Housing - also water depth
Basking Areas and Accessories
Maintenance - also salt and shedding
This page is for caring for hatchling aquatic turtles. Some of the information can also be applied to terrestrial box turtles but not all of it. Obviously, box turtles are not kept in water. But, they do need the same lighting and similar foods.
Hatchling and baby turtles can be kept in aquariums or plastic tubs of various kinds. I used a 15 gallon plastic storage tub. Plastic storage tubs are very cheap and work well for temporary homes if you do not want to buy a more expensive aquarium. The tub I have is partially clear so you can see in a bit from the side. Aquatic turtle hatchlings should be kept in shallow water.
The baby turtle's setup should be kept in an area that is warm unless you are using a heater (like I did). If you are not using artificial lighting, put the turtle's home where it can receive some natural lighting.
The depth of water should be very shallow for hatchlings. You may start at only one inch deep (2.5 cm) for the first week while the hatchling is very inactive, absorbing his yolk. I kept the water under 2 inches (5 cm) for the first week or so without any filtration before adding the filter which requires a depth of at least 2.5 inches (7 cm) to work. My four-month-old snapper, Snappy was in water that was about 2.75 inches (8 cm) deep or maybe a little bit more. At four-months old, Snappy was about 4 inches long with a shell of about 1.75 inches, tail of 1.5 inches, and neck when stretched of 1 inch. So, it is good for the water to be no more deep than the baby turtle is long. Increase the water depth as the turtle grows. Turtles can drown! If a hatchling is put in 2 inches of water with no way to get in more shallow water (rock, fake plants, ramp, dry land, whatever), in order to breathe, he would have to tread water. A turtle can only tread for so long. So, it is better to have the water too shallow than too deep. Be sure to put in things to make at least one area shallow enough for the turtle to rest and breathe at the same time with no effort. As long as there are areas like that and a way to get out of the water, it is fine to have deeper areas once the turtle is active (at about 1-2 weeks old, before that, they do not move much).
Once they are about 6 months old, most aquatic turtles can take any water depths up a few feet deep as long as there are shallow areas and places to get out of the water easily, and they are used to such depths. For that reason, if the hatchling is going into the wild or a pond, gradually increase the depth over time to prepare him/her. I could not do this with Snappy because I had to carry the container twice a week up stairs to empty it, and I am very feeble so it was as full as I could manage (about 4 gallons). It is much better to have turtle setups on levels where you can drain with a hose (like my fish and lizard tanks are)! But, there is no drain in my basement, and that is the only place I had left to put him (no outlets or room upstairs!).
A filter is not absolutely required for a baby turtle but it is good to have. Not only will it keep the water cleaner, it will reduce the film that will develop on the surface, and give the baby some current against which to swim. I have used the Duetto 100 filter. It can lay on its side so it works in water as shallow as a few inches which is what hatchlings need. There are a few other submersible small filters that may work as well. I covered the intake with panty hose so that the live blackworms did not all get quickly sucked into the filter before the turtle could feed. Also, hatchlings that are weak may get feet sucked into a filter so a mesh cover is a good idea at first to prevent that. Getting the air out of the filter in order to get it started is not that easy and takes practice. I hold it open on its side and twist it to get the air out, close it, and plug it in and hope it starts. The Duetto has an adjustable output. So, when Snappy was very young, I set it on the slowest setting so the water barely moved so Snappy did not get thrown around the tank. By the time he was four-months-old, I had turned the setting all the way up. Snappy enjoyed swimming into the current. It is important however that only a portion of the tank/box have moving water so there are still areas where the baby can rest without having to fight the moving water. Adding plastic plants helps a lot with that. I used two meant for aquariums but had to take them out when Snappy tried to nibble on them. The hatchlings I have had seem to like to sit on top of the filter and heater so they are partly in the water and partly out while relaxing.
It is a good idea to not use any filters the first week or two as the turtles are so small and need very shallow water and are not producing much waste as they are absorbing their yolks.
Baby turtles from temperate regions, such as those listed on my turtle species page do best if kept 70-75 degrees F. They will also do well as warm as 80 degrees F. These same turtles should be able to survive cooler temperatures, even so low as just above freezing in the bottom of a pond over winter if they were prepared for it. At first, I kept Snappy in the basement at about 60 degrees F. He ate very little but was doing okay. Then, someone with a baby painted turtle suggested heating the water. I set it at about 73 degrees F. Ever since then, Snappy became a voracious pig, eating a lot more food and growing much faster. As I wanted him to be as big and healthy as possible for spring release, this was very good. So, the warmer it is, the more the baby will eat. I used a 50 W aquarium heater by Visitherm which is submersible so it could be on its side. If you are having trouble getting a hatchling to eat, be sure it is warm enough.
A person who has raised baby turtles and released some wanted me to make it clear that for temperate species, a heater is NOT required. Without a heater, the turtle will be slower and eat less but that is as it would be in the wild (most likely even colder in winter). In the wild, hatchlings will be down to freezing in winter (in cold areas) on their own and do not eat at that time. Heaters are only absolutely required for species from tropical regions. Try to match the temperature of the turtle's native habitat. Also, prior to releasing a turtle that is used to the indoors, try to lower the temperature to that found outside gradually over time. Also, increase the water depth if you can in preparation.
Note, that larger turtles like snappers will start to be forceful at about 6-7 months old. Soon after, it is highly advisable to NOT have a heater as they can and will break them, possibly shocking themselves. I removed the thermometer from Snappy's setup around 4 months old because he started trying to eat it!! You could also set it up so that the heater was protected by something like a pile of rocks or other structure.
Also, some turtles will lay on heaters and burn themselves. The heater can be then hidden within or under something like a basking ramp. I found a resin fake log that worked well to cover the heater. I blocked the openings with vinyl-coated hardware cloth (rabbit wire). I aimed the filter output through the log to be sure the heater's heat moved throughout the tank.
All reptiles need two kinds of light sources. The first is an incandescent lamp for basking that produces heat. Being cold-blooded, all reptiles need to warm themselves up via the sun or incandescent lamps (or ceramic heat emitters). I use a 100 W daylight during the day and a 75 W black night light during the night. The other light required is fluorescent full spectrum lighting with UV rays OR natural sunlight. The UVB rays are especially needed to allow the turtle to process enough Vitamin D. Vitamin deficiencies (A and D mostly) are manifested as swollen, oozing eyes and malformed shells for the most part. If those things show up, check the lighting situation. Since I only had Snappy for a short time, I wanted a cheap fluorescent fixture (I had lamps but no spare fixture). I ended up buying the new ESU Reptile Slimline Reptile Fixture with Super UV Lamp for $20 from Drs. Foster & Smith. It even includes the lamp which itself normally sells for $20 so it was a great deal for me. They also sell the fixtures I use for the incandescent heat lamps for Snappy and my lizard, Einstein. Such fixtures should be ceramic where the bulb goes due to the high heat. I ran Snappy's lights from about 6:30 am to 6:30 pm daily so it is about half daytime, half night time.
If you do not have access, resources, or money for lighting for a turtle, then put the cage/tank where it will receive natural sunlight for part of the day (be sure it does not overheat either though).
Aquatic turtles need an area where they can completely haul out of the water if they wish. This is often called the basking area as it is often underneath the incandescent heat lamps. It is easiest to create a small basking area for hatchlings using rocks. I used a flat piece of slate and later granite. Be sure the baby can crawl onto the rock, and there are no sharp edges to cut the turtle. I found that Drs. Foster & Smith sells turtle ramps that allow turtles to bask. The this photo to see it in Snappy's setup. They sell larger sizes for adult turtles too. In addition to rocks, fake plastic plants make good basking sites for hatchlings and baby turtles. Snappy hung out "hiding" among them and could easily rest with his head out without exerting himself. While snapping turtles rarely leave the water entirely, painted turtles, sliders, and most other aquatic turtles like to be able to get completely out of the water so more elaborate land areas can be built for them in the tank.
It is sometimes VERY hard to get hatchling turtles to eat. They will live off of their yolks for about a week or two, depending on temperature. Do not worry if they do not eat for the first week because their yolks are sustaining them. The warmer they are, the more they will eat. At first, I could not get Snappy to eat anything, despite many offerings. After I had him for a week (maybe two-weeks-old then), he finally ate some live blackworms. That was ALL he ate at all for the first two months of his life. I tried many other live, frozen, and prepared foods as well as fruits and veggies but he basically said, "No way!" He did eat a few baby mealworms. So, for hatchlings aquatic turtles, no matter the species, try starting with very small live insects and worms. If you cannot get live, get frozen. These include blackworms, bloodworms, midges, mosquito larvae, tubifex, etc. Brine shrimp and daphnia are easy to find but less likely to be eaten by turtles than other animals. If you cannot get live or frozen, then freeze dried can be tried. The baby turtles are attracted to movement so live foods are really the best way to get them to eat. If it is an emergency and absolutely no live or frozen or freeze-dried animal-based foods can be found, a hatchling can be fed lunchmeat. Sometimes they will eat it. NEVER feed lunchmeat if you have other foods available. The more organic and pure the meat, the better. Chicken or turkey is best. Ground beef will just fall apart in the water and make a mess so avoid it.
Once they are really eating at a few months old, then they can pack down the food!!! Then, try adding commercial turtle pellets, small live insects (mealworms, crickets, etc.), waxworms, small roaches, small fish (baby guppies, minnows, baby goldfish, mollies, etc.), small live shrimp, trout worms (little earthworms), fruits (halved grapes, apple, melon, strawberry, etc.) for some species, and vegetables (kale, spinach, romaine, etc. but not iceburg lettuce or cabbage) for some species that eat plant matter. When you add these foods depends on the turtle's species, size, water temperature, and other factors. What they may not eat at a month old, they could eat at four months old for example. Snapping turtles, musk and mud turtles, and some other turtles will not usually eat fruits and vegetables but painted turtles, red-eared sliders, etc. learn to love plants and fruits and may even eat more of those as adults. For adult aquatic turtle feeding, see my turtle feeding page. Some of the things are the same.
Due to their small size, it is not necessary to feed the baby turtle in a separate location than their regular home as suggested with larger turtles. This gives the baby time to find, examine, and eat new kinds of foods without time constraints. Since they are fed in their regular home, they may require more tank cleanings than otherwise but, being small, they also produce less waste.
These are the dried, commercial turtle diets that Snappy tried, and he ate all of them. He prefered the first two the most and, at 4-months-old, lunged for those kinds. Many hatchlings do not like turtle pellets. I was very surprised that Snappy ate them (only after I had him for 3 months though). Most of these foods can be purchased from many pet stores including the two I use most often: That Pet Place and Drs. Foster & Smith. After the name, I list the first three ingredients in the food.
For information on feeding adult aquatic turtles which may be helpful for hatchlings, see the turtle feeding page.
How often the water is changed depends on how big the tank is, how much water is in it, how big the turtle is, how warm it is, how much food is fed, and more. I changed Snappy's water three times a week (Tuesday night, Thursday night, and Sunday morning) with a 100% water change. After washing everything, I put in new water, some aquarium salt (a tablespoon per 5 gallons is good) and some turtle water conditioner (contains some good bacteria to help digest turtle poo and also dechlorinates city water (I have well water though). If you have city water, add dechlorinator, as just like fish, turtles absorb toxins from the water into their bodies. I cleaned the filter with the water changes but only changed the insides in it every 3 weeks.
Salt and Shedding:
Salt helps to suppress fungal infections which are very common. A tablespoon per 2-5 gallons is good for turtles. Baby turtles shed quite a bit. It may be mistaken for fungus but it is not. Gently rub the turtle with a soft toothbrush to remove the loose skin if you want to but it is not necessary as it will fall off. Snappy was constantly shedding once I put a heater into the tank. Do NOT treat a hatchling or baby for fungus (with a turtle fungal medication) if you think it might just be normal shedding. It can be hard to tell as fungus is very common in adult turtles, usually at the site of a injury.
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