There are a few commonly encountered terrapin species in captivity, but the most common is the red-eared terrapin. The Red-eared terrapin or slider is a semi-aquatic freshwater chelonian originating from the temperate regions of Southern and Central USA. These terrapins can grow up to 20cm as adults, and live for over 30 years. Other species of Trachemys scripta include the Yellowbellied terrain (T. scripta scripta), which is becoming a more popular pet, and has similar husbandry requirements, so the following care sheet will outline basic care of any of these subspecies.
Red-eared terrapins should be housed in an enclosure which is easy to clean, insulate and keep secure. They should have access to both a land area where they can rest and bask, and a water area where they can swim. A combination of real and plastic plants will also provide hiding places, and add interest to a terrapin’s environment.
The water area should have a gentle slope providing easy access, be of a reasonable depth, with a decent filtration system being an essential requirement. The aim of the filter is to ensure good water circulation and a high standard of water quality, as dirty stagnant water poses a health risk both to terrapins and to humans. It is worth bearing in mind that the waste produced by terrapins is much more than most filter units intended for aquariums can handle, and a powerful filter may be required for larger terrapins. External canister filters are usually the most effective for adult terrapins, drastically reducing the need for frequent water changes, although internal canister filters can work well for small hatchlings.
Maintenance of the filter system is the most important way to maintain good hygiene and the filter will need cleaning regularly, but even with a filter system, regular water changes will be necessary. The land area of the tank should also be cleaned out at least weekly and a suitable disinfectant used.
Temperatures and humidity
Reptiles are ectothermic so a heat source is required.
A basking area is created using a spot bulb, providing a basking temperature of 32.0 C. This should be kept on all day. The water temperature should be maintained at 24-26.0 C, with temperatures no lower than 20.0 C overnight. There are several types of heat sources available, with an underwater heater being the most effective at providing background heat. Underwater heaters however, are generally designed for fish, so can be easily destroyed and dangerous to large boisterous turtles, and only the sturdiest varieties should be used. The temperatures should be measured with a maximum/minimum thermometer. During the cold winter months careful checking is required to ensure that the heat sources are keeping the tank sufficiently warm. Heat sources should be guarded or kept at a height to prevent thermal burns.
Terrapins must be exposed to UV-b light.
The best sources are the mercury vapour lamps which give out heat as well. This will need to be on all day for 12 hours and at an appropriate distance from the terrapin as recommended by the manufacturer. A small branch or rock can be placed below the basking site. Care should be taken using mercury vapour bulbs in a small vivarium as temperatures may become too high and these lamps cannot be fitted to a thermostat.
Alternatively other UV-b bulbs are available (please ask for further information on UV light in reptiles).
All UV-b bulbs should be checked regularly for their UV output and should be changed at least as frequently as manufacturer’s instructions.
In general the happiest terrapin is the solitary terrapin. Adults can be maintained in single sex groups of up to five in suitable accommodation.
What to feed
Red-eared terrapins are naturally omnivorous, eating a variety of insects, fish and plant matter. In captivity therefore, animal matter should make up 70-80% of the diet, with the remaining 20-30% being green leafy vegetables or aquatic plants. Animal matter may include rehydrated low fat dried cat, dog or trout pellets, raw small fish, bloodworms, earthworms, and good quality proprietary foods. Fresh food should be provided daily to juveniles, and every 2-3 days to adults, ideally no more than can be consumed in 30-40 minutes. Feeding in a separate tank will help keep the water clean, but frequent handling may stress some terrapins, so may not be appropriate in every case. Supplementation is important, and a vitamin and mineral powder with high calcium content is required. It is important to ensure the phosphorous content is low.
All reptiles can potentially carry Salmonella.
However it is rarely a cause of illness in reptiles and treatment is not required.
It can be transmitted to people (especially young children or those who are immunocompromised) so good hygiene after handing the reptile is important. Generally washing your hands in soap is sufficient. There are commercially available disinfectants that can be used as an alternative.
Download our Terrapin caresheet