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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation

Red-eared Terrapins (Trachemys scripta elegans)

red eared terrapin

Red-eared Terrapins do not make ideal family pets and are not suitable for children, for reasons of expense and hygiene. Unwanted terrapins are a problem to rehome.


Terrapins, turtles and tortoises are reptiles and are classically known as chelonians. They are recognised by the protective shell into which they can withdraw. While the tortoise is a land animal, the terrapin is amphibious, spending time in water as well as on land. In the United States these animals are called "turtles", a term used in Britain for the marine species.Another American name for them is "sliders".

The species most commonly kept as a pet is the Red-eared Terrapin Trachemys scripta elegans from the south of the USA. There are over 126 species of terrapin worldwide.


Terrapins are long lived, with life spans of over 30 years, so you are taking on a long term responsibility. To ensure that terrapins enjoy a long and healthy life, it is essential to provide them with a lifestyle resembling the natural one as closely as possible. Many health problems derive from poor husbandry. To achieve success the following points must be observed:

  • Correct, varied diet.
  • Free access to clean water in which to swim.
  • Natural sunlight or artificial light for warmth and basking.
  • Careful handling.
  • Scrupulous attention to cleanliness.
  • Observation of general health and regular examination of animals.

Keeping Terrapins well is expensive in equipment and electricity costs.


Red-eared Terrapins are usually purchased as hatchlings. Many die through inadequate care or outgrow their tanks and/ or the interest of juvenile owners. Many come up for rehoming through the British Chelonia Group. It is preferable to give an unwanted animal a home rather than encourage the tradein hatchlings. A healthy terrapin should be alert, bright-eyed, clean about the mouth and nostrils. The shell should be hard, without cracks or other damage and the neck and legs free from wounds.


Hold the sides of the shell firmly. Remember that, although the shell is hard, it and bones of the legs, head and neck can get damaged or broken if the animal is dropped. Care must also be taken to put the animal down as gently as possible to avoid injury to the legs. Large animals are very powerful and are quite capable of inflicting painful bites or scratches with their sharp claws which, in turn, might cause them to be dropped. Always wash your hands after handling terrapins.


Terrapins can grow up to 20 cms (8 inches) long.

A 60 x 30 x 30 cms (24 x 12 x 12 inches) tank would be suitable for a pair of half-grown terrapins up to 10 cms (4 inches) shell length. As the number or size of terrapins increases, so a larger tank in proportion would be required. A reliable guide is to allow 100 cms for each 1 cm of shell lengthto be accommodated: e.g. one 10 cm terrapin = 10 x l00² cms or one 10 cm terrapin plus one 5 cm terrapin = 1 5 x 100² cms to give the total surface area required.

Never overcrowd your terrapins as they can be very aggressive towards each other and always keep a close observation on your animals if you introduce new ones to the tank.

Water depth needs to be approximately the width of the shell for juveniles but should be no deeper than 5 cms for hatchlings. Adults like deeper water provided with an easy exit to a basking area.

The water temperature should be maintained at 24 - 26 degrees C (75 - 78 degrees F) during the day for young and growing animals and should be dropped by approximately 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) at night.

Submersible aquarium heaters with inbuilt adjustable thermostats can maintain this temperature range. These will require protection from the larger, more boisterous animals. It is also possible to use underfloor heating mats outside the tank controlled by a reliable outside thermostat. This system avoids the possibility of damage to the equipment but it may have the following drawback: it has been known for this type of heating mat to suddenly overheat, which is not immediately detected by the outside thermostat, resulting in a cracked bottom glass in the tank.

It is advisable to include a safety circuit-breaker (such as is sold for lawn-mower use) in the electrical system as a safety guard in the event of an accident. Healthy adult animals can tolerate normal living-room temperatures. Indoor tanks should never be placed in direct sunlight as thismay cause overheating, and, since glass filters out most ultra-violet light,there is little benefit to be gained.

Dirty water is a major problem which causes smell and the potential for disease. The installation of a canister filter and pump, obtainable from an aquarist shop, is advisable. The filter (either on or in the pump) will require cleaning at regular intervals. Avoid using under-gravel filters as the principle behind their design is not suitable for use with terrapins. Even with a filtration system, the tank will have to be emptied and cleaned. After washing with hot water (remember that boiling water will crack glass), it is normal to clean the glass with a safe disinfectant - never use any containing phenol or phenolic compounds - and always rinse thoroughly beforerefilling. Betadine antiseptic solution, obtainable from chemists, is an iodine, aqueous-based safe antiseptic.

There must be a basking area for your terrapins. The simplest is a stack of house-bricks with a spot-light bulb over this. Other methods of providing a basking area include fixing a platform or tray to the sides of the tank withaquarium cement. This allows a larger area (up to one third of the surface area) since the terrapins can swim underneath it, but, if using this method,beware of forming places where the terrapins could get trapped and drown. A slope should always be provided for the animals to haul out for basking.

A dry basking area should be large enough to allow all of the terrapins to bask at the same time. The type of light and the wattage varies throughout the year. In the summer a 40 or 60 watt bulb used in conjunction with a Sunglo or Trulight tube (to provide ultra-violet light) will give sufficientwarmth, but in winter a 100 watt lamp is recommended. Whichever lighting youuse, it needs to be on for no longer than 12-14 hours per day. Do not put an airtight cover over the tank since this will prevent ventilation and increase the temperature and humidity.


Before placing terrapins in an outdoor pool they must be acclimatised. This is best started in late winter by gradually decreasing the heating until no heating is provided at all. It should be accomplished over a period of several weeks and the animals should remain in the unheated tank for at least a period of three weeks before being released into the garden pond in the springtime. Do remember that one of the natural prey of terrapins is fish, so do not put them into a goldfish pond! An outdoor pool is ideal for the warm summer months. The terrapins will bask in the sunlight and the natural ultra-violet rays enable them to synthesise vitamin D3 which is essential for the absorption of calcium from their diet. Ensure that they have some shaded area to escape from the sun on very hot days. Also, ensure that the area is escape-proof as they are excellent climbers. Avoid wire netting - not only will they climb it, they may actually get trapped in it. As with the indoor tank, there must be some form of slope so that the terrapins can climb out of the pool. Logs and small shrubs (avoiding poisonous plants such as rhubarb, ivy, yew or laurel) are ideal. Provide an area of sand as a possible nesting site. In more permanent outdoor set-ups, waterfalls and circulatory pumps can be included.

Large, healthy adult terrapins of 750 gms ( 1 lb 9 oz) can be kept outside and allowed to hibernate during the winter provided that the water does not fall below 4 degrees C (39 degrees F). Small, shallow garden ponds do not offer adequate protection in frosts.

Outdoor ponds should always be provided with adequate protection from the attentions of cats, dogs and birds, especially the heron!


As with any young animal, small hatchling terrapins should be fed daily. As they grow older and larger, they require feeding less often and as adults only 2 - 3 times a week. Terrapins will only feed in water, not on land. To keep the tank clean, feed the terrapins in a separate container - this can be a plastic bowl. The water temperature in this container should be similarto that in the main tank. Once they have eaten, leave them in the feeding container for a further 10 minutes, during which time they often empty their bowels and bladder, thus avoiding contaminating their own tank. Dispose of the water and food debris down a drain or toilet (never a sink) and then clean the feeding container as described for the tank. For various good reasons, keep this container exclusively for feeding your terrapins and label it as such. Terrapins in the wild feed on fish, frogs, tadpoles, worms, water snails, water insects, various larvae and water plants.

Suggested foods are:

sprats, whitebait, herring, snails, mussels, cockles, prawns, shrimps, Daphnia, earthworms, Tubifex worms, bloodworms,dandelion, watercress, lettuce, vegetables, fresh fruit, tomatoes, timed cat or dog food, dried cat or dog food, koi or trout pellets.

When feeding dried cat or dog food, koi or trout pellets, always soak them beforehand, and this provides an opportunity to introduce a soluble vitamin supplement such as "Abidec" by placing it into the water which is being soaked up.

Always feed fish whole with guts, liver, roe, skeleton etc. as it is essential that terrapins obtain the vitamins and minerals from these parts of the fish. Avoid feeding minced meat, chicken or slices of butcher's meat alone, because these are deficient in essential minerals and vitamins.

Some terrapins relish vegetables like lettuce, watercress and other greens occasionally. It is important to ensure that you feed a varied diet, since feeding the same food for too long can lead to a number of disorders. A cuttlefish bone can be deposited in the main tank - when eaten, it will supply a source of calcium to the terrapins. "Turtle foods" comprising of dried river shrimps as sold in pet shops can be added as a source of roughage.


Terrapins can be hibernated, but this is not essential for their general well-being except for breeding. If they are in an indoor vivarium, then lower the temperature gradually over several weeks down to 4 degrees C (39 degrees F). The vivarium should be positioned in an unheated room or cellar and a check should be kept on the temperature using a maximum and minimum thermometer obtainable from garden supply shops. Here they may be left to hibernate for 6 - 12 weeks, depending on their size and condition. During the time that the temperature is being reduced, do not feed them as they need to empty their alimentary tract before hibernating. If the temperature does not go below 10 degrees C ( 50 degrees F) they will use up their reserves more rapidly and the period of hibernation should then be reduced. Younger terrapins may be hibernated in asimilar way but for shorter periods.

Another method is to place them, once they have reached a low body temperature, into deep plastic boxes full of damp moss*. Put these boxes into a cold place where the temperature remains at 4 degrees C (39 degrees F). It is important to keep the moss moist by spraying it regularly with water - this will prevent the terrapin from dehydrating or suffering from kidney failure. With both these methods, keep a watch for activity and emergence from hibernation in the spring.

During hibernation there will be a gradual loss of body weight and it is advisable to weigh the terrapins every week. If there is a sudden loss of more than 10% weight since hibernation started, then bring the terrapin into a warm room and allow it to warm up over several hours. Whether hibernating or not, it is extremely important to avoid sudden changes in temperature. They must then be kept in warm water at 24 - 26 degrees C (75 - 78 degrees F) in a well established tank, with basking area,and receive 12 - 14 hours of artifical or daylight and be fed regularly.

If they are kept in heated conditions thoughout the winter, they will remainactive and feed for the whole year without ill-effect. Keeping a terrapin warm indoors under a lamp during the winter and feeding it regularly will prevent it from hibernating.

Never attempt to hibernate a terrapin which is ill or not in top condition.

Hibernation in outdoor ponds.

When hibernating outdoors, the following points must be observed:

  • Do not allow the surface of the pond to freeze over completely for longer than two weeks. It is advisable to use a pond heater.
  • Ensure that the pond is at least 1 metre (39 inches) deep with a good layer of mud for the terrapins to burrow into, and that it has a large surface area.
  • Avoid oxygen deficient conditions (stagnant black mud) by ensuring that the surface area is much wider than the depth and remove rotting leaves.

Whilst success in breeding is unlikely in this country, it is important that your animals hibernate if you do decide to attempt it. Eggs need to be incubated artificially.


Red-eared Terrapin males have elongated, tapering tails and elongated front claws which are used to stimulate the female during courtship. Females have short claws and short tails and tend to be 20% larger than males.


  1. Soft shell/ lumpy shell: lack of calcium or lack of Vitamin D 3 which promotes healthy bone and shell growth.
  2. Swollen/ closed eyes: this can lead to loss of vision and an inability to feed. It can be caused by infection, lack of vitamin A, incorrect feeding or incorrect environmental conditions.
  3. Shields: terrapin shields or scutes covering the shell do not grow, so every few months you may find they "moult". The new shield underneath will be brightly coloured. Check that the terrapin is feeding and behaving normally. However, if there is any sign of blood, or the terrapin appears listlessor off its food, seek advice from your veterinary surgeon immediately.

There are many recognised diseases of terrapins, so should you suspect that your animal is ill, veterinary advice should be sought at once. If you are unable to afford private fees, take the terrapin to the nearest People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Treatment Centre or RSPCA. You may transport it safely in a cardboard box with crumpled, damp paper around it for protection.

A graph for assessing health from weight for Red-eared Terrapins was published in The Veterinary Record, 3 June 1995, pages 566-568.


It is illegal for any person outside the veterinary profession to diagnose or to treat disease or injuries in any terrapin belonging to another person.It is possible under certain circumstances to give minor medical treatment to your own animals, but for their welfare, and to ensure that you remain within the law, it makes better sense to consult a veterinary surgeon. Firstaid may be given in an emergency.

It is illegal to cause cruelty and unnecessary suffering by feeding live vertebrates (animals with backbones) to other animals. Therefore terrapins should not be fed live fish, frogs, newts, tadpoles etc.

It is illegal to release into the British countryside non-native animals. This means that unwanted terrapins must not be put into ponds, lakes or rivers where they may deplete or compete with the native fauna.


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* Moss: Whilst Sphagnum or bog moss is an excellent material for hibernating terrapins, do not collect it from the wild. It is also not eco-friendly to purchase Sphagnum as this is not a cultivated plant but taken from threatened wetland sites. Feather mosses raked from lawns can be used instead.