How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet
What Is a Wild Turtle?
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.
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.
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!
What Do You Think?
Should people keep wild turtles?
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!
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.
Questions & Answers
I found a baby red eared slider turtle in my backyard pool. I keep it in a shoe box, but it keeps trying to get out. What should I do?
Red-eared sliders are semi-aquatic, which means they spend part of the time in water. It cannot survive in a shoe box with no water (among other things). Do you live near a body of water where it may have come from, like a lake or pond? If you don't know where it came from, is there a turtle rescue you can hand it over to? If you plan to keep caring for this turtle, it's going to need a large tank, water filter, water heater, basking lamp, and other accessories to survive and thrive.
My dad brought home a pond turtle he found on the street, what should my next step be?
The first thing I would suggest (out of necessity) is releasing it back into the wild where it was found. If you are unable to do that at this point, or are set on keeping it, you need supplies - a large aquatic tank, water heater, water filter, basking bulb, etc. A lot of pet stores sell turtle kits, where the tank comes with these things included for a decent price. It is also worth trying to research what type of turtle it is based on its appearance, to see how big it may get and if it has any other requirements.
I really want this turtle I found in a lake. It is a baby painted turtle, but I don't know if I am ready for the commitment. I already have two fish that I have kept alive for two years, though. What should I do?
If it is living happily in the lake, I would leave it be. Turtles are definitely a more significant commitment than fish. They would need a big tank, water filter, water heater, basking bulbs, and live a lot longer. And as a baby, it would need access to all of these things to grow up healthy. I'd make sure you can commit to owning a turtle, whether wild or domestically raised, first.
How can I tell if a turtle is a male or female?
This can depend on the type of turtle, and is easier to do with adult turtles. Male turtles tend to have longer claws than females, and may also have a V-shaped notch on their shell where their tail is located. Adult females also tend to have longer shells than adult males. The underside of a male's shell may also curve a bit inwards, while the underside of a female's shell tends to be flat.
Can a wild turtle be released in the wild after being kept in a tank for several years?
There are differing opinions on this, but since it came from the wild in the first place, it may be all right. If it has been living off of a pellet-based diet, you may want to try feeding it fish for a bit first, since that's what it would be living off of. And releasing it into the same environment, it originally came from.