Table of Contents
The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) is a 12” long, semi-aquatic, diurnal species of turtle found throughout North America, and are an invasive species in many parts of the world. They prefer slow-moving freshwater habitats such as ponds, marshes, lakes, and even rivers.
Red-eared sliders have a smooth, flattened shell, eyes close to the tip of the snout, and webbed feet. Their shell is bright green as hatchlings, which darkens to brown, olive, or dark green with age, accented with yellow striping. The plastron (underside) is yellow with black markings. The skin is striped green and yellow, except for a broad red stripe behind each eye.
Red-eared sliders are easy to find in pet stores, but they need plenty of space and require specialized equipment that generally requires a significant initial investment. When cared for properly, however, they may live up to 40 years.
Do not steal turtles from the wild to keep as pets!
Minimum enclosure size for red-eared sliders
The minimum size enclosure for housing one red-eared slider requires at least 10 US gallons of water per inch of the turtle’s anticipated adult length. Since the maximum known length for a red-eared slider is 12”, you will need at least 120 gallons of swimming space. This amount of water is very heavy (about 1000 lbs!), so it’s safest to set up your turtle’s enclosure on the ground floor of your home to prevent damaging the building’s structure.
Because red-eared sliders are amphibious (spending time on both land and in water), they also need an area of land as part of their enclosure. A land area can be built onto an aquarium, or you can perform similar modifications, but given the choice, it’s best to use a Waterland turtle tub or similar for housing your pet.
Can red-eared sliders be kept in an outdoor pond?
Yes! If your local climate and housing situation allows, red-eared sliders tend to do best 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.
Your turtle may need to be brought indoors for the winter, depending on its subspecies and your local climate. Winter temperatures in your area drop below 50°F means indoor housing is needed. In this case, make sure you are familiar with appropriate hibernation procedure and have a temporary winter enclosure on hand.
Can you keep two red-eared sliders together?
Maybe. Cohabitation (housing multiple turtles in one enclosure) is best avoided with red-eared sliders, unless you have a large pond to help prevent territorial conflicts. When red-eared sliders are housed in an enclosure that doesn’t have enough space for them to get away from each other, the likelihood of violent conflict is increased.
How to quarantine a red-eared slider
When you bring home a new pet reptile, it’s best practice to quarantine it first, especially if you own other reptiles. It is especially important for cycling your filter effectively. Quarantine is the practice of isolating animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease.
Even if you don’t have other reptiles, quarantine is still important because it allows you to closely monitor your pet for signs of illness and administer treatment. Red-eared sliders should be quarantined for a period of 3-6 months. You can use your turtle’s long-term enclosure for quarantine, or you can use a large plastic tub. Although not ideal for long-term housing, tubs are inexpensive, easy to clean, and make an excellent short-term option for quarantine purposes.
Here are some rules for quarantining your red-eared slider:
- Keep the turtle in a separate room from other reptiles.
- Do not use the same equipment for the new turtle as for your other reptiles.
- Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
- Get the turtle checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
- Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.
After the quarantine period is over, if your pet is completely healthy, you can transfer the turtle to its long-term enclosure.
What to know about cleaning a red-eared slider enclosure
Because it’s important to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in your red-eared slider’s enclosure, so total cleanouts should not be necessary as long as you stay on top of filter maintenance and water changes. However, when your turtle is in quarantine, thorough cleanouts are a required part of the process. Here are some general steps to follow:
- Remove the turtle from the enclosure and put it inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container.
- Remove all substrate and decor.
- Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
- Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
- Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other décor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
- If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
- Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
- Arrange décor.
- Reintroduce your turtle to the clean setup.
Some veterinary-grade disinfectant options that work for both porous and nonporous materials are F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution. However, for porous materials, bleach solution should be in a 1:10 dilution, while you should use 1:50 for nonporous.
Do red-eared sliders need UVB?
Yes! Red-eared sliders 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 red-eared sliders 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.
Lights should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter, or synced with your local sunrise and sunset times. If you are housing your turtle outdoors in a pond, supplementary lighting is not required.
How to measure UVI
The strength of a lamp’s UVB output is measured in UV Index, or UVI. Coincidentally, this is the same measurement that the World Health Organization uses to measure risk of skin damage from exposure to solar radiation. The best way to measure UVI in your turtle’s enclosure is with a Solarmeter 6.5.
To use the Solarmeter, hold the device vertically at the height of the basking surface, with the lens pointing directly up at the lamp. Red-eared sliders should have a basking UVI between 3.0-4.0, with UVI everywhere else in the enclosure being lower. Although there is a basking distance recommended in the previous section, note that factors such as the density of your terrarium mesh as well as the exact hood you’re using for your UVB lamp will affect the exact distance needed.
Other lighting requirements
As a diurnal species, red-eared sliders need more illumination than what they get from just a UVB lamp. Bright light helps increase activity and appetite. To better simulate the brightness of sunlight, it’s best practice to also install a ~6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent lamp to span most of the enclosure’s length. This also nourishes any live plants you may be using.
Basking temperature for red-eared sliders
Unlike mammals, which control their own body temperature internally, red-eared sliders and other reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature and metabolism. Different reptiles require different temperatures for best health. For red-eared sliders, here’s what you need for the basking area
- surface temperature: 104°F
- air temperature: 85-90°F
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.
You can measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer (air temperature) or temperature gun (surface temperature).
Water temperature for red-eared sliders
Water temperature is also an important consideration for keeping red-eared sliders. Because of differences in preferred microhabitat, juveniles and adults have slightly different water temperature requirements:
- adults: 70-88°F
- juveniles: 78-82°F
If you need to heat your turtle’s water, use an aquarium heater rated for the amount of water in the enclosure. This must be installed inside a protective plastic tube to prevent your turtle from getting burned by accidental contact.
You can monitor water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer. Don’t rely exclusively on your water heater’s thermostat, as malfunction can be harmful or even deadly.
If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, heating equipment of any kind is not required.
Red-eared sliders 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.
Both indoor and outdoor enclosures require filtration and routine water changes.
Filtration for red-eared sliders
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 120 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 240 gallons of water. This is one aspect of your setup where it’s very important to invest in excellent equipment.
Note that your filter will need to be cleaned on a regular basis in order to keep it running at peak performance (and turtles are messy creatures, so this is especially important). Filter cleaning should be performed at least 1x/month. Filter cleaning involves the following tasks:
- Dispose of and replace disposable filter media.
- Rinse out or replace other filter media, depending on wear and tear.
It’s very important to use water from your turtle’s enclosure for rinsing the filter’s media, as this helps maintain the beneficial bacteria population that helps the filter function. DO NOT USE SOAP OR DISINFECTANTS!
During and after filter maintenance, be strict about hygiene. Avoid spaces used for preparing food, use gloves if you have open cuts/scrapes, wash your hands and arms with soap and sanitizer, and throw your clothes and gloves in the wash. And of course, thoroughly disinfect all materials and surfaces used in the cleaning process.
Water changes for red-eared sliders
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.
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 red-eared sliders
Red-eared sliders can spend a significant amount of time on land, so it’s best practice 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, and gives your turtle a source of enrichment via encouraging digging behavior. Sand and crushed coral work best for red-eared sliders. If you choose to use substrate, make sure to clean it with a siphon during every water change. Avoid pebbles and gravel.
Creating a basking area for your red-eared slider
It’s best practice to create a beach-like area within your enclosure for your turtle to bask on. If you are using a Waterland tub or similar, creating a basking area for your pet is easy: simply fill the designated land area with substrate and any décor/accessories you like. If you’re using a stock tank or aquarium, you’ll have to partition off some of the setup for the beach area.
The next best option is to build a landing area either on top of or adjacent to a stock tank or aquarium full of water. These typically lack loose substrate for digging behavior, but they do allow room for basking and walking around.
The last option is a floating basking platform. These are convenient as they’re easy to install, and can be purchased at pet stores. The Zoo Med Turtle Dock and Exo Terra Turtle Bank are examples. However, the downside to using a floating basking platform is that they allow for little behavior other than allowing the turtle to remove itself from the water and bask.
Whatever type of basking area you use, make sure the enclosure has walls up to prevent escape.
Is gravel dangerous to red-eared sliders?
Red-eared sliders are known to occasionally ingest gravel and small pebbles in their enclosure. The reason for this is not known, but given that gravel or pebbles have difficulty passing through the digestive tract, they tend to accumulate and cause problems. It’s safest to avoid using gravel, pebbles, or similar substrates with your pet.
How to decorate a red-eared slider enclosure
Décor is about more than just creating an attractive enclosure — it’s also about boosting the enclosure’s functionality. An empty enclosure is more likely to create a bored pet. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- live/artificial plants
- hollow logs
- terra cotta pots
Looking at photos of red-eared sliders in their natural habitat will help guide you on how to set up the enclosure. 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!
Live plant options for red-eared sliders
Red-eared sliders are omnivorous, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be nontoxic and sturdy enough to withstand biting, clawing, and digging. Here are a few options that are likely to work well:
- Amazon Sword
- Java Fern
- Java Moss
- Moss balls
- Parrot’s Feather
- Red Ludwigia
- Water Fern
- Water Hawthorn
- Water Hyacinth
Resist the temptation to use other varieties, as they may be toxic.
Keep in mind that if you choose to use live plants, it is almost guaranteed that you will have to periodically replace them.
What to feed to a red-eared slider
Red-eared sliders 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:
Red-eared sliders younger than 6 months:
- 50% protein / 50% vegetables
- protein food or pellets daily
- vegetable food daily
Red-eared sliders between 6-12 months:
- 50% protein / 50% vegetables
- protein food or pellets every other day
- vegetable food daily
Red-eared sliders older than 1 year:
- 25% protein / 75% vegetables
- protein food or pellets 2-3x/week
- vegetable food daily
What are the best feeders for red-eared sliders?
It’s best practice to use a variety of different feeders in your turtle’s rotation. Here is a list of options:
- American cockroaches
- frozen bloodworms
- mosquito fish
A portion of protein food should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.
What are the best vegetables for red-eared sliders?
It’s best practice to use a variety of different vegetation in your turtle’s rotation. Here is a list of options:
- collard greens
- dandelion greens + flowers
- endive, green leaf lettuce
- red leaf lettuce
- romaine lettuce
- raw grated squash
- green beans
- raw grated sweet potato
- water hyacinth
- water lettuce
- algae wafers
A portion of chopped/shredded vegetables should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s shell.
What are the best pellets for red-eared sliders?
It’s also best practice to use a variety of different pellets in your turtle’s rotation. Here is a list of options:
- 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 pellets should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head.
Do red-eared sliders need vitamins?
The pellets in your turtle’s rotation act as a dietary supplement to help fill in gaps in your pet’s diet. However, supplemental calcium is still needed (and it helps keep your turtle’s beak trimmed!). For extra calcium, your turtle should have access to a cuttlebone or calcium block at all times.
If you’re using a cuttlebone, make sure to remove the plastic backing beforehand. Cuttlebone can be served to your turtle whole or in pieces. Expect to go through one cuttlebone every 1-2 months.
How to handle your red-eared slider
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!
However, there are occasions when handling your turtle is necessary, such as cleaning the enclosure or going to the vet. In these cases, your goal is to make the experience as low-stress as possible. Here are a few tips:
- If at all possible, encourage the turtle to come out of the enclosure and into its holding container on its own, rather than simply grabbing it like a predator. Use a treat as a bribe.
- Avoid removing it from hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.
- Pick up the turtle from below rather than above, keeping your fingers away from its head.
- Stay hands-off as much as possible, keeping the turtle inside its container instead.
How to provide enrichment for a red-eared slider
Enrichment is the practice of strategically providing items and activities to encourage a captive animal to exercise natural behaviors. This also helps increase activity, reduce stress, and generally increase the animal’s welfare.
Some argue that reptiles are “too dumb” to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. All reptiles can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways. Here are some ways to provide enrichment for red-eared sliders:
- Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful for your turtle, move one thing every so often at your pet’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
- Puzzle feeders. You can make your own, or use a pre-made solution such as the Zoo Med Turtle Feeder. One DIY idea is to freeze pieces of food in an ice cube. You can also hide food in various places around the enclosure for the turtle to find.
- Live food. If you’re comfortable with it, offering live fish to your turtle to chase around is a good way to give them some food-motivated exercise. Note: not all turtles may be interested in hunting their food.
- Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Note: not all turtles may enjoy this. If taking your turtle outdoors, only introduce it to clean bodies of water where it can be easily retrieved (ex: plastic kiddie pool), and use a collapsible pen to make sure it can’t escape. Also make sure the turtle has a source of shade to use as needed.
When should you take a red-eared slider to the vet?
Dogs and cats aren’t the only pets who need veterinary care — turtles get sick and need professional help the same as any other pet. If you notice that your pet has any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet right away:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Open wounds
- Discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth
- Shell discoloration
- Unusual shell texture/shape
- Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
- Inability to swim properly
You can find a reputable reptile vet near you with the ARAV Find a Vet tool.
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 red-eared slider! Here are some great sources we recommend checking out:
- The ReptiFiles Red-Eared Slider Care Guide
- My Turtle Cam
- RESTO-Aquatic Turtle Owners (All Species Welcome)
- Aquatic Turtle Owners World Wide-Outdoor Ponds
"Red-eared slider Turtle in pond in Zeist, Netherlands - 2057" by HereIsTom is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0