How to Care For a Baby Turtle, Your Complete Guide
If you spotted a baby turtle while out for your morning walk, you may be wondering what you should do. Has it lost its way? Does it need help? Should you (or can you?) keep it and bring it home as a pet? Let’s take a look below at baby turtle care and see what your best plan of action is and how to ensure the best life possible for your newly found pal.
What to Do If You Find a Baby Turtle
If you find a baby turtle in the wild, the best thing you can do for it is leave it approximately where you found it. That is, except when the turtle is tangled in trash or netting, has been flipped over, is crossing a busy highway, or similar situation. In those instances, help the turtle by freeing it but then place the baby turtle somewhere protected near the closest body of water.
If you really want to keep the baby turtle, technically, you can do so, but it should be only with commitment for caring for it for the long run. Afterall, turtles often live for decades, many living as long as humans.
Can You Keep Wild Baby Turtles as Pets?
Absolutely! Baby turtles make for wonderful pets! However, there are things to keep in mind.
- For one, it is illegal to buy turtles with shells smaller than four inches. If you have rescued the baby turtle, this should not be a concern.
- Baby turtles often carry salmonella and other diseases, so they should always be handled with care.
- Research your specific turtle species and learn what foods they need, any special care instructions, tank size (if varies from standard sizes), and anything to be cautious of.
- Make sure that you are permitted to keep this specific turtle species and whether or not your state, HOA or apartment complex, or other governing bodies have regulations against keeping turtles as pets where you live.
How to Handle a Baby Turtle
For those unfamiliar with handling baby turtles:
- Carefully pinch the shell with one hand, between the front and back legs. Use one finger on the bottom of the shell and one on the top.
- Use two hands, one on either side of the turtle, to lift larger turtles.
- Avoid handling your baby turtle too much. While they can appreciate a good shell rub or scratching with a dry brush, they should not be handled often.
- When you do handle the turtle, be sure to firmly pinch the shell far enough away that the turtle cannot push your fingers off with their feet. They often do this if they don’t want to be handled.
- Be especially careful not to drop a turtle. This may cause permanent damage to the shell and result in serious injuries for the animal.
How to Take Care of A Baby Turtle
1. Understand the Legal Ramifications of Caring for a Wild Baby Turtle
You should first note that this article refers to caring for legal turtle species only. It is illegal to bring home sea turtles of any age. In many places, it is illegal even to touch them.
If you find a baby sea turtle, the best thing you can do for it is to ensure it is near the shoreline of the nearest ocean. Place the turtle in the sand near the water. It will make its way out to the ocean and begin its healthy life there. Do not attempt to bring it home.
Additionally, there are some species of turtles that fall under the Endangered or Vulnerable rankings of IUCN, which means they may not be touched or otherwise interfered with. If you find a baby turtle belonging to one of these species, you should contact your local wildlife rescue organization to report the sighting. They will proceed from there, if anything is needed for the turtle.
However, in most cases, baby turtles do not need help from humans. Many myths swirl around these tiny animals that may actually cause harm to baby turtles instead of helping them.
Myth # 1: The Turtle is Too Small to Survive.
The reality is that turtle hatchlings are already on their own by the time you see them. Their mothers don’t rear them as a cat rears her kittens. Once the egg has been laid, the mother turtle’s job is done. Tiny turtles have been surviving since they landed on planet Earth and they don’t need you to survive because they’re tiny.
Occasionally, there may be an instance when the baby turtle does need help. This is usually when it is stuck in something (trash or a net, for example) or been turned over. They may also need rescuing if they are on the road trying to cross.
In these cases, the best thing you can do for the turtle is put it aright, help it cross the road, or release it from danger. Then, set it in a safe, protected area like in the underbrush. They should be placed near water when this happens.
Myth #2: The Turtle Wants its Mommy.
While we’d love to think of these beautiful little reptiles as affectionate family members, the reality is, turtle mothers don’t rear their young. They lay the eggs and leave them to fend for themselves. Baby turtles grow up independently of their parents. If you see a baby turtle wandering around, it’s looking for safety, not a cuddly connection.
Myth #3: The Turtle is Lost.
Just because the turtle seems out of place does not mean it is lost. Turtles know where they are, thanks to their strong instincts. They’re in transit, if they come across your yard, not looking for the right pathway home. They have an innate ability to seek out and find water and are capable of making that journey.
2. Prepare the Shelter and Habitat for the Turtle
Your pal needs the proper turtle tank set up for a healthy, happy life. They require certain furnishings and equipment for proper baby turtle care.
- Water for swimming and drinking
- Floating platforms or rocks above water
- Basking platforms
- Heat lamps
- UVB lights
- Food dishes
- Separate feeding tank (optional)
First, set up a turtle tank of at least 30 gallons for proper space for your baby turtle as it grows and matures. Ensure the tank has been thoroughly cleaned, sanitized, and dried before you place your turtle within.
Next, add the substrate for the bottom of the water, as well as “dry land” for the turtle. Place basking rocks, platforms, ramps, and hideaways around the tank where they will provide the turtle with dry, safe places to bask and rest.
Then, add the water to the appropriate level.
Finally, plant any plants for your turtle, ensuring that what you provide is safe for them. Some folks say to avoid artificial plants and use aquatic or land plants that your turtle can eat and safely come into contact without health concerns. Other folks swear by artificial plants that prevent the need for replanting and replacing them. It’s your call, as long as the plants are appropriate for your species of turtle. If you opt for live plants, use fluorite substrate to feed the plants properly.
Some plants you could opt for include:
- Java fern
- Red Ludwigia
- Aponogeton Ulvaeus
3. Provide Warming Lights and Basking Platforms for the Turtle
Reptiles, like turtles, require special warming lamps and places where they can bask. They are cold-blooded naturally, meaning they need the sun to warm them from the inside. Tohelp make their shelter ideal for them, include the following.
- Heat lamp(s) over 1 or more basking platform, large (clean) rock
- Turtle tank heater, maintaining the tank at the appropriate temperature for the turtle
- Water heater for the swimming area
- Skip glass-coated heaters as turtles sometimes break these.
- Additionally, invest in a UVB basking lamp that can help synthesize the vitamin D your turtle requires. They need this for healthy shells. This is separate from the heat lamp.
Go for a 2.5 to 5-percent UVB lamp, or tropical or swamp UVB lamp. Avoid desert lamps. For easiest use, select a lamp that has automatic timers, ideally with a natural daylight cycle option. This helps your turtle regulate time with the 12-hour cycles of light. The light should be off for 12 hours, on for 12 hours. Make note that they need both a heat light and a UV light. One is for the Vitamin D3 they require, the other is for heat to keep them warm enough.
4. Feed the Baby Turtle Appropriate Food on a Schedule
Most turtle species are omnivores, meaning they need both plant matter and meat in their diets. Baby turtle diets are similar to adult diets, but they do need some extra protein added. As they mature, the protein amounts can lessen somewhat.
A balanced diet for your turtle will include 10-percent meat and dried insects, 10-percent vegetables and fruits, and 80-percent turtle pellets. That is, pellets provide the majority of the nutrition they need. The others are treats and supplements. Hand-feeding these is a great way to bond with your pet and help them engage socially.
Make sure you feed them pellets designed for turtles specifically. Also, be sure to research your specific baby turtle care by species to best understand which plants and insects or meats they prefer. This can help you keep them healthy.
Feed your baby turtle two to three times per day, leaving their food in the tank for about 30 minutes. Set aside any food that isn’t spoiled by water or mess for another later feeding. Dispose of anything soiled. Some folks opt to provide their turtles with a small feeding tank separate from the main turtle tank. The reason is that turtles, especially babies, can be sloppy eaters and often relieve themselves while they eat. Having a separate feeding space can make clean up a lot faster and easier.
5. Provide the Baby Turtle with Water for Swimming and Drinking
When you add water to your baby turtle tank, keep these things in mind.
- The turtle needs non-submerged areas for resting, basking, and eating. So, ideally, you’ll add substrate and create a “land” portion of the tank, with a pool of water below for swimming. Or add large rocks for these purposes, along with a basking platform or other furnishings.
- Ensure the water temperature is warm enough for your turtle. This means, purchase and maintain a thermostat and water heater. Each species requires a different ideal temperature, so study your turtle species to best know how to care for them.
- Install a water filtration system. This will help ensure the water is safe for your turtle to swim in and drink from.
- Use purified water, never straight up tap water. The chemicals in tap water could make your baby turtle ill.
- The water depth in the tank should be at least three times the height of your turtle. This allows the turtle to swim and exercise appropriately. If you have a 3-inch-tall hatchling, for example, their water should be at least 15 inches deep.
- Despite many turtles being aquatic or semi-aquatic, they still need plenty of ramps and platforms to help them get out of the water and stay safe. Turtles can drown if they don’t have the right dry areas that they can reach easily enough!
6. Help Your Turtle Get Exercise and Stay Engaged
Turtles don’t love being handled, though they appreciate a good shell scratching or brushing and personal interaction times with their humans. The best ways to engage them is through hand feeding. Scrub your hands thoroughly before and after feeding time. Let your turtle explore other spaces than her enclosure, as well, as long as she can be kept safe from other pets or being tread upon.
If possible, take your turtle for a walk in the yard for some sunshine basking and exercise. Always keep an eye our for escape routes, predators, and other problems, though. Indoors, let your turtle have some shells and plants in gravel to dig around and play with.
7. Cleaning and Hygiene for Baby Turtles
Keeping a turtle’s enclosure clean is important for numerous health reasons. You’ll need to provide them a proper filtration system for the water, change out old food daily, and clean the turtle tank once per week.
- Remove and dispose of fecal matter from water, remove uneaten food, and change out drinking water daily.
- Partially clean out water weekly by emptying some of the old water and topping it up with fresh, clean water.
- Sanitize the turtle tank monthly by washing the tank walls and all furnishings with a diluted bleach solution. Keep the turtle elsewhere until the tank is completely dry, then refill with substrate, water, and turtle furniture.
- Never clean your turtle tank and furnishings where you prepare food. Use a separate sink and then thoroughly sanitize afterward.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after every contact made with your turtle or their enclosure. Ideally, wear a face mask and use gloves while cleaning the tank to prevent breathing in of or contact with diseases such as salmonella.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © JasonYoder/Shutterstock.com