How to Care for Baby Spiny Softshell Turtles
For those of you who are interested or already have obtained a baby softshell turtle, I would like to share my information. For the past fifteen months, I have raised an eastern spiny softshell turtle since the day it hatched. I have cross-referenced too many sites to remember and have learned through my experience of how to take care of such a fragile creature.
It took a lot of research and diligent care to learn what I know now, and for those of you who are also looking up information, this article will cut your search short. If you are thinking about purchasing or catching one, you need to be prepared and informed on what you are getting yourself into.
Baby Softshells Are Challenging Pets
The baby softshell turtle is one of the hardest turtles to keep as a pet. A newborn is about the size of a half-dollar (give or take), and a healthy baby grows very gradually. They do not reach sexual maturity until eight years. They hatch between August and November, and they hibernate during the winter (only those with experience or veterinarian aid should attempt artificial hibernation).
Providing a Home for Your Softshell Turtle
Most people naturally put these creatures in aquariums, but a large tub or plastic pool is also acceptable, as long as it is at least twenty gallons in volume. Less than a 20-gallon tank is fine for a temporary solution, but you’ll eventually need to upgrade to a 20-gallon (a 20-gallon breeder is the best choice, something like 30x12x12).
Anything bigger than twenty is fine, or even better depending on how long you keep the turtle. Just remember: Width is more important than depth, although your turtle should be able to swim freely for exercise and exploration.
Reevaluating Your Current Tank
If you already have a fish tank, reevaluate it:
- What animals live in your current aquarium? If you already have a turtle (different or same species), then you might need to get another tank for your softy. The standard aquarium size for one baby is a 20-gallon tank. So if you have two, then you need to get a 40-gallon. Seems excessive, but turtles sharing the same home need that space. Otherwise, they will turn on each other and fight, or they will feel smothered and their growth rate will decrease. Neither outcome is good for the turtles.
- If not another turtle, is there a large fish in the tank? This might be the same situation. I had an old plecostomus in my tank, and it hated the turtle. The turtle would want to go into its den, and the fish would jerk and slap the turtle away with its fin. And the turtle would scratch back in defense. I ended up getting rid of the sucker fish.
Safe Places in the Tank
These turtles dry their shells every once in awhile for health purposes, so your turtle must have something to climb out of the water. It does not have to crawl completely out of water, just shallow enough to dry its shell.
They also need a place to stand and breathe while submerged in water (so their heads reach the surface). They will spend most of their time (including sleep) in this shallow area. If a shallow area for them to rest in is not available, the turtle will ultimately drown.
Water must be dechlorinated by leaving tap water out for twenty-four hours or by using dechlorinating formula to add in the water for instant use. Make sure the water is always crystal-clear and has a good filtration system. The water should never stink, and the temperature should be anywhere from medium to late 70s Fahrenheit. Any lower can prevent the turtle from eating by preparing itself for hibernation.
These turtles are carnivores. But do not think feeding them raw hamburger and cooked ham is okay. These animals need to eat a varied diet mixed with natural foods they would find in the wild and/or healthy alternatives made for their specific needs. The average diet of a baby softshell turtle in the wild consists of:
- Dead fish (or any other corpse found in water)
- Very small fish
- Fish eggs
- Newborn crawdads
Here are alternative foods in case you cannot provide all or any of the above:
- Live ghost shrimp
- Pellets catered to softshell turtles
- Frozen blood worms
- Live or dead crickets
These items can be purchased from any aquarium store.
Baby softshell turtles need vitamin A, calcium and protein in order to thrive. So fish flakes or fish pellets will not satisfy their needs. Turtles can go a long time without food when necessary, so if you are having trouble getting it to eat any of these foods, it’ll just take time. I had to trick my turtle by putting softshell pellets in combination with chicken liver. Soon I took the liver out of the equation and he started eating the pellets alone. Calcium sulfa blocks can also help give your turtle all the calcium it requires without specific foods.
And never give up with insects. My turtle went its first five months of life not eating anything that moved, but every once in a while I’d put a small insect near where he usually sits in the shallow area. After months of rejections, one day he unexpectedly ate the bug, and has been eating grubs and crickets since then (the movement now gets his attention).
A Warning on Overfeeding
And be careful not to overfeed; these animals can die if fed too much. They should have a little blubber on their limbs when retracted. Feel every once in a while to make sure it is not starving either. Watch your turtle; it is up to your judgment when it is time to feed.
UVB lights cannot be compromised. These turtles have to get twelve hours of natural sunlight or UVB radiation per day. Vitamin D3 is essential for bone growth with the combination of calcium.
Some might think to place the aquarium in front of a window, but the sun will not touch the aquarium for twelve hours. Also, UVB cannot get past most glass, so even if the window is open, it will most likely not penetrate the aquarium. So unless your turtle is kept out doors during the warm seasons, a UVB bulb is the only option.
Do not purchase a bulb that says it is meant for plants and assume it has UVB radiation. If the word UVB is nowhere on the box, then it does not have UVB rays. UVA comes with natural sunlight, but again, without the “B,” it cannot make up as a substitute.
Also be wary of how close the light is placed over the habitat. Seven inches over the basking area (shallow area) may be a good distance, but be your own judge and see how the turtle reacts to it. If it spends less time in the basking area, then the light needs to be moved higher.
If the UVB bulb is a fluorescent tube and is placed in a traditional aquarium overhead, make sure there is no plastic or glass case between the bulb and the habitat, to further ensure the turtle is receiving all the UVB it requires.
These turtles love sand. Tiny pebble-like rocks are acceptable as long as they are smooth, but you will find newborns constantly trying to bury themselves, only managing to throw a few rocks on their backs. By burying themselves, they not only have a feeling of security (reduced stress), but they typically catch live prey this way, thus preparing them for adulthood. It is also very entertaining to watch them burrow and peak their heads out from the sand.
If the basking area will allow it, sand should be placed here too. They will spend most of their time buried in the sand with the exception of their noses and eyes above the water’s surface. They may also bury themselves at the bottom of deep water, but they enjoy having their shells buried while breathing normally in the air. They also usually sleep buried mostly or entirely in the sand, but only if it is in shallow water.
Calcium sand can be found in aquarium shops and also pool stores. The sand should be free of chemicals.
Do Not Keep a Pet Softshell If You Can't Meet Its Needs
These are the important necessities of the baby softshell turtle, and anyone who cannot afford or wishes not to provide all these crucial requirements should not keep this animal. If this turtle was bought, it would be best to hand it over to a wildlife sanctuary and they will most likely relocate it to its natural environment. If it was caught nearby, then let the turtle go where it was found (unless of course it is winter, then I advise the wild life sanctuary). Do not let the turtle go if it is not from the area.
These animals can easily die due to scratches on their shells, filthy water, and an unhealthy or overfed diet. Stay alert for erratic activity, eye irritation (closing eyes a lot), scratches, weight loss or gain, and strange curves progressing on the edges of their shells. Metabolic bone disease is the result of calcium and Vitamin D3 deficiency, causing irregular shell shape.
Provide the turtle shallow water, adequate space, clean water, a healthy diet, twelve hours of UVB, and a sense of security with sand to ensure the health of the baby softshell turtle.
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.