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How to Set Up a Water Turtle Cage

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While advanced keepers often create complex turtle exhibits, a beginner should start with a simple habitat that focuses solely on the turtle’s needs. All aquatic turtles require a safe, secure and suitably sized enclosure that includes areas suitable for swimming and basking. Additionally, you must maintain the environment by keeping the water clean and providing the proper lighting and temperatures.


Begin with a suitably large enclosure; at an absolute minimum, provide each turtle with a water space measuring five times the length of the turtle’s shell and three times the turtle’s shell length in width and height. For example, a 6-inch turtle would require a water reservoir that is 30 inches long, and 18 inches wide and tall, which equates to almost 40 gallons in capacity. In addition, your turtle will require a land area or basking platform equal to about half of their water space requirements. Unless you plan to construct a land area outside of the aquarium -- essentially turning the aquarium into a large, sunken water bowl -- your turtle requires an aquarium that is 50 percent larger than the water space needs indicate, to allow enough space for a land area.


The choice of substrate depends largely on the species you keep. You can use medium to large gravel, aquarium sand or no substrate at all, for basking species, such as red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) and painted turtles (Chrysemys picta). Softshell turtles require a soft substrate that allows burrowing, yet prevents shell damage. If a particulate substrate is used, frequent cleaning is necessary to remove trapped dirt and waste.


All turtles -- even those not known to leave the water often -- require a basking platform or land area that allows them to exit the water and bask. You can provide this basking spot by attaching cork bark or flat branches to the habitat at water level or by constructing a land area or “beach” by piling the substrate at one end of the tank. Even when kept in isolation, female turtles may produce eggs; without a place to deposit them, they may become egg bound. Accordingly, mature females require a land area with a substrate suitable for digging, such as potting soil or finely ground mulch.

Heating and Lighting

You must provide your turtle with a facsimile of the sun over her basking spot. Heat lamps fitted with incandescent bulbs and placed over the basking site provide the thermal component; the basking site’s ambient temperature should be between 85 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, you will need to include one or more fluorescent fixtures over the basking spot to accommodate full-spectrum bulbs that provide both visible and UVB light. The turtles must be able to bask within 12 inches of the bulbs, which should be on for approximately 12 hours each day. The water temperature requirements for turtles vary by species. If your species requires elevated water temperatures, submersible aquarium heaters are acceptable but you must protect them from damage caused by the turtle’s activity.


Without mechanical filtration to remove particulate matter, biological filtration to process the tank’s ammonia and chemical filtration to remove other contaminants, your turtles are likely to suffer health problems. Turtles tend to foul their water more quickly than fish do, so use a filter rated for at least twice the volume of water in the habitat. In other words, if your turtle’s habitat has 50 gallons of water, it requires a filter rated for a 100-gallon tank.