Turtles can be challenging pets to house. Aquariums large enough to adequately house most turtles are expensive, fragile and difficult to clean. Alternatives to aquariums abound, though each has pros and cons. No matter what type of turtle you keep, all enclosures must be secure, easily cleaned and large enough to allow natural behaviors.
Commercial Turtle Cages
Small, terrestrial turtles and tortoises can be kept in a variety of commercially produced, front-opening, plastic cages. Models with at least six to eight square feet of space will work well for Russian tortoises (Testudo horsefieldii) and similar turtles that don't require large water areas. Commercially produced tanks are also available for aquatic turtles and offer divided land and water areas. Commercial cages and tanks are easily cleaned, secure and affordable; the biggest drawback to these cages is often size. Only small turtle species or young individuals of large species will be comfortable in even the biggest models on the market. Despite the limitations of size, commercial cages work well with small species and offer the easiest option for new keepers.
Rigid Pond Liners
Pond liners can be used to provide a habitat for aquatic or semi-aquatic species. Pond liners are built on an entirely different scale than aquariums or commercial cages; finding a model with adequate space is rarely a problem. Pond liners are sometimes made with multiple levels, which allows you to fill the lowest sections with water, and use the upper tiers as land area. Pond liners make very attractive habitats and can be made secure by constructing a fenced top; a problem is that they rarely come with drains, so it's very difficult to drain this much water for routine cleaning of the habitat, making quality filtration imperative. Pond liners are probably the best option for housing slider turtles (Trachemys scripta), soft-shelled turtles (Apalone sp.) and painted turtles (Chrysemys picta).
Stock tanks are sometimes used as turtle habitats, even though they're designed to provide water to horses and cattle. While stock tanks don't offer the grandiose capacity of pond liners, they're typically shaped like ovals or circles, rather than the bizarre shapes that pond liners come in. This allows you to use the available space more efficiently, which is particularly helpful if you need to house a number of turtles; no doubt this is a large part of the reason that many zoos and professional breeders use stock tanks. Stock tanks are affordable, often come equipped with drains and are available in dimensions appropriate for small- to medium-sized species. Though some modifications will be necessary to transform a stock tank into a cage, a variety of species can be kept in them.
Turtles need to have access to sunlight, including the UVB portion of the spectrum, or be provided with lighting that mimics this. Though there are commercially produced bulbs that provide some UVB, it can be difficult to sift through marketing hype to determine which bulbs are best. By keeping turtles outdoors, with a water reservoir for aquatic species, this problem can be sidestepped. That said, outdoor caging presents the keeper with several challenges, including climate control and cage construction. Most outdoor pens are made of poured concrete, stacked blocks or wood panels. Turtles kept outside are often targeted by predators like raccoons, dogs and coyotes, so providing secure caging is imperative. Outdoor cage temperature and humidity will fluctuate with the weather, so only turtles from similar climates should be kept this way. For large species, like African spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), outdoor pens are often the only viable choice.
Kiddie Swimming Pools
Kiddie swimming pools are an affordable option. Terrestrial species can be maintained in one of the pools by incorporating a screened lid as well as heating and lighting equipment. Alternatively, kiddie pools can serve as the water area in large or outdoor pens. Another option is to use a sloped substrate to create a land and water area inside the pool. As these water area will be shallow in this type of arrangement, it should be used with semi-aquatic and bog-dwelling species. Box turtles (Terrapene carolina), wood turtles (Clemmys sculpta), spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) and bog turtles (Clemmys muhlenbergii) are all candidates for this approach. It's important, as with any outdoor habitat, that a shaded area is included so the turtles don't overheat.
- Tortoise.org: Captive Husbandry of the Eastern Clemmys Group at Zoo Atlanta
- Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection: Housing for Your Box Turtle
- Russiantortoise.net: The Russian Tortoise Care Sheet
- Virtualvivarium.com: Optimum Housing for a Novel Laboratory Species: Red-Eared Sliders
- Redearslider.com: Outdoor Enclosure Overview
- Tortoise Trust: Designing High Quality Outdoor Habitats for Tortoises
- Fishpondinfo.com: Turtle Ponds
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images