Red-eared sliders are an extremely popular pet turtle that have become a staple in the reptile-keeping community. They have a high activity level and pretty colors, making them a great choice for a wide range of owners.
But just because a species is popular, it doesn’t mean they’re a breeze to care for. In this instance, the red-eared slider requires some specific habitat conditions in order to thrive as a pet.
This guide will make things easy for you, by covering everything you need to know about red-eared slider care. You’ll learn about their tank setup, habitat, diet, lifespan, size, and many more helpful facts!
Table of Contents
The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is a popular turtle species with a bit of an interesting history.
In the past, these turtles had a reputation for having a short lifespan, but not much was known about the needs of this unique reptile. Luckily, their outlook in captivity has improved a lot as enthusiasts learned more about the species!
These turtles are endemic to the southeastern United States. They have a relatively wide distribution. You can find them occupying warm streams and lakes from New Mexico all the way to Georgia. Some even live in North Mexico.
While somewhat skittish by nature, the red-eared slider is a fantastic pet to own. They exhibit some interesting behaviors. When kept in the right environment, they’re more than ready to put on a show!
Appearance & Colors
The skin of this turtle is dark olive green. Bright yellow stripes add some beautiful contrast. The lined skin pattern is distinct and usually gets bolder as the turtle matures.
The shell has similar colors. However, the lines are more varied and subtle. You might see shades of white, yellow, or even red. As the turtle ages, the colors on the carapace darken. This makes it look more uniform in color from afar.
The most defining trait of the red-eared slider is the patch of red behind the eye. It’s what gives the turtle its common name! The patch can stretch several inches behind the head. Some specimens even have some red on the top of their head as well!
There are a couple of morphs available. Pastel red-eared sliders are much lighter in color. Typically, they have hues of yellow and red rather than dark green.
Albino red-eared sliders are very popular as well. Bright yellow at birth, these turtles mature to a nice tan hue.
Expert Tip: As juveniles, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between males and females. But at maturity, the differences are more obvious. Males have larger tails and claws on their webbed front feet. Meanwhile, females get slightly bigger.
Red-Eared Slider Lifespan
The average red-eared slider lifespan is around 20 years with proper care. There are some exceptions. These turtles are said to live well into their 60s and 70s in the wild, but there isn’t any evidence of that long lifespan being found in captivity.
With great care and lucky genetics, specimens living to around 30 are more reasonable (although it’s still uncommon).
Many factors contribute to lifespan, with the biggest being the quality of care they receive. These reptiles have some distinct needs. If you don’t cater to those needs, your turtle can suffer from disease and overall poor health.
The average size of a red-eared slider is roughly 12 inches in length. In rare cases, red-eared sliders can grow a bit bigger.
When you see these turtles in stores, they’re usually only about four inches in size. Make no mistake: red-eared sliders get much bigger than that!
Expert Tip: It’s illegal to sell babies with carapaces smaller than four inches. Unfortunately, not all vendors provide enough information about the maximum size that these turtles can get. For this reason, many novice reptile-keepers are unprepared for the needs of a mature red-eared slider.
Red-Eared Slider Care
Caring for a red-eared slider can be a real joy! However, it’s also a lot of work.
As a semi-aquatic species, you must provide both land and water for this turtle to thrive. They require a lot of space and a well-maintained environment to stay healthy.
Luckily, there are some established care guidelines to follow. Once you get the hang of things, keeping your turtle healthy should be no problem!
Here’s where things get tricky. You must provide ample swimming space for the red-eared slider, but some land-based basking spots are required as well.
But make no mistake, the swimming space is the biggest factor to consider.
Mature adults can require a tank size with at least 100 gallons of water volume! The general rule of thumb is to provide at least 10 gallons of water per inch of length. So if you have a full-grown turtle that’s 12 inches long, you’ll need at least 120 gallons of water.
Needless to say, a massive tank is a must! We recommend using durable glass aquariums or turtle tables. Many owners also utilize large pond shells.
Expert Tip: If you live in a temperate climate, you can also keep the turtle outside. However, this would require some additional protection from predators.
Habitat & Tank Setup
There are two distinct areas you need to plan for: the water and the land.
The land is easy. You can create a natural perch with sand or gravel substrate, but a floating perch is more manageable. Get a perch that’s large enough for your turtle to bask.
It should have ample space to turn around. Also, consider getting a perch with a ramp to make exiting the water easier.
You don’t need a massive land area for their habitat. As long as you have a basking spot, your turtle will be just fine.
Now, onto the water!
Start with a substrate of large smooth gravel. Sand works well, too. However, gravel is easier to clean and maintain.
Then, add natural decor like driftwood, rocks, and live plants. Avoid plastic plants, as your turtle could try to ingest it. Stick with natural items that provide shelter.
Red-eared sliders will often go into hiding when startled. A well-decorated pond area will be the perfect spot for this!
A high-performance filter is essential as well. Red-eared sliders can produce a lot of waste. This is especially true if you have more than one in the same enclosure.
We recommend getting a filtration system that’s rated to cycle double the volume of water you have. An over-powered filter will ensure that you’re getting all the waste out. Plus, it can maintain ammonia and nitrate levels to keep your turtle in good shape.
Temperature & Lighting
Managing lighting and temperature is a bit more difficult with the red-eared slider than many other pet reptiles. That’s because you have various zones to stay on top of.
Like other reptiles, you need to create a temperature gradient.
Ambient temperatures on the cool side of the enclosure can be around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything lower than that and you’ll need to invest in an infrared heater.
For the area above your land perch, use a basking lamp. Make sure it’s positioned outside of the enclosure so that your turtle can’t burn itself. Use the lamp to raise temperatures in that spot to 85 to 90 degrees.
Finally, you need to have a UVB lamp. UVB light is crucial for proper calcium metabolism. The lamp should be on for upwards of 12 hours every day. Position the lamp about 18 to 24 inches above your turtle for proper exposure.
Expert Tip: We can’t stress enough how important temperature is. Invest in precise thermometers and keep track of both sides of the gradient daily.
Usually, humidity is another parameter you have to monitor closely when caring for a reptile. The same goes for a red-eared slider, but in their case you won’t have to do a thing to get humidity levels right!
The majority of the turtle’s enclosure is going to be water. This alone will raise the humidity levels in the air. As long as you have water in the tank, your humidity levels should be just fine.
An important part of red-eared slider care is maintaining the water conditions, with temperature being the most important parameter.
Water temperatures should be roughly 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, take advantage of a thermometer to ensure that conditions are just right for your turtle.
Lower temperatures can cause extreme lethargy in a red-eared slider. It slows down their metabolism to dangerous levels!
Expert Tip: It’s also a good idea to check ammonia and nitrate levels from time to time. Change between 25 and 50 percent of the water volume weekly to keep those compounds under control. Every month or two, clean and sanitize the enclosure entirely.
Red-Eared Slider Food & Diet
Red-eared sliders are welcoming of all types of foods! Your turtle’s appetite may change to more herbivore-focused preferences as they get older. But for the most part, this species likes a diet of both animal and plant-based foods.
A diet consisting of commercial pellets is best. However, it’s also important to supplement those pellets with more organic offerings.
You can provide leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables. Try foods like:
- Romaine lettuce
- Turnip greens
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Sweet potatoes
- Green beans
- White clover
The occasion protein-rich snack is good, too. Red-eared sliders will eat:
- Live fish
- Pinky mice
Many owners prefer to move their turtles to a separate feeding tank. Red-eared sliders can get messy (which can negatively impact the water quality), so it’s not a bad practice to adopt.
Provide enough food that your turtle can eat in 15 minutes each day. Be wary of weight gain! These turtles will eat beyond their means if given the chance.
Potential Health Issues
Red-eared sliders can experience diseases and other health concerns. Some of the most common are respiratory infections and shell rot.
Respiratory infections can be a nasty disease that results in swollen eyes, discharge from the nose, and imbalanced swimming. In most cases, the disease is caused by bad water conditions or improper temperatures. Address those concerns immediately. If the symptoms don’t subside, a trip to the vet is necessary.
Shell rot is another health concern that’s usually caused by unhygienic water. Bacteria and fungus can eat through the shell, and a buildup of algae can be to blame for that as well.
Improve water conditions and scrub your turtle’s shell with a toothbrush to keep algae off. Shell rot can lead to a host of internal problems, so you should see a vet as soon as possible. This is especially true if the shell becomes soft or damaged.
Behavior & Temperament
The red-eared slider is a quirky species. On land, they bask in the light and usually sit in one spot as they relax. But the moment they get in the water, they’re off to the races!
These turtles are powerful and agile swimmers. They move surprisingly fast in the water thanks to their webbed feet.
Interestingly enough, red-eared sliders aren’t super territorial. They can cohabitate with others with very little fighting. That said, it’s always a good idea to keep similarly sized turtles together. Like any other animal, a bigger specimen will bully the runt!
You might see this species playing together. Sometimes, they’ll even stack on top of each other as they bask.
Expert Tip: Red-eared sliders are easily startled. If they’re startled by a loud noise, most will quickly jump in the water to hide!
Excessive handling is not recommended with these reptiles. This is despite the fact that red-eared sliders can grow more comfortable with human interaction (this is especially true with captive-born turtles).
However, none are ever going to enjoy being handled. More feisty turtles may try to bite you if you hold them too much. Others will just scurry away when you approach.
Only handle your red-eared slider when you need to move them. Be gentle and quick. Over time, your turtle should get used to quick handling. Just respect their space and enjoy them from the confines of the enclosure.
As long as you’re knowledgeable and diligent, you shouldn’t be intimidated by red-eared slider care. These turtles can be a lot of fun to own, which is why they’re so popular!
We recommend that you familiarize yourself with all aspects of their care, and any other facts you might find useful. Being a well-informed owner will lead to a better quality of life for your pet (and a longer life too).
If you have anything you’d like to ask us after reading this care guide, feel free to send over a message! We’re always eager to hear from our readers.