to Care for Your New Water Turtle
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We Never Sell Baby Turtles. In 1973 your FDA decided that baby turtles carry Salmonella bacteria that cause food poisoning with flu-like symptoms including power diarrhea. Salmonella affects turtles very little, if at all. However, little kids insist on putting baby turtles and other things in their mouths. Not the best idea, but they do it anyway. So your FDA said, “no more bite-size turtles.” All turtles now sold in pet stores must measure at least four inches from stem to stern.
They're Serious? On the day the law passed, a Federale visited Aqualand (our name back then) and impounded (froze) 45 baby turtles of various species. He informed me that the next time each turtle would cost me $1,000 plus a year in jail. Naturally the incident made the papers. They like to get their point across in the press. This was not much later than we started Aqualand and before I’d taken any law courses, so we pretty much stayed away from baby turtles for decades.)
Voilá. No more Salmonellosis in kids. Well, at least it put most of the turtle farmers out of business. Thanks, FDA. Good idea but ... kids still lick their hands whether they lick turtles or not. Always wash your hands after handling turtles, or federal employees, or any other pet for that matter. End of warning from the AQUALAND Sturgeon General.
Great Pets. Water turtles never dig up your backyard, scratch your furniture, or tear open your neighbors’ garbage bags. And even tho they never come when you call them, they never run out the front door when company comes. When you keep your turtles in an aquarium, they cannot run away. However, in that glass-walled prison they are entirely at your mercy. They depend upon you -- totally.
Water Turtles Need Water. Basic housing needs include water -- to support their weight and enable them to eat. But, this is the same water in which they relieve themselves of bodily wastes. You need to change it often. And they need a dry spot to bask on (dry off). Use a rock, a brick, a log -- anything that lets them dry their shells.
Filter their Water? You betcha. Filters help keep their water cleaner longer, so you need to change it less often. Filters also help digest the wastes your turtle generates. The bacteria on your filter eat up the liquid and solid wastes from your turtle. This means next to no odor and a healthier home for your turtle -- and a healthier home for your nose also.
Give 'em Heat. Summer time -- not a problem for turtles. They love hot weather. But air conditioning and winter temps mean you need to supplement their heat. The pros call them ectothermic. Turtles depend upon outside heat to keep them warm. They generate next to no heat on their own. One reason -- they loaf all day.
Give 'em Light. Brief exposures to direct sunlight (no glass in the way) enable them to produce the vitamin D3 most reptiles never get enough of. We say “brief” exposures because all day in the hot sun can mean a tank full of hot turtle soup. Turtles in the wild loaf on a log for about an hour. Then they ease into the pond for a refreshing dip and a trip thru the chow line. In a small tank in your backyard, you can cook their tiny brains fast. If you take yours outside, don’t walk off and leave him to cook. Full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs provide a much safer source of ultraviolet light than your local sun source. Dogs, raccoons, and marauding bands of children are also threats to water turtles left outdoors.
Give 'em Food. In the wild, turtles eat fish, escargot (without the garlic), crayfish, frogs, and plants. They basically eat anything they can catch or find. They rarely encounter raw or cooked hamburger in the wild -- but they will eat it. Unfortunately, they cannot digest animal fat. They just pass it thru and make a royal mess in their tank. Feed them a goldfish or one of the pelleted or stick turtle foods (no more than they can eat in five minutes). Commercial turtle foods contain 100% of your turtle’s nutritional needs and produce less wastes. However, turtles prefer chasing goldfish.
Do Turtles Bite? You betchum, Red Ryder. Any critter that makes a living catching goldfish with its mouth bites -- especially if you wiggle your tasty looking finger right in front of his beady little eyes. Pick up your turtle by the back end of his shell not the front end. If you get this instruction backwards, he will quickly train you to do it right.
Look out for snappers, soft shells, and mud turtles. They bite more than your average turtle and the first two have really long snaky necks.
Turtle Health Check List. These common conditions often
cause turtle health problems:
Water turtles make very few demands. Meet his needs and he’ll stick around 10 to 15 years.
Ways to Set up Your Water Turtle Tank
Ideas You Can Use. We converted a 29-gallon tank into a turtle tank by attaching a power head to an outside power filter. We made our turtle tank before commercial “turtle tanks” became available. It worked okay, but ten terrapins quickly overloaded it.
Commercial Turtle Tanks. All-Glass brand now manufactures an excellent water turtle tank. One end of the tank is lower so you can easily put a power filter on the side. The filter returns the cleaned water to your tank in an attractive aerating cascade. This makes the main work of turtle keeping (changing the water) so much easier. A well-filtered, clean turtle tank does not smell up the joint. Now we use a Magnum 350 because it needs changing less often. Make sure you put carbon in the internal holder. Otherwise the turtle wastes block the filter sleeve and crush the internal carbon holder -- within a day or two. Been there, done that.
Lots of Water. Water turtles prefer to eat in the water. Actually, they cannot swallow on land. They also excrete in the water. The more water available to dilute their waste products, the better. Water turtles also exercise by swimming in the water. The more swimming area the better.
Temporary Water. Turtles don’t need to be in the water 24 hours a day. We’ve seen big red ear sliders sliding between the railroad tracks. They got over the first rail but couldn’t vault the second. They can go a long time without water. However, being in the hot sun would shorten their warranty. They mostly need that water at feeding time. If you put your turtle in the water once a day, it will still have plenty of “water time.” Putting your turtle in the water on a limited basis is the easiest way to keep his water clean.
Frequent Water Changes. If your turtle tank starts smelling, it’s time to change your water. Any uneaten food left in the water exaggerates this tendency toward smelly water. Ditto for the eaten food he processes. If you come in to Aqualand and say “My turtle stinks.” We know you really mean, “I’m too lazy to change my turtle’s water.”
Carbon. Adding carbon to your filter also helps control smelly water but carbon has its limitations.
Moving Water. At the very least, add a bubbling airstone. Anything you can do to keep the water moving (and exposed to more oxygen) will help control odors. Corner filters and sponge filters cost little and make a big difference in your turtle’s water purity.
Overfeeding. Most people overfeed their turtles. This makes for messy water. Resist the temptation to keep adding food until your turtle can’t eat another bite. If even one little bite is left over, you fed him way too much. A hungry turtle is a healthier turtle. (Very much like people.) Uneaten food fouls your water needlessly. By the way, the commercial turtle foods are better for them than the foods they eat in the wild.
Dry Area. A dry area enables your water turtle to dry off. This helps him keep a hard shell. It probably also kills some water-borne pathogens that could affect him adversely. The dry area also exposes him to full-spectrum lighting more effectively.
Levels. Provide stepping stones out of the water with a series of flat stones or with a ramp -- by gluing small rocks onto a sheet of glass or plastic. Realize that crawling turtles may dislodge these stepping stones. You will probably need to re-glue them from time to time.
Substrate. Avoid dirt. Turtles love to dig. They can also climb -- at least out of styrofoam boxes. But that’s another story. Water turtles will quickly destroy most aquascaping you attempt. Only heavy stones and large pieces of wood can stand up to these four-legged tanks.
Live Plants. Water turtles prefer meaty (really fishy foods) but will also eat plants. If you add live plants to their biotope, they will plow thru them and probably eat them. If you add taller live plants to the “dry area” of their tank, put them in protective pots. If they can get to them, they will destroy your plants.
Ponds. Some people put water turtles in their outdoor fish ponds. Turtles can be extremely destructive to your fish and plants. Commercial fish farmers hate turtles because they eat fish -- even koi. We’ve seen fish farmers plink off their unwanted pest turtles with a .22 rifle. That will not keep new water turtles from finding their ponds.
Heat. Heat cures most water turtle problems. House them at 75 to 80o to keep them healthy. Run them up to 90o if they get sick. The hotter temperature speeds up their metabolism and enables them to fight off disease. Cold turtles usually die. You can heat your turtle’s water with a submersible aquarium heater, an under-tank heating pad, a large light bulb or all three.
Sunlight. Full sun dries turtle shells and destroys many pathogens and parasites that would otherwise thrive on their shells. We once caught a small turtle with a huge leech (bigger than the turtle) that would have shriveled in the sun -- if the turtle could drag it out of the water. If the turtle could have reached the leech, it would have eagerly eaten the hitchhiker. The sun also helps them produce vitamin D3. You can get this last benefit from a full-spectrum light bulb – without the danger of “cooking” your water turtle in the hot sun.
Last Word. Too bad your government does not trust you to keep the little guys. We could sell them by the pound. LA.
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