As devoted pet owners, we love our turtles and want to enjoy handling them. But of course, we hope that our pets feel comfortable and safe when we spend time together. So, do Red-Eared Sliders like to be held?
Red-Eared Sliders are not affectionate and do not enjoy being held. Handling excessively or with poor technique can cause chronic stress, which may lead to ill health. However, with a patient approach to relationship building, you can condition your Red-Eared Slider to tolerate handling well.
Unfortunately, the short answer is that Red-Eared Sliders do not like to be handled. However, there are ways in which we can change their response to handling, as well as form a closer bond with our turtles.
Read on to discover more about how your turtle views their world and the experience of handling. Learn how you may be able to train them to accept and enjoy being held.
Why Don’t Red-Eared Sliders Enjoy Being Held?
Red-Eared Sliders and other exotic pets are distinctly different from traditionally domestic animals such as domesticated dogs and horses. Domesticated animals have been selectively bred over countless generations to successfully live and interact with humans.
This means that it takes very little training in order to make them comfortable with humans and enjoy petting. Red-Eared Sliders on the other hand are much more genetically similar to their wild counterparts and don’t have any innate (born) ability to understand or build relationships with humans.
Furthermore, unlike dogs and horses, which are extremely social pack animals, Red-Eared Sliders are solitary animals. This means that they do not feel any drive to create bonds with the other creatures in their world.
As a result, they don’t have a desire to be affectionate. Affection is a social tool that we humans (and other social creatures) use to express a connection with the people and animals we care about. Red-Eared Sliders simply don’t understand your need to touch and hold.
For turtles, touching and holding other animals is necessary for mating and predation. In other words, they almost certainly think that the reason you are grabbing them is that you would like to eat them.
They are very unlikely to think you are touching them for the purpose of mating because the mating behavior is preceded by complex behavioral and chemical signals (that you can’t give!).
Prepare to Handle Your Red-Eared Slider
Of course, even if you decide not to pet your Red-Eared Slider, there will be times that it is necessary to pick up and hold your turtle. For example, you will need to carry out health checks, move them in order to maintain their habitat and to transport them to the vet.
In these cases, it is best to be well prepared for handling and to understand the best practices for holding them safely.
Before reaching to pick up your turtle, consider the reason you are doing so. If you need to transport the animal, have the carrier and tools prepared ready.
If you need to inspect their body for a health check, prepare a safe area in which to do so, including clear, clean surfaces and towels.
Being ready for challenging handling will increase the likelihood that you can deal with any scenario, and the handling will almost certainly go smoothly. Always remember to wash your hands before and after!
How To Hold Your Red-Eared Slider
It will be easier to initiate handling if your turtle is spending time out of the water, sunning themselves under a heat lamp.
This is because they will be relaxed, easier to pick up, and also drier. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, and you may have to collect them from the water.
It is very important to be aware that the body of the aquatic turtle is going to be very slippery.
Their legs are also surprisingly long and powerful, and even a well-adjusted turtle is likely to try to kick its way forward out of your hands when you pick them up. It is extremely easy to drop them at this moment, so be prepared.
- Do not sneak up on your turtle. Remember, you are trying to build a relationship based on trust with your pet, not trickery. Approach where they can see you, but pick them up from above and behind, facing away from you. This is because they may bite at your hands if you place them near to the head.
- Use both of your hands to provide support from both sides, reaching underneath the turtle. Don’t be tempted to squeeze the shell tightly, as they can feel even your finger placement on their sensitive shell surface. Use firm but gentle pressure only.
- Instead, provide security and prevent them from slipping away by spreading your fingers before and after their front limbs and around their belly, to prevent them from slipping forward. If your hands are big enough, place your little fingers behind the rear legs also. Fingers reach under the shell, thumbs on top. Fingers should never reach in between the top and bottom shells when lifting your Red-Eared Slider.
- Minimize the time that the turtle is lifted into the air. Bring the turtle gently down to rest on a surface, such as a clean table, spread-out towel, or you can even sit down and use your lap. Do not release them at this point. Use your hand to provide a safety net against them escaping and potentially falling.
What Not To Do When Handling Your Turtle
- Don’t be casual or blasé when handling your turtle. Use both hands and focus on the task.
- Don’t gesture with your hands when holding the turtle. Waving the turtle around is dangerous.
- When checking their belly, tip them as little as possible from the upright position.
- Always try to tip front-to-back, not side to side if possible.
- Never completely twist them in a loop, as this can cause torsion of the intestines. Tip one way, then tip back the same way.
- Ask for help so that someone else can thoroughly check the belly and limbs whilst you hold.
- Don’t move your turtle quickly or suddenly.
- Don’t pick them up from the tail. This handling method is a total myth and can cause bone dislocation.
- Never throw the turtle back into the water or onto a surface. Place them down gently and safely.
Getting Your Red-Eared Slider To Enjoy Handling
Turtles, like all other animals, have the ability to learn. If they didn’t, they would not be able to distinguish safety from danger and would not survive as a species.
This means that you can train them, to a certain extent, in the same way that you would train any other animal. It simply takes a little more patience.
To increase your turtle’s tolerance to handling, you need to help your turtle associate handling time with good experiences.
You will use a technique called operant conditioning, whereby you deliver positive reinforcement (such as delicious food) immediately following a behavior that you want to increase, (such as calmly accepting petting).
Equally, you need to prevent the bad experiences your turtle has from being connected to you or the time spent being handled by you.
For example, if you notice that your turtle tends to hide away in its enclosure when there are bright lights or music in the room, ensure that you never have these punishing stimuli present when you try to bond with your turtle.
Over time, you can increase your expectations of your turtle to accept handling. These small steps are called Successive Approximations.
If applied with patience and good planning, this technique will actively desensitize your Red-Eared Slider to handling and may even cause it to associate petting with positive experiences. This is a tried and tested way to build a bond between you and your pet.
Step-By-Step: How To Train Your Red-Eared Slider To Accept Handling
1. Use The Right Treats
Identify extremely high-value treats that you can use to reward your Red-Eared Slider during training.
- A good idea might be prawns, which are like candy to Sliders.
- Observe your turtle’s eating habits to identify their favorite treats.
- Don’t offer these treats outside of training time.
2. Be responsive to the signals your turtle gives you.
If they stop eating in general, you may be handling them too much. Leave more time between sessions and dial back your expectations of them at this stage.
Judge successful sessions by your pet’s behavior. Trying to bite you, escape, or struggle is not a successful touch!
3. Start small and have low expectations.
At first, you don’t want to attempt something big like stroking your Slider on your lap for ten minutes! This will almost certainly fail and may cause stress.
Begin with a simple behavior such as tolerating your hand nearby inside the habitat.
4. Rewards at the right time
Be ready to deliver the reward as soon as you see a behavior that you like, such as approaching your hand. Reward quickly, even if it seems like your turtle approached by accident!
Don’t give a big reward all at once. Break the treat into small bitesize pieces that can be eaten quickly.
5. Have patience.
Don’t expect your turtle to quickly understand the concept of “touch hand = get a treat”.
What is very obvious to clever humans will take time for the turtle to associate.
Even if progress is made during one session, understand that the turtle is likely to regress and do worse at the beginning of the next session. Lower your expectations from the end of one session to the beginning of the next.
Plan out your Successive Approximations.
What do you want to achieve eventually?
What steps can you take to get there?
Example Steps To Train Your Turtle (Successive Approximations)
- Turtle doesn’t run away from hand in habitat
- Turtle approaches hand in habitat
- Turtle makes contact with hand in habitat for a brief moment
- Turtle increases time in contact with hand in habitat
- Turtle allows hand to smooth shell in habitat
- Turtle allows hand to hold body momentarily in habitat
- Turtle allows hand to hold body for longer periods in habitat
- Turtle allows hand to lift it a little without struggle in habitat
- Turtle allows hand to lift it for longer/higher without struggle
- Turtle doesn’t struggle when lifted out of the habitat for a short moment
- Turtle doesn’t struggle when lifted out of the habitat and placed on a surface (as detailed above) for a short moment
- Turtle doesn’t struggle when lifted out of the habitat and held on a surface (as detailed above) for increasing periods of time
- Turtle accepts touches when held on a surface without struggling or opening mouth toward hand
- Turtle responds to touches in a positive way such as “dancing” when the shell is massaged with fingers or a soft toothbrush
That last step is the Holy Grail of turtle ownership! Whilst tortoises are more likely to show these behaviors, you may be lucky enough to reach this point with your Red-Eared Slider as their confidence in you increases.
Bear in mind though that every animal is different, and some Red-Eared Sliders may never progress through all the approximations.
Trouble Shooting Red-Eared Slider Handling Problems
Sounds simple right?
Well, kind of. The best-made plans will still encounter some hiccups, but with a positive attitude and caring outlook, you can overcome them on your journey to bond with your Red-Eared Slider.
Some key problems and resolutions include:
Your turtle won’t eat the treats
If your turtle is not accepting treats during the training, it may be too stressed to consider food. Even if everything else seems to be going well, consider dialing back your expectations and your steps until this problem resolves itself.
- Check for other causes of stress in the environment
- Monitor whether your turtle is eating well in general
- Question whether your turtle finds the particular treats highly reinforcing or not
Incorporate “accepting food from hand” into your training plan at the very beginning and plan out steps to reach this goal.
Your turtle does well in the sessions, but then suddenly everything goes wrong
Your training sessions are too long! Sessions only need to be as long as it takes to either make a positive step or identify that the session is unsuccessful. This might be less than a minute!
If you get a positive outcome, reward and STOP THERE! Do not keep pushing forward in your excitement and ruin your progress.
If your turtle is not interacting at all, step back (without rewarding). Come back later with a fresh head and different scenario and try again. Don’t keep pushing forward and building frustration.
Your turtle did super-well in a session and you didn’t know what to do
This can be solved by pre-planning your goals as above. If your turtle makes sudden progress, you will be able to keep one step ahead and not lose the opportunity to positively reinforce.
Have enough treats ready to offer what is called a magnitude. Give a big WOW of a treat and end the session very positively.
It is taking too long
Unfortunately, this comes down to patience and adherence to the technique. Remember, you are training a very unnatural behavior with an animal that is slow to learn.
Relationship building takes time. Any progress at all that you make is very worthwhile indeed and you should be proud.
How Much Should You Handle Your Red-Eared Slider?
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule that is agreed upon by turtle experts or pet owners. Some people believe that Red-Eared Sliders shouldn’t be handled for any reason other than healthcare.
Others feel that their turtles enjoy the enriching experience of exploring outside their enclosure. The right answer is somewhat subjective.
However, if you follow two key considerations, you should be able to identify the limitations for you and your turtle.
1. Listen to what your turtle is telling you
If you are following the steps above, then you will be in tune with your turtle and responsive to its behavior.
You will be aware of the difference between a good handling session in which it is calm, and a poor handling session in which the turtle is struggling to get away or trying to bite. These signals are the turtle telling you to end your handling session!
Pay close attention to the turtle’s general behavior and health too. Be aware of variables in the turtle’s environment, such as temperature, light, and diet changes.
If nothing has changed except that you increased handling time, and your turtle stops eating, this is concerning. You may well be handling too much.
2. Be aware of the Red-Eared Slider’s environment
This consideration is dependant on where in the world you live. Providing adequate housing for a Red-Eared Slider is complex and expensive.
You work hard to maintain the enclosure and ensure that your turtle is healthy. You keep the humidity, temperature, light, and water quality carefully controlled.
Be aware then, of the danger of removing your turtle from this ideal habitat. The greatest danger lies in exposing the turtle to sudden changes such as a sharp drop in temperature.
Therefore, if you live in a cold country, and it’s winter, then it may not be appropriate to remove your Slider from under its heat lamp for petting.
However, if you live in a climate similar to the natural habitat of the Red-Eared Slider, you will have greater freedom to handle your turtle outside of its enclosure.
Still, a good rule of thumb would be to keep the handling sessions short and positive for your turtle. More than 30 minutes could be pushing it.
If You Want To Handle and Pet Your Red-Eared Slider
In conclusion, a Red-Eared Slider does not naturally have any desire to be affectionate with you or be handled.
You may decide that as an exotic pet owner, you accept these limitations to your relationship and only handle the Slider when absolutely necessary. This is a perfectly reasonable and mature approach to exotic pet ownership.
If, however, you would like a pet that tolerates or enjoys handling you may be willing to put in the time and effort it takes to build a bond of trust with your turtle by following the steps outlined above.
Do consider though, that if you truly want a pet that you can touch and handle frequently, then the Red-Eared Slider is not the best pet for you.
Think about what you want from pet ownership and choose an animal that would enjoy the same things. If you’re set on owning a turtle, consider a tortoise instead.
A tortoise is easier to care for, will enjoy roaming around your home, and is generally easier to train to tolerate and enjoy petting.