Spring 2012 Magazine

PET TURTLES: What You Need to Know When Caring for These Special Pets

By Dr. Tim FitzPatrick

People are discovering turtles make great pets. However, like all pets, it's critical to understand the basics of their care and how to keep them healthy. Many times, people buy turtles simply for the novelty of owning a turtle and don't pay close attention to the special needs of their new pet. Sometimes turtles can live for decades when they receive proper care.

Caring for your turtle is relatively easy once the basics are established. Dispel any thoughts of getting a turtle and putting it in a bowl of water with a rock. Those little "Turtle Ponds" are completely inadequate and have even been dubbed by experienced keepers as "Death Bowls." Turtles require more than a small, simple container to ensure proper health and longevity. Heating, lighting, temperature control and filtration all play an important role in the health and happiness of your turtle. Turtles need an area to get out of the water and become completely dry.

Turtles need special lighting which allows them to perform bodily functions. Regular lighting does not do this. Turtles are ectothermic, which used to be called "cold blooded". This means that they do not generate their own body heat. They rely on the sun to get warm and water to cool down. You need to ensure that their air, basking and water temperatures are within acceptable guidelines. This will not only ensure their health, but they will feel more natural in their habitat.

Feeding your turtles seems to be the most complex aspect of keeping them healthy and active, a simple task yet requiring some planning and structure, based on the species that you have chosen.

It's important to know what your turtle would eat in its natural habitat. Some are omnivores and some are carnivores. Their diets are highly specialized. Toss out the idea that turtles can survive on hot dogs, cat food and shrimp treats. Different species have specific dietary needs. Not all prepared foods are good quality so you need to research the exact requirements for your type of turtle.

Turtles are opportunistic feeders. In other words, they grab food when they can because they really aren't sure when they might get the chance to eat again. They don't know that you are going to feed them routinely, so keep a regular schedule and try not to veer from it. Turtles learn to recognize you and any food containers you have. They will quickly have you trained! Overfeeding is one of the most common mistakes in captive care. Keep in mind that they are not always hungry...but they are always looking for a meal because it's how they survive in the wild. Regulate the intake of food carefully.

As far as a diet goes, you want something high in calcium yet low in phosphorus. Stay away from fatty foods and those with a high carbohydrate and protein content unless the turtle is a strict carnivore. Don't over-feed or under-feed anything; even if it is good for their diet. Not enough is dangerous and too much isn't any better.

It is vital to your turtle's health that you vary the diet. Use pelleted/prepared foods as a way to augment a more natural diet. Herbivores need to be offered a wide range of veggies and plant matter; carnivores need to be offered a range of live foods (or thawed, frozen foods); and omnivores need a balance of the two. Citrus fruits should never be offered.

ALL animals can carry salmonella. But with some animals the transmission of the bacteria to humans is more prevalent. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued strong guidelines for the prevention of the transmission of salmonella from reptiles and amphibians to humans. These include sanitation measures and recommendations against reptiles and amphibians in homes with children under 5 years of age, the elderly, people with comprised immune systems and pregnant women. For more information, see: www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5249a3.htm.

Use common sense sanitary measures every time you touch your turtle or anything the turtle has touched such as food bowls and aquarium tank or bowl. Wash your hands with an anti-bacterial soap before as well as after touching a turtle. You don't want to give your turtle a disease nor do you want to catch anything from your pet. Young children should not be allowed to touch turtles. Older children should do so only under strict adult supervision. Afterward, wash the child's hands immediately. Children are quick to put their hands in their mouth - an excellent way to transfer bacteria. Follow the CDC guidelines.

Remember. Turtles are not for everyone. Educate yourself about turtles and their needs before you decide to adopt to see if a turtle is the right companion for your family. Follow the CDC guidelines below to keep people and turtles safe and healthy. And never, never take a turtle out of the wild. For further information see Austin's Turtle Page website at: www.austinsturtlepage.com

Recommendations for preventing transmission of Salmonella
from reptiles and amphibians to humans

Pet-store owners, health-care providers, and veterinarians should provide information to owners and potential purchasers of reptiles and amphibians about the risks for and prevention of salmonellosis from these pets.

Persons at increased risk for infection or serious complications from salmonellosis (e.g., children aged under 5 years and immunocompromised persons) should avoid contact with reptiles and amphibians and any items that have been in contact with reptiles and amphibians.

Reptiles and amphibians should be kept out of households that include children aged under 5 years and immunocompromised persons. A family expecting a child should remove any pet reptile or amphibian from the home before the infant arrives.

Reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed in childcare centers.

Persons should always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles and amphibians or their cages.

Reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed to roam freely throughout a home or living area.

Pet reptiles and amphibians should be kept out of kitchens and other food preparation areas. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles and amphibians or to wash their dishes, cages, or aquariums. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach.

Reptiles and amphibians in public settings (e.g., zoos and exhibits) should be kept from direct or indirect contact with patrons except in designated animal-contact areas equipped with adequate hand-washing facilities. Food and drink should not be allowed in animal-contact areas.

Tim FitzPatrick, DVM is a longtime veterinarian in Albuquerque and owner of ABQ PetCare Hospital, a state-of-the-art full service veterinary clinic that he owns and runs with daughter Dr. Kerry FitzPatrick. For more information visit www.abqpetcarehospital.com

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