you how often) shake the soiling off of it either outside, or in the trash, and toss it in the washer machine (I would wash it alone or with your mop-heads etc not your clothes). Get it from the dryer, reassemble in your tank, and viola!

Another top pick is sand. Don't get playground sand. Get the reptile sand.

Most of the time its on sale (if not I get whatever is), and as much fun as it sounds do not get the glow in the dark sand. It trips the reptile out.

My leopard Gecko looked like he was stepping on a hot plate, and having a seizure when the lights went off on his tank.. I immediately took the sand out and replaced it. I'm also sure whatever chemical they use to make it glow is not safe to ingest.

But as I was saying, regular reptile sand is awesome! Get one of the sand scoops from the store S(or make your own if you are adventurous), and keep up with the turtle like a kitty. Scoop out the droppings, and toss them in a grocery bag. Then toss in the trash. Do a complete sand change when just simple scooping of droppings does not get rid of the potty smell.

The pet store will try to tell you twice a month. Sometimes even more frequent. At $8.00 a bag in some stores.. that adds up depending on how big your tank is. I find just knowing by smell is fine.

Do not put baking soda in your sand.. Resist all temptation to. It will hurt the reptile.

Tree bark is nice but I find that its hard as anything to get the droppings out of it. Also, I'm afraid when I feed live food (crickets and various worms) that the bugs will get under the substrate and get lost/die before being able to get eaten. Its just more trouble than its worth.. Go with sand or the carpet.

I've seen some people use newspaper. And you know what, that's not a bad idea if you already get the paper. Just do not put colorful ads, or the comics. The bright colors attract the turtles to eat the newspaper. I would line the tank with a thin layer of paper towels, then put the paper. make it at least 3 or 4 sheets so the turtle doesn't claw through it too easily. Then just like the carpet, make sure there are some decorations around so they can't lift up the paper and get under it.

Do not use kitty litter.. You will kill your reptile. A: Baking soda. B: They will eat it and it will turn into a rock in their stomach, and kill them.

You may find some sort of new fangled substrate out there, use it if you want. Do not feel bad if you find you do not like it. There is always something else.

What to feed your Turtle...

If you have yourself a land turtle, your options are super easy.

They love veggies! To make your life easy until you get the hang of things the bag salads they sell everywhere is perfect. I get "Spring" or "Field Greens" any of the bag mixes that do not have spinach or iceberg lettuce. Spinach cause thyroid issues and gives them heart burn (they do not have the convenience of being able to pop a tums though :( ) and Iceberg is just green water to them.. there is no nutritional value to iceberg, for humans either. Romaine is awesome and even better is collard, turnip greens and kale. Organic is your own call. If you already buy salad for your family as long as its not spinach or iceberg... share.

Carrots in moderation. Make sure to chop them small, grate them or run them through a food processor till they are little strips like you would get in the bagged salad.

Onions and peppers, cause heart burn just like people, so only feed these minimally if at all.

No avacado. Its too fatty. No Pickles.

They tear up tomatoes, cucumber, squash, zuchini

Fruits in moderation because of the sugar. But mine tear up blackberries, strawberries, apples bananas (they see me come in with a banana its over, everyone is clawing at their tanks for it) high acidity fruits like pineapple oranges etc... small portions, rarely. Again, heartburn. This stuff does not need to be cut up, I cut my strawberries and such in half so they don't roll away on them when they try to bite it, but besides that its soft enough they wont hurt their mouths trying to eat it.

Do not feed them cat food, dry or canned. Cat food contains mercury (digestive aid to cats)

When you're in a pickle or if you want to add some protein but you're not ready for worms, they are out of season etc, canned dog food is great! I suggest not super pricey but don't get generic, god knows what's in those things... If you wouldn't feed it to your dog, don't feed it to your turtle. Their stomachs are more delicate. And please, moderation. If you decide to feed it as a regular food item add it to their salad (maybe about a tablespoon) every other day and even less frequent than that. Obese turtles cannot jump on a treadmill. They can get heart problems just like we can from too much processed food. You don't want to over protien them, and remember, all that you feed will return out the other end..

Better than dog food, did you bake chicken tonight for dinner? have some grilled salmon? Green beans for lunch? have leftovers? give your turtle a little piece! if its not processed (no spam), If you can eat it and its not on my "No" list, go for it. brush the seasoning off (don't have to wash it, but rub a paper towel over it for heavy seasoning) let them have at it! Mashed potatoes, beans, brocoli, if its not drowned in butter/salt (little bit is ok once in a while).. When I lived in Maryland my turtles LOVED steamed crab! Weirdos I know.. but its not bad for them.

Now, if you can handle bugs, they love crickets (get them either online or from your petstore) do not get them from outside... I know.. sounds tempting.. but you never know if your neighbor sprays their lawn with poisons etc... I can't stress this enough.. I lost one of my lizards that way. I did not know my neighbor sprayed his yard. My first cricket I caught and fed to him, was his last. I found him passed later that day.. They make it to where you never have to touch one of the little buggers.. cricket keepers have little tubes, you take the tube out and shake it in their tank and then put the tube back in the keeper. Never touch a bug. I have a large set up (because I have a lot of cricket eaters) I have a 10 gallon aquarium with crickets in it, I use a paper towel tube with one end crimped down so they can't get out the back.

They also have meal worms and wax worms. if you can't handle worms (I don't blame you, if they weren't so good for them I wouldn't handle them at all). An alternative I've found is at the local feed store (I'm there for my dog/cat/horse food) They have freeze dried meal worms for chickens... OMG. They tear them up, and as long as you close them and keep them from getting damp or hot, they last for freakin ever. $5.99 for like I think its 10-30 thousand of the buggers in a resealable pouch, or $4.99 for 50 live ones from Petsmart... not 50 thousand. 50. Five zero. Wax worms in moderation. They are like the turtle's equivalent of a big mac. Earthworms are good too. Get them from a bait shop. They are cheaper than Petsmart. They even sell them at walmart in the camping section.

They do sell canned box turtle food. And I find my turtles put their noses up at it. They will only eat it if I give them no choice. Don't waste your money.

Plenty of clean water. Look at Hope's picture, I have a gravity waterer. It has a little screen in it so crickets can't crawl up there and drown and ruin her water. Best investment ever. All my critters have them. And for my larger tanks that I have a few reptiles in, I got a waterer for a cat. Biglots.. 3 bucks.. (don't know if the price changed since then)


You went for the aquatic turtle?

Ok, they like feeder fish (minnows or small goldfish) once or twice a week, and they sell pellets. Also every once in a while you'll find a turtle that will like the veggies too. Float a romaine leaf in there, long thin sliced cucumber, zuchini, squash all long thin cut.. I would not suggest carrot. No particular reason, mine do not eat it. Don't waste your carrot.

Miscellaneous Care...

You don't have to do this. Although, it makes for a more happier turtle.

A few times a week I soak my box turtles in warm (not hot) water, do not use your kitchen sink unless its all you have. I use my bathtub then bleach the bejesus out of it when I'm done soaking everyone. If its a box turtle/tortoise do not put the water too high! They can drown! Put them maybe in an inch or two of water at most. Box turtles cannot swim!

Before I soak, once a week or so (more often if it seems they have dirties stuck to their shell) I give them a little warm bath with warm running water, and some mild antibacterial soap. Not a lot. Just a drip of soap, and wash everything but their heads (its a butt getting it in the eyes).

When you rinse, tilt them head up, slightly so the soapy water doesn't run down into their eyes. Use a soft bristle toothbrush if you notice something isn't washing off easily. (I would then dedicate that toothbrush to reptiles only).

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Comments 2 comments

preston 19 months ago

Can I use rocks as bedding?


Natisu profile image

Natisu 19 months ago from Georgia Author

You can use rocks, I would suggest smooth rocks, aquarium river stones if you go to buy them.. if you collect your own rocks, make sure they are smooth... and boil them first to kill any bacteria off of them from outside. I stress smooth so the rocks do not cut their shells up.

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