One of the most popular pet turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, are long-lived aquatic turtles—some live up to 40 years in captivity. These turtles spend most of their time in the water, but unlike amphibians, they need to be able to get out of the water to dry off and rest.
As far as turtles go, this species is moderately easy to care for. In general, aquatic turtles require a lot of tank maintenance. Closely related to red-eared sliders, these turtles will also need a giant tank as adults. These popular pets are distinguished by their shells, which are brown or black with yellow stripes. Their underbelly or lower shell is yellow with black spots, hence its name. This turtle's native range is the southeastern U.S. from Florida to Virginia.
Common Name: Yellow-bellied slider, yellow-bellied terrapin
Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta scripta
Adult Size: Males can grow up to 9 inches long; females can grow up to 13 inches long
Life Expectancy: 30 to 40 years
Yellow-Bellied Slider Behavior and Temperament
The slider is a diurnal turtle, meaning it is most active during the day. They tend to eat first thing in the morning, and in the wild will spend most of the rest of the day basking in the sun. Captive yellow-bellied sliders also are most active during the day.
Like most turtles, yellow-bellied sliders do not like handling; this can cause undue stress for them. Over time, you might be able to get them accustomed to handling, but when they feel threatened, they will bite.
These curious, amiable reptiles are entertaining pets if cared for properly. They will never be cuddly pets like a dog or cat, but yellow-bellied sliders tend to have unique personalities that endear them to their owners.
Housing the Yellow-Bellied Slider
Aquariums are good for young sliders, but as these turtles mature, their size makes housing them a bit more challenging. The ideal tank size for an adult slider is 75 to 100 gallons. Provide a basking dock and clean water for your turtle housed indoors.
These turtles eat and leave fecal matter in their aquatic home. You will need to install a tank filter rated for two to three times the amount of water you have in your tank. You can use canister filters or submersible biological filters. 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. If the water remains dirty, your turtle can develop various health issues.
Treat water with a water conditioner before using it. The water conditioner will remove chlorine and other harsh water additives that can disturb your biological filter and your pet's quality of life.
If you have an outdoor pond and a securely fenced yard to keep your turtle in and predators out, you might consider putting it outdoors for at least part of the year.
Enterprising owners also make roomy habitats for sliders by using pre-formed plastic pond liners to make indoor ponds. All turtles kept indoors will need special lighting.
Turtles need adequate UVA and UVB rays. They typically get these UV rays from unfiltered sunlight or a special lamp. Aquatic turtles will need these UV lights year-round for about 12 hours per day. Replace UV light bulbs every six months. If your yellow-bellied slider lives outdoors, it will not need supplemental UV lighting; the sun's rays will be sufficient.
As cold-blooded creatures, turtles need to self-regulate their body temperature. To control their temperature, turtles seek out basking spots to soak up the sun's warm rays. If you have an indoor tank, you will need to replicate a sunny basking spot that can reach about 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Either a 60-watt or 100-watt basking bulb should be sufficient. As turtles also need the UV rays from the sun for proper development, you can get a combination mercury vapor bulb, which provides both heat and UV.
Their water also needs to be at a constant temperature of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. A water heater will be required to keep the water warm. It should be maintained day and night.
Food and Water
Yellow-bellied sliders are omnivorous creatures. Turtles of all ages should get a wide variety of both animal and plant-based items. Juveniles and hatchlings should eat twice a day, and their diet should lean towards carnivorous. Once a turtle reaches adulthood (age 2 to 5), its diet should consist of mostly vegetables.
Commercial turtle pellets are a proper base diet when supplemented with a variety of other items. Offer only what your turtle can consume in about 15 minutes and remove uneaten food.
Dark, leafy greens like romaine, dandelion greens, and fresh parsley should be a regular part of your yellow-bellied slider's diet. Offer chopped apple pieces and freeze-dried shrimp occasionally.
Most aquatic turtles eat the occasional insect or fish, but avoid giving them fatty fish, and never give them high-protein meats. An aquatic turtle's diet should be mainly plant-based.
Feeding your turtle outside of its home is a bit more work at feeding time, but it will make keeping the tank clean a lot easier in the long run.
Common Health Problems
Sliders should be able to dive into their water. A turtle that is always floating can be a sign of a problem, such as pneumonia. Turtles with eyes that are closed or puffy may indicate a respiratory infection or a similar issue. Wheezing and drooling also are signs of respiratory ailments.
Shells that are soft, not smooth, or covered in algae might have shell rot, which is a painful condition caused by fungus.
Metabolic bone disease and vitamin deficiencies are also common issues that affect aquatic turtles in captivity due to inappropriate diets and lighting. Make sure your UVB and heat lights are changed regularly to help keep your turtle healthy. Metabolic bone disease is particularly painful for turtles and can be life-threatening if not treated properly.
If you notice any signs of illness, consult with an exotics veterinarian who specializes in reptile care. Most of these conditions are treatable if caught early.
Choosing Your Yellow-Bellied Slider
Before you bring home your yellow-bellied slider, there are a few things to look out for to ensure it's healthy. Make sure the turtle's eyes are not sealed shut, and they should not be puffy or have discharge.
If its shell has any soft or rough spots, this is another bad sign; it could indicate shell rot. Test its responsiveness by making sure it pulls its head and legs into its shell or tries to swim away when you attempt to pick it up. Most turtles and tortoises don't like handling; this is normal, expected behavior.
Your best source for buying a yellow-bellied slider is a reputable breeder who has documented its health and history. A captive-bred, not wild-caught slider, is the best option. You can expect to pay $10 to $20 for a hatchling. Adult specimens can cost upwards of $60 to $100. These higher prices reflect the amount of care that has gone into bringing the turtle to adulthood.
Different Species of Aquatic Turtles
If you are interested in pet turtles, check out:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.
Jacobson ER, Brown MB, Wendland LD, Brown DR, Klein PA, Christopher MM, Berry KH. Mycoplasmosis and upper respiratory tract disease of tortoises: a review and update. Vet J. 2014 Sep;201(3):257-64. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.039
Common Diseases of Aquatic Turtles. VCA Hospitals.
Metabolic and Endocrine Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.