The Beginners Guide to Keeping Terrapins at Home

In the past terrapins have been unfortunate enough to earn a rather bad reputation. When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles entered public awareness in the 1990’s thousands of school children decided that they wanted to keep their very own Leonardo or Donatello. Sadly, the solution offered up by pet shops was far from ideal.

The species of terrapin that was imported in vast quantities is known as the “red eared terrapin” or “red eared slider” thanks to the red stripe through their eye.

Many died as youngsters due to the specialist care they require in captivity, while those that did survive to adulthood grew into 10″ long monsters. Many owner simply couldn’t accommodate a large, long-lived and potentially-aggressive animal so thousands were released into the wild.

Its a sad tale, for certain. But things have changed an awful lot in recent years. No longer a “fad” pet, these days we not only have a range of terrapin species which grow to a far more reasonable size, but we also know ever more about keeping these fantastic animals happy and healthy for the long term.

Today, keeping terrapins has really come of age. If you’re interested in purchasing your own pet terrapin then read on to discover how best to care for these fantastic little reptiles at home…

Introduction to Keeping Terrapins in Captivity

Keeping terrapins as pets in captivity.

There’s something about keeping terrapins which makes them special. Maybe its how cute they are as hatchlings, or maybe its how graceful they are swimming about, but keeping terrapins as pets is a decidedly enjoyable pursuit. You’ll get to watch to watch them swimming about, going about their everyday lives.

That said, terrapins do require some specialist care, and arguably take more time, effort and money to keep when compared to many pet reptiles. Potential owners should be certain they do their research and are happy with the necessary investment before bringing their terrapin home from the pet shop…

Terrapin Cages

Terrapins spend most of their lives either swimming around in ponds and streams in the wild, searching for food, or basking on dry land, warming up in the sunshine. Their cage needs to allow your terrapins to exhibit both behaviours.

Typically terrapins are kept in suitably-size aquariums, filled with water, where they can spend the majority of their time swimming around. Alongside this you will also need a dry area where they can haul themselves out to bask.

The size of the aquarium used needs to be decided by the size and number of terrapins being kept. The RSPCA recommends 80 litres of water for every 5cm of shell length,  while the British Chelonia Society suggests “100 square cm of water surface area for each centimetre of shell length”.

In reality this means that even hatchlings should be provided with a cage no smaller than 60cm x 30cm, while adults will require a tank several times this. Buying a terrapin tank is therefore not a cheap exercise!

Once filled with water you’ll then need to provide one or more areas of dry land for them, and here there are a number of options.

An increasing number of accessories are available from pet stores to help you create the necessary basking spot. For example one can now buy floating terrapin “islands” or ramps, both of which allow your pet to leave the water when they desire.

Terrapin Heaters

terrapin photo

Terrapins are cold-blooded creatures, which come from the warmer parts of the world.

It should therefore come as no surprise that they will require artificial heating in all but the warmest months of the year.

One of the things that can make terrapins rather more expensive to keep than some other reptiles is that they will require two different heaters; one for the water and one for the basking area.

The water is best heated using an aquarium heater. In the past terrapin keepers simply used the aquarium heaters typically sold to fish keepers in aquarium shops, but recently a small number of specialist terrapin water heaters have come onto the market. The particular benefit of these terrapin heaters is that they include a heater guard, which prevents your terrapin from burning itself if it rests directly on the heater.

This heater should be carefully submerged in the water, carefully fixed to the inside wall of the tank, and placed in an area of good water flow so that it can effectively heat the entire body of water.

Most terrapin water heaters have a built-in thermostat so you can set the water to a comfortable 25’C and feel confident that it won’t overheat in warmer weather.

The second type of terrapin heater than you will require is a basking spot. There are a number of options here. In the past many terrapin keepers used fluorescent bulbs, which provide both light and heat. However the risk of such a heater is that they get very hot indeed, and if splashed with water from the tank, can sometimes explode.

A safer option, therefore, is to make use of one of the many ceramic heaters for sale. This will need to be attached to a suitable thermostat, in order to provide a basking area of 28-32’C.

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terrapin photo

One difficulty when keeping terrapins as pets is ensuring that they receive enough calcium. Without this, their shell can become soft or misshapen, causing considerable discomfort.

Terrapins have an interesting solution to this problem. In the wild they will bask in natural sunlight, and the UV rays which they absorb help to bolster their levels of vitamin D3. This in turn helps them to effectively absorb calcium from their diet.

This means that in captivity it is necessary to address both issues; the requirement for UV light, and a diet that is rich in calcium. We will cover diet in more depth below, so for now let us concentrate on the provision of ultraviolet light.

A range of specialist reptile lighting units are now available, providing the necessary UV light. It is critical when keeping terrapins that you provide such a light. Typically you will end up purchasing a fluorescent tube designed specifically for reptiles, a lighting unit to provide the necessary power, and a UV light reflector to ensure that as much of the useful light is pushed down into your terrapin tank.

These tubes should ideally be placed as close to your terrapin as possible (less than 12″ is ideal) and the bulb should be replaced every six months. This regular replacement is important as studies have shown that over time the UV output of bulbs declines, even if the bulb itself still seems to be giving off suitable visible light.

Water & Humidity

terrapin photo

We’ve discussed the importance of providing a large body of water for your pet to swim in, but what is equally important is that this water is kept as clean and hygienic as possible.

Here there are three elements to concern yourself with.

Firstly, the water that comes out of our taps has a variety of chemicals added to it. While these chemicals serve to keep us healthy, they can do quite the opposite for terrapins.

Chlorine, in particular, should be avoided in terrapin tanks. Fortunately there’s a simple solution to this problem in the form of dechlorinating liquids. Simply follow the instructions on the bottle, adding the necessary volume of this fluid to your terrapin’s water and the chlorine will quickly dissipate.

The next concern comes from the waste that your terrapins produce. Over time this will build up in the water, not only causing it to be unsanitary but also risking algae growing. Just like in a fish tank, therefore, you’ll need a powerful filter to continually clean your terrapins water.

There are a range of options available, though aim for one of the more powerful canister or internal filters that can process plenty of water, as terrapins tend to be quite messy animals.

The final stage of maintaining suitable water quality for your pets comes in the form of regular water changes. While your filter will extend the period between cleans, it does not properly replace the process.

Generally speaking a pattern of replacing a third to a half of the water every few weeks is a good start, though if you find the water becoming messy in-between you may want to consider more frequent water changes.

Cage Furnishings

Once you’ve bought your tank, installed your floating islands or land area, together with your UV light, filter, water heater and basking spot you’ll be pleased to hear that there aren’t many more hardware factors you need to consider.

Terrapins can be quite messy creatures, so placing live plants and suchlike in their cage tends to end in disaster, as they dig them up or start nibbling them.

Indeed, apart from some gravel on the base of the cage most keepers maintain quite a “bare” tank. This tends to make cleaning easier and to relieve any annoyance that all the effort you put into landscaping the tank soon becomes ruined.


terrapin photo

Terrapins are voracious feeders and rarely go off their food. As with all species of reptile in captivity, a varied diet tends to work best. This ensures that your pet is getting a wide variety of nutrition. Fortunately, terrapins will eat a wide variety of foodstuffs, so finding suitable food for your terrapin shouldn’t be too problematic.

Here are some of the better options:

Commercial Terrapin Diets

A number of commercially-produced terrapin foods are now available. These are typically dried foods, sold in small tubs like fish food.

In my experience terrapins can vary wildly in their response to such diets. Some terrapins will happily gobble up as much as you provide, while others seem to find them rather less interesting. While you won’t want to feed your pet solely on such a diet, it can be handy to keep a tub of terrapin food on hand for the days when you run out of other foods.

Raw Meat

In the wild a large part of a terrapin’s diet comes in the form of meat. Feeding raw meat to your pet is therefore an ideal way to mimic this wild behaviour. Examples of suitable foods include chicken and beef, though this should be fed raw (rather than cooked) and should be carefully chopped into tiny “bite size” pieces.

If you choose to feed raw meat to your pets from time to time it is wise to establish a “feeding tank”. This is a separate tank, with no clutter in it. The terrapins are placed into it, they are fed, and then moved back into their standard tank.

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The “feeding tank” can be completely bare apart from the water, making cleaning up wasted meat much easier than in the confines of a standard terrapin tank.


Interestingly many terrapins seem to enjoy a variety of seafood. The most common source are prawns, bought frozen and thawed out as necessary. They will also readily accept oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and tuna, though again these should ideally be fed raw rather than cooked.

Live Invertebrates

Feeding live invertebrates to your pet can be a great “bonding experience”. I have often found that gently feeding your pet with mealworms, small locusts or waxworms can be an ideal bonding experience. Using forceps (to protect your fingers) simply dangle the item close to your terrapin. In time, most will build up enough confidence to feed from your hand, helping you to gently tame your terrapins.

The livefood available for tropical fish keepers – such as artemia, tubifex and bloodworm may also be fed on occasion as a treat, though take care that no dead prey items are left to rot and so contaminate the water.

Plant Material

While the vast majority of a terrapin’s diet should come in the form of meat in one form or another, some terrapins will also enjoy the odd bit of plant matter. From water cress to apple, carrot to strawberry, these should be grated or finely-chopped to prevent choking.

Dietary Supplements

While a varied diet is critical to the health and well-being of your pet terrapin, the subject of dietary supplements should not be ignored. These supplements help to increase the essential minerals in your terrapins diet; especially calcium which is essential for a strong shell.

Reptile supplements come in a variety of different types, but many of them can be problematic in a terrapin’s aquatic environment. For example, one of the more popular reptile supplements is “dusted” into the food – rather like sprinkling sugar onto fresh strawberries. However once the food is placed in the water this can quickly wash off.

As most terrapins prefer to feed in the water, placing dusted food on the land area isn’t always very successful (though feel free to try it with your own terrapin to test the response).

Arguably the best feeding supplements for terrapins are therefore “gut loading” supplements. These are fed to live insects for a period of 24 hours before they are given to your pet. In this way when your pet terrapin eats his or her cricket, they will also consume all the calcium in the insect’s digestive tract.


terrapin photo

Generally speaking terrapins are not really pets for handling.

While they may look very cute as babies, many of the more popular terrapin species grow to quite an impressive size, and large terrapins can have an equally impressive bite on them!

I’m not saying necessarily that terrapins can’t be handled at all, but rather that as they grow you need to take more and more care to avoid an unpleasant experience.

Arguably the best way to pick up your terrapin if you need to do so is the grasp them at the back of their shell. In doing so you’ll keep your fingers well out of the way and avoid a potentially unpleasant nip.

Lastly when discussing handling terrapins you should note that there have been reported cases of terrapins carrying salmonella. If and when you do handle your terrapin, therefore, its essential to thoroughly wash your hands afterwards to avoid the risk of illness.

All things told, I recommend only picking up your terrapin when it is necessary for practical reasons (such as when cleaning them out). Children should avoid handling them at all times and great care should be taken to avoid nips and to sanitize your hands afterwards.


Below you will find a wide range of terrapin photos that I have gathered together. Feel free to click on any picture to see it full size, and please remember to follow me on Pinterest for more exotic pet pictures.

Photos c/o sk8geek, Squeezyboy, r3beccaf, smagdali & hodgers

Richard Adams

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