5 Biggest Mistakes Pet Turtle Owners Make

Most common pet turtle species are rather hardy, and can often endure sometimes foolish decisions made by their owners. But that doesn't mean their life won't still be miserable! 

Here are 5 mistakes that you absolutely want to make sure you avoid


Mistake #1: Putting Them Inside a Tank That is Too Small 

small turtle tank

This is by far, the biggest mistake that I have seen with pet turtle owners. 

Turtles need as much space as you can give them.

Think about it. If you were an animal, and you lived in an environment that spanned hundreds and hundreds of miles, would you want to be confined to a 10 by 10 inch glass jar your entire life?? ​

And while some people might be inclined to snap back that "They are animals!".  Try this. Put a turtle into a small bowl that it can't climb out of and watch it try to escape, then ask yourself why it's trying to escape. You wouldn't want to be confined to small quarters, and neither do turtles

Here are the simple rules when it comes to determining how much space to give your turtle: 

For every 1 inch of your biggest turtle, you will need 10 gallons of tank space. 

5 inch turtle = 50 gallon tank minimum. ​

Please note, that these are minimum requirements

Ideally, you should give an 10-20 gallons of space on top of that, just to be safe.

What this means for practical purposes is that the overwhelming vast majority of time, if you have a pet turtle, you are probably going to need at least a 55 gallon tank. ​

I'm convinced that the number #1 reason that most pet turtles skimp on the size of their turtle tanks is due to cost. Most owners would simply rather not shelve out $100+ for a tank. 

And while in this case I would rather the owner simply not get a turtle to begin with, tanks don't need to be expensive. A simple 55-gallon+ tub could do.  A lot of times these tubs actually have a lot more space than most tanks, as well. ​

You don't need to spend a lot of money on a tank, but just be aware that turtles need their space! 

Mistake #2: Not Using a Proper Filter And UV Light


Filters are more important than simply making sure that your turtle is swimming, drinking and living in clean, fresh water. 

They are also important because a proper filter cleans out excessive ammonia that your turtle secretes. ​

If your turtle tank's water has too much ammonia, that can potentially maim or even kill your turtle. 

Ideally, you should always have a proper filter that also uses biological filtration, a process that breaks down the ammonia your turtle secretes (through waste) into nitrite, with which then another biological media (on the filter) breaks that down into nitrate, which is much, much less toxic and harmful to turtles. ​

Check out our post here on this topic: 

What is the Best Filter for Turtles? ​

Secondly, a proper UV light will also be needed. 

This is absolutely necessary if your turtles are nowhere near any natural sun. ​

I would also argue that it's necessary even if you think your turtle is getting enough sun, because chances are, it's probably not (a lot of that sunlight is probably being blocked through your turtle's tank, another window, etc.). 

Pet turtles need a light source for 3 reason: 

  • A light source for heat
  • UV-A light for metabolism, breeding and the regulation of their mood. 
  • UV-B light for the healthy production of the vitamin D3.

Without this, your turtle will eventually die. 

Check out this post here for a more information. 

UVB Lights for Turtles. 

Mistake #3: Not Knowing What Water Level They Need

This is also an extremely common mistake, but one that is also very easily rectified. 

Basically, what this all boils down to is this: ​

Different turtle species need different amounts of water in their tank. 

One of your first tasks when obtaining or purchasing a new turtle is to figure out what type of turtle it is: 


Here are 3 general rules to follow: 

  • Water turtles (such as red-eared sliders) should have ~75% of their habitat be water areas
  • Tortoises should have ~75% of their habitat be devoted to land areas 
  • Other turtle and terrapin species should have a ~50/50% split between water and land

Red-eared sliders, one of the most common pet turtle species, are rather easy to figure out. They will need a large tank (55 gallon minimum) and for it to be filled most of the way. Sliders are water turtles and live 75% of their lives in water. The more water, the better. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why an above the tank basking dock is perfect for these turtles. 

For certain other species of turtle, such as many box turtles, it's better that that they have a roughly equal distribution between land and water. 

An easy, fool-proof method to quickly figure this out is to simply look at your turtle's feet. Are they webbed, partially webbed or not at all? Webbed feet = more water. No webbing = more land. ​

Mistake #4  : Over Or Under Feeding Them

Another big mistake, this one can be easily avoided

  • Generally, turtles (under 6 months old) will need to eat a protein source every day.
  • Between 6 months and a year that protein source can be reduce to every other day.
  • Turtles older than a year old can be fed a protein source every 2-3 days. ​

In general, turtles tend to become more herbivorous as they get older. Younger turtles tend to be more carnivous. 

Feeding your turtle too much, in particular protein such as shrimp, fish, cooked chicken, etc. can lead to your turtle developing a fatty liver and other harmful health defects. It can also lead to excessive shell growth, and premature death. 

A lot of pet turtle owners are tempted to feed their turtles protein sources because seemingly, they always go for those first!

This is a turtle's natural instinct, as in the wild turtles simply hardly ever have the chance to snack on shrimp, fish, cooked chicken (never this), etc. ​

As turtles almost always have an abundance of edible vegetation around them, they won't jump at the chance to eat that. Live shrimp on the other hand? In the wild, if they don't jump at that, they aren't eating it!

Mistake #5 : Handling Them Too Often 

baby map turtle in hand

Lastly, this is another one of the biggest mistakes that pet turtle owners make. 

​The simple truth is that turtles are a totally different animal species compared to dogs, cats, birds, mice, etc. 

In general, the overwhelming vast majority of turtle species do not enjoy being handled or held. ​

For many turtles, being held by a human will cause them immense stress. 

Now, there are certain species, such as red eared sliders, that tend to handle being held a little bit better than others, but that doesn't mean that you should allow people to handle and pick up your turtle every day. Just be aware that this experience is often frightening and stressful for them. 

If you want to handle a turtle, do it very infrequently (if at all) and only pick up a turtle by holding it under it's shell and feet, rather than by its sides. This will allow the turtle to feel more stable secure and less stressed. 

Overall, if you can avoid these 5 mistakes, your turtle will certainly have a better chance to live a healthy, productive and enjoyable life! 


About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

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