Mud Turtles

Mud turtles are ornery, but not hard to care for

Mud turtle
Andy Kraemer / Flickr / CC By 2.0

Mud turtles are sometimes kept as pets. They are similar in their care to other aquatic turtles, but unlike some of their relatives, they are semiterrestrial.

One of the reasons mud turtles are so popular as pets is their small size. Rarely growing to be over 5 inches long, mud turtles are small and compact aquatic turtles. 

  • Name: Mud turtle, Eastern mud turtle, Kinosternon subrubrum
  • Size: Up to 5 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 50 years

Mud Turtle Behavior and Temperament

These little turtles look cute but don't assume that means they'll be docile and friendly. They're not difficult to care for, but mud turtles are on the grouchy side and will bite with their curved beaks if they feel provoked or nervous. This is one of several reasons to avoid picking up or touching a pet mud turtle unless it's absolutely necessary. The risk of salmonella, as discussed below, is another reason.

So while they may be well-suited for older children who can properly care for them, mud turtles are probably not a good first pet for a younger child. 

Unlike many other reptiles, especially turtles, mud turtles are not baskers. They spend most of their time walking or settling on the bottom of their cages rather than trying to soak up the sun.

Housing the Mud Turtle

One of the reasons why mud turtles are so popular as pets is their small size.

Rarely growing to be over 5 inches long, mud turtles are small and compact aquatic turtles. But despite their small adult size, they still need adequate room to swim and dive when kept indoors. A large fish tank that allows your turtle to swim and dive as well as go to a dry dock on land should be provided for mud turtles living indoors.

Mud turtles are named so because they like to burrow in mud when they hibernate, but you don't have to have a muddy enclosure just because you have a mud turtle. Allowing your turtle to hibernate is not recommended in captivity, so it's not necessary to provide mud, despite the turtle's name. Just ensure that the enclosure does not get too cold.

Gravel on the bottom of the tank will stay cleaner than dirt, and a floating dock, rock, or gravel built up on the side of the tank should provide your turtle with a dry area to bask.

Light

Turtles of all kinds require heat lights as well as UVB lights. Heat lights are meant to keep your mud turtle warm, and UVB lights ​help process vitamin D3 so that their bodies can properly absorb calcium. Without both kinds of lighting, your turtle will not do very well long term.

Large heat lights are needed to heat the large enclosures that mud turtles require. Traditional reptile heat bulbs and a separate UVB bulb should be utilized to prevent the enclosure from dropping below 70 F.

The UVB bulb should stay on for a 12-hour cycle and be replaced every six months, even if it doesn't burn out. The invisible UVB rays will run out before the visible light burns out.

Mercury vapor bulbs are not appropriate for most mud turtle enclosures.

Food and Water

Mud turtles are omnivores, but the majority of their diet consists of worms, fish, snails, and other food typically found in the water. Turtle pellets are a nice additive to their captive diet, but dark green, leafy vegetables like fresh parsley, dandelion greens, and other salad greens (not iceberg or romaine lettuce) should be offered.

Although it's not ideal to handle mud turtles frequently, some owners have a separate enclosure for feeding their pets, since these little critters are exceptionally messy eaters. If you don't want to move them to feed them, just be aware that after feeding your mud turtle you may need some cleanup time. 

A calcium supplement should be dusted on the greens at least once a week, with food being provided several times during the week.

As with any animal that spends a lot of time in water, mud turtles need clean water to prevent infections and illnesses. A submersible or canister filter can help keep the water in your turtle's tank fresh and aerated. 

Common Health Problems

The most common problem with any aquatic turtle is poor shell health. Dirty water, incorrect lighting, and an inappropriate diet can lead to flaking shells, shell deformities, and even shell rot.

Some people become concerned if they smell a foul odor all of a sudden coming from their mud turtle. Remember that mud turtles are closely related to musk turtles and, like their relatives, can secrete an awful-smelling liquid to scare off predators. Most mud turtles raised in captivity will never use this defense mechanism, but owners should know that mud turtles have this capability.

Other easily avoided diseases include ear infections, vitamin deficiencies, metabolic bone disease, and intestinal parasites. You should have a fecal sample from a mud turtle checked yearly for intestinal parasites and get a checkup with your exotics veterinarian.

Choosing Your Mud Turtle

Mud turtles should have smooth shells with no sign of flaking or unusual bumps. Their eyes should be clear, and their skin should not show any signs of irritation or infection. 

Your best bet is to get your mud turtle from a reputable breeder rather than capturing one in the wild and trying to bring it home. A breeder can tell you the turtle's history and health background; with a wild turtle, you're in the dark about any problems it may have. 

If you intend a mud turtle to be a pet for a child, you should be aware of the connection between aquatic turtles and salmonella. Turtles are cute and children naturally want to pick them up and play with them, but since they harbor salmonella, turtles can pose a health risk to anyone who handles them. Children are thought to be most at risk since they're less likely to wash their hands after touching an aquatic turtle. 

Similar Species to the Mud Turtle

If you're trying to decide which aquatic turtle is the best fit for you, here are some breeds that are similar to the mud turtle:

You can also check out other profiles of aquatic turtle breeds that can be your new pet.