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Red-eared Slider Care & Feeding: Housing, Diet, and Characteristics
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Turtles - Tortoises & Terrapins
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The scientific name for the Red-eared Slider is Chrysemys scripta elegans (formerly Trachemys scripta elegans), and it belongs to the Emydidae family. It is an aquatic turtle, a strong swimmer, and in the wild, will commonly be seen basking on rocks, logs, or other surfaces above the water. Turtles are reptiles, and cold-blooded, so they must rely on external heat sources for warmth. They will bask in sunlight, and in the wild, burrow down into the earth to hibernate in winter. The three main concerns in keeping a Red-eared Slider healthy are warmth, clean water, and proper diet.

Properly caring for a turtle is more complicated than most people think. An adult, not a child, must take primary responsibility for maintaining and cleaning the housing, feeding, and monitoring the turtle for any signs of illness.

Natural environment

The normal range for the Red-eared Slider in the United States is from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, and the East Coast to western Texas. It has been found in other regions, presumably because people released their pet turtles into those areas. It spends most of its time in or around water. Although it can be found in lakes and rivers, the Red-eared Slider prefers marshes, ponds, and slow-moving water that supply food and basking areas. In northern areas it will hibernate.

Physical characteristics

Size: Hatchlings are approximately 1 inch in diameter. The Red-eared Slider can grow up to 12 inches in length. In the United States, it is illegal for pet stores to sell a Red-eared Slider that has a carapace (shell) less than 4 inches in diameter. This is because of the risk of salmonellosis. Please review the article "Salmonellosis and Its Risk to Owners" for more information on reducing your risk of exposure to this disease.

Sexual differences: Red-eared Sliders kept as pets generally reach sexual maturity between 2-4 years of age. In the wild, females may not mature until 5-7 years of age. Females are generally larger than males, though males have longer tails and very long front claws. The cloacal opening on female Red-eared Sliders does not extend past the edge of the shell.

Color: The skin of a Red-eared Slider is green with bright yellow stripes. A patch of red behind each eye gives the Red-eared Slider its common name, although some sliders may be missing this color. Some turtles may also have a small patch of red on top of their heads. The Red-eared Slider has webbed feet and strong claws. The shell of hatchlings is green with a fine pattern of yellow-green to dark green markings. As the turtles mature, the carapace may become yellow or olive green, with the fine pattern changing into dark lines or patches on each scute. Portions of the shell may be white, yellow, or even red. As the turtle ages, even the lines and patches may slowly disappear until the shell is a uniform dark olive green or greenish-brown. Some male turtles will become "melanistic" (uniformly dark gray or black).

Breeders have developed two other color morphs (strains). One is the pastel, which is lighter in color with varying amounts of red and yellow. The other is the albino, which is bright yellow as a juvenile. The color fades as the turtle ages.

Life expectancy: The Red-eared Slider can live 50-70 years.

Temperament

Turtles soon acclimate to new environments, though they may spend the first several days hidden within their shells. Soon, however, they will associate your presence with food, and will greet you with anticipation. If a Red-eared Slider feels threatened, however, just like other pets, it may bite.

Handling

Turtles should be handled gently, with the body and legs supported with both hands. If the turtle becomes alarmed, it may struggle and accidentally scratch your hand or fingers. Many turtles become seriously injured, sometimes fatally, if they fall, so always hold the turtle securely and use two hands. Always wash your hands before and after handling the turtle. Children less than 5 years of age should not handle turtles. If older children are allowed to handle the turtle, teach them how to do it correctly and be sure they also wash their hands before and after contact with the turtle.

Housing

Red-eared Sliders will need housing that mimics their natural environment - warm, with water for swimming, and a dry warm area in which to bask.

A glass or acrylic aquarium will be needed to house the Red-eared Slider; glass is usually better, since acrylic tends to be scratched easily. Another option is a plastic utility tub, wading pool, or stock tank. Remember that your turtle will grow, and have larger housing requirements (see table below). An adult Red-eared Slider will eventually require at least a 55-gallon aquarium. NOTE: To avoid having to buy many housing systems over the life of your turtle, you may wish to start out with a larger aquarium. Bigger is always better.




Dimension Formula for Minimum
Size of Water Area*
Example:
4-inch Turtle
Example:
12-inch Turtle
Length 4xL 16 48
Width 2xL 8 24
Depth 1.5xL 6 18
Typical Aquarium Size (gal)   20 High 120
L = Length of carapace (shell)

* This is the minimum size of the area which will contain water, and does not include areas of dry land or air space above the water level to prevent the turtle from escaping.


Cage furnishings: The cage will need to include a way for the turtle to easily exit the water and basking sites totally out of the water. Substrate such as large, smooth, aquarium gravel can be used to form a slope to an area of dry land. Cork bark, driftwood, a piece of plexi-glass glued to the side of the aquarium, or a stable platform of smooth rocks may be used for a basking site. A tight-fitting screen cover should be placed over the aquarium to prevent the turtle from escaping and objects falling into the aquarium. It is usually best to avoid plastic plants, as the turtle may attempt to eat them.

Heat: The air temperature in the area of the aquarium should be approximately 75°F. If the area will be colder than that, an infrared bulb or room heater may be used to maintain the proper temperature. A basking site should be provided. An incandescent light bulb (75 watt or lower is generally sufficient) with a reflector should be placed over one area of the cage which has an elevated area that can serve as a basking platform. The temperature of the basking site should be 85-90°F nearest the bulb. Any bulbs should be fixed solidly to something outside of the aquarium, above the screened top. Make absolutely sure the light cannot fall into the water or that the turtle can come into direct contact with the bulb.

Light: If possible, provide exposure to direct sunlight, but guarantee the temperature within the cage will not become too high. NEVER place a glass or acrylic aquarium in direct sun, as it may become too warm. If the outside temperature is within the turtle's comfort zone, it could be placed in an outside tub. Be sure it can not escape and that it is safe from small children, pets and predators.

Full spectrum ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) fluorescent lighting should be used to enhance the turtle's production of Vitamin D-3, and provide it with a more natural habitat. Bulbs must be replaced after 6 months, as their ability to emit true full-spectrum light diminishes over time. The light source should be within 18-24 inches of the turtle. The light should shine directly on the turtle, and not be filtered through glass or plastic. It should be on a timer so the turtle has a normal day-night cycle.

Water: Red-eared Sliders need a water temperature of 75-86°F. Remember, they are cold-blooded animals and their metabolism will slow and they will become inactive if the temperature is too cold. This can also have an adverse effect on their digestive systems and result in severe health problems. Water temperature can be maintained through the use of a submersible aquarium heater, which is on a thermostat. In general, estimate that you will need 5 watts per gallon of water. Be sure the thermometer is below the water line, and turn it off when removing water from the aquarium. Follow the manufacturer's directions to prevent the risk of electrocution. An accurate thermometer should be immersed in the water so the temperature can be monitored daily.

Water quality is critical to the health of the turtle. Because uneaten food items, urine, and feces can contaminate the water, it becomes a very suitable place for bacteria and other organisms to grow. This is unhealthy for your turtle, and not very aesthetic for you, since the aquarium will smell. The aquarium will need to be cleaned, and the water removed and replaced on a regular basis. Be sure, when changing the water, to have it at the right temperature before placing your turtle back in the aquarium. In addition, a dechlorinating agent should be used to treat the water prior to adding it to the aquarium.

How often the water needs to be changed depends, to a large part, on whether the turtle is fed in the aquarium or moved to a separate feeding tank, and if there is a filtration system in the tank. If moved for feeding, the water will generally need changing weekly. To accomplish this, a siphon is used to remove a portion, usually 25-50%, of the water. The siphon can be used like a vacuum cleaner, to remove debris from the bottom while it is siphoning water. Every 1-2 months, depending upon the conditions, the entire aquarium should be drained, cleaned, and refilled. Never start a siphon with your mouth.

There are a variety of aquarium filters which can be used to remove some of the debris and chemical buildup from the water in the aquarium. Depending upon the design and size of your aquarium and turtle, an external canister, internal canister, or an undergravel filter are most commonly used. External filters allow more room for your turtle inside the aquarium. As with the size of aquarium, the bigger the better; never skimp. The use of an air stone may help to move water and improve filtration.

Adding aquatic plants can assist in removing wastes from the water, but also may be eaten by the turtle, and thus produce more waste. You may have to experiment with your own turtle, to see if plants aid or hinder the maintenance of water quality.

Heaters, lighting, and filters should be plugged into a ground-fault interrupter, which will reduce the risk of electrocution if the equipment malfunctions, or if it is nonsubmersible and becomes wet. To avoid the possibility of water running down the power cord into the receptacle, either have the interrupter higher than the aquarium, or form a drip loop so that part of the cord is below the receptacle on the interrupter.

Diet

Juveniles are mainly carnivorous, and become more omnivorous as they reach adulthood. The diet should be balanced and include a variety of meat-based protein sources and fresh plant material. Do not rely simply on commercial diets. Juveniles should be fed daily, whereas, adults can be fed every other day. Turtles are messy eaters so it is best to move the turtle to a separate feeding tank. This may also help reduce the amount the turtle defecates in the water of his cage. Allow the turtle to eat for 15 minutes before moving it back to the aquarium.

INGREDIENTS
EACH meal should contain ingredients from the following categories:
Commercial diets
(Less than 25% of the diet)
  • Trout chow
  • High quality, reduced-fat, dog kibble (occasionally)
  • Commercial floating pellets or sticks for fish, reptiles, or turtles
Animal protein
(Less than 25% of the diet for adults)
  • Live feeder fish (occasionally)
  • Earthworms
  • Finely chopped raw lean beef or beef heart
  • Cooked chicken
  • Snails
  • Tubifex worms
  • Mealworms
  • Waxworms
  • Pinkie mice
  • Crickets
  • Bloodworms
Vegetation
(50% or more of the diet)
  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Dandelions
  • Carrots (shredded root and top)
  • Squash
  • Green beans
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Apples (shredded)
  • Melon
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Plums, peaches, nectarines (NO PITS)
Supplements
  • Dust all foods at each feeding with a general high ratio calcium-mineral supplement containing Vitamin D-3 such as Rep-Cal or Miner-All
  • Use a vitamin supplement twice a week
  • Offer cuttlefish bone as another calcium source

Summary

Red-eared Sliders can make good pets, but keeping them healthy will require time and expense. The turtle, itself, may not be expensive, but remember that properly equipping the habitat, supplying quality food, and providing veterinary care will cost money. There are many turtles available for adoption because the owners did not understand the time and expense necessary to properly provide for a turtle. So, before purchasing a turtle, give it careful consideration, and then you may want to contact a turtle adoption or rehoming organization, and give an abandoned turtle a much-needed home.

 
References and Further Reading

Boyer, TH; Boyer, DM. Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. In Mader, DR (ed). Reptile Medicine and Surgery. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1996.

de Vosjoli, P. Designing environments for captive amphibians and reptiles. In Jenkins, JR. (ed) The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; January 1999.

Donoghue, S; McKeown, S. Nutrition of captive reptiles. In Jenkins, JR. (ed) The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; January 1999.

Highfield, AC. Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press. London; 1996.

Highfield, AC. Red-eared sliders: Basic facts and health care. Tortoise Trust. http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/res.html

Kaplan, M. Red-eared slider. Melissa Kaplan's Herp and & Iguana Care Information Collection. http://www.anapsid.org/reslider.html. 1994.

McArthur, SDJ; Wilkinson, RJ; Barrows, MG. Tortoises and turtles. In Meredith, A; Redrobe, S. (eds.) British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) Manual of Exotic Pets, Fourth Edition. BSAVA. Quedgeley, Gloucester, England; 2002.

Click here for a pdf version of this article.  See related products at DrsFosterSmith.com Pet Supplies  
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