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Red-Eared Slider Care Guide - The Critter Depot

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Red-Eared Slider Care Guide

red eared slider turtle care guide

Table of Contents


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Our red-eared slider care guide covers critical information on tank set up, feeding schedule, and diseases.  But if you're encountering additional problems that aren't discussed in this article, you can post your picture and question in our forum.  

Introduction to Red-Eared Sliders

The red-eared slider has a long history in the pet trade, and it has been kept, with varying degrees of success, by hobbyists both novice and experienced.

Red-eared sliders are indigenous to the United States. They are found from New Mexico north to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and West Virginia, then south through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Their preferred habitat is slow-moving streams, as well as lakes, ponds and marshes. Decades ago they were sold in dime stores, and their extreme availability meant that most were purchased spontaneously for children by parents unaware of their ultimate size and husbandry needs.

Captive Bread vs Wild

Today most pet sliders are captive bred and sold in smaller numbers, with improved guidance on their care being more readily available. Captive bred red-eared sliders (RES) are more personable than wild RES, which tend to be quite cautious and whom, at the slightest unknown sound or movement, will quickly slide into the water for cover.

Captive-bred RES are the opposite; they will frequently swim up to people and beg for food. Still, too much handling can stress the animal, who then withdraws into its shell and may even nips fingers, if not left alone. Less is more, when it comes to handling this pet, so once or twice per week, rather than every day, is advised.

Dangerous History involving Salmonella and Size

Well cared red-ears are hardy and outgoing. However, although pretty and personable as pets, red-eared sliders occupy a dark niche in the Herpetoculture history.  First, there are tales of them transmitting Salmonella bacteria to small children.  And second, as an invasive species that have disturbed ecosystems throughout the waterways of the world.

Salmonella and Sanitation Guidelines

Concerning salmonella, turtles harboring this bacteria were responsible for a number of cases of transmission resulting in hospitalizations as recent as in 2017. A report by the CDC states “Of the 23 ill people who had contact with turtles, 14 (61%) reported contact with small turtles that had a shell length of less than four inches. They reported purchasing the turtle from a street vendor or receiving the turtle as a gift.”  

The problem with this disease is often the result of poor husbandry.  Even the best husbandry in the world does not guarantee a clean turtle. They are reptiles, and like many pet reptiles, they shed Salmonella bacteria like a dog sheds dandruff. They just do. For this reason, they are not recommended as pets for children under the age of five, and adults should thoroughly wash hands with soap, water, and the occasional dousing with hand sanitizer to get under fingernails. In fact, the CDC goes so far as to issue these guidelines:

  • Keep turtles and other reptiles and amphibians out of homes with children younger than 5, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems.
  • Do not allow reptiles or amphibians to roam freely through the house, especially in food preparation areas.
  • Do not clean aquariums or other supplies in the kitchen sink. Use bleach to disinfect a tub or other place where reptile or amphibian habitats are cleaned.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching any reptile or amphibian, its housing, or anything (for example, food) that comes in contact with the animal or its housing.

They get HOW big??

big red eared slider

The second problem concerns size. Those cute and tiny little hatchlings can grow into an adult that needs a really large aquatic habitat. When they became too large, many well-meaning but uninformed owners simply released them into the wild, and into areas where they are not normally found as a stable part of that ecosystem. For this reason they have been illegal to sell in Florida and California.  And in other states,  the sale of baby turtles with a carapace less than 4 inches in length is illegal.

Don't Release Into Wild

Waterways in all coastal western states of the US are seeing an increase in this species and a commensurate drop in the populations of western pond turtles. The red-eared slider is easily able to outcompete other turtle species, and so they should never be released into the wild, but rather taken to a rescue. For those wanting red ears for their ponds or aquariums, there are a number of rescues with hand raised, friendly animals in need of re-homing. And since a well-cared for adult RES can live up to 40 years, adoption is a great way to acquire a friendly and hardy adult pet.

Housing and Enclosure Design

red eared slider tank size

The general rule of thumb for housing red-eared sliders is that for every inch of shell length (not width), you should provide 10 gallons of water. For example, a red-eared slider with a 5-inch shell length should be provided an enclosure containing 50 gallons of water to allow for adequate swimming space. Essentially, successfully caring for a red-eared slider indoors is not much different than keeping a fish tank that houses 1-2 big Oscars (large fish in the Cichlid family). Plus they need dry land and basking space in addition to water space, something an Oscar does not require. This makes them neither the simplest nor easiest of pets for indoor spaces.

Critical Habitat Features:

Other aspects that play an important role in maintaining a Red-Eared's Sliders health and happiness are:

  • a water filtration system
  • a water heater
  • a basking dock
  • a basking lamp

Water Filtration System for Red-Eared Sliders

Because red-eared sliders are messy feeders and produce a lot of waste, a water filter that is rated for double the amount of water in your turtle’s enclosure is recommended if you are choosing a fish filter. This reduces the frequency of water changes that will be necessary (though don’t neglect water changes; you should still perform them regularly) and maintains the cleanliness and health of your turtle.

Multi-Stage Filters

Multi-stage filters provide the most comprehensive water cleansing system. Multi-stage filters are comprised of multiple components for different types of cleaning, specifically biological and mechanical. Chemical filtering may be provided by some filters, but this is just an extra option that you do not really need.

Biological Filters

Biological filters contain a sponge or hair curler-like component where beneficial bacteria can grow and feed on the impurities of the water as it flows through the box. A balanced and stable nitrogen cycle inside your pet’s tank will encourage the growth of good bacteria within the filter. A healthy population of these bacteria will convert harmful ammonia into less harmful nitrate, and can reduce harmful ammonia levels to a point where normal fresh water chemistry can be maintained with only 25% weekly water changes. This system will not affect water clarity, however. This is where the mechanical filter comes in.

Mechanical Filters

Mechanical filters will be needed to remove debris such as dissolved feces or decaying food matter. Mechanical filters need to be removed from the tank and hand washed weekly if you wish to achieve maximum water clarity. Again, if using a fish rated mechanical filtration system, that system needs to be able to handle double the amount of waste that would be normal for fish. The reason is…turtles poop and pee twice as much as fish. A specially designed ‘turtle’ filtration system should already be designed to accommodate the extra load. They are not a lot more expensive than a fresh-water fish rated system, and so are probably well worth the extra cost in the long run.

Both mechanical and biological filters are crucial elements of the filtration system for your pet’s tanks. A chemical filter is more of a want rather than a need, however. These filtering systems may be used to enhance the esthetics of the tank as it can make water look extra clear. Chemical filters further break down extra organic material and also suck ammonia out of the water. However, this system may interfere with the nitrogen cycle inside the tank, so you will need to use it with caution. Two common examples of chemicals used in chemical filtration are activated carbon (this helps break down organic matter) and ammonia removers.

There are different configurations of filters available on the market today (internal, hang on the tank filters, under-gravel filters, and so on). Experts suggest that the best product design for a turtle tank is a canister filter. Canister filters are the most efficient. Other filters may not be able to keep up with a red eared slider’s waste output.

For instance, the Exo Terra External Canister Turtle Filter FX-350 was designed to reduce odor in large turtle tanks, paludariums or aquatic terrariums. It also comes with a spray bar system for enhanced aeration and a dual chamber design that allows flexibility in servicing mechanical, chemical and absorptive filtration media. It clips to the outside of the tank, as it is smaller than some larger capacity filters that are so large they must be housed in a nearby cupboard space. An undergravel filter is not recommended for turtles, as they will eventually dig it up and destroy it.

Water Heater

Use a submersible water heater to maintain the ideal water temperature between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Turtles can be hard on exposed equipment, so a water heater guard is recommended. Be sure to maintain the recommended water temperature by twice weekly monitoring. If the temperatures are too cold, your turtle’s metabolism will slow, as well as their immune system, and because they are essentially bathing in a bacterial soup much of their lives, a healthy immune system is critical. Note that enclosures should be placed away from areas with cool breezes or drafts, too, as constant fluctuation of temperatures can also suppress the immune system and easily lead to respiratory infections.

Basking Light

To ensure proper health and growth of red-eared sliders, a basking light that provides UVB and UVA rays is required. Purchase either a commercial turtle basking dock or create your own basking platform onto which your turtle can emerge from the water to soak up the artificial sunlight and dry off. Temperatures in the basking area should remain between 85 and 90 degrees, no less than 80 in other spots.

Substrate considerations

Red-Eared Sliders are curious, voracious and to some extent, easily bored. When housed in an enclosure that is too small or impoverished in terms of furniture and plants, they may take to eating substrate items that will eventually cause impaction.

Unlike what we recommend with bearded dragons and leopard geckos, sand is a perfectly suitable dry-side and aquatic bottom of the tank substrate. Turtles do not possess the sticky tongue of many lizard species, and are much less likely to accidentally ingest sand particles. Plus, the body size of juveniles and adults make it possible for sand particles to move through at a prodigious rate because these turtles poop a lot.

Don't Use Pebbles

However, if bored and housed on pea gravel, they may consume just enough small pebbles to impact their gut big time. One Canadian veterinarian reported removing 105 small stones from one pet turtle’s gut. Plainly, surgery was required and this action did save the animal’s life, for it had lost the ability to eat or poop and was suffering from a perforated intestine. The owner was advised to provide the pet with a larger enclosure and to remove all small objects from the tank. And not just gravel needs to be kept out of the turtle enclosure. This species has been known to consume small jewelry items! So a tank provided with sand on the bottom of the water side and sand or tile on the dry side is preferable.

Red-Eared Slider's Diet and Feeding Schedule

Turtle Pellets

As mentioned above, these creatures are ravenous omnivores that will eat pretty much anything. There are now many ‘complete’ formulation turtle pellets on the market to choose from. These are nearly adequate in and of themselves and are a lot less messy than other food items. Pelleted foods come in a several sizes. Larger pellets tend to float well and are attractive to large turtles, whereas smaller pellets tend to sink quickly and are more readily accepted by juveniles.

Live Prey!

Despite marketing claims, they do not supply 100% of the needed nutrition when used exclusively for a long period of time and certainly do not provide entertainment value for your pet the way live items will. Live prey items are especially desirable because they give turtles an opportunity to exercise by hunting, just as they would in the wild. Therefore, most conscientious turtle keepers limit pellets to about 25 percent of the diet, making up the rest with items from the following prey items:

  • rosy red minnows or small shiners
  • earthworms
  • crickets
  • waxworms
  • silkworms
  • aquatic snails
  • bloodworms
  • daphnia
  • shrimp or krill
  • mealworms

For very small turtles, small prey only should be offered. Larger turtles can be offered larger prey, such as tadpoles or feeder fish, though some experts warn that feeder fish may carry parasites, and some fish (like goldfish) are too fatty to be fed regularly.

Don't Offer Wild-Caught Pret

Wild caught prey items are not recommended for this reason, with small feeder fish bred in captivity being preferable. Also, goldfish-dominated diets have been linked to liver and kidney damage among many zoological garden turtle collections. Used sparingly, goldfishes are OK, but most zoos now avoid them entirely just to be on the safe side.

Red-Eared Sliders Need Their Greens! 

Other food items that are especially important for adults, who need less protein than hatchlings or juveniles, are leafy greens:

  • collard greens
  • mustard greens
  • dandelion greens
  • bok choy

Iceberg lettuce is useless and should be avoided and many dark green leafy lettuces such as romaine should be fed sparingly due to problematic calcium-to-phosphorous ratios they contain. Plants that float are the most preferred by RES.

Fruit is unnecessary and makes a horrific mess, so avoid that. Aquatic plants like anacharis, water hyacinth, water lettuce, duckweed, azolla (fairy moss), and frog-bit will provide easy snacking. Do not flush leftover bits of these plants down the toilet or sink, but dispose of them in the trash only. Many of the these plant species are very successful invaders of water bodies in the wild, often outcompeting the native vegetation and choking water ways.

Diseases Caused by Poor Diets

Like improper housing temperatures, poor diets can result in diseases of inadequacy that also suppress the immune system and even directly undermine the turtle’s physical support systems of bones and carapace.

  • Signs of illness often include:
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • buoyancy problems (e.g., floating sideways)
  • swollen eyes
  • runny nose

Soft Shell

These signs are not specific to any particular disease, but rather symptoms indicative of underlying and potentially fatal maladies. For instance, “soft shell” (a symptom of nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism) is caused by inadequate dietary calcium and vitamin D, excessive dietary phosphorus, and lack of ultraviolet light. The disease is most common in young turtles, and symptoms may include a soft shell, broken bones, and general weakness. If detected early, the disease is reversible with correction of diet and lighting, while more advanced cases may require prescription supplements.

During treatment, if the turtle is eating, it’s diet should be supplemented daily by adding high-calcium food items and a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement. Natural sunlight should be provided, if possible, along with UVB artificial lighting. High calcium prey items include fish, crayfish and other crustaceans fed with the exoskeleton/shell intact. Earthworms, crickets and dubia roaches that have been gut loaded are also good choices. This is an especially important time to keep dark leafy greens with a high phosphorus to calcium ratio away from your pet (regardless of what your new age friends might say concerning the importance of large quantities of kale in every creature’s diet for perfect health). Just save those items to provide interest to the patient’s diet after recovery has occurred.

Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency in turtles is not as common as it once was thanks to pelleted foods. When it does occur, one of the most common symptoms is swollen eyes. In the past, it was commonly seen in young turtles that were being fed beef, chicken, insects, or iceberg lettuce, without vitamin supplementation. Once identified, treatment is generally effective with vitamin A by prescription. However, too much Vitamin A carries toxicity risks of its own, so your veterinarian will need to know whether the turtle has already been receiving vitamin A supplements. It is then possible that the eye swelling is due to a bacterial or viral infection, or exposure to excessively strong UV light and a prescription of Vitamin A is contraindicated.

Ear Infections 

One common result of inadequate housing and dietary provisions are ear infections (otitis). It is often first detected when the owner notices bulging of the tympanic membrane on the side of the head. Surgery is required to remove the pus and debris that has built up underneath the turtle’s ear membrane. It can take several weeks for the skin membrane to heal. During this time, the turtle will need to be kept in a separate environment than its normal living space (in other words, sick bay). It will need a safe space where it can rest and heal, with warmth and humidity. A humidifier may be needed the air humidity stable, depending on where you live. Newspapers or towels should be used as the substrate and should be changed out every day.

Another highly very preventable ailment is that of Entamoeba invadens infestations, which may cause your RES significant organ damage and even death. Most chelonians (turtles and tortoises) harbor this protozoan in a commensal relationship, in other words, not true parasitism. The healthy turtle is more like an asymptomatic ‘Typhoid Mary.’ However, poor husbandry can change that balance, in which case the protozoan wins unless swift veterinary care is administered. If the infestation is not too far advanced and the organism has not spread to the kidneys and liver, then the prognosis is good and the anti-protozoal drugs should prove 100% effective. Most veterinary practitioners report that E. invadens flare-ups are caused most often by unsanitary living conditions.

High quality equipment, cleaned weekly, and a bi-annual stripping and sterilization of the habitat will help to prevent a myriad of expensive illnesses, as will a correct diet and correct environmental management. So keep your home and your pet sweet-smelling and happy by exercising the appropriate husbandry measures as often as humanly possible for this delightful but somewhat high maintenance pet.

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