If you happen to have an extra tank laying around and want to try something new other than fish, a turtle tank might be an exciting long-term project.
Many different species of turtle can make the perfect pet. However, you’ll need to make the perfect home for it to live in first.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about keeping turtles as pets and get some fresh turtle tank setup ideas for your own turtle enclosure!
Basics of turtle care
Turtles are much different from fish in their aquarium setup, health requirements, and overall behaviors. There is a lot to learn to make sure that you provide the best home possible for your new friend!
Many terrestrial species of turtle can be kept in a fish tank setting. Even though turtles are known for spending time in water and on land, some pet turtles don’t need as much water as others.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll only be looking at turtles that require a mainly aquatic environment. For more land-based species, like the eastern box turtle, check out our complete care guide here.
Some of these popular pet turtle species include:
- Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
- Yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)
- Common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
- Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
- Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)
- Softshell turtle (Apalone mutica, Apalone spinifera)
Of course, the list goes on and on. Most species on this list can be kept using general turtle basics concerning tank size, substrate, basking areas, lighting, filtration, and other decorations.
Always make sure to research the exact needs of the breed of turtle you plan on getting, though!
What size tank do you need for a turtle?
In the turtle world, a good rule of thumb for the correct size turtle tank is 10 gallons of water capacity (37.9 L) for every inch (2.5 cm) of shell. This can be determined by taking the full potential size of the adult turtle and multiplying that number by 10; for example, a 5 inch (12.7 cm) turtle needs 50 gallons (189.3 L).
This is not a hard and fast rule. Some baby turtles may be kept below or above these guidelines, especially if multiple turtles are being held together.
In general, it’s better to have a longer tank than a taller tank to allow for optimal swimming space and water depth. It will also make cleaning and caring for your turtle much easier as you won’t have to lean into the tank too far.
As always, though, it’s better to get the biggest tank possible no matter what size of turtle you plan on getting to avoid having to upgrade in the future.
How to set up a turtle terrarium or aquarium
Once you have your basic turtle aquarium setup with a species in mind, it’s time to prepare the tank for your new friend!
As with fish tanks, this is not something that you should rush. Making changes later can be difficult and messy, so you want to do it the best you can the first time around.
There are two main ways of setting up a turtle tank: having a mainly aquatic system with no landings and only floating structures, or having a mixed terrestrial and aquatic system with both landings and floating structures.
Choosing a substrate
After picking out the perfect tank size, you need to choose a substrate. A suitable substrate will be natural, clean, and safe to use for your turtle.
A significant problem turtles face is the risk of impaction. Impaction occurs when the turtle ingests some of the substrate and cannot digest it, causing a blockage in the digestive tract, which can quickly become fatal.
One of the main substrates that cause impaction is gravel. A great alternative to gravel would be tile, sand, or carefully placed larger rocks. Some hobbyists even choose a bare bottom system to eliminate any risk and make cleaning easier.
For filling large substrate areas (like terrestrial landings for your turtle), it is best to create a foundation from plastic or foam and then cover it with the given substrate.
Choosing a basking dock
Turtles are basking animals, meaning that turtles will leave the water for extended periods and lay in the direct sunlight. If you’ve ever passed a pond or lake, you may have seen a turtle sunning itself on a raised log or rock in the middle of the water.
Rays from the sun keep the turtle bacteria- and parasite-free while meeting the daily UV light requirements and body temperature regulation that turtles need to survive.
These basking areas can be set up in a few ways in the aquarium, mainly through basking docks and an above-water basking area.
A basking turtle dock usually floats on the top of the water or can be attached to the side of the aquarium with suction cups or magnets. These floating basking areas are helpful when working with limited space above the aquarium.
Above the tank basking areas, also referred to as turtle toppers, are great for giving your turtles a separate area for basking and moving around. These units attach to the top of the aquarium and can be accessed by a basking ramp.
The main benefits of raised basking areas are more swimming space and places for your turtle to explore.
Choosing the lighting
For viewing purposes, turtles don’t need anything fancy. A simple fluorescent bulb or LED fixture will provide the 8-10 hours of light your turtle needs for a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
However, overly strong light can start to cause algae issues.
In addition, you need heating lamps that provide heat, UVA (ultraviolet A) light, and UVB (ultraviolet B) light. UVA light is vital for breeding and activity levels. On the other hand, UVB light is essential for maintaining vitamin D3 production, which allows the turtle to process calcium and digest food.
Without proper amounts of UVB, the turtle could develop shell problems and have overall poor growth. UVB lights need to be changed every 6 to 9 months to keep your turtles healthy.
In addition to ultraviolet rays, turtles also need lighting for a heat source. This is usually a different bulb from the UVA/UVB bulb and is only intended to give off heat.
A basking light should be placed above a basking dock to warm the immediate area to about 85-90° F (29.4-32.2° C). The light should be placed to create a gradient of heat that your turtle can choose from at any given time.
To set up a gradient, you will need to use a reliable thermometer and adjust the light angle accordingly. Never try to guess the temperature of your aquarium without a thermometer.
Again, basking lights should be changed about every three to twelve months; this is a wide range that largely depends on the light bulb and fixture being used. Use the thermometer to continue observing the efficacy of heating over time.
Choosing an aquarium heater
In addition to creating a heated basking area, you also need to keep your tank water warm.
Most common pet turtle species can withstand a wide range of water temperatures as long as that temperature is consistent. Otherwise, they do best with a steady water temperature between 75-82° F (23.9-27.8° C).
When choosing an aquarium water heater, it is very important to choose one that can withstand the wear and tear that comes along with having a turtle. For this reason, plastic-coated heaters made from bite-proof materials are the best option for many turtle owners.
Just like fish, turtles need filtration. Turtles create tons of waste that must be neutralized through the nitrogen cycle. This is done through beneficial bacteria that live in filter media and other available surface areas throughout the aquarium.
Many aquarium brands have made turtle-specific filters. These are unnecessary, and cheaper, more efficient options are usually available.
Turtle tanks need at least 2X filtration rates, with higher rates always being better. Good powerful filter options include a canister filter and hang-on-the-back (HOB) filters.
Sponge filters and other submersible filters usually cannot keep up with the turtle waste demands.
In addition to having a high water volume turnover rate with your filtration, you will also want to be able to adjust the flow output rate. Stronger filters will have stronger flows, and you will need to adjust yours appropriately so that it doesn’t overpower your turtle trying to swim.
A protective sponge around the filter’s intake will also greatly help avoid injury.
When picking tank decoration for your turtle, you always want to keep in mind what can and cannot fit in your turtle’s mouth. Turtles are curious, and they will try to eat anything they can.
Some decorations to avoid are small plastic plants that can be ingested and larger structures where your turtle could become stuck.
A popular option for decorating turtle tanks is live plants. However, turtles like to dig, and a carefully thought out landscape could quickly become uprooted.
Always ensure that these aquarium plants are also completely edible, as it’s likely your turtle will take a chomp at one point or another. Some good live aquatic plant options are:
- Anubias spp.
- Anacharis (Elodea spp.)
- Java fern (Microsorum pteropus)
- Floating plants (duckweed, hornwort, water hyacinth)
Ideally, you want to avoid fragile, slow-growing plants that can’t take being trampled by your turtles. Some species can also be harmful or lethal to turtle health.
With some planning, it is possible to create a natural enclosure with live plants and other wood and rock structures. Many hobbyists like to use larger rocks to create depth and interest.
Larger, artificial plants can also be used for backdrops out of immediate reach from your turtles.
How to clean a turtle tank
Good turtle husbandry starts with regular water changes. Turtles are extremely messy creatures and spend most of their time in the water.
Keeping the turtle in a safe place away from the tank during all maintenance is recommended to prevent injury and for more efficient cleaning; during this time, you may give your turtle some food to keep it busy.
This can be as simple as partially filling up a plastic bin or bucket with water and placing your turtle within. If this container has short walls, it may be better to put it on the ground in case your turtle escapes.
Clean the glass
This might seem like simple maintenance, but cleaning the glass of your aquarium can make a huge difference in viewing.
Use a sponge or magnetic algae scrubber to wipe down the insides of the aquarium. Preferably, this should be done before a water change so that the floating particles are removed shortly after, though you can safely do this daily.
Similarly, wipe down the outsides of the aquarium once you have finished routine maintenance to prevent water spots. This will give the glass tank sides a much cleaner and clearer look.
Even though your tank is cycled and converting ammonia to nitrite and nitrate, nitrate cannot be removed from the system without doing regular clean water changes. Though nitrate is harmless in small amounts, it can become toxic at higher levels.
The number of water changes you need to perform depends on how well your system works. If you have several turtles or bigger individuals, you will need to do larger changes more frequently. On the other hand, one or two small turtles may be able to get by on a weekly or biweekly schedule.
Regularly test your water to know when you need to perform water changes. Once nitrates start to accumulate past about 10 or 20 ppm, it is time to do a water change.
Remember, a water change should be immediately performed at any signs of ammonia or nitrite. The presence of these nutrients can also indicate that a mini-cycle has happened in the aquarium in response to an influx of waste or unstable bacteria populations.
While performing a water change, we recommend vacuuming the substrate and cleaning up any especially dirty areas.
Like an aquarium, use the vacuum to suck up any waste on and in the aquarium substrate. If you have terrestrial portions of your setup, regularly remove waste and add fresh bedding/substrate as needed.
It will be necessary to clean out the aquarium filter every other week or so during water changes. This is because you can use the cloudy water removed from the tank to rinse the filter media. Remember, never use tap water to clean your filter media!
You should do total cleanouts of your turtle aquarium monthly or as needed. Decorations and basking areas should be scrubbed down with warm water and other turtle-safe cleaning products.
How to keep your turtles from getting bored
Turtles are a little more demanding than fish when it comes to enrichment. In the wild, turtles catch prey, swim long distances, and look for places to sun themselves.
In the aquarium, you are limited on space and need to replace that activity level one way or another. But, how do you know your turtle is bored?
Some signs of a stressed or bored captive turtle are:
- Decreased appetite
- Excessive digging
- Attempts to climb out of the tank
- Repetitive swimming patterns
It is important to note that some of these behaviors can be tied to illness or poor water conditions, so make sure your turtle is at full health, and that correct water parameters are stable.
But if you find that your turtle just doesn’t seem to be enjoying its environment, then there are a few questions you should be asking yourself.
Tank size and tank setup
If your turtle looks bored, it might be bored with its tank.
First, make sure that your turtle is in an adequately sized aquarium for its size. Turtles need room to swim and move around, and if the tank is too small, your turtle might be cramped
Then, look at the overall setup of the aquarium. Do you just have a few sparse rocks here and there? Are there a lot of structures for your turtle to explore and interact with?
If not, then it might be time to add some new decorations or rearrange what you already have. Some new ideas might be more rocks/rock structures, driftwood, plants, and even artificial structures; be prepared for your turtle to rearrange the new items to its own liking, too!
Another option is to rearrange what you already have. You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy anything new as sometimes a small change in scenery is all it takes.
Every few months, move rocks and pieces of wood around the tank during water changes; doing this during a water change will help level out any waste that might get stirred up.
If the tank size allows, you might want to try adding some tank mates into the aquarium, including snails, fish, and other aquatic turtles.
Which species you can keep will entirely depend on the size and species of your turtle.
You may add tank mates that can be considered prey, which will activate the natural behaviors of your turtle. Or, you can choose larger tank mates that happily cohabitate with your turtle without becoming lunch.
Either way, adding some new tank mates is a good choice if you have empty space available. Most hobbyists see an immediate increase in activity levels once other animals are added to the ecosystem.
Live and new foods
An equally fun option for both yourself and your turtle would be feeding your turtle live foods. Not only does this help increase natural predatory instincts, but it’s also fun to watch and healthy for your turtle.
Live foods, like worms, cockroaches, and other insects, can help stimulate your turtle’s natural instincts. Naturally, food that moves will make your turtle act differently and plan their movements, which increases activity and attention levels.
Likewise, simply offering new foods of any type might help bring some excitement to your turtle’s life.
On top of new decorations and new foods, you can even add new toys.
These items should be meant for water use to help guarantee that nothing toxic will leak out. Of course, an aquarium brand is safest, but regular household items can also be made turtle-safe.
Some ideas for new toys might be ping pong balls or rubber ducks. Some turtles will like their new toys more than others, but always make sure to remove the toy after they are done playing.
Interact with your turtle
Last but not least, you can enjoy having your turtle as a pet! Of course, wild animals should always be handled with care and caution. Make sure that the safety of the turtle and yourself is never jeopardized.
You can regularly handle your turtle and let it out of its tank to explore. Not only can you let them roam around your house, but you can also take them outside in the grass on sunny days.
Letting them roam in the grass will give them an entirely new natural environment to interact with while also allowing them to get some natural sunlight. However, removing them from their tank can be very stressful.
If you have a turtle that doesn’t take well to new environments, then you will need to get them used to being transported and introduced to new surroundings. This will take time, but the benefits are definitely worth it.
Still, you should only take your turtle out for extended amounts of time maybe one to two times a week at the max.
This might seem like a lot of information, but turtles are very hardy and don’t need that much more than your average tropical fish. However, some turtle species can grow very large, and even the smallest ones can make an impressive amount of waste.
Because of this, a larger tank size with powerful filtration is needed. Otherwise, you can enjoy your turtle in and out of the tank!
If you have any questions about turtle care and maintenance, specific turtle species, or have experience setting up an especially elaborate turtle tank, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!