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.
IF YOU WANT A TURTLE PLEASE
DO NOT BUY ONE AND GIVE FURTHER SUPPORT TO THIS
DAMAGING TRADE! REGISTER INSTEAD WITH REHOMING
ORGANIZATIONS SUCH AS THE TORTOISE TRUST AND TURTLE
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 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
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
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
HEALTH & DISEASES
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
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
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
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'
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
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.
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
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.
Serious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract,
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.
Bacterial infection of the tissues which may have its
origins in trauma or as a specific disease.
Gram-negative bacterial organisms are usually
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
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
The carapace (shell) is soft and may be distorted. The
legs may be weak and the terrapin may have trouble
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!
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
Swelling or local inflammation on side of head.
Ear abscess. In turtles, often due to inadequate water
Surgical excision by veterinary surgeon under general
reading on this site:
Lighting for tortoises and turtles
Turtle General Guide
Keeping Musk turtles
Mauremys turtles of the Mediterranean - Care and Breeding
Surface mounted ponds - an
excellent alternative to glass tanks
environments for aquatic turtles
(c) 1995-2002 A. C.