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Red-Eared Sliders: Basic Facts and Health Care

A C Highfield


The effects of the trade

Most Red-Eared sliders destined for the pet trade are doomed to die a premature death from the day they hatch. The vast majority are sold to unknowledgeable dealers who in turn sell them without adequate care information to equally unknowledgeable purchasers. The Tortoise Trust would like to see it made a legal requirement that all exotic animals can only be sold if accompanied by accurate and adequate information on basic husbandry. Some 3 to 4 million Red-eared sliders are exported from the U.S.A every year. Most originate from intensive farms in Louisiana and Mississippi. The same commercial turtle hunters who supply replacement breeding stock for these farms are also responsible for collecting as many as 25,000 - 30,000 adult animals per week for export to foreign food markets (mainly in the Far East).
Commercial intensive terrapin farms usually consist of several artificial ponds each of which can contain up to 13,000 breeding adults. There is an extremely high annual mortality due to stress, disease, nutritional disorders, inadequate depth of water and overcrowding. The water, it need hardly be pointed out, is highly contaminated with numerous pathogenic organisms.
There is a massive surplus of unwanted adult turtleslooking for good homes, yet thousands of tiny hatchlings continue to be bred each year making an already desperate humanitarian situation even worse. Most of these hatchlings will die within 3-6 months, but the numbers involved are so vast that enough survive to present a genuine longer term problem when they outgrow their (usually) inadequate accommodation.


Wild populations are already under intensive pressure from habitat loss due to human impact. Widespread and uncontrolled collecting for the pet trade places them under even more severe pressure.
Turtles may start as tiny little creatures which appear capable of living in a small, low-cost tank but they can attain considerable dimensions as adults - up to 300mm (12 inches) is not unusual. At this size they require spacious accommodation, expensive filtration equipment and a considerable investment of their keepers time. It is worth noting that a hatchling may only cost a couple of pounds or dollars or so to purchase initially, but it will
cost at least 100 times its initial purchase price to maintain successfully as an adult (tank, heating & lighting equipment and filtration). This is not taking into account running costs, possible veterinary fees or feeding. At these low prices, turtles are often impulse purchases - how many people would take on this commitment if they knew what was really involved in caring for them properly?
There is certainly nothing wrong in keeping turtles as a hobby if you intend to take them seriously and are prepared to provide them with a suitable environment.
Indeed, there are thousands of turtles in desperate need of people who are prepared to do precisely this. They are intelligent animals which can be extremely rewarding to keep. What you should not do however is support the commercial terrapin trade. The facts speak for themselves.


One of the most common problems confronting turtle keepers is that of maintaining water quality. Dirty water is a sure recipe for inducing bacterial and parasitic diseases. A dirty turtle tank is also extremely bad smelling and is not a pleasant addition to the household! Regular water changes are one way of achieving this, but the process rapidly becomes tedious in the extreme. The practical solution is to employ a motorized filter system which will reduce the frequency with which total water changes are necessary. These are available in three main types:-

Undergravel filters
Undergravel filters can work very well, but do require a large surface area, low stocking density, and well oxygenated water. The types powered by an airlift (air pump) are not adequate for anything but the smallest hatchlings. Larger tanks should be fitted with a powerhead in place of the airlift. We like the Aquaclear range.

Internal canister filters
These are relatively cheap and can be highly effective. Use the largest size you can install in your tank. The best filter medium in our experience is of the foam type. This can be taken out and washed whenever it becomes clogged.

External canister filters
For large tank systems this sort of filter is unbeatable. Again, we have found foam media to be the most effective but various other combinations are also possible as one of the benefits of this system is its tremendous versatility. The filter body is located outside of the tank, only the inlet and outlet tubes entering the terrapins environment. Use the largest model you can afford for optimum results - which brings us to the only potential drawback, cost. Good external power filters are not particularly cheap, but definitely worth while if you keep large specimens in an indoor tank system as they will drastically reduce the need for frequent water changes.


Another factor often ignored by novice keepers is lighting. All indoor turtle tanks or ponds will require some form of artificial lighting. Please see our special 'Lighting' article for more on this subject.


More than 85% of all diseases encountered in turtles are the result of either poor husbandry or poor dietary management - and sometimes both together. Dirty water or incorrect temperature control is often seen and there is no excuse for it. Clean water and the correct temperature can be provided at low cost from readily obtainable accessories which can be purchased at any pet or aquatic suppliers.
Diseases resulting from an incorrect diet are also extremely common, and are a major cause of early death. If a correctly balanced diet is provided as outlined above then terrapins should live to a good old age - we have encountered some specimens which have survived for over 30 years in captivity.
Turtles can get ill like any other animal and if they do you should seek veterinary advice at once. Most conditions can be treated successfully if caught early enough.
The following guide to some of the more common health problems of captive terrapins is provided to help you identify a potentially sick animal in need of further investigation and possible treatment. It is not intended as a ''Do-it-yourself'' guide to treatment. All medical treatment should be carried out under qualified veterinary direction. The treatment methods outlined are for reference only and are intended as a general guide to current veterinary practice.
There are also some general guidelines for treating and nursing sick terrapins and turtles which are worth mentioning:

Sick turtles should be kept warm. The best temperature range in most cases is between 27-30 degrees Centigrade. At these temperatures the animal's own immune system is able to function at peak efficiency. It is more important to maintain hydration than to worry unduly about force feeding solid foods. Dehydrated turtles are at serious risk (from renal complications). Even emaciated animals require rehydration and a restoration of renal function before they require force feeding.
Sick turtles may not be able to swim properly. They can even drown. Keep water levels low and make sure that the turtle can leave the water easily if it wishes to.
If an infectious disease is suspected, isolate the animal immediately. Keep a spare tank on hand for this purpose in case it is ever required. Pay special attention to hygiene in such cases and use an approved surgical hand cleaner (such as 'Betadine' povidone-iodine solution).
The key to the successful treatment of reptiles is accurate diagnosis followed appropriate medication. Do not engage in guess-work but always seek expert advice from a qualified source.

Basic guide to common diseases

Swollen or puffy eyes, usually closed. Possible white discharge. Skin may appear red and raw. There may be edema.
Probable cause:
Bacterial infection of eyes often consequent upon inadequate filtration of water. Investigate environment. Incorrect temperatures can also be responsible for this sort of symptom.
Topical antibiotics for eyes (non-soluble ointment base) if bacterial infection present. Adjust hygiene and environment if incorrect.

Lesions or plaque-like furry build-up of necrotic matter in the mouth. Possible refusal to feed, and eyes may also be swollen.
Probable cause:
Bacterial infection of the mouth usually implicating Gram-negative organisms. Contagious to other specimens.
A serious condition requiring prompt treatment. The mouth should be cleaned using povidone-iodine solution several times per day with physical removal of necrotic tissue. Topical antibiotics of known efficacy against Gram-negative organisms may also be advised. Handle affected animals with care and isolate immediately. This condition usually responds well if recognized in good time.

Animal lethargic, may hold head high or in an unusual position. There may be weakness in the front or back legs, and there may be a discharge from nose or mouth often accompanied by wheezing.
Probable cause:
Serious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract, possibly pneumonia.
Veterinary attention urgently required. Antibiotic injections are the usual course of action (antibiotics are not normally given orally to tortoises or terrapins due to the prolonged and unpredictable rate of absorption via the gut and unpredictability of resultant blood serum level).

Carapace or plastron reveals soft area with possible hemorrhage. There may or may not be an unpleasant smell from the locality. The affected area may spread rapidly.
Probable cause:
Bacterial infection of the tissues which may have its origins in trauma or as a specific disease. Gram-negative bacterial organisms are usually implicated.
The affected area should be cleaned regularly with povidone iodine solution, necrotic tissue gently removed, and the terrapin isolated immediately. A topical antibiotic should be applied (laboratory sensitivity cultures may be advisable). Most cases result from localized traumatic injury, e.g., burns from heaters or abrasions from sharp rocks in the tank etc.

Lethargy, weakness, possible red flush to limbs or plastron.
Probable cause:
Generalized septicemia (blood poisoning).
Many cases result from traumatic injury, especially if incurred in contaminated water. There may be hepatosis as the liver can rapidly become implicated. Urgent parenteral antibiotic treatment is required together with careful and intensive supportive therapy. Blood tests can be useful in establishing the progress of treatment.

The carapace (shell) is soft and may be distorted. The legs may be weak and the terrapin may have trouble feeding.
Probable cause:
Dietary calcium deficiency, either relative or absolute.
Very severe cases are unlikely to survive. Treatment consists of calcium injections plus revised diet and maintenance under a UV-B emitting light. N.B: Comments on soft-shell symptoms do not apply to Soft-shell Turtles, e.g
Tryonix/Apalone species!

Fresh wound.
Probable cause:
Fighting, abrasion on rocks or other objects.
Remove causal factor from environment. Clean gently using povidone-iodine solution and keep particularly clean until fully healed. Observe carefully for symptoms of secondary infections e.g, septicemia, necrotic dermatitis.

Swelling or local inflammation on side of head.
Probable cause:
Ear abscess. In turtles, often due to inadequate water hygiene.
Surgical excision by veterinary surgeon under general anaesthetic.

Further reading on this site:

 Lighting for tortoises and turtles

Aquatic Turtle General Guide

Feeding Aquatic Turtles

Keeping Musk turtles

Mauremys turtles of the Mediterranean - Care and Breeding

Surface mounted ponds - an excellent alternative to glass tanks

Creating 'Natural' environments for aquatic turtles



(c) 1995-2002 A. C. Highfield/Tortoise Trust