The Ultimate Guide To Setup And Maintaining Your Turtle Tank

If you’ve ever experimented with raising fish, you probably already know how enjoyable keeping a freshwater aquarium can be. But you should know that your adventures don’t have to end with fish! There are plenty of other fun aquatic creatures you can raise.

One of the best? The turtle!

Turtles have a lot to offer as prospective pets. Not only are they fun to interact with, but they’re also quite docile and shy – they tend to get along well with most other aquarium inhabitants.

In addition, these creatures are tiny and quiet. They are a great choice for people who live in small areas, like tiny apartments, and who want a relaxed companion that won’t howl every time the mailman walks by or scratch up all of their furniture.


Turtles are great alternatives to fish because they tend to live much longer – many species of turtles can live for up to thirty years when properly taken care of! As a result, a turtle is a smart investment – at the same time, it’s not one to be taken lightly. When you get a turtle, you need to know that this will be a long-term commitment and therefore, not one to be taken lightly.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of advantages to raising a turtle, and this is relatively easy to do. Although these fish are low-maintenance, there are still some conditions, such as lighting, that you need to provide in order to keep your turtle happy and healthy.

Intrigued? Learn everything you need to know about raising turtles in our ultimate guide to preparing and maintaining your turtle tank.

Select The Perfect Tank

Turtle 1
Photo by Jessica Blackwell

A turtle habitat doesn’t need to be fancy or over-the-top, but you do need to make sure you have the proper tank in order to properly care for your new pet. You shouldn’t just grab the first tank you find at a yard sale or dollar store, either – you need to pick a tank that will keep your turtle safe and comfortable.

You can choose a glass tank or even a plastic tub. While most people who raise turtles will need to keep them inside, in warm environments it might even be possible for you to raise your turtle outside. In most cases, though, a glass aquarium is going to be the best option for raising your new turtle.

What to look for in a turtle tank? For starters, it should be sturdy and well-constructed. You shouldn’t pick any old glass enclosure. Don’t opt for a cut-rate reptile tank – these aren’t designed to hold water so they may leak. You may be able to repurpose one, but make sure you test it first by filling it with water and waiting to see if it leaks.

Your tank also needs to be the proper size in order to keep your turtle happy. It should be about 30 gallons for a turtle that is smaller than six inches. For a medium-sized turtle, or one below eight inches, it needs to be at least 50 gallons. For a larger turtle, a tank no smaller than 75 gallons is ideal.

A bigger tank will always be more ideal when it comes to raising your turtle. This will give him more room to swim around and explore his environment. If you aren’t sure what the ideal size for your turtle is, here are a few ideas. First, purchase your turtle as a full-grown adult. Then you won’t have to upgrade your tank as your turtle ages. Second, remember that you can always buy a tank that is too big – but you don’t want to buy one that is too small.

Why? A too-small tank will not only be more difficult to clean, but it will get dirty more quickly than a large tank. Your turtle will not be as happy in a small enclosure, and he may be unhealthy, failing to grow to his maximum size or to reach his full potential. In addition, if you have multiple turtles in a too-small tank, you are probably going to have some issues with fighting – this can cause injury and illness.

In most cases, you should put a cover on top of your turtle tank. This will protect your turtle from objects falling into the tank, and it will also provide a necessary barrier between your pet and any heat or light that you have placed above the tank. A cover will also prevent your turtle from escaping – these creatures sure do like to explore!

When you purchase your lid, make sure it is one that interlocks with the tank or that has a locking mechanism to prevent it from being pushed off. A good option is a steel mesh cover. The mesh is heatproof so you don’t need to worry about placing heat lamps on top – the mesh won’t melt or catch on fire. These tanks also provide plenty of ventilation so your tank doesn’t become overly hot.

Design Your Tank

Turtle 2
Photo by Eric Pirkkala

When you set up your tank, most elements are truly going to be a matter of preference. That being said, there are some elements you must include to keep your turtle safe and happy.

For starters, you should know that your tank must be divided into two separate areas. Your turtle needs an underwater space – which is where he will spend the bulk of his time – as well as a basking area above the surface of the water.

Roughly half of your tank (or slightly more) should be underwater. Turtles are either fully aquatic or semi-aquatic, so they will need plenty of room to play underwater and swim around. The above water area is a place for your turtle to dry out and bask in the light. An aquatic turtle will only need about a quarter of the tank to consist of above-water area. If you have a semi-aquatic turtle, the dry area will be about half the space you have remaining in your tank.

If you purchase a tank that is manufactured specifically for turtles, these will likely already have areas established for dry and wet zones. If they don’t, you can use logs, rocks, ramps, or platform to build these areas yourself. If you’re building your own zones, it can be helpful to draw it out ahead of time. You may also want to do some research online to see the ways that other people have constructed their turtle tanks.

Purchase Your Equipment

Turtle 3
Photo by Solveig Dønåsen

Once you have an idea of where things will go in your tank, it’s time to get shopping! You will need a few basic elements to get started.

Of primary importance is a good turtle aquarium filter. Turtles are known for being somewhat messy, so it’s important that you have a good filtration system in place – not just to clean your tank, but also to keep your turtle healthy.


A high-quality filter will remove old waste and food from the tank, and it will also get rid of other unnecessary debris around the tank. It can even remove the harmful compounds that are created as a result of these waste products.

Most people use canister filters for their turtle tanks. These work quite well, even if you have an exceptionally large tank. They tend to be mounted beneath the tank and are usually concealed by cabinets or stands. They are often multi-stage filtration devices, which means they can contain several layers of filtration media.

You can also opt for an internal filter. Also known as a submersible filter, these are usually placed inside the tank and can be attached to the walls of your aquarium with unique suction cups. These filters are quite small, usually preferable for small tanks. They can also be multi-stage, like canister filters, but they won’t contain as much because of their sizes.

Another popular type of filter is a hang-on-back filter. This filter is, obviously, hung on the back of a turtle tank. It’s designed for use in fish tank, so while you can use one in a turtle tank, you will need to be careful about how you use it. A turtle tank isn’t filled with water all the way like a fish tank would be, so you’ll need a filter cutout to make sure it fits. You also need a filter that is designed for a larger tank than you are using because turtles produce significantly more waste than fish.

The final filter option is an under gravel filter, or a UGF filter. It is placed beneath the gravel substrate in a tank. You will read mixed reviews on these by turtle enthusiasts. It is installed on the floor of the tank and water is pulled through the gravel before arriving at the main filter. As a result, the media is basically filtered twice. These filters are helpful if you have a larger tank, but if you have a turtle that likes to dig, you may want to avoid this kind of filter, as it can easily be damaged.

Regardless of the type or brand of filter you choose, make sure you choose one that is rated to work with the size tank you have.

Keep in mind that you will also need to purchase filter media. Filter media is just the materials that are inside your filter each layer will contain a different medium, which the dirty water will pass through before it becomes clean. You Might find filter media like activated charcoal, lava rock, Bio Balls, polyfill or fiberfill floss, ceramic rings, or even sponges.

Pick Up A Heater And Get It Running

Turtle 4
Photo by Ross Wheeler

Next on your shopping list? A good heater. Turtles are cold-blooded creatures – they cannot regulate their own body temperatures. Therefore, you will need to help your turtle stay warm. You should be monitoring temperatures in the dry and wet portions of the tank.

A turtle tank needs to be quite warm – generally, between 74 and 82 degrees. This will vary depending on the species of turtle you have as well as his age and health. It’s important that you do your research and talk to the breeder or pet store before buying so that you know exactly what kind of conditions your turtle will need.

If you are using a submersible heater, it should be enclosed in a metal or heat-resistant plastic case. You don’t want to use an aquarium heater that has a glass shield, as these are designed to be used with fish and the hard shell of a turtle can easily break one. A submersible heater needs to be mounted an inch below the lowest level your water can drop, because if it is ever not submerged, it will burn out and become damaged.

Another option is to use an external in-line heater. These are installed outside of the aquarium, and water is pumped through and heated separately before it enters. You can use these with canister filters or aquarium pumps. Some pumps need to be mounted outside the tank and cannot be submerged, so be careful when you are installing and operating your heaters.

Some people use under tank heater, but these are not recommended for turtle tanks. They are designed for terrariums and therefore aren’t great at heating water. You also don’t want to use heat rocks in a water-based environment. You need to select, instead, a heating unit that is strong enough to heat all the water in your tank. On average, a twenty-gallon tank will require 75 watts of heat, while a 75 gallon tank will require 300 watts of heat.

These are basic guidelines but again, the heating needs of your specific turtle will depend on your individual pet. In addition, how much heat you need to provide your turtle may vary if he is sick or if your house is exceptionally cold. Either way, you should be using a thermometer to keep track of the water temperature in your tank. If the water drops in temperature or becomes too hot, you need to adjust it immediately. Use an aquarium thermometer – make sure it’s not made out of glass- or a strip thermometer. In many cases, it may be helpful for you to run two small heater or have a backup heater in case of the failure of the main heater.

In addition to heating the water, you also need to heat the basking areas. These should be around 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, although veterinarians sometimes recommend warmer temperatures in certain situations. Make sure you are aware of the temperature range that is recommended for your species of turtle.

In most cases, you will heat the basking area by mounting a heat lamp above the space. Your turtle needs a variety of warm temperatures within this space, ideally with the hottest spot under the light. Then, your pet can move around to regulate its heat. You should look at the various wattage ratings of different heat lamps. Read the details about each bulb to determine which one will give you the best temperature for your species of turtle.

Remember that the closer the bulb is to the basking space, the hotter it will be. You don’t want to place it so close to the basking area that your turtle can touch it and be burned.

There are many types of heat bulbs out there, but some, including mercury vapor, halogen, and incandescent bulbs, can get extremely hot. They can even break if they contact the water. Therefore, if you use one, you should attach a solid cover to protect your turtle from shards of glass in case this happens. Make sure you also have a separate thermometer to monitor the temperatures in your basking areas in addition to your water, too.

Light Things Up

Turtle 5
Photo by Christopher Irwin

Your shopping trip doesn’t end once you pick up your filter, tank, and a heater! You also need a good light. Turtles need both UVA and UVB lighting. UVA light helps your turtle regulate its mood, breed, and feeding schedule. UVB lighting, on the other hand, is needed for the production of vitamin D3. If your turtle does not have access to this vitamin, your turtle will not be able to process calcium and will not be able to develop a healthy shell and bones.

As a result, a turtle who does not receive enough vitamin D3 can suffer from various metabolic bone diseases. UVB light doesn’t penetrate glass, which is why most turtle enthusiasts recommend using wire mesh covers for their turtle tanks.

When it comes to bulb types, you have several choices. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as the bulb provides the proper spectrum for the health of your turtle. You can choose a fixture that holds both a UV and heat lamp bulb – this will save you money and space. You can usually place these directly atop your tank cover or mount them above the tank. Again, just make sure your cover is heat-resistant!

A turtle also needs to have regular light cycles. Try to mimic daytime and nighttime hours by turning the lights on and off. A turtle should have between ten and twelve daylight hours each day. If you know you will have trouble remembering to do this, you may want to buy a timer.

Finally, you might want to include viewing lights in your turtle tank. These are in no way necessary for the health of your turtle, but they can help you, as the proud turtle owner, get a better look at what’s inside your turtle tank. There are countless options when it comes to purchasing a viewing light, but most people recommend using an LED light. LED lights tend to be brighter and use less electricity. They’ll last longer without using up as much electricity.

If you want, you can also purchase a nighttime viewing light – but this will be little more than a luxury and is not needed for the health of your turtle, again. If you get a nighttime viewing light, make sure you purchase one that is designed specifically for this purpose. Otherwise, your risk disturbing the night/day cycle of your turtle.

Consider Buying Extra Decorations

Turtle 6
Photo by S. D. Bramblett

There are a few other pieces of equipment and decorations you may want to consider when you buy and assemble your turtle tank.

For starters, you might want to consider a turtle ledge. A ledge provides a spot for your turtle to come up out of the water to bask. You can easily create your own using rocks, logs, or other items, or you can purchase ready-built ledges at pet stores. If you go the homemade route, just make sure the materials you select are sanitized. You also need to avoid sharp edges that could injure your delicate turtle.

You might also want to add a turtle ramp if your basking platform doesn’t include one. A turtle ramp will help your turtle get out of the water and onto his platform more easily. Again, you can purchase one of these online or you can make one yourself – just follow all the precautions you’re already aware of. Make sure you test it out to ensure it is sturdy before putting it in your turtle tank.

It can also be fun to decorate your turtle aquarium with things like branches, rocks, and other items. It will make your turtle tank feel more like home to your new turtle, and it will also be more fun to watch your turtle as he is active in his environment.

Turtles also like plenty of hiding spots. You can use logs, rocks, or other items to mimic this. Plants will also be a good idea for your turtle tank. You can use real or artificial plants, but know that it can be tough and time-consuming to keep aquatic plants alive. They will, however, help maintain clean and healthy conditions inside your tank.

When selecting decorations for your tank, just remember that anything you add will take up precious swimming and basking space. While a few decorations are not only helpful, but advised, you should avoid overcrowding the tank to the extent that your turtle has no room to move. Similarly, you should avoid decorations that are fully enclosed – it’s easy for your turtle to get stuck inside.

Determine Whether You Need Substrate

Turtle 7
Photo by ilze long

You may or may not want to include substrate in your turtle tank. Substrate isn’t necessary unless you decide to use an under gravel filter. It can make your turtle tank nicer to look at, however.

There are several different materials you can choose from when assembling your turtle tank substrate. Many people select sand – it’s a suitable substrate, though difficult to keep clean. Gravel is another popular choice, as are small rocks. These can look quite natural, but you will want to make sure any rocks are at least ½ an inch in diameter. If they’re any smaller, your turtle may eat them and become sick.

Fluorite is another popular choice for substrate. It consists of crystallized pieces of calcium fluoride. These can be very beneficial if you have plants growing in the tank, but as with gravel, you will want to make sure the pieces aren’t so small that your turtle can ingest them. Mixing fluoride with gravel is another solid choice.

Finally, crushed coral can be used as a substrate, particularly if you have brackish or saltwater turtles. You should not use crushed coral if you have plants rooted in the substrate, as they can cause issues in the growing cycle. In addition, crushed coral can change the pH of your water, so you will want to make sure this is the best choice for your turtle tank before investing in it as a substrate.

Cycle Your Tank

Turtle 8
Photo by arnoldfoto

Before you can put your turtle in its new tank, you need to make sure it is fully cycled. Cycling is the process through which you cultivate new growth of beneficial bacteria. The water will be kept optimal for your turtle’s health and you will not have to worry about any toxins harming your turtle. Cycling refers specifically to the nitrogen cycle, which is what happens naturally in a healthy environment.

Once you set up your cycle, here’s what happens. The waste from your turtle will cause ammonia to be released into the water. The ammonia, if allowed to accumulate, could make your turtle very sick. Then, a specific type of bacteria will process the ammonia and convert it to nitrite. Nitrite, too, is harmful to your turtle, which is why you need a second type of bacteria to turn the nitrite into nitrate.

In small amounts, nitrate is not harmful to turtles. Regular water changes can help keep nitrate levels at a healthy level. Once the tank is self-sustaining and the cycling process has completed, your tank is considered “fully cycled.” A fully cycled tank will have nitrite and ammonia levels that are close to zero -your nitrate levels should never be more than 40 ppm, and the pH should be between 6 and 8 to support the health of these beneficial bacteria.

An aquarium filter will contain one of these beneficial bacteria, but not all of the ones you need to support a population of turtles in your tank. Therefore, it’s important that you take steps to grow the populations of bacteria in your tank before you introduce your turtle.

Cycling was once done by just adding a few feeder fish to the tank. These fish create the waste needed to produce the healthy bacteria population in the tank. Sadly, these fish often died because of the high nitrite and ammonia content in the tank.

You can easily cycle your tank without using fish. You can either introduce ammonia directly, thereby increasing the population of bacteria, or you can add fish food from the grocery store. This will break down and produce ammonia. The latter method takes quite a bit more time than just directly introducing ammonia, plus it can be a bit stinky and messy.

Regardless of which one you choose, make sure your filter is running and that you have a water test kit on hand before starting. A couple of days before you add the ammonia or other organic matter to the tank, start testing the levels of ammonia in the water. Try to keep the ammonia levels around three ppm. This will dip occasionally as the bacteria begin to grow and consume more food. Keep adding ammonia to raise the levels.

After about a week, the bacteria should start producing nitrites. When this happens – you will be able to detect it with your testing equipment – you will know that the cycle has started. Continue adding ammonia to stay at about 3 ppm. You will eventually see a dip in nitrites and an increase in nitrates. This will tell you that your tank has just about cycled. Keep on testing until ammonia and nitrite have reached zero, and then your nitrate levels will be stable.

If you notice that ammonia levels have spiked after you’ve introduced your turtle, know that you can always pick up a product to neutralize the ammonia at the pet store later on.

The cycling process will take up to eight weeks to be completed. If you want this to happen more quickly, you can always introduce bacteria from a tank that has already been established. This is assuming, of course, that you have access to one. You can place used filter media form the other tank into your new one. Keep in mind that this presents the risk of unwanted organisms entering your aquarium, so you should only do this if the media is from a well-maintained and cleaned tank.

Care For Your New Pet Turtle

Turtle 9
Photo by David Bailie

After you’ve fully cycled your tank, you can now introduce your turtle! There are a few ways in which you can reduce stress during this time. First, gently place your turtle into his tank – don’t toss or drop him in. don’t pick up a turtle by its head or legs – instead, move him by his body. Moving him in any other fashion can cause some serious injuries.

Make sure you provide your turtle with plenty of time to get used to his new tank. Turtles don’t like being handled, and you don’t want to stress your turtle out more by handling him frequently during this time.

Caring for a pet turtle is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences you can have. You do need to be aware of several particular conditions when it comes to raising turtles, but otherwise, they are not difficult to care for.

A turtle’s diet will vary depending on what species it is. While some turtles are herbivores, eating only vegetables and fruit, others are omnivores, preferring a bit of meat, like small fish or insects, as well.

Turtles need to eat a ton of produce. Some good options include melons, squash, carrots, berries, collard greens, kale, apples, and mustard greens. Make sure you shred any foods you give your turtle so that they fit in its small mouth.

An omnivorous turtle should also be fed protein-rich foods. You might feed him small fish or even crickets. Freeze-dried insects are also an option if you have a hard time accessing fresh food regularly, but fresh, live food will always be better.

You may also choose to give your turtle pellets. Pellets are ready-made and can be a nutritious portion of your turtle’s diet. These are designed for omnivores. If you choose a pellet food, make sure you pick one that has a high percentage of protein and a low percentage of fat.

Your turtle will also need lots of calcium – you can provide this to him by giving him a supplement. The calcium will help support a strong, healthy shell. You can sprinkle powdered calcium in vegetables and fruits that you give to your turtle.

Remember, if you are feeding an omnivorous turtle, about half of its diet should come from produce. Herbivorous turtles can eat an all-produce diet but need about 80 percent vegetables and only 20 percent fruit. Baby turtles need more protein than adults and might not eat a lot of produce until they age. It’s always a good idea to check with a veterinarian to make sure you are feeding your turtle the proper diet and supplements, too.

Keep an eye on your turtle to ensure that temperature and humidity are appropriate. The optimal levels will vary depending on the specific type of turtle you have.

Is Raising A Turtle Right For You?

Remember to change your water regularly and clean your tank – even if you have a powerful filter. You should always make sure that your turtle is protected while you are cleaning the tank, and make sure any children are supervised during this time, too.

Otherwise, caring for a turtle is not difficult – and it’s quite rewarding. If you’re looking for a great long-term pet and friend, you should consider raising a turtle in your tank today.

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