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Monday, December 31, 2012

How to Clean a Turtle Tank

We love our Tucker Turtle.

Our little Tucky Boy.
The Tuckster.
Tucky Tucky Turtle.
We’ve had Tucker for about two years now, and in that time, I've learned a lot about turtle care. Tucker is a RES, or a red-eared slider- an aquatic turtle. He currently lives in a ten-gallon fish tank. We usually keep the tank filled up with about 8 gallons of water.
Turtles are a lot more fun than fish (in my opinion... Zeke might disagree), but they're also quite a bit more work than fish, and they get into more trouble than fish. And they're much dirtier than fish.

Note: You'll see two different types of substrate (the stuff on the bottom) in this post- larger rocks, and the blue gravel (like above). There is some research that's been done to show that small gravel, if ingested by your little turtle friend, can cause impaction of the intestines! And that's not good.

Tucker does have the blue gravel in his tank, after we spent a while making sure that he wasn't going to eat it... and he hasn't, but it's worth noting that if you're just getting a turtle or you're planning a tank set up, larger rocks is what is recommended for Red Eared Sliders and other aquatic turtles.

What you'll need:

-A couple buckets, clean ice cream containers... something to put water and rocks into. I use two gallon ice cream containers and two industrial-sized salad dressing containers.

-A small tank or container to hold your turtle while you clean.

-A tank vacuum. You can get one of these nifty things at most pet stores.

-A sponge (one that is ONLY for your tank)

-A toothbrush (again, ONLY for your tank)

-Start Right or another de-chlorinating solution to make the new water safe.

Start out by taking the turtle out of the tank and into a smaller container. Make sure that there's a little water in there for him. He may give you dirty looks for putting him in turtle jail... ignore those.

If you have other living things or decorations in your tank, you'll want to get those out, too. I have a couple of fish in the tank with Tucker, so I just move them over into Zeke's fish tank. The decorations get in the way, so I take those out, too.

Use the vacuum to suck about 2/3 to ¼ of the water out of the tank and into your buckets. Catch as much of the “gunk” as you can by moving the rocks or substrate around the bottom of the tank. Make sure that you’re paying attention to how full the buckets are getting… or you’ll spill all over the floor. Like me.


As you're watching the yuck float around your arm in the water, think happy thoughts about your turtle. You love him. You don't mind that you're elbow deep in his poo. He's wonderful. He loves you back, even if he doesn't show it in socially acceptable ways.
When you have most of the water drained from the tank, take out the rocks or substrate. I usually put them into an ice cream container. Then I wash my hands. If I have time, I like to spread the rocks out on the porch in the sun for a couple days to dry out completely- it’s the best way to kill the algae. (Tucker’s really mad then. TWO DAYS IN JAIL?!?!)
Otherwise, I skip that step and put the rocks straight into old pots. I fill the pots with water so it covers the rocks, and then boil the water over the stove for about 15 to 20 minutes. This is the best way to disinfect the rocks and kill any bad bacteria that may be living on there, just waiting to harm your turtle baby.

Meanwhile, fill one of your buckets with warm, clean water. Use your tank sponge to scrub off any algae or nastiness growing on the walls of the tank. Use the warm water to rinse your sponge. Make sure you slide your filter and pump over to get the algae growing underneath- that's usually the dirtiest spot on my tank. I then wash my hands.

I put a Christmas bow around Tucker's tank!
At this point, I usually think about how much time I have left to complete my mission. If I've got some time (or if the tank is really dirty), I fill the tank up with about 4 more gallons of clean water, then vacuum back down to 1/4 tank again. That sucks up more of the nastiness, but it's not necessary.

Why don't I get rid of all the water every time?

It's a hassle. To get rid of all the water, I'd have to dump out the tank (ie- lift it up, carry it outside or to the bathroom to dump it down the toilet... deal with slippery glass, drips on the floor...). I usually only do partial water changes. Every once in a while (like when we move), I will do a total water change and dump the whole tank. Otherwise, if you're using a good filter and you do a partial change pretty often, your turtle will stay healthy even if you don't change all the water.

After I've scrubbed the tank down, I check the filter. Zeke always cleans the turtle filter when he cleans the fish tank filter, so this usually isn't very dirty (thank you Zeke!). Then I use the sponge to clean the tops and sides of the filter casing.
Next, I tackle the decorations. I like to use a little toothbrush to clean these off- I've found that the toothbrush works great for getting in all those crannies. I wipe down the leaves of my bamboo plant with a damp cloth- they can get a little dusty. I wash my hands.
Then it's time to fill 'er back up! I start with the rocks. They're usually pretty hot from their boiling, so I rinse them in cold water before I put them in the tank. Then I fill the tank back up with clean water. I don't pay too much attention to the water temperature (no thermometers, here!), but I make sure it's somewhere around room temp.

The water in the tank will probably look pretty yucky yet. "But I just cleaned it all!" you say. Don't worry- you did a good job. Promise. Give your filter some time to work- the water will clear up after about an hour, tops.
Use the Start Right in the water to get rid of the cholorine (the bottle should have directions on it). This step is important for your turtle's health, but if you have fish in the same tank, you'll want to be doubly sure not to skip it! 

Then I go and take a nice, hot, soapy shower. After all that yuckiness, I like to feel clean. More importantly, most small turtles do carry salmonella, so I make sure to wash my hands a lot during this whole process. The shower also gives the water in the tank some time to come to the same temperature, and gives the Start Right a chance to really spread around before the animals are reintroduced (for fish, you'll want to wait about 2 hours before reintroducing into the new tank- the change in water temperature could kill them).

After my shower, Tucker gets to return home. He typically looks a little crabby for a while ("What did the human do to my MESS? I worked so HARD ON IT!") but even if he doesn't realize it, he's a happier, healthier little fellow!


Can't get enough of this little green fella? (I know I can't!) Want more Tucker updates? Click here!

I've had Tucker for more than four years now! Crazy. If you have any questions about turtle-ownership or care, I'd love to (try to) help. You can follow me on Facebook, or send me an e-mail at alittlewifeshappylife (at) gmail (dot) com.

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