So, you have an unfriendly pet turtle that’s skittish in the tank and nervous in your presence. What’s going on, and what can you do to calm your reptile down?
Restless turtles that just moved into a new tank need time to get used to their new environment. Turtles that are naturally skittish and restless can be calmed down by:
- Using a mobile tank
- Implementing a food routine
- Petting and handling the turtle correctly
- Providing the correct diet, tank setup
This article looks at what makes your turtle restless and nervous and how to resolve it. You’ll learn which behaviors are normal and those that need attention. There’s a Care Chart you can use as a reminder to ensure your precious pet stays happy and calm.
Proven Tips for Calming a Restless Turtle
Know that turtles are shy creatures, always afraid of the unknown. Their skittish behavior is a natural defense response to help keep them safe in the wild.
But your turtle will become less shy and much calmer once you form that critical bond. And to achieve that, you must get to know your pet, its behaviors, and satisfy its needs.
Eventually, your turtle should race to the surface and splash around as you approach its tank, expecting a treat. That’s when you know it’s finally come out of its shell and figured out how to get your attention. In other words, it’s happy to see you and calm in your company.
Now let’s look at how you get to that point.
Use a Mobile Tank AKA Plastic Food Container
Take a plastic food container or similar and add some tank—not tap—water. This is to be your turtle’s temporary mobile home for short durations.
The idea is to have the pet next to you whatever you’re doing, so it gets comfortable being around you. It will learn to recognize your voice and scent and feel safe and relaxed in your presence.
Spend time observing your turtle, so you get to know what’s normal behavior. Be gentle while carrying it in the tub, and avoid raising your voice or making sudden moves.
Turtle Tip: Feeding your turtle in the mobile container keeps a lot of the mess out of the main tank, so the water stays cleaner for longer.
Build Trust with a Food Routine
Give your turtle food at the same times to get it used to a routine. Watch as it eats in the tank, but don’t try to feed it yourself just yet. Instead, wave your hand slowly over the tank as it consumes.
Your pet will eventually associate your physical presence with food. Over time, it will no longer see you as a threat and become calmer as a result.
Strengthen Bonds by Petting Your Turtle
The final step to calming your pet turtle is to strengthen the bond with physical contact. The way to do this is to lightly pet the cute creature on the head and neck while it eats.
Only attempt to feed your turtle by hand once it’s calmed down in your presence. Start by holding a piece of leafy green about six inches away. Again, avoid sudden moves and exercise patience.
If vegetation doesn’t work, have another go using live food instead. If nothing happens, move away slowly, and try again tomorrow.
These final sections are about maintaining that bond between you and your beloved turtle. A happy pet is not skittish; it’s calm because it’s well cared for. And that includes its habitat as much as regular feeding and human interaction.
Instinctual Signs of a Healthy, Happy, and Calm Turtle
One thing that surprises new turtle owners is how fast they are in the water. The signs below suggest your pet is healthy and happy and shouldn’t be cause for concern.
- Splashing behavior when you enter the room
- Hunting and chasing live food
- Digging in the gravel, exploring the environment
- Playing (interacting) with toys like empty conch shells and ping-pong balls
But there’s a difference between being energetic and hyperactive. If your turtle starts to swim frantically back and forth with no obvious purpose, something’s not right.
Accept What You Cannot Change in Your Turtle
It’s possible to tame most aquatic turtles and form lifelong bonds. Even so, some species never get used to humans handling them. Mud turtles, Eastern Box turtles, and Razorback Musk turtles are three terrapins that don’t appreciate people picking them up.
The calmest, most friendly turtles for beginners are Red-eared Sliders and Painted.
What Unsettles Your Turtle? Problems & Solutions
Domesticated turtles need attention if you’re to care for them properly. And that means knowing what your pet requires to thrive and live a long, happy life. Any slip—even a minor one—can upset or scare your terrapin, making it restless and hyper.
Changes to the environment, diet, and temperature can all cause stress and restless behavior. Turtles also swim frantically if afraid, threatened, or gravid (pregnant).
Here are 6 things that can stress your turtle and change its behavior if ignored.
- Be observant, know what to look for
- Handle with care
- Get to grips with turtle husbandry
- Keep the toilet clean
- Why temperatures matter
- The importance of nutrition
Let’s go over these problems and their solutions in more detail.
#1 Know What to Look for in Your Turtle, Be Observant
To be an adept turtle keeper is to develop a sharp sense of observation. Exercise patience and persistence until you form a close bond with your reptile.
The more you get to know it, the faster you’ll recognize abnormal behaviors. You’ll also get to know what kinds of things stress or scare your pet so that you can avoid them.
#2 Manhandling Stresses Turtles
Most turtles—even friendly ones—don’t like being picked up and suspended midair. Sometimes, though, you must remove them from the tank to clean it or for exercise.
The solution: Pick your pet up with care and grip it from the midsection using both hands. Expect some kicking and peeing so you’re not caught off guard and lose grip.
Safety Tip: Turtles can carry salmonella germs on their outer skin and shell. Never forget to give your hands a good wash after handling your pet.
#3 Get a Grasp on Turtle Husbandry
Your turtle has precise dietary and environmental needs. Any mistakes in this area may result in an unhappy, overly skittish reptile.
The Solution: Practice proper husbandry to give your reptile a safe, secure, and comfortable space to live. The environment must be exact and well-maintained. If in doubt, consult an expert for guidance.
The Male Turtle Care Chart
Use the Adult Male Turtle Care Chart below as a starting point (data may change for some females).
|Species||Min. Enclosure||Dietary Needs||Water TEMP||Basking TEMP|
|Painted Turtle||40 gal||Omnivorous||75oF–80oF||85oF–95oF|
|Map Turtle||35-75 gal||Omnivorous (needs calcium supplements)||75oF–80oF||85oF–95oF|
|Cooters||100 gal. Best for outdoor ponds||Mostly omnivores; several species are herbivores||70oF–75oF||~85oF|
|Sliders||75-150 gal||Omnivorous though adults mostly herbivorous||75oF–85oF||85oF–90oF|
If your turtle species is not in the table, add an extra row, and fill in the blanks.
Turtle Tip: Remember to buy a tank that will accommodate the young turtle’s full-grown size. Also, know the difference in size between the male and female adults of your chosen species.
#4 Keep the Turtle Toilet Clean
It’s true; your turtle is a messy creature, and its home is also its toilet. That means the water gets dirty fast. Your cute terrapin swims, defecates, and urinates (poops and pees), eats and drinks in the same water. And once it’s cloudy and smelly, it becomes unhealthy, and that can stress your pet.
The solution: Aim to keep the toilet bowl/tank/habitat clean.
Turtle Water Hygiene 101 | Know the Basics
- The tank must be big enough for the turtle (see chart above)
- Change the water regularly
- Use a quality turtle tank filter
- Clean up any food leftovers after feeding
- Vacuum often with a proper aquarium cleaner
- Keep an eye on chemical levels
- Aerate the water to discourage anaerobic bacteria growth
Note that you’ll have to change the water more often if your tank doesn’t have a filter.
Tank Tip: Replace 50% of the tank’s water once a week with clean water and a complete water change and tank clean every one or two months.
More on Water Hygiene
There are other optional ways to help keep the water in your turtle tank cleaner. For example, working fish like Otos and Plecs eat algae and scavenge the bottom of the tank for leftovers.
Likewise, water plants consume nitrates and various other pollutants. You can also introduce friendly live nitrifying bacteria into your tank.
#5 Turtle Temperatures
You won’t need to calm down a cold turtle as they become sluggish. But if there’s an escape route, it may frantically try to break out if the temperature’s too low.
The solution: Never bring the tank’s temperature down to calm your turtle.
#6 Turtle Nutrition Matters More than You Think
Most turtles, though not all, are omnivores, meaning they eat animals and plants. They’re not fussy eaters, but they do need a balanced diet. Poor nutrition, overeating, or adjustments to diet can all cause stress and changes in behavior.
The solution: Feed your pet a proper diet for the species at set times to develop a calming routine.
This video summarizes the main points on how to keep your turtle safe and happy