Red Eared Slider Turtle [Complete Care Guide]

Red-eared sliders also referred to as red-eared terrapins, are among one of the most popular turtles to keep as pets. They are medium to large-sized turtles that reside in freshwater.

They belong to the larger family of semi-aquatic pond turtles known as Emydidae, and the species of Trachemys Scripta Elegans. 

In the wild, these turtles are naturally found in a range of places, but they originate in the southeastern areas of the United States, places such as Indiana, New Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico, although they can be found in the wild beyond these places. 

These turtles can live a very long life, like many turtles their life span is generally very long in comparison to other pets. These, in particular, can survive in captivity for up to 30 years or more.

So, these turtles, as pets, are near enough life-long companions, if you care for them right and give them all they need, they are like friends who will grow old with you. 

We are here to talk you through the complete care and living requirements of these wonderful turtles. Including information about how to choose your turtle, how to set up the ideal habitat, how to meet their needs, their diets, and even some extra tips such as health problems they are susceptible to and how to bond with them. 

Let’s get into it!

Appearance

First of all, we will look into what these fantastic creatures look like, their physique, defining attributes, how to tell them apart from other turtles, and also how to sex them. 

Reptiles

Red-eared slider turtles are reptiles and this makes them dependant on temperature. Unlike mammals, reptiles don’t do well with cold climates and so they need a certain amount of heat to survive.

In the wild where they naturally live they are warmed by a hot sunny and warm climate, whereas in captivity, much like other reptiles, they are kept warm by heat lamps.

Reptiles are air-breathing vertebrates that are covered in a special skin that is made up of scales, bony plates, or both. As well as Turtles, this category includes crocodiles, snakes, lizards, and tortoises. Due to their slow metabolism and their heat-seeking tendencies, reptiles are cold-blooded. 

Turtles

Turtles have a fused backbone and ribs which together form their shell, red-eared sliders are no different. This shell is seen as armor, it consists of a top shell, otherwise known as the carapace,  and the bottom shell, which is also referred to as the plastron, which are fused together by the bridge.

A turtle’s shell is protected by keratinous scutes, which are the horned plates that give it a smooth texture and unique pattern. 

While many may believe that a turtle’s shell is just like having a home you take everywhere with you, the shell is a definitive part of its body. It is actually part of the turtle’s skeleton, the shell is made up of the ribcage, vertebrae, and sternum.

If you pet a turtle’s shell, they can feel it as the keratin that covers its skeletal shell, is much like what our fingernails are made from, with blood vessels and nerve endings in between. So although it may just seem like a hard casing, they can feel it when you pet their shell. 

Sliders as well as many other turtles do not have any teeth. If a turtle is carnivorous it will have a sharp hooked beak which it will use to kill its prey, much like birds do. If they are vegetarian they will have a broad and flat beak for crushing vegetation.

These animals breathe air like many others, although they enjoy spending much time in or near the water, much like other turtles, and some snakes, lizards, and even crocodiles. Turtles need to have a lot of water available to them to survive.

Sexing a Red-Eared Slider

If you are looking to purchase or even breed red-eared sliders, you will want to know how to sex them. Young red-eared sliders are often bright green with yellow markings and a red stripe just behind their eyes, where their ears would be.

Be aware that colors will fade with age, much like most other creatures. You cannot reliably sex young hatchlings. However mature red-eared sliders can be differentiated. There are some more reliable ways to tell the difference through their physiology. 

As is with many animals, the males are generally smaller than females. Males usually grow no more than 6-8 inches in length, whereas females will often grow up to 8-10 inches in length. 

Males also have longer tails and longer foreclaws than females do. Males also have a cloaca that is further away from their body. This part of their body is common in amphibians, birds, and reptiles. The cloaca is an orifice that opens to the genitals, digestive tract, and urinary tract.

Attitude

Red-Eared Sliders make fantastic pets, they can be very fascinating and relaxing to watch. They won’t go for walkies or fetch your paper. But they can be very entertaining and have very vibrant personalities.

In their natural habitat in the wild, red-eared sliders will spend much of their time in the water. When they are not in the water whey will be along a shoreline, basking in the sun, getting that vital heat that they need.

Aside from their necessary basking, they don’t have much need for land and if you were to approach them they would slide into the water out of harm’s way,  we can see where they get the name ‘slider’ from. 

Purchasing Your Turtle

So, now we know a little more about these turtles, we can start looking into how you will go about getting one. You can purchase these turtles from many different places.

They are available from large-scale dealers, breeders, rescues, and pet stores. You can buy on and offline. But, it is always smart to be wary and do your research before you buy. The first step is to always check the legality, the references, and information behind one of these places, it is always good to check reviews.  

The reason you want to do a thorough check of the seller is that a turtle that has not received proper care will be more likely to have health issues that may not become apparent until you start caring for the turtle or it may even die prematurely. 

A large-scale dealer will likely not have records of every turtle they have, as they will handle so many. Similarly, a rescue center may not have records for the turtle unless a previous family has provided records, they may not even know if veterinary records exist for the turtle.

Professional breeders will be the best bet as they will often hatch the eggs themselves and keep records, which will give you a better idea of their condition from birth.  

Turtles sold by street vendors are a no-go. While you are inspecting the turtle, also inspect the environment they reside in, look at the water, the health of their tank, the general cleanliness, and any overcrowding.

You can give yourself a heads-up about turtle health by doing so, if the water isn’t very clean or if the turtles are overcrowded and living shell-to-shell, you have already found some environmental factors that could affect your turtle’s health. 

Unclean or overcrowded conditions go hand in hand for creating unhealthy environments, you should also check the turtle’s behavior, making sure they are active and alert.

They should also not be sold alongside other exotic species. Ensuring this reduces the risk of diseases, turtles should never be paired with a species from another continent. 

You should also check the size, sliders should not be sold smaller than 4 inches by law, but some loopholes make it possible for some sellers to sell smaller ones. This is quite common and although it can be tempting, we advise against it as hatchlings are less hardy, more prone to problems if transported at this age, and a bit more difficult to care for than more mature sliders/ 

Giving Them A Once Over

Once you have determined that you have selected the right turtle and that you have everything that you will need to care for your new reptilian friend, not to mention that there will always be a responsible adult in charge of its care, you should give it a physical.

A turtle should never be left with a child for supervision, turtles require specific and specialized care that needs proper upkeep and maintenance, an adult is required to ensure that the turtle gets 100% perfect care for the best quality of life. 

Conducting a physical examination isn’t hard, you are simply giving them a once-over before you buy them. A healthy turtle will be inquisitive and alert and when approached they should slide into the water from their basking site, don’t worry it’s not because they don’t like you, it is instinct. 

First of all, we want to make sure it is heavy, is it? An adult red-eared slider should weigh around 240 grams, which is about the same amount as 80 pennies or a roll of nickels. If it is an adult and doesn’t feel heavy enough it may be sick.

Now, pull on one of its legs, not hard just gently pull it, a healthy turtle will react fast and pull its leg back. A sick turtle will be less enthusiastic about getting its leg back. 

Check over the shell too, this is important. The shell should be hard and smooth, there should be no unnatural looking light or dark spots. Be careful to check for spot spots, this is an indicator of shell rot, similarly keep an eye open for any open wounds of fleshy bits on show that wouldn’t be. If there are closed wounds these are fine but open wounds need veterinary attention stat.

The Journey Home

Picked out your turtle? Ready to take it home? Fantastic! Now it is time to get it home. 

While it might seem logical to take it home in a container of water, this is ill-advised. Turtles enjoy the water and do need water to survive but they breathe air.

Traveling with your turtle in a container of water could drown your turtle, instead give them a nice box or container lined with damp materials, damp paper towels are a good choice for this.

If you have chosen a large turtle, perhaps a fully matured female, you may need to provide a bit more padding for their transportation as they could bruise.

You should also ensure that the container is securely covered with a lid and is secured properly during transport as well as providing breathing holes in the container. 

Also, be mindful of the temperature you are traveling in, remember, turtles aren’t fans of the cold. If you have bought your turtle during winter months or cold weather, a styrofoam box can work well as an insulator, fitted with air holes and some heated pads to provide your turtle with the heat they need. 

Habitats

Let’s take a step back for a minute and think about their habitat. We want to make sure that when your turtle arrives at your home that it has everything that it needs to lead a happy life with you. These turtles can be super easy to care for, so long as you have the right set-up. 

First of all, it is worth noting, you need to have a big enough tank., in comparison to a great deal of other aquarium dwelling creatures, these red-eared sliders require a fairly large amount of space.

They will also be a lot pickier about their water and need a lot more tank cleans than other semi-aquatic animals. You should probably mentally prepare yourself for cleaning their tank and filters once a week, so make sure that you set aside time once a week to do this. 

In nature, water cleans itself clean through its continual movement, but at home in an aquarium, there is no such luxury so you have to play mother nature. 

If you have bought the turtle for your child, you need to ensure that the child does not carry out cleans alone. You should accompany or supervise each time, a clean tank means a healthy turtle. If the tank is not cleaned adequately it can result in health problems for the turtle.

So, we have the tank sorted, the cleans, and a filter, what else do we need? 

As red-eared sliders are reptiles they will also need a basking light and perhaps water heaters too, this will keep them at the correct temperature for their survival, if you are unsure of which is best, ask at the place you intend to buy your turtle from or speak to a professional. This must be set up before you bring your turtle home. 

Setting up your turtles home can be great fun, in some ways it is like playing god, you get to do your best to recreate a natural environment for your turtle and you can get creative with it. There are so many wonderful tank accessories that your turtle will love. Just ensure that the habitat is as natural as possible, sliders enjoy realism. 

Red-eared sliders tend to live in freshwater, usually ponds, lakes, swamps, or slow rivers, so when you create the environment of your tank you can take aspects from these environments to give your turtle the best environment it could ever dream of.

Overall you want to ensure clean water, a place for swimming and a place for basking, a source of heat, and a proper well-balanced diet for your turtle when they get home.

When it comes to tank sizes it depends on the size of your slider, a hatchling only requires a 10-gallon tank, whereas an average adult needs more than a 55-gallon tank.

The average measurements of this would be 13 inches wide, 21 inches tall, and 48 inches long to support 55 gallons. So it is wise to take a tape measure with you if you are going out tank hunting. 

Home Sweet Home

There are many choices of what aquarium to get for your new pet slider. They can live in glass or acrylic aquariums, indoor ponds, or outdoor ponds.

Glass aquariums are probably the most popular due to the viewing opportunities they offer, these are often the most widely available also and they are very popular for housing red-eared sliders.

However, they usually come with quite a high price tag and are rather heavy. But, it is worth it for the viewing opportunities, and having this will also allow you to monitor the water conditions easier as well. 

Be sure that you buy an aquarium that is designed to hold large volumes of water and not lightweight terrariums. Certain aquariums can also be placed on top of premade stands and fitted with screens that are usable as lids, this is often only for glass or acrylic aquariums. 

There is the possibility of stock tanks which keepers also often use. If you use one of these, we recommend plastic as the ideal materials, as metal tanks would have to be lined with pond liner to prevent any dangerous metals from entering the water, plastic does not have this problem.

These tanks are available from pet supply stores or farm supply stores. These containers can come with drains and plug for easy draining. These may often also have stands and screens which are custom made by keepers.

If you have your own stand make sure it will withstand the weight of the aquarium when full this will often weigh 460lbs or more. 

We do not recommend any other kind of housing for your turtle. Our favorite is aquariums, glass usually is the best for home use, as it provides you with viewing opportunities and an ability to see the water quality clearly, despite its high price tag it is worth it. 

Sizing-Up Accommodation

Any animal wants enough room in their home, just like we like to have enough space or we feel claustrophobic and cramped, turtles feel the same.

A red-eared slider will behave differently when given enough room to swim and live freely than it would if it had been put into a tank too small to fully enrich its needs.

No adult slider should be in a tank smaller than 55 gallons. If you are buying more than one turtle, then you should anticipate an extra 10 gallons of water for each one, for example, if you had four turtles then you should anticipate a minimum of no less than 85 gallons.

Your tank should also be no less than 2 square feet per one turtle, just like with the water content, you should provide an additional square foot of surface area for each turtle you add. If you had four turtles this would then become 5 square feet. 

Things change a bit if you intend on keeping large females over 10 inches in length, for these big ladies you should double the requirements. This means doubling the needs of the water depth in the tank and size.

A good way to ensure this is to make sure that the water is at least as deep as the turtle is long. For a 9 inches long lady turtle you would need at least 9 inches deep of water. 

Our Favorite Tank

Our favorite overall tank is the Tetra 55 Gallon Aquarium Kit. We love this option because of its size. Although it is more intended for fish, it meets the size requirements of an adult red-eared slider.

It measures 51.9” x 16.4” x 24.4” and can take 55 gallons of water. It includes a kit so that you can get up and running straight away. It has a filter and a heater that come with it to make setting up for your new turtle as easy as breathing. 

This is only really suitable for either having a few hatchlings or one adult that is no bigger than 8” in length. If your turtle will exceed these factors or if you intend on having more than one you will need something bigger. So this tank is somewhat of an ideal piece for beginners who are getting their feelers out for owning a turtle. 

The kit als0o features a stick thermometer that can help you determine the temperature of the tank. This is perfect for ensuring that your turtle’s environment is perfect. You may need a stand for this stand, it is huge and will need a perfectly flat surface to prevent any nasty incidents. 

The only downside to this set up is that the filter is a bit choosy and may not work perfectly in the environment your turtle requires, it may be worth seeking out a separate filter. But, regardless of the size of this tank and its additional benefits are perfect for a red-eared slider turtle. 

Basking Benefits

Aside from water and tank care, there are other factors. Your turtle needs to have a perfect basking site. And, you should most definitely not underestimate the importance of this basking site.

This is the area of your tank in which the turtle will crawl of the water to warm itself and dry off. This could be under a heat light or, in the wild, under the hot sun. 

Turtles bask to raise their core body temperature, this is an essential need for them as it aids with digestion, metabolism, immune ability, and the health of their shell. They can even get health issues with their shell if they are not warm enough or getting into a decent spot. The need to dry out their shell also helps to prevent issues like algae or shell rot. 

A basking spot is at the waterline, making for easy access, It should leave at least two-thirds or three-quarters of the aquarium for water. It should be placed under a reflector-type light for perfect basking. 

This basking site can be an island or a platform at the waterline, or it can even be an island that is built up to the water line from the bottom of the tank, you can get any of these at a pet store, a turtle specific tank may even come ready with one. 

Some of the best options can be a smooth partially submerged rock, a cork float, a thin rock on stands or bricks, or even removable platforms that can be placed on legs or attached with silicone pegs. 

You can get as creative as you want with the basking site as long as it is easy for them to access, won’t damage their shell and under the light for optimum drying and basking.

A favorite material used for turtle owners is cork, but we enjoy rock too. Cork is much loved due to its natural look and non-abrasiveness. However, whatever type of basking platform you do decide to invest in, be sure to consider how easy it will be to take apart for cleaning. 

If you use a rock, be aware of hazards, make sure it is a smooth rock. You want to avoid the risk of sharp edges and corners scraping your turtle’s shell and leading to health problems and infections.

Turtles can get trapped under rocks if they get knocked loose too so make sure to cover these grounds if you want to use a rock as a basking platform. You could even use a nontoxic epoxy or aquarium sealant to secure your rocks. 

However, if you are feeling crafty, you could construct a platform yourself, using PVC pipes, plastic egg crates, zip ties, and so on, so long as it is safe and will not fall or scratch your turtle’s shell. This can be an economical and eco-friendly way to design a platform. And fun too, especially if you have young children. 

The pain things you must consider are if your turtle can climb onto it easy enough if it is abrasive if it is going to take up too much swimming space, is it natural-looking and can you place it under your heat lamp efficiently. These things are all imperative to your slider’s health and therefore are the most important considerations. 

Creating A Climate

Turtles and other reptiles require specific climates to be happy, and since you can't always guarantee that your backyard is the environment your pet requires, sometimes you have to fabricate it yourself. This is the case with these turtles.

Caring for your turtle indoors means you need to fabricate many outdoor elements and natural elements inside your own home. This can easily be done. Let's take a look at how to perfectly build an environment and climate that your turtle will surely thank you for. 

Heating

In the wild, a turtle would live in a warm climate in which the sun produces an adequate amount of heat to dry them and raise their temperature accordingly.

When a turtle is in captivity and lives indoors, it is up to you to reconstruct that heat that they need so that they can get their body temperature up and dry off as they need to so they can survive.

If the room in which you will keep the turtle is already relatively warm, hitting around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, then you can warm up your turtle's living area with a simple reflect-type light. For this kind of fitting, you will only need a 60, 75, or 100-watt ultraviolet bulb.  

The light should be positioned above your turtle’s basking area and should be kept on for at least half the day (12 hours or 14 hours). If temperatures drop a great deal (65 degrees Fahrenheit or lower) at night then this light should be kept on at night.

You can use an aquarium thermometer to monitor the temperature of the water and the basking site. It should be between 76 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in the water and between 82 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit at the basking site. 

Keep an eye on this temperature regularly and if it drops too high or too low, adjust the wattage of the bulb or the height of your light.  

The light from this bulb does not only keep your turtle’s shell dry preventing infections and shell rot but it also provides them with vitamin D3, a vitamin they would get from the sun in natural conditions. This vitamin helps them to absorb the calcium they need to keep their shell and bones strong. 

What if my room is colder than 75 degrees Fahrenheit?

If you live in a cool climate and your rooms aren’t often above 75 degrees Fahrenheit then you will want to invest in a submersible water heater. You will also want to use your aquarium thermometer to maintain and set the water temperature.

Of course, this is something you need to do before you add your turtle, both when you first get them and after every tank is clean too. 

Always listen to your thermometer rather than the heater’s pre-set settings. These may not always be accurate to what you need and if it fails your thermometer will tell you. So for water temperature checks, your thermometer is your best friend. 

Electrics

While it may seem obvious, you must be careful with electrics. As most people are aware electricity and water do not mix well. And you want to prevent your lamp from accidentally falling into the tank.

You can use a screen to prevent this. It is also wide to consider connecting your electrical appliances that are close to the tank to a ground-fault circuit interrupter. Using this will prevent any electrical shocks in the event of an accident or fault. 

Clean Water

If you are a turtle enthusiast you know it goes without saying that the water needs to be kept clean. You should carry out regular cleans to optimize your turtle’s health and you should be thorough in your cleans, missed feces or old food can result in fungal infections.

We recommend cleaning every week or every couple of weeks depending on your tank size and filter ability. You can also check your water with a water testing kit to keep track of the water nutrient levels. 

Changing The Tank Water

If you have a small tank it will be fairly easy but it does not differ greatly from any other tank. 

  1. Remove your turtle and place them somewhere safe, in a bucket of water, or in another area in which they can stay while you clean. 
  2. Remove accessories. 
  3. If you have a small tank you can pour the water out, if you have a large tank you can use a siphon or mechanical pump, drain into a bucket, or out of the window. Do not drain it into a sink that is used for eating, turtles carry salmonella bacteria. 
  4. If your tank is particularly dirty or if your turtle is sick, you can use a detergent to clean the tank even more thoroughly, ask about these at your local pet store.

Filters

If cleaning so often sounds like a lot of work for you, then getting a decent filtration system can change your life. The better your filter is the less often you will have to clean as it should help to keep the water clean.

It does this mechanically, biologically, or chemically. Let’s look into these types a bit more. 

  • Mechanically - Mechanical filtration filters out the largest pieces of debris. 
  • Biologically - Biological filtration creates surfaces that encourage the growth of beneficial nitrifying bacteria, which turn toxic nitrogen waste into less harmful substances. 
  • Chemically - Chemical filtration usually involves activated carbon, which removes some of the organics from the water and these can lose effectiveness quickly.  

Many people lean towards canister filters, despite their expense. These are favored due to how much more filter media they can hold in comparison to others and because you can hide them beneath the tank and how much less noise they create. 

To figure out which is best suited to you, have a look at different types or see what your local aquarium professional can suggest for your and your particular set-up. 

Foliage Options

Foliage will create the natural feeling you and your turtle seek in your tank. They make it feel natural, provide hiding places for your turtle, which is good for their psychological health too.

Live plants will not last long and they'll usually end up eaten or dug up and floating at the top of your tank. You can grow your own plants that your slider can eat, such as water hyacinth.

Or, you can choose the more cost-effective route and get artificial plants that will last longer and will also be more useful in preventing mess.

Dinner Time!

So, what do red-eared sliders eat? Well… They’re omnivores.

Food Options

Red-eared sliders have a diet that is primarily made up of pellets, which are a great way to ensure that they get a variety of vitamins and minerals. These should only be one quarter to one half of your turtle's diet. 

They also eat feeders, including mealworms and crickets, an essential source of protein, enrichment, and exercise. They will love this food type but it should only make up a quarter of your turtle's diet. 

A majority of their diet should be made from vegetation, these plants and veggies should be floating foods that they can nibble on without spoiling the water. This should make up to half your turtle’s diet. 

Feeding Time

Red-eared sliders will eat just about anything they come across, but you have to be careful not to overfeed them any particular substance too much.

Hatchlings and growing turtles should be fed each day and adults every other day. You should only feed them as much as they need to avoid uneaten food dirtying the water. 

Pellets should be served in portions equal to the size of their head. If you want to avoid a mess, you can always feed them in a separate container. 

Staying Healthy

Turtles like many reptiles are susceptible to several different health problems and can even be carriers of certain diseases too. They are known for occasionally carrying Salmonella, to prevent becoming infected by this you should wash your hands after each time you handle your turtle. 

To maintain your turtle's health you should be mindful of hygiene, keeping the tank clean is the main way to prevent your turtle from getting any infections or other problems.

Keeping an eye on your turtle's shell is also ideal, you can clean it gently as well to prevent algae overgrowth, or to ensure that hard water doesn’t hide injuries or other issues from you.

Keeping your turtle on a healthy diet is always good, but it is especially good for their health, ensuring they are not too over or under dosed in Vitamin A can stop them from getting issues such as swollen eyes or hypovitaminosis. 

We cannot tell you how to tend to any of these problems should they arise, but we can tell you that simple hygiene, cleaning, diet, and a good climate can prevent these issues from occurring.

If they do occur, your first course of action should be a trip to the vet, as they will be able to help your turtle best. 

  • Salmonella.
  • Shell Rot and Shell Injuries.
  • Algae.
  • Respiratory Infections.
  • Eye Problems. 
  • Abscesses.

Bonding

Having a pet turtle is a lot unlike having a pet dog, cat, or even rodent. They won’t go walkies, fetch your paper, curl up on your lap, and while they enjoy being petted and stroked, they aren’t going to beg for it like a dog or cat would. 

So this may leave you wondering exactly how you can bond with your turtle. This is not too difficult, you just need to know what they like. Red-eared slider turtles can do plenty of bonding activities that you may not have thought of, or may not have even viewed as bonding activities. 

You could try hand-feeding them, which will promote bonding without having to pick them up- this is a very good way to do so if you are feeling a little overcautious of the association between salmonella and turtles. 

Your red-eared slider may be shy for a while once you have first brought them home, they will swim under the water when you approach them, or they may even retract into their shell if you get too close.

Feeding that can evolve into hand feeding is a good way to build trust and they will start to connect you to their source of food. This can eventually lead to them swimming up to the water or greeting you, maybe even begging you for food.  

Aquatic turtles are not a big fan of physical handling and unless you are cleaning or inspecting an injury it should be kept to a minimum. These are not pets you can hold and carry. 

You can still build a relationship with them despite a lack of physical contact. Using food, teaching them their name, and introducing enrichment into their tanks is a good way to bond with them. 

They will be shy to start, and you should be cautious as they get to know their new home, they may nip at your finger if they are unhappy. 

So even though their salmonella they carry and their general hate for being handled, they can still make great pets that you can bond with in different ways. 

Dorothy Razo
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