The painted turtle is a popular pet choice for reptile lovers, but it does take some specialist care to ensure it is happy and healthy.
If you’re thinking about getting one of these beautiful shelled friends, there’s a lot to learn. From what they eat, to the kind of lighting they need – there are lots of aspects to their care that need to be right for them to thrive as a captive animal.
The great news is, we’re here to help. We have collected all the information you need to understand more about looking after the painted turtle. By the end of this guide you’ll feel totally clued up on sourcing, and looking after these specialist pets:
An Introduction To The Painted Turtle
The painted turtle lives up to 30 years on average, can grow up to 25 centimetres and weighs up to 500 grams. It is one of the most common turtles in North America and has been around for millions of years.
The Southern painted turtle is the smallest of all painted turtles and tends to also be the most attractive species, which is why it is such a popular pet. Males are smaller than males in adulthood, with thicker and longer tails at the base.
This painted turtle type originates from Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Illanois.
These attractive replies have smooth shells with grooves where the plates overlap with each other. Colours vary greatly, with some animals showcasing blacks, yellows and greens, reds and everything in between. The skin of the painted turtle is black with yellow and red stripes with the feet being webbed to allow for swimming.
In the wild you find the painted turtle in fresh water with a muddy or sandy bottom. Creeks, marshes, rivers and lake shores are common homes for this gorgeous creature. Here they will live in groups of 50 turtles or more socialising together. These groups of painted turtles are known as bales, nests, turns, doles or creeps.
Sourcing A Southern Painted Turtle
The Southern painted turtle is known as a great beginner turtle which requires very low maintenance. By sourcing a healthy animal you’ll have no extra worries on top of getting their care needs right, so it’s important to be selective about the animal you source.
These popular pets can be found for sale easily, but it is still important to be selective about who you purchase your pet from. Some people steal these animals from the wild, which is not ethical and should not be encouraged.
Instead you could get your turtle from a reputable rescue, where there is an abundance of unwanted turtles.
Alternatively you can get your turtle from a breeder who specialises in these kinds of pets. A good breeder will be eager to answer all your questions, show certification and proof of veterinary checks and pet history/ breeding. They will also want to ask you questions about your suitability as a painted turtle owner.
Caring For A Southern Painted Turtle
The male Southern painted turtle minimum tank size is 40 gallons, but 50 gallons or more is better. For the females, 55 gallons is the minimum size but 75 gallons or more is better. For additional animals you need to add an extra 20 gallons per male, or an extra 40 gallons per female.
The tank can be bare but adding substrate can be more interesting for the turtle, or you, to look at. Gravel and sand is not recommended because they can be eaten by the turtle and make it unwell. A substrate that is either too large to be eaten, or too small to block the turtle’s digestive tract is ideal.
The substrate should be treated and cleaned to be used safely in a vivarium. Most people choose to add turtle-safe floating and weighted plants, and large (safe) hiding places in the water, as well as smooth rocks and pebbles that double as basking surfaces.
Floating basking planks are also a great idea to provide multiple basking options for your turtle.
Your painted turtle will need water to be happy because they are aquatic reptiles. About 10-12 inches is a good start when it comes to the necessary water depth (minimum double the length of the turtle’s shell), but deeper is fine, if not better.
The water should be around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature, so you will need a water heater and of course a filter to keep the water nice and clean.
These beautiful turtles are happy to swim around, so they will enjoy lots of water if you want to provide them with a larger swimming area. The water, however, will need to be treated before being placed in the tank so it doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals that could hurt your turtle.
Lighting & Heating
In the enclosure itself the ambient temperature should be around 80-85 degrees.
You will also need to heat a special part of the painted turtle enclosure – the basking area.
Even with a good diet the painted turtle should be given a basking area with a heat and light source. A heating light as well as UVB/ UVA light (you can get a lamp that emits all three) is essential for the basking area, which should be between 80 and 85 degrees fahrenheit.
UVA keeps your turtle happy and healthy, heat keeps your turtle healthy and active and UVB is essential for helping your turtle create vitamin D, which they need to properly absorb calcium from their food. The light needs to be on for 12 hours a day, after which the turtle needs darkness to replicate natural changes in their environment.
The lamp manufacturer will state the distance the lamp needs to be from the basking surface for the animal to get the benefits from it. The lamp should not be too close or too far away.
Keeping Your Painted Turtle Outside
Some people who live in areas native to the Southern painted turtle choose to keep their pets in an outside enclosure. This is thought to be a great choice for painted turtles because it replicates their natural environment the most. It can also help to minimise the risk of salmonella to smaller children in the household.
If you want to house your turtle outside you will want to provide a natural or prefabricated pond of at least 50 gallons or more, ideally concrete lined if possible. The water in the pond needs to be filtered to keep it clean. You could even add a safe waterfall to help oxygenate the water and to give the turtle more of a natural environment to live in. Don’t forget to add ramps so the turtle can get in and out of the water easily.
In the enclosure you will also need to provide a basking spot (or multiple basking spots) as well as natural turtle-safe vegetation, safe hiding/ burrowing spots and a walking space. Many people also choose to place fencing and wire over the enclosure to protect the turtles from predators. This fencing needs to be at least six inches below the ground, and two feet above it.
If you get winters below 40 degrees you will need to think about moving your turtle into an indoor enclosure during this time, or offering them the right conditions to hibernate. In the wild they hibernate in the water and stop breathing, but it is challenging to replicate these conditions in captivity safely.
Some people choose not to hibernate their painted turtle at all because of the risk. It is a personal choice and overall it is best to speak to your veterinarian about this topic so they can advise you on whether or not to do it, and if so, how to do it.
What To Feed Your Southern Painted Turtle
A painted turtle is omnivorous so they have a hugely varied diet in the wild. They eat all kinds of plants, animals and insects, with quite the taste for meat in their youth, and more of a taste for veggies in later life.
To keep your captive turtle healthy and happy it is important to keep the protein levels down, which can make them sick. Instead, they should have a diet based mainly on veggies as their staples, with protein every 2-3 times a week.
Protein Sources – Some people choose to use turtle pellets for their painted turtles diet when it comes to the protein they need. You can provide the pellets as a protein source and still supplement that with live crickets (bred for food) and mealworms. Alternatively they also like chicken, frog meat, lizards, snails, worms, fish and insects as their main source of protein.
Veggies – Leafy greens like romaine lettuce, duckweed, dandelion greens and are great choices for your painted turtle. Just make sure the veggies are not treated with pesticides and they are clean before serving them up.
General feeding tips:
- Try to offer at least some food for your turtle that floats in the water, where they would naturally eat. If it does not float, you can buy clips that attach to the enclosure enabling you to position the food in the water for the turtle.
- Any food offered to the turtle should be free from pesticides. Any insects or meat should be non-processed and bred for the purpose of eating.
- Consider feeding your turtle a reptile multivitamin recommended by your exotic pet veterinarian.
- Read up on food you need to avoid giving turtles – such as rhubarb or spinach – so that you avoid making your turtle sick accidentally. There is a long list of recommended foods to avoid for these kinds of animals.
- Feed your adult painted turtle every other day or less often depending on its weight. An exotic pet veterinarian can advise on a specific plan based on your turtle’s needs.
My Painted Turtle Is Not Eating, What Should I Do?
You should consult your veterinarian or if you trust your breeder they will usually help advise you on what to do next. There are common reasons painted turtles stop eating including:
- Incorrect light and temperature in their enclosure.
- Sneezing, breathing issues and other respiratory issues.
- Vitamin A deficiency, showing with patchy white shell markings as well as breathing issues.
- Eye issues like discharge or watery eyes.
- Boredom/ depression.
- Injury or sickness.
Sometimes turtles do not eat because of illness, or they may get additional symptoms because they are not eating so it is important to consult an expert to check out your turtle’s health when you notice something is wrong.
Next Step: Painted Turtle Ownership!
Now you have read this guide you are so much closer to owning a beautiful Southern painted turtle. With our guide, and information from your vet or breeder too, you’ll be ready to provide the healthiest, happiest environment for your new painted turtle pal!
Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.