The painted turtle is the most ubiquitous turtle species found in North America. They are also a popular choice as a pet due to their bright "painted" markings, although they are not the easiest turtle to care for.
Types of Painted Turtles
There are four subspecies of the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) found in North America, each found in their own regional area.
Eastern Painted Turtles
The Eastern painted turtles have a black shell, or carapace, that is lined with red, and their bellies, or "plastrons," are bright yellow. They also have lines of yellow and red on their black skin. They can get up to 7 inches in length.
Midland Painted Turtles
The Midland painted turtle looks much like the Eastern version, but they have a dark-colored area on their bellies, and the patterns on their shells are different. Their native habitat starts in Ontario, Canada, down along the Mississippi River to Alabama and Tennessee. They are about 7 inches long when fully grown.
Western Painted Turtles
The Western painted turtle has a carapace that is an olive green shade and a dark underbelly. They can be found all over Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Western painted turtles are the largest of the painted turtles' species, reaching about 8 inches in length.
Southern Painted Turtles
The Southern painted turtle has a yellow-orange stripe that runs down its carapace in the middle and a yellow underbelly. They normally can be found in the Mississippi River region and in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. They are the smallest of the painted turtles, reaching about 6 inches in length as an adult.
Should You Care for a Painted Turtle?
Painted turtles can make good pets, but they're not the best choice for beginners or for people with minimal time, as they have a great deal of requirements for their care. They're also not a good choice if you have someone in your home with a weakened immune system, seniors, or very young children due to the risk of salmonella.
Painted Turtles and Salmonella
Painted turtle owners should be aware of the risk for salmonella transmission. All turtles carry a risk of salmonella, which can lead to mild or severe life-threatening illness in humans. You should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling a turtle, as well as touching any part of their habitat, such as when you do cage cleanings and after feedings.
Remember that any part of the turtle or turtle's habitat can be contaminated, so keeping your turtle in their tank is important in addition to proper hygiene practices for yourself. If you allow your turtle on a piece of furniture or a kitchen counter, clean and disinfect the area to remove any chance of salmonella contamination.
Painted Turtle Tank Setup
Painted turtles need a setup that meets their biological needs.
Since the painted turtle lives in and near bodies of water like rivers, streams, and ponds, your painted turtle habitat needs to have water. A good rule of thumb to follow is that the depth of the water should be at least doubled the width of the turtle's carapace. For example, for a turtle with a 6-inch carapace, you should have water at a depth of at least 12 inches. You should also have a good filter for the water to keep it clean.
You do not need to provide any type of substrate for the bottom, but if you want rocks or sand for appearances, make sure the individual pieces are too big for your turtle to attempt to eat and swallow.
Your turtle will also appreciate plants, either live or fake, for hiding in. However, painted turtles tend to destroy live plants, so be prepared to replace them.
In the wild, a painted turtle will swim under water and find places to hide, and they'll need a similar spot in their aquarium. You can make an underwater hiding spot using rocks, driftwood, or use a pre-sculpted cave purchased from a pet store. Make sure they cannot become trapped in the hiding spot, as this can lead to them drowning.
Your turtle will need an area to leave the water and bask, which can be a basking platform, or you can use rocks or driftwood. You'll also need a basking light in that area to help them with temperature regulation. Painted turtles will stay out of the water for several hours, but in general, they should not be out of the water for a period of more than six to eight hours.
Your turtle will need daily lighting to stay healthy, including a light that provides ultraviolet radiation in the form of UVB. This light is separate from the heating element that may provide light, as well. You should run the light on a regular day/night cycle, with the light shut off in the evenings.
The tank's temperature should vary depending on the "region" of the tank.
- The water should be about 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which may require you to have a submersible heater in the tank.
- The basking area should be about 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The rest of the tank, which is the ambient air above the water and away from the basking area, should be about 80 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Painted turtles like to swim, so they need a tank that's large enough for them to move around in the water.
- A baby or small turtle should have a tank with at least a 15- to 20-gallon tank with 10 gallons of water.
- If you have two or more small or baby turtles, you should add five gallons of water per additional turtle.
- For adult turtles, you should have a tank that can fit at least 20 gallons of water for one turtle and add 10 gallons per additional turtle, plus additional space for their non-water activities.
Type of Tank
Your painted turtle can do well in a regular glass aquarium or even a sturdy plastic tote as long as they have adequate water, room, and a basking area. They also can do well living in an outdoor pond as long as it is cleaned regularly and filtered and they have a mix of shady and sunny areas.
You should plan on cleaning your tank at least twice a week or more often if you have multiple turtles in the tank. You also should do a 25 percent water change weekly.
Painted Turtle Food
Painted turtles are omnivores who need a varied diet to stay healthy.
- You can feed them commercially made turtle food or trout chow and supplement it with small feeder fish (but not goldfish), mealworms, earthworms, crickets, snails, freeze-dried krill, freeze-dried shrimp, and waxworms.
- Offer your painted turtle healthy plants, such as parsley, dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, collard greens, apples, berries, carrots, duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth.
- If you decide to feed lettuce, do not feed them iceberg lettuce, as this has no nutritional value for them.
- You can also add in some chopped beef heart or cooked bland chicken for variety.
- A calcium block should also be added to their tank for mineral supplementation.
You should feed an adult turtle every two to three days. Because turtles need to eat with their heads in the water, they can be very messy eaters. Some turtle keepers feed them in a separate tank, although this means more stress for the turtle from being handled more often.
What Do Baby Turtles Eat?
If you have hatchlings and juvenile turtles to feed, you can purchase commercially made food that is formulated specifically for youngsters. Omega One makes a Juvenile Turtle Pellets food, and Zoo Med has a Natural Aquatic Turtle Food Hatchling Formula. Both are good choices for young turtles.
They can be fed a juvenile diet up until the babies reach 2 inches in length, then they can transition to adult food. You should also supplement a baby painted turtle's food with the same small feeder fish, worms, insects, and vegetable matter that you feed to adults. Unlike adults, baby turtles need to eat every day.
Painted Turtle Health
If housed in a proper environment with a healthy diet, a painted turtle can have a lifespan up to 50 years, although it's more likely your turtle will live between 20 and 30 years. If you are considering getting a painted turtle, it's important to make sure there's a veterinarian experienced with reptiles and turtles in your area in case your turtle becomes ill. Common signs of illness are swollen eyes, bubbles produced from their nostrils, wounds, labored breathing, lack of appetite, and trouble swimming or moving.
Handling Your Painted Turtle
One of the reasons painted turtles don't necessarily make the best pets, especially for younger children, is that they do not enjoy handling by people and are shy creatures. Because they're slow moving and generally docile, people often don't realize how stressed a turtle can become when they are picked up. It's important to handle your painted turtle as little as possible and confine handling to times when you need to do it to provide health care or clean their tank. In addition to minimizing their stress, you should handle them as little as possible due to the risk of disease.
Do Painted Turtles Bite?
Because these turtles do not enjoy being handled, they can become defensive if they feel threatened. This means they can scratch, kick, and bite people if they are frightened. They also are known to urinate on people and other predators when scared.
Painted Turtles and Hibernation
Painted turtles that live in the wild will hibernate, known in reptiles as brumation, in the winter under water. They protect themselves by burying their bodies in the muddy bottoms of bodies of water. If you keep painted turtles in your outdoor pond, they will do the same thing, although the pond must be deep enough not to freeze all the way to the bottom, and they will need an air hole in the ice. Painted turtles kept inside do not need to hibernate and will not attempt to do so, as their bodies will only begin to hibernate as the temperature begins to drop.
Are Painted Turtles Legal As Pets?
Painted turtles are legal to own as pets in the United States, although specific regulations may vary from state to state. Arizona, Georgia, Oregon, New York, and Rhode Island have restrictions on painted turtle ownership or sale of these turtles. Local jurisdictions may also have restrictions, so be sure to check at the county and city level to see if there are any prohibitions on owning this species in your area.
Also, the size of the turtle impacts whether you can legally purchase it or not. You cannot buy a painted turtle that is 4-inches long or smaller under federal law. This law was enacted because these smaller turtles are more likely to spread salmonella than larger ones.
Where to Find a Painted Turtle
Painted turtles can be found in most reputable pet shops that carry reptiles, as well as through hobbyist breeders and turtle farms. Painted turtles can be purchased for about $20 to $40 on average. If you are looking for babies, you will have the largest selection during May through September, although they can be found all year long.
Many large animal shelters that take in reptiles will also get painted turtles in from time to time, so it's wise to check your local shelter first. Never take painted turtles in that you have caught in the wild. They will not adapt well to domestication, and the stress will negatively impact their health and lifespan.
Keeping a Painted Turtle As a Pet
Painted turtles are beautiful reptiles, and it's easy to see how they got their name from their striking coloring. They are more work than many other types of pet turtles, and they are not a pet that enjoys being handled. If you have the time for all of their care needs and don't require a pet that must cuddle and interact with you, they are a good choice that you can enjoy for years with proper care and feeding.