The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is a 5-10” long, semi-aquatic, diurnal species found all over the United States and into southern Canada and northern Mexico. As one of the most common turtles in North America, they may be found in just about any body of still or slow-moving freshwater in their range.
Painted turtles have a streamlined appearance with a fairly flat, very smooth shell, elongated head, eyes close to the tip of the snout, and webbed feet. Coloring features a dark green to black shell that may have red edges or pale seams. The plastron is often red and/or yellow, and may have an irregular pattern of black lines. The skin may also have yellow, orange, and/or red striping.
Painted turtles are popular pets, but they have special housing needs that can make for a substantial initial investment. When cared for properly, however, they may live up to 40 years.
Minimum enclosure size for painted turtles
The minimum size enclosure for housing one painted turtle requires at least 10 US gallons of water per inch of the turtle’s anticipated adult length. Since the maximum known length for a painted turtle is 10”, you will need at least 100 gallons of swimming space. A land area can be built onto an aquarium, but given the choice, it’s best to use a Waterland tub or similar for housing your pet.
If your local climate and housing situation allows, painted turtles tend to do well when housed in an outdoor pond for at least part of the year. If this is a possibility for you, make sure that the pond is sufficiently large, with an accessible land area. The pond must be enclosed by a secure fence to prevent escape, plus anti-predator measures. The turtle may need to be brought indoors for the winter, depending on its subspecies and your local climate.
Cohabitation (housing multiple turtles in one enclosure) is optional with painted turtles, as they can get along in groups when there’s plenty of space for everybody. However, they also do just fine housed singly.
Do painted turtles need UVB?
Yes! Painted turtles require exposure to appropriate amounts of UVB in order to maintain good health and wellbeing. Providing UVB lighting to your turtle offers several benefits, including all of the vitamin D that their body needs, better appetite and activity, and a stronger immune system.
The best UVB bulbs for painted turtles are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
The UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place the lamp close to the heat lamps, about 8-11” above the basking platform if there is mesh obstruction, and 13-15” away if no mesh. UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance.
It’s best practice to provide extra illumination via a strong LED or T5 HO 6500K daylight lamp. This helps better replicate daylight and is also good for any live plants you may be using.
Lights should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter. However, if you are housing your turtle outdoors in a pond, then supplementary lighting is not required.
Best temperature for painted turtles
Unlike mammals, which control their own body temperature internally, painted turtles and other reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature and metabolism.
Different reptiles require different temperatures for best health. For painted turtles, the basking area should have an air temperature of 88-94°F, and the water should stay between 70-76°F. Juveniles need slightly warmer water temperatures of 78-80°F. Measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer, and water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer.
Provide basking heat for your turtle with a halogen flood heat lamp on one side of the enclosure, positioned directly over the basking area at the same height as the UVB lamp. Avoid ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Use a higher wattage bulb if you need more heat, or use a plug-in lamp dimmer if it’s too warm.
If you need to heat your turtle’s water, use an aquarium heater rated for the amount of water in the enclosure and placed inside a protective plastic tube to prevent your turtle from getting burned by accidental contact.
If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, heating equipment is not required.
Best humidity levels for painted turtles
Painted turtles are semi-aquatic reptiles, and spend most of their time in the water. This means that most of the enclosure should be water — in other words, you’ll be essentially maintaining a pond or aquarium with an accessible land area. Your turtle’s water must be kept as clean as possible to maintain the turtle’s health.
For filtration, you will need a canister-style filter capable of handling at least 2x the amount of water in the enclosure. For example, if you have an aquarium or pond with 100 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 200 gallons of water. This is one aspect of your setup where it’s very important to invest in excellent equipment!
You will also need to perform routine water changes. Once every 1-2 weeks, remove and replace approximately 30% of the enclosure’s total water volume. As essential as filters are, periodically removing “old” water and replacing it with “new” water helps prevent toxic compounds from building up. To make water changes easier, use a siphon or water pump.
Both indoor and outdoor enclosures require filtration and routine water changes.
Using a water conditioner like Zoo Med Reptisafe is helpful for managing chlorine and chloramines in the water, which can potentially irritate your turtle.
Best substrate for painted turtles
Painted turtles spend a significant amount of time on land, so it’s important to have several inches of sandy soil within easy access at all times, especially for females. Zoo Med Reptisoil works well for this purpose, or you can create your own mix of approximately 80% clean topsoil and 20% play sand (measured by volume).
Substrate is not required in the water portion of the setup, but it does make things more attractive. Sand and crushed coral work best for painted turtles. If you choose to use substrate, make sure to clean it with a siphon during every water change.
How to decorate a painted turtle enclosure
The first thing you’ll need to add to your aquarium/pond is NOT optional: because painted turtles are only semi-aquatic rather than fully-aquatic, you need to provide a “land” area for the turtle to bask on. Ideally, this should be enough space for the turtle to bask and walk around a bit. However, if that’s not possible, you can use a simple turtle basking platform. At minimum, this platform should be at least as large as the turtle itself, and elevated enough to allow the turtle to completely dry off.
Décor is about more than just creating an attractive enclosure — it’s also about boosting the enclosure’s functionality. Here are some ideas:
- live/artificial plants
- hollow logs
Whatever you choose to add, make sure to create at least a couple places where your turtle can hide from view. This helps them feel more secure!
What to feed to a painted turtle
Painted turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant- and animal-based foods in their diet to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a general feeding schedule to follow:
Painted turtles younger than 6 months:
- 50% protein / 50% vegetables
- protein food or pellets daily
- vegetable food daily
Painted turtles between 6-12 months:
- 50% protein / 50% vegetables
- protein food or pellets every other day
- vegetable food daily
Painted turtles older than 1 year:
- 25% protein / 75% vegetables
- protein food or pellets 2-3x/week
- vegetable food daily
Animal-based foods for painted turtles: crickets, earthworms, dubia roaches, freeze-dried shrimp/krill, frozen bloodworms, silkworms, snails, guppies, mollies, platies, mosquito fish, crayfish, mussels
Vegetable foods for painted turtles: collard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, endive, green leaf lettuce, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, raw grated squash, carrots, green beans, raw grated sweet potato, duckweed, water hyacinth, water lettuce, algae wafers
Pellets for painted turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet
A portion of chopped/shredded vegetables should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s shell. A portion of pellets or protein food should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.
For extra calcium, your turtle should have access to a cuttlebone or calcium block at all times.
How to handle your painted turtle
Unlike some other reptiles, turtles aren’t the kind of pet that you can handle regularly. It’s best to stay hands-off with this pet, and to watch them do their thing instead. If you want to try bonding with your pet, try tong-feeding!
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!