Skip NavigationSkip to Primary Content

Turtle Information Package


We are extremely proud of our clinic and of our team consisting of over 20 caring and experienced staff. We are dedicated to providing excellence in care for our patients and their families since 1972. Our entire team cares deeply for your pet and will treat them with caring hands and a tender voice; their comfort and well-being is why we are here every day.

We are also very involved in our community through our popular Junior Vet program which has been running since 2003, and wildlife triage that we offer at no cost. We are delighted to be one of the veterinary clinics providing patient care for the Northumberland Humane Society. 

Please check out our website at for more information on these programs and on our clinic and staff. We look forward to being your other family doctor!

Beyond What You See

Both Doctors and Staff have your pet's best interest at heart and strive to make their stay with us as pleasant as possible. We encourage you to accompany your pet to their kennel to allow you the opportunity to see where they will stay and to help them to settle in. Every pet has his or her own separate kennel or run, furnished with a clean, dry, comfy towel or blanket. If your pet has a "special toy” or “security blanket" feel free to bring it in with them.

If your pet is to have a general anesthetic we would like you to know that we minimize the risks by providing exemplary care during their stay. We highly recommend a pre-anesthetic blood screen prior to a general anesthetic. Just as your doctor would run a blood test before your procedure we do the same for your pet. A pre-anesthetic blood test is like an internal physical exam that will check organ function and help identify unknown diseases. For this blood work, we collect a small sample of blood that is sent to an outside lab. Blood work must be submitted at least 24 hours before the procedure.

Veterinarians will do a physical exam the morning of surgery to ensure that your pet is healthy before undergoing general anesthetic. Patients are assessed individually to determine which anesthetics will be safest for them. We have anesthetics available for all ages, from the very young to our senior patients. We also carry anesthetics specific to our work with exotic pets.

The doctors adhere to strict sterile techniques, complete with a cap, mask, sterile gown, and gloves when performing surgery. A separate sterile surgical pack is used for each procedure to avoid infection and cross-contamination. The animals are surgically prepared both at their incision and intravenous sites. This involves first shaving the hair, then cleaning the skin with antibacterial solutions.

Prior to the anesthetic, every animal is placed on intravenous fluids. Intravenous fluids are important to help maintain optimal blood pressure during surgery as well as provide access that will allow us to administer drugs if an anesthetic emergency arises.

While under anesthesia, every pet is connected to a Cardell monitor for carbon dioxide, blood pressure, and heart monitoring. Each pet is provided with a warming blanket to manage its temperature during the anesthetic. As well, our Registered Veterinary Technicians continually assess the animals, during both the anesthetic and recovery periods. During recovery one of our technicians or assistants sit with your pet to comfort them as they recover from the anesthetic.

We are acutely aware of the level of pain of our patients and have very current protocols in place to help manage their pain while in the hospital as well medications for use at home to keep them comfortable.

Uncomplicated surgery cases are discharged the same day. This allows the animal to rest at home, which is usually less stressful for both patient and owner. We do keep some animals overnight if they require bandaging after surgery. We recommend that more complicated cases be transferred to the Animal Emergency Clinic in Whitby for overnight observation.

If you have any questions or would like to tour our facility, please ask any one of our staff members. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome as we strive to provide the best service possible for you and your pet.

Owning A Pet Turtle

General Information

  • Several species of turtles are available for purchase as pets. By far the most common species is the popular box turtle, which will be the subject of this discussion. Check with your veterinarian about specific requirements for your pet if you happen to own another species of turtle.

  • The turtle is a popular reptile pet; the box turtle is probably the most common species of turtle kept as a pet. Due to the high incidence of Salmonella poisoning in the 1970's, laws were passed prohibiting the sale of any turtle smaller than 4 inches in diameter. Salmonella is a bacterium often implicated in food poisoning. While the disease rarely causes anything more serious than vomiting and diarrhea in adults, young children and people with lowered immune systems can easily develop a fatal disease. Turtles are certainly not the only pet or reptile that can spread Salmonella. However, since box turtles were a common children's pet, the danger of infection was very real. Most of the turtles carried the infection asymptomatically, which meant that they were never sick. You can imagine how easily the disease, which involves contact with infected feces, could be spread if young children were placing the turtles in their mouths! Common sense and good hygiene are essential in preventing this and really most diseases. THOROUGHLY WASH YOUR HANDS after handling any pet, its excrement, or its bedding and toys.

  • Most box turtles never get very large (unlike tortoises). The average adult size for box turtles is roughly 5-7 inches in diameter, with females being slightly smaller than males. This adult size is reached at 4-6 years of age. Turtles that are not allowed to hibernate grow at a faster rate. Sexual maturity is reached about the fifth year of life.

  • With proper diet and housing, many turtles can live 30-40 years or longer.

  • Turtles have a number of "rings" on their top shells. The number of rings on the shell has nothing to do with the age of the turtle.

  • The protective shell makes surgery difficult. Two techniques are available for performing internal surgery. One technique is where the shell is cut and then repaired following the procedure; the second technique involves making an incision in front of and through the muscles of the pelvis and hind limbs.

How do turtles differ anatomically from other pets?

  • Muscling is limited in turtles, and most of their bones are replaced by the protective shells (which are hinged to allow movement). The top, or dorsal shell is called the carapace; the bottom, or ventral shell is called the plastron. In general, males have a more concave plastron than females; this concavity allows for easier mating. Males are also larger than females, and are usually more colorful (having a male and female next to each other makes the comparison easier). Males also usually have a longer and thicker tail, which once again allows for easier intromission of the penis during mating. Finally, the distance between the vent or cloaca (common opening for the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts) and the turtle's body is greater in males.

  • The pectoral or chest muscles are well developed. Despite the obvious lack of muscling, turtles are extremely strong. The strength, manifested by the turtle retracting into its shell when disturbed, is one of the signs to check for when purchasing a turtle.

  • Turtles lack teeth but have a strong "beak", and turtles can and do bite! The other weapon of the turtle is its claws, which should be periodically trimmed (your veterinarian can show you how).

  • Turtles have no diaphragm, but rather breathe by movements of membranes enclosing their internal organs and by movements of their legs and head.

  • Turtles have a three-chambered heart, whereas dogs, cats, and people have a four-chambered heart.

  • Turtles have a renal portal blood system, where blood from the hind limbs is filtered by the kidneys before reaching the general circulation. This means toxins from the rear limbs (as could occur from wounds on the legs) as well as drugs injected into the rear legs would probably be filtered before entering the general circulation.

  • Turtles excrete uric acid as their main waste product of protein metabolism (dogs, cats, and people excrete urea). This allows them to adapt to desert environments where water supply might be restricted.

  • Turtles have a cloaca, which is a common opening for the digestive, urinary, and genital systems.

  • The shell is covered with bony plates called scutes. The scutes are usually shed in large patches, unlike snakes, which usually shed in one piece. The number of scutes has nothing to do with the turtle's age. The top bony plate is the carapace, and the bottom plate (shell) is the plastron. Unlike many reptiles, turtles have a urinary bladder.

How do I select a turtle?

  • Most owners buy turtles locally from a pet store, although mail ordering from reptile breeders is also common. If you buy a pet through the mail, make sure you know what you're getting! Ask about a guarantee if the pet isn't what you want.

  • Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older imported animals may harbor internal parasites, and often suffer from the stress of captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals. Don't try to be a "Good Samaritan."  Many sickly-looking turtles are terminally ill. Trying to nurse a sick turtle back to health after purchasing it will rarely work. Just the stress of a new environment is often enough to kill a sick turtle.

  • Start out right with a healthy pet. Avoid turtles that have sunken or closed eyes, have any type of discharge coming from the nostrils or eyes, or appear inactive or lethargic. Eyes that are sunken into the head or swollen shut often indicate dehydration, emaciation, starvation, and Vitamin A deficiency. A healthy turtle is usually active and alert, feels "heavy", and retracts its head and limbs into its shell when handled. Make sure the shell is clean and isn't cracked, missing scutes (plates), or has any signs of infection (often seen as shell discoloration or moldy growth). The vent or cloaca should be clean and free of wetness or stool stuck to it. If you can GENTLY open the mouth (which is difficult in most turtles), there should be a small amount of clear saliva present. Mucus that is cloudy or "cottage cheese" in appearance is a sign of mouth rot, as is redness or pinpoint hemorrhages on the mucus membranes. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the turtle is found to be unhealthy.

My turtle looks healthy?  Does he need to see the veterinarian?

Within 48 hours of your purchase, your turtle should be examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian. The visit includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for lumps and bumps. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and starvation. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. Many veterinarians consider all turtles (even those bred in captivity) to have internal parasites, so your turtle may be routinely dewormed for parasites. The oral cavity is examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). No vaccines are required for turtles. Your doctor may recommend blood tests, cultures, or radiographs (X-rays) to check for other diseases. If all turns out well your turtle will be given a clean bill of health. Like all pets, turtles should be examined and have their feces tested for parasites annually.

Housing Your Pet Turtle

What type of enclosure does my turtle require?

  • Turtles may be housed inside or outside, depending upon environmental conditions and owner preference. Discuss the best option with your veterinarian.

  • If you choose to house your turtles indoors, a 10 or 20 gallon aquarium is usually adequate.

Does my turtle need bedding in his enclosure?

  • Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and nontoxic to the turtle. Newspaper, butcher paper, towels, or preferably Astroturf is recommended. When using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them to fit the bottom of the cage. With two pieces, one is placed in the cage and one is kept outside the cage and is always clean. When the turf inside the cage becomes soiled, you'll always have a clean, dry piece to replace it. Clean the soiled turf with ordinary soap and water (avoid harsher products unless your reptile veterinarian approves them), thoroughly rinse it, and hang it to dry to be used at the next cage cleaning.

  • Alfalfa pellets can also be used for bedding and are often eaten by the turtle, which is acceptable. AVOID sand, gravel, wood shavings, corn cob material, walnut shells, and cat litter, as these are not only difficult to clean but can cause impaction if eaten on purpose or accidentally should the food become covered by these substrates. Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles!

What else do I need in the enclosure?

  • Heating pads can also be used for heat; speak with your veterinarian to learn the correct way to use them if you choose this form of heating.

  • "Hot Rocks" or "Sizzle Rocks" are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided! 

What about UV light?

  • UV light is necessary to provide Vitamin D-3. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your turtle to metabolic bone disease, a common condition of pet turtles.

  • The UV light should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). Combining a black light (such as one from General Electric) with a two-bulb fixture is an excellent way to provide UV light, although many turtles do well with just a Vita-Lite. Your veterinarian may recommend other brands of UV light that also provide a source of Vitamin D-3.

  • The UV output of these lights decreases with age; they should be replaced every six months. For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic interposed between the pet and the light. Finally, the light should be within 6-12 inches from the turtle in order for the pet to receive any benefit.

  • If you choose to house your turtle outdoors, it should be contained within an enclosure. Make sure a shaded area is provided, as well as a hiding area. Turtles can dig out of enclosures, so bury the fencing 6-12 inches or put bricks or rocks under the area. Some owners find a children’s wading pool a suitable environment. Astroturf can be used for lining material, or grass, twigs, and other natural material will be fine IF it is changed daily (avoid cedar as it is toxic to reptiles). Of course, food and fresh water must always be available. Bring the turtle indoors if the temperature drops below 60oF (16 oC). Finally, remember that turtles can become prey for neighborhood dogs and cats, so keep this in mind when housing a turtle outdoors.

Feeding Your Pet Turtle

What do turtles eat?

Turtles are both herbivorous and carnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal-based foods. As a guideline, your turtle's diet should be about 50% plant-based material and 50% animal-based material. Be sure to discuss a specific diet for your turtle with your veterinarian.

How often should I feed my turtle?

Most young turtles eat daily; older turtles can be fed daily or every other day, depending upon each pet's individual appetite.

What are some types of plant material I can feed my turtle?

  • Most (80-90%) of the plant material should be flowers and vegetables, and only 10-20% should be fruits.

  • As a rule, anything green and leafy should make up a large part of the diet. Yellow and orange vegetables should also be included. Avoid fiber-rich, vitamin-deficient vegetables including lettuce and celery; their composition is mainly fiber and water with little vitamins or minerals.

  • Acceptable vegetables include collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, alfalfa hay or chow, bok choy, kale, parsley, spinach (in small amounts), bell peppers, green beans, green peas, corn, okra, cactus, various squashes, sweet potatoes, cabbage or broccoli (also in small amounts), and flowers such as carnations, hibiscus, and roses (avoid azaleas as they are toxic).

  • Vegetables can be offered cooked or raw (thoroughly as raw vegetables); experiment with your turtle to see if he prefers his vegetables raw or cooked. Flowers can be home grown or purchased from floral shops. Often, floral shops can often get them for free. It is wise to be sure that no chemicals have been applied to the flowers or water.

  • Fruit can include apples, pears, bananas, grapes, peaches, kiwis, and melons. Fruits that are particularly healthy include figs (which contain calcium), papaya, raspberries, and strawberries.

What are some acceptable animal-based protein foods I can offer my turtle?

  • If you and your veterinarian decide that animal-based protein sources are acceptable, some appropriate foods include crickets, sardines (drained), tofu, hard-boiled eggs, moths, and mealworms. Dog and cat food contains too much Vitamin D and fat and should not be fed. Reptile pellets, bird pellets, trout chow, and other fish chows are excellent protein sources.

  • Live prey, such as crickets and worms, should either be raised by the owner, retrieved from a nearby field or purchased from a pet store or reptile breeder. Care must be exercised when collecting insects, especially from the garden as fertilizers and insecticides can be toxic to turtles.

Do I need to give my turtle vitamins?

  • It is recommended by many veterinarians to LIGHTLY sprinkle all the food offered to the turtle with a calcium powder (calcium gluconade, lactade, or carbonate). A LIGHT weekly sprinkling of a good reptile vitamin on the food is also recommended.

  • Over-supplementation with vitamins and minerals can cause problems in turtles. Check with your veterinarian for specific recommendations about the need to supplement your pet's diet.

What about water?

Fresh water in a crock that won't easily tip over should be available at all times. Turtles will not only drink from the water bowl but will often bathe in it as well (although it is perfectly acceptable to mist the turtle with water a few times a week). Make sure the water stays clean; many turtles love to eliminate in their water bowl as well as drink from it.

Common Diseases of Pet Turtles

What are some of the common diseases of pet turtles?

Common conditions of pet turtles include Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, abscesses, shell infections or fractures, and parasites.

What are the signs of these diseases?

  • Vitamin A deficiency occurs as a result of feeding turtles an inappropriate diet. The all-meat diet, or the "cricket and fruit cocktail" diet, or the "lettuce and carrots" diets are all deficient. Lack of Vitamin A produces signs seen with changes in the epidermis (outer layer of skin and mucus membranes), including lack of appetite, lethargy, swelling of the eyes and eyelids (often with a pus-type discharge), swelling of the ear (actually an ear abscess), and respiratory infections.

  • Most respiratory infections are caused by bacteria, and in turtles are often secondary to Vitamin a deficiency. Turtles with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their oral cavities, nasal discharges, lethargy and loss of appetite, and possibly open-mouth breathing and wheezing.

  • Abscess, commonly seen in pet turtles, appear as hard tumor-like swellings anywhere on the pet's body. Abscesses often are located on the opening of the ear in turtles. abscesses in turtles are often related to Vitamin A deficiency.

  • Shell problems are often encountered in turtles. These can be infections caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses, or more commonly are the result of fractures of the shells. Fractured shells can result from trauma from vehicles (being run over by a motor vehicle) or from dog bites (turtle housing should be constructed to prevent access from predators such as dogs).

  • Parasites, such as roundworms, are common in pet turtles. They often cause no clinical signs and are detected on an annual fecal examination. They may, however, cause diarrhea or weight loss.

How can I tell if my turtle is sick?

Signs of disease in turtles may be specific for a certain disease, such as nasal discharge in the case of a respiratory infection, or non-specific, such as a turtle with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

How are turtle diseases treated?

  • Vitamin A deficiency is treated with either oral or injectable Vitamin A. Treatment should only be done under veterinary supervision, as hypervitaminosis A, a condition resulting from the incorrect usage and over-dosage of Vitamin A can occur.

  • Respiratory infections are mostly caused by bacteria; many of these turtles also have vitamin A deficiency that requires treatment as well. Your veterinarian may want to do radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and cultures to determine the cause of the infection. Occasionally, allergies can cause nasal discharge as well. Treatment for true infections involves antibiotics given orally or as injections, and possibly nose drops. Sick turtles require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force feeding, in the hospital.

  • Abscesses are treated surgically; the abscess is opened and flushed with a medicated solution. A culture of the abscess may be needed to determine the type of infection that caused the abscess. Topical medication and injectable antibiotics may also be used.

  • Shell fractures can usually be repaired by your veterinarian. Severe shell fractures may not be able to be repaired. Infections are more difficult to treat but usually involve identifying what type of organism (virus, bacterium, or fungus) is causing the problem, thoroughly cleaning the shell, and using appropriate anti-microbial therapy.

Special Problems of Pet Turtles

General Information

Turtles have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care issues.

Cystic Calculi

  • Commonly called bladder stones, these occur when minerals from the diet form crystals, which then form stones. Usually these are composed of uric acid, which usually results from a diet that contains too much protein (such as a diet high in dog food or cat food).

  • Often, you will detect blood in your turtle's droppings. An examination and radiographs (X-rays) allow your veterinarian to correctly diagnose the problem. Surgical removal of the stones is needed, as is fluid therapy to prevent kidney damage. Your veterinarian will discuss dietary correction in an attempt to prevent future stones from forming.


  • Turtles are infamous for carrying Salmonella bacteria. This bacterium can cause severe gastrointestinal disease or septicemia (blood poisoning). Many animals and people carry the bacteria without showing any clinical signs (remember Typhoid Mary?), yet shed the bacteria in their feces which can infect others.

  • During the mid-1970s, it was discovered that many young children contracted the disease from their pet turtles. Many of these children didn't exercise proper hygiene (such as washing their hands after handling the turtles and even placing the turtles in their mouths). Legislation was passed making it illegal to sell turtles with a shell length smaller than 4 inches (apparently turtles larger than this can't easily be placed in a child's mouth!)

  • Prevention, through proper hygiene, is the best way to control the disease. Since most turtles which carry Salmonella are not ill, they usually require no treatment (treatment often fails to kill the bacterium anyway).


  • If given the opportunity, most turtles will attempt to hibernate. While controversial, many veterinarians feel that it is not necessary for the turtle's health that it does hibernate, but some owners wish to provide suitable conditions for hibernating. If so, you should thoroughly discuss this with your veterinarian. Hibernation is very stressful, and subclinical illnesses can manifest themselves during hibernation.

Only turtles that are in good health should be allowed to hibernate, so a thorough examination and appropriate laboratory tests are essential prior to hibernation!

  • A common problem in turtles is "pseudohibernation". True hibernation requires a constant temperature between 50o-60 o F (10 o -16 o C). Persistent temperatures above 60 o F (16 o C) are not cool enough for true hibernation. These animals appear as if they are hibernating, but in reality, the turtle increases its metabolism and slowly starves.