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How to Care for Your Red-Eared Slider

How to Care for Your Red-Eared Slider



Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) are large, semi-aquatic, diurnal reptiles native to much of North America. They are one of the most common turtles on the continent, as well as prolifically invasive in many parts of the world, where they can be found in just about any slow-moving or still body of freshwater.

Red-eared sliders can grow as large as 12 inches long. They have a smooth shell that starts out as bright green when they’re young and darkens to brown, olive, or dark green with some yellow striping. The skin is striped green and yellow, with a distinctive red stripe behind each eye. The plastron is yellow with dark markings.

Red-eared sliders are popular pets, but they take up a lot of space and have very specific needs which require specific equipment to meet. This can make their enclosure inconvenient and expensive to set up. Also keep in mind that this pet can live up to 40 years.

Note: Red-eared sliders may be very common in the US, but that is not a reason to take one from the wild! If you want a pet red-eared slider, 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 red-eared sliders need?

Red-eared sliders are amphibious and fairly active, so they need an enclosure that will appropriately accommodate their preferred lifestyle. One of the most common errors in keeping this species is keeping them in an enclosure that is too small. 

So what is the right size? The enclosure should be large enough to provide at least 10 gallons of water per inch of the turtle’s expected adult length, which means you will need at least 120 gallons of water. Although an aquarium can be adapted for the purpose, a Waterland tub is the best style of enclosure for this species. 

Can red-eared sliders be kept in outdoor ponds?

Red-eared sliders tend to do best 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. 

Benefits of housing your turtle outdoors are that you don’t have to worry about heating and lighting equipment, and it’s easier to give them the space that they need. However, it’s not a perfect arrangement. You will need to make sure the enclosure is well secured against both escape and potential predators, and temporary indoor housing may need to be provided during winter.

Can red-eared sliders be kept together?

It is best practice not to house multiple red-eared sliders in the same enclosure unless you have a large pond. This is because it’s important for the turtles to be able to get away from each other when tensions rise. When they can’t escape, violent conflict becomes more likely.

Other tips for successful cohabitation of red-eared sliders: Increase the size of the pond by 50% per each additional turtle, and provide an extra-large basking platform or multiple basking locations.

Red-eared slider quarantine procedure

Note that it’s best to quarantine your new pet first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease. 

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the turtle might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the turtle in long-term, or you can do this with a stock tank. As long as it is set up appropriately, this can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful red-eared slider quarantine:

  • Keep the turtle in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same equipment for the new turtle as for your other reptiles.
  • Get the turtle checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Fully drain, scrub, and disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Observe and/or test for symptoms of disease or illness.

A reptile should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.


Do red-eared sliders need UVB?

Red-eared sliders require regular exposure to high-quality UVB in order to maintain good health. 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. 

If your turtle is being housed indoors, then artificial UVB lighting is required to help compensate for the lack of sunlight. The best UVB bulbs for red-eared sliders 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. UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance.

Lights should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter. Alternatively, you can use a smart timer to sync your turtle’s lights with local sunrise and sunset times.

How to measure UVB for a red-eared slider

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically on the basking area at the height of the turtle’s back, the device should read between 3.0-4.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Other lighting needs for red-eared sliders

As a diurnal (day-active) species, red-eared sliders are stimulated by and benefit from bright light in their environment. Heat and UVB lamps are not enough to simulate the brightness of sunlight. In addition to your heat and UVB lamps, it’s best to install a ~6500K LED or T5 HO grow lamp long enough to illuminate most of the enclosure. 


What basking temperatures do red-eared sliders need?

Red-eared sliders 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 red-eared slider’s indoor enclosure should offer:

  • Basking (surface temp): 104°F
  • Basking (air temp): 85-90°F

Measure basking temperature with a temperature gun (surface temp) or digital probe thermometer (air temp).

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.

What water temperatures do red-eared sliders need?

Because they’re semiaquatic, red-eared sliders have preferred water temperatures as well as basking temperatures. Water that is too cold can cause illness, and water that is too warm can also be harmful. It’s also important to keep in mind that juvenile and adult red-eared sliders tend to occupy/tolerate different water depths, which affects their heating needs as pets:

  • Water (juveniles): 78-82°F
  • Water (subadults/adults): 70-88°F

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. However, don’t rely on the heater’s thermostat to keep tabs on water temperature — use a high-quality digital aquarium thermometer as a backup.

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.


How do you keep a red-eared slider’s water clean?

Red-eared sliders 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. This is one of the most important things to do as part of caring for your pet turtle!

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 120 gallons of water, you will need a canister filter rated for at least 240 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.

How to clean a red-eared slider enclosure

Water filters rely on a certain amount of beneficial bacteria to run properly, so full clean-outs are not necessary for an established turtle setup beyond the maintenance outlined above. However, full clean-outs complete with disinfection are a necessary part of proper quarantine. Here’s the process:

  1. Remove the turtle from its enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container such as a plastic storage tub. This tub should be filled with a few inches of water from the turtle’s enclosure, along with a basking platform and heat lamp for the turtle’s comfort. 
  2. Completely empty the enclosure.
  3. Wipe down the enclosure to remove algae and leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Scrub all décor and accessories to remove algae and grime, then soak in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. Rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Add water and appropriate dose of water conditioner.
  8. Replace basking platform, if using, and other decor.
  9. Reintroduce your turtle to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.


What substrate is good for red-eared sliders?

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 and crushed coral are the best options. This must be cleaned with a siphon regularly, preferably at each water change. Avoid pebbles or gravel, as these will cause problems if ingested.

Substrate should not be used in a quarantine setup in order to make the enclosure easier to keep clean.


What décor can you use in a red-eared slider enclosure?

It’s terribly boring for a turtle to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except water and a basking platform. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with, and red-eared sliders tend to get bored easily!

Here are some 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 spacious enough that the turtle can’t get stuck, as this can lead to drowning!

How to create a turtle basking platform

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). This can be level with the water, or mounted on top of the tank.

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.

Make sure that the turtle can’t use its basking platform to escape from the enclosure.

What live plants can be used with red-eared sliders?

Red-eared sliders can be very hard on the live plants in their enclosure. Aside from omnivore nibbling, they also tend to manually dig up and shred the plants in their environment. This is a natural foraging behavior that can be rather inconvenient in captivity, but can also be a great source of enrichment. 

Choosing plants that are large and/or  sturdy enough to withstand your turtle’s behavior will last longer. Here are a few options that work well:

  • Amazon Sword 
  • Arrowhead 
  • Crystalwort 
  • Duckweed 
  • Eelgrass
  • Fanwort 
  • Frogbit
  • Hairgrass 
  • Hornwort
  • Java Fern 
  • Java Moss
  • Moneywort 
  • Moss balls
  • Parrot’s Feather 
  • Pondweed 
  • Pothos 
  • Red Ludwigia 
  • Water Fern 
  • Water Hawthorn 
  • Water Hyacinth
  • Waterweed 

Don’t use other varieties, as they may be toxic.

Note that larger plants are usually sturdier and more resilient. However, red-eared sliders are notoriously destructive, so expect to periodically replace your plants.


What do red-eared sliders eat?

Red-eared sliders 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:

Red-eared sliders younger than 6 months:

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

Red-eared sliders between 6-12 months:

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

Red-eared sliders older than 1 year:

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

Red-eared sliders are unable to eat out of water, so all food must be offered in the turtle’s swimming area rather than in a food dish.

Animal-based foods for red-eared sliders 

Here are some ways you can meet your turtle’s protein needs:

A portion of protein food should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.

Vegetable foods for red-eared sliders

Here are some good options for meeting your turtle’s needs for greenery in its diet:

  • collard greens
  • dandelion greens + flowers
  • endive
  • green leaf lettuce
  • kale
  • red leaf lettuce
  • romaine lettuce
  • duckweed
  • filamentous algae
  • water hyacinth
  • water lettuce

These can be offered chopped or as whole leaves. A portion of chopped/shredded vegetables should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s shell. 

Pellets for red-eared sliders

Here are some high-quality commercial diets that you can use to supplement your red-eared slider’s diet:

A portion of pellets should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.

Do red-eared sliders need dietary supplements?

Powder supplements don’t work for aquatic turtles, as the powder washes off of their food in the water, and they can’t eat out of water. Fortunately, pellets meet your turtle’s needs for extra vitamins. As for extra calcium, however, your turtle should have access to a cuttlebone or calcium block at all times.

If using a cuttlebone, it must be prepared beforehand by having the plastic backing removed. Breaking it into pieces for giving to your turtle is optional.


Do red-eared sliders 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 shell-cleaning, 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.

How to handle your red-eared slider

When it’s necessary to handle your turtle, there are a few rules you can follow to make the experience as stress-free as possible for all parties involved:

  • It’s best to encourage the turtle to come out of the enclosure and into its holding container on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Use a treat as a bribe to lead the way.
  • Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.
  • Pick up the turtle from below rather than above, keeping your fingers away from its head.
  • Stay hands-off as much as possible, keeping the turtle inside its container instead.

Enrichment ideas for red-eared sliders

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that reptiles are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. All reptiles, including turtles, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your red-eared slider is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your turtle’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. You can make your own, or use a pre-made solution such as the Zoo Med Turtle Feeder. One DIY idea is to freeze pieces of food in an ice cube. You can also hide food in various places around the enclosure for the turtle to find.
  • Live food. If you’re comfortable with it, offering live fish to your turtle to chase around is a good way to give them some food-motivated exercise. Note: not all turtles may be interested in hunting their food.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Note: not all turtles may enjoy this. If taking your turtle outdoors, only introduce it to clean bodies of water where it can be easily retrieved (ex: plastic kiddie pool), and use a collapsible pen to make sure it can’t escape. Also make sure the turtle has a source of shade to use as needed.


Signs you need to take your red-eared slider to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including turtles. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Open wounds
  • Discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Shell discoloration
  • Unusual shell texture/shape
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to swim properly
  • Twitching


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 red-eared slider turtles. Here are some other great sources to read:


"Red-eared slider Turtle in pond in Zeist, Netherlands - 2057" by HereIsTom is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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