How To Take Care Of A Terrapin: Useful Care Tips, Prices and Advice From Experts

Terrapins are popular and adorable pets that are relaxing to watch and relatively easy to care for. In Asian cultures, these beautiful creatures are also viewed as representations of good luck!

If you’re interested in becoming a terra-parent, read our comprehensive care guide on how to take care of a terrapin! 


We’d like to extend our thanks to the following representatives for their valuable insights:

  • Gary Castello, CEO of PBS Pet Travel,
  • Karen J. Riley, Pet nutritionist from Ihavedogs and
  • Saufi Badaruddin, Founder of Singapore Turtle Care.

  • Disclaimer: The content in this article provides general information that should not be used as a substitute for professional advice from a vet. For an accurate diagnosis of your terrapin’s health condition, please consult a vet. 

    Infographic about caring for a terrapin in SIngapore

    Types Of Terrapins 

    According to NParks, only 2 species of terrapins and turtles are permitted to be kept as pets in Singapore — the red-eared slider and the Malayan box turtle. 

    Red-eared slider

    If you’ve stopped to admire the cute little terrapins at the pet store, they’re most likely red-eared sliders! They’re the most common kind of terrapin available in pet stores and they’re often sold in a small size of about 5cm. 

    Their appeal is the result of their adorable size, affordability and longevity!

    Physical traits 
    Weight1.3 - 3kg
    Length13 - 33cm
    Life expectancy15 - 25 years
    Appearance
  • Young red-ear sliders are bright green in colour with yellow markings
  • Has a bright red or maroon stripe behind each eye
  • Dark brown to olive carapace (top shell) with a yellow plastron (belly shell)
  • Colours will fade with age
  • Malayan box turtle 

    Also known as the Asian box turtle, this terrapin is less common in Singapore. They’re more expensive to purchase due to their rarity, and have been coined as the “rich man’s turtle”. 

    Physical traits 
    Weight1.3 - 3kg
    LengthUp to 20cm
    Life expectancyUp to 35 years
    Appearance
  • Identified by yellow stripes along the sides of their head
  • Black brown to olive shell
  • Caring For Terrapins In Singapore

    A terrapin relaxing in the tank's basking spot

    Both the red-eared slider and Malayan box turtle have similar care requirements aside from catering to their swimming capabilities.

    Housing requirements 

    Housing a terrapin requires thorough planning due to their future growth. Here are some tips you should take into account when creating your terrapin’s home.

      Tank size

    It’s recommended to keep them in a big tank with a capacity of at least 227 – 400L so there’s space for them to grow in size.    

      Tank design

    To mimic their natural environment as closely as possible, a terrapin’s home should include

    • a basking area,
    • water heater, 
    • a water filtration system and
    • UVB fluorescent lights.

    These will help to promote the healthy growth of your terra-baby!

      Tank temperature

    If the water’s temperature is too cold, your terrapin could fall sick. They’ll need a water temperature of around 24.4 – 28°C and a basking area of about 30 – 32°C. 

    You can achieve this by purchasing a submersible water heater and UVB lamps. Remember to switch off the heater when doing water changes as they’re designed to work underwater and will burn out if taken out. 

      Housing capacity

    It’s advised to have only a maximum of 2 terrapins housed together while they’re babies. A larger and older terrapin may bully or injure a smaller one.

    As terrapins can grow very large, Saufi (Founder of Singapore Turtle Care) mentions that you’ll need a bigger tank capacity of at least 400L if you intend to keep 2 together. On top of that, you may need to separate males when they grow older as they may become more aggressive. 


    Additional housing tips for specific breeds

  • Red-eared slider
  • Red-eared sliders are fond of swimming and diving. As such, the water in their tank should be deep enough for them to be fully submerged.

  • Malayan box turtle
  • On the other hand, Malayan box turtles are poor swimmers, so water levels should be low enough for them to stand in.

    Due to their respective requirements, you should only house the same terrapin species together if you intend to get more than 1.

    Housing care and maintenance

    Terrapins are rather easy to maintain, but you’ll need to do the following to keep them happy and by your side for a long time:

    • Replace the water once a week
    • Do a full cleaning of the tank at least twice a month

    Additionally, ensure that the tank is equipped with a robust filtration system to retain the quality of the water. Check that the UVB lamp is working well as terrapins can’t regulate their own body temperature. 

    Cleaning a terrapin’s shell

    Gary (CEO of PBS Pet Travel) mentions that you don’t need to bathe your terrapins unless there’s an algae build-up or they have shell rot. If you do need to clean their shell, you can follow these steps.

    Infographic on how to clean your terrapin's shell

    Step 1: Fill wash tub

    Fill a clean wash tub with room temperature water such that the terrapin is able to stand in it comfortably. 

    Step 2: Place terrapin in tub

    Hold your terrapin with both hands, with 1 hand on each side between their front and back legs. Lower them down gently into the washtub.

    Step 3: Gently scrub shell

    Gently scrub the terrapin’s carapace and plastron with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Monitor your pet’s reaction to the scrubbing and stop if they feel uncomfortable at any time.

    Step 4: Rinse the shell thoroughly

    Rinse the shell to get rid of all the loosened debris and let them dry completely before returning them to the tank. 

    Diet For A Terrapin

    Terrapins are omnivores, so they’ll need a variety of foods to ensure they get a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals. 

    An ideal diet for terrapins should include:

    Commercial turtle pellets (at least 25 – 50%)
    Protein including live prey, cooked chicken or fish (less than 25%)
    Leafy vegetables such as romaine lettuce or kale (at least 50%)
    Fruits such as apple, berries or banana as an occasional treat)

    Karen (Pet nutritionist from Ihavedogs) mentions that feeding them oily fish like sardines or tuna is a good way to replenish their vitamin D, preventing metabolic bone disease. 

    Consult your vet if you’re unsure about your terrapin’s specific dietary requirements.

    Feeding frequency

    Feeding cycles will depend on the age of your terrapin:

    • Young terrapins: Daily
    • Adult terrapins (about 10cm in length): Once every 2 – 3 days

    Ensure that there’s a drinking bowl at their basking area and change out the water daily to prevent bacteria growth.

    Common Health Issues

    Terrapins resting on top of each other

    Similar to other pets, terrapins are susceptible to their share of ailments. Diseases are often the result of an unclean environment or an improper diet. 

    Shell rot

    Shell rot refers to an infection that develops anywhere on your terrapin’s shell. It can affect both the carapace and plastron.

    Shell rot can be caused by injury, either inflicted through fights or by sharp objects. Another common cause is an unclean habitat and dirty water, which can cause algae to build up and attach to your terrapin’s shell.

    To prevent this, clean the tank thoroughly at least twice a month, and ensure that all sharp objects are removed. 

      Symptoms:

    • Swollen eyes 
    • Unwillingness to eat 
    • Odour 
    • Red spots or slime on the shell
    • Flaking of the shell

      Treatment:

    • Medication
    • Antibiotic injections
    • Keep terrapin dry until the shell is completely healed 
    • UV light for 20 minutes a day

    Respiratory infections 

    Terrapins are vulnerable to respiratory infections such as pneumonia. They’re often caused by bacteria from an unclean environment or a lack of vitamin A from an improper diet.

    To keep your terrapin healthy, clean the tank and change the water consistently. Make sure that they’re fed a balanced mix of pellets, vegetables and protein.  

      Symptoms:

    • Bubbling in the mouth 
    • Loss of appetite
    • Extending of neck to breathe
    • Lethargy
    • Open-mouth breathing

      Treatment:

    • Medication
    • Fluid therapy

    Vitamin A deficiency

    A vitamin A deficiency happens when terrapins are fed an unsuitable or unbalanced diet. Terrapins that are fed a meat-focused diet or low quality pellets are likely to develop this. 

    A lack of vitamin A may lead to more serious issues like kidney failure. As such, it’s important to be mindful of your terrapin’s diet and ensure they’re fed suitable and varied meals. 

      Symptoms:

    • Lack of appetite
    • Swelling of eyelids and ears
    • Lethargy 
    • Mouth infection

      Treatment:

    • Medication
    • Change of diet

    Metabolic bone disease

    Metabolic bone disease is a bone disorder that causes distorted shells, deformed beaks and other structural anomalies in terrapins. It’s commonly caused by bad diets and a lack of vitamin D from an absence of UVB light.

    Make sure you feed your terrapins according to their age and unique dietary requirements, changing it up when necessary. Perform regular maintenance of the UVB light in your tank to make sure your shell babies get the exposure they need!

      Symptoms:

    • Swollen legs
    • Bumps along legs
    • Softening of the jaw
    • Softening of the shell

      Treatment:

    • Medication
    • Surgery

    Price Of Owning A Terrapin

    Red-eared slider terrapin resting on a rock

    One-off costs

    To begin your journey with one of these adorable beings, you’ll first need to pay the following upfront costs: 

    • Purchase from pet stores: $2 – $6 (red-eared slider), $150+ (Malayan box turtle)
    • Adoption: Depends on the organisation

    It’s also essential to create a proper habitat for your terrapin. The basic necessities are a large tank, UVB lamps, a water heater and a quality filtration system. You can expect the total cost to amount to at least $250 and above. 

    Recurring costs 

    • Food: $30+ per month
    • Vet: $40 – $200 per year

    Additional costs may be incurred if you decide to spruce up your terrapin’s tank with a more luxurious setup. 


    Note!
    It’s illegal to free your terrapins into the wild and you can be fined by NParks.

    Fun Facts About Terrapins

    Malayan box turtle near the river

    They’re one of the oldest reptiles on Earth

    These fascinating reptiles are actually some of the oldest animals on the planet. Their existence dates back to around 230 million years ago, meaning they lived during the time of the dinosaurs!

    They’re not silent

    Contrary to popular belief, terrapins aren’t actually silent! They can produce a variety of noises, ranging from clucks to even barking noises depending on the species. 

    The red-eared slider and Malayan box turtles are known to make clicking or hissing sounds while basking.

    Their shell is part of their skeleton

    A terrapin’s shell is actually part of its skeleton. It consists of over 50 bones, including the rib cage and the spine. 

    While the shell acts as their defence mechanism, its bulkiness significantly reduces their range of motion and flexibility, causing them to move slowly.

    Frequently Asked Questions 

    Terrapin resting on a grey rock

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

    According to NParks, “turtle” is the umbrella term that can refer to a turtle, tortoise and terrapin.  

    To be more specific, “turtle” is also used to refer to those that reside in the sea. “Terrapins” are freshwater turtles that spend more time on land, while “tortoises” live on land.

    How often should I feed my terrapin?

    You should feed your young terrapin daily. For adults, you can feed them once every 2 – 3 days.

    Do terrapins bite?

    Terrapins can bite, thus they shouldn’t be handled too frequently. Avoid touching terrapins when they appear timid or shy as they might nip you out of fear. 

    If you need to hold your terrapin, pick them up with both your hands. Use 1 hand on each side, in between the front and back legs. 

    Do terrapins get lonely?

    Terrapins don’t get lonely. They’re independent creatures that prefer to be alone, which makes them great pets for busy people. 

    How do I communicate with my terrapin? 

    While terrapins don’t like to be handled, you can do some things to help make them feel more comfortable by building trust with them. Make sure to always approach your terrapin from the front as they might get frightened and bite if your hand appears from nowhere.

    You can also learn to tell when they’re hungry. One way is that they’ll spend more time around the area where you normally place their food. Another way is if they stare at you for long periods. 

    Can terrapins live with fish?

    You may house fishes and red-eared sliders together. Malayan box turtles aren’t suitable to be housed with fishes as they are poor swimmers and require shallow water levels.

    Here are some factors to note when housing fish and terrapins together.

    • Tank size: your tank has to be large enough to accommodate all the fishes and terrapins.
    • Filter strength: the filter has to be strong enough to clean out the additional debris contributed by the fishes. 
    • Fish breed: avoid small and aggressive breeds. The ideal breed to house with terrapins would be tetra fishes.

    Taking Care Of A Terrapin

    If you’re looking for a peaceful pet that’s low maintenance, terrapins are a great choice for you! They’re quiet, hardy and relaxing to observe.

    While they may not require as much attention as a dog or cat, taking care of terrapin is at least a 20-year commitment and consistent maintenance of their habitat is required. We hope that our guide has helped you to make an informed decision before getting a shell baby!

    Article by:
    Andrea
    Contributors:
    There's nothing Andrea loves more than dancing and playing the Sims 4. She is highly intrigued by astrology and enjoys fantasy novels of any sort. You can often find her obsessing over adorable animal videos.
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