New Patients Admitted to the Center – how to care for freshwater turtles

Last Thursday, May 26th an entourage of NMLC staff, volunteers, and interns went up to turn in our 8  Red Bellied Cooter hatchlings to MassWildlife. As part of the headstart program, these turtles are given out to organizations and citizens all over Massachusetts in an effort to boost the population of Red-Bellied Cooters, an endangered species. We took these hatchlings in last fall and cared for them over the winter months to get them to a size that makes them less vulnerable to predators. The other groups also came in last Thursday to turn in their hatchlings. Unfortunately, one group did not properly care for their turtles, and as a result, the turtles have a number of shell and bone deformities and are not healthy enough or large enough for release. They were given to the National Marine Life Center to care for, but their condition is so severe that even with NMLC staff’s best efforts, they still may not survive.
As part of my blog this week, I’d like to give some basic tips on how to properly care for your freshwater turtle pet. Back home in the Midwest, I have a Red-Eared Slider named Hercules that I’ve owned for over a decade.

Brie's turtle, Hercules!

Prospective turtle owners need to know a number of things before purchasing a turtle in order to keep it happy and healthy, and to have the best experience with your pet.

Before we begin:

  • NEVER take an animal from the wild to bring home as a pet.
    • Taking a wild turtle can be dangerous, as they can carry a number of parasites or diseases into your home.
    • If you take an animal from the wild – you are disrupting the ecosystem. We need wild turtles to stay in the wild to reproduce and make more turtles!
    • It can be difficult to determine if the animal you’re taking is an endangered or threatened species, and taking one of these animals from the wild is against the law!
  • If you would like to have a pet freshwater turtle, go to your local pet store to get a captive-bred, healthy turtle, and leave wild turtles in the wild.
  • If you ever are unable to continue caring for your pet, DO NOT RELEASE IT into the wild! Turtles that are released into areas where they are not part of the natural ecosystem cause severe issues in that ecosystem. They can bring new diseases, compete with native turtles, and can reproduce to unhealthily high numbers without natural predators.

The setup:
Turtles have specific equipment requirements to keep the water clean, warm, and allow for proper turtle development.

This is one type of turtle filter used at the National Marine Life Center!

  • Filter(s) – filters work to clean the water of any debris (pieces of food, feces, etc.)
  • Heater – you need to do some research to know what the proper temperature requirements are for your turtle species, and get a heater that can keep your tank at those temperatures all the time.This is a common heater used in animal tanks.
  • Haul out(s) – these are objects that your turtle can pull itself out on to bask (or warm up) or rest if it’s tired of swimming. They come in a number of styles, sizes, and prices. They can range from large rocks to a foam apparatus that floats on the water. Just make sure that it’s the proper size for your turtle and that it’s easily accessible.
  • Lights AND access to sunlight if possible – turtles need special lights that give them both UVA and UVB rays because that’s how they get vitamin D for proper shell growth.
  • Timers for the lights – your turtle needs a strict day and night schedule to ensure proper rest cycles. If you aren’t able to turn your turtle’s lights on and off at the same time every day, it would be wise to invest in a light timer to do it for you.

Maintenance and diet:

  • Frequent water changes – remember that your turtle defecates in the same water it needs to drink from – so change the water weekly or more frequently to avoid getting your turtle sick.
  • Be aware of salmonella risks – wash your hands thoroughly before and after you touch the turtle or any of the husbandry equipment.
  • When you buy your turtle you need to ask what species it is, and what it eats in the wild. If a turtle is a vegetarian and you feed it a protein-based diet – you can make it very sick, or it may die. If your turtle is a carnivore and you feed it a diet high in vegetables – it will not be able to grow properly. Do some research on your pet before you bring it home!
    • Many pet stores will give you canned “turtle food” – a common brand is ReptoMin. These should not be the only thing you feed your turtle; they should be used as a supplement given along with a more natural diet.
      If you find out that your turtle is a vegetarian, be sure to feed it Romaine lettuce – not iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce has few actual vitamins in it, and will cause your turtle not to develop properly.



  • Your turtle will shed its scutes (big scales on shell) periodically as it grows – so don’t be alarmed! If your turtle has other skin problems, or the shell does not look healthy, see a veterinarian.
  • Take your turtle to the veterinarian to ensure it’s growing properly. Once a year or every other year is sufficient for a healthy animal – but if you have questions about your turtle’s needs, a licensed veterinarian with some reptile experience should be your first contact.

I can say from experience that owning a turtle is a great responsibility, but something that’s given me great joy and actually influenced my career path! Turtles can be very interesting, wonderful pets if you understand their needs and care for them properly.