Painted Turtles

These aquatic pets can be shy around people

Painted turtles on a log in a pond
Painted turtles love to bask in the sun or under a heat lamp. Getty Images/Brian E. Kushner

The painted turtle has interesting markings on its shell, and like other aquatic turtles, enjoys basking in the sun for hours on end.

  • Names: Painted turtle, Chrysemys picta, Eastern Painted turtle, Southern Painted turtle, Midland Painted turtle, Western Painted turtle
  • Size: Four to 10 inches long; males may be smaller than females
  • Lifespan: More than 50 years in the wild; varies in captivity

Behavior and Temperament of the Painted Turtle

These mid-sized turtles like hibernating in colder temperatures, and tend to be shy. They prefer not to be handled by humans, because it can cause them stress, which can in turn lead to health problems. 

Like other aquatic turtles, painted turtles are not ideal for homes with small children due to the risk of salmonella bacteria. Always wash your hands before and after handling any aquatic turtle.

Painted Turtle Housing

The painted turtle is an aquatic turtle. It spends the majority of its time swimming and the rest of the time eating and basking on a dry rock in the sun. The care of painted turtles is similar to that of a pet fish: they need a tank almost entirely filled with water. But they also need a full reptile lighting set up.

Full grown painted turtles need plenty of swimming space. The largest tank possible is needed for your water turtle so ideally your turtle enclosure will hold more than 100 gallons of water.

Gravel built up with larger rocks to create a "beach" on one side of the tank serves well as a basking area and dry docking station for your turtle. You can also use a variety of floating accessories that are available at pet stores.

It should go without saying that water quality is very important to animals that spend the majority of their lives swimming, and aquatic turtles are no exception. Dirty water can cause a number of health problems for an aquatic turtle.

Quality water filters are a must for any painted turtle enclosure to keep the water clean, clear and fresh. Submersible filters or canister filters are your best options for clean water. They should be constantly running to not only provide filtration but also aeration to the water.

Food and Water

Painted turtles typically eat their food while swimming but some other species of aquatic turtles have been known to eat on dry land.

Aquatic turtle pellets are a good staple diet for painted turtles but your turtle should also get some fresh leafy vegetables or plants. Dark, leafy greens like romaine, dandelion greens and fresh parsley should be offered on a regular basis.

These can be placed in the water or clipped to the side of the tank with a suction cup clip sold in the fish department at the pet store. Fresh, chopped apple pieces and freeze dried shrimp can be offered as treats from time to time.

Painted turtles also eat some insects, crustaceans and fish. Fatty fish like goldfish should be avoided along with larger high protein food like mice; they're too hard for the turtle to digest.

The majority of your aquatic turtle's diet should be plant based. Some owners prefer to feed their aquatic turtles in a separate enclosure because they're such messy eaters, but this requires more handling than may be good for the animal. 

Painted Turtle Lighting

If housed indoors, UVB lighting and supplemental heat lights should be provided to aquatic turtles. Painted turtles don't need extremely warm temperatures but they will be more active and eat better if their home is kept around 85 degrees.

If temperatures are allowed to drop below 60 degrees, your turtle may become lethargic, not eat well and start to go into hibernation. Turtles that are housed outside in warmer months should be brought inside when the outside temperature gets too cool.

UVB lighting should be provided for 12 hours a day year-round in the form of a special reptile UVB bulb. It should also be replaced every six months since the invisible UVB rays expire before the visible white light does. Painted turtles that are housed outside do not need supplemental UVB lights since they receive natural UVB rays from the sun.

Common Health Problems

Painted turtles are relatively easy to care for with the proper setup and diet. But they can run into some health issues.

Intestinal parasites are found naturally in most reptiles, including painted turtles, but they can become a problem  for your turtle if they overpopulate the intestinal tract. Annual fecal parasite exams should be performed by your exotics veterinarian.

If water quality is a problem, your turtle can get skin, shell, and ear infections from the dirty water. If too much algae is building up on your turtle's shell or skin, use a soft toothbrush to help keep it clean. Ear infections from poor water quality will display large bumps behind your turtle's eye and need to be addressed by your vet.

Your turtle's beak and nails should be maintained at a good length. They may need periodic trimming if your turtle is unable to grind them down in its environment or because there is an underlying health issue causing the excessive growth.

Without proper UVB lighting and calcium from the turtle pellets, painted turtles will develop metabolic bone disease and shell deformities but these are serious issues that can be easily avoided with proper care. 

If you suspect your turtle has a health issue get him in to see a vet as soon as possible. With your help, your turtle can live a long and healthy life.

Choosing Your Painted Turtle

Painted turtles should have smooth shells without unusual bumps or flaking. Their eyes should be clear, and their skin should not show any signs of irritation or infection, such as redness or swelling.

Ideally, you want to get your painted turtle from a reputable breeder, and try to get one that has been captive-bred, not one that was caught in the wild. A breeder can tell you the turtle's health history, information you won't have about a wild-caught turtle.

Similar Species to the Painted 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 painted turtle:

You can also check out other profiles of aquatic turtle breeds if you want one as a pet.