Advice and information on caring for Terrapins

This article is aimed at those starting out in keeping small Terrapins. As the animals grow, it may be expected the experience of the keeper will also increase. These later stages are a little more testing and will involve the use of larger and more expensive resources. A commitment to the extra responsibilities a growing Terrapin will involve must be appreciated when starting to keep these fascinating reptiles.

Housing requirements for Terrapins

The most suitable containers for these animals are aquaria. Set up with half land and half water. As the animals housed may become quite large, it is best that the aquaria are as large as possible. Even then, some Terrapins will out grow all but the biggest tanks and will require some other purpose built accommodation. During the summer, some garden ponds, especially those that get a good deal of sun,would be suitable, but care must be taken to ensure the animal cannot escape into the wild.

Filter systems for your Terrapin aquarium

Canister filters

The water in the aquarium should be filtered in some way. An external canister filter will work by siphoning water out of the aquarium into the base of the canister. Here, it passes up through various filtering media to the top of the canister. On its way, much of the suspended waste matter is taken out. If chemical agents, like activated carbon, are being used, then some of the dissolved waste will also be removed. Do not forget to change this type of medium regularly, as they soon fill up and cease to be effective. The water is returned to the aquarium by the pump. If this returning water is allowed to play on the surface, the movement will create an aerating effect, returning the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance to equilibrium.

Under-gravel filters

An under-gravel filter pulls up water from a space below the filter plate. Usually an air lift is used but the small masthead water pumps are also effective. The filter gains its effectiveness from the water being drawn through the gravel or similar medium overlying the filter base plate. As the water passes through the medium, suspended matter is trapped. Bacteria in the gravel act on the organic content and convert it to simpler, less harmful substances. The water and dissolved materials pass into the space below the plate and then up through the lift pipe back into the bulk of the water.

Using plants as a ‘filter’ system

Powered by artificial and natural light driven photosynthesis, plants adsorb the dissolved substances as nutrients, thus cleaning the water. This biological system works well once balanced but needs the energy input of the pump and lights to keep it working.

Any filter should be installed and run for about a day to settle the environment. (If an under-gravel filter is used, it must of course, be installed before the substrate.)

Substrate in your Terrapin aquarium

At the bottom of the tank add the substrate to form a base and into this anchor the plants. The best substances to choose are the fairly coarse, lime free sands and gravels used for aquariums. Any other items of decor can then be positioned. In order to see the terrapins when they are small, try to use a gravel which contrasts with your Terrapins’ colour. A terraced effect, built behind retaining walls, gives the impression of depth and allows both the animals and plants access to different levels. The functional role of the substrate will centre around its ability to trap and hold particulate material and how much microbial life it can support. Chemically, it is better if it is inert.

Finally, fill the aquarium with water. Ordinary tap water is suitable but may be improved by adding a propriety conditioner.

Lights in your Terrapin aquarium

Some Terrapins are active climbers so a secure, escape-proof lid is essential. If some of the lid is made from a non-corroding metal mesh, this will allow for ventilation. It may also be possible to direct the light into the cage through this mesh. If the light levels are too low, however, the lighting should be installed to the underside of the cage lid.

Lighting the aquarium will be necessary as terrapins thrive best when exposed to UV light. Light is also needed for the animals to see their food and for people to look into the aquarium. If plants are used for filtering or decor, extra light will be required so they can photosynthesise. A fluorescent tube, either alone, or in combination with a spot lamp, can be used.

Heating your Terrapin aquarium

Most terrapins appreciate quite a warm environment, so additional heating is required. The easiest way to heat the enclosure, is to immerse an aquarium type heater-thermostat into the aquatic portion. Set the thermostat at 27°C and check the water temperature is controlled at the set temperature with an accurate thermometer. It may be a good idea to direct any circulating water over the heater-thermostat to ensure adequate mixing. To augment the background heat, a special basking lamp could be installed. Make sure the beam of light and heat is directed onto a solid basking area where the Terrapin can climb to heat up and drop back into the water to cool off. With this basking behaviour the Terrapin can maintain its preferred body temperature. To do this, however, the water must be cooler and the basking spot warmer than the temperature the animal prefers.

It is essential all electrical equipment is installed correctly and adequate protection made against electrocution.

Plants in the Terrapin aquarium

Plants serve in both decorative and functional roles. They are better planted towards the rear of the tank and choose a species like Elodea, Scindapus and Tradascantia that are tough and will provide good oxygenation. Other plants are best chosen from those species of bog plants that will live happily both under water and above the surface.

Cleaning your Terrapin aquarium

As far as cleaning out is concerned, this should require only minor interference. Every week between half and two thirds of the water can be removed and replaced with fresh tap water. Allow the new water to stand in a separate container for a day to let some of the chlorine escape. Canister filters will need to be cleaned from time to time. Any cloudiness in the water advises you that the water is not as clean as it should be and cleaning is required.

The only other major task is to trim the plants as they grow and fill the tank, on the other hand, if the plants are not thriving, this is a good indication
that something is wrong and needs to be corrected. The most common reason for plants to fail is insufficient light.

Handling your Terrapins

Terrapins cannot really be handled. If it is necessary to move them from one aquarium to another, a suitably sized net should be used. Return the Terrapin to water as quickly as possible and avoid escape by capping the net with a free hand. Larger animals can be quickly grasped with both hands and gently lifted from one place to another. Try not to touch a Terrapin for any longer than is necessary.

Feeding your Terrapins

Terrapins usually recognise food by smell and movement. Like many animals they will snap at moving objects in the hope that they might be a meal. If the morsel tastes OK and is of a size that can be swallowed, it is eaten. The majority of terrapins eat both animal and vegetable foods. Whilst still juvenile, animal foods certainly predominate but the best diet for captive Terrapins are the pelleted foods especially prepared for them. Pelleted fish foods are similar and can also be offered. Older references recommend feeding whole animals and pieces of meat or fish. Because of the mess these diets make, they are best avoided by the beginner. Once tame, Terrapins will feed if moved to and offered food in another container apart from their main enclosure. This reduces the amount of work involved in their maintenance. A plastic washing up bowl, reserved exclusively for the purpose, is ideal. Any bits of uneaten food can then be discarded and will not be left to decompose and foul the main enclosure. Do feed the Terrapins in water at the same temperature as the water from which they have been taken.

Terrapin health

Pet terrapins do not suffer from many health problems. Occasional fungal infections of the shell may show and can usually be dealt with preparations suitable for fish. The treatments and advice are available from aquarists and pet stores. Good practice, hygiene and first aid will probably deal with rest. If real disease is discovered, a vet must of course, be consulted..

All the normal hygiene precautions regarding humans and pets should be observed. This would include washing hands after touching anything associated with your Terrapin.

Note:  For legal reasons and because of a risk to our native fauna, it is advised the N. American Red Eared Terrapin and the Northern Painted Terrapin are not kept.