Red Eared Sliders in Captivity
Red Eared Slider Turtles Trachemys scripta elegans have long been the most recognized or familiar aquatic turtle for the public at large and no doubt the 2nd most abandoned reptile in the herpetocultural industry. Somehow over the years the Red Eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans became the “puppy” that everyone wanted. This misperception most likely began when the turtles were a regular “prize” at county fairs, swap meets, and the like. Today we still see these tiny turtles showing up in various places. It seems that there was a real boom in the sale of this particular species during the 1960’s and into the seventies. This was all cut short in 1975 when the FDA enacted Title 21 Chapter 1 subchapter L Part 1240 subpart D section 1240.62 which essentially says that any turtle under a carapace (shell length) of 4” cannot be publicly distributed. It is believed this came into effect as a way to prevent the zoonoses of salmonella. In an article titled Salmonella Prevention for Reptile Owners published in the Tortuga Gazette 30(8): 6-7, August 1994 by Douglas R. Mader, Carl Palazzola, William Ridgeway, Greg Perrault, and Thomas Greek.
“The red-eared slider was the turtle that received the majority of the negative publicity. At the time that salmonellosis was a major disease concern, the slider was the most common type of turtle kept as a pet in the United States. In the early 1970’s it was estimated that about 280,000 cases of human salmonellosis were contracted from pet turtles.”
I have heard many times of children putting the baby turtles the in their mouths, aside from poor parenting we are still stuck with a law that is even more poorly enforced as can be evidenced by the number of swap meet goers that even today purchase these turtles. I cannot tell you the number of people who I have encountered both on and offline that have purchased or were given a baby Red Eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans as a pet. Logically speaking, I am sure this law did protect a lot of people from salmonella poisoning and is a lot better than the actions taken by the European Union which in 1997 banned the subspecies all together[i]. I also think that a lot of turtles were saved as well though through this legislation as their care requirements are typically not given as part of the sale. I know this from personal experiences of customers and people who have been gifted the turtles contacting me and others as to their care requirements after the turtle becomes ill.
Most people understanding at least that these were freshwater turtles decided in their infinite wisdom to do the next best thing when the turtle became too big or even had gotten sick. Not wanting to spend more than they had already, which was no doubt a few dollars. They saw it as a disposable pet much like the goldfish at county fairs and released them into the wild. This of course becomes an issue now of the government attempting to control an invasive species which potentially upsets critical balances in the small ecosystems of lakes, streams, ponds, etc. This doesn’t take into account the amount of turtles lost to poor husbandry.
Red Eared Slider Captive Care Overview
Today there are still many Red Eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans sold. I would estimate that 30% of those being sold to new keepers are actually given the proper information to care for them and that’s being generous. This doesn’t take into account the number that are “found” in the wild and adopted by persons with no knowledge of how provide proper care. Whether you yourself purchased the turtle or found it I’m here to tell you one thing. If you plan to keep it you’re in for an expensive and long process to keep it healthy. Aquatic turtles are one of the most expensive reptile pets to own when compared with other species. It doesn’t matter if you get them as babies which as I said earlier are illegal in the United States or as adults they require a minimum of a 30-Gallon that will be filled halfway with water; a 50 gallon aquarium would be best.
You must also provide a source of ultraviolet light, basking spot and heated water. Beneath the basking spot you will also need a turtle float of some kind where the turtle can haul itself out completely. A turtle filter is also needed as aquatic turtles produce a significant amount of waste material.
For all of the elements mentioned above there are numerous choices of manufacturers all of which claim to be the best. You’re looking at about $200 to $300 dollars to keep a Red Eared Slider Turtle Trachemys scripta elegans at the initial outset for housing, filters, lighting, etc. Still want to own one?
Red Eared Slider Lighting
Go to your local home improvement or hardware store and buy a fluorescent light fixture which will cover the entire length of the aquarium. For a 50 gallon aquarium this will be a 48” fixture. This will be hung above the aquarium so that it’s no less than 12” above the aquarium itself. This allows the Red Eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans to absorb the maximum ultraviolet light it needs for the processing of calcium.
The bulbs that give the turtle the UVB they require can be purchased either online or at a local reptile shop. I usually go with the ZooMed® brand as according to the research done at UV Guide UK they have the highest output for fluorescent lights. I recommend not using the combination UVB/Heat bulbs which are usually the Mercury Vapor or Metal Halide types of light as these can be easily shattered should water be splashed out onto them when housing an active turtle.
As mentioned above water and lights don’t mix well so I use a ceramic socket reflector for the basking spot and a ceramic heating element of appropriate size. When put into position you are looking for a basking spot of 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a ceramic heating element allows you to leave the basking on throughout the evening hours when the fluorescent lights are off. Using any other type of lighting element will disturb the normal circadian rhythm as they will keep the turtle up at night which you can read about in my piece on colored lights. For more information on heating click here.
Red Eared Slider Vitamins and Calcium
I have heard the stories of calcium blocking foods and I know I have listed some above according to other “expert” sites. But let me say this, I have been feeding these types of diets for over ten years now and have yet to ever have a reptile suffer calcium deficiencies in any way. These theories of calcium blocking are based on human standards from the FDA and are not proven to be accurate by any veterinarian studies I have seen. If fed in moderation and not exclusively these foods will not cause calcium blockage. If you want to add a calcium supplement of some kind I would use non treated bird cuttlebone and just let it float around the tank. The turtle will break off pieces itself and eat them. Read more about calcium and vitamin supplementation in Solving the Calcium Conundrum with Dr. Robert Sprackland.
We have seen that these “cute” little turtles are expensive and when all things are considered I would guess that most people doing the right thing and researching before buying will actually pass and get something else which is probably a good thing. I would rather you purchase a different reptile than buy one on impulse only to have it suffer or worse be released into the wild to fend for itself. While this article is thorough it is not intended to be nor should it be considered the only authority. I would recommend as I always do that you read a book or at least another article about Red Eared Sliders Trachemys scripta elegans before purchasing one. I wrote another such article for Associated Content.
Turtle Water Quality
Another element of heating Red Eared Slider Turtles Trachemys scripta elegans is that of heating the water. There is really only one way to heat the water and that is through the use of a submersible aquarium heater. If you actually purchase a “turtle tank” which has an area cut into the side of it for the filter to hang on you could theoretically use a hang on the back heater but I don’t recommend these as with an active turtle they can be knocked off potentially causing a shock hazard.
Submersible aquarium heaters are the best ones to use but I have heard of turtles actually breaking these as well. To prevent this you can buy a submersible heater guard which is relatively inexpensive. You can also take a piece of schedule 20 PVC pipe and drill a bunch of holes into it and then slide this over the heater as well. Personally, I have never had an issue with turtles breaking the heaters I have used, but to be on the safe side I would recommend using the heater guides.
Filtration for turtles is a subject too often overlooked by most new turtle keepers. No doubt this is due in part to most pet shops using a filtration system that is hidden from public view to make the environment more appealing. Therefore people presume one is not needed. Also if the buyer is purchasing one of the turtles from an illegal source such as a swap meet or flea market then they are usually presented in small habitats which have no filters in the first place. So it is easy to see why the filtration is overlooked by the public. Add to this that most retailers are focused on the sale and not the actual long-term care they do not mention filtration as filters tend to be one of the more expensive parts of the habitat.
There are few options with these but I have always used submersible or internal filters as they are sometimes called. These filters have parts which you can buy separately to create waterfalls. Some people say that they have experienced them getting dirty quickly but I have not had this experience myself I also enjoy the adjustable flow rate that they have.
Another option is that of the hang-on-the-back power filters. These are just what they say they are. A filter with a motor attached to it so that it will draw water over the filter media and then push back clean water into the aquarium. You can use these for turtle enclosures but you have to be careful to watch that the water level doesn’t drop below the intake tube otherwise you risk burning out the impeller. If you do choose to use the hang-on-the-back power filter I would go with the brand name Aquaclear.
Captive Turtle Decor
Décor is not something to be concerned with as they will most likely dislodge and eat any plants that are added and they will attempt to eat any plastic or cloth plants that are added as well. There are some submersible logs or tree like décor that I have seen used but that means there is more to clean. There is also no valid reason to attempt to add a substrate to the aquarium. This will generally result in the turtle swallowing a piece of gravel. If you must have a substrate I would buy the 1” river stones.
You will also need some type of floating log or turtle raft or whatever you want to call it. You can use cork bark pieces too. Whatever you use, secure the floatation device beneath the basking spot so that the turtle can completely haul itself out and dry out. Writing this the day before Fathers day reminds me of a story my dad told me about fishing with his Grandfather.
“We were in a boat on the Green river in Kentucky and Grandpa noticed that the mud turtles were all diving into the water. He turned to me and said ‘boy we got to go its fixing rain’ I asked him how he knew that, and he pointed out the turtles behavior. I asked why they were going into the water and he said ‘Cause they don’t want to get wet’ we rowed home and sure enough one heck of a storm came down the river that day with an hour of us leaving.” Whether those turtles actually didn’t want to get wet or not I have learned that my dad was right when he said “If you watch the animals they will tell you what’s going on in the world.”
Maintaining a healthy habitat will ensure a long life for your Red Eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans not to mention you won’t be spending hundreds of dollars at the vet. Once a month move the turtle to another container of appropriate size that’s filled with water. They won’t be there long so there’s no need to heat the water but it shouldn’t be cold either, about room temperature would be fine. I use a five gallon paint bucket for one turtle or one of the large tubs that we see at the beach with ice in them and rope handles for more than one.
Turn off the filter and unplug the heater, let the heater sit for about 10 minutes. During this time you can take the filter into your bathroom and use the bathtub to rinse and clean the filter and all the media inside. Once a month you will change out the carbon and once every three months you can change out the pre-filter which is a sponge like material. Now we go back and bring out our siphon.
Siphon, what siphon? Well, unless you plan on bucketing all that water out you will need a siphon to get the water in the tank into another receptacle. Any aquarium siphon will work but if you truly want the easiest one you will spend about $80 depending on where you buy it but it’s called oddly enough The Python. It attaches to your kitchen faucet and both drains and fills the tank within minutes by way of a valve change. The price always kept me from getting one so I use the regular siphon and bucket routine.
You’re going to drain as much water as possible and then wipe down the entire enclosure with a rag removing any algae and other materials that the filter somehow missed. After that you’re going to add all the water back as well as the turtle and then after the tank is refilled you will add the filter and plug it in. After about ten minutes plug the heater back in the reason for the time-lapse is that sudden shocks of temperature drop to the heater may cause it to malfunction. Never for any reason, place your mouth on the siphon to get it started as you may get more than you bargained for with used turtle water.
Red Eared Slider Captive Diet
Dietary needs are met through offering a varied diet of greens, fish, shrimp, worms, and even crickets. In my experience the juvenile turtles will eat just about anything. I prefer feeding frozen foods like krill and live worms such as night crawlers. For greens give a rough chop to Green leaf lettuce, dandelion greens, red leaf lettuce, endive, kale, romaine, and zucchini. I would make about half cup of this mixture and place that in the aquarium to float around.
You’ll have to remove this daily and I use a fish net to do so as the juveniles will only eat small portions but once you figure out what they will eat its easier to adjust the amounts of foods to their needs. Adult Red Eared Sliders Trachemys scripta elegans diet will be 75% plant matter. I have heard the stories of calcium blocking foods and I know I have listed some above according to other “expert” sites. But let me say this, I have been feeding these types of diets for over ten years now and have yet to ever have a reptile suffer calcium deficiencies in any way. These theories of calcium blocking are based on human standards from the FDA and are not proven to be accurate by any veterinarian studies that I have seen. If fed in moderation and not exclusively these foods will not cause calcium blockage. If you want to add a calcium supplement of some kind I would use non treated bird cuttlebone and just let it float around the tank. The turtle will break off pieces itself and eat them.
We have seen that these “cute” little turtles are expensive and when all things are considered I would guess that most people doing the right thing and researching before buying will actually pass and get something else which is probably a good thing. I would rather you purchase a different reptile than buy one on impulse only to have it suffer or worse be released into the wild to fend for itself. While this article is thorough it is not intended to be nor should it be considered the only authority. I would recommend as I always do that you read a book or at least another article about Red Eared Sliders Trachemys scripta elegans before purchasing one. I wrote another such article for Associated Content which if you like to read that one as well you can find it by clicking here.