Long-living reptiles make popular pets

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

With their prehistoric appearance, ability to carry their houses on their backs and a wide array of fascinating behaviors, aquatic turtles are delightful pets. Turtles have been a popular pet since the 1970s when Americans started to be introduced to large numbers of imported animals. Currently millions are farmed each year to meet the demand.

Unfortunately, many people purchase turtles as a novelty item, not taking the time to learn how to care for them properly which often results in the death of the new pet within days to weeks.

For those who do educate themselves as to the proper care and maintenance of turtles, the reward can be a healthy pet that can live up to 25 years.

The most common pet shop turtle is the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Red-eared sliders belong to the very large turtle family Emydidae, which includes numerous species and subspecies, that range from the United States in the north to Brazil in the south.

These turtles start out small, but on the average grow to be five to eight inches long as adults. Some specimens have even gotten as large as 10 to 11 inches.

Housing turtles can seem tricky at first, but it's really quite simple. Turtles need to be provided with both a wet and dry environment, as well as a temperature gradient within the enclosure. This will allow the reptile to swim and bask as it desires. One of the best enclosures for red-ears is the aquarium. A 20-gallon aquarium is reasonable for hatchlings, but as they grow in size, so too will the enclosure need to grow.

Gravel is a good substrate. Although it can be tough to clean, it usually isn't ingested as frequently and doesn't grow fungus and mold the way wood chips and tree bark can. Gravel also can be easily formed for building up one end of the tank for a basking spot.

Whatever substrate is used, make sure the turtle can easily get out of the water onto it. Many turtles can exhaust themselves and drown if they have to climb, rather than walk out of the water. Floating platforms, such as mock lily pads, should never be used as the only location for turtles to escape the water.

Water depth is equally important. For hatchlings, a water depth of three to six inches will generally suffice. As with the enclosure size, as the animal grows the water depth can be increased.

There is some debate among turtle enthusiasts as to if tap water is safe to use. Some claim that the chlorine and fluoride in tap water can be harmful to turtles, while others argue tap water helps cut down on bacteria.

The best thing to do is read as much as possible and make an informed decision as to what would be best. In either case, keeping the water clean will still be an important task. Filters provide excellent water quality for larger turtles, but can be hard to use with the low water levels necessary for hatchlings. For them, frequent water changes are the rule.

Heat and light also are critical to success with pet turtles. A basking light can be clipped or hung over the dry end of the aquarium to provide warmth, but turtles also will need a UVB or full spectrum light to provide for vitamin D3 synthesis. In nature, turtles use sunlight to convert this vitamin for calcium metabolism.

A temperature gradient should be established in the enclosure so that the turtle can go from warmer to cooler environments as desired. The temperature range should be between 70 to 90 degrees. A submersible heater may be needed so that water temperatures don't drop too cool. Temperatures should also fluctuate slightly between day and night.

Feeding may take a little practice to find the right balance. Some turtles will eat way more than they should. Others are peckish and feeding too much can add to poor water quality. A feeding regime of every day to every other day is sufficient for hatchlings, and adults can be fed two to three times a week.

There are many commercially prepared diets for turtles that are very good. Red-ears also can be given mustard, collard and dandelion greens supplementally. They also favor duckweed, insects and feeder fish as treats.

As already mentioned, calcium is critical to turtle health, particularly rapidly growing hatchlings. Calcium supplementation should be used to ensure strong bones and healthy shell development. Some forms can be sprinkled on food, a piece of cuttlebone can also be offered for turtles to gnaw on as they wish.

As with any pet, learn as much possible before making the purchase. There are plenty of good books and magazines on turtles care. The web site www.chelonia.org also contains a tremendous amount of information on turtle husbandry. Pet store employees can be good sources of reptile related knowledge and enclosure design as well.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at clarion@alaska.net.

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