Snapping turtles might have a bad rep of being dangerous, but did you know that you can keep them as pets? With proper caution and care, they can become wonderful editions to your family.
Common snapping turtles are not a pet for beginners. They can grow up to 18 inches long, 25 pounds, and can live up to 45 years in captivity. They also can inflict some serious damage if handled wrong.
Only those with adequate experience should consider caring for such an animal. This care guide will tell you how to take care of the common snapping turtle with relative ease.
All snapping turtles are part of the Chelydridae family. The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is the most common species to keep.
They get the name “serpentina” from their snake-like attitude; aggressive, snippy, and dangerous. But despite their bad track record of being aggressive, they are often more docile in the water. On land is when they feel vulnerable and attack when threatened.
Common snapping turtles live throughout eastern United States, southern Canada, and Central America. They even live in some parts of the western United States.
They can live in almost all slow-moving bodies of freshwater as long as it has a soft, muddy substrate to burrow in. This includes swamps, rivers, canals, lakes, and ponds. In some cases, they can even live in brackish water (freshwater mixed with saltwater).
Common snapping turtles have a dark carapace (upper shell), long neck and tail, and sharp beak. Their carapace can come in many different shades of green, brown, and black. They can also grow to be an impressive 20 inches long.
Their plastron (under shell) is very small and does not cover much of their underside. This makes them feel vulnerable and attributes to their aggressive behavior.
Their distinctive tail can grow to be even longer than their carapaces. This feature is unique to snapping turtles and is an easy way to identify them from other species.
Common snapping turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. In the wild, they will eat plants, insects, fish, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and more. There is almost nothing a common snapping turtle won’t eat.
Young turtles will often forage for their meals while adult turtles catch their prey. They will wait motionless in the water until the prey swims right in front of them. They will then launch their heads forward and chomp down with their powerful jaws.
Common snapping turtles are nocturnal, meaning they usually come out at night. They also spend most of their time underwater and only come up on land to bask in the sun or breed.
Common snapping turtles will hibernate during winter if temperatures reach below 41° F. They burrow into the soft substrate under the water and emerge when it gets warmer.
It is unusual to see more than one snapping turtle in the same area. They are territorial animals and will often fight each other, especially the males. Fights between common snapping turtles usually result in severe injury or death.
Despite popular belief, common snapping turtles only attack when they feel threatened. They are docile in the water because their camouflage protects them but feel unsafe on land. They also do not have the ability to tuck inside their shells like most turtles do. Thus, their only defense mechanism is violence.
Snapping turtles are not easy to care for but they can be quite rewarding pets if given the proper care.
Baby snapping turtles may be cute, but please do not buy one if you cannot commit to caring for them as adults. Adult snapping turtles are often dumped in the wild because their owners can’t or refuse to care for them as they mature.
Only buy a snapping turtle when you have all the necessary supplies to care for them for their entire lives.
The first thing to know about keeping common snapping turtles is that they are better off alone. If two or more snapping turtles live in the same tank, they will likely fight each other. This can result in serious injury or death. Your snapping turtle will also eat any other tank-mates put in their tank.
Baby common snapping turtles can live in a 20 gallon tank, but not for long. They will need at least a 100 gallon tank as they grow up. They may even need an outside pond once they reach maturity.
Common snapping turtles need an aqua-terrestrial tank. This means that they need both water to swim in and land to walk on. Your tank should be more water than land. You can add logs and basking docks for it to climb onto as well.
Common snapping turtles love to burrow but seldom do it in captivity. Still, consider putting a soft substrate at the bottom of your tank for them to burrow in if they choose.
Try not to add too many decorations in your tank. The more decorations you add, the less surface area they will have to swim (and the more you’ll have to clean). Make sure that all decorations are secure and stable or else it may trap your turtle and cause it to drown.
You will also need an incandescent 50-150 watt light bulb for your turtle’s tank. Place it on the land part of the tank. Air temperature should be between 75-82° F. Consider a UV light if your turtle doesn’t get enough vitamin D in their diet.
An interesting fact about common snapping turtles is that incubation temperature determines their sex. Eggs kept at 68° F will produce only females, 70° to 72° F will produce both males and females, and 73° to 75° F will produce only males.
Common snapping turtles are sturdy animals. They can tolerate a wide range of water conditions and temperatures. For optimal health, water temperature should be between 78° to 82° F for babies and 72° to 82° F for adults.
It is important not to let the water temperature exceed 85° F or higher as this will harm your turtle. Cooler water will not harm your turtle, but may stunt a juvenile’s growth. A submersible water heater suited to the size of your tank can heat your turtle’s water. Use a simple underwater thermometer to check the temperature often.
You should always use a filter in your tank regardless of the species you are keeping. Filters help get rid of dangerous waste buildup (ammonia) in your turtle’s water. Be sure to get a filter that will support the size of your specific tank.
You should also do regular water changes. A weekly 10-25% water change should suffice as well as a monthly 50% water change when you deep clean your tank.
Be sure to always match the temperature of the new water exactly to the old water to avoid shock. Common snapping turtles are robust but it is better to be safe than sorry. You should use a water conditioner to get rid of any harmful chemicals in your tap water.
Like in the wild, common snapping turtles will eat almost anything given to them. In fact, the list of foods that turtles cannot eat is much shorter than the foods they can.
Do not feed your turtle:
- fruit seeds
- anything in the onion and garlic family
- house plants/flowers
A healthy, balanced diet should consist of a base of fish/meat supplemented by fruits, veggies, and insects.
Small, live fish such as goldfish, guppies, and minnows are a good base. They are also better for your turtle than pre-packaged larger fish. Other meats such as beef, pork, and chicken are also good options.
Leafy greens such as kale, romaine lettuce, and spinach are good for your turtle in small amounts. Fruits such as apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges are also good. Make sure to remove the seeds first before feeding them to your turtle.
Be aware to only feed them what they can eat in 15 minutes and take out any uneaten food. Leftover food, especially meat, can cause excessive ammonia buildup.
Most reptiles are solitary animals and don’t enjoy handling. You should only handle your common snapping turtle when you have to. This should only be when you deep clean your tank or move them to different enclosures.
It is important to take extreme caution if you do handle them. Adults have the power to bite off fingers and even babies have a bite that can inflict painful wounds. Your snapping turtle may become more docile the longer you take care of it, but they are still wild animals. They can be very unpredictable.
It is important to always wash your hands before and after handling your turtle or managing its tank. You could transfer bacteria or chemicals to your turtle. Likewise, your turtle could transfer bacteria to you.
Always avoid touching your turtle’s head as they can reach around with their long necks and bite your hand. You should also never pick them up by their tails. This can cause damage to your turtle’s spinal vertebrae and tail. Instead, hold your turtle on the very back-end of its shell using both hands.
Common snapping turtles can get a variety of diseases, even as pets. These include Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, injured and infected shells, and parasites.
Vitamin A deficiency is a result of a poor diet. Symptoms include lethargy (tiredness), loss of appetite, swelling of the eyelids and ears, and respiratory infections. If you think your turtle may have this, try feeding it a more balanced diet with more vitamin A rich foods.
Respiratory infections are often caused by bacteria. Symptoms include excess mucus in the oral and nasal cavities, lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, and stretching the neck out with every breath. If a turtle has pneumonia, it will often swim on its side because its buoyancy is off center.
Shell injuries and infections (shell rot) are often caused by trauma due to falling, getting burned, or getting bit by another turtle. If the infections reach the live tissue underneath, it can kill your turtle.
Parasites are a normal condition in all animals. Roundworms are especially common in snapping turtles. There are often no symptoms until the infection is severe. Symptoms of a severe infection include diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
If your turtle exhibits any of these symptoms, please take them to an exotic animal vet. There they can get the proper treatment they need to get healthy again.
Snapping Turtle Threats
Snapping turtles are not a threatened species. They do not have many predators as adults and are almost always on the top of their food chain. Though, they do face some issues that could threaten their population in the future.
Habitat destruction for human development could cause snapping turtle populations to plummet. Hunting for human consumption could also threaten their population if people ignore regulations.
Car related injuries are the most common threat to snapping turtles. Breeding season is the worst time for them because this is when they most often come onto land. Due to an increase of snapping turtles crossing the road, they will often get hit by cars, resulting in death.
If you live in an area where snapping turtles are populous, be very cautious when behind the wheel. If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road, you may want to help it cross, but it may be best to leave it be. If you choose to help it cross, grab it on the very back of its shell with both hands, being careful not to touch it’s head.
Common snapping turtles are not a pet for beginners, but they can be rewarding if given the proper care. They might have a bad bite and an aggressive reputation, but they deserve the utmost respect.
Remember, common snapping turtles may be robust but they still need a lot of care. They need at least a 100 gallon tank and can live to be close to 50 years old. Only buy a pet common snapping turtle if you can commit to caring for them past their juvenile years.
If you see a snapping turtle in the wild, it is best to leave it be. Never capture a snapping turtle to house in captivity. Instead, always buy your pet snapping turtle from a trusted breeder.