How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet
What Is a Wild Turtle?
What exactly is a wild turtle? Wild turtles are turtles that are found in the wild, as opposed to your local pet store. While turtles sold domestically have been bred and raised in human care in tanks and terrariums, wild turtles have spent generation after generation living in their natural, outdoor habitats. Wild turtles can catch their own food, while a turtle from the pet store expects to be fed live fish or pellet-based diets daily. If placed in the wild, a domestic 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.
Most reptile experts and enthusiasts will tell you not to keep a wild turtle as a pet, and they would be right. It’s the same reason you might 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 most pet stores. Wild turtles are not used to being handled by people, and not used to living in captivity. Wild animals are accustomed to freedom and day-to-day survival.
Most importantly, wild turtles can carry parasites like tapeworm, and are known for carrying salmonella bacteria. People can get salmonella from these 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 pet 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
Technically, no one can stop you from keeping a wild turtle as a pet (unless it's illegal in your state). 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 pet 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 should be housed in 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 you tank doesn't come with a screened cover, be sure to purchase one as well.
Just like fish, turtles need a clean water source. Most pet stores sell specially made for turtle tanks of different sizes. 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 filters
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 will need an underwater heater for your tank. Underwater heaters are great because they automatically maintain the optimal water temperature. As with fish tanks, the underwater heater should always be running. Be sure to have a in your tank to monitor the water temperature - you may not notice a broken heater otherwise. thermometer
Did You Know?
Did you know that turtles cannot store vitamin D3? Because of this, turtles 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 should have 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. If your house is cooler than this, you can purchase nighttime heat lamps to keep your turtle cozy.
Many novice 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 heat lamps that also 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 should line the bottom of your turtle tank with gravel for decorative and environmental purposes. You can lay out the gravel in a slope so your turtle has a place to sit above water under the basking lamp. This, however, would require a lot of gravel. You can also purchase a floating dock for your turtle to lay on. These surfaces suction to the side of the tank and are easily detached 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. Your wild turtle would enjoy a more natural environment.
What Do You Think?
Should people keep wild turtles?
When you clean your tank monthly or more frequently, you will need to vacuum the gravel. This is because food debris and other waste tend to sink in between the gravel. Gravel vacuums are sold in most pet stores in the aquatic or reptile sections. If you don’t have a gravel vacuum, you can dump out the gravel and rinse in a strainer under warm water. 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 pet store 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.