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Quick and simple emergency housing for Turtles

A. C. Highfield

Anyone even occasionally involved in tortoise or turtle rescues will know the feeling when yet another unexpected animal turns up! WHERE can I put it? HOW can I provide a safe and satisfactory environment at short notice? This is compounded by the vital need to ensure strict isolation and quarantine to prevent disease transmission….

Plastic tubs, feed containers and plastic storage boxes are excellent.

All of these can be quickly pressed into use as emergency housing.

They are light in weight, cheap, and available everywhere.

Here we have some aquatic turtles set up in some really basic, but suitable, housing based on storage boxes. This is about as basic as it gets. Only the essentials are there:

  • Water
  • Overhead basking lamp
  • Basking spot

One question we are often asked is "Do I need to provide a high output UV-B basking light for turtles?". The answer is "No, not in the short term". This is emergency housing.

While the very basic setup shown will work, you will need to change the water frequently (every couple of days) and this does get quite tedious after a while. Also, you can only do without a submersible aquarium heater if the room they are in is heated adequately 24/7. If not, a heater is essential. Any 100-150w aquarium heater will do, but I always prefer unbreakable models, especially for larger turtles. With babies, standard toughened glass heaters are fine, but I do recommend fitting a protective 'cage' around them (these can be obtained from aquatics supplies). This not only provides extra security, it also eliminates any possibility of the turtles burning themselves.

Getting slightly more sophisticated, and at the same time greatly reducing the job of water changing, you can now add in some filtration. This makes a massive difference to the amount of time needed to maintain the turtles. No more water changes every few days. There are two easy ways to do this with small turtles (big ones are a different matter). For a quick and easy solution, take a self-contained internal Canister Filter like a Fluval 3 or 4. These are basically just a pump with foam media. Just submerge it and switch it on. Done. It really is that easy.

In shallow water, when used on their sides (in fish tanks they are used vertically) you may find they do not stay submerged and try to float. This is easily fixed. Glue some small rocks to it with aquarium sealant!

After a week or two you may find the foam clogs. Just rinse it out, do a water change, and carry on as before.

A better option yet is to use an under-gravel filter. These work really, really well with baby turtles. They are not recommended for large ones, however.

These are easy to set up.

  • Buy an under-gravel filter plate to suit your container or tank
  • Get a few bags of aquarium gravel
  • Get an ''airlift' tube to fit the filter plate.
  • Get a POWERHEAD pump.

The powerhead is far more efficient and drawing water through the filter media (the gravel) than the standard air pump method. It also injects air (oxygen) into the water which accelerates the process of biodegrading waste and establishing a true biological filter system. The 'Airlift' tubes, when purchased, are full aquarium depth. For turtles you will probably not want that full depth, so simply cut them down to the required length with a fine hacksaw. Here's one in action:

This was in a baby turtle aquarium I made from scratch a few years ago. You can see the powerhead and air injection tube on the top right. To further improve filtration, in this unit I also had a 'hang on' type external filter. One thing you learn really quickly with turtles: you can never have too much filtration. The more the better, always.

Instead of water changes every few days, with a setup like this, you may only need a partial water change every few weeks. Turtles are not high maintenance IF you set them up right. There is also no smell and no other mess.


  • To avoid algae (green water) do NOT place in strong natural light
  • Do not overfeed. It just clogs the filters.
  • Fix heaters securely. Do not let them get above water, they'll overheat.
  • Always provide a basking spot and basking lamp.

You can also often buy, beg or borrow unwanted aquarium tanks for nothing or next to nothing. Check local Free Ad or Free-cycle pages. These can make very nice turtle units for small or medium sized animals:

Here's an Asiatic Cuora species in a rather nice looking tank

You can clearly see the under-gravel filter at work here. With some of these Asian turtles, you need to make sure the air temperature above the water is both warm and humid too, so a top helps. With temperate habitat, North American, turtles for example, just keeping air temperatures at normal room levels is fine provided you have adequate basking facilities.

Basking facilities (haul-out spots) are essential for turtles as they need not only to get their body temperatures up by means of basking, but they also rely on drying out the shell regularly in order to shed their scutes properly. If this is not provided, dead scutes will build up and can cause infections.

Taking a larger plastic tub, more elaborate and longer term housing can be provided. In the example shown we have set this unit up for an Asian Leaf turtle, so we have a fairly large area of water (filtered, in this instance, by an under-gravel filter operated by a power-head type pump), and a land area for basking (or nesting). Heat is provided by an unbreakable submersible aquarium heater, and an overhead basking lamp (not shown). In addition, ambient air humidity can be kept high by partly covering the unit with a sheet of “Perspex” or polycarbonate (twin-wall roofing sheet is best, as it offers extra insulation and is unbreakable). The container itself, measures, in this case, two feet by four feet (or about 600 X 1200 mm). Height is about 18 inches or 46 cm). It was purchased from a builder’s supply merchant as a plaster mixing tub! We find these absolutely invaluable as temporary housing. They are light in weight, very strong, cheap at around £15 each, and very easy to sterlise after each use. These are very versatile containers and can easily be adapted to house many species. It is always worth keeping a few on hand if rescues are likely to turn up at short notice.


Lighting and heating arrangements, as well as humidity also need to be varied, of course, to suit the species to be accommodated. Most of these changes are very easily accomplished with a little thought - adding or removing a “lid” can make a remarkable difference to ambient humidity, for example. This is very important for swamp dwelling tropical species. Some of these only need very shallow water, but very warm and humid air conditions:

Normal filtration is impossible here. So a plastic tub fitted with a bottom drain is ideal. The ones above were in a glass tank, and cleaning was more difficult.

For larger fully aquatic turtles we recommend our surface-mount pond design. This article also provides more detailed information on filtration.


(c) 2009 Tortoise Trust