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How to care for your pet terrapin

Updated on October 10, 2020

How to Choose and Care for Terrapins - My Experience with Young, Sick Terrapins

How to Choose Your Terrapin

1. Choose a bigger one as young terrapins tend to be weak and prone to sickness. A larger size could indicate better energy and resilience levels.

2. Pick an active terrapin. If you observe activity without any external provocation, it is usually a good sign of health.

3. Pick it up holding the top and bottom shells in between your finger and thumb. Do not hold it by the edges of the shell as a struggling terrapin will easily kick itself free, possibly with disastrous results.

4. Observe the eyes, nose and mouth areas of the terrapin to check for any unusual signs of mucus.

5. Check if the shell or body has visible signs of fungal infection.

6. For those buying from the pet shops at the basement level of Plaza Singapura, Singapore, be warned - a couple of beta fishes and the latest terrapin I'd bought from them turned out to be weak and sickly, despite their rather high retail prices and claims that all animals had been handpicked for quality.

In contrast, the cheaper ones from Serangoon Road or other suburb shops have lasted a long time.

My Experience with a Sick Terrapin

I had kept two terrapins from 12 years ago, from the time they were the size of 50-cent coins till they were the size of two palms put together side by side. Terrapin care was such a fuss-free process, I thought.

12 years on, that's 2 weeks ago, I bought another two - 1 from Yishun and another from Plaza Singapura. The one from Plaza Singapura was quiet from the time it arrived home and soon, I realized it wasn't eating. After a few days, it would neither open its eyes nor budge from its rock.

Visit to the Vet

Now, normally, we would simply replace the sick terrapin with another that costs only $3. However, my sister was heartbroken, and for her sake, I took the little one to the vet.

"How old is your terrapin?" The vet asked.

"3 months."

"Well not to worry, it's very common for terrapins at this age. What it has is a case of pneumonia."

"Isn't pneumonia what little children and old people get..?"

"It happens to young terrapins as well. So what I'm going to do... is give it an injection.."

"What! Where??" I exclaimed.

"...which I hope you can continue on your own at home."

I'd thought it would just be a case of medicated drops and a few days of monitoring. It was more complicated than I'd expected. The vet showed me how the needle was given to the terrapin on its backside, just next to the tail.

The End of a Young Life

The pre-prepared syringes were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator to keep fresh. The next day, after the injections at home, this terrapin started to "burp". He pushed off his front limbs, stretched his neck out while his throat swelled and opened his mouth silently, as if to burp. This continued at a frequency of once every 20 seconds, for about 20 minutes.

I was perplexed, since this did not happen the day before. Anxious, I called the clinic but the vet was not in as they had closed for the night. Finally, the burping stopped and the terrapin fell still with his eyes closed as usual. Shortly after, its head and all four limbs stretched out in a mini spasm, then all movement ceased.

I picked up the little fella, determined to revive him somehow and made a painful discovery that his lower shell had not only softened but caved inwards. As I held him between my fingers, his upper shell softened as well - and I knew then that he was gone.

Desperate for any sign of life, I tugged on each of his limbs, fiddled with his tail and pushed and pulled his head in and out. No sign of hope to prove otherwise what was logical and obvious - my sister was traumatized.


The difference between my previous and most recent pairs of terrapins was the location of tank. Living in sunny Singapore, we enjoy sunshine all year round. The tank was located on the kitchen cabinet where the sunlight could reach directly in my old house. At my new place, it was on the piano with indirect light. This was why the weaker terrapin was disadvantaged.

The key is for terrapins to be able to sun themselves on a warm rock. The heat warms their lungs and promotes normal circulation. It also enhances the immunity system. Provide a shaded area so they are able to choose between sun and shade.

The vet later called to explain that the sick terrapin might already be having so much fluid in itself that it could not take the injection fluid. Hence it died. Then why didn't he give me an alternative??

Well terrapin care can be fuss-free with the right condition - mainly sufficient sunlight. And if you take advice from the older generation, (aka superstition/ general knowledge), playing with young pets late at night could give them a case of bad temperament. But playing with them first thing in the morning will make them loyal pets. To first-timers choosing their first terrapins, be sure to pick the one that "speaks" to you. Besides the above pointers, your intuition will more than likely help you with the right choice.


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