How To Set Up A Turtle Tank

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Keeping an aquarium is a wonderful hobby, especially when you choose the right creatures to populate it. If you’ve decided to add a turtle to your tank, you’re in for a treat.

These fascinating creatures come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with their own personalities. They are smarter than most fish, can recognize their owners, and some are even capable of performing tricks!

turtle aquarium

Whether they’re a solo pet or kept alongside other tankmates, turtles make a great addition to your aquarium.

However, like all pets, turtles can be hard to keep. They do not like to be held, and they require a unique tank set-up. Additionally, they live for 20 to 30 years, making them a serious long-term investment.

If your heart is set on this adorable creature, here’s everything you need to about caring for your new pet.

Turtle Tank Requirements

If you’ve owned fish before, you’re off to a good start. Keeping a turtle requires knowledge of basic aquarium-keeping, like water cycling, filters, and temperature levels.

Beyond this, however, turtles do have unique needs.

Here’s what to keep in mind when developing your turtle tank set-up.

Choosing the Right Turtle Tank

Your new turtle tank doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or even new.

What Kind of Turtle Do You Want to House?

Turtles come in a variety of sub-species, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

A habitat for one breed will be harmful to another, or simply insufficient, which can negatively impact their health. For example, desert turtles will struggle in moist, wet environments, and freshwater turtles won’t enjoy a dry tank!

Take note of the type of habitat your preferred turtle enjoys in the wild, and their maximum size when reaching adulthood. If they are not yet fully grown, you should be able to accommodate their size when they grow to adulthood – even if that means transferring them to a bigger tank.

If you want to house multiple kinds of turtles, you may need to separate each species into their own aquarium.

turtle aquarium

How Many Turtles Do You Want to House?

Turtle owners tend to underestimate the amount of space that each turtle needs. After all, they may not complain about small spaces – but it does affect their health!

In the wild, turtles occupy a space of half-a-mile to a mile. When it comes to turtle habitats, bigger is always better. Of course, not all of us have space or money to buy the biggest tank – certainly not one the size of a city block.

Here are some guidelines when it comes to choosing the size for your tank:

  • A small turtle, around four to six inches, will need a tank that can hold at least 30 gallons.
  • For turtles that are six to eight inches, get a tank that holds at least 60 gallons of water.
  • A larger turtle, eight inches and above, should be put in a 75-gallon tank at least.

When using these guidelines, try to buy wider instead of taller. Of course, not all turtles need water – but ‘gallon’ is the unit of measurement that aquariums are categorized by.

An overly small tank will make your pet prone to sickness and growth problems. Beyond this, smaller tanks become dirty more frequently and are harder to clean. If you choose to house multiple turtles, a too-small tank may result in fighting.

To improve their health, it’s also wise to bring your turtles outdoors from time to time. Letting them roam on grass and soil will be a good exercise and strengthen their immune system.

Is Your Tank Waterproof?

A common beginner’s mistake is using a reptile tank for a turtle. Although they are reptiles, turtles and tortoises need a body of water to swim around.

Reptile tanks aren’t made to hold water; rather, they are made to provide insulation for a reptile’s sensitive skin.

When buying a container for your turtle, stick to fish tanks. These are sure to keep your turtle happy, even if they don’t require water in their habitat.

Turtle Tank Set-Up

Once you’ve picked your tank, here are some things to buy alongside it:

turtle terrarium

Thermometer or Temperature Gun

You will need two thermometers or temperature guns. One will be used to measure the water, and the other will be used to measure the air.

UV Light

Your turtle will need the right temperature in their habitat. A UV light is necessary to mimic the heat of sunlight and will keep them warm and healthy.

Some turtles will have different lighting needs, but all of them will require light in their habitats. For turtles, pick a UV light that is made for reptiles.


A heater or heat lamp is necessary to keep your turtle’s habitat at the correct temperature. Similar to light, turtles will have different heating needs, and you should adjust accordingly.

When picking a heater, stick to those that aren’t made of glass. Turtles can shatter glass heaters and hurt themselves on the shards, or electrocute themselves from the exposed parts.

Alternatively, you could also pick a heater enclosed in a protective cover.


Unlike a fish tank, you won’t need a substrate, or layer of sand or gravel, at the bottom of the tank. Substrates are good for digging turtles, but are otherwise unnecessary in a turtle habitat.

However, you will need to provide your turtle with a dry zone in the tank. Alternatively, you can use soil and logs to separate dry and wet areas.

If you do choose to buy substrate, make sure to buy pebbles that cannot be eaten by turtles. Turtles have been known to swallow rocks that are small enough to fit in their mouths.

aquatic turtle tank


Turtles create more waste than the average fish. There are filters specifically designed for turtles, although the usual aquarium filter can do the job.

When using a usual aquarium filter, pick one that is meant to cycle water two to three times the size of your tank.

There are a variety of filter types on the market, but the best for a turtle aquarium is a canister filter. Canister filters have the power to cycle large amounts of water and do not have to be submerged, making them ideal for a tank with low water levels.

A good, cheaper alternative is an external filter, so long as it can cycle water at least five times an hour.

Here’s a video explaining more about turtle tank set ups.

Tank Layout

Your tank should be arranged to accommodate both wet and dry areas. Since these creatures do not breathe water and can exist on land, a purely water-based environment will harm them.

You can change up the look of your aquarium depending on what suits you, but the ratio of wet to dry area will depend on the species you house. Part of the tank should look like a turtle terrarium, housing plants if necessary, so they have an opportunity to dry off and relax.

A good rule of thumb is that an aquatic turtle tank should have at least 75% of their habitat underwater. Semi-aquatic turtles should have at least half of their habitat underwater.

Tortoises, on the other hand, are land-dwelling. However, they will still need at least a fourth of their habitat to be underwater.

Wet Area

The wet area allows your turtles to play, swim, and cool off. The depth of water doesn’t have to be exact; just make sure it’s deep enough for them to swim in.

A good rule of thumb is having a water depth at least twice the length of your turtle. For example, a four-inch-long turtle should have a water depth of at least eight inches.

Dry Area

A dry area is necessary for your turtles to bask in. This area can be made by using rocks, substrate, or gravel.

You can stack smooth rocks on top of each other, or you can shape gravel to slope away from the wet area. Alternatively, you can use wood or plastic to create a dock.

Whatever material you choose, just be sure that your turtle can easily climb onto it. Also, make sure that it is completely dry and stable, so they don’t slide off.

Turtle Tankmates

A turtle can make a great tank mate in a community aquarium. So long as you provide them with enough space to bask, they will do well and thrive in a well-maintained tank.

turtle tank set up

Before picking out a tank mate, make sure to keep your turtle’s habitat requirements in mind. The temperature, lighting, and water should be unique to them, and their tank mates should then match those requirements.

You may have problems when it comes to aggression. However, adding several distractions and hiding spots in your tank will lessen the chances of fighting. Bigger tank sizes also lessen the chances of fighting, as each inhabitant can avoid the other’s territory.

How Many Turtles in a Tank?

If you want multiple turtles, then there’s good news – turtles make excellent community pets. While you won’t find them roaming the wild in packs, the right aquarium set-up will have them peacefully cohabiting.

The number of turtles you can keep in your tank will depend on the species of turtle and the size of your tank. Check to see the water requirements for each species, as well as their size.

Be warned that some turtle species are territorial. However, there are ways to lessen their aggression.

  • Develop hiding spaces for each turtle. Good hiding spaces include caves and tank decor, where they can comfortably tuck themselves away from others.
  • Add multiple decorations in your tank to break up their line of sight. A bare aquarium raises the chances of aggression since your turtles will be able to see each other and consider that a challenge.
  • Adding different plants to your aquarium will not only enhance its beauty and break up their line of sight, but it will provide your turtles with things to munch on or play with. This keeps them distracted, so they’re less encouraged to fight among themselves.

Fish Tankmates for Turtles

Fish are a great addition to your turtle tank, especially tropical fish. These add a bright splash of color in the tank, counterbalancing the more neutral colors of a turtle.

turtle tank


Cichlids are a popular addition, as this species comes in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.  However, before picking a cichlid, take note of their size in adulthood, as well as their aggression.

Bigger fish tend to pick more fights with smaller tank mates. Of course, you can always move cichlids to a different tank when they reach a certain size.


Another great addition is goldfish. Turtles are messy eaters, making their aquariums harder to clean than most fish tanks.

Goldfish, on the other hand, are omnivores and can lend a hand in keeping your tank healthy. As a plus, the extra activity within your tank is sure to improve its aesthetic.

When it comes to goldfish, however, opt for a quicker species. This will lessen the chances of your turtle eating them. Good choices are the shubunkin goldfish or the comet goldfish.

Here’s a video explaining more about fish tankmates for turtle tanks.

Plant Tankmates

Plants are excellent in tanks for balancing nitrogen levels, providing extra food, or adding a great splash of color for aesthetic appeal.

However, note that turtles often do not play well with plants – opting to instead chew on soft leaves or uproot them from the base. This is bad for the planet – but good for the turtle.

As such, be sure to prioritize hardy plants that can sustain a few bites, and which are securely rooted. Likewise, ensure they aren’t poisonous or harmful to your turtle.

Altogether, you may still have to replace the plants now and then, or else opt for artificial plants. Once your turtle tastes the plastic, they will often lose interest and leave the decoration alone.


Turtles make a great addition to any tank, but they can be harder to keep than most fish.

With enough research and perseverance, you’ll have a fun, playful, intelligent pet that can spice up your tank’s aesthetic!

Do you have experience caring for a turtle tank?

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