How to Care for a Red-Eared Slider Aquatic Turtle

So you wanna own a red-eared slider? Where to keep it. What to feed it. How to care for it. These are all things the slider owner will wonder as they take home their new reptilian friend. In fact, these are things all potential owners should consider before making the purchase, as red-eared sliders, like any pet, require ongoing care.

The first thing you should know about caring for a red-eared slider is what you’re getting into. A red-eared slider it is an aquatic turtle. If you’re looking for one of those big, fat, round land turtles (or are the tortoises) you see people racing on TV or allowing to roam around their house – this is not the breed for you. An aquatic turtle needs to be in water. It doesn’t eat unless its food is in the water, too. It is not a particularly friendly animal, so you won’t be taking it out of the aquarium for fun and bonding. In fact, one way I’ve heard you can tell a turtle is healthy is if it hisses at you and struggles to evade your grasp. This happens to me on a routine basis with my turtle. Least I know he’s doing okay. The main point here: a red-eared slider is like a really big fish – enjoyable to look at and name and talk to if you want, but not about to go for a jog with you or come running when you call. (Though, I will say, my turtle does respond when we shake a food canister around him…). Though, really, the fish comparison is not a good one. Yes, a red-eared slider is about as friendly and pettable as a fish, but it is a great deal more high-maintenance than your average guppy.

For example, you don’t have to handle your guppy. Or if you do, say to move it somewhere, it won’t protest. You’ll have to handle your red-eared slider for sure. He or she will need to be removed when you clean the tank, for example- best done with rubber gloves – more on that later. And after handling the red-eared slider, wash the heck out of your hands. So if you’re squeamish about handling scaly, sliming, flailing, hissing things, this is not your pet. Along with the handling, there’s the feeding and the frequent tank-cleaning (and we’re not talking fish-bowl size tank here, people.) and the turtle-cleaning. I’ve had cats that require less maintenance than my turtle.

One last caution: these suckers, if even marginally well-cared for live a long time! I’m talking multiple decades. And not dog decades, either. Bringing home a red-eared slider is making a commitment to a long haul of feeding, cleaning, and otherwise caretaking. Be sure you really want the littler bugger, or be sure that you know someone who’d be willing to take it off your hands.

All right, so you’re not convinced to not buy this thing – where do you keep it. Red-eared sliders need a few things from their homes: water enough to swim in, cleanliness, UV light, heat, and a place to park themselves when they want to get out of the water for a bit.

Let’s talk water first. A turtle is not a fish, as we’ve established. It needs to breath air. Not a lot, but it does need to breath. So you need to make sure your tank allows the turtle a way to poke his head out and breath. Usually, if you give your slider a rock for basking and getting out of the water, this will suffice. He can climb up and breath. Of course, he can also swim to the surface to refuel. I saw a small tank with four or five baby red-eared sliders in, tiny little ones, and they had no basking rock. To breath, they had to constantly tread water to keep from drowning. It was really bad. But along with breathing, you have to consider the slider’s need to swim.

Advice I’ve found on this subject of depth of the water varies. Some say it should be approximately the red-eared slider’s height if it was standing on it’s hind legs. Other say, give it a little more than that. The bottom line is, make sure the slider can really swim. Consider width and length, too. You don’t want to put a slider in one of those big vertical tanks. Give your slider enough room to swim his tail off and do his thing. (Just be careful that there’s some space between the water line and the top of the tank or a tank-top. You don’t want any escapes attempts – accidental or otherwise.) So what tank size are we talking here? Go at least twenty gallon. Your red-eared slider can grow on you. I’ve heard some grow a foot long. Mine’s not quite that big. But the bottom line with tanks is – bigger is better and often necessary. Turtles are not fit for the basic aquarium starter-kit tank. Or they won’t be for long.

Have I mentioned this is a darn expensive pet?

All right, so what’s this basking business? Well, your red-eared slider will need to come out of the water from time to time. And when I say need, I mean it. She’s gotta get out sometimes. She likes to sit on a rock or some plastic artifice and chill. You may see red-eared sliders doing this in the pet store or other turtles doing in in nature. With my own slider, I have tired a few of the man-made basking stations they sell in pet stores and have had no luck. My slider likes his rock which I pulled out of my back yard. (and washed first, of course). The key here is to make sure the red-eared slider is totally out of the water. And make sure the slider can get up on her dry dock, too. Now this is where the UV light comes in. The red-eared slider needs light, not just from your overhead light or a couple hours out the window, but UV light. Get her a UV tank light and prevent nasty things from happening to the slider’s shell. Soft shell, for example, can come from not giving the red-eared slider enough light. I’ve read some places where people suggest taking your slider outside and letting her enjoy the sun. I’ve not done that with my turtle. The less I move him, the better. And he does get some naturally occurring light where his tank is.

A red-eared slider needs a warm tank. I’m talking mid – 70s, mid-80s. In the winter, an unheated tank is no good for your slider. You’ll definitely need a submersible heater. Be careful, though, with keeping the turtle from nosing around the heater, it could break and injure the slider. Consult a pet store employee about the best kind of heater to get. But don’t go without- the slider’s life can be endangered if the water is too cold. Also, don’t keep him in a room that is cold, either.

A slider needs a clean tank, too. This, next to the initial expenses of setting the slider up with a home, is the worst part of owning a red-eared slider, and there’s no way to avoid it. Red-eared sliders eat in their tanks. They also defecate in their tanks. You can clean some big stuff out – leftover food or the other – with an aquarium net. But you will need to clean out about a quarter of the water at least once a week (some experts will say more). And you will also need to clean and wash the whole tank out at reasonable intervals. I occasionally give my slider’s shell a rubdown with a damp paper towel. Quickly, because, again, red-eared sliders don’t like to be touched. If you keep the tank clean, this will be less necessary.

On to the feeding of the little web-footed, claw-toed angels. Red-eared sliders like to eat from both the meat and veggies categories. The technical term is omnivore. You can use food pellets from the pet store for about a quarter of the slider’s diet, pet-store supplied feeder fish or bugs (some canned turtle flakes include bug parts) for another quarter. A good chunk of the turtle’s diet though, should come from fresh veggies and fruits. Collard greens, I’ve heard people use. Any kind of lettuce except iceberg. I’ve used apple (make sure it’s smushed), tomato, cooked chicken and hamburger (make sure it’s cooked!), tuna (not a good idea- the oil spreads really quickly in the water and makes a mess). I’ve read sliders like to gnaw on cantaloupe shells. Note again, your red-eared slider will ONLY eat food in the water- so just drop the food in the tank and watch him go to town. How much to feed him? Well, if given a choice, your slider will probably eat till he explodes. You don’t want that to happen so keep the portion to what can be consumed in 10-15 minutes. Some people feed their turtles a few times a week, I feed mine once a day. According to some experts, folds of skin around the legs of the slider indicate your turtle is over-eating.

Did I mention ALWAYS wash your hands like crazy after handling the slider? Not just a quick rinse, but a good scrub. Also, the best plan, I think, is to make sure small kids know the red-eared slider is “look and talk too, but don’t touch and don’t put anything in the tank without supervision.” This isn’t a pet I would ever recommend for a kid. You might think it’s small, it’s cute, it’s sort of the traditional little boy pet. No, no. Don’t do it.

The truth is, I really wouldn’t recommend a red-eared slider to anyone but the most enthusiastic, pet-centric people. Red-eared slider care is expensive, it takes time and effort – not to mention space. And the benefits are not high. No one will ever say a red-eared slider is man’s best friend. I’m very used to my own red-eared slider now, though I am far from an ideal owner, and I want him to stick around. But if I had it to do over again, I would have probably asked for a guppy instead.

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