Buying a New Turtle or Tortoise – what you need to know…

See below for a copy of an article written by Joshua Sukenick, Owner of Turtle Towns.  Joshua wrote this to help new owners get comfortable with what they need. This article explains all of the items/equipment to consider when buying a new Turtle or Tortoise.

Your New Turtle or Tortoise

Captive Care Information from Turtle Towns!


Congratulations on purchasing your new turtle!  In an effort to ensure the best possible care for your animals Turtle Towns provides the following information.  These are our recommendations to help in acclimating and keeping your new turtle healthy.

Turtle Towns offers all you need for your turtles.  We work hard to provide only the highest quality animals and equipment.  We have kept and bred turtles for over 20 years.  We only sell items we use ourselves in our setups.  Often we’ve selected them for specific advantages they have over similar items from other manufacturers.  We’ll be glad to use our years of experience to help you create the best possible home for your turtle.  We can also get almost any animal product through our wholesalers.  If you want something specific that you do not see on our website, please ask us if we can get it.

Quick points:

  1. Visit the Turtle Forum for a network of resources and experienced turtle keepers willing to offer FREE advice and tips on turtle care for any species.
  2. Turtles require extensive setups and routine maintenance to remain healthy.  Properly housing and feeding your turtle is critical to their health and longevity. 
  3. Turtles do NOT grow to the size of their enclosures like fish do.  A turtle WILL outgrow small tanks, usually in only a year or two!
  4. Turtles should NEVER be released into the wild or taken out of it.  Even if your turtle does OK in the wild, it could spell disaster for existing native turtle populations!  Many people out there will adopt your turtle if you no longer want it.   There are even rescue agencies that will care for your unwanted turtles until better homes can be found.
  5. Turtles are not social creatures.  They do not get lonely and do not need a friend.  They are not cuddly and are happier if left alone much of the time.  You can always put more than one turtle in the same tank, though some species tend to be more aggressive and some may fight, so this is best handled on a case by case basis.
  6. Turtles DO carry salmonella (so do all other reptiles).  It is a bacteria in their digestive system and can be released when they go to the bathroom.  It’s usually harmless as long as careful practices are enforced.  You should ALWAYS wash your hands well with soap and water after touching ANY reptile.  Never eat after handling a turtle unless you’ve washed your hands first.  If you wash your hands with soap, it becomes highly unlikely that you will contract salmonella from your turtle. You have a better chance of getting it through foods you eat than through your turtles- IF you wash your hands.
  7. Turtles are not great pets for little kids.  We discourage a turtle as a pet for any kids less than 6-8 years of age.  However, if the parents maintain the turtle and supervise their child’s play time with the animal, then it can be done.  Even with younger teens, they often will lose interest and care of the animal will fall back to the parents.  Keep this in mind when allowing a young teen to buy a turtle.
  8. BUY GOOD EQUIPMENT!!  Maintaining a healthy turtle is FAR easier and less work with a better setup.  Invest more upfront and your turtle will not only be happier, but you will too.  With proper setups and equipment care becomes very easy.  The less you spend on the equipment, the more time and effort the turtle becomes.


Care requirements:

1. A home– several options are available.  Turtles can be kept in a variety of enclosures. 

  1. We recommend Waterlandtubs as they are the ONLY habitat designed with turtles in mind.  They come in different sizes and configurations for literally ANY turtle.  They are lightweight, easy to clean, can be used indoors or outdoors, and will not stress your turtle the way aquariums can.  They provide both land and water spaces in one enclosure which is ideal for ALL turtle species.
  2. Aquariums (like fish or turtle aquariums) are the most common enclosure (though not the most ideal).  While they can provide adequate space for most species, they tend to get expensive if you have larger turtles or keep multiple turtles together.  Additionally, they are not ideal for turtles for many reasons.  Turtles do not understand the concept of glass and will repeatedly try to swim/walk through it, which causes unnecessary stress on the animal- especially with tortoises.  It’s also difficult to maintain the proper temperature zones with tortoises and air can become stagnate which leads to respiratory problems.  For aquatics, it’s difficult to establish land areas where an adult turtle can easily get out of the water to dry off and bask. They are heavy and hard to clean and simply were not designed for turtles and tortoises.  The big advantage they do offer is, of course, the ability to view your pet from anywhere in the room.  However, we recommend a habitat that’s best for the animal and not the owner.

2. Lighting-  Two different types of light are needed.  One source that provides heat and one that provides UV.  Clamp lamps and strip lights are available for the UV lighting and clamp lamps are best for the heat portion.  We recommend ceramic based clamp lamps as they can handle the heat better and last longer.

  1. An incandescent bulb placed over the basking area is necessary for the turtle to regulate its temperature.  Turtles are cold blooded and need to be able to regulate using external heat sources to maintain their health.  Each species requires a different temperature rating.  This can be achieved by moving the light closer or further from the basking area or by adjusting the wattage of the bulb.
  2. UVA and UVB lighting is important for the turtle to be able to process vitamins and nutrients… specifically calcium.  Without proper calcium production the turtle can develop Metabolic Bone Disease.  This is something the turtle can never fully recover from and is easy to avoid.  Specific UV bulbs are made for reptiles.  A plant grow light is not good enough.  You need a bulb specifically for reptiles.  Alternately, 15-30 minutes of sunshine daily can be used instead of the UV bulbs, but this can lead to overheating and predators taking your turtle.  Note that UV bulbs should be replaced every 6 months or so.

3. Land area–  ALL turtles need a land area.  Some aquatic species only need a small area to fully exit the water, dry off and bask in the light/heat of the incandescent bulb.   Other turtles may like to walk around on land and explore, or lay eggs.  Tortoises require a large land area as they spend their lives almost entirely on land.

4. Water area– ALL turtles need water.  Aquatic turtles need a lot of water to swim and maintain health and happiness.  Turtles will quickly outgrow small enclosures and a 55 gallon aquarium should be the minimum size for ONE adult turtle with VERY few exceptions.  Some species may need MUCH larger tanks.  Tortoises need small shallow water areas where they can wade in the water, drink and where they will usually go to the bathroom.

5. Filtration– Clean water is essential for a healthy turtle.  Even tortoises need constant access to fresh water.  We recommend small submersible filters in the water for tortoises, or a shallow bowl that is changed daily.  For Aquatics, it’s recommended to have at least 2 times the filtration as gallons of water.  So for a 40 gallon water area, you should have a filter sized for 80 gallons.  It’s nearly impossible to have too much filtration.  We highly recommend using external canister filters.  Fluval, Rena and Eheim all make good external filters.  Each has their plusses and minuses, but all will work great for turtles.  With no filter, water should be changed every day or two.  With a small submersible, water can probably be changed weekly.  With a canister filter you can often go at least a month without changing the water.  In our larger setups, we only need to clean the filters every couple months and rarely ever change the water because the system is well balanced.

6. Food– All turtles require a varied diet.  Most turtles do well on aquatic turtle pellets as the basis of their diet.  These can be found in most pet stores.  While most (or all) of the commercial pellets are good, we personally recommend Mazuri pellets. We find they are less mess and make it easier to maintain clean water than with other brands of pellets.  Tortoises usually need diets that are mostly plant based.  Mazuri makes a commercial pellet that’s a good staple for their diet, though most tortoises also need additional greens.  Mazuri food is hard to find, but you can always get them through us at Turtle Towns.  Ask us which food your species of turtle will need.

  1. Your turtle does not need to eat every day unless it’s a hatchling.  Their instinct tells them to eat whenever they see food.  So they will often eat multiple times a day if they are offered food that often.  We recommend feeding hatchlings once a day.  Once they are a couple/few months old and have grown a little we recommend switching to every other day and then every 3rd day once they are about 2” long.  We feed our juveniles and adults 2-3 times per week on average.  A good rule of thumb is to feed as much food as would fill up their head, if it were hollow. Others say feed as much as the turtle will eat in 5-10 minutes.  As long as you feed 2-3 times per week for adults, they’ll be fine with either method.  Slow steady growth is better than quick growth.  We recommend feeding in a separate container once they are settled, or scooping out excess food after 5 minutes or so. This will help keep the water cleaner. For tortoises- most are grazers and do need to be fed daily.  High quality greens and high fiber intake are important as are calcium and vitamins.  The Mazuri diet is a complete diet, though we still recommend balancing pellets with as much greens as possible.  Calcium supplements and vitamins are always available through Turtle Towns and should be used at least once or twice a week.

7. Basking area– A place for the turtle to regulate heat and “sun” themselves.  With tortoises, this is simply a light or a heat emitter over a spot in their enclosure.  With water turtles this can be anything from a floating dock or island to elaborate above the water platforms.  Adult water turtles often are too large for basking platforms and will need something custom built for them.  This is a big reason why we recommend Waterlandtubs for habitats.  They have built in land areas already, so even adult turtles will be able to bask properly.

Accessories (Optional but Recommended):

  1. GFCI Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter– These are the outlets you see in kitchens and bathrooms or in hotel bathrooms.  They prevent electrocution.  Any time you have electric and water together these are a good idea.  You don’t want a lamp falling into your tank and killing you or your turtle!  An electrician can install GFCI outlets in any location in your home, but you can also get an add on GFCI device that plugs into any regular outlet and will cost less than replacing the outlet itself.  We sell a variety of great GFCI devices on the Turtle Towns website.
  2. Timer– This is a simple addition that makes everyone happy.  By putting your lights on a timer, you can simulate day and night, which makes your turtle happy and helps control the electric bill!
  3. Power Strip– With all the equipment necessary, you’ll need additional outlets.  A power strip makes it much easier to expand your options.
  4. Hiding Spots– Your turtle will do better if it has a few places to hide if it feels scared (by you or another turtle in the tank).  There are many options to achieve this.  We recommend avoiding items that can fall over or that have openings about the same size as the turtle.  We have seen animals get pinned under water or trapped in hiding spots. 
  5. Air Pump (Bubble Maker) (For aquatics only)- Adding bubbles to the water helps to keep the quality of the water better and allows you to add fish to the tank.  Avoid expensive fish… most turtles will think they are food and will chase the fish and probably eat them.
  6. Decorations- Anything to dress up the tank will be much appreciated by the turtle.  They prefer well covered tanks to empty ones.  They do bite anything in the tank and will move around lightweight decorations however, so don’t expect to make it “pretty.”  Most turtle keepers eventually move to a sparsely decorated tank.
  7. Live Plants- Most aquarium plants will do well in a turtle tank.  The turtle will often eat the plants which are good for the turtle, but can be bad for water quality and can easily clog filters, so care must be used with adding plants.  Tortoises will mow down plants to the ground and make them difficult to keep in their enclosure.
  8. Substrate- Material to cover the bottom of a tank is called substrate.  In aquatic setups many use gravel if they add substrate.  Sand and larger River Rocks are often used as well.  Each of these has good and bad aspects however. You should research all of these before you choose if you want to add substrate.  With tortoises, you will need some type of substrate, usually some type of wood chips are used.  There are a bunch of options and there might be one that’s better than another depending on the species of tortoise you choose.
  9. Postage Scale:  No, you don’t need to ship your turtle but to be able to accurately weigh him is a great way to monitor health and ensure your shelled friend is growing.  We recommend any digital scale that measures in grams.  You can check hatchlings for growth on a weekly basis while adults should be checked every few weeks or every month.  While it’s common to lose a little weight while settling in to a new home, any losses of 10% of the body weight is a concern and could be an indicator of an unforeseen problem.  The scale can also help with mature adult females as an indicator of when eggs are developing, and if they are laid.


When you get home:

Your turtle will be very stressed from travelling, so setting them up and leaving them alone for the first day is often a good idea.  Your turtle will need time to explore their new home.  After the first day or two, we suggest you start offering food.  Many turtles will eat right away, though some may take a few more days of adjustment.  Within a week your turtle should be adjusted and begin eating.  If it has not started eating by then, you should begin seeking advice on how to get them to adjust.  Often if it’s not eating, it is not in a proper setup or not being offered a food it had been offered before.

The first week we don’t recommend making any changes and we recommend letting the turtle alone much of the day.  Gradually they will start to bask and eat readily.  Soon they’ll be begging for food and be very glad to see you.

We hope you enjoy your new turtle or tortoise!!  At Turtle Towns we work hard to provide quality turtles and quality turtle products.  Please contact us with questions, concerns or suggestions.  Visit our website for all your turtle needs.  If we don’t have something you want in our store, ask us, as we can probably get it for you.  Also, please join the Turtle Forum and stay connected with other turtle keepers.  It’s the best place on the net to find great advice and learn about other turtles, and other turtle keepers!

Good luck and keep in touch with us!

Joshua Sukenick

-Turtle Towns-