Raising Baby Turtles

Tour Twenty Five
Before You Go to the Pet Store


    It is late September as we start to write this tour. Many of our turtles outside are hard to find because we have had many cool nights here in Pennsylvania; most of the turtles have stopped eating. We are making preparations for hibernation by preparing our leaf pile. We have put away our incubator for the year. And all across the land people are finding baby turtles; we know we hear from many of them. Baby turtles will be found well into the winter months.

     It is common for people to pick up baby turtles to help them survive whether they intend to keep them as long term pets or to simply help them survive the coming winter. Many of these people make a quick trip to a pet store before doing their homework. Then when they do search the internet, they find TurtleTails.com and we get email. This tour is intended to help new pet turtle owners make more informed purchases. Long time turtle owners may also benefit from our ideas.

     If you did make a trip to a pet store and you made purchases you are less satisfied with after reading this tour, consider returning to the pet store to exchange the items you purchased. That means we must discuss aquariums which we will do. But first lets discuss baby turtles.

     Baby turtles that emerge from a nest in late summer, fall, or winter get off to a slow start. Many do not travel far at all. Many will not eat until spring. If you do find a turtle, any turtle at any time of the year, know that you have time on your side. Perhaps the only immediate need you must deal with is providing water and humidity. Water is obvious. Do also provide a temporary container with a substrate that is moist like damp leaves or soil. An empty bowl or box is like the ultimate dry desert especially during the heating season.

     So you have a new turtle and it is contained in something temporarily. You have found TurtleTails.com and you are doing your homework. Good! Read all the articles on the Raising Baby Turtles page and all the articles on the Backyard Turtles page as you have time. These behind-the-scenes tours are presented chronologically as they were written and not in any step-by-step order. If you do read most of them you will understand that the place to start is not in a pet store but rather at home.

     Whether you are about to set up an aquarium or vivarium, some of the most useful items you will ever use are probably in your kitchen or storage area. When you identify an item like a hand towel or dish towel, we recommend taking your old one for the turtles and purchasing a new one for your use rather than using the new one for the turtles. That makes sense doesn't it.

Glass aquariums:
     If you have an aquarium already, great. Even if it is scratched and not very pretty anymore, it is probably useable for turtles. It can always be replaced later as your need is better defined. We prefer glass aquariums over plastic containers. We have always observed that our turtles are more comfortable when they can look through the glass at us and have no problems identifying glass as a barrier. On the other had we have also observed that turtles have a hard time seeing vertical white or light colored surfaces when they are close to them. This must have something to do with their eye sight. If you must use plastic, we recommend a dark colored plastic.

     In Tour 22: How Much Space for Pet Turtles we explain that we only use 20 gallon long aquariums and 30 gallon breeder aquariums. We want the most floor space for the volume (capacity stated in gallons) since we never fill aquariums with much water anyway. This is even more important when setting up a vivarium. We also recommend experimenting. That is why a used aquarium from a thrift store or yard sale is a good place to start. Your turtle will than test your experiment and tell you what works for him. Do not worry about upsetting your turtle during this time. Your new turtle has already begun adapting and will continue to adapt. This is no different than bringing a new dog or cat into your home. This is simply a period of adjustment.

     Whether you are filling an aquarium or a water bowl in a vivarium, domestic tap water is fine. That includes chlorinated water. Even if you do not like the taste of your water, it is suitable for turtles. And there is no need to purchase any treatments for the water such as might be necessary for tropical fish.

     Once a turtle uses the water, we call it "turtle dip". Turtle dip is water enriched with turtle poop. Most turtles in a vivarium will poop in the water and aquarium turtles have no choice. Whether you see poop or no, it is turtle dip. There are water treatments to help break down the poop, but you can not stop the natural biological processes anyway so why spend money on treatments. Treatments do not remove dirt and filters only trap some of it. 

Watering can:
     Aquariums loose water daily through evaporation, vivarium bowls need filling, and plants need watering. A very useful item is a large plastic watering can sold for watering house plants. We have one that holds about half a gallon of water which we keep near our aquariums filled with water. Allowing the water to set in it insures the water is at room temperature when needed for baby turtles. 

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Plastic bowl:
     The most useful item we have is a black plastic pan which is shown being used to soak several box turtles in Tour 4: Rub-a-Dub Dub. It has been in daily use for over twenty years and shows no sign of wearing out. It is used to transport water bowls, food dishes, and aquarium filters to and from the sink for cleaning, soaking and feeding turtles, transporting wet and dry turtles from place to place, and holding small turtles temporarily. By far it is the most frequently used turtle item we have.

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Cloth towels:
     We already mentioned cloth towels above which are handy for drying hands, turtles, aquariums, and picking up water drips. They are useful around both aquariums and vivariums. We mounted some hooks on the cabinets the aquariums set on to hang hand towels. Old bath towels become towels for our dog and Emily, our large Florida red-bellied turtle. These towels are laundered with regular laundry.

     A special note here for new turtle owners. You may read about the dangers turtles pose by carrying salmonella. Turtles are no different than any caged animal that may step in its own poop or swim in "turtle dip". Any animal's poop may carry salmonella. Whenever you handle turtles and turtle items, you must follow some simple rules. While your hands are contaminated, do not touch your face, nose, eyes, or food for people. Yes that means that kids should not kiss their turtles. Do not eat while your hands are contaminated. Use your turtle towels while your hands are contaminated. After you are done, wash your hands with a soap containing antibacterial agents. Turtle towels are not to be used for drying your hands after you wash them.

Antibacterial hand soap:
     Most soft (liquid) hand soaps today contain antibacterial agents. One brand even uses a picture of a turtle on the container. We will assume that most bar soaps are good too. The point is that you should wash your hands after handling turtles and turtle items before resuming normal activities. This means that turtle owners will be washing their hands often. Even when attending to your turtles, you should wash your hands before reaching in the refrigerator for food for the turtles. The same applies to handling turtles outside. Hand sanitizers are good too after you have washed your hands.

     We do not wash our hands before handling our turtles.

Aquarium pooper scoopers:
     Aquarium filters are necessary but of limited use for removing turtle poop, especially if you have large turtles. Whether you use a vinyl floor runner on the bottom of your aquarium like we show in Tour 2: Baby Water Turtles or gravel, you will see turtle poop from time to time. It is better to remove poop than to let it break down hoping your filter will collect it. The most useful pooper scooper is a very inexpensive basting tool found in your kitchen. It looks like a large eye dropper. These are great for picking up all kinds of dirt in aquariums.

     For larger poop the useful tool is also found in the kitchen, a small wire screen sieve. Again, we recommend taking an old one for use with the turtles and putting the new one to use in the kitchen. Aquarium fish nets can also be used.

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     And where do you empty your pooper scooper. Any old plastic food container or drink cup will do. You can either discard them often or use them over and over.

Plastic bucket:
     If you have an aquarium, it will need emptied from time to time. We recommend purchasing one new plastic bucket for use only for turtles. Why a new bucket this time? It is better to know that your bucket is not contaminated with any cleaners you may have used. This bucket will be useful for draining the aquarium and for refilling it. The bucket does not have to be too large because you will have to lift it high. It should have a good handle and a good pour spout. 

Aquarium water scoop and sponge:
     I can empty an aquarium, clean it, and refill it in less than an hour by using a bucket, a homemade scoop, and a sponge. I cut the top off a plastic bottle to make a water scoop. A flat sided bottle is ideal for use as a scoop. I rest the bucket on the top of the aquarium holding it with one hand and scoop water with the other hand. As the water level gets too low to scoop up much water, I set the scoop in the aquarium and sponge up the water squeezing the water out into the scoop. I then empty the scoop into the bucket. My sponge is small enough to be used with only one hand.

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     You may not find the ideal bottle for making a scoop when you want to make one. Since this is a free item you can always make new scoops as better bottles become available. There is room for more than one size scoop too. With enough water you can clean out almost any plastic bottle good enough for use with your turtles. After washing it out, let it dry completely in the sun and then inspect it for residue. It should be totally clean and free of any strong smells. If you are not sure it is clean enough, fill it with water and let it set for a day and dry it again.

Food dishes:
     The best food dishes we have found for small turtles like box turtles are flower pot saucers and candle dishes. Glass candle dishes are very inexpensive so pick up a few if you are purchasing them. If you find dishes in various colors, pick up a few colors to add color to a vivarium in addition to the browns and greens that dominate vivariums. Bright yellow and red dishes will attract box turtles who are naturally attracted to red and yellow foods.

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     Tweezers will be very useful if you are feeding your turtles earthworms, mealworms, and similar foods. It makes them easy to grasp in addition to keeping your fingers cleaner. If you have more than one tank, you may find it is desirable to have more than one tweezers so pick up several of them if you see them in a discount store.

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     We always recommend plants in vivariums and like to use planters in our aquariums. Old kitchen utensils are very useful for planting small plants and digging in vivariums. We also use spoons to dig for turtle eggs. In Tour 18: Starting Hatchling Water Turtles we also show how we use spoons to remove baby turtles when it is time to clean the bowl. Some babies have appeared to be very comfortable on spoons and one even liked to sleep on a spoon. If you don't have any old utensils, there is an endless supply of them at your local thrift store.

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Flower pot saucers:
     You can't read many of our tours without coming across ways we use flower pot saucers as water dishes in vivariums and outdoor turtle pens. We also use them to make islands in aquariums. We use plastic ones to make baby safe water dishes for baby box turtles. We also find that an 8" plastic saucer is useful for catching spills when carrying a 6" water bowl to the sink for cleaning. These dishes are very useful and very inexpensive so if you are purchasing saucers, take a few extras for experimentation. They will get used.

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Bleach in a small container:
     Household bleach is very useful for disinfecting aquariums and other turtle items and for removing smells from food and water dishes. It is also good for removing algae and residue from hard to reach places and for killing insects in vivariums. However, we do not want to be reaching for a gallon container of bleach when we need it so we fill an old dishwashing liquid container with bleach, mark it as bleach, and keep it under the sink with other cleaners. Just marking this container is not enough as I well know. Once I was in a hurry and grabbed the wrong container and put a skirt of dishwashing liquid in an aquarium I was cleaning. I will not make that mistake again. Now our bleach container has duct tape around it for added identification.

     We do not measure the bleach we are using when making a solution of bleach in water. We usually just skirt some bleach into a little water for cleaning and disinfecting. For killing insects in a vivarium, we use about one part bleach to eight parts water. Bleach does its work in less than a minute.

     Use bleach with care since it will burn skin and discolor clothing. Rinse items with clean water after the bleach solution. Bleach does not leave a residue so allow the item to dry before using if you have any concern about remaining bleach. 

     If we have a sick turtle in an aquarium or vivarium, the turtle is isolated. Then we clean the tank and all items in it and rinse everything with a bleach solution. After the turtle is well and placed back in its tank, the container it was isolated in is cleaned and rinsed with a bleach solution. If you use gravel in an aquarium, it can be disinfected with bleach too.

     Outside we use bleach straight from the bottle to kill ants. Ants are frequently a problem at turtle feeding stations and we don't like to see the ants become too numerous. We pour it into the ants holes. Since it leaves no residue, there are not toxic chemicals  left lingering in the turtles' environment.

Scrub brushes:
     Most daily cleaning can be done with a stiff brush and water like cleaning food and water bowls. And the first brush to add to your turtle equipment is an old toothbrush. A toothbrush is great for cleaning aquarium filters, hard to reach places, and small turtles. Other brushes that are useful depend on the size of the job. Outside we keep several brushes handy for cleaning food and water dishes near where they are needed rather than carry them around.

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     Yes we use brushes to clean turtles too. Baby snapping turtles hatch with flaky stuff similar in appearance to algae on their shells. This can be removed by gently scrubbing  them with a toothbrush and water. More than one scrubbing may be necessary. All our other turtles are scrubbed with a brush and water from time to time. In addition to looking better, it allows us to better look at their conditions. Keep in mind that these are domesticated turtles who are used to putting up with us. The only turtle that really objects is our snapping turtle who prefers to be covered with mud but that does not stop us.

Critter cages:
     While we would not house our turtles in critter cages, they can be very useful at times. This small cage we use to put baby turtles outside for brief times in summer. We put a little water in it, some food, and a leaf or two. We then set it under plants so that it is only in partial sun. This keeps the turtles in and other animals out. If you have a larger critter cage with a deeper pan, you may want to drill some overflow holes in the sides of the pan so the water can not become too deep in an unexpected rain storm. We do not leave baby turtles in it if we are not around to keep an eye on it.

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Food containers:
     Have you ever dumped too much of that expensive turtle food into an aquarium or even dropped the whole container into the water? We know how easy it is to do. We like to purchase food in large containers and fill smaller containers with it for daily use. Empty small turtle food containers are good for reusing inside the house. Empty plastic food jars are very good for larger quantities.

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     If you have turtles outside, you know how often they ask for food, almost every time they see you. We like to keep jars of turtle food handy in or near each pen. Plastic peanut butter and mayo jars are ideal for this purpose since they close tightly enough to keep rain and moisture out. The trick is to place the jars where they will no be exposed to direct sun light. Direct sun will draw moisture out of the food which then condenses on the sides of the jar which causes the food to get moldy. We keep jars of food under day lilies next to our pond.

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Flower pots and planters:
     We have shown how to make various items out of flower pots and saucers on TurtleTails.com before. We are always on the lookout in thrift stores and yard sales for new ones to try. We found this bonsai planter in a thrift store for $2 and knew we had a find. We cut two pieces of wood to support it and two long pieces of wood as a base to hold the uprights. The base pieces are buried in the vivarium soil. The planter sets on the uprights making a good hiding place for several turtles. Some leaf litter is also pushed under the planter.

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     So before you go out and purchase plastic stuff for your aquarium or vivarium, check out what you may have setting around that you can experiment with. You may have bonsai planters or oddly shaped flower pots you can put to use. You may even have some that are complete with plants. 

     If you have a common inexpensive household item you use for your turtles that you would like to share with us, send us an email. We are always looking for new ideas to use and share with our readers. You do not have to have pictures of your idea. We learn from each other.

    We hope we have given you some ideas and that you enjoyed our behind-the-scenes tour.


Revised 7/18/2010

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