Red-Eared Slider Turtle: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Red eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) standing on wood, Texas, USA
Chris McNeill / Getty Images

Native to North America, red-eared slider turtles can be rewarding pets. They sport attractive yellow and green markings, along with distinctive red patches behind their eyes. And they often are quite sociable with their owners. However, they are a fairly substantial undertaking when it comes to their care. Those cute little turtle hatchlings you see for sale will grow into large, long-lived, and somewhat messy aquatic turtles. Be prepared for how much space and cleaning they will need.

Species Overview

Common Names: Red-eared slider turtle, red-eared slider, red-eared terrapin, red-eared turtle, slider turtle, water slider turtle

Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans

Adult Size: Around 12 inches long

Life Expectancy: 20 to 30 years

Red-Eared Slider Turtle Behavior and Temperament

Red-eared slider turtles are active pets that enjoy swimming and diving. Captive-born red-eared sliders tend to be friendlier and more outgoing than those born in the wild. In fact, wild turtles are likely to disappear into their shells or underwater when they hear or see anything (or anyone) approaching, while captive-bred sliders might actually swim up to you expecting a treat. Avoid purchasing wild turtles that make it into the pet trade, as the stress of the lifestyle change for them can result in serious health problems and even premature death.

While it's possible to find a red-eared slider that's eager to interact with you when you pick it up, it's more likely that your pet will feel nervous and either disappear into its shell or nip. In general, it's best to respect your turtle's space and simply watch it rather than handling it.

Housing the Red-Eared Slider Turtle

Setting up appropriate housing for a red-eared slider turtle is not cheap, so be prepared to spend a couple hundred dollars on a proper habitat. No matter what a pet store sales associate claims, your hatchling turtle will not thrive in a small plastic container. Get an aquarium, even for the smallest of hatchlings. Start with a 10-gallon tank if you must (though a 20-gallon tank is better), but be aware that your turtle will grow and need a larger tank pretty quickly.

In addition, you will need to provide full-spectrum UV lighting, a basking heat light, and a dry docking area. The docking area should include an easily accessible ramp out of the water and a stable area where the turtle can bask in the light to absorb heat and UV rays.

Furthermore, red-eared sliders can be pretty messy because they both eat and produce waste in their aquatic home. For optimal cleanliness, install a tank filter that is rated for two to three times the amount of water you have in your tank. Canister filters and submersible filters are both used for aquatic turtles. If you don't have a filter, you will need to do weekly partial water changes and water quality testing, something that is both time-consuming and messy. But if you allow the water to stay dirty, your turtle can develop various health issues.

Some red-eared slider turtles can live year-round in an ​outdoor pond in warm climates. However, creating a healthy pond environment and protecting your turtle from predators, cold spells, and pesticides must all be taken into consideration.

Heat

Turtles' health can suffer if they are not warm enough, so it's important to provide an environment between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The turtle's basking dock should be between 85 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a water thermometer to keep an eye on water temperature. If it falls too low, add a basking light or other heating device.

Light

Full-spectrum UV lighting is necessary over your turtle's aquarium to mimic the benefits the turtle would get from natural sunlight. Leave the light on for 10 to 12 hours per day.

Substrate

Substrate is the material used on the bottom of your turtle's aquarium. Not only does it have an aesthetic factor, often mimicking the animal’s natural environment, but it also can give your animal something to burrow into. You can leave the bottom of your tank bare if you wish to make cleaning the water easier. But if you want to use a substrate, pick gravel or rocks that are too large for the turtle to ingest to line the tank bottom.

Food and Water

Red-eared sliders eat both animal protein and vegetables, including leafy greens, dried shrimp, krill, and crickets. It's fine to feed your pet a commercial brand of turtle food, most of which are specifically formulated for complete nutrition. Follow your veterinarian's recommendations on feeding to maintain a healthy weight for your turtle's size. There is no need to provide water beyond what's in the aquarium.

Many owners opt to feed their red-eared sliders in a container of water outside their regular tank. In addition to proper filtration, this practice can help keep the water clean.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Turtles and many other animals, such as hedgehogs, often carry salmonella and other pathogens that can spread to humans. This shouldn't necessarily stop you from getting a turtle (unless perhaps you have young children or immunocompromised people in your house), but you should be aware of the risks and take proper hygiene precautions. Washing your hands before and after touching your turtle or its habitat is key.

Moreover, watch out for gastrointestinal parasites in your red-eared slider. Symptoms include poor appetite and abnormal feces. These turtles also are prone to respiratory infections, especially if their habitat is too cold. Some signs of an infection are open-mouth breathing, sneezing, and excess mucus. Plus, like many turtles and tortoises, they might come down with shell rot or ulcers. This often occurs due to an unsanitary habitat or improper diet and shows up as abnormal or foul-smelling patches on their shell.

As for behavior, these turtles are generally friendly once they get comfortable in their environment. However, if you must handle them, do so slowly and gently to limit their stress and minimize the potential for aggressive behavior, such as biting.

illustration of red-eared slider turtles as pets
The Spruce/Nusha Ashjaee

Choosing Your Red-Eared Slider Turtle

Red-eared sliders are widely available at pet stores, though it's best to look for a turtle at a reputable breeder or rescue group that can give you comprehensive information on the animal's history and health. The average price for a red-eared slider in pet stores is around $20, but a quality breeder will likely charge a little more.

Choose a turtle that is active and alert, and make sure it is eating. Look for any red flags, such as lethargy, abnormal feces, shell discoloration, swelling, or excess mucus. Also, note the environment in which the turtles are kept at the pet store, breeder, or rescue. If the water isn't clean or the temperature is too cool, there's a chance the turtles will have health issues.

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