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How to Care for Your Painted Turtle

How to Care for Your Painted Turtle

Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) are medium-sized, semi-aquatic, diurnal reptiles native to much of North America. They are one of the most common turtles on the continent, and can be found in just about any slow-moving or still body of freshwater within their range. 

Adult painted turtles can be as small as 5 inches or as large as 10 inches, depending on subspecies. They have a smooth, streamlined shell that is dark green to black in color, with some having red edges or pale seams between the scutes. Their plastron is often red and/or yellow, and may have an irregular pattern of black lines.

Painted turtles are popular pets, but they have very specific needs which require specific equipment to meet. This can make their enclosure inconvenient and expensive to set up. But when you’ve dedicated yourself to caring for this pet properly, they can live up to 40 years.

Note: Painted turtles may be very common in the US, but that is not a reason to take one from the wild! If you want a pet painted turtle, purchase one from a breeder or adopt one from a rescue or your local classifieds. Never take reptiles from the wild! 

How much space do painted turtles need?

Painted turtles are amphibious and fairly active, so they need an enclosure that will appropriately accommodate their preferred lifestyle. The enclosure should be large enough to provide at least 10 gallons of water per inch of the turtle’s expected adult length. Unless you know your painted turtle’s subspecies and expected maximum adult length, it’s safest to invest in an enclosure with 100 gallons of water. Although an aquarium can be adapted for the purpose, a Waterland tub is the best style of enclosure for this species. Water depth isn’t much of a concern even with juveniles of this species, as they’re very strong swimmers.

Painted turtles tend to do well when housed outdoors where local climate permits, even if it’s just during part of the year. Depending on the subspecies, where you live, and how you’ve set up your pond, it may even be safe for them to hibernate through the winter. Outdoor housing is a convenient way to provide your turtle with plenty of space and “free” heating and lighting, but make sure the enclosure is well secured against both escape and potential predators.

Painted turtles often get along fairly well in groups as long as there’s extra space for the additional individuals, so cohabitation is an option. However, it’s not required for the animal’s wellbeing.

Do painted turtles need UVB?

Painted turtles require regular exposure to high-quality UVB in order to maintain optimal health and wellbeing. Providing UVB lighting to your turtle gives them all of the vitamin D that their body needs, stimulates better appetite and activity, and strengthens the immune system, as well as other benefits. 

The best UVB bulbs for painted turtles are:

  • Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
  • Arcadia Forest 6%

The UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place the lamp close to the heat lamps, about 13-14” above the basking platform if there’s no mesh obstruction, but 8-11” away if there is mesh.

It’s also a good idea to provide a strong LED or T5 HO 6500K daylight lamp for additional illumination. This helps better replicate daylight and is also good for any live plants you may be using.

UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance. If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, supplementary lighting is not required.

Lights should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter.

What basking temperatures do painted turtles need?

Painted turtles are ectotherms, which means that they rely on the variable temperatures of their environment to help regulate their metabolism and stay healthy. Here’s the range of temperatures a painted turtle’s indoor enclosure should offer:

  • Basking (air temp): 88-94°F
  • Water (juveniles): 78-80°F
  • Water (subadults/adults): 70-76°F

Measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer, and water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer.

A good way to warm the basking area is with a couple of halogen flood heat lamps clustered on one side of the enclosure and positioned over a sturdy basking branch or rock. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Increase the wattage if they’re too cool, and use a plug-in lamp dimmer if they’re too warm.

If you need to heat the water, use a high-quality aquarium heater rated for at least the maximum volume of water in the enclosure.

If you are housing your turtle outdoors, supplementary heating should not be required. However, they may need to be brought indoors for the winter once temperatures in your area get below 50°F.

What water conditions do painted turtles need?

Painted turtles are semi-aquatic, which means that most of the enclosure should be water. This water must be kept clean at all times in order to keep your turtle healthy (and to keep the aquarium attractive). The most efficient way to do this is with a combination of excellent filtration and regular water changes.

Aquatic turtles are fairly messy creatures, so you will need a canister-style filter capable of handling at least 2-3x the amount of water in the enclosure. So, if you have an aquarium or pond with 100 gallons of water, you will need a canister filter rated for at least 200 gallons of water. Don’t settle for the cheapest filter you can find — this is one aspect of your turtle’s enclosure not to skimp on!

Once every 1-2 weeks, remove and replace approximately 30% of the aquarium/pond’s total water volume. This helps minimize buildup of toxic compounds in the water that a filter is unable to resolve. To make the job easier, use a siphon or water pump.

Both indoor and outdoor turtle ponds require filtration and water changes.

Conditioning the water to remove chlorine and chloramines with a reptile-safe product such as Zoo Med ReptiSafe may be beneficial.

What substrate is good for painted turtles?

If you are using a Waterland tub or similar setup, the land portion of the enclosure should offer several inches of moist, sandy soil. You can do this with Zoo Med Reptisoil or by mixing your own substrate with approximately 80% clean topsoil and 20% play sand (measured by volume).

Substrate is not required in the aquatic portion of the enclosure, although it does offer a form of enrichment when provided, encouraging natural behaviors. Sand, crushed coral, and river pebbles are all appropriate options. This must be cleaned with a siphon regularly, preferably at each water change.

What décor can you use in a painted turtle enclosure?

The most essential piece of “décor” you will need in your turtle’s enclosure is going to be a basking platform. Ideally, this should be a partitioned-off area of land where the turtle can climb out of the water, bask, explore, and burrow (as discussed above). If that is not possible, securely stacked rocks, a large piece of wood, or a commercially-available turtle basking platform can be used as a basking location. The turtle should be able to easily climb onto the platform, and it must be large enough for the turtle to remove its entire body from the water and walk around a bit.

Aside from the basking area, there are additional ways you can increase the enclosure’s functionality and general attractiveness. Here are some ideas:

  • live/artificial plants
  • mopani wood
  • hollow logs

Make sure your turtle has access to places where it can hide from view as needed. Hollow underwater hiding areas should be large enough that the turtle can’t get suck, as this can lead to drowning!

What do painted turtles eat?

Painted turtles are omnivores, which means that they need to eat a balanced diet of both plant- and animal-based foods to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a general feeding schedule to follow:

Painted turtles younger than 6 months:

  • 50% protein / 50% vegetables
  • protein food or pellets daily
  • vegetable food daily

Painted turtles between 6-12 months:

  • 50% protein / 50% vegetables
  • protein food or pellets every other day
  • vegetable food daily

Painted turtles older than 1 year:

  • 25% protein / 75% vegetables
  • protein food or pellets 2-3x/week
  • vegetable food daily

A portion of chopped/shredded vegetables should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s shell. A portion of pellets or protein food should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.

Animal-based foods for painted turtles: crickets, earthworms, dubia roaches, freeze-dried shrimp/krill, frozen bloodworms, blackworms, silkworms, snails, guppies, mollies, platies, mosquito fish, crayfish, mussels

Vegetable foods for painted turtles: collard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, endive, green leaf lettuce, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, duckweed, filamentous algae, water hyacinth, water lettuce

Pellets for painted turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet

For extra calcium, your turtle should have access to a cuttlebone or calcium block at all times.

Do painted turtles like to be handled?

As a general rule, turtles do not like to be handled. Keep handling to a minimum unless it is absolutely necessary for inspection or transportation (ex: going to the vet for a checkup). If you would like to interact with your turtle, try hand-feeding it with a pair of feeding tongs.

*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species.

"Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)" by Greg Schechter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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