How to care for your terrapin

Terrapins can make fantastic pets and we’re delighted to welcome them at our surgery. Here at Molesey Vets, we offer a variety of services for your pet including terrapin consultations, health checks and neutering. Along with these services, your terrapin Vet can offer advice or nutrition and husbandry. Read about the types of consultations we can offer your terrapin.

Book a terrapin Vet consultation


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Even though terrapins do not need to be vaccinated, it is a good idea to schedule yearly routine health checks for your pet. Like many other ‘exotic’ pets, terrapins only show signs of illness when they are seriously unwell, so by the time your pet looks sick the disease may be very advanced.

At a regular check our vet will discuss the general management, environment and diet of your pet as 90% of the problems a pet terrapin will develop are generally due to a problem in one of the following categories.

Captive terrapins rarely catch infectious diseases. In their natural habitat, a terrapin can generally move to an environment that suits it best. However, in captivity the owner must provide everything it needs in its enclosure.

Each species of terrapin have different needs, so it’s important that you accurately identify it’s species. If you are unsure or unable to identify it’s species, then please book an appointment and bring it in for a health check.

During the health check we may be able to identify your terrapin for you, but if not we can take photographs and send them to an expert who can help us with further identification.

At Molesey Vets, we usually recommend yearly terrapin health checks in order to review the husbandry and management of your pet.

Your terrapin may still look “normal” when it is sick, so during the consultation our vets may also suggest further diagnostics like x-rays or blood testing if we suspect there is a problem. This allows us to  hopefully treat the problems before your pet becomes seriously ill.

Older Terrapin Health Checks

If your terrapin is very old and becoming frail or has unique healthcare needs, your vet may suggest more frequent checks throughout the year.

Older terrapins can often look ‘normal’ even when they are sick, so during their health check the vets may also suggest further examinations such as x-rays or blood testing, especially if we suspect your terrapin has a problem, so that we can hopefully treat the problems before they become serious for your pet.

As some species can live to be very old (for example over 50 years for diamondback terrapins) you should think carefully before taking one on!

Having the correct nutrition is very important for maintaining health.

As a human, if you eat a poor diet you cannot be surprised if you get ill, and the same applies for your pet terrapin.

In their natural environment, they can forage for the nutrients they need, but as a pet you terrapin is reliant upon you to feed it.

Choosing what to feed your pet terrapin is very important; each species has their own unique diet dependent on their age and health status.

If you’re unsure about what to feed your pet terrapin, we recommend discussing this with your vet at a consultation. To help us advise you, please bring along any packaging of any commercial brands you are currently feeding them.

As a general rule, aquatic species such as terrapins are omnivorous.

This means they need a combination of both whole animal flesh items like fish, shrimp or worms as well as fruit and vegetables. The right proportions of animal material, fruit and vegetables will change depending on the species and life stage of your terrapin.

One of the most common problems for owners is feeding your terrapin the same diet he or she enjoyed as a young animal (mostly animal protein items plus some vegetables), rather than changing their diet to suit their adult needs (mostly vegetables with some animal protein occasionally).  This can cause problems in older terrapins such as kidney disease or gout.

A young terrapin should be fed:

  • Redworms
  • Insects and insect larvae
  • Small live shrimp
  • A good quality pelleted terrapin food.
  • Vegetables and fruit should be offered (but don’t worry if they are ignored!)
  • Feeding most days

An adult terrapin should be fed:

  • Scheduled feeding (every other day, or 2-3 times per week)
  • Fruit and vegetables in every meal
  • Once a week offer small amounts of good quality terrapin pelleted food and 1-2 small pieces of whole small fish, shrimp or crickets.

The main difference in feeding of adult terrapins is the feeding frequency. It can be very easy to start overfeeding an adult terrapin.

A happy, healthy adult terrapin does not need feeding every day.

Commercial terrapin diets

There are number of ‘complete diets’ available in pet stores. These are advertised as complete, or almost complete, solutions to all of your terrapins’ nutrition concerns.

However, these ‘complete diets’ are still generally too high in protein, and may contain high levels of sugar and inadequate amounts of fibre. They can however be a useful source of vitamins and minerals.

We do not recommend that solely feeding your terrapin solely on these products, but in certain cases will advise their use in combination with other dietary advice.

In our Shop we sell the Zoo Med Forest Tortoise Food, which is useful in supplementing the diets of some of the Asia and American Box terrapins. We also sell the Mazuri Freshwater Turtle diet which is designed for more carnivorous terrapins.  Please remember the direction above, we recommend feeding two or three times per to juvenile terrapins and once per week to adult terrapins.

Some reptile shops sell ‘soft’ pellet diets and canned insects for terrapins. We recommend that these are not fed as a sole diet but as used in balance along with fresh food products.

Other Common Diets:

A diet of pork meat, shrimp and rice is not a balanced diet and is definitely not suitable for your terrapin. Pork or shrimp meat consists mainly of protein, and has very low levels of calcium and vitamins.

Calcium/Vitamin Mineral Supplementation:

As with all reptiles you must take great care to give them a varied diet that contains all their essential trace elements.

We recommend that you add a calcium supplementation (with or without Vitamin D3 depending on your environmental situation) to the fruit and vegetable side of their diet.

Proper calcium supplementation during the carnivorous phase of juvenile terrapins is critical to balance out any Calcium/Phosphorus imbalances in the meat/protein based diet.

You should continue to add (once a week) a good quality vitamin/mineral supplement.

If you have any questions about either the suitability, or the dietary requirements, of your pet terrapin, then please do contact us to arrange a consultation.

You should always be proactive and help avoid health problems through providing a healthy lifestyle and good diet to your pet turtle. It is no good waiting for an obvious problem to occur, such as your terrapin stopping eating.

Currently there are no vaccines for terrapins and as these pets are normally housed in small stable groups with little contact with other animals, there is no need for routine preventative medical treatments.


You may need to de-worm your terrapin, especially if hey were ‘wild caught’ and not ‘captive bred’.

Terrapins that are ‘wild caught’ can carry many types of parasites, however programmes  for de-worming are normally tailored for individual animals or groups. If you are unsure about whether to de-worm your terrapin, then our vets are very happy to discuss what they would recommend during a consultation.

If your pet terrapin was wild caught, purchased from a food market or found ‘stray’ it is possible it could be carrying a wider variety, and more significant, parasite burden. Symptoms of a parasite load are variable and can include poor weight gain, soft faeces. In some severe cases it can cause generalised fluid build-up (oedema) or even intestinal blockage.

If you or your vet suspects a high parasite burden a more aggressive de-worming program may be needed. This includes medical treatment, environmental cleaning and possible changes in management.


Certain species of reptile that are originally from cooler regions of the world will slow down, stop eating and sleep for long periods over winter.  This is commonly known as hibernation.

Few terrapins are adapted for this, and a cold period that comes unexpectedly may not be tolerated by these species.  For example Red-Eared Sliders do not normally hibernate. They do however slow down or go into torpor when it gets cold, and many owners misinterpret this as hibernation. Animals that are strong and in good health animals may be able to withstand this long cold spell but those who are not, won’t.

This makes it especially important as a pet owner that you identify the species of your terrapin, and understand their individual physiological needs.  If your terrapin does appear to ‘hibernate’ and not eat for a long period it may be because it is suffering from a medical problem.

Hibernation is not truly necessary, other than for breeding, even for the terrapins that do.

If you are unsure if your terrapin should be hibernating, then please do discuss this with our veterinarian during a consultation.

Correctly identify the species of your pet terrapin is especially important as a pet owner. It allows you to research and learn how they live in the wild, and allows you to recreate the best environment possible for them in your own home.

Terrapin means a fresh water turtle, tortoise means it lives on the land.  Turtle should mean a sea turtle, but this term turtle is often used for all of them, especially in America.

If you are unsure or are struggling to identify the species of your pet, then please do book an appointment to see one our specialists. During the consultation we may be able to identify it’s species straight away, but if it’s a rare breed we may need to take photographs and send them to an expert who can help.

Terrapins are typically freshwater animals but some species may spend a varying amount of time on the land or in the water. For example, Musk Turtles (Sternotherus) prefer to spend most of their time in the water whereas the Indochinese Box Turtle (Cuora galbinifrons) will spend virtually all of their time on land.

In general most terrapins have the following basic requirements:

Water Requirements

In their natural environment, terrapins generally live in and around fresh water systems such as rivers and streams. These water sources are flowing water, so a terrapin will be used to it being ‘clean’. Therefore you need to provide a tank of fresh, clean water for your new pet. If you have a smaller sized tank, then water may be kept clean by changing it every day. However, if you have a larger tank then having a proper filtration system would be the easiet option.

The water should normally be deep enough to allow normal swimming behaviour. If your pet is too sick to be able to swim normally, our vets will be able to give you advise on the best amount to use.

Most terrapins will bask on the land to warm themselves up and return to the water to cool them down. In the wild, some species of terrapin only spend a small amount of time in water, so will only need a soaking corner.

If you have any questions about specifics of water management, please make an appointment and one of our vets will be able to help.

Land/Dry Area

Nearly all species of terrapin need a a dry area or dry patch of land to clim onto. In the wild the terrapin would normally bask in sunlight on the riverbank or on a log or rock to warm up, therefore in your home you will need to provide the captive equivalent. This is a dry area with a heat source where they can ‘bask’ out of the water.

Some species need a bigger land area to walk around and explore.

Is essential that terrapins have the opportunity to dry their shells. If a terrapin’s shell is permanently wet this can lead to shell problems.

Temperature Management

Like all reptiles, terrapins are classed as ‘cold blooded’. This means they do not generate their own body heat so you must provide them with external sources of heat in order for them to regulate their own body temperature.

As stated above your terrapin will climb out of the water to warm itself up.

You must provide your terrapin with a ‘temperature gradient’, as this allows them to regulate their body heat. Part of the enclosure should be warmer than the rest, as this allows your terrapin to move there when the temperature is correct for it’s needs at that time of day.

Creating a temperature gradient means you need to position a light bulb or a special ‘heat’ light over the dry area. The light or heater should have a power rating of >50 watts. This measure of power in watts determines how much electricity the light uses, and how much energy is finally converted into heat. The higher the power rating the hotter your light or heater will be.

In the Molesey Vets Retail Pet Shop, we stock lights and heaters of 50, 60, 75, 100 and 125 watts, each designed to meet the needs of your pet terrapin and its tank. We also sell thermometers so you can make sure you have got it right.

Each species requires slight different temperatures to thrive, but in general we recommend a water temperature of about 26-28 C with a land basking hot spot of 32 C.

If your terrapin lives in a tank in your apartment, remember to keep it away from any air conditioning in order to prevent the water or air becoming chilled.

Do not place it too close to the window or it may become overheated.


You will also need to provide ultraviolet (UV) light for your terrapin alongside the heat lamp.

Most animals, humans included, need some ultraviolet (UV) light on their skin. The body used this UV light to produce and activate some vitamins.  For many animals their skin is very sensitive to UV light, and over exposure can cause problems such as burning or even skin cancer.  However, reptiles such as your terrapin have developed over time to be resistant to UV light, and this lets them bask in strong sunlight for long periods of time. This means for their vitamin activation needs, they need much more UV light.

We cannot see in the UV range, but as with all light there are different wavelengths and different ‘colours’.

The UV spectrum is divided into 3 areas: UVA, UVB and UVC.

UVA is the closest to visible light in wavelength and properties.

UVC is furthest from our visible range and closer in wavelength and properties to harmful radiation such as X-rays.

UVC is dangerous to living animals, and can cause cell damage.

The skin needs UVB to activate the vitamins in the body.  This is important as many lights which claim to produce UV light, may only generate UVA.

A proper UVB light is an important addition to the housing setup for your terrapin. A variety of UVB lights are available, each with their own UVB output.

We stock UVB fluorescent tubes as well as compact bulbs which emit UVB of different strengths.

When adding UVB light to their enclosure, it must be positioned within 30 cm of your terrapin for it to absorb the UVB. We recommend you change the UVB lights every 6 months to ensure that your turtle is receiving adequate levels of UVB.

If you are unsure on whether you are providing the right levels of UVB, or have the correct light, then please do book a consultation with one of our vets. During the consultation please bring along any lights you have already purchased for the vet to determine if they are suitable or not. At Molesey Vets, we do have a UVB meter which can be used to check the output of your bulb.

You may have guessed from all this information, keeping a terrapin is not ‘easy’. Owners frequently find that they have to spend a lot of money providing the correct environment for their pet compared to how much their terrapin actually cost.

We understand the bond between an owner and their pet terrapin is strong, but if you must take precautions before you give them a hug!

Remember that some animals may carry certain diseases that can make you significantly ill. In the case of reptiles it is the bacteria Salmonella that has the potential to cause serious problems.

The Salmonella bacterium is a normal inhabitant of the gut of reptiles and does not cause disease in its host. When passed onto other animals – including humans – it can cause severe disease, including gastroenteritis.

To help reduce the risk of catching this disease, we recommend the following precautions:

  • Always wash your hands after handling your either the terrapin or it’s tank.
  • Use an antibacterial soap preparation and/or an alcohol gel preparation.
  • Not matter how gorgeous they are, do not kiss your pet terrapin.
  • A 10% bleach solution can be used when washing the cage – but please rinse very well.
  • Always wear gloves when handling their faeces.
  • Do not leave children unsupervised.  They may not follow such precautions, and may be at higher risk of disease.
  • Do not give children under the age of 5 a terrapin as a pet.
  • Older children must be supervised during any handling, and must be taught to complete basic hygiene practiced afterwards.
  • Please keep your terrapin away from any food preparation areas. For example do not keep your terrapin in the kitchen or allow it to walk around on any surfaces in the kitchen.

At Molesey Vets we are committed to providing the highest level of care for your terrapin. We have a special ‘Hot Ward’ that has been design to hospitalise your terrapin and other reptiles under the best possible environmental conditions.

If your terrapin requires special care, then our vet may recommend a stay in our hospital. This special care includes close monitoring before and after surgery, or providing fluids or food support when they are very ill.

In our hospital in the past we have comfortably hospitalised exotic pets of all shapes and sizes. These range from large adult 12 kg Giant Asian Pond Turtles (Heosemys grandis) down to 5 gram hatchling Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta).

In our ‘Hot Ward’ we have a variety of cages, tanks and spas as well as all the necessary additional equipment, in order for us to provide the ideal environment to support your terrapin’s recovery.

If you would like more advice on caring for terrapins, contact our friendly team who will be happy to help.


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