How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet

Updated on May 13, 2018
Dreamhowl profile image

Dreamhowl has worked in pet retail for over ten years. She has owned betta fish, dogs, fancy mice, fancy rats, hamsters, and more.

Discover how to provide the proper habitat, lighting and overall care for a wild turtle.
Discover how to provide the proper habitat, lighting and overall care for a wild turtle. | Source

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.

Experts will tell you not to keep a wild turtle as a pet, and they are right.
Experts will tell you not to keep a wild turtle as a pet, and they are right. | Source

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.

Turtles require a large tank, filter, heater, basking lamps, and more to stay healthy.
Turtles require a large tank, filter, heater, basking lamps, and more to stay healthy. | Source

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 water filter 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!

Most large pet stores have a turtle-specific section with basic supplies.
Most large pet stores have a turtle-specific section with basic supplies. | Source

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.

Source

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?

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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!

Everyone should always wash their hands after handling turtles, wild or captive bred.
Everyone should always wash their hands after handling turtles, wild or captive bred. | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

  • What do red-eared slider turtles need to live as pets?

    They need the basics - a large tank, water filter, water heater, basking and UV lamps, substrate, food, and any decorations you want to add. A lot of pet stores sell kits that come with these. It would be worth it to get a larger tank kit - you turtle might be small now, but it is going to grow, and can live up to thirty years.

  • What type of food should I feed my turtle?

    It can depend on the species, but most turtles will eat small fish (feeder fish), crickets, vegetables (like lettuce), and other things. Pet stores also sell turtle food in the form of sticks or pellets, as well as vitamin supplements.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Comments

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    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Marello 

      4 months ago from United States

      @Cat Why catch food? If you can, getting food from a pet store would be much easier. Depending on the size of the turtle, they have feeder fish and even small turtle pellets.

    • profile image

      Cat 

      5 months ago

      What would be the best way to cach food for the red ered slider turtle?

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Marello 

      5 months ago from United States

      It varies between different types of turtles, and won't be obvious until it is adult size. Male turtles tend to have longer claws than females, and can also have a V-shaped notch on their shell where their tail is. There are other methods, but with such a young turtle you may not know for a while.

      Try researching online to figure out what species of turtle you have, and see what they eat specifically. Some stores have very small pellets designed for baby turtles. You can also try leafy vegetables (lettuce, cabbage) but it will have to be cut up very small.

    • profile image

      Isabella 

      5 months ago

      How do you find out if a turtle is a male or female??? And also my turtle I found on my driveway was stuck in the rocks and I helped it it was about the size of a pennyy and it was all route and happy but now it won’t eat or anything. How do I get it to eat?

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Marello 

      14 months ago from United States

      @Sharon Etienne Maybe she is gravid (egg-bound)? Apparently, females can carry eggs whether there is a male around or not. The symptoms included a change in eating habits and basking habits. If you look it up and it sounds familiar, I know you can try to get her to lay the eggs, or take her to a vet if that fails. I'll look for some links to send if you can't find anything - email me via my profile if you like.

    • profile image

      Sharon Etienne 

      15 months ago

      We have an approximately 50 + year old female, south american wood turtle, as we are told, that we keep in her own aquarium, appropriately we hope. However after 15 years together, she seems to be changing her behavior. Climbing on her log, when she only ever has dwelt inside of it, eating less or waiting for food, which has never been her norm etc..Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    • profile image

      Lisa 

      15 months ago

      I have a wild box turtle and he isn't scared of me and my family

    • profile image

      Tucker 

      15 months ago

      I don't know what type of turtle mine is

    • profile image

      Turtleluver02 

      17 months ago

      I had a wild turtle and his name was raph we let him go in the same place we foind him after having him fot a week and he came right back to his tank and sat there cause he could not get in. We had to force him to swim away in his natural home and he never came back luckily. Now i have 10 wild turtles in my yard and 1 of them has 1 toe! Im thinking of keeping 2 of the babys they are as big as a toonie and i named them shaylah and orea. Im adicted to them i luv them so much and i will do enything in my power to adopt them but if the get streased or if this is to much work i will let them go in a heartbeat for there safty and happyness.

      I am already writting down important things and researching they are painted belly eild turtles. I have them in a tank out side and i will be bring them inside when i get room ( later on today )

      Thx so much for this articme it really helped me i will care for them and send them all my luv.

      Sincerly

      Kenzie

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Marello 

      4 years ago from United States

      He came back? That's strange. Maybe you had him long enough that he wanted to return. Who knows. :)

    • profile image

      lol 

      4 years ago

      hi i have a wild turtle and i let it go and the next day i was going to clean and put up his aquarium that is outside and he came back he was on the side tring to climb the wall

    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago

      Hi, Dream,

      You are very welcome. That is cool. I asked because my hometown doesn't have a pet store--shows you how rural we are. And I appreciate you looking at my hubs.

      And thank YOU SO MUCH for the follow which I will send you my personal note of thanks in a few days.

      Peace.

      K.

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Marello 

      4 years ago from United States

      Thank you so much! While I don't own a turtle, I'd like to help people who bring them home from the wild and insist on keeping them. And of course I'll check out your hubs!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Dreamhowl,

      Hello,

      Excellent hub. Great read and great topic. I voted up and all across on this presentation. Loved the presentation, graphics, and refreshing style of lay-out.

      Turtles are one of my favorite beings. I appreciate how you taught us how to keep one as a pet. You are a very caring person.

      I am going to leave you some fan mail and then become a follower. Would you consider reading one or two of my hubs and do the same?

      I would love that.

      Thank you sincerely,

      Kenneth

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