How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet
What Is the Difference Between a Wild Turtle and a Store-Bought One?
- Wild turtles are turtles that are found in the wild, as opposed to captive bred turtles.
- While turtles sold in pet stores have been bred and raised in human care, wild turtles have spent generations living in their natural, outdoor habitats.
- Wild turtles can catch their own food, while a turtle from the pet store eats live feeder fish or pellet-based diets daily.
- If placed in the wild, a captive bred turtle would not know how to survive. Never set a turtle from the pet store “free” under the assumption that it will live a happier, healthier life.
Can You Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet?
Many reptile experts and enthusiasts will tell you not to keep a wild turtle as a pet, and they are right. It’s the same reason you may be told not to keep a frog you found in your pond, or a bunny you found in your backyard. Animals that live in the wild are not used to living boxed-up in a tank, cage, or hutch. They aren't used to taking food from humans, let alone the pellet diets sold in pet stores. Wild turtles are unaccustomed to being handled by people and to living in captivity. Wild animals only know freedom and day-to-day survival.
Salmonellosis is the same disease you can get from eating under-cooked chicken, and is the reason that the sale of baby turtles was banned in 1970.
Parasites and Salmonella: Will I Be Exposed?
Most importantly, wild turtles can carry parasites like tapeworm, and are known for carrying salmonella bacteria. People can get salmonella from turtles by touching them and not washing their hands thoroughly afterwards. Salmonellosis is the same disease you can get from eating under-cooked chicken, and is the reason that the sale of baby turtles was banned in 1970. Children are the most susceptible, as they often forget to wash their hands after touching turtles. However, both captive bred turtles and wild turtles can carry salmonella bacteria; wild turtles may even carry less because they aren’t cooped up in small turtle tanks!
An Expert's Advice on Wild Turtles
How to Care for a Wild Turtle
Keep in mind that it is illegal to own turtles in several states, wild or otherwise. Look into your area's laws on pets and wildlife before considering having a pet turtle. And consider not removing a healthy wild turtle from its natural habitat - turtles are important to the ecosystem. There may even be a turtle rescue organization in your area!
If you do decide to keep a wild turtle, be an informed turtle owner: many people who take home wild turtles do not understand the care that goes into owning a turtle. Keeping it in a fishbowl in the darkest corner of the room wouldn't be appropriate, just as keeping it in a tank without a filter or lamp would be wrong. Turtles need a large aquarium, along with a water filter, heat lamps and other accessories. A turtle’s home makes all the difference in its quality of life.
1. Purchase an aquarium and water filter for your turtle.
Turtles require a large aquarium that can accommodate their size as they grow. Most aquatic turtles (like red-ear sliders or african sidenecks) will grow up to twelve inches - isn’t that big? Remember that to stay happy, your turtle needs room to swim around. Wild turtles are used to a lot more freedom, so don’t cramp them into the smallest tank you can find. PetSmart™ recommends at least a 55-gallon tank for one aquatic turtle. If your tank doesn't come with a screened cover, be sure to purchase one - turtles can escape and fall out of their tanks!
Just like fish, turtles need a clean water source. I recommend this type of because it can sit in shallow water, or suction to the tank at higher water levels. Not only will a filter keep water cleaner for longer, but it will keep your turtle healthier and happier. This doesn’t mean that you will never have to change the water in your tank; water changes should be done at least monthly, while filters should be rinsed weekly to keep the water clean. Some turtle owners change their water as frequently as every week or two weeks; if the water looks murky, your tank may need to be cleaned! water filter
2. Maintain temperature and humidity with lamps.
Turtles have special needs when it comes to the temperature and humidity of their habitat. In a typical turtle tank, the water should remain between 72 and 77 degrees. To maintain the water temperature, you need an underwater heater for your tank. Underwater heaters automatically maintain the optimal water temperature and should always be kept running. I prefer liquid crystal thermometers because floating thermometers fall apart on me. These thermometers stick to the side of the tank, and you can use multiple to monitor the water temperature and basking lamp temperature.
Turtles cannot store vitamin D3, and require twelve hours of ultraviolet light (UV) per day. Be sure to get a UV lamp for your turtle to keep it healthy and help it grow!
You'll need two thermometers in your turtle tank - one for the water temperature, and one for your turtle’s basking spot. Turtles need a warm spot to bask during the day when they are awake and active. Most pet stores supply heat bulbs in the reptile section for this purpose. Your turtle’s basking spot should be as warm as 90 to 95 degrees. Heat lamps should be turned off at night to provide cooler nighttime temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees.
Many new turtle owners don’t know that their aquatic turtle needs twelve hours of ultraviolet light per day! Turtles are naturally active during the day; in the wild, this is the amount of ultraviolet light they would normally receive. To replicate this setting indoors, you can purchase a UV (ultraviolet) lamp from your local pet store. There are also heat lamps that function as UV lamps. Using these bulbs reduces clutter on top of your tank and makes your life easier.
3. Provide gravel and other habitat accessories.
You can line the bottom of your turtle tank with gravel for decorative purposes. Try to use rocks that are larger than the turtle's head - accidentally ingesting smaller gravel can seriously harm the turtle. You can also purchase a floating dock for your turtle to bask on. These surfaces suction to the side of the tank and detach easily for cleaning. To further decorate the tank, try adding branches, plants or other turtle accessories. These are not required, but can give your tank a more natural look. A wild turtle might enjoy a more natural environment!
4. Clean and maintain the habitat carefully.
You should clean the gravel in your turtle tank at least once a month. Food debris and other waste tends to sink between the gravel and dirty the water. Gravel vacuums are sold in most pet stores in both the aquatic and reptile sections. If you don’t have a gravel vacuum, you can dump out the gravel and rinse it in a strainer under warm water (though it will take longer). What is important is that the gravel is cleaned of debris and bacteria. Remember to clean your other turtle accessories as needed - the cleaner the tank, the lower the probability of getting and spreading salmonella!
What Do You Think?
Should people keep wild turtles?
Final Thoughts About Wild Turtles
Keep in mind that turtles, whether found in the wild or bought in a pet store, are a big commitment. Turtles can live anywhere from ten years old to forty years old to one hundred years old. The lifespan of a turtle depends on the breed, so do your research before deciding to take in a wild turtle. If you are not prepared to care for a turtle for that long, reconsider your decision. If your children want to keep a turtle, explain to them why they are such a big commitment.
As opposed to captive bred turtles, wild turtles can become both stressed and depressed when taken from their natural environment and put in a tank. Wild turtles are not used to human contact and can suffer from the experience. If you want a turtle that will enjoy its life swimming in your tank and being handled by people, getting one from a pet store or other seller is the way to go. If your wild turtle seems overly stressed and unwell, it may be best to return it to its natural habitat.
How to Identify Wild Turtles
- Turtle Identification Guide - Discover Life
This guide helps you narrow down what type of turtle you have caught or found by checking off unique patterns and textures on the shell and body.
Aquatic Turtle Online Care Guides
- Petco Aquatic Turtle Care Sheet
This online care guide has information about your turtle's diet and feeding habits, as well as housing, substrate, lighting and other recommended supplies.
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.
Questions & Answers
I found a wild turtle on a big freeway about to get run over. My dad has taken care of wild turtles before but I'm worried, what should I do?
Did your dad take it in, and that's why you're worried? If he's had experience caring for wild turtles in the past, he's already ahead of a lot of would-be wild turtle owners. If the place you rescued it from is near a body of water where you believe the turtle came from, you can always transport it there and let it go. I'm sure the turtle would appreciate it, as well as being saved from the freeway.Helpful 18
I am going on a 3 day vacation today to my grandma's lake. I want to catch a turtle because I have seen and tried to catch them. I don't know if she will have the right supplies and I have to drive 3 hours ... What should I bring?
I would suggest not taking the turtles from the lake. They are likely thriving there, and it is three hours away from you. You would also need to know/find out if you can legally keep a wild turtle in your state. If so, you would need to have a setup ready for when you get home - the big tank, filter, heater, heat bulbs, etc.Helpful 1
I found a baby turtle on the side of the road. I put it in an inch of water, and then put a heat lamp over it. I want to transfer the turtle to our old fish tank, but I do not think the filter will work in such shallow water, and the temperature water heater is broken. What should I do until I can find a new one?
Most pet stores with a reptile section sell filters that can sit in shallow water, or can be suctioned to the tank to match the height of the water. You can also order one online. For now, the fish tank is definitely better than a cooler, even without a heater or other accessories.Helpful 16
What do I feed my wild turtle?
Is this a turtle that lives outside, or a turtle that you rescued? If it's outside, I would leave it be. If this is a rescue that you now care for, you can try commercial turtle food (pellets), but it may not find them interesting. You can also feed dark leafy greens and small feeder fish.Helpful 11
I found a red-eared slider in my front yard. I put it in a blanket. What's the next step?
Red-eared sliders are semi-aquatic, which means they spend part of the time in water. If you plan to keep caring for this turtle, it's going to need a large tank, a water filter, a water heater, a basking lamp, and other accessories. Most pet stores sell these in their reptile sections. An aquatic turtle kit where the tank comes with everything can help you save money while getting everything the turtle needs.Helpful 10