Musk Turtle Tanks & Setup Tutorial

Musk turtles require very specialist housing if they are to thrive in captivity. The good news is that once your musk turtle tank is setup correctly then caring for musk turtles becomes quite simple. In this guide we’ll therefore take an indepth look at the best musk turtle tanks and how to setup your tank.

Selecting a Musk Turtle Tank

Musk turtles may only grow to a modest size but they can be surprisingly active. This means that they require quite a generous tank. Larger tanks can also cut down in the cleaning that your musk turtle requires – simply because there is more water present.

Broadly speaking a 20 gallon (~60cm/2 foot long) tank is suitable for single musk turtle, whilst two turtles require a 30 gallon home.

Turtle tanks come in a range of different sizes, shapes and materials. In most cases a glass tank is the ideal solution, offering ease of cleaning, excellent visibility and a beautiful display.

musk turtle photo

Here are some aspects you’ll need to consider when selecting a musk turtle tank:

Length

Your musk turtle have suitable space to move about their tank in a natural manner. While musk turtles typically spend the vast majority of their time in the water they should also be able to haul themselves out onto dry land to bask when they choose. Therefore it is wise to consider whether you’ll have room for a “dry land” area in any cage you’re considering.

Depth

Musk turtles don’t grow too large. They often “hang” in the water, with their heads above the water, and their lack feet resting gently on the tank bottom. Selecting a cage that permits a suitable depth of water to allow this behavior is therefore a good idea.

Water Heater

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical part of the world then your musk turtle will require their water to gently heated to around 22’C. While this is easily achieved with the right turtle water heater (read the guide here) you do need to consider where the heater will go, and how you’ll fit the wiring that such equipment needs.

UV Light

Like other chelonians, musk turtles require strong ultraviolet light. This UV light allows your turtle to generate vitamin D, which in turn is used to absorb and utilize calcium from the diet. Without a suitable source of UV light you may well find in time that your turtle’s shell or skeleton fails to grow properly; a potentially fatal problem.

UV lights are available readily online, but you’ll need to consider how you’re going to install such a light in your turtle tank. Appreciate that UV light doesn’t travel through glass so you’ll need to install the light in your aquarium hood somehow.  

Basking Spot

It is generally agreed that musk turtles should have a basking spot in their tank – somewhere that simulates the warmth of direct sunshine. Most typically a powerful heat lamp (like a ceramic bulb) is positioned above the basking area. Just as with our UV light and our water heater, therefore, you’ll need to consider how and where you’ll fit such a heater. If you want more guidance on using ceramic heaters then please read my guide here.

Filtration

Turtles can be messy creatures, so a powerful filter is required to remove faeces and uneaten food from the water. Consider where you’ll place the filter and how you’ll power it.

Ease of Cleaning

You’ll regularly need to clean your turtle cage. Use an aquarium vacuum to remove detritus, rinse the filter media clean, and most likely use a magnetic aquarium cleaner to polish the glass. Make sure that any musk turtle tank that you’re considering makes this process as easy as possible.

Security

Musk turtles can climb surprisingly well. Just as importantly, however, other animals may be able to get into your tank. The last thing you want is a neighbour’s cat slipping in through an open window and taking off with your precious turtle. An enclosed tank can therefore be a good idea.

The Best Musk Turtle Tanks

If this is your very first musk turtle then the obvious question is what is the best tank for musk turtles? Where do you even start?

Here I have two suggestions to start your search…

20 Gallon Fish Tank

A sturdy 20 gallon tank with a suitable lid is probably the best-looking musk turtle tank of all.

Tetra Aquarium 20 Gallon Fish Tank Kit, Includes LED Lighting and Decor
  • Tetra Glass Aquariums are made in the USA and are built to last with scratch resistant glass
  • The Tetra Aquarium comes loaded with an LED hood, that provides a natural daytime effect and a Whisper Filter that is whisper quiet while providing powerful, dependable water flow
  • Artificial Plants add a unique, natural ocean feel while giving your fish a place to hide which reduces fish stress

Specialist Turtle Tank

A popular alternative is a specialist turtle tank. These are cheap and lightweight, but are less practical in many ways and don’t look half as good.

Total Turtle Tank Reptile Starter Kit Terrarium Includes Accessories with UV Basking Light Lamp + Water Filter + Decorative Palm Tree - Aquarium, Habitat for Terrapin Turtles, Reptile Terrarium
  • EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO GET STARTED: Save countless hours searching for individual turtle tank parts -- we’ve got everything you need right here! Our reptile starter kit includes a durable terrarium, UV heat lamp with bulb and electric water filter to keep swimming areas crystal clear. There’s even a cute mini palm tree that adds a touch of tropical paradise!
  • THE PERFECT TERRARIUM TANK FOR KIDS: Instill the importance of pet care, self-discipline and responsibility in your kiddos with a small turtle tank (16” x 9.7” x 6”) that’s perfect for home or classrooms! Let them feed their tiny turtles, scrub the tank or change the water so they learn how to care for another little being. What a great way to learn important life values!
  • SEE-THROUGH DESIGN FOR BETTER VIEWING: There’s nothing cuter than your little one’s chubby cheeks pressed up against the tank looking at their brand new pet turtles. For memories that will last forever, our tank is completely see-through so you and the kids can watch your turtles swim, sleep and bask -- up close and personal!

Musk Turtle Shopping List

Let’s assume you’ve selected your tank now. What else do you need to tick off before actually setting up your turtle terrarium?

Water Heater

Choosing the right water heater for your turtle is important. I’ve written about this topic in detail here. In brief you’re looking for a heater that comes with a tough outer guard to prevent damage by your turtle’s claws. Buy your heater after (or at the same time as) your tank. This is because aquarium heaters differ in their power output, so you’ll want to choose one designed for the size of tank you’ve chosen.

Aquarium Filter

I don’t recommend an undergravel filter for turtles, primarily because so few people actually use gravel with turtles. Instead, a good quality canister filter will do a great job. Once again, select a filter designed for your size of tank.

UV Bulb

A range of UV bulbs are available. In my collection I now exclusively use so-called “compact fluorescent” bulbs. These are small in size but have a high output. I would suggest you opt for a 5% bulb like this one. UV bulbs need to be changed every six months, as their ultraviolet output drops over time.

Basking Lamp

A basking lamp will provide direct heat for your basking spot. In the past incandescent bulbs were used, but this can be a risky proposition when water is concerned. A splash of water on a hot bulb can cause it to shatter instantly. Instead I recommend ceramic bulbs, which are far sturdier. They also don’t produce light, so can be left on during cold nights without keeping your turtle awake.

Bulb Holders/Reflectors

Your UV light and ceramic bulb need to be housed in a bulb holder. These holders then plug into the mains to power the bulbs. Ceramic bulbs get very hot so be sure to select a holder with a ceramic fitting; plastic alternatives can melt. For ease, I would suggest that you buy two identical holders to use for your two lights. This is a good option if you’re unsure.

Reptile Thermostat

Getting cold can be bad for reptiles; but getting too hot is just as dangerous. Ceramic bulbs can provide a crazy amount of heat, and you’ll need to control this carefully. A thermostat does this. Be sure to choose a thermostat that is designed to (a) work with your chosen basking lamp and (b) can control the power of your chosen basking lamp. Learn more about choosing a thermostat here.

Water Conditioner

Tap water is filled with additives like chlorine. This, in turn, can be bad for your turtles. A reptile-safe water conditioner will remove this chlorine, rendering the water safe. This is a good option.

Thermometer(s)

With all this technology running, it is wise to keep an eye on everything. I would suggest that you invest in an aquatic thermometer to monitor the water temperature. A second thermometer can then help you to assess the basking spot temperature. Personally I use a handheld digital thermometer like this one.

Basking Platform

Musk turtles spend the vast majority of their time either swimming, or resting in the water. All the same, they should have the option to climb out and bask. The easiest way to achieve this is to install a simple basking platform like this one.

Musk Turtle Tank Setup

Now we’ve discussed musk turtle tanks, and the equipment you’ll need, let’s now put all this information together. In this final section we’ll actually looking at setting up your musk turtle tank so that your pet has everything it needs to thrive.

Fill With Water

Start off by adding the required depth of water. Broadly speaking the water should be slightly shallower than your turtle is long, so they can easily reach the surface while standing on the floor of the tank. Add your water conditioner to remove the harmful chlorine.

Water Heater

Following the instructions on your water heater place this under the water surface and firmly attach it to the side of the tank.

Filter

Insert the aquarium filter you’ve chosen, being careful to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Basking Platform

Install the basking platform at one end of the tank, ensuring that your turtle can easily access it from the water.

Basking Lamp

Install the basking lamp over the top of this basking platform. Ensure that your turtle cannot touch the lamp, and that it is attached to a thermostat to prevent overheating.

UV Light

Install the UV lamp. Be sure to use a reflector to shine the ultraviolet light down into the turtle tank. Be aware that UV light is harmful to your eyes so try never to look directly at the bulb when it is on.

Turn On and Monitor

By this point everything should be setup correctly. All the same, it is advisable that you don’t pop your musk turtle straight in. Instead, turn everything on and spend a few days monitoring your tank. You’ll want to make sure, for example, that the water temperature is correct. Check the basking spot is warm enough. Make sure the filter is doings its job. Only when you’re confident that everything is working properly should you gently introduce your new musk turtle.

Musk turtle tanks need to tick an awful lot of boxes - so which tanks are best for these amazing little reptiles? Find out in this detailed buyer's guide for pet owners.

Photo by Laurent Lebois ©

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