Musk Turtle Care Sheet

Musk turtle care certainly isn’t complicated, but these beautiful animals do require far more specialist care than the average pet. In this guide I’ll be breaking down every step in turn so your musk turtles remain happy and healthy for life.

Musk Turtles as Pets

When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the big screen in the 1990’s countless kids around the world decided that that they wanted a pet turtle. At the time thousands of baby red eared sliders were bought by unsuspecting parents, without realizing that these cute little critters soon grew into adults of up to 30cm.

A large terrapin like this can not only give a nasty nip when upset, but comes with a range of practical limitations; the need for an enormous tank, continual cleaning and more. No wonder so many were released into the wild or “donated” to rehoming centers.

Since then the reptile trade has moved on. Dealers and pet owners are better informed than ever before about how to keep turtles as pets, and a far broader range of species is available. Musk turtles represent one of the turtles best suited as pets.

One of the most appealing aspects of keeping musk turtles is that they obtain a far smaller adult size; adults normally reach a shell length of around 3.5-5” in total, with males typically being slightly larger than the females. This makes them far easier to accommodate in captivity.

Alongside this more modest size, however, musk turtles are also very attractive animals. The Common Musk Turtle is the species most commonly found in pet stores. These chelonions (the name given to all shelled reptiles) typically have bright yellow stripes across their heads, though these tend to fade as they grow up. The youngsters can also have a “razor back” appearance with some of their shell scales sticking up into the air. Again, as musk turtles grow up these scales tend to flatten out somewhat to give a more traditional shape to their shell.

The first message here is therefore that if you’re looking for a beautiful pet turtle that obtains only a modest size then the musk turtle is a great option. So – how do you keep musk turtles as pets? That’s exactly what we’ll be covering in this musk turtle care sheet…

musk turtle photo

Musk Turtle Tanks

Choosing and setting up your musk turtle cage is arguably the most important step of all. It is also the most expensive and, for first time reptile keepers, the most complex. However, when you get this right you’ll already be 80% or more of your way to success.

The perfect musk turtle tank is a modified glass aquarium. Experts recommend that a 20 gallon (~60cm/2 foot long) tank is suitable for a single musk turtle, whilst two turtles will require a 30 gallon home. If you’re buying hatchlings, as most people do, they may look a little “lost” in such a large tank. All the same, buying and setting up a tank isn’t cheap, so it is normally easiest to start with a tank suitable for adult turtles rather than having to upgrade after a few months.

Tetra Aquarium, 20 Gallon, Complete Tropical Fish Tank Kit With LED Lighting And Decor For Freshwater Fish
  • GLASS AQUARIUM KIT: The kit includes one glass aquarium with a low-profile, hinged hood, an LED lighting system, an internal filter and filter cartridge, an aquarium heater and thermometer, a water conditioner sample
  • LED LIGHTING: Energy-efficient LEDs give you a beautiful natural daylight effect.
  • FILTRATION SYSTEM: The included Tetra Internal Filtration System features mechanical filtration to catch debris and chemical filtration with Ultra-Activated Carbon for removal of odors, discoloration and toxins.

Electrical Equipment

Once you’ve bought a suitable tank and a mesh lid (click here to view on Amazon) then the next step is to choose your electrical equipment. The various pieces of kit you select will keep your tank suitably warm and hygienic, providing the conditions for your pet.

UV Light

Calcium is a crucial mineral for you and me – and it’s just as important for your turtle. Why? Calcium makes up a huge percentage of both your turtle’s skeleton and its shell. Insufficient calcium can therefore lead to growth problems, a soft shell and even paralysis.

Sadly, however, it’s not as easy as just providing enough calcium in your diet. Turtles also require suitable vitamin D to absorb calcium from their diet. Vitamin D is made in the skin when it comes into contact with sunlight. We therefore need to mimic the ultraviolet rays that a wild turtle would encounter, and we do this using a UV light.

Reptile equipment has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and a range of great quality UV bulbs are available these days. I suggest you choose a 5% UV bulb, which can then be housed in a bulb holder/reflector like this one.

The reflector is then placed on top of the mesh lid, so that the ultraviolet light radiates down to your turtle. Aim to leave this on for roughly 12 hours a day, which is easy to do with a simple digital timer.

Turtle Water Heater

Like tropical fish, musk turtles require warm water to thrive. Indeed, when the water drops below around 18’C most turtles will stop eating. Therefore you’ll need an aquarium heater to maintain a comfortable temperature. An ideal target to aim for is a continual 72-78’F during both the day and night.

While it is possible to use a standard aquarium heater for musk turtles there can be some risks. Many turtles like to rest on their aquarium heater, which can bring with it a number of risks. Sharp claws can scratch and scrape your fragile glass heater, while direct contact also has the potential to cause burns. The best turtle water heaters address these issues by using a plastic or rubber “sleeve” around the outside.

Be careful when selecting a turtle water heater that you choose a model suitable for the tank size that you have chosen.

Heat Lamp

Musk turtles spend the vast majority of their life in the water. Only very rarely will you see them climbing out of the water to bask. All the same, it is considered best practice to give them somewhere where they can climb out of the water, dry out and benefit from basking in the “sun”.

Related:  Keeping Milk Snakes (Care Sheet)

This is particularly important in colder weather, where your turtle may appreciate a little extra warmth.

The easiest and safest way to provide this is with a basking lamp. The best option is to invest in a ceramic bulb and holder/reflector. These can then be fitted just like your UV light, ensuring that the heat produced gently radiates down through the mesh lid.

I have a full guide on choosing and using ceramic heating bulbs here.

The goal when positioning your overtank heater is to place it over a basking area. While some keepers opt to carefully divide their turtle tank into a “water” and a “land” area this can make cleaning far more difficult. Turtles constantly moving from land to water will move substrate into the water, potentially blocking up filters and making for more regular cleaning.

A more practical alternative is to purchase a turtle basking platform. You can then position the ceramic heater above this basking area, giving your turtle somewhere warm and dry to relax.

Note that ceramic heaters can get very hot indeed, so it is advisable to always use a thermostat to prevent accidentally cooking your turtle. If you’re unsure about choosing and using a thermostat then I have a detailed guide here.

Aquarium Filter

The final piece of electrical equipment you’ll need for your musk turtle is a suitable water filter. This will help to remove uneaten food and faeces from the water, keeping your turtle tank in a more hygienic condition. Remember that this waste, if not properly removed, can slowly poison your pet.

The easiest solution is an internal filter like a Fluval. They’re cheap, efficient and have been around for years. Just as when selecting a water heater, be sure to choose a filter that is designed to handle the volume of water in your turtle tank.

Tank Decor

If there’s one downside to keeping turtles of any kind it is that they can be messy animals. They eat almost exclusively in the water. They grab a piece of food with their mouth, then claw away at it with their front feed in order to bite off a suitably-sized chunk. This means that the food you provide – which is typically some form of meat – essentially gets shredded in the water. This can create quite a mess if not properly managed.

Even small turtles like musk turtles can be surprisingly strong. They will often damage and kill live plants, knock over or rearrange rocks and more.

As a result, only minimal tank decor is recommended. While some turtle keepers place aquarium gravel on the floor of the cage, it is more common to keep the base of the tank bare. This makes it easier to use a gravel cleaner to hoover up uneaten food and so keep things smelling sweet.

The one exception, as mentioned earlier, is that it can be a good idea to provide an area where your turtle can crawl out of the water to bask. Turtle basking platforms are a cheap and practical option here. Position your ceramic basking lamp directly over this platform.

LaBrinx Designs Narrow Hanging Turtle Ramp - Aquatic Reptile Basking Platform
  • VERSATILE DESIGN: This clear acrylic ramp can be mounted either with suction cups on the inside of the tank or hung up to 11” from the upper edges of tanks. This allows you to place the ramps exactly where your amphibious pals need them.
  • RAMP DIMENSIONS: Your amphibious friends should have plenty of space to explore in their home, and that’s what our ramps provide. At 8.5” wide, 6” deep, and a total length of 13” including the ramp, they can be comfortable in and out of the water.
  • CREATES TURTLE OASIS: It allows your turtles to easily crawl up out of the water and bask just as they would in their natural habitats. This accessory creates multiple levels and makes greater use of the terrarium space.

Environmental Conditions

By now you understand the basic equipment that you’ll need. So let’s quickly run through the environmental conditions that you’re aiming to provide with this setup…

Water Quality

Ammonia is your enemy when it comes to keeping aquatic pets, be that turtles or fish. Ammonia comes from rotting food and from the normal waste that your pet passes. This should be controlled through the use of a good quality aquarium filter and regular partial water changes.

As a rough guide, consider changing around ¼ to ⅓ of the water in your turtle tank each week. For a more accurate guide consider investing in an water testing kit designed for fish keepers. A weekly test will help you to ascertain whether your water quality is suitable.

When changing the water be careful not to expose your aquarium heater, which can overheat and fracture. It is best to turn the heater off in advance and let it cool suitably before water is removed.

A second consideration when it comes to water quality pertains to the chlorine that most tap water contains. It is best to treat fresh tap water with a dechlorinator – available very cheaply from most good aquarium shops or from ecommerce stores like Amazon.

Water Temperature

Seek to maintain a water temperature of around 72 to 78’F at all times. This is done with your aquarium water heater. While virtually all water heaters come with a built-in thermostat I strongly recommend that you invest in a separate thermometer to monitor the water temperature and ensure your heater is properly calibrated.

Basking Temperature

Your basking platform should have a heater above it which creates a basking spot of around 85-90’F. This should be carefully controlled using a thermostat to prevent overheating. The basking spot can be turned off at night to create a gentle, natural fall in temperature.

UV Lighting

As musk turtles spend much of their time in the water it is a good idea to place their UV light over the water area. Note that UV bulbs have a very short life. Even though they can provide visible light for years, their invisible UV light output will drop over time. Manufacturers therefore recommend that these bulbs are changed every six months, even if they seem fine.

Related:  Best Turtle Water Heaters: What You Need to Know

Feeding Musk Turtles

Musk turtles are almost exclusively carnivorous. In captivity they’ll eat a range of different foods, and varying the diet of your musk turtle can help to avoid deficiencies. Some of the most popular foods are:

Turtle Sticks or Pellets – A number of manufacturers now produce commercial dried turtle pellets. These turtle diets have been designed to offer a balanced diet to your pet, and they often have a very long shelf life. I will admit that not all turtles will accept these foods, but I feel they’re definitely worth considering as a “staple” to keep on hand.

(3 Pack) Natural Aquatic Turtle Food - Hatchling Formula
  • 3 Pack Of Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food - Hatchling Formula
  • Our hatchling formula is specially designed to support healthy growth for turtles up to 2 inches.
  • It is is higher in protein to accommodate the rapid growth rates of hatchling and juvenile aquatic turtles.

Invertebrates – A range of live foods as sold for other exotic pets will often be taken by musk turtles. Earthworms seem to be particularly popular, though they may take almost anything from crickets to mealworms. To ensure maximum nutrition consider gut loading invertebrates where possible with a good quality mineral supplement like this one.

Seafood – You might be surprised to hear that musk turtles will take a variety of aquatic foods. This can include strips of fish, some bivalves like cockles and mussels, through to shrimps and prawns. Due to the salt content of these foods some experts recommend limiting their intake to an occasional treat.  

Commercial Fish Food – From frozen fish blocks to bags of live bloodworms, a visit to your local aquarium shop can give you all sorts of potential options for your musk turtle.   

Click here for a full list of food recommendations for musk turtles.

Do Musk Turtles Get Lonely?

We humans love to project our own emotions onto our pets. A common question is whether musk turtles will get lonely if kept on their own, or whether they should be kept as a group.

As male musk turtles start to mature they often have only one thing on their minds. If a pair is kept together the female can become almost overwhelmed with his advances, and may start to lose condition. Equally, two males may well start to fight for dominance in time. While two or more females may live together in peace, this is most easily achieved in a much larger tank, where multiple basking spots and platforms can reduce competition.

In general, therefore, it is wisest to think of musk turtles as solitary animals for their own safety.

Cleaning & Maintenance

While turtles can be messy animals the right maintenance process will help to keep their tank looking good. Here are some crucial elements to consider…

Food Removal – Don’t leave uneaten food to rot in the tank. Firstly, spend some time getting used to how much your turtle will eat in one sitting. Unlike some other pets turtles don’t need to graze throughout the day – instead feed them just what they will eat in a 10 minute eating window each day. Use a soft fish net to scoop out any uneaten food after each feeding.

Water Changes – Monitor the water quality in your turtle tank. Change ¼ to ⅓ of the water each week, using a gravel cleaner to easily remove old water. New water should be dechlorinated before being added to the tank.

Filter Cleaning – Filters can become clogged over time and will require some maintenance. The filter should be turned off, removed and opened up for cleaning.

Broadly, most popular filters use a “sponge” to filter sludge out of the water. Over time a colony of “helpful” bacteria will begin growing in your filter sponge, helping to break down unpleasant chemicals. Fresh tap water can kill these useful microorganisms. Therefore don’t just rinse the filter under a tap. A better option is to collect some of the turtle water from a water change, then flush your filter in this dechlorinated water.

Algae Elimination – The strong UV light in your tank combined with natural waste can sometimes lead to algae growing on the walls of your tank. Aquarium shops sell simple magnetic cleaners which can easily scrape this unsightly algae off the glass.

Environmental Checks – With a water heater, a UV light and a basking spot there are many ways in which your turtle’s environment can go awry. I therefore feel it is a good idea to regularly check these elements to ensure everything it is order. Use a digital thermometer to check water and basking spot temperatures, and place a reminder on your phone to replace your UV bulb every six months.

Health Checks – Regular ongoing maintenance isn’t just about your turtle tank – it’s also about your turtle itself. Try to spend some time each day simply observing your pet in their habitat. Over time you’ll get used to what is “normal” for them. Anything out of the ordinary may therefore suggest a problem. Do they spend all day under the basking lamp? If so, they may be too cold. Do they never come out of the water? If so, it may be wise to check that they can access the ramp up. Keeping a simple journal can be useful for your vet if anything goes wrong in the future.

Handling Musk Turtles

Turtles are a pet to enjoy from a distance, rather than something to hold like a bearded dragon or a ball python. They can be surprisingly fragile, and the result of a fall can be fatal.

All the same, there may be times when you need to move your musk turtle. If so, appreciate that while musk turtles may be smaller than many other pet turtles, they can still give a nasty nip to the unfortunate.

Here there are a number of options. Smaller turtles can simply be scooped up in a plastic tub or a soft aquarium net. When it comes to physically handling your turtle the best solution is to hold them at the very rear of their shell. Aim to place your thumb beneath the shell, pinning the turtle in place with your other fingers on the top of the shell. Holding your turtle so far back means that it will be unable to reach around to nip you. Your hand will also be far enough away from their legs to prevent them pushing away from you.

This musk turtle care sheet is written for the absolute beginner, covering every aspect of care, from choosing a tank, to setting it up correctly and feeding your pet reptiles.

Photo by Laurent Lebois ©

Richard Adams

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