How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet

Updated on May 29, 2019
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 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.

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

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 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!

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

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.

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

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?

See results
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.

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

  • Should we move our three outdoor turtles to our new home?

    Have you raised these turtles since they were young? Are they pets? If it is a matter of taking them with you or releasing them into the wild, you should not release them. They will not know how to fend for themselves and may not survive. If you cannot take your turtles with you, look into pet or wildlife rescues in your area and ask if they will take them in.

  • 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.

  • I saved a small spiny soft turtle from being slaughtered for its meat. It's around six-inches long. Our country declared it an invasive species, and says it needs to be terminated. That's why we can't release it in the wild, so I would like to keep it instead. It is not eating the blanched fish I gave it, and the pond isn't built yet because of its unexpected arrival. It's in a ten-gallon tank right now, without a filter. I'll try to install a filter tomorrow. What is appropriate to do in the meantime?

    As far as food, could you try feeding it small live fish (like feeder fish sold in pet stores, if you have access to that), worms, or crickets (either alive or dead, they sell these in pet stores too). I bet it will love the pond you are building it. Just be sure that there is no way for the turtle to escape your pond area and go out into the environment - if it is seen as an invasive species in your area, it could do serious harm to your local ecosystems.

  • 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.


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    • profile image

      Austin gosnell 

      3 months ago

      I don’t know if my turtle is distress

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      9 months ago from United States

      @Michelle Normally (for pet turtles) an exotic vet will repair the shell with turtle-safe epoxy and a special type of fiberglass cloth. I am unsure if the crack will heal on its own. It may depend on the severity of the crack. But I do not know enough to say for certain.

    • profile image

      Michelle T. 

      9 months ago

      We rescued a red eared slider from certain doom on a very busy highway 2 weeks ago. Tried to get her to a turtle rescue, but that turned out not to be possible. She has a cracked shell but it is aligned, and not exposing her too horrible bad. We had to clean it for a couple of days, but once the site remained clean and dry, have basically left her alone.

      I'd like to release her in a body of water I am assuming she was coming from or going to. My question is, do I have to wait for the cracks to seal completely to do this? It is my observation she is doing well in this captivity habitat. Can she do as well on her own and heal the rest of the way? Thanks for your help.

    • profile image


      9 months ago

      I am from Korea and I found a baby Chinese softshell turtle. I found him under a bridge, where there are no lights, nor oxygenated water. I didn't provide him with basking spots and filters because he lived in such dirty environment. I also provided sand at the bottom, because I know that these species like to hide under sand. However, he won't eat anything. Is he not eating because of the size of the tank and the lack of materials? How do I get him to eat(I do provide UV light)?

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      10 months ago from United States

      @Kenneth Hey, it's good to hear from you! Turtles are really cool creatures, and deserve the best care they can receive. I plan on increasing my activity here again, so I'll definitely check in more often. Thanks for the comment and for loving turtles!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      10 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Jessica: long time since talking to you. You are one of my treasured-followers and I just want to say thank you for that.

      I loved this hub about turtles. My gandkids love turtles as their mom did when she was living. She loved ALL animals and lots of reptiles.

      Just wanted to share my love for my grandkids and daughter with you and to read your exceptional hub about one of my favorite life forms. Hey, write me anytime.

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Can i keep a box turtle in a small pool with a small amount of water grass leaves so that it can think of it as a swampy area?

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Am I allowed to take a wild red ear slider turtle from a local public pond to my 1,300-gallon backyard pond?

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      13 months ago from United States

      @Riley Did you find it outside? I would release it where you found it.

    • profile image


      13 months ago

      I have a baby red eared slider in a 5 gallon bucket with some water and rocks should I release it or should I keep it

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      just put my temporary pool away and found a nest of baby turtles that have apparently hatched and have been trapped under the liner they since I put the pool up in late June. There are 7 of them about the size of a quarter and seemed to be hibernating there. Well the nest is now exposed and they are awake and crawling around. Its November 11th here in Buffalo NY and the temp is 33 degrees now. I am afraid to just set them free this late in the season as I fear they are too 'young' prepare for winter, especially since not properly nourished and winter just about already here. what is the best way to handle this? Just let them go and figure it out, or re-bury them in a safe place (how deep and any special instructions) or take them in for the winter and care for them and set them free in the spring?

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      20 months ago from United States

      @Curtis I'm glad you plan on letting them go!

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      I had a wild res lay her eggs n my front yard, all 5 of them r now n a tank, I plan on letting them go this spring or when it’s warm enough

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      2 years 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


      2 years ago

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

    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      2 years 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


      2 years 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 Peri 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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


      2 years ago

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

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I don't know what type of turtle mine is

    • profile image


      3 years 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.



    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      5 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


      5 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 

      6 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.



    • Dreamhowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessica Peri 

      6 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 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Dreamhowl,


      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,



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