The Ideal Painted Turtle Tank Setup

Painted turtles are native to North America and there are 4 subspecies. They are good animals to keep as pets but you should not have them as your first turtle. They need a lot of time and dedication to keep well.

You should not look after painted turtles if you have young children, elderly, or immunocompromised people in the household. This is because they carry a risk of Salmonella which can be dangerous to people in these categories.

The ideal painted turtle tank setup

What are the 4 types of painted turtles?

Eastern painted turtles

These turtles have a black shell with red lines. They have bright yellow underbellies. Their skin has lines of red and yellow on and they can grow to be 7 inches long.

Midland painted turtles

These are similar to the Eastern painted turtles in appearance. They have darker underbellies and different patterns on their shells. These grow to be 7 inches long too. 

Western painted turtles

The shells of these turtles are olive green in color and they have a dark underbelly. These turtles can grow to be 8 inches long.

Southern painted turtles

These turtles are yellow underneath and have a yellow-orange line running down their shells. These turtles only grow to be around 6 inches long.

Salmonella risk

All turtles can potentially carry Salmonella bacteria in their excrement. These can easily spread, infecting the water and the tank. These bacteria are found naturally in the gastrointestinal flora of most reptiles and you should always assume your pet is carrying it. 

You should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your turtle or its habitat. You should not kiss them or bring their bodies close to your face.

Turtles should be kept away from food preparation and storage areas. If they are allowed to roam over furniture you should clean and disinfect the area afterwards.

Tank size

Painted turtles are active animals and need a lot of space within their tank to swim around. A baby painted turtle should have a tank that is an absolute minimum of 20 gallons. 10 gallons of this capacity should be filled with water. 

For every other baby turtle you introduce, you will need 5 additional gallons of water and should increase the tank size. 

Adult turtles need a minimum of 20 gallons of water space, plus additional for their basking and ambient areas. For every additional turtle you introduce, increase the water capacity by 10 gallons. You will need to increase the tank size to allow for this. 

For a small turtle (up to 6 inches) you need a 30 gallon tank. For medium turtles (6-8 inches) you will need a tank that is a minimum of 50 gallons. 

The bigger the tank, the happier your turtle is likely to be. We would recommend a 75 gallon tank. Tanks that are too small can inhibit the growth of your turtle and negatively impact upon their health. If you have more than one turtle in a small tank it can result in a lot of territorialism and aggression. 

Tank type

Standard glass aquarium tanks will be perfectly suitable for your painted turtle. They can also live well in outdoor ponds. In both environments, you will need to clean regularly and filter the water. Both environments should have shade and light. 

The tank should not be a reptile tank, it must be an aquatic one. This is because the glass on reptile tanks is thinner and will crack under the pressure of the water. At minimum, the glass should be 10mm thick.

Tank cover

Do not cover the top of the tank with a sheet of plastic or glass. This prevents the UV light from permeating and means the rays will not reach your turtle. 

The tanks should always be covered, to prevent your turtle from escaping and to stop outside objects from falling in. The cover should have some kind of security mechanism to prevent it being knocked off by adventurous turtles!

The best cover option tends to be a steel mesh. This is a heatproof material and provides the tank with plenty of ventilation. This helps to regulate the temperature and humidity of the tank.

Feeding tanks

Some people prefer to have a separately designated tank for feeding their turtles in. This can help to keep their main tank cleaner.

It is vital to feed your turtles in water as they do not have the capacity to produce saliva. They need the moisture of the water to lubricate the food so that they can swallow.

This is not a necessity, merely a matter of personal preference. Leftover food can easily be scooped out of the tank using a net. 

Underwater area

This should take up at least 50% of the tank area. This is because the turtle needs a lot of space to swim and play.

Above water area

This only needs to be about 25% of your tank capacity, but can take up more if your turtle enjoys being out of the water. 

What does a painted turtle need?

So now that you know what turtles need as far as tank specifications go, what do they need inside the tank? 

Painted turtles only need a few relatively simple items in the tank, aside from the obvious water. The real expense comes with creating the perfect environment for them to thrive in. To do this you will need to purchase a heat lamp, water heater, UV lamp, and a filtration system at minimum.

Water

In the wild, painted turtles live in or near to water, such as ponds and rivers. They are aquatic turtles and so require water to live.

To work out the volume of water required, you should measure the length of the turtle’s carapace (shell). They need at least twice this number in depth, 3 times in width, and 5 times in length. 

Water filter

Most turtle owners opt for an aquatic canister filter for their tanks. They are designed with larger aquariums in mind and sit underneath the tank. This maximizes the area available inside the tank for your turtle. 

Turtles are very messy animals and produce a lot of excrement that can rapidly dirty the water in their tanks. Their excrement is high in ammonia, which can quickly build to dangerous levels in the water. Canister filters have multi-level filtration systems capable of filtering large bodies of water well. 

When looking for a canister filter, first work out the volume of your tank in gallons. You should look for a canister filter that pumps out double this quantity every hour. 

Substrate

Painted turtles do not require a substrate in their tank, but you can place some sand and large rocks at the base if you like. You should ensure the rocks are too large to fit in your turtle’s mouth. 

Sand works well as substrate, but is hard to keep clean. Fluorite is a good element to include for aquatic plant health. Again, ensure the rocks are too large for your turtle to ingest. 

Plants

These can be real or plastic. If you buy plastic ones they will last and be a good hiding space for your turtle.

Real plants will be eaten quickly, but will be a nice supplementation to their diet. They will need replacing regularly. 

Basking area

Turtles need to bask regularly to allow their skin and shells to dry out. This basking area needs to be large enough for them to lie comfortably and it must be raised clear of the water. This can be a store bought basking platform or you can stack rocks to create a more natural platform. 

You will also need a basking lamp, positioned above the platform. This will help the turtle to regulate their temperature when out of the water. Your turtle is likely to spend several hours basking. They should not spend more than 6-8 hours at a time out of the water.

You may need to purchase a small ramp to help your turtle reach the basking platform if they appear to be struggling. 

UVA / UVB lamp

This should be positioned directly above the basking platform you have created. Turtles need lighting in a rhythm similar to day and night time, much like humans do. This light should be switched off in the evening. 

The higher the watt rating of the UV bulb, the further away from the basking area you can place the lamp. The UVA light helps with the turtle’s appetite and activity levels. The UVB light is used to assist in the generation of Vitamin D3, which is required for calcium absorption.

Do not place your turtle’s tank in direct natural sunlight. It is better to keep them completely out of the way of natural light, as they could die due to exposure.  

Hiding areas

You should create an underwater hiding area for your turtle. They will naturally seek these out in the wild and so you need to replicate this in their tank.

You can buy caves designed specifically for this purpose in most pet stores, or you can make your own from pet-safe driftwood or large rocks. 

It is important to ensure they will not get stuck underneath this. While they are aquatic animals, they will drown if they cannot get to the surface regularly.

Temperature

Different parts of the tank should be at different temperature levels. You may need to buy a thermal regulator for the water and some thermometers too.

This is because turtles are cold-blooded animals and cannot regulate their own body temperature. This is why it is so vital to keep an eye on the temperatures to ensure optimal turtle health.

The water should be 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The basking area needs to be 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit to help the turtle dry out. The ambient air in the tank should be between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

For a 20 gallon tank, you will need a heater with a minimum of 75 watts. For 40 gallons this increases to 100 watts. 150 watts will be required for a 65 gallon tank, and 300 watts are needed for a 75 gallon tank. This is a guideline and will vary depending on the temperature of your home.

Cleaning a tank

Even though you will have a water filter, you still need to clean the tank out regularly. For one turtle, you should clean the tank twice a week. If you have multiple turtles, this should be done more regularly. 

Every week you should do a 25% water change. This means removing 25% of the old water and filling up to the original level with fresh conditioned or distilled water. 

How to cycle your tank

This is the process of balancing the beneficial bacteria in your tank to ensure the optimal environment for your turtle, using the nitrogen cycle. 

Cycling your tank correctly will eventually become a self-sustaining process and the levels of ammonia and nitrites should be close to 0. 

To cycle your tank you must have a functional water filter and a water testing kit. Add some pure ammonia to the water in the tank and test the levels. You should aim to keep the levels at around 3 ppm for the first week, although some fluctuation is normal. If the levels drop, simply add more ammonia. 

The ammonia should be getting eaten by bacteria. After a week has passed you should be able to notice some nitrites in the water too. This is the indication that your cycling attempt is working correctly. Continue to maintain an ammonia level of 3 ppm. 

In the next few days, you should notice the nitrite levels dropping and the nitrates increasing. This suggests the tank has almost been cycled completely. 

Continue to test the water until the levels of ammonia and nitrites are at 0 and the nitrate levels have stabilized at anywhere under 40 ppm. You will need to check the pH level too - this should be between 6 and 8.

If you notice a raise in the ammonia levels after the turtle has been introduced, purchase some ammonia neutralizing products from your local pet store. 

This process should take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks. 

How to introduce your turtle to their new tank

This needs to be done calmly and carefully to avoid causing your turtle any unnecessary stress.

You should carefully lift your turtle out of the old tank and gently lower it into the water in  the new tank. Hold it by the sides of the shell, never lift it by its limbs or head.

Allow them time and space to become acclimatized to their new environment. Handling turtles can cause them to panic and they may need time to calm down. 

What to feed your painted turtle

Young turtles are primarily carnivores and will need a lot of animal protein in their diet. The older they get, the closer they become to eating a herbivorous diet. 

Around half of your turtle’s diet should be made up of fresh produce. The other half can consist of turtle food pellets and live animals. If you have any questions about the ideal diet for a painted turtle, we strongly recommend contacting a veterinarian for nutritional advice.

Baby turtles should be fed once a day, whereas mature turtles should only be fed 4 or 5 times per week. This is because turtles have a very slow moving digestive system and would traditionally go through a fasting period during the summer.

Not feeding your turtles for 2 days of the week will stop this from being necessary as the digestion has time to catch up.

Turtles can eat mustard greens, collard greens, kale, berries, apples, carrots, melons, and squash. These should either be shredded or chopped up into small pieces. They can also be fed small fish and insects.

Dorothy Razo
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