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How to Set up the Perfect Turtle Tank: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide

This guide will take you through every step of setting up a turtle tank, from selecting the tank to ongoing maintenance and care.

Decided to get a turtle? Great choice!

Turtles really have a lot to offer as far as pets go, and they make excellent little companions for all types of people. They tend to be gentle and shy, yet highly interactive when they feel comfortable.

Turtles are small and quiet, making them especially ideal for apartment-dwellers who want a cool companion that doesn’t bark at the mail carrier or need to be taken out for walks.

Another great thing about turtles is that they generally live a very long time, up to 30 years in some cases – certainly much longer than most household pets! Because of this, getting a pet turtle truly is a long-term commitment.

Turtles are adorable and fascinating with an array of unique colors, markings, and other interesting features.

turtle tank setup

Even though turtles are generally considered to be somewhat low-maintenance, they still require the right environment in order to thrive. That’s your job. Giving your turtle a great place to call home is part of the fun of owning one! In fact, turtle tank building has become somewhat of a hobby unto itself, with some turtle enthusiasts taking their tanks above and beyond with elaborate rock arrangements, waterfalls, and other dramatic features.

Turtle habitats don’t need to be fancy, as long as they have all the necessary elements. You can customize your turtle tank however you like, as long as you’re providing a healthy habitat for your little buddy.

Choosing the Right Tank

The first thing to do is get a tank for your new pet. Don’t just grab the first one you see at a yard sale or pet store, either. It’s important to select just the right enclosure to make sure your turtle has a home that is safe and enjoyable.

Most people use glass aquariums to house pet turtles. Plastic tubs can also be suitable. Some turtle owner who live in warm climates even build outdoor open-air habitats.

For this guide, we’ll be talking about setting up a glass tank.

First and foremost, a turtle tank needs to be sturdy and well-built. Not just any glass enclosure will do. Reptile tanks generally don’t work as turtle habitats because many will not reliably hold water. If you’re thinking about repurposing an old tank instead of buying a new one, test it out by filling it with water and letting it sit for a few days while you watch for leaks.

What Size Should Your Tank Be?

To thrive, turtles need plenty of space to swim and explore. Here are the general guidelines for choosing the right size tank for yours.

  • If your turtle is small (around 4-6 inches), you’ll need at least a 30-gallon enclosure.
  • For medium-sized turtles (6-8 inches), get a 50-gallon tank – at minimum.
  • To accommodate a large turtle (8 inches and above), choose a 75+ gallon tank.

Bigger is better when it comes to turtle tanks. If you’re in doubt, it’s usually best to go with the bigger size. Also, keep in mind that the size recommendations above are for a fully-grown turtle. If you buy a tank based on the size of your baby turtle, you may have to upgrade as it grows.

There are several reasons not to get a tank that’s too small.

  • It will be harder to clean.
  • It will get dirty more quickly than a larger tank.
  • Your turtle will not enjoy full quality of life in an enclosure that isn’t big enough.
  • Your pet may be unhealthy, and it might not grow to full size.
  • Putting multiple turtles in a too-small enclosure usually results in territorialism and fighting.

About Tank Covers

Turtle tanks should always have a cover on top of them. This is to protect your turtle in a few ways. First, it will prevent outside objects from falling in. Plus, it helps provide a barrier between your pet and any heat or lighting sources you may have mounted above the tank. Finally, and just as importantly, a cover keeps your turtle from escaping its enclosure. Be sure to get a lid that interlocks with the tank or has some kind of locking mechanism so it can’t be pushed off by curious turtles.

Steel mesh covers are usually the top choice for turtle enthusiasts. The heat-proof mesh is suitable for setting heat lamps on top of, since it won’t melt or catch on fire. They also provide enough ventilation so that your tank doesn’t become too hot or humid.

Designing the Layout of Your Turtle Tank

While some aspects of designing your tank’s layout are really matters of personal taste, there are some essential components you must include.

Your tank should be divided into two areas, an underwater space where your turtle will likely spend most of its time as well as an above-water basking area.

Underwater Area

At least half of your tank should be underwater. As aquatic and semi-aquatic animals (depending on the exact species), turtles need to swim and play underwater every day to be happy and healthy.

Above Water Area

The rest of your tank should be used for an above-water space where your turtle can dry out and bask (more about basking in a moment). If you have an aquatic turtle, you only need to dedicate about 25% of the total tank space to the above-water area. For semi-aquatic turtles, this dry area should take up about half of the space in the tank.

Some tanks come ready-made with designated areas for your wet and dry zones. You can also use rocks or logs, as well as pre-made ramps and platforms to configure these spaces yourself. If you plan to do it yourself, it can be helpful to make a sketch of how you plan to set up your tank. It’s also a great idea to look around online and check out some of the ways other people have set their turtle habitats up.

Gathering the Necessary Equipment

Once you have an idea of the way you’ll lay out the elements of your tank, it’s time to make your shopping list and gather up all the little things you’ll need to get going.

Turtle Tank Filters

A good filtration system is absolutely necessary for the cleanliness of your tank, and the health of your pet. Turtle tank water can get dirty quickly. This isn’t just unsightly. It’s also not good for your turtle.

Your filter will clean up old food, excrement from your turtle, and any other unwanted debris floating around in the aquarium. It also removes harmful substances that are by-products of those waste items.

Canister Filters

Penn-Plax Cascade 1000 Aquarium Canister Filter – Provides Physical,...
  • CASCADE 1000 CANISTER FILTER: Without effort, the...
  • STATE OF THE ART FEATURES: In addition to the push...
  • FILTER MEDIA: This Canister Filter comes standard...

Most often, canister filters are used for turtle tanks. They tend to work very well, even for large tanks. These are usually mounted under the tank and can be concealed by a stand or cabinet. Canister filters are multi-stage filtration systems. This means that they contain layers of different filtration media, which we’ll talk about in a few paragraphs.

Internal Filters

MarineLand Magnum Polishing Internal Canister Filter, For aquariums Up To 97...
  • INTERNAL CANISTER FILTER: Submerged motor for...
  • VERSATILE FILTRATION: Two refillable chambers...
  • MICRON WATER POLISHING: High-efficiency polishing...

Internal filters, also called submersible filters, can be placed inside the tank. They usually attach to the walls of your aquarium with suction cups. These filters tend to be small, and are only suitable for smaller tanks. Internal style filters can also be multi-stage filters, though there are limitations to the number of stages they can contain due to their size.

HOB Filters

AquaClear 20 Power Filter, Fish Tank Filter for 5- to 20-Gallon Aquariums
  • Aquarium filtration system that offers superior...
  • Quick and easy installation; we recommend that you...
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HOB stands for “hang on back.” This kind of filter is, as you might have guessed, hung on the back of a tank. Because this kind of filter is designed specifically for use in fish tanks, you may have to take special care if you want to use one for your turtle habitat. Since turtle tanks aren’t filled all the way with water the way fish tanks are, your tank will need a filter cutout to accommodate an HOB. Another thing to keep in mind with HOBs is that you’ll have to buy one that’s rated for a larger tank than you’re actually using. This is because turtles produce waste at a higher rate than fish, so fish tank-based size ratings aren’t accurate.


UGF is an acronym for Under Gravel Filter which is placed, like it sounds, underneath gravel substrate in a tank. While many turtle enthusiasts do not recommend these, there are some who swear by them. This kind of filter is installed on the tank floor, below a layer of gravel. Water is pulled through the gravel, which serves as part of the filtration system, before reaching the main filter. There are a couple different types of UGFs to choose from, but all work in essentially the same way. This kind of filter could be problematic for a turtle that likes to dig.

No matter what type or brand of filter you choose, make sure it’s designed to work with the size of tank you have. You can get the best filter on the market, but if it’s only rated for a 50-gallon tank and you have a 100-gallon tank, it’s not going to do a great job for you.

About Filter Media

Filter media is whatever materials are inside your filter. Each layer of a filter contains a different medium, which the dirty water passes through on its way to becoming clean. Some things that you might find in a multi-stage filter include sponges, activated charcoal, ceramic rings, lava rock, polyfill or fiberfill floss, and Bio Balls (specially designed spheres made for filtering water in aquatic habitats).

Turtle Tank Heaters

Turtles are cold-blooded, and so are not able to regulate their own body temperature. As a turtle-owner, you’ll be responsible for keeping your pet’s habitat within a healthy range. You will have to monitor and regulate the temperatures in both the wet and dry portions of the tank.

Here is our recommended heater for turtle tanks:

Cobalt Aquatics Flat Neo-Therm Heater with Adjustable Thermostat...
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Heating the Water

The optimal water temperature for turtles is generally between 74-82 degrees. This varies depending on the species, the age of the turtle, and the health of the turtle. Talk to the pet store or breeder you’ll be purchasing your turtle from to get specific temperature recommendations.

You can use an aquarium heater to maintain the right water temperature in your turtle habitat. Here’s what you should know about them.

  • Any submersible heater must be enclosed in a covering made of metal or heat-resistant plastic. Never use an aquarium heater with a glass shield. These are designed for use with fish only, as hard turtle shells could break through the glass.
  • Submersible heaters have to be mounted about an inch below the lowest level your water will possibly drop. If this kind of heater is ever run without being submerged, it will burn out and break very quickly.
  • Alternatively, you can use an external in-line heater for your turtle tank. These are installed outside the aquarium. Water is pumped through them and heated before it enters your tank. The water can be pumped directly from (or “in line” with) a canister filter. If you don’t have a canister filter, you will need an aquarium pump to do the job. Remember that some pumps are meant to be mounted outside the tank and will break if submerged, while submersible pumps will break if they are operated outside of water. Take care when selecting and installing them.
  • Undertank heaters are not recommended for turtle habitats. They are usually designed for terrariums, not aquariums, and don’t do much to heat water. Also, heat rocks are not safe to use in a habitat that will be filled with water.
  • You must select a heating unit that is strong enough to heat all the water in your tank. The following is a basic/general guide to figuring out how powerful of a heater you need
Amount of Water in Tank Minimum Heater Wattage Needed
20 gallons 75 watts
40 gallons 100 watts
65 gallons 150 watts
75 gallons 300 watts

Keep in mind that these are just general guidelines. Depending on how warm your house is, you may need a less powerful heater than would normally be recommended. Conversely, if your house is cold, you might need a more powerful heater. If you’re unsure, you can talk to a veterinarian in your area.

Use a thermometer to monitor the water temperature in your tank. If the water is too hot or too cold, you’ll need to correct it right away. You can use an aquarium thermometer, just make sure it’s not made of glass (again, turtle shells can break glass). Strip thermometers can also work for this purpose.

Some turtle owners run two smaller heaters, and others even have a backup heater in case the main unit fails.

Heating the Basking Area

Just like the underwater area, your turtle’s basking space needs to be kept at just the right temperature.

Generally speaking, the hottest part of the basking zone should be somewhere between 85 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit (although veterinarians may recommend warmer temperatures in special circumstances, such as when a turtle is sick).

turtle temperature

Make sure to find out the exact temperature range that’s recommended for your turtle species.

Heating the basking area is done by mounting a heat lamp directly above the space.

Your turtle should have a range of warm temperatures within the basking space, with the hottest spot being directly under the light. This way, your pet can move around as needed to better regulate its body heat.

When shopping for heat lamps, you’ll find different wattage ratings. Read the specifications about each bulb to figure out which one will provide the right temperature for the turtle species you have.

The closer you place the bulb to the basking space, the hotter it will be. Take care not to place it close enough that your turtle would be able to reach it and get burned.

Certain types of bulbs – incandescent, halogen, and mercury vapor bulbs, to be exact – can get very hot. They can even break if they come into contact with water. If you use one, make sure the cover on your tank is sufficient to protect your turtle from glass shards if this were to happen.

You’ll also need another thermometer to monitor the temperature in your basking area.

Turtle Tank Lighting

turtle lighting

Aside from the heat lamp, you’ll also need to have UVA and UVB lighting for your turtle tank.

  • Daily exposure to UVA light is essential to the turtle’s ability to regulate its mood, to feed properly, and to breed.
  • UVB lighting is necessary for Vitamin D3 production, which is vital for healthy bone and shell growth. Without it, your turtle can’t process calcium and other key nutrients. As a result, it can develop metabolic bone disease, a painful and potentially fatal disorder. Note that UVB light cannot penetrate glass, another reason wire mesh covers work well for turtle tanks.

You have a lot of choice in bulb types. As long as they provide the right spectrum for your turtle’s health, the type you choose is up to you.

You can purchase fixtures such as the one below that accommodates both a heat lamp and a UV bulb, which can save space and money. These can be placed directly on top of your heat-resistant tank cover or mounted just above the tank.

Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle UVB Heat Lighting Kit
  • Polished aluminum dome increases light and UV...
  • Dual ceramic sockets for use with lamps up to 100...
  • Deep dome extends beyond the face of the lamp...

Your little turtle also needs to have regular light cycles. You’ll have to mimic daytime and nighttime by turning the lights off and on accordingly. Generally speaking, turtles should have around 10 – 12 hours of “daylight” per day. Installing a simple timer can automate this process and ensure a consistent cycle for your pet.

Viewing Lights

While not necessary for the health of your turtle, you may wish to purchase a daytime viewing light. This is simply some additional lighting to help you get a better look inside your turtle tank. There are several options for this, but many turtle lovers recommend using an LED light for this purpose. This is because LED lights are usually crisp and bright, last a long time, and don’t use much electricity.

You can also get a nighttime viewing light if you want to check out your turtle and its habitat during nocturnal hours. Be sure you get a light made specifically for this purpose, as they are specially designed to illuminate the tank without disrupting the turtle’s day/night light cycle.

For more lighting information, check out our turtle tank lighting guide. It covers everything you need to know about setting up the right light system for a turtle tank.

Other Things You May Need

Here are a few other things you may need when setting up a turtle tank:

Turtle Ledge

A ledge is a place for your turtle to come up out of the water to dry off and bask. As previously mentioned, you can create your own using logs, rocks, or other materials. You can also purchase ready-made ledges at pet stores or online. If you go the DIY route, be sure the materials you use are clean and sanitary. It’s also important to make sure there are no sharp edges that could harm your turtle.

Penn-Plax Reptology Floating Turtle Pier and Basking Platform – Decorative,...
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  • SECURE SUPPORTS: The pier’s platform rests upon...
  • EASY ACCESS FOR PETS: The docking ramp allows your...

Turtle Ramps

If your basking platform doesn’t provide an easy way for your turtle to climb onto it, you may want to add a ramp to your setup. As with ledges, there are plenty of ready-made ramps available at pet stores and around the internet. You can also make one yourself – just follow all the same precautions you would with a DIY basking setup. If you make your own ramp, test it out to make sure it’s sturdy before allowing your turtle to use it.

OASIS #64226 Turtle Ramp - Large 16-Inch by 11-Inch by 4-1/2-Inch, Black
  • Simple, Stable Basking Platform
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Rocks and Decor

You may want to dress up your turtle tank with additional rocks, branches, and other decor items. This can help you make the tank more like your turtle’s natural habitat, and it can be more fun to observe your turtle in an attractive tank that has some interesting decor items.

PENN-PLAX Reptology Shale Scape Step Ledge & Cave Hideout – Decorative Resin...
  • REALISTIC ROCK FORMATION: Highlighting a rough,...
  • NATURAL HIDING SPOTS: With 4 entrance and exit...

Hiding Spots

Turtles enjoy having a couple of places to hide. You can use rocks, logs, other decor items as hiding place for your turtle.


Plants can look great inside a turtle tank. You can use real plants or fake ones, but keep in mind that it can be expensive and time consuming to try keeping real aquatic plants alive. On the other hand, some live plants can help support a healthy nitrogen cycle in the tank.

A Few Words About Tank Décor

Anything you put inside your tank will take up space that could otherwise be used for swimming or basking, so be sure not to crowd your pet with too many objects.

Fully enclosed decorations items aren’t ideal, since turtles can easily get stuck inside them. These items are designed for small fish, not turtles.

Substrate – Yes or No?

Adding substrate to your turtle tank is not necessary unless you’re using a UGF. Beyond that, it’s purely a matter of your personal preference.

Here are the different materials that can be used as substrate in a turtle tank.

  • Sand: Sand can be a suitable substrate for turtles, though it can be difficult to keep clean.
  • Gravel: Gravel, or small rocks, can look really nice and natural inside your turtle’s habitat. If you use gravel, make sure to use a variety that is at least ½ inch in diameter. Any smaller and your turtle could eat it and become injured.
  • Fluorite: Fluorite is actually crystallized cubes of calcium fluoride, which can be beneficial for growing plants in the tank. Just like with gravel, make sure the crystals are not small enough for your turtle to ingest. You can also mix fluorite with gravel.
  • Coral: Crushed coral is sometimes used as a turtle tank substrate, particularly for saltwater or brackish water turtles. However, crushed corals may not be the right substrate if you hope to grow rooted plants in the habitat. Coral can also change the pH of your water, so do make sure you know what you’re getting into if you choose to use coral for your substrate.

You will have to keep any substrate you use clean, which will add to the level of maintenance required to care for your turtle tank.

Cycling Your Turtle Tank

turtle tank

You’ve selected, purchased, gathered, and set up all of the elements of your turtle tank. Now what? Before you can introduce your pet to its new habitat, you will need to do what’s known as cycling.

What Does “Cycling” Your Tank Mean?

“Cycling” is a process by which you’ll cultivate the growth of beneficial bacteria in your tank, thereby keeping the water just right for your turtle’s health and well-being. In this case, “cycle” refers to the nitrogen cycle which occurs in a healthy aquatic environment.

Here’s how the cycle will work once it’s all set up:

  • The waste from your turtle causes ammonia to be released into the water. (If allowed to accumulate, this ammonia would be toxic to your turtle).
  • One type of bacteria (Nitrosonomas marina) will digest the ammonia and convert it to nitrite.
  • Nitrite is also harmful for your turtle. That’s where a second type of bacteria (Nitrobacter and Nitrospira) come in to play. These gobble up the nitrite and turn it into nitrate.
  • Nitrate, in small amounts, is not harmful to your turtle (and regular water changes will be sufficient to keep the nitrate levels within a healthy range).

When this process is complete and seems to be relatively self-sustaining, your tank is considered “cycled.”

Once cycled, the ammonia and nitrite levels in your tank should be at or very near zero.

Your nitrate level should be no more than 40 ppm. The pH should be between 6 and 8 to support these helpful bacteria and your turtle.

Your aquarium filter will contain some of these nitrifying bacteria, though not enough to support a healthy turtle habitat. You will have to grow the population of bacteria to optimal levels before you can introduce your turtle to its tank.

How to Cycle Your Tank

Cycling was once commonly done by simply adding a few live “feeder fish” to the tank to get the process started. Those first fish would create the waste necessary to grow the tank’s bacteria population. Unfortunately, they would often get sick and die as a result of living in water with high ammonia and nitrite levels.

What is a “Fishless” Cycle?

A fishless cycle is just a way of cycling your new tank without using live fish.  

There are a couple of ways you can do this.

You can introduce ammonia directly into the tank to increase the bacteria population.

Alternatively, you can add fish food or just plain old fish from the grocery store to your tank; either will eventually break down and produce ammonia. The keyword in that last sentence is “eventually,” as cycling your tank this way will take longer than the straight-ammonia method. Also keep in mind that it can be messy (and a bit smelly).

Before you do either, make sure your filter is up and running and that you have a water testing kit on hand.

  • A few days after adding either the pure ammonia or your chosen organic matter to the tank, begin testing the ammonia levels in the water.
  • During the first stage of the cycle, you should aim to keep the ammonia level around 3 ppm. This level should periodically dip, as the bacteria grow and begin to consume more. Continue adding ammonia (or fish food, etc.) to the water to raise the ammonia levels back up.
  • After a week or so, the ammonia-eating bacteria should begin to produce measurable levels of nitrites. When you see this happen via your testing equipment, you’ll know the cycle has really begun. Keep adding ammonia to maintain about 3 ppm.
  • At some point after this, you should see a drop in nitrites and an increase in nitrates. This indicates that the tank has almost completely cycled. Now, keep testing until the ammonia and nitrite levels have zeroed out, and the nitrate levels are stable.
  • If you detect elevated ammonia levels at any point after introducing your turtle, you can pick up an ammonia neutralizing product from the pet store.

Generally, cycling takes around 6-8 weeks. If you want to make things move a little more quickly, you can introduce bacteria from an already-established tank if you have access to one. The most common way of doing this is by placing used filter media from the healthy tank into yours. This does present the risk of introducing unwanted organisms into your aquarium, so be sure you know you’re using media from a well-maintained tank.

Introducing Your Turtle to the Tank

After you’ve successfully cycled your tank, it’s time to introduce your pet to its new home! Here are a few tips for minimizing stress during the process.

  • Place your turtle gently into the tank; don’t drop it in.
  • Never pick up a turtle by its legs or head. Like most living creatures, turtles don’t particularly enjoy this. Plus, you could cause a serious injury.
  • Give your new pet some time and space to get accustomed to its new surroundings. Turtles don’t always love being handled, especially turtles that are already adjusting to being in a new place around new people.
  • Keep your water testing kit handy, taking regular measurements to ensure that proper cycling has continued after introducing your turtle to the tank.

Caring for Your Turtle

turtle lighting

Taking care of a pet turtle and watching it grow and thrive is an amazingly rewarding experience. Proper care is also necessary for turtles to live long, happy, and healthy lives. Here are the basics of turtle care.

Diet and Nutrition

Your turtle’s exact diet will depend on what species it is. Some are herbivores, meaning they only eat fruits and veggies. Omnivorous turtles like to have some meat with their salad (usually in the form of small fish or insects).

Produce: All turtles need plenty of fruits and vegetables in their diet. The following are safe for them to eat:

  • Mustard Greens
  • Kale
  • Collard Greens
  • Berries
  • Apples
  • Melons
  • Carrots
  • Squash

Remember to chop or shred any fruit or vegetable you feed your turtle.

Fish and Insects: Omnivorous turtles should be given protein-rich food like crickets or small fish. You can also purchase freeze-dried insects, though it’s best to give your little buddy fresh food whenever possible.

Pellets: Ready-made pellets you find at the pet store can be a nutritious part of your omnivorous turtle’s diet. Not all turtle pellets are created equal, though. Check the label and select pellet food that contains a high percentage of protein (around 40% is good) and a low percentage of fat (shoot for less than 8%).

Supplements: You’ll need to make sure that your pet is getting plenty of calcium (it takes a lot of the stuff to build and maintain that strong, bony shell!). The best way to do this is by sprinkling a powdered calcium supplement on the fruits and vegetables you serve.

A Few More Things About Feeding Turtles

  • For omnivorous turtles, around 50% of their diet should come from produce. Live food and pellets can make up the other half.
  • Herbivorous turtles can eat an all-produce diet, but should have significantly more vegetables than fruit (about 80% veggies, 20% fruit).
  • Omnivorous baby turtles will need a higher protein diet than adults, and may not eat much produce until they are older.
  • If you’re not sure whether your turtle is getting all the right nutrients, it’s a good idea to check in with a veterinarian who can provide personalized advice for your pet. Always defer to your vet’s expertise when it comes to feeding and caring for your pet. He or she may recommend additional supplements or other ways to balance your turtle’s diet.
  • Baby turtles will eat every day, but an adult only needs to be fed 4 or 5 times per week.
  • Don’t feed your turtle table scraps (unless it happens to be some scraps of kale or shredded carrot sans dressing), and don’t give turtles dog or cat food.


Continue to maintain healthy temperatures within the different areas of your tank. Check your equipment often to make sure it’s all working properly.


Make sure humidity levels in your turtle’s habitat are optimal, too. Exactly what “optimal” means can vary depending on the kind of turtle you have. Keeping the humidity too high or too low in your tank can cause your turtle to develop health problems.

Maintaining Your Turtle Habitat

You’ll also be responsible for keeping your turtle tank clean and well-maintained. The water will need to be changed regularly, and you’ll also have to clean out your tank periodically – even if you have a really powerful filter.

Here are some tank-cleaning tips:

  • Unplug any electrical devices, such as your filtration and lighting systems, before cleaning your tank.
  • Make sure your turtle is in a safe place while you clean the tank.
  • Kids should be supervised when cleaning a turtle tank.
  • Never clean your filter or other tank components around places where food is stored, prepared, or eaten. Turtle habitats can harbor harmful germs and bacteria.
  • Use rubber gloves when cleaning your tank, for the reasons stated above.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It takes some work, but the rewards of having a pet turtle are far greater than the efforts.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.

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