The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is a freshwater turtle native to North America. The descriptive name comes from the red streaks that frame its face.
Availability, Size and Lifespan
Red-eared sliders are available at pet vendors, local pet stores, large-scale turtle farms and reptile breeders. They may also be found through rescue organizations.
These turtles can live up to 20 years as pets, so remember the commitment you agreed to by owning one.
The average adult is between six and 12 inches long, and females are larger than males.
Although these turtles may be naturally living wild in your area, check with your local government before trying to bring one home as a pet. Never release a captive turtle into the wild.
Red-Eared Slider Habitat
These turtles need a lot more space than you might initially expect; bigger is better for turtle tanks. There are creative ways to create space and make it varied.
Adults need 40 gallons of space as a minimum, or 10 gallons for every inch of turtle. Select a cage that is wide enough for your red-eared slider to turn around easily. Use a tank with a screened lid so your turtle doesn’t escape. If you have access to an outdoor pond and a well-fenced yard, keep your turtle outside during the warmer parts of the year.
Tanks can be made of glass or acrylic so long as it can hold large amounts of water. Fill most of the space with water, though baby turtles should be given much shallower setups. They can become easily exhausted and have a hard time climbing out of the water. Slowly increase the water’s depth as they gain strength and become better swimmers.
Aquatic turtles should be housed alone once they reach adulthood. Never house different turtle species together.
Inside the Tank
Line the tank floor with rocks or gravel that are too large for the turtle to eat. Avoid graves that are pink or red, as these colors will entice your turtle to try and eat them.
Create a more natural space with plants and rocks to help your turtle feel more at ease. Provide a basking area or “turtle docks” where the turtles can emerge entirely from the water and dry off. Being able to dry their bodies can help prevent skin fungus growth and other issues, including shell rot. These areas should create accessible entrances and exits to and from the water. Premade basking areas also work and have the bonus of increasing the swimming space for your turtle.
Build up rocks to create one or many sloping dry areas throughout the temperature gradient. By sloping the basking area, your turtle can decide where the most comfortable place to sit is relative to the heat source. If possible, also make a shallower area so your turtle can rest in the water while keeping its head in the air.
Change the water at least twice a month, and keep it chlorine-free since turtles drink the water they swim in. When cleaning the tank and furnishings, place your turtle in a secure area.
Another important part of the habitat is the water filter. A red-eared slider can eat a lot and produce a lot of waste. You can try to remove any uneaten food and feces before they can contaminate the water, but a submersible water filter is the way to go. The filter keeps them healthy, controls odors and decreases your risk of interacting with dangerous bacteria. There are various filter sizes on the market that can match your tank size.
Lighting and Temperature
In general, you want to create a temperature gradient ranging from 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit at the basking area and 65 to 75 degrees on the cool side. You can use either a submersible heater or a basking bulb. We recommend submersible heaters for baby turtles that tend to stay in the water and a basking bulb for juveniles and adults.
If using incandescent lighting, place it above the basking area. The wattage used will depend on the enclosure size. A red-eared slider also needs a UVB bulb with a full spectrum of rays for 10 to 12 hours of daylight. The UV exposure will help with shell and bone growth, as well as other bodily functions.
Take the temperature reading from the basking area when using a bulb or from the water when using a submersible heater. The turtle will probably spend a fair amount of time under the basking lamp.
Red-Eared Slider Food
Red-eared sliders are omnivorous and require a variety in their diet. Pelleted commercial turtle food makes a good basis for the diet. Keep commercial turtle treats on hand for a little bonus, or you can use freeze-dried krill. Live foods, including earthworms, insects, minnows and goldfish, also make fun goodies.
For vegetables, you have many choices on what to offer your turtle. Dark leafy veggies, slices squashed or carrots and non-toxic aquatic plants are acceptable. Keep in mind that some turtles won’t eat vegetation, but it won’t hurt to offer it anyways.
The red-eared slider prefers to eat daily and needs to be in the water when they eat. To help keep cleanup simple, remove your turtle from their habitat for feeding and use a cat little pan or plastic container with an inch or two of water.
These turtles may beg for food when you approach, so keep track of feeding so you don’t overfeed them. New baby sliders can be picky eaters, so offer frozen bloodworms to help entice them to start eating.
Handling and Temperament
Your turtle will exhibit various behaviors in response to different situations. For example, a red-eared slider can become uncomfortable with frequent handling, and if you frighten it, it may bite. Constantly being in the water and refusing to bask are behaviors that indicate stress.
When you do handle your turtle, wash your hands thoroughly before and after. If you have small children, supervise them when they interact with the turtles so the children don’t put them in their mouths.
Common Red-Eared Slider Health Concerns
A healthy turtle eats routinely, has clear eyes and shows alertness to its surroundings. Check your turtle’s skin and shell for sores, discoloration or unusual spots. Feces are also a cue for any health issues; if your turtle’s feces change abnormally, talk to your vet. If you notice any changes in energy, either lethargy or frantic swimming, this is another red flag for your turtle’s health.
Pay attention to any discharge from facial orifices or sneezing. Occasionally check the area behind your turtle’s tympanum, or ear area, for swelling.
Red-eared sliders are subject to metabolic bone disease from insufficient vitamin D and calcium, as well as a vitamin A deficiency.
Pet turtles may carry salmonella, so wash your hands before handling your red-eared slider. Keep your hands away from your turtle’s mouth. Never kiss your turtle.