Turtles are adorable and fascinating reptiles. It’s not every day you come across someone who carries their whole house around with them! When it comes to raising turtles, there are specifics of their that shouldn’t be overlooked. Baby turtles are especially vulnerable to problems related to poor husbandry preventing proper, healthy development. Happy, healthy adult turtles start off as well cared for baby turtles. Here are the basics of caring for a baby turtle to give them the best start at life.
There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to turtles versus tortoises, but the easiest way to keep them straight is that most turtles are aquatic or semi-aquatic. There are exceptions to this, like the Eastern Box Turtle, but generally speaking, tortoises are terrestrial and turtles are aquatic. In the 1940s into the 1950s, aquatic turtles entered the pet trade in the US. The most popular and common aquatic turtle is the Red Eared Slider. Aquatic turtles kept as pets get much larger than many people realize, often reaching 10-12 inches in length. They are exceptionally long-lived, with most reaching 20 years with proper care. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for a turtle to exceed 40 years of age.
In the 1970s, the US government banned the sale of aquatic turtles smaller than 4 inches in length. It was around this time that science connected the dots between handling turtles and getting salmonella. The US government banned the sale of small turtles because it was more likely that children would put small turtles in their mouth. Unless you come across a baby turtle in the wild, someone gives you a baby turtle, or you breed your own turtles, it’s unlikely you’ll accidentally have a small baby turtle come into your care.
Are Baby Turtles Good Pets?
Baby turtles do not make particularly good pets, even though they’re cute as a button. Most turtles are not big on being handled and it can stress them, leading to health problems and even aggression. Most turtles are best left alone except when otherwise needed for enclosure maintenance, feeding, or healthcare. Turtles are considered babies from shortly after hatching to around 1 year of age, which is when they are considered juveniles. Breeders should be able to tell you the age of a turtle you purchase from them, but pet stores may have difficulty accessing this information to give you.
Baby turtles can be difficult to care for and they can be sensitive to stress and illness. It’s worth noting that many turtles are nocturnal, so your baby turtle may be especially stressed by handling during the day and bright lights. They require daily feeding, and you should check on enclosure and basking temperatures daily. For terrestrial baby turtles, you’ll need to provide clean water daily. For aquatic turtles, you’ll need to monitor the water quality like you would for a fish aquarium and perform partial water changes as needed to improve water quality and remove waste.
Where Can I Get a Baby Turtle?
Most big box pet stores sell turtles that are usually babies or juveniles, depending on the species. You may be able to find a baby turtle at local aquatics or pet stores as well, although they may be more difficult to find this way. A surefire way of acquiring a baby turtle is through breeders and online shops. Make sure you thoroughly research the breeder or store you are purchasing a baby turtle from. Some sellers will not sell you a healthy baby turtle, which starts off your ability to care for the turtle properly on the wrong foot.
How Much Does It Cost To Own a Baby Turtle?
To purchase a baby turtle, you will likely spend a minimum of $50. If you are purchasing a unique shell pattern or species, then you can spend $500 or more. When you get a baby turtle, it may be tempting to purchase a small enclosure since the turtle is so small. However, they grow rapidly in the first year of life and can quickly outgrow a small tank. If you purchase a smaller species of turtle, then a 29-gallon tank may suffice. A larger species will likely require a tank in excess of 40 gallons. You will likely spend $40 or more on a tank for your turtle. Your turtle will also need a filter, raised basking area, heat lamp, lighting, and tank accessories, so tank setup can cost $100 or more.
Feeding a baby turtle won’t break the bank, so you can expect to spend around $30-50 monthly on feeding your baby turtle. When you first get your baby turtle, a vet checkup is a good idea to verify health status. This initial visit will probably cost you $75 or more, but you will not need to take your turtle to the vet regularly throughout its life unless there is an emergency or illness.
What Kind of Home Does My Baby Turtle Need?
For aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles, you will need a watertight aquarium that is, at minimum, 29 gallons. For terrestrial turtles, you will need a tank that allows for a vivarium setup, but it should be within the same size range as tanks for aquatic turtles.
For aquariums, you have the option of a bare bottom tank, pool filter sand, turtle-specific substrate, and pebbles. It’s important that any pebbles or gravel you use are too large for your turtle to eat. For vivariums, coco coir or coconut fiber is the best choice, but you can also use a soil and sand mixture, peat moss, and turtle-safe mulch.
Light and Heat
Your turtle will need a light that provides UVB rays to maintain shell and bone health. A heat lamp will not provide UVB rays, so you’ll need a separate heat lamp and UVB light. Heat lamps are also a necessity to be used in a basking area at one end of the enclosure. Some people purchase heat lamps with day/night lighting that provides red lighting at night that doesn’t bother nocturnal turtles.
Baby turtles need access to a basking area. For aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles, they need a surface outside the water they can access as needed for basking. Baby terrestrial turtles will also need access to a basking area at one end of their enclosure. Basking areas should be raised but still approximately 12 inches from the heat source. Other tank accessories include décor and plants. Some plants may get eaten, but it’s unlikely your baby turtle will eat many plants in the enclosure.
Baby turtles in aquariums need a strong filtration system to keep their water quality high. Some filters are marketed as filters for turtle tanks. Your other option is to purchase a filter that is rated for a tank larger than the tank your baby turtle lives in. Baby turtles create far less waste than juveniles and adults, but they are still messy and require adequate filtration.
What Should I Feed My Baby Turtle?
All baby turtles are omnivorous, but terrestrial and aquatic baby turtles have different dietary needs. Terrestrial baby turtles tend to eat more veggies than aquatic turtles do. They should be offered chopped leafy greens, like romaine lettuce, fruits, like melon, and commercial turtle food. Aquatic baby turtles will eat some veggies and fruits, but most of their diet should consist of commercial turtle food and proteins like baby feeder fish, crickets, and small shrimp.
A well-rounded diet should provide your baby turtle with everything it needs to grow well and be healthy, but some baby turtles do require vitamin supplements and additions of calcium and vitamin D. Feed your baby turtle 2-3 times daily and remove uneaten food within a couple of hours at the most. For terrestrial turtles, they should always have access to clean drinking water.
How Do I Take Care of My Baby Turtle?
Feed your baby turtle 2-3 times daily and remove uneaten food. Some people recommend placing aquatic turtles into a separate tank for meals because they can be very messy and have a tendency to defecate while eating.
Handle your baby turtle as little as possible to avoid stressing it. If needed, catch it quickly and with minimal jostling and handle it gently. Terrestrial turtles tend to be less stressed by handling than aquatic turtles. Anytime you handle your baby turtle, wash your hands well immediately before and after handling.
Aquatic baby turtles will not require bathing or shell cleaning. Baby terrestrial turtles may need a quick wipe down or lukewarm water soak in a shallow dish if they get waste or food matter on them.
Brumation is a semi-hibernation state that turtles and other reptiles go through in cooler weather. During this time, they will eat much less and will be far less active. During this time, you’ll likely need to make temperature adjustments to allow for healthy brumation. Baby turtles may not enter brumation if they hatch late in the year. If they do begin brumation, it shouldn’t be allowed to last longer than 10 weeks since this risks starvation and health problems. Help your baby turtle gain body weight and strength over the summer so it has energy stores for brumation. Questions or concerns about brumation and baby turtles should be discussed with your veterinarian since it varies based on age and species.
You should do a partial water change and check the filter for your baby aquatic turtle once a week. Every couple of weeks you may need to do a larger water change and over time, you will need to slowly replace filter media. Avoid full water changes and replacing all filter media at once as this can crash your beneficial bacteria colonies in the tank. For terrestrial baby turtles, you should spot clean the enclosure and substrate as needed. Weekly, you should change out much of the substrate and it should be fully replaced every couple of weeks with a thorough tank cleaning.
How Do I Know If My Baby Turtle Is Sick?
Shell damage can happen from an injury or an illness. If you notice cracks, peeling, or soft spots on your baby turtle’s shell, your turtle’s veterinarian should take a look to help you determine the cause.
Vitamin A Deficiency
This deficiency directly correlates to an inadequate diet. Symptoms include lethargy, inappetence, swelling around the eyes, purulent discharge around the eyes, abscesses, and respiratory infections. Vitamin A deficiency can be remedied with an adequate diet but should be evaluated by a vet. Be prepared to take a thorough account to the vet of what your baby turtle eats in a day.
Abscesses are pockets of infection that can lead to systemic infections. They are caused by bacteria and can occur with the tiniest of scratches. Turtles tend to get abscesses around their ear openings, but it’s possible for them to get abscesses almost anywhere on their body. Abscesses produce noticeably swollen areas that are often coupled with redness and may even look like a large pimple. These should be treated by a veterinarian.
Respiratory infections are typically caused by bacteria or viruses, but they are usually secondary to a vitamin A deficiency. Symptoms include open mouth breathing, nasal discharge, thickened mucoid discharge from the mouth, lethargy, and inappetence. Respiratory infections can quickly become deadly, so these symptoms should be evaluated by your baby turtle’s vet as soon as possible.
Baby turtles are exceptionally cute, but they can be difficult to care for and they don’t make the best pets, especially for children and people who prefer interactive pets. Your baby turtle will likely learn to associate you with food and safety, but most still prefer that you give them space and minimal handling so they don’t feel stressed. Stressed baby turtles can get sick quickly, so provide a safe, healthy environment for your baby turtle and keep in touch with your veterinarian if you notice any problems your baby turtle may be having.
Featured Image Credit: Pixabay
Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping has become a hobby of Brooke’s and she is continually learning how to give her aquarium pets the best life possible. Brooke enjoys plants and gardening and keeps a vegetable garden during the summer months. She stays active with yoga and obtained her 200-hour yoga teacher certification in 2020. She hosts a podcast focusing on folklore and myth and loves spending her free time researching and writing. Brooke believes that every day is an opportunity for learning and growth and she spends time daily working toward new skills and knowledge.