Before you buy-
Did you realise that terrapins take more looking after than most reptiles and certainly need more attention than most fish. Well, not everyone realises what they're letting themselves in for with aquatic reptiles. If you aren't certain, buy some goldfish instead!
Get the proper kit-
If you can't resist those cheeky looking little green babies, then at least buy the right stuff to look after them. First, be aware that terrapin poo can go pretty foul, especially when they are bigger, so do NOT leave any in their water, or you'll end up with sick terrapins and horrible smelling water. Normal aquarium filters simply aren't good enough; remove the offending solids with a net/syphon/or whatever, then make sure the water is changed very regularly.
Terrapins rapidly succumb to vitamin D deficiency if not fed well and given plenty of ultra-violet light. You really need a good light source for the terrapins to sunbathe in; an old fashioned filament lamp is unlikely to give enough UV, although the heat helps keep them lively and happy for a while. The best terrapinariums have both heat and UV sources, as well as a fresh water swimming pool and an easy to crawl onto dry sunbathing area big enough for all your terrapins; (although they'll climb on top of each other to get closer to the light even if there is spare room- the wonderful, and possibly unique in the animal world, 'terrapile.') Heat can be provided in the water by a thermostatic aquarium heater, (set to the same temperature range as tropical fish- 20-23 Celsius,) either in conjunction with, or as an alternative to heat from a filament lamp. However ultraviolet light should also be supplied and by far the best way is to use a proper reptile fluorescent lamp, which gives off a small proportion of UV-B along with the less harmful UV-A. This small amount of UV-B is is essential for terrapin health in the long term, unless you live in a warm climate and have lots of real, unfiltered sunshine beaming directly into your terrapinarium. These lamps cost a bit, but will more than repay themselves with the health bonus that your terrapins will gain. (Safety - Never look directly at a UV source: it can cause eye damage.)
Setting up a terrapinarium-
First you must understand that terrapins spend more time out of the water than they do in it, so an ordinary fish tank is not suitable unless you have one big enough to build a large dry area as well as the pool.
Second you should realise the speed at which healthy terrapins grow. It might start out at only 100 grams and 2 centimetres across its shell when you buy it, but by the time it's 4 years old it could be 2 kilograms and 25 centimetres across the shell, or more, (and very strong.)
Third you should consider how you can make regular water replacements without difficulty. Remember terrapins are not like fish: in sensible temperatures (15-22 Celsius) and out of direct sunlight, you can leave them stranded with no water for an hour or so without ill effects. Also they are much more tolerant of chlorinated drinking-water than fish. This means that building a drain-plug into a custom made home does not represent the same sort of risk that it would in a fish tank: if the water leaks, it leaves a mess, but the animals are merely annoyed, not dead, and if you hurriedly replace their water from the tap, they won't suffer much.
Fourth- the feeding arrangements. (See next section on actual food.) In common with many reptiles, terrapins do not always feed every day, nor even every week sometimes, if they're cold or lacking in light, maybe not for several weeks, although at that point we're getting into dangerous territory unless they've hibernated. This means that offered food may sit uneaten and fouling up the water. If your terrapinarium is big enough, you could try building a separate, easily cleaned feeding pool. Yes, they do feed in water, not on land.
Food and feeding-
Terrapins are carnivores and in the wild they eat almost exclusively live prey in water. For heavens sakes don't think they eat what tortoises do. Sadly, I know of at least one that died when its owner fed it only vegetable matter; by the time the family concerned came to me for advice, the poor beast was past saving.
There are terrapin/turtle food brands, but these ar not always easy to find in shops. Some of these are based on shrimp, which is quite good, but all such foods should always be used in conjunction with occasional live or at least different foods.
It is important that uneaten food is removed once it is clear the terrapins have no (further) interest in it because food is almost as bad as poo for encouraging unwanted bacteria to grow in their water.
Often people panic when their terrapins eat well for a while then seem to go off food. Well it is worrying when you see a change in behaviour like that. However it may be due to any number of factors, not all of which deserve such a panic reaction, including the fact that it might have eaten a very large meal recently and just isn't hungry yet. You also need to understand that reptiles are 'cold-blooded' in conventional parlance, which means they can't control their own body temperature very well. In effect this means that one cold night in a cool spell can set digestive processes back several days and make it seem as if the animal is constipated or has lost its appetite, when in fact it is just waiting for its core temperature to return to efficient operating levels. If your terrapin is kept in a non-heated place, such as a shed or greenhouse in cool temperate climes, or outdoors during cold spells in warmer climates, then it is more than likely that every now and then it will cool below fully functional body chemistry limits. This is not necessarily dangerous because all reptiles are capable of surviving cool temperatures in a dormant or at least less active state for a period of time. What you must never let happen is for the temperature to stay above hibernation levels but below proper digestion and metabolism level for any length of time. This will lead to slow starvation. Note- most commonly available species of terrapins, including the popular Red-Eared type, do not necessarily hibernate in their natural wild habitat and may not survive doing so. The only one you're likely to see in pet shops that does usually hibernate in the wild, is the European Pond Turtle and even that is quite happy staying awake and active all winter if kept well. (See more detail below.)
If you find your terrapin is not feeding well despite always being in the right temperature range and light levels, clean water etc, then there are some strategies you can adopt to make feeding more attractive. First, don't feed cooked meat: most terrapins regard that as second rate, although many will eat it when really hungry. Generally, make your offerings as close to what a wild terrapin might encounter: small worms, small fish, tadpoles and other small aquatic freshwater animals. A good ploy is using live and active food which doesn't go off as quickly. For example, young terrapins might eat bloodworms commonly fed to aquarium fish. Larger terrapins however often ignore small fry like bloodworms and are more interested in larger bait, like fish, shrimps, frogs etc. If you have any qualms about feeding live food to your terrapin, you've bought the wrong pet and should find someone who will look after it properly, or ask if the shop from which you bought it will take it back.
Easily available food which terrapins don't so often turn their nose up at include oily fish, this is good because it contains some vitamin D, eg: fresh mackerel, tinned sardines etc, even tuna; indeed many other types of fish as long as they are not in any sort of sauce or spices, or heavily smoked. Also shellfish if not flavoured or over-processed or too salty. Some terrapins like small pieces of bloody raw meat or offal, maybe cut from your own food before it is cooked. (I remember one long-lived terrapin in particular who went berserk whenever he smelt almost any type of raw liver in the feeding pool water. It all went very quickly!) Note- if you feed food like liver which tends to disintegrate leaving a mess, clean the water after every feed to reduce the chance of infection.
As already mentioned the most common illness in Terrapins is vitamin D deficiency, vitamnin A can also sometimes be low. Take all the steps described above and you'll avoid this. Other infections such as sore eyes are usually down to a combination of poor living conditions, especially a build up of faeces and rotting food, and insufficient temperature control. Being just a little too warm can double bacterial growth rate in water and on infected tissue. A little too cold and the terrapin's own immune system doesn't work properly. Keep your terrapins clean and eye infections should be very rare, but if they do arise, you can treat them yourself with anti-bacterial eye drops or ointment, provided the infection is only minor.
Hibernation and temperature control- (this has been added by specific request from several readers)
It isn't theoretically necessary for most species of green terrapin to hibernate. They do of course when out of 'ideal' conditions, but equally many don't. It is not recommended that pet terrapins should be encouraged to hibernate either, because temperature and humidity are difficult to control and if not carefully and regularly monitored, may lead to their death. The one less common species pet owners may see in shops which does naturally hibernate in the wild is the European pond turtle. This is mostly black but with small yellow, blotchy stripes and dots, its head when extended is slightly narrower and longer than the common green terrapins and its shell a little flatter as an adult. It does not grow as big as the most common green terrapins, but is considered more hardy. Even the European pond turtle is probably best kept in a heated and daytime lit tank over winter- it is quite happy not to hibernate and this avoids all sorts of risks associated with hibernation.
Temperature control is crucial and humidity can also make a big difference too. As a general rule active terrapins are best kept at between 20°C and 24°C with water in between the two. Obviously air temperature will vary quite a lot more than this, but should not be extreme either way. When their body temperature drops below 18°C they become sluggish, and below 15°C they often cannot feed themselves adequately. If left at this temperature they will slowly starve to death. Hibernation is not often triggered until temperatures drop continuously below about 10°C, although keepers differ as to the exact figure. There is little definitive information written about pet terrapin hibernation and the writer of this article has no experience of it. However this is the digest of what has been suggested- If you do decide to let your terrapin hibernate, it should be on or in very slightly damp, but not wet soil or sand, nose clear of obstruction, inside a well insulated but ventilated box, in a building that never freezes. The terrapin's temperature ideally should not fall below 3°C and not rise above about 8°C until its body can be warmed back up enough to make it want to eat. If you can achieve that, good luck, otherwise Infinity Junction suggests you keep terrapins awake and feeding all winter.
Should you keep single terrapins or do they need friends? It doesn't matter. They don't get lonely like fluffy bunnies, but equally they can live together happily if well looked after and in the right environment. The only question mark is adding very young terrapins to a terrapinarium with one or more adult present. Normally terrapins are not agressive, apart from hunting or extreme self-defence. However some caution in introducing small animals to larger ones is always wise, regardless of species. For example, if one of the new young terrapins is either different, or in some way weak, disabled or disfigured, large terrapins may attack it. Once the terrapin is big though, there is less chance of a problem, especially if the introduction is careful and monitored.
Terrapins don't often breed in domestic environments, normally they need lots of space and a decent lukewarm sand-pit to lay their eggs into. If they do happen to produce eggs in a smaller home, these are often destroyed accidentally or never hatch.
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IMPORTANT COPYRIGHT NOTICE-
Texts appearing on the Infinity Junction website are copyright of the individual writers, in the case of this page and Uncle Nim's recipe page, those collectively known as Uncle Nim. You may download any article published in its entirety on this page free of charge, print it, give it to your friends etc, provided the copyright notice is included. No part of any material, including graphics, appearing on the Infinity Junction website may be reproduced in any commercial venture of any type, including bulletin boards, newspaper columns etc, without prior confirmed permission obtained by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and also giving us full public acknowledgement.