Painted turtle

This information sheet does not replace careful reading of specialised literature! We recommend comprehensive preparation for keeping turtles.

Herkomst Sierschildpad

Origin: North America
Food: insects and aquatic plants
Age: 30 – 50 years
Solitary/Group: solitary

Number of eggs: 4 – 10
Length: 15 – 20 cm
Weight: 0.8 – 1.4 kg
IUCN status: not threatened


The animals behave differently depending on whether they are kept in an aqua-terrarium or a garden pond: the more natural the habitat, the more natural (i.e. often a little shy) the behaviour. In general, terrapins do not like to be held in the hand. Some can bite hard and they all have sharp and pointed claws that can be felt when released. They quickly learn that if someone comes near the pond/ aquarium, there is often food and they will come running. Some get used to flapping their front legs wildly on the water surface while swimming “upright”. Teaching them to eat from the hand is not difficult, but some are very greedy and also like to try the caregiver’s finger. So be careful!


Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta): males around 15 cm, females around 20 cm.

Origin / Habitat

Painted turtles are native to the United States. They colonise different water types (flowing – still, large – small, stony – muddy) and flooding habitats and generally prefer dense (aquatic) vegetation, at least in some places. They spend most of their time in/near water and spend a lot of time sunbathing intensively to bring their bodies to the desired temperature.

Holding individually or in group

As with many turtle species, male painted turtles are usually difficult to keep together, at least in (cramped) aquarium conditions. In a larger and well-structured pond with a riparian zone and low stocking density, there are usually no or few problems. Even though these turtles are not social creatures in the biological sense, they benefit from being kept in (small) groups, as this gives them variety. Therefore, the tank should be large enough to hold at least 2 animals. These should mainly be females, as a male can be quite a nuisance to the female. However, it is still possible to keep them individually and they can also be enriched in accordance with animal welfare requirements through targeted enrichment.

Keeping with other species

It is possible to keep different species together as long as they are compatible with each other, of similar size and have the same requirements in terms of their housing and climate in captivity. The different behaviour of different species must be taken into account.


Painted turtles can be kept in either an aquarium or pond, but housing them in a pond (during the warm season) is preferred.

An aquarium should be at least 2 m (L) x 0.6 m (W) x 0.6 m to 1 m (H) in size. The water level should be about 40 – 60 cm high. A land area corresponding to the width of the tank, height of the water and a length of about 50 cm is also an integral part, even if only females are kept, as they (may) also lay unfertilised eggs. If they do not have a laying site with a sandy substrate (cover), they may develop egg-laying distress in the worst case scenario. It is functional and space-saving if the glass plate for the laying site is stuck in at an angle so that – seen from the side – it forms a sharp-angled triangle that tapers downwards and is about 1 – 2 cm higher than the water level. In this way, the animals have a land area without losing much water surface area.

The design of aquatic terraria for aquatic turtles, especially if they are large animals, should be primarily functional: larger roots and branches as visual barriers so that the animals can get out of each other’s way, which can also be used as shelters and/or above-water lying areas. It is essential that there are no constrictions in which the animals can become trapped. There should be sufficient structures for juvenile animals to reach the water surface. Aquatic plants should be very robust, but are regularly eaten. Plants do not usually survive on land either, as they are crushed by the turtles. An option that sometimes works is (non-toxic) hanging plants that are attached above the land area or outside the tank and grow inside the terrarium. As some turtles react sensitively to a hard substrate and develop shell corrosion, it is recommended to add a layer of sand about 4 cm thick (e.g. play sand from the DIY store). Larger stones should better not be used in the tank (or glued with silicone, for example), as they can be thrown against the panes by the animals. Depending on the distance from the land area to the top edge of the aquarium, a cover should be used. To assess this, ask yourself if a turtle could climb out if there was another turtle lying in a corner of the land section, whose back it could use as an aid to escape.

Far better than keeping them in an aquarium is to keep them outdoors in ponds. There are different types of garden ponds, all of which have different advantages and disadvantages that cannot be discussed here. It is important to have “deep water zones” (at least 1.2 metres), a large and sunny swimming area and a large, shallow riparian zone. The pond should be laid out so that it receives at least 5 hours of direct sunlight during the day. The deeper zones provide a cooler refuge, while the riparian zone is used for swimming and sunbathing. In addition, structures should protrude into the water on which the aquatic turtles can climb and sunbathe (tree trunks, planks, roots, stones). The bank may be densely vegetated and both floating and underwater plants should grow in the pond. However, it is advisable to regularly weed the water surface to leave sufficient swimming space. The pond should have an escape-proof fence (opaque, not mesh fencing) to prevent turtles from escaping and possibly to keep away cats, martens and foxes.

Nevertheless, in our climatic conditions, painted turtles are best not kept outside all year round. It is best to keep them indoors during a transition period from late November to March or April (depending on the season and location). Optionally, they can also overwinter in a pond, provided the pond does not freeze over (min. depth 1.5 metres). The problem is not the cold winters, but the changeable spring and autumn periods. Therefore, we recommend safe overwintering under controlled conditions.

Two things are essential when keeping an indoor aquarium: light and filtration. It has proven to be a good idea to provide basic lighting with some full-spectrum neon tubes. If you use LEDs, look out for products suitable for reptiles. In addition, hang one or more metal halide lamps above the land area, which also emit bright light, as well as heat and UVB radiation, which is essential for the healthy growth of aquatic turtles. Metal halide lamps require a ballast and are made for terrariums by several manufacturers. Suitable lamps are those from 35 W to 70 W. For very large aquaria, lamps of 150 W are also suitable. The installation height should be chosen so that the temperature at the level of the turtle’s shell is around 30 – 35°C. Lamps of this type can also be hung above the water area, but this sometimes strongly promotes the growth of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which is not very visually appealing.

Painted turtles – especially if they are large – eat a lot and produce correspondingly large amounts of faeces. A powerful filter is therefore a must for a clean habitat. The filter capacity should be about three times the amount of water. Two types of filters have proven their worth: a) internal filters, b) external filters. The advantage of an internal filter is that there are no hoses running out of the aquarium and thus cannot cause unwanted flooding of the living room. Their disadvantage is that they take away aquarium volume, i.e. swimming space, from the animals. However, very suitable is the so-called “Hamburg mat filter”, which is installed by do-it-yourselfers using two guide rails, a filter mat and a centrifugal pump or air lift (can also be done without experience). It is easy to clean and all parts are easy to replace. External filters have the advantage of not taking up space in the aquarium and therefore have the disadvantage of having a filter outside the aquarium, whose seals may leak or the hoses may become loose in the worst case. Nevertheless, this type of filter has proven itself many times over in aquariums. However, the purchase cost is considerably higher than for a mat filter. A filter does not replace water changes, but ensures consistently good water quality.

If turtles are kept in a pond with a low stocking density, technical aids are not necessary. However, it is worth adding oxygen to the water by pumping. A stream or other ways of adding oxygen to the water are always useful to improve water quality.

Care and maintenance

The care of painted turtles in the aquarium consists of checking daily that the equipment is working, feeding (not daily), inspecting the animals and, depending on the stocking density, partial water changes every few weeks. A third of the water remains in the tank and only the rest is changed. On this occasion, some of the detritus (dead organic material) on the substrate (ground cover) is also removed by suction. Not everything has to be “clinically” clean, as the detritus, bacteria, algae, etc. serve the natural balance in the aquarium.

The filter should also not be rinsed out hot or otherwise intensively cleaned, as this would kill all important microorganisms. A tip for beginners: do not use buckets to drain and feed the water, but use hoses (e.g. garden or pond hoses).


Feeding takes place in the water. The feed should be as varied and diverse as possible. Different types of pellet food, live or dried mealworms, grasshoppers, wax moth larvae, crickets, frozen (and thawed) or dried freshwater shrimps (gammarus), mussels (“seafood”) or fish (all readily available from the internet or pet shops) are suitable. In the case of fish, sprat or herring are particularly suitable, fed whole or cut up (with head and guts). The different types of feed should not all be mixed into a “muesli”, as the animals then sometimes get into the habit of eating only the “tasty” ingredients. There is only one type of food at each feeding. Moreover, adult tortoises in particular, eat mainly plants, therefore meadow herbs, lettuce, fruits and vegetables should also be offered regularly. In addition, sepia should always be available so that the animals can meet their calcium requirements. Turtles should be fed as much as they can eat in 5 minutes (only larger foods such as vegetables longer). Dog and cat food damages the animal in the long run and should therefore not be offered.

If you want to give your turtles a “perfect” diet, you can find information on the internet about “turtle pudding” (which you can make yourself) and offer your animals this delicacy once a week (sometimes they need some time to get used to it). The main advantage of this food is that a calcium-vitamin preparation can be added to this mixture of various plant and animal food ingredients and gelatine, which would always be washed away by the water if sprinkled over the aforementioned food.

Painted turtles from a length of 10 – 12 cm should be fed only 3 times a week, smaller ones 5 times a week. The rule is: less is more; painted turtles are often much too fat. It is better to feed less than too much. It is better to use food that the animals still have to break down and process than pure energy-rich pellet food that can be swallowed immediately. It is better to offer more vegetable food than too much animal food.

Like many but not all reptiles, turtles need the UVB radiation mentioned above. UVB light is essential for calcium and phosphate metabolism, i.e. for the activation of vitamin D3, which ensures absorption of calcium from the intestines. Among other things, calcium and phosphate play an important role in bone formation and development. If animals do not receive enough calcium and/or UVB light, the carapace and bones become soft, among numerous other symptoms, which can lead to severe deformities that last a lifetime. This is a problem that occurs when kept indoors, but not when kept outdoors.

Rest time

Observing biological rest periods is a prerequisite for the long-term well-being of these species. If you cannot or will not guarantee this dormancy period, we advise against buying these species.

Painted turtles need a rest period every year to maintain their long-term health and vitality. This is a natural process for them. Moreover, for many species, such a rest period is a prerequisite for successful reproduction in spring (reproduction is prohibited, but egg laying should be possible). For this purpose, animals are put in a cool place (e.g. cellar, shed, balcony) for 2-3 months. This can be done in plastic containers or aquariums (cover if necessary). It has been found useful to add a handful of beech or oak leaves to the water per animal to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. The water can also be salted for this purpose. The overwintering temperature of the water should be between 8 and 10°C. A tried and tested procedure is to take the animals outside in late summer/early autumn (if kept indoors). There, day length and temperature naturally decrease continuously and turtles reduce their metabolism and enter a resting phase (which does not necessarily mean immobility). Depending on the region and year, night temperatures do not fall below 8-10°C until late November. When it gets colder, the animals acclimatise to warmer temperatures within a week and are brought back inside. For them, spring then begins in December and they have already completed a resting phase of about 2-3 months. Alternatively, they can overwinter in a fridge or cool cellar.

Wintering in a garden pond can work for some individuals, but the local cool seasons are often too variable and long for painted turtles. Moreover, overwintering in a garden pond is less controllable or influenceable than overwintering in a safe, frost-free, cold-protected location.

Common diseases and parasites

Many different diseases and parasites occur in turtles. It is especially important to observe your turtle frequently, so that you start to recognise abnormal behaviour. If your tortoise shows behaviour that is different from normal, it is always a good idea to contact a reptile vet.

If you adopt a tortoise from us, it has been examined by a vet and treated if necessary. All our turtles have been quarantined and tested for parasites.

One possible health risk is the transmission of salmonella, which is part of the natural intestinal flora of reptiles. Normally, this only causes short-term diarrhoea in humans. In rare cases, severe symptoms of illness can occur. This mainly affects children under 3 years of age, the elderly or immunodeficient people. Therefore, we recommend meticulous hand hygiene by washing your hands or using an appropriate disinfectant.


We strongly advise against breeding these species, as the market is oversaturated and it is extremely difficult to place the animals in responsible hands.

This fact sheet has been made available thanks to Auffangstation für Reptilien, München e.V.


Hero image: Greg Schechter / Web Warrior and Nature Expert