How to keep musk turtles?

Welcome to this introduction to keeping musk turtles!

In this guide I am going to go over the general information on a musk turtle, how to house musk turtles and what to feed musk turtles. This is what I have learned by taking care of two baby musk turtles for the past 3 months. 

The musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) goes by multiple names, but is mostly known as the common musk turtle, stinkpot turtle or eastern musk turtle. The turtles are native to south-east Canada and eastern USA.


A baby musk turtle is just the size of a coin

How big do musk turtles get?

A full grown musk turtle can range in size between 5 to 14 centimeters (2 – 5.5 in). This is the reason that musk turtles are arguably the best species of turtles to keep as a pet compared to other commonly available turtles.


How old can musk turtles get?

Like other turtles, musk turtles can get rather old. This is crucial to take into account when choosing whether a pet turtle is the right pet for you. Although it is not really known, their maximum age in captivity can range between 30 and 50 years. If you are a student like me and you buy a pet right now, you might have grand children when your aquatic buddy passes away. 

It is highly recommended to buy your musk turtle that is bred in captivity, as it is not desired to keep wild musk turtles. This is not only because they are wild animals and belong in the wild, but also because there is no advantage of keeping a wild caught musk turtle as a captive bred turtles have less chances of infections and diseases. 


Housing musk turtles

These adorable pets can be housed in an aquarium! To do this, make sure you have enough water per turtle. An aquarium of 80 liters (20 gallons) is enough for one, and to keep two make sure you have an aquarium double that size! 

When your turtles are small, make sure your water is not too deep. This is because musk turtles are not great swimmers. They tend to sink to the bottom as they do not have an air bladder like fish. If they want to go to the surface they need to paddle for it! 
Right now my baby musk turtles have a water depth of around 30 cm (12 in) and at the start it was half that length. I was careful to raise the depth but after looking at them for a period of time they seemed to manage really well by climbing up at the plants that I provided. 

For the temperature I keep my musk turtles at 24 degrees Celsius (75 F) but anywhere between 23 and 26 degrees Celsius (73 – 78 F) will do. Just make sure the temperature of the tank is stable. 

Another important thing is having a good filter for the tank. This is the same for fish, I personally use a canister filter that filters about three times the amount of water that is in the tank per hour. 

In order to maintain the water quality it is important to do regular water changes. I do weekly water changes of about 40% of the water each week. This is a lot but I find it necessary as the turtles are messy and I can not monitor how much they get fed because there are multiple people looking after them.


That brings me to the next topic, make sure there is enough plants/decorations/rocks in the aquarium that the turtles can use to climb to the water surface. Stuff like that helps them a lot to hold on to so they can take a breath without having to paddle constantly. They also like to sleep with their heads above the water.

Do they need something to climb out of the water?

I had this question when I was buying everything for my aquarium to prepare it for the turtles. I gave my 2 babies a piece of floating bark on which (theoretically) they could climb out. They never do that however.

Musk turtles will only leave the water when they are laying eggs. 


Feeding musk turtles

There are a lot of options when it comes to feeding musk turtles. In the store you can buy turtle pallets and I recommend you do. I bought some at the start that claimed to be a complete diet for your turtles, however there were multiple things wrong with it. 

First of all, a musk turtle needs a varying diet in order to stay healthy. They will happily accept bugs (like crickets), snails and for example blood worms. Make sure you compliment their diet with meals like these!

Second, I do not like feeding them the turtle food because it floats and it was too big. This resulted in the turtles struggling to keep floating at the surface while they were trying to bite the food. I later on bought turtle food for baby turtles. This was a huge improvement because it is a lot smaller. It still floats though, so I feed them a lot of sinking algae wafers! They enjoy that a lot! 

I also feed them some of the small turtle food daily, but I will turn off the filter when I am feeding so the food will float in one place. 


Finally, I want to talk about possible other fish in the aquarium. I have noticed that the turtles are quite interested and will swim around the entire aquarium. I keep them with guppies and they do not harm them at all. I also keep them with Ancistrus (algae eaters) and they do not harm the adult fish. However the Ancistrus had babies and they did get eaten by the turtles. This is probably because they were sitting still and were an easy meal for the turtles. 
For the rest I would recommend any fish that can not harm the turtles in an way. Also, if you have fish in there that are really quick eaters you have to make sure there is enough food for your turtles. 

Because the turtles are really messy eaters it is convenient to have guppies or other small fish in there to clean up the mess that the turtles make. However stay away from snails as they will get eaten by the turtles.

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

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