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How to Set Up an Aquarium for a Baby Softshell Turtle

I raised a softshell turtle and learned a lot while doing so!

My softshell turtle peeks out of the sand.

My softshell turtle peeks out of the sand.

What Does a Softshell Turtle Aquarium Need?

There are different creative ways of setting up an aquarium for a baby softshell turtle. Here are the basic needs that must be included:

  • Adequate space (at least a 20-gallon tank)
  • UVB lighting
  • Good filtration system
  • Dechlorinated water
  • A shallow place for the turtle to rest
  • A place for the turtle to dry its shell
  • Sand or at least smooth, light gravel

Don't Over-Decorate

Unfortunately, there are some pet owners that are more concerned about the display of the aquarium rather than the necessities of the animals that live in it. The first idea that comes to my mind is those who want to clutter up the aquarium with lots of decorative plants and colorful accessories that fill up a third of the space.

Of course, it depends on the size of the aquarium and the size of the animal. It is possible to have a large variety of plants, corals, and treasure chests and still have enough room for a turtle to swim freely. If we are talking about a 20-gallon tank and your turtle is four inches wide, then space would have to be a high priority when designing your aquarium. You want your turtle to be able to swim for a few seconds without bumping into something.

But Don't Make the Tank Boring

There is the opposite side of the spectrum by having the aquarium be too bland. With no caves, crevasses, sand, or plants, it would be a boring world, especially without guppies or other smaller animals that can serve as meals and entertainment. You want your turtle to explore every once in a while for the sake of exercise and enjoyment.

Not an attractive setup, but the space is just enough for my turtle to swim freely while having a few things to explore. He's always sticking his head under that brown arch and catching guppies.

Not an attractive setup, but the space is just enough for my turtle to swim freely while having a few things to explore. He's always sticking his head under that brown arch and catching guppies.

DIY Softshell Turtle Environment

When setting up your turtle tank, think of practicality above all else. Your turtle is the one who has to live in there, so make it interesting and roomy.

For a baby softshell turtle, I used Tupperware filled with sand as his shallow area. I placed this “sand box” on top of a cave and a slab of rock, so the top of the Tupperware is just a little under the surface while not robbing the turtle space below. It’s perfect because he is able to bury himself and breathe while having the option to go into deeper water to explore.

The key to a good setup is providing options for the turtle. My turtle can be under the UVB light or he can go into the shade. He also has the option of getting out of the water by climbing up a reptile hammock (meant for lizards) that is stationed by suction cups. My turtle also has guppies to catch.

Temperature Control

To control the temperature, I placed a heating pad up against one side of the tank. I also have a thermometer stuck to the aquarium so I always know the temperature at a glance.

Warning: No Sharp Edges or Rough Textures

Be careful putting any object in the aquarium that is sharp or rough in texture. These turtles can die due to scratches on their shells.

The "sand box" option.

The "sand box" option.

Softshell Turtle Water

Here are some tips for maintaining your turtle's water.

How Often Should You Clean the Water?

Make sure to clean the water regularly, especially if you have a ton of guppies and ghost shrimp. All aquarium water has that “fish” smell, but it should never smell like eggs or waste. The water should never be cloudy or alter in color.

Adding Freshwater Aquarium Salt

It’s good every once in a while to add freshwater aquarium salt in the water if there are no live plants in your tank, because these animals typically live in brackish water. My turtle always dug plants up, and they’d either die or they got in his way while hunting, so I gave up on plants (at least in this setup). A calcium sulfa block is something to place in the water to provide additional nutrition also.

My turtle enjoying the sand box.

My turtle enjoying the sand box.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 mariekbloch


mariekbloch (author) on August 28, 2019:


I hope on August 21, 2019:

Can i use artificial plants with my soft shell turtle

Ash on January 30, 2017:

What plants are okay to place with my softie?

mariekbloch (author) on September 03, 2014:

It's underwater, maybe an inch under the surface.

sam on September 03, 2014:

Is the sand in the box dry or wet?

mariekbloch (author) on September 03, 2014:

I think all turtles to a degree have that chance, but I don't really know. As long as you wash your hands after handling her, I wouldn't worry about it. I never got sick from the turtle I rescued.

Jessjuls on August 31, 2014:

Do soft shell turtles carry any communicable diseases?? Such as salmonella?? Ive heard they do and im concerned because we recently found one in a parking lot and have been caring for her ever since. Shes so cute and tiny, half dollar size.

mariekbloch (author) on August 29, 2012:

Frozen blood worms, dried blood worms, live crickets, dead crickets (move them like they're alive), frozen beef heart, live ghost shrimp, any little insect, live guppies, and pellets catered to soft shell turtles.

karthik on August 29, 2012:

plz help me wid how and what to feed ma soft shell turtle. . . . .

TS on April 23, 2012:

My softshell loves the sand box i put in for her in her 20 gallon tank. i recently bought a 90 gallon for her full of sand and a piece of drift wood. That i think she will love! If you use rocks you wanna make sure they are smooth because there shells are more sensitve then most turtles and can cause serious injury or infection. Take a rock and rub it on your skin and if it bothers your skin then it will bother your softshells aswell.

mariekbloch (author) on March 11, 2012:


Are you using a kiddy pool? The best setup would have enough room for the turtle to swim and explore. Width is more important than depth when it comes to size, but your turtle would get more out of life by swimming in deep water from time to time. The turtle should definetly be able to submerge itself completely underwater despite the type of setup. To me, this setup (above) is the best kind of environment, but not necessary. Indoor kiddy pools works too. But if you do have an aquarium, then why not make it like the one I have?

Best regards.

David on February 26, 2012:

Hey, does it have to have a deep part? My setup only has a shallow water section and a land part.

mariekbloch (author) on October 14, 2011:

They love sand, but you can have smooth rocks mixed in like I did. The setup is kind of explained in this article. If you need more information then that, look at my other hubs or just do plenty of research on the web. Sorry for late response.

maddie on September 14, 2011:

i just got a little turtle (soft shell) me and my friend and my mother were wondering do we need rocks,sand and how would you set it up please right back