Red-eared Slider: Care & Feeding of This Common Pet Turtle

posted: 05/15/12
More Information[b]Turtles, Tortoises & Terrapins Main[/b], [b]Reptile Guide Main[/b]

The scientific name for the Red-eared Slider is Chrysemys scripta elegans (formerly Trachemys scripta elegans), and it belongs to the Emydidae family. It is an aquatic turtle, a strong swimmer, and in the wild, will commonly be seen basking on rocks, logs, or other surfaces above the water. Turtles are reptiles, and cold-blooded, so they must rely on external heat sources for warmth. They will bask in sunlight, and in the wild, burrow down into the earth to hibernate in winter. The three main concerns in keeping a Red-eared Slider healthy are warmth, clean water, and proper diet.

Properly caring for a turtle is more complicated than most people think. An adult, not a child, must take primary responsibility for maintaining and cleaning the housing, feeding, and monitoring the turtle for any signs of illness.

Natural Environment

The normal range for the Red-eared Slider in the United States is from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, and the East Coast to western Texas. It has been found in other regions, presumably because people released their pet turtles into those areas. It spends most of its time in or around water. Although it can be found in lakes and rivers, the Red-eared Slider prefers marshes, ponds, and slow-moving water that supply food and basking areas. In northern areas it will hibernate.

Physical Characteristics

Size: Hatchlings are approximately 1 inch in diameter. The Red-eared Slider can grow up to 12 inches in length. In the United States, it is illegal for pet stores to sell a Red-eared Slider that has a carapace (shell) less than 4 inches in diameter. This is because of the risk of salmonellosis. Please review the article "Salmonellosis and Its Risk to Owners" for more information on reducing your risk of exposure to this disease.

Sexual differences: Red-eared Sliders kept as pets generally reach sexual maturity between 2-4 years of age. In the wild, females may not mature until 5-7 years of age. Females are generally larger than males, though males have longer tails and very long front claws. The cloacal opening on female Red-eared Sliders does not extend past the edge of the shell.

Color: The skin of a Red-eared Slider is green with bright yellow stripes. A patch of red behind each eye gives the Red-eared Slider its common name, although some sliders may be missing this color. Some turtles may also have a small patch of red on top of their heads. The Red-eared Slider has webbed feet and strong claws. The shell of hatchlings is green with a fine pattern of yellow-green to dark green markings. As the turtles mature, the carapace may become yellow or olive green, with the fine pattern changing into dark lines or patches on each scute. Portions of the shell may be white, yellow, or even red. As the turtle ages, even the lines and patches may slowly disappear until the shell is a uniform dark olive green or greenish-brown. Some male turtles will become "melanistic" (uniformly dark gray or black).

Breeders have developed two other color morphs (strains). One is the pastel, which is lighter in color with varying amounts of red and yellow. The other is the albino, which is bright yellow as a juvenile. The color fades as the turtle ages.

Life expectancy: The Red-eared Slider can live 50-70 years.


Turtles soon acclimate to new environments, though they may spend the first several days hidden within their shells. Soon, however, they will associate your presence with food, and will greet you with anticipation. If a Red-eared Slider feels threatened, however, just like other pets, it may bite.

Light: If possible, provide exposure to direct sunlight, but guarantee the temperature within the cage will not become too high. NEVER place a glass or acrylic aquarium in direct sun, as it may become too warm. If the outside temperature is within the turtle's comfort zone, it could be placed in an outside tub. Be sure it can not escape and that it is safe from small children and predators.

Full spectrum ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) fluorescent lighting should be used to enhance the turtle's production of Vitamin D-3, and provide it with a more natural habitat. Bulbs must be replaced after 6 months, as their ability to emit true full-spectrum light diminishes over time. The light source should be within 18-24 inches of the turtle. The light should shine directly on the turtle, and not be filtered through glass or plastic. It should be on a timer so the turtle has a normal day-night cycle.

Water: Red-eared Sliders need a water temperature of 75-86°F. Remember, they are cold-blooded animals and their metabolism will slow and they will become inactive if the temperature is too cold. This can also have an adverse effect on their digestive systems and result in severe health problems. Water temperature can be maintained through the use of a submersible aquarium heater, which is on a thermostat. In general, estimate that you will need 5 watts per gallon of water. Be sure the thermometer is below the water line, and turn it off when removing water from the aquarium. Follow the manufacturer's directions to prevent the risk of electrocution. An accurate thermometer should be immersed in the water so the temperature can be monitored daily.

Water quality is critical to the health of the turtle. Because uneaten food items, urine, and feces can contaminate the water, it becomes a very suitable place for bacteria and other organisms to grow. This is unhealthy for your turtle, and not very aesthetic for you, since the aquarium will smell. The aquarium will need to be cleaned, and the water removed and replaced on a regular basis. Be sure, when changing the water, to have it at the right temperature before placing your turtle back in the aquarium. In addition, a dechlorinating agent should be used to treat the water prior to adding it to the aquarium.

How often the water needs to be changed depends, to a large part, on whether the turtle is fed in the aquarium or moved to a separate feeding tank, and if there is a filtration system in the tank. If moved for feeding, the water will generally need changing weekly. To accomplish this, a siphon is used to remove a portion, usually 25-50%, of the water. The siphon can be used like a vacuum cleaner, to remove debris from the bottom while it is siphoning water. Every 1-2 months, depending upon the conditions, the entire aquarium should be drained, cleaned, and refilled. Never start a siphon with your mouth.

There are a variety of aquarium filters which can be used to remove some of the debris and chemical buildup from the water in the aquarium. Depending upon the design and size of your aquarium and turtle, an external canister, internal canister, or an undergravel filter are most commonly used. External filters allow more room for your turtle inside the aquarium. As with the size of aquarium, the bigger the better; never skimp. The use of an air stone may help to move water and improve filtration.

Adding aquatic plants can assist in removing wastes from the water, but also may be eaten by the turtle, and thus produce more waste. You may have to experiment with your own turtle, to see if plants aid or hinder the maintenance of water quality.

Heaters, lighting, and filters should be plugged into a ground-fault interrupter, which will reduce the risk of electrocution if the equipment malfunctions, or if it is nonsubmersible and becomes wet. To avoid the possibility of water running down the power cord into the receptacle, either have the interrupter higher than the aquarium, or form a drip loop so that part of the cord is below the receptacle on the interrupter.

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