Western Pond Turtle Care

Origin: Western United States (ponds, lakes and marshlands)

There are two sub-species:

Northwestern Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata marmorata) and

Southwestern Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata pallida)

Adult Size: usually up to 8 inches (shell length)

Lifespan: unknown, most likely 30+ years like other pond turtles

Temperament: Not as territorial and aggressive as many other turtles. You can keep a few of these turtles together as long as they have enough space to swim around.

Set-up: This is an aquatic species, so the enclosure needs to be mostly water. Your turtle will need a place to get out of the water and bask, such as a well-positioned rock or pile of rocks, or a turtle dock found at your local pet store. Use sand or gravel to cover the bottom of the tank and decorate under the water with aquatic plants or driftwood to keep your turtle feeling secure.

The minimum tank size recommended for one of these turtles is a 20 gallon long. Bigger is ALWAYS better. Other containers can be used, such as large Rubbermaid bins, as long as the container is able to safely hold about 20 gallons or more of water. Fill the tank at least half way. Water conditioner or dechlorinator is not necessary unless you are using extremely hard water (like State College tap water J), in which case a water conditioner made specially for turtles should be used.

Lighting/Temperature: This is a diurnal species, meaning it is active during the daytime when the sun is out. The UV in natural sunlight is used by the turtle’s body to make Vitamin D3 from the Calcium in its diet. Fluorescent UV bulbs made especially for reptiles are available at pet stores to keep your turtle healthy. Although usually passed off as a waste of money to make “the fanatics” happy, this light is extremely important, and if you don’t provide it (along with enough calcium), it will seriously affect your turtle’s health and quality of life.

A basking lamp is also needed. Position the light above the rocks or land area in your tank to create a warm basking spot. Use the appropriate wattage heat bulb and position the light to create a basking temperature around 90-95 degrees F. Many thermometers are available to measure the temperature inside the enclosure, but just remember that all of the stick-on and dial-type thermometers, although still helpful to have, measure only the ambient temperature (temperature of the air) and will not give you an accurate reading of the basking spot. For basking temp, you should pick up a digital probe thermometer (available at most hardware and garden supply stores, and not as expensive as you think!). The digital probe measures the surface temp, the temperature the basking rock is actually heating up to and providing the proper belly heat for good digestion.

An aquarium heater is a good idea. These guys do best in warm water and should be kept in water temperatures in the 80s F. A submersible heater is the only way to go, since the tank will not be filled to the top. These turtles are notorious for breaking their heaters, so we recommend you look into a Titanium or “unbreakable” glass heater to prevent problems.

Filtration and Maintenance: Aquatic turtles are very messy, so a good reliable filter is important. There are a lot of different types of filters out there, though none is particularly better than the others. It’s a matter of personal preference really, whether you want to go with a submersible filter like the Fluval, under-gravel, powerhead or Hydrosponge, or you want an external type like the hang-on-side waterfall type or canister filter. Whichever manner of filtration you choose, just remember to have LOTS of it and clean it often!

Regular tank maintenance is a must with aquatic turtles. The water gets dirty fast, and consistently dirty water can have a really negative effect on turtle health. How often to change the water or clean the filter depends on how many turtles you have relative to the size of the tank, and also how much filtration you have and how much or how often you feed them. Cleaning the tank isn’t much different than cleaning a fish tank. A good aquarium siphon will be a tremendous help and is the easiest way to remove all the waste and debris from the tank bottom. Drain as much water as you need to get the tank clean. Turtles are not sensitive to the by-products of the nitrogen cycle like fish are, so you don’t have to worry about cycling or being careful with the filter, and this gives you a lot of freedom as far as cleaning the tank. Just remember never to use soap! There are spray cleaners available through your local pet store that are safe to use around reptiles, and if you’re really worried about the tank being dirty a little bit of bleach should do the trick. Just be careful to rinse it thoroughly and not put your turtle back in the tank until the bleach smell is gone.

Diet: Like most pond turtles, these guys are omnivores. This means they will eat both meat and vegetable matter. Variety is the key to a healthy diet. There are lots of pre-packaged turtle foods on the market. Some are better than others, depending on the amounts of certain ingredients like protein and phosphorus. Sticking with a higher-end brand is your best bet, as proper nutrition is very important with reptiles.

Crickets, red worms and superworms are among the most popular live foods available at pet stores. Dust these with powder supplements (both calcium and vitamins) just before feeding, or “gutload” them 24 hours before giving them to your turtle. Other good live foods, mostly available online, include silkworms and phoenix worms. Avoid waxworms and mealworms due to their high fat content, general lack of nutrition and the difficult-to-digest shell of the mealworms. Remember not to feed your turtle any insects you find outside. Some may be poisonous (lightning bugs are deadly!) and wild insects are likely to carry parasites (an expensive vet bill you’d rather avoid!). To add some extra calcium to the diet, it is also recommended to let a piece of cuttlebone float on the water (available in the bird section of pet stores). The turtle may occasionally nibble on the bone and as it dissolves in the water it may also be beneficial, not only to the turtle’s nutrition but to the health of its skin and shell.

Live fish can be given as an occasional snack. They aren’t very good for your turtle nutritionally, may stunt its growth and are very fatty. Think of it as going to McDonalds for dinner. One meal there probably won’t have much of an effect on your health, but it shouldn’t become a regular habit! Luckily, there are some healthier, and parasite-free, alternatives to live fish for your turtle. Most grocery stores carry a variety of fresh seafood, which is not too expensive when purchased in small quantities. Shrimp, squid (both the filets and tentacles), tilapia, catfish and shark steak are all popular with turtles. Stick with the “white meat” species of fish because they don’t leave your water as messy, and make sure you feed as much variety as you can. You’ll also find a lot of freeze-dried or frozen foods at your local pet store that your turtle will like to snack on. These aren’t as nutritious as fresh raw seafood, but they make great snacks and help to add variety to the diet.

Letting healthy leaves (like collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens or dandelion greens) float on the water provides your turtle with entertainment and also a healthy snack. They will also enjoy endive, escarole, pieces of zucchini or yellow squash, cucumber, carrots, occasional bits of apple or banana, etc. Avoid lettuce and celery, and don’t feed too much fruit. Turtles can get upset stomachs and become dehydrated from eating these. Also avoid kale, broccoli and spinach due to their nutrient-binding qualities. You can probably find much more detailed diet information online if you look in the right places. We recommend you start out on Melissa Kaplan’s website, www.anapsid.org. Just remember not to leave vegetables, fruits or uneaten bugs in the water too long. Letting the food go bad makes the water dirty and can also make your turtle sick.

Health: Turtles are susceptible to all the same common health problems as other reptiles. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), calcium and vitamin deficiencies or toxicities, liver and kidney disease, impaction (intestinal blockage), dehydration, fungal and bacterial infections, stress, respiratory infections, parasites, etc. Most of these ailments can be dealt with by changing something about your care regimen, or with the help of a qualified reptile vet, but are easily avoided because they have a lot to do with diet/nutrition, temperature and lighting. This is why it is so important to have the proper set-up from the beginning. A turtle that is well cared for and living in the right environment should live a long and healthy life with minimal problems. Another health concern with turtles is their shell. Apart from normal shedding, sometimes the shell can become very flaky, oily or even gooey. This usually has to do with poor water quality and/or insufficient UV exposure, and there are some helpful products available through your pet store to help keep the shell healthy.

An important side-note regarding MBD and other similar problems: if your turtle and its shell seem to be growing at different rates, or your turtle’s legs or face seem to be deforming, your UV bulb may be long-overdue for a change or your turtle may not be getting enough calcium in its diet. This is a serious health issue and veterinary attention should be sought immediately.