Getting your turtle habitat to look nice can take a fair bit of time, effort and money. So it’s only natural to consider adding fish. But should you?
Can you have turtles and fish in the same tank?
Here’s my sweet and short answer.
Yes, you can put fish and turtles into the same aquarium, but there are a TON of strings attached. Basically, you need to get a lot of things right, and perhaps be a little lucky, in order to really make it work. And because of this, I would probably advise against it for most people.
Here’s the thing.
Mixed Species Tanks Are Difficult to Maintain
Forget about mixing a few fish in with a turtle, it’s hard enough getting just two turtles to behave themselves in the same tank!
In fact, properly maintaining a mixed-species turtle habitat is incredibly hard to do, for the following reasons:
- Turtles that are different species will often fight, injure, maim and kill each other.
- If there are three or more turtles of the same species, and one of them is a female, the males will often fight.
- There are certain species, such as snapping turtles, that you simply cannot mix with anything whatsoever.
- Even a larger turtle of the same species will sometimes resort to bullying, injuring and maiming a smaller turtle.
This just makes things a million times more complicated and difficult.
Can it be done?
Yes, as long as you adhere to these guidelines.
You Will Need an Even Larger Aquarium
The general rule among turtle hobbyists when it comes to aquarium space is:
- 10 gallons of water for every 1 inch of turtle shell, per turtle
And a lot of the common types of turtles that people own can get quite large, such as red-eared sliders.
Now, if you’re going to be adding fish, you’ll need to tack on a little bit more to accommodate them. How much more?
Personally, if you want to add fish to your turtle tank, I would recommend that you ONLY look at tanks 80 gallons and up. An 80 gallon tank can easily accommodate a full-grown female red-eared slider and a few fish.
If your tank is too small, your turtle and the fish are more likely to have aggressive confrontations, even if you’ve got everything else going for you.
You Will Need a Really Good Filtration System
One of the reasons why I recommend turtle owners to seriously consider canister-filtration systems is that they are powerful enough to deal with all of the waste that turtles emit.
And not just waste, but bits and pieces of food that they have torn away, as well as anything else that they nibble off.
Not only are canister filters strong, but most of them have multi-level filtration systems that combine mechanical, biological and even chemical filters to really clean your tank up.
The thing is, if you are going to add fish, you will really need your filtration system to be on point because the vast majority of fish are not nearly as hardy or tough as turtles are.
Basically, turtles can live in some pretty disgusting environments and get away with it. Fish can’t.
You’re going to need something really good and really strong.
And not just that, but you’re also going to need to look at:
- Checking, controlling and maintaining your tank’s pH levels. Generally, it is recommended to check your tank’s pH levels at least monthly, and to strive to maintain a pH level between 6 and 9. You’ll also need to make sure your chlorine and ammonia levels are 0 or at least very close to it.
- Aerating your water. This does a number of things, one of which is pump oxygen into the water to help create an environment for good bacteria to thrive.
You Will Need Hiding Places for Your Fish
A fish that is constantly scrambling around the tank, swimming away frantically from a hungry turtle is a stressed out fish that isn’t going to live for very long.
This should be obvious, but you will need at least a few hiding places for your fish.
These can be places such as:
- Turned-over flowering pots
- PVC pipes
- Pieces of driftwood
- Large rocks
- Commercial fish hideouts
Any of these are OK, but I would recommend that any hideout that you place into your tank follow these guidelines:
- Be safe and secure from your turtle getting inside it and eating the fish
- Be safe and secure from your turtle eating it
Because of this, I would not recommend relying on water-plants to act as hiding places for your fish.
You Will Need the Appropriate Turtle Species
This is something that a lot of people don’t even think about it, but it will really affect your fish’s chances of survival; that being, the species of your turtle!
Certain species of turtles are way more adept and skilled at hunting down and eating fish than others.
In particular, red-eared sliders, painted turtles and cooters are extremely good at this.
Other species, such as mud and musk turtles, are not nearly the skillful hunters as sliders, nor do they seem as interested in hunting.
Believe me when I tell you that introducing a school of fish into a tank with a juvenile red-eared slider is a recipe for disaster!
Now, that doesn’t mean that if you have a slider, painted or cooter that you are out of luck.
If you have one of those species, here is what I would recommend:
Wait until the turtle is older and has matured.
As sliders and painteds get older, they start to eat a lot less protein and a lot more veggies and greens.
When this happens, there is a good chance that your turtle will be less likely to see the fish as a source of food.
You Will Need the Appropriate Species of Fish
Think for just a moment:
“What kind of fish will best thrive in a closed environment with a turtle?”
If “quick”, “intelligent” and even “feisty” were some of the first words that popped into your head, you would be right on the money!
There are a lot of fish that simply do not work well with turtles, and a much smaller number of fish that can.
All of the species I have ever seen that have worked well with turtles have had several of the following traits:
- They were quick and speedy. Essentially, they could easily get away from a slower, more lumbering turtle in pursuit.
- They were small or slender. Medium-sized fish, or even fish with long fins and tails are much less able to make speedy escapes.
- They were intelligent (at least for a fish). You can have the fastest fish in the world, but if it thinks it’s going to survive by simply remaining still in the midst of a turtle, it’s not going to be alive for very long.
- They were a bit feisty. You will have to be a bit careful here, because you don’t want a fish that is TOO aggressive. Basically, a fish that can nip back is going to be a lot more likely to scare away your turtle than one that just gets chased everywhere.
The 3 Best Fish That Can Live with Turtles
There are 3 species of fish that I have found work well with most common pet turtle species. They are:
- Tetra fish.
- Zebra fish.
- Yellow cichlids.
For someone who has never added fish to a turtle tank, I would strongly recommend starting out with a small school of tetra or zebra fish.
For one, both of these species are quite cheap. They are also pretty easy to get, as your local pet store probably has them.
Both of these species only grow to between 1 and 2 inches in captivity, but more importantly, they are freshwater fish that are sleek, quick, speedy and have a bit of smarts.
Introducing a small school of either species is a good way to test the waters (literally) and see how your turtle will react, and how long your fish will live.
Once you have a bit of success with any of those species, you can start to consider adding something like a yellow cichlid.
Yellow cichlids are from Africa, can thrive in aquariums, get a bit bigger (around 4 inches), look absolutely stunning but perhaps most importantly, are just the right amount of feisty!
Note: I am ONLY talking specifically about electric yellow cichlids (labidochromis caeruleus) and not any other cichlid species, including but not limited to:
- Convict cichlids
- Red Devil cichlids
- Wolf cichlids
Cichlids in general are very territorial, and can become very aggressive, particularly when they are mating. For this reason, if you do decide to add a few yellow cichlids to your tank, I would recommend only adding a few. A group of fully-grown, aggressive cichlids can easily turn the tables on your turtle and injure it.
Never Put These in Your Tank
Basically, you will want to avoid putting anything that is too aggressive, or anything that can potentially injure, main or kill your turtle in the same aquarium.
This means avoiding the following species at all costs!
- Electric eels
With that being said, are there any other species that can live with turtles? Here are my views on some of the more common species.
Can Turtles Live With Tropical Fish?
In general, I would not recommend adding any type of tropical fish to your turtle’s tank. The reason for this is that many tropical fish have very long tails and fins, and otherwise attract a lot of unwanted attention to themselves.
At some point or another, your turtle is going to get curious and take a nip at any type of fish that you add to your tank, tetra, zebra and cichlid included.
The tetras and zebras will quickly escape, as will the cichlids, or at the very least, fight back and give your turtle pause to give chase.
Lots of tropical fish on the other hand have these very long, elegant fins and tails that are just asking to get trapped inside your turtle’s mouth. It’s simply a lot more difficult for these type of fish to escape and hide from your turtle.
Can Turtles Live With Goldfish?
One of the most common questions I have seen is whether goldfish can live with turtles.
As with tropical fish, I would recommend that you don’t group them together with turtles, for a few reasons:
- Goldfish are cold-water fish that thrive in temperatures that are slightly less than ideal for turtles (basically anything over 74 degrees Fahrenheit is considered too warm for goldfish).
- Goldfish produce a ridiculous amount of waste. These things are essentially the turtles of the fish world. They excrete an insane amount of ammonia, which means it’s going to be all that more difficult to keep your water’s ammonia level, nitrite level and pH level in check.
- Moreover, they can grow large! If not eaten, they can easily grow larger than the turtle that they are sharing your tank with, and can easily over-breed in your tank.
Can Turtles Live With Koi Fish?
Koi fish can work well with turtles, but I would still not recommend them over other species such as zebras and tetras.
For starters, they can be expensive to purchase, and if you purchase a baby Koi fish, there is a good chance that all you will have done is give your turtle an expensive gourmet dinner meal.
Secondly, Koi fish can grow really big. They can easily grow to sizes much bigger than your turtle. If you have something like a pond habitat, they will probably work really well, but less so for most indoor aquariums.
To sum up everything:
- Fish and turtles can live in the same tank together, provided several of the following factors are on point.
- Your aquarium tank is large enough to accommodate both turtles and fish.
- Your filter is strong enough to accommodate the extra load that fish will put on your water quality.
- Put hiding places for the fish to hide and relax from your turtle.
- You have a turtle that is less interested in eating fish, such as mud and musk turtles.
- You picked a fish species that is intelligent, slender and speedy, such as tetras, zebras or yellow cichlids.
- Avoid pairing up turtles and goldfish or any other tropical fish species.
- Avoid any type of fish or creature that has the ability to injure, main or kill your turtle.