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How to Take Care of a Baby Turtle: Tank Setup, Diet, Behaviors, and More

Bringing a baby turtle into the home as a pet is an exciting time. When providing the best care to a young turtle, there are many things to consider. 

These ectotherms need a delicate balance of environmental conditions to function and a safe enclosure.

Baby turtles also need a specific diet to ensure healthy growth and development. Knowledge and understanding of turtles help you care for your new baby turtle. Here’s a beginner’s guide to all you need to know.

How to Take Care of A Baby Turtle

  • Set up a tank
  • Provide heat and UV
  • Feed the appropriate diet
  • Understand their behaviors
  • Clean regularly
  • Practise good personal hygiene

Can You Have a Turtle as a Pet?

There are a variety of turtle species that are safe and legal to keep as pets. The legalities of ownership vary from state to state, and each species has unique care requirements.

Turtles are not traditional pets, and they are not affectionate or domesticated and dislike most interaction. But many species are kept for hobby reasons. 

Some species are not legal to keep as pets; these are usually large exotic types. Many smaller and more widespread species are common pets. 

When choosing a pet turtle species, ensure you research the legislation of pet ownership[1] in your locality. We also recommended you do thorough research on your breeder to ensure they have obtained the baby turtle by ethical breeding and not wild poaching.

3 Types of Turtles That Make Great Pets

  1. Red-Eared Slider
  2. Box Turtle
  3. Painted Turtle
Can You Have a Turtle as a Pet

Baby Turtle Tank Set-Up

Baby turtles need a safe, secure tank environment with clean water for swimming and dry land for resting and basking. They need enough room to move freely and space for their growth.

Tank

The bigger size tank you can provide for your turtle, the better. More space allows for a dynamic environment that encourages natural behaviors. A baby turtle should have a minimum tank size of 20 gallons.

Most species need a larger space as they grow, so putting your baby turtle in a larger tank from the beginning is recommended. Turtle keepers operate on the “rule of shell” — the tank should hold 10 gallons for every inch of the shell. 

Do not position the tank in direct sunlight as it can dramatically increase temperatures inside the enclosure.

Related: How to Take Care of A Baby Red Eared Slider

Red-Eared Slider Baby: minimum 20 gal Adult: minimum 50 gal
Box Turtle Baby: minimum 20 gal Adult: minimum 60 gal
Painted Turtle Baby: minimum 20 gal Adult: minimum 70 gal

Water

Use only fresh, clean water in your turtle’s tank. Turtles are indicator species, their presence in an environment indicates good water quality, they vulnerable to water changes.[2]

Turtles produce a lot of ammonia and nitrite[3] in their waste. A good filter is vital for keeping water at safe levels, and a complete water change should occur approximately every 1–2 weeks.

The addition of aquatic plants can help biofilter waste, reducing harmful ammonia levels in the water.

Baby Turtle Tank
Image Source

Heat and UV

Turtles are ectotherms with a metabolism powered by external thermoregulation. In indoor environments, turtles need artificial sources of heat and UV that the sun would otherwise provide. 

A basking lamp provides this heat, UV, and light. If the basking lamp does not reach the correct temperatures, add an additional heat lamp.

The basking lamp should be placed on one end of the enclosure, above the land area. This creates a gradient of heat and UV across the enclosure, so your turtle can self-regulate their temperature.

Basking temperature 85-90°F*
General air temperature 78 to 82°F*
Night-time temperature 65-70°F*
UVI (ultra-violent index) 1.0–2.6*
Hours of light 8–10

*These are general ranges only; specific ranges depend on turtle species

Additional Furnishings

In addition to this basic tank set-up, the environment should include various furnishings to enrich the life of the turtle. These can be altered on a regular basis to provide the stimulation of exploring a new environment.

  • Floating platforms – Platforms placed in the water can provide environmental enrichment for aquatic species, and it allows for the expression of natural behaviors and maintenance of physical fitness.
  • Hides – As a prey species, turtles are naturally skittish. Creating hiding spaces on land and in the water creates safe spaces for your turtle. They prefer to rest in hides than out in the open.
  • Ramps – Baby turtles struggle to get out of the water to higher ground. To facilitate this movement, add ramps with a low slope.
  • Substrate – Terrestrial turtle species bury themselves in a substrate such as leaves. Varying substrates can replicate their natural environment and offer comfort.
  • Plants – Add plants to help purify the air and water and provide natural hides.

How Much Water Does a Baby Turtle Need?

The water depth should be at least 3x the height of your turtle. For example, a 3-inch high hatchling should have water at least 15 inches deep.[4] 

Baby turtles are not as strong swimmers as adults. Lots of ramps and platforms in the water help them increase their stamina.

How Much Water Does a Baby Turtle Need

Is Tap Water Safe for Baby Turtles?

Most tap water contains chlorine, which is harmful to turtles. Dechlorinate tap water before using it in a turtle tank.  Use a water conditioner; you can find this in most pet stores.

You can also harness the sun’s energy and leave water out for 24 hours, allowing the UV rays to remove harmful minerals. Ensure the water stays uncontaminated while outside.

Do Baby Turtles Need a Heat Lamp?

Turtles need a direct heat source to bask in, and a heat lamp provides these high temperatures. Overnight, you can use a non-light emitting heat lamp to retain temperatures in cool climates as to not disrupt the turtle’s natural photoperiod.[5]

Understanding Baby Turtle Behaviors

Understanding your pet turtle’s natural behaviors is the key to caring for them. Turtles are diurnal species, so they are active during the day. They spend the day basking and expressing feeding behaviors such as digging and hunting.

All pet turtle species are diurnal, with most activity during daytime hours. They have three primary behaviors:

  1. Feeding
  2. Basking
  3. Reproduction

For baby turtles, no reproduction occurs, so they dedicate a significant amount of time to feeding. For this reason, baby turtles are more active than adults.

They spend their time swimming, foraging, digging, and hunting. All these behaviors are in search of food around the enclosure, and live feeds can encourage this.

These high levels of activity require sufficient energy to complete, so in between activities, they bask under the heat and UV to power their metabolism. They often bask immediately after eating to kick start the digestion process.[6]

Understanding Baby Turtle Behaviors

Cleaning and Hygiene for Baby Turtles

Cleaning and hygiene are essential for the health of both you and your turtle. Keep the tank clean by using a filtration system, regular cleaning, and removal of old food. 

You’ll be surprised how much waste one small baby turtle can produce. A build-up of waste can increase the risk of disease for the turtle, create a foul odor, and pose a human health risk.[7]

Cleaning

Remove fecal and old food from the water by scooping out solids throughout the day. Partially clean the tank water weekly by emptying old water and topping it up with fresh water.

Minimum once per month, remove the baby turtle and deep clean the tank. Use diluted bleach to sterilize the tank and all the furnishings.

Never wash any turtle furnishings in the same area as your food preparation. Use separate cleaning equipment exclusively for the tank. [8]

Hygiene

Your personal hygiene is important when owning a pet turtle, as they can carry and transmit salmonella.[9]

Wash your hands with soap after every encounter with your turtle or your turtle’s enclosure. For added protection, use gloves and a face mask while cleaning to reduce the risk of inhaling airborne pathogens.

How to Handle a Baby Turtle?

To safely hold a baby turtle, you can use one hand to pinch their shell between the front and back legs. One finger should be on the underside and one on top. For larger turtles, use two hands on either side.

Turtles are not affectionate species that enjoy interaction. Avoid handling your turtle as much as you can. There are times when handling is a must, such as moving your turtle out of the enclosure or doing physical health checks.

Holding a baby turtle is simple. A two-finger pinch of the shell between the front and back legs is sufficient. Two hands should be used for a firm hold on larger turtles, either on the side or one on top and one on the bottom.

Ensure your fingers and hands are far enough away from the feet, as the turtle can hook a claw under your finger, pushing it off. Dropping a turtle can cause serious and irreparable damage to its shell.

How to Handle a Baby Turtle

What Do Baby Turtles Eat?

A turtle hatchlings diet is protein-based to promote growth. Insects, fish, and other small marine creatures make up their diet with vegetation to supplement.

Some turtle species are omnivores, and others are herbivores, but baby turtles are primarily carnivorous. They eat small insects, fish, and invertebrates to provide their body with the protein needed for rapid growth.

Baby Turtle Diet (Wild)
Freshwater turtles Fish, aquatic insects, aquatic vegetation
Land-based turtles (tortoises) Snails. worms, small insects, fruit, vegetation
Sea turtles Fish eggs, jellyfish, seagrass, algae

How Much Does a Baby Turtle Cost?

The cost of a baby turtle varies between species. Common pet turtles range between $25–$100, while more exotic species can be upwards of $500 depending on their availability. 

Common pet turtles are relatively inexpensive, with as little as $25 in some pet stores. But the actual cost of owning turtles is not in the purchase price, but the set-up and maintenance costs.

The high needs of turtles require special equipment to set up a healthy environment. These costs can total up to $2,000 for the best quality, or at a minimum $800. This includes:

  • Tank
  • Filtration system
  • UV lamp
  • Heat lamp
  • Furnishings
  • Substrate

Pet turtles also need close ongoing care, resulting in annual costs of $200–$500 per year. Factor in these expenses in your turtle budget:

  • Food
  • Water conditioner
  • Replacement filters
  • Replacement bulbs (heats and UV)
  • Health care
  • Parasite treatment
  • Insurance

FAQs

How Long Can Baby Turtles Stay Underwater?

Pet turtles can hold their breath for 15–30 minutes. Some sea turtle species can hold their breath for up to 7 hours. Even exclusively aquatic species of turtles, like sea turtles, cannot breathe underwater. They must come up for air. 

Can a Baby Turtle Drown?

Despite being efficient swimmers, even aquatic species of turtles can drown. For pet turtles, this can happen if they cannot surface due to obstacles. They can also drown after exhaustion if they cannot pull themselves to land. Ensure your baby turtle has plenty of accessible ramps and platforms.

Can You Keep a Wild Baby Turtle?

Many common turtle species are native to North America, and you may see the same species in pet stores as you do in your local park. Keeping a wild baby turtle is not a good idea as they carry a wider range of diseases and parasites than captive-bred populations. Taking a turtle from the wild can also impact the overall wild population.

Do Baby Turtles Bite?

Yes, baby turtles can bite. Biting is a form of self-defense for turtles when they feel threatened. A baby turtle’s bites can’t damage human skin yet but are still painful. Limit handling and provide a safe space to prevent any biting.

How Long Can a Baby Turtle Go Without Eating?

Baby turtles should eat every single day. They have high metabolisms to fuel their rapid growth, so they need food often. Adult turtles eat every 2–3 days.

About Sophie Herlihy (Zoologist)

Sophie Herlihy, a trained zoologist, is a lover of true misfit animals. With a specialty in insects, birds, and rodents, she helps the Misfit Animals craft factual and valuable informational pieces on various animals.