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Terrapins and Turtles


Different breeds of terrapins and turtles have specific husbandry requirements but in general, the most common breed seen and kept in Hong Kong is the Red Eared Slider. Terrapins are usually strong swimmers but like to spend a large part of the day (mainly warm hours) laying on land (rocks or plants) basking in the sunlight. Red Eared Sliders are omnivorous creatures meaning their diet is based on plant and animal matter. In the wild, they tend to eat amphibian larvae and small fish, together with vegetation growing on land and in the water. Younger terrapins need 40-50% of their diet based on protein (mainly from animals) whereas an adult terrapin’s diet tends be more focused on vegetation.

Male terrapins tend to reach sexual maturity around 2-4 years of age, whereas females reach maturity later – around 5-7 years of age. In captivity, the terrapins will often reach maturity at an earlier age. Males tend to be smaller in overall body size to the females and also have longer tails.

Many terrapins from the pet shops may be ill and suffering from particular diseases. They may be emaciated or dehydrated from inadequate food/water and by being kept in inappropriate environments. For example, cold environments (with air conditioning units in some shops blowing out cold air), will decrease their appetites, in addition to the stress they may be experiencing from fear. It is worth checking with the vet whether your terrapin may be suffering from common illnesses such as bacterial, protozoal and fungal infections, nutritional deficiencies or abnormal beak/shell growth. It is also worth mentioning that some of these infections such as Salmonella, can be transmitted to humans.

Terrapins can be rewarding pets and if kept in the correct environmental conditions with a balanced diet, they may live for many years (often longer than humans!).


It is important to feed a varied and balanced diet to terrapins to ensure adequate nutrition, healthy growth and a long life. Juvenile terrapins should be fed daily whereas adult terrapins can be fed once every 2-3 days. When feeding terrapins, it is advisable to feed them in a separate small water tank to minimize contamination of the water with faeces and uneaten food. Before placing the terrapin back into the regular tank, they should have passed faeces and be rinsed with clean water.

Plants – this should make up at least 50% of the diet. Dark leafy green vegetables are the most nutritious. These include vegetables such as choi sum, kale, bok choy, mustard greens, spinach and romaine lettuce. Other vegetables can also be fed such as shredded carrot and green beans. Thawed frozen mixed vegetables can also be fed but green vegetables are still best fed fresh (as contains more vitamins). Raw fruit can also be offered such as melon, berries and apples. Melon rind (skin) can be a useful way of keeping terrapins’ beaks trim by giving them something to gnaw on.

Animal protein – This should make up no more than 25% of the diet. Animal matter includes whole freshwater fish (or live feeder fish), earthworms, shrimps, snails and insects (such as beetles and mealworms). It is important to feed the whole animal, which includes the shell and skin to help balance the diet such as calcium requirements. Frozen animals are not ideal as they are lower in essential vitamins and nutrients. Occasionally, high quality dog and cat biscuits can be fed but these foods are too high in fat and additives to be fed over the long term.

Commercial diets – This should make up no more than 25% of the diet. These can come prepared as tablets, sticks or pellets. These can be specially formulated for terrapins but still a diet as natural as possible is preferable.

When giving the food, it can be chopped into small pieces to aid with ingestion. Also a terrapin vitamin/mineral supplement should be added twice a week. These may come in the form of a powder which can be dusted over the food before it is given. Calcium blocks and cuttlebone can also be provided which give them something to gnaw on, as well as providing sufficient calcium for their needs.


Terrapins are semi-aquatic and so need both a dry area for basking on and a large pool of warm water for swimming in. It is important for the water to be warm (heated) and kept clean. Therefore, feeding them in a separate small tank and allowing them to defaecate in this tank is preferable to minimize water contamination (by food and faeces).

It is important for the main tank to be kept in a quiet and warm place to minimize stress. Terrapins can be kept individually or in groups.


The tank should be large. Ideally, the following guidelines should be used: for every cm of the terrapin’s shell (carapace) length – a tank floor area of 100cm2 should be provided. So a 10cm long terrapin should be provided with a tank with a floor area of 1000cm2 i.e. 1 metre (length) by 1 metre (width).

The tank should contain a dry area for the terrapin. This can be achieved by either using smooth rocks or pebbles to create a gentle slope into the water or alternatively, by making a floating platform (made of materials such as cork rafts).

The water depth should be at least 2 times the length of the shell. The length of water area provided should be at least 5 times the shell length and the width of water at least 3 times the shell length. This will provide the minimum amount of space needed for swimming.


A water filtering system should be provided to keep the water fresh. Depending on your filtration system, the water in the tank should be replaced once every week or fortnight. The tank should be emptied and thoroughly cleaned out at least once a month.

The water used should be warm and maintained at a temperature between 18-26˚C (warmer during the day and cooler at night). Aquarium thermometers are a very useful way to determine the water temperature. A water heater is a good way to ensure a warm water temperature for your terrapin. In Hong Kong, during the summertime, the environmental temperatures are normally adequate but many people deny their terrapins direct sunlight and have the air conditioning units in the flat running meaning the terrapins are kept in too cold conditions!

Heating and Lighting

Sustained cold temperatures will predispose to inappetance and respiratory infections. Young and sick terrapins should be kept in warmer temperatures. As mentioned, water heaters are a useful way to maintaining a stable optimal water temperature. It is also important to ensure that the basking (dry area) is also heated up. This can be achieved by basking lights, which emit UVB light and occasionally, ceramic heat elements. One part of the dry area used for basking should provide a temperature between 30-35˚C. Another part of the dry area should be cooler providing some shade. Terrapins need 12-14 hours of quality UVB light a day ensuring sufficient vitamin D production and adequate calcium metabolism.

It is acceptable to put your terrapin outside on warm sunny days if it is possible. This will allow basking in natural sunlight. It is important to remember though that sunlight will be filtered through plastic and glass and unless direct sunlight, sufficient UVB light may not provided. Also it is easy for a terrapin to overheat (fatal hyperthermia) in sunlight, especially in glass enclosures!


Small terrapins can be lifted by gently holding the sides of the shell. Larger ones should be picked up by placing your fingers beneath the shell and your thumbs above. It is important to take care to prevent a fall (which can be fatal) and also worth remembering that larger terrapins may scratch or bite.

Terrapins feel more secure when they can feel something below their feet and find “swimming in the air” stressful. It is very important to wash your hands after handling the terrapin!


Some of the common signs of illness that you should look for are:

  • Cloudy, swollen or closed eyes
  • Diarrhoea – watery stools
  • Swollen cheeks
  • Inappetance and lethargy
  • Fluid/mucus around the nose or mouth
  • Spots developing on the body or shell
  • Soft shell or excessive shedding of skin
  • Open mouth breathing


If you see any of the above symptoms, you should contact us at Acorn Veterinary Hospital as quickly as possible.