Care and Keeping of Red-Eared Sliders

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Originally described in by German naturalist Alexander Philipp Maximilian, the red-eared slider received its taxonomy position as Emys elegans. Currently, the red-eared slider is known as Trachemys scripta elegans and shares sub-specific status with the Cumberland terrapin T. Originating naturally from areas surrounding the Mississippi River, the red-eared slider is a widespread species that inhabits an area that encompasses most of the central United States as far north and west as Illinois and eastern New Mexico, south to Texas, east through Georgia and likely coastal areas as far north as Virginia along the eastern seaboard.

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This turtle acclimates very easily outside of its natural range, making it difficult to specify its actual range. A rather large turtle when full-grown, the female red-eared slider has been known to reach a carapace length of 12 to 15 inches while the smaller male averages an adult size of about 8 to 10 inches in carapace length. Attractive in appearance, red-eared sliders come in a multitude of colors including red, yellow, green, light blue, brown and black, with various shades and combinations of each often being present.

Because it is a species with a wide variety of colors and patterns, some dedicated herpetoculturists have produced, through selective breeding, beautiful specimens of albino, pastel- and lime-colored red-eared sliders. Although both male and female red-eared sliders do possess the red-colored head striping, this is not a characteristic shared only by this species. The Cumberland terrapin also exhibits a notable red stripe—although usually not as bright or colorful as T. Adult male red-eared sliders can be distinguished easily from females by their elongated foreclaws, which are used during courtship, as well as a larger, heavier tail that extends past the rear of the carapace.

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Hatchling and juvenile red-eared sliders have a notable keel along the vertebral crest of the carapace, which evens out into a modest dome as the turtle matures. Powerful swimmers, red-eared sliders have dramatically webbed feet that enable them to catch up to fleeing prey and make a quick getaway at the approach of danger. As the name would imply, sliders of all species are known for sliding one after another from a favored basking site when disturbed. Extremely active turtles, red-eared sliders spend hours each day searching for food in the form of aquatic plants as well as animals such as freshwater snails, small fish, invertebrates and carrion.

During the warmer months, they seek out mates and explore their aquatic habitats. Red-eared sliders commonly are found in larger, relatively quiet bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, creeks and slow-moving rivers with lots of natural debris for basking, and they sometimes are seen traveling about on land. Although they have been found in brackish water, red-eared sliders primarily are freshwater dwellers.

There are many reasons to keep a red-eared slider as a pet. In fact, I spoke with several keepers who claim to have kept individual red-eared sliders for nearly 50 years. Red-eared sliders have a broad range of preferred food items, making their care a little less restricted than some of the more exotic species. When keeping red-eared sliders, or any aquatic turtle, water quality is of paramount importance. For nearly all of the pros to keeping red-eared sliders, there are nearly as many cons. As adults, they are very large and active turtles, and they demand a great deal of space to be maintained successfully.

Red-eared sliders often outgrow the smaller aquariums they start out in, soon requiring their keepers to provide more spacious accommodations. Many individuals who are faced with re-homing their beloved red-ears soon realize that most reptile rescues are saturated with specimens or simply are not equipped to manage such a large, needy turtle. There are very few options open to pet keepers when the legal channels run out, and many people choose to release their turtles into local ponds and lakes.

This is illegal and unethical, and never should be done. Red-eared sliders adapt very easily outside their natural range, even in the colder northern states where winters might see several months of snow and ice. Living in Massachusetts, I personally have witnessed established red-eared slider populations in the famed Charles River that runs through Boston. Because the red-eared slider is now an invasive species that competes with native turtle populations in areas outside its natural range, many states have laws prohibiting its possession.

In Massachusetts became one of those states. Unfortunately, because of the new prohibition regarding this turtle, most rescues are inundated with calls from people trying to give up their red-ears out of fear of prosecution, and this is making the problem of illegal releases much worse. The red-eared slider really has become a double-edged sword for the pet industry. Despite the challenges surrounding keeping red-eared sliders, people will continue to do so in states where they legally are kept because they are such a wonderful turtle to keep.


An enclosure of this size will provide captive red-ears with the space they need. Although a pair of juvenile red-eared sliders will do well in a to gallon aquarium, they will outgrow this space rapidly. When deciding to keep red-ears, or any of the larger aquatic turtles for that matter, consider their long-term maintenance and opt for the largest possible aquarium or homemade pond you can manage.

For hobbyists who choose a glass aquarium, a or gallon tank should suffice for two turtles. A better turtle enclosure certainly would be bigger than a glass aquarium, such as a custom-made pond. My basement turtle pond measures 10 feet by 12 feet and is 30 inches deep. It was constructed easily by building a wooden frame of 2- by inch planks and 4- by 4-inch corner posts. A heavy-duty pond liner contains the water, and overhead lighting illuminates the pond. I have used fiberglass lobster tanks to successfully house everything from turtles to alligators with success.

Keep in mind that aquariums or ponds kept in colder areas of the home might need an additional heat source to warm the water. Submersible heaters come in many sizes and accommodate most aquariums. For larger bodies of water it is more practical to heat the room where the pond is located, which will bring the water temperature to a comfortable level.

Red Eared Slider Care

The optimal water temperature for red-eared sliders is 70 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Red-eared sliders require a great deal of full-spectrum lighting for their physical and psychological well being.

Full-spectrum lighting helps maintain proper calcium distribution and vitamin production, which tends to keep the turtles free of bone and joint disorders. Sun-loving, diurnal animals such as the red-eared slider require the benefits of full-spectrum lighting to keep their internal chemistries in check as well.

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A happy turtle is a healthy turtle. When keeping red-ears, always be sure to provide basking areas where the turtles can emerge completely from the water. Red-eared sliders require a suitable area in which to completely dry themselves out of the water. Keeping a Red Ear Slider as a pet is much more complicated than most people realize, requiring a great deal of time and money. While the turtle itself may not be expensive, providing the proper habitat, food and veterinary care is costly—especially as the turtle grows. The Red Ear Slider can live up to 50 years with proper care, so give the matter very careful consideration before choosing a turtle as a pet, and consider adopting a turtle from a rescue organization instead of buying one from a pet store.

SIZE Those 4-inch baby turtles in the store sure look cute, but an adult turtle will reach inches!

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Note: in the U. You need to provide 10 gallons of tank for each inch of shell length. A plastic stock tank is a durable and moderately inexpensive option. No substrate is needed for Red Ear Slider enclosures.

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If desired, you can use large, smooth river rocks or sand. DO NOT use gravel; it can be ingested and cause severe problems.

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Provide at least one basking area so the turtle can easily climb out and fully dry its shell. You can build one yourself by stacking smooth rocks or bricks, or using driftwood, fixed PVC, etc. Make sure your turtle cannot climb out of its enclosure—they are very good climbers! Use a tight-fitting screen or lid to prevent escape and the ensuing hard fall, which can be very dangerous.

Water quality is critical to the health of your turtle: you will need to change the water weekly.