The musk turtle is a popular choice for reptile lovers hoping to adopt a more unusual pet. They are cute and interesting to observe, and with their interesting behaviours they make a great species of turtle to take on.
Reptile husbandry takes a little bit of learning and practise, and the musk turtle requires some specialist care for it to be happy and healthy.
The good news is that we have collected loads of useful information about caring for musk turtles to help you get closer to owning your dream pet. From what to feed them, to musk turtle tank guidance, we’ve made a handy guide to help you out with all things common musk turtle.
Read on to learn all about the musk turtle and how to keep it healthy and happy in your care:
An Introduction To The Musk Turtle
Musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) are also known as stinkpot turtles because they release a nasty odour from special musk glands if they feel threatened. The idea is that the smell puts predators off attacking them/ eating them in the wild. In captivity, they don’t tend to do this.
The turtle comes from a wide range of areas including South Central America, South Eastern Canada and beyond. In native areas you will find the musk turtle in ponds, gentle meandering streams and other shallow, gentle watery habitats. Interestingly, unlike other aquatic turtle species you won’t see the musk turtle basking very often.
The musk turtle reaches an adult length of about 3-5 inches in general, with males being a little bigger, with a slightly bigger tail than the female. Both sexes of the turtle have shells that range from brown to black, with some more charcoal colours mixed in. The species also has a distinctive green or yellow stripe running from their nose to neck.
The Musk Turtle As A Pet
Musk turtles are a ‘pet you watch’ not a pet you handle. They tend to have a lot of sass and get up to all sorts of fun in the tank. You will see them swimming around, exploring their surroundings and generally being cute little active turtles.
This type of turtle is very small and can be handled by lifting the shell, but it does have a nasty bite if you aren’t careful. Its jaw is very strong and designed to crush crustaceans and snail shells so you really don’t want to experience that power on your fingers!
For this reason, these turtle types aren’t recommended as beginner turtles.
Choosing A Musk Turtle
The musk turtle lives about 30-50 years so it is a big commitment, but also a great opportunity to truly make a bond with your new pet. Of course, sourcing a healthy animal is important to make sure you do have them with you for as long as possible.
It is advised you only have a lone musk turtle as they are not sociable. If you really need to have multiple turtles you should avoid having multiple males as they can fight and compete.
There are two routes to getting a stinkpot turtle responsibly. One way is to purchase from a breeder who should:
- Offer vet certification to show the turtle has been checked over
- Willingly answer any question you have about the animal
- Be willing to show you other animals as well as your chosen turtle
- Want to ask you questions to check your suitability for turtle ownership
Don’t be afraid to thoroughly look into the breeder to check their reputation and authenticity. They should only breed turtles in captivity and never get them from the wild, even if they claim they have somehow done so ethically.
You can also get a musk turtle that is an unwanted pet. As they live so long, circumstances can change and responsible owners hand them in to rescue centres and don’t release them back into the wild. Although sad, this is the right thing to do if you can no longer care for a turtle because releasing a captive turtle into the wild is bad for the turtle and the ecosystem.
If you don’t mind getting a turtle that is a little older it is worth rescuing one from a reputable rescue centre. They need a home and you may also get them at more of a ‘bargain price’. This Youtube video is a great example of a musk turtle success story, with Maria the turtle getting a great new owner dedicated to her rehabilitation. The rescue centre will also support you in keeping your turtle healthy and happy if you need some follow up advice.
Common Musk Turtle Health Issues
There are potential health issues that can happen to the musk turtle. Being aware of these issues is helpful so you can keep an eye out for them. You should also make sure you have a great exotic pet veterinarian within your locale so that you can seek advice and treatment whenever you need it.
Here are some of the most common musk turtle health issues:
- Shell rot – presents with a white look to the shell and a soft feeling to the shell
- Parasites – presents with fatigue, runny stools and weight loss
- Vitamin A deficiency -presents with appetite loss, swollen eyes with discharge, kidney issues
- Abscesses – hard swelling anywhere on the animal that may push out a thick pus
As a general rule, you should observe your musk turtle every day to get used to how it behaves normally. This will help you to quickly identify it isn’t as it usually is and get it to the vet for assessment.
How To Care For A Musk Turtle
Because these cute little guys are so active it is important to give them as much room as you possibly can in a musk turtle tank with an ambient temperature of about 75-80 degrees.
A good general rule is a minimum of 10 gallons per inch of shell. The turtle is also going to grow so it is a good idea to have an extra 20 gallons more than the size your turtle needs now to allow for that growth and to give you time to get a bigger setup arranged.
The tank must be reinforced and designed to hold water because that is what it will mostly be filled with. These turtles will spend most of their time swimming around.
Your turtle should have a shallow end of around 10 inches of water, and 24 inches in the deep end (minimum). Some people, however, choose to have one depth of water with various areas the turtle can get out easily, which is OK too. The trick is to allow the turtle plenty of water to swim and enjoy safely.
Most musk turtles will enjoy a gentle current in the water, which can be made naturally with the filters (mentioned below) or with water jetting aquarium devices.
The water you give to any turtle has to be treated so that it has no nasty chemicals in it that could harm your turtle. The water also needs to be heated to about 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit which can be achieved with an underwater heater suitable for use in aquariums with turtles (hardier than fish aquarium heaters).
The heater should have an adjustment setting so that you can change the temperature to the different times of the year, replicating the turtle’s natural environment. It is also handy for the heater to have a visible thermometer in it so you can keep checking if the water is at the right temperature.
As well as a water heater you will need a water filter to keep your musk turtle tank nice and clean.
Check the filter you want is able to filter the amount of water in your tank at least and then some. This is because water filters for turtles need to filter more mess than if they are in a tank with fish.
Turtles produce a lot more waste than fish so the filter should be designed for more water than it is filtering, so it is able to handle the mess. Lastly, the filter should be clog-proof and quiet so as not to disturb your turtle.
Although these turtles do not bask as much as other turtle types, they do need to do it for their health. It helps keep them physically and mentally active and healthy, and enables them to make vitamin D so they can absorb calcium from their diets.
A musk turtle basking area does not have to be huge or special. It just needs to be big enough to fit them on it with some space for them to turn around. It should also be stable so they can stay still on it and so you can control the temperature and light on it at any one time.
On the platform you will need to get the temperatures at between 85 and 95 degrees, ideally with a basking lamp that puts out heat, UVB and UVA. UVB is essential for maintaining your turtles health so it is important not to accidentally get a bulb that does not provide this light.
The manufacturers usually state the distance from the platform you need to place the bulb to get the required temperatures. However, it is still worth using thermometers and other measuring devices to ensure you keep an eye on the temperatures of the platform. The bulb should not be too close or too far away, and it needs to be replaced regularly to avoid it decreasing in the levels it puts out.
You can also get tube lights that do the same thing which cost more but tend to be overall more safe and effective at delivering the heat and rays to the turtle.
This type of turtle really enjoy lots of tank furniture and enrichment to enjoy. Some great ideas for musk turtle tank accessories are:
- Smooth, large, stable rocks
- Clean and smooth driftwood
- Weighted and floating artificial and real plants, plus some decent sized floating plants that will hold the weight of your turtle
- Many people also like to line the bottom of the aquarium with turtle pebbles that are designed for turtle tanks. Just make sure none are small enough for the turtle to get in its mouth
- Turtle logs – halved logs designed for turtles to crawl underneath
Whichever features you choose do be careful your turtle cannot get wedged underneath any of the features in the tank. As long as they can get in any hiding spaces, move around and get out again, they will be fine.
What To Feed Your Musk Turtle
In the wild a musk turtle will eat snails (and their shells), small crustaceans, aquatic insects, tadpoles and duckweed and other pond plants.
When keeping a musk turtle in captivity you will need to vary what they eat regularly so they get a good selection of vitamins and minerals. They will happily eat pelleted turtle foods as well as shrimp, crickets, bloodworms, earthworms and snails. Any live or dead protein given to the turtle should be bred for food so that it is free from disease and bacteria. Duckweed, water hyacinth or similar pond species non-toxic to turtles are also consumed by them and make good additions to their tank for foraging.
You’re One Step Closer To Owning A Musk Turtle!
Musk turtles are interesting, cute reptiles that require specialist care to keep them happy and healthy. With our guide, and plenty of advice from a breeder and a good vet, you’re well on your way to being a stinkpot turtle owner! Soon enough you’ll be helping your new shelled musk turtle pal thrive in your care.
Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.