How to Keep a Wild Turtle as a Pet

Updated on February 12, 2017
Dreamhowl profile image

Dreamhowl has worked in pet retail for over ten years. She has owned fancy rats, and has experience with small pets, fish, and dogs.

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 water filters 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!


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 thermometer in your tank to monitor the water temperature - you may not notice a broken heater otherwise.

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?

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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.


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    • Dreamhowl profile image

      Jessica Marello 8 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 8 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.

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      Lisa 9 months ago

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

    • profile image

      Tucker 9 months ago

      I don't know what type of turtle mine is

    • profile image

      Turtleluver02 11 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.



    • Dreamhowl profile image

      Jessica Marello 3 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 3 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.



    • Dreamhowl profile image

      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,


      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,