Turtles as Pets
Reptiles are quickly gaining popularity as pets throughout homes in North America. There are multiple reasons that people may want to keep reptiles as pets. They’re interesting to watch, they’re distinctive from traditional pets, their keepers may have allergies to fur, some reptiles are truly out of the ordinary, or perhaps people may think that they are less work and require less of a time commitment than their furry counterparts.
A lot of the above reasons are justifiable to want to own a reptile, but as discussed throughout this article, like any pet, reptiles, and particularly turtles, can prove to be more time-consuming and expensive than expected since they have specific requirements that are very different from those that you need to provide for your average furred companion. This article is not a guide for proper care of all turtles, but merely highlights important issues to consider before you buy a turtle.
One reptile that is resurging in pet stores after a brief decline in popularity is the red-eared slider, or the “pet store turtle.” These turtles are always a draw in the pet store, and it may be really tempting to buy one on impulse, however turtles have special requirements that need to be fulfilled if they are to survive and flourish once you bring them home.
Red-eared sliders are not native to Canada, but can be found in swamps in the Southern U.S., from Alabama west to central Texas and up into northeastern New Mexico. They are a warm climate turtle, and so may not need to hibernate during the winter. They live in freshwater, and once they reach adulthood they are primarily herbivorous. This species of turtle is diurnal, which means they are active during the day, and like most animals, they rely on the photoperiod to give them cues on when to breed and when to hibernate. Although this information may not seem important for a pet that will live sheltered indoors, it is vital to know because it gives us the background to help determine what exactly a turtle will need to not only survive, but to thrive.
In order to keep turtles healthy, and provide them with everything they would get in the wild, there are a lot of equipment and supplies that will be necessary. The major cost for this pet is not for the turtle itself, but for setting up the turtle’s environment.
The first thing that everyone considering buying a red-eared slider must know is just how big these turtles can get. Within a few years, these cute twoonie-sized animals can grow up to around 28 cm; that’s almost a foot! This is one of the main reasons red-eared sliders are either given up to animal shelters, or far worse, are released in a nearby pond. Releasing a non-native species into the environment can have a devastating impact on the local ecosystem. Because of their size when released, red-eared sliders can out-compete native species of turtles, like the Blanding’s turtle, for food, basking sites and nesting sites. The competition for resources can result in a population decline in the native species. Another scenario is the release of an unhealthy turtle into a population of native turtles, possibly spreading disease to a vulnerable species. Finally, there is also the very real chance that the released pet will not adapt to its new environment and be unable to find the right food or basking areas that it needs to survive. So, before you pick up that tiny turtle, know that one day, if provided with the right indoor environment, it will grow to be a large pet that will require a very large aquarium.
Red-eared sliders are an aquatic species, but they do need land big enough and solid enough that they can haul themselves out on. Turtles need to come out of the water to bask so they can thermoregulate (regulate their body temperature), but it’s also important that they occasionally get completely dry in order to help prevent fungal infections. The aquarium should be big enough that a full-grown turtle can swim around in, and the land should be solid enough to support the weight of an adult turtle.
All reptiles, including turtles, are ectothermic, or cold-blooded. Unlike dogs, cats or you and me, ectotherms depend on environmental conditions to warm themselves when they’re cold, or cool themselves down when they’re warm. Any turtle will need a warm basking area on solid land so they are able to thermoregulate. A bright incandescent bulb or ceramic heater would serve as an ideal heat source.
In addition to a heat source on land, a water heater will be necessary to keep the water warm enough for the turtle. If the turtle is not kept at its ideal body temperature its metabolic rate will decrease, causing its digestive system to slow down and consequently the turtle will not eat. It is vital to keep turtles at their optimal temperature in order for them to maintain basic life functions.
Not only do turtles need sunlight for warmth to thermoregulate, but they also need the full spectrum of light to be able to absorb UVb. Turtles are unique because they need UVb to produce Vitamin D3, an essential component in calcium regulation. If they are not provided with full spectrum light, bone and shell abnormalities will quickly develop, and eventually the turtle will die. Glass however, filters out the important wavelength of light, and so putting the turtle’s aquarium beside a window is not an adequate source of UVb. It’s necessary to supplement the lighting for the turtle with special UVb light bulbs which are available at most pet stores.
Another important thing to know about red-eared slider behaviour is that they have to eat in the water; and they are not prim and proper eaters. Turtles are definitely messy critters, and if you are planning on buying a red-eared slider, be prepared to clean the aquarium often. Feeding a turtle in a separate enclosure will reduce the mess in the main aquarium, but frequent water changes are needed in order to prevent the accumulation of liquid waste products that are harmful to turtles.
Vital to your knowledge before acquiring any turtle is knowing that they can carry Salmonella, which is not harmless to them, but may cause illness in humans. Not all turtles carry Salmonella however, and it is difficult to test whether a turtle has the bacteria or not. Since turtles have the potential to carry this bacteria, it’s important to wash your hands after handling turtles or anything in their environment.
Although red-eared sliders can make outstanding pets for the right owner and caretaker, it is important to realize that not every household is right for a turtle. Because of their sheer size when adults, specific environmental requirements, and since red-eared sliders can live up to thirty years, only individuals willing to commit time, energy and money should consider a turtle for a pet.
By Jen Girard – Pets.ca writer