How To Care For A Terrapin: A Quick Guide

Terrapins are one of the oldest reptilian species in the world. They have been around for millions of years but only recently they have acquired value as a house pet. A baby terrapin is cute and extremely fascinating to children.

Like any other pet, terrapins too have their own special needs. Caring for terrapins may not be as complicated as other types of pets but unless they are kept well the turtle may die in captivity.

When you bring a baby terrapin home the terrapin care will depend on the species you have brought. Mostly terrapins use both water and land as habitats like Musk turtles or red-eared slider terrapins but some terrapins like a box turtle (tortoise) live outside the water.

Is a terrapin the right pet for you?

How to care for a terrapin

Buying a pet is always a tricky decision for a family. It’s hard to decide what kind of pet would be suitable with smaller kids around, whether the new pet on the block will get along with possible other pets or if visitors are going to feel threatened.

On top of this, you’ve got genuine health concerns, possible allergies and, of course, the care and feeding of the animal itself to think about.

And finally, if the pet is for a child the likelihood that the child will be able, and willing, to take on the responsibility of handling the animal and all the duties that go along with it need to be accounted for.

Keeping the above in mind, many families tend to opt for a starter pet. They include such animals as rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, mice, and reptiles; animals considered low-cost and low-maintenance.

This is not necessarily true of course but it is usually less of a handful than, say, a dog. And if you would like to start with a ‘starter,’ a great choice for you could very well be a terrapin (or ‘turtle’ if you’re not from the UK!).

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Buying a terrapin

Going to the pet store to buy a terrapin, and related paraphernalia, is the next step. Once you know what kind of terrapin you want, you will be able to buy the proper habitat for it as well. You wouldn’t want a tortoise in a terrapin habitat because the poor thing would simply drown.

Next, feeding a terrapin is the same as buying it a habitat: identification. Some terrapins like to eat minnows and others are perfectly content with little pellet snacks, insects, and so forth. Most terrapins will also eat a lot of greens, which you can easily arrange for.

Finally, like any other animal you have to handle terrapins with care. Despite their appearances terrapins are quite fragile and they need their shells to live. They are not like hermit crabs that can find any shell that fits to live in if theirs is removed. For a terrapin, the shell is attached, stays attached, and grows with it.

What’s the difference between a terrapin and a turtle?

Essentially, there is no difference between turtles and terrapins unless you travel outside of the United Kingdom. The term ‘diamondback terrapin’ is applied across the board to mean the brackish water reptile.

Apart from that, the term terrapin is used in the United Kingdom to mean almost any kind of pet turtle while the term ‘turtle’ usually refers to sea turtles, which are not normally kept as pets.

Many people get confused about whether terrapins are amphibians or reptiles, considering that many terrapins are happy moving both in water and on land. Let’s clear it up once and for all: terrapins are reptiles.

Some are fully aquatic (sea or oceanic turtles or freshwater terrapin), some are semi-aquatic (turtles, sliders, painted turtles) and some are fully terrestrial (known as box turtles in the United States and tortoises everywhere else). Remember, tortoises cannot swim very well at all and will drown if put in deeper water.

Semantics aside there are some differences in shell structure, limbs and sizes, and so forth. Fresh or brackish water terrapins have webbed feet and softer shells than sea turtles, which have probably the hardest shells in the reptile world.

Further, most terrapins that you own as pets, including the tortoise (box turtle) and slider, will have a more domed shell than other varieties such as the painted turtle or the diamondback terrapin. All living turtles, tortoises, and terrapins belong to the crown group ‘Chelonia.’

So if it is a reptile, has a shell and you can’t tell exactly which class it is just go ahead and call it that ‘chelonian critter.’ If it’s about two meters long and weighs almost a ton, it is most likely a sea turtle.

If it’s smaller with a distinctive diamond or pentagonal pattern on its back then it’s a diamondback terrapin. If it’s smaller, green with red markings on its neck, it is most likely a red-eared slider.

Choosing the right terrapin food

You’re thinking of getting a terrapin but what, quite apart from other considerations, what to feed the little shell-shocker? That depends on the type of terrapin as well as its age.

The majority of terrapins are carnivores when they are babies and become omnivores as they grow into adults.

Some feed on plants while others, like the snapping turtle, will hunt small creatures to feed on. The diet of a terrapin depends on the kind of terrapin it is, the location it resides in, and what food is actually available to it.

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If you’ve recently bought a terrapin then choosing the right turtle and terrapin food is important. The following tips will help keep it in good health:


Protein is very important to the diet of the terrapin and there are many sources that are safe for them to consume which include cooked fish, chicken and turkey in small quantities, hard-boiled eggs, mealworms, wax worms, silkworms and earthworms.

Slugs and shrimp are also good for them to eat along with snails and crickets, but never give a terrapin raw meat because of possible fat content in the meat which can become contaminated in the time that the terrapin gets around to finally eating it.

Vegetables & fruit

As terrapins grow they become omnivores so vegetables will have to be introduced into their diets. Leafy vegetables and some fruit are best for them including figs and grapes, carrot tops, dandelions, red clover, and lettuce (red and green are fine but avoid iceberg as it can cause diarrhoea), endive, and other herbs. 

Regular vegetables like beans, corns, etc are also fine for their growth. Interestingly, flowers are also a love of many terrapins and they seem to enjoy roses the best along with lilies, pansies, and tulips.

Other fruits liked by terrapins include bananas at the top of the list, kiwis, apples, mangoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, blueberries, and some citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit.

What not to feed a terrapin

And then, inevitably, there are some foods that should never be given to a terrapin. These include dairy products, which terrapins simply cannot digest due to the lack of necessary stomach enzymes.

Feeding milk-based products to a terrapin will make it very sick. Canned and processed foods are also on this list due to their salt content and use of preservatives.

Constructing the perfect terrapin tank

Making the perfect habitat for your terrapin depends on the breed of terrapin, the size of the terrapin, and the number of terrapins that you are keeping. There are many types of containers that you can keep your terrapins in ranging from glass to plastic to pond liners for your outdoor habitat.

If keeping them outside you will need to provide some summer shade for them to escape to. A habitat should not be less than 25% of the total surface area of the shells of the terrapins being housed.

You will also need to make provisions for them when the outdoor temperature is too cold. This means either giving them a safe place to hibernate or bringing them indoors when the temperature drops.

Do not use gravel or substrate or create any areas that are not accessible. Remember that if you are using a more elaborate system and substrate you need to use a filtration system complete with bottom drainage and low stocking density.

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Providing the right environment for terrapins

Terrapins need plenty of clean water in order to remain healthy and to avoid you having to clean them all the time. The smaller the enclosure the more you have to change the water.

If you have three or fewer small terrapins (with a length of 4 inches or less) in a 10-gallon tank you should change the water up to four times a week, but only once if it’s a 50-gallon tank.

The more terrapins you have the more times you’ll have to change the water. The type of food you give your terrapins also determines water cleanliness as some foods muck it up faster.

Use separate containers for food to help this problem. When your terrapins are out to roam in the sun is a good time to change the water and scrub the sides of the enclosure of all potential bacterial growth.

Water should not be any deeper than the width of the widest terrapin’s shell. Add filtration in order to decrease the need to change the water. Just because the water appears clean doesn’t mean that it is.

The best filter to use is an external one rated for small animals. Canister or power-lifting filters are the best but remember if you have a bag type the filter must be changed often. Do not use under gravel filters.

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Zoo Med WC-4 Repti Safe, 125 ml
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Water quality for terrapins is of the highest importance!

The water in the terrapin tank must remain warm so a heater is required and the water should be between 75 and 82 degrees. You should be using a submersible heater with a liquid crystal display outside the tank.

Include a dry bed area for the terrapins to crawl out of the water and bask under the UV lights. These areas can as simple as a rock under a light but should be big enough for all of the terrapins. You can get elaborate on the design of these areas but make sure they’re secure, accessible, and at the water-surface level.

The habitat should have a thermal gradient so that the terrapins can reach their preferred body temperatures. A 50 to 100-watt bulb with a reflector will create a great basking area.

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How to look after terrapins

Watching terrapins is no doubt real fun, especially if they are your pets. By watching them every day, you can learn a lot about their characteristic behaviors.

But mere watching, just to have fun, is not sufficient for the well-being of your terrapins. Terrapins are delicate creatures and hence they need a lot of care, concern, and love from the owner.

From the hatchling period throughout their life, terrapins remain very much prone to several kinds of diseases or suffer from internal as well as external injuries; in extreme cases, both of which may be dangerous and fatal.

Looking after your terrapin is no doubt a time-consuming as well as an expensive affair. They are blessed with a long life span and need special attention. Here are some important aspects along with some handy tips for you in case you are an enthusiastic and dedicated terrapin owner.

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Clean water

Being aquatic, the terrapin spends most of its life in water. But in captivity, the chances of the tank water in which they are kept getting foul and polluted are very high. The water may stink terribly because of the fecal matter and rotten foods like fish, meat, vegetables, etc.

Moreover, these rotten materials can produce a huge amount of disease-causing microorganisms.

Hence one of the important measures to keep your terrapin healthy is to keep the water fresh and to do that regular cleaning, filtering, and refilling of the tank is essential.


Terrapins are reptiles and hence are hypothermic, which means they cannot bear a colder environment and need a special arrangement of a heater with a thermostat to keep the water warm at around 23.8 to 26.60 C.

Too cold water may lead your terrapin to hibernation which is only safe if the terrapin is healthy and has the correct environment to hibernate in.

Glass Tank

You will need a transparent glass tank which should be big enough to keep the growing terrapins comfortably. Choose your tank according to the size and number of your terrapins, remembering how much they can grow. Keep an elevated basking area for them too.


Give them a balanced diet with regular supplements of calcium and vitamins.

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Blood in the faeces, cracked or leathery shell, wounds or swellings, reddened eyes, oral lesions, runny nose, breathing trouble, etc. are some of the symptoms which need immediate treatment by a veterinary doctor.


Never leave them unattended in the open. Never drop them on the hard floor.

Naming your terrapin

Terrapins are adorable pets. But a pet without any name…? No way…!! Else how will you identify your favourite timid terrapin ‘Terry’ from the angry young ‘Sumo’ which is always ready to snap your finger?

Or the old Granny ‘Victoria’ that does not want to leave the sunny courtyard till it feels cold? The hatchlings cannot be left behind, name them, and see how different they are from each other.

‘Torty’, the most obedient terrapin in your vivarium, feels very happy when you bring his favorite meal, small bits of shrimps. ‘Zeiko’, the ever-hungry terrapin hardly gives any chance to ‘Tootsy’ and ‘Tango’ to grab the lunchtime goodies. Well, ‘Shelly’ and ‘Starry’ are good friends from the beginning but they never allow ‘Hardy’ and ‘Laurel’ to cross their territory; indeed very possessive, isn’t it?

What about the bunch of hatchlings? Small, cute, sweet-looking baby terrapins, of the size of coins! Names?… Well…, how about ‘Tacky’‘Jolly’, ‘Trombo’, ‘Charley’, ‘Boon’, ‘Tim’, ‘Thaddy’, ‘Telsy’, ‘Soppy’, ‘Tippy’, ‘Tappy’, ‘Toopy’, and Hoody? ‘Buddy’ is not bad either, eh? Some oriental people may prefer ‘Chi-chi’‘Mekh-mekh’‘Ming-ming’ or ‘Chow-chow’!   

If you are a music or dance lover then your terrapin can have some singsong names. For example, ‘Curly-Burley’, ‘Rolly-Polly’, ‘Muffin-Puffin’, ‘Toto-Moto’, ‘Bizzy-Buzzy’, ‘Ding-Dong’, …and many more.

Football fans may not stand behind. Names for their terrapins can also be as energetic as their heroes, no matter how slow their terrapins crawl! Try calling them ‘Becks’, ‘Diego’, ‘Ronaldo’, ‘Rooney’, or perhaps most suitably of all ‘Messi’. The name of the all-time great footballer ‘Pele’ will also be pretty fascinating! The terrapin will no doubt feel proud.

Can the names of pet terrapins of an Egyptologist be anything better than ‘Pharaoh’‘Cleopatra’, or ‘Sphinx’? And believe it or not, terrapins can also be named after someone’s favorite dishes…like ‘Cheese-ball’, ‘Choco-bar’, ‘Coffee-toffee’, ‘Spicy’, ‘Soupy’, ‘Dough-nut’, ‘Sweet-Sago , ‘Ice-cream’ or ‘Mr. Nugget’. Try it out!

Terrapin names in this computer age can be more techno-type too? When everyone is running after electronic gadgets, can’t the pet terrapin crawl after them? So, think of ‘Lap-top’, ‘Webby’, ‘I-pod’, ‘Robo-turt’, ‘Asimov’ or ‘Tech-tonic’.

OH MY GOSH! What a Turty name-game…!!!

And that ends our quick guide to keeping terrapins. Good luck and remember to bookmark us to keep informed on everything you need to know about keeping pet terrapins!